LIT 4334: The Golden Age of Children's Literature

Origin Mythology in Children’s Stories

on April 3, 2013 10:51pm

     I have always thought it was really interesting to read about the origin of the world or explanations of phenomena that does not match today’s scientific facts and theories.  In the Water-Babies, the reader was exposed to an alternate state of life and what life was like “under the sea.”  In Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens the explanation for where babies come is that they are born first as birds on an island of birds and then fly to their future homes to become babies.  This explanation is just as valid as the stork baby story when adults make up untrue explanations for children.  I’m not sure why adults seem keen on telling children more fantastical and unreal versions of the truth, as we have learned in class through reading Golden Age literature and specific cases like Lewis Carroll entertaining children with enchanting lies, but they do.  These lies become stories, and these stories go on to be published works.

An example of one of these quite interesting stories is the explanation for fossils in Five Children and It.  The Psammead, the wish-granting sand fairy, imparts a lot of “historical” knowledge to the children who find him.  The Psammead is several thousand years old and supposedly from the time of Pterodactyls and Megatheriums, the time of dinosaurs.  Apparently he used to grant wishes for Megatheriums to be eaten, but whatever of them was not eaten by sunset would turn to stone.  This applies for any wish that produces an object.  As soon as the sun sets, it turns to stone.  Thus, this story implies that the dinosaur remains, fossils, we find today are the results of, for lack of a better term, wish leftovers.

Megatherium

I delight in this kind of pseudo-mythology in literature, and I wonder why this form of fiction is popular and frequently embedded in novels and stories.  I mentioned before that I am not sure why adults enjoy these kinds of “re-tellings,” but they do provide a source of entertainment.  Adults constantly lie to children about life—babies coming from storks, fairies, the Boogie man, and most notorious, Santa Claus.  If we think back, a lot of these fantasy elements have been used over time to protect children and direct their behavior, such as Santa Claus watching over all children in order to reward the good ones with presents on Christmas, and this helps to make children behave properly more often.  However, what benefit or advantage does this fake history of fossils told by the Psammead have?

I believe that these fake histories provide background for the story.  If the Psammead had no “concrete” history and was just a mysterious being, it lops him into a group of flat characters.  Histories, even fake ones, flesh out characters and even if the genre is fiction, make the characters seem more genuine and real, with real not necessarily meaning as from our reality.

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One response to “Origin Mythology in Children’s Stories

  1. kmelkins says:

    I think you presented a very interesting argument in this post. In regards to mythology, books like Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens and The Water Babies definitely have mythology that correlates to nature. I think this can be attributed to the fact that when these were written (including Five Children and It), it was during the period when Charles Darwin was publishing his theories and archeology was being developed from antiquarianism and geology. These historical events helped shape the Victorian and Edwardian culture, which is of course reflected in literature. I think the fascination with the new-found oddities of nature helped to shape some the mythology for these children’s books—every kid would be entertained in some way by them.

    As for your point about adults telling “lies” to children, I believe there is a fine line there. When it comes to Santa Claus and babies coming from storks, I think that these are ways for parents to both protect their children’s innocence and avoid having to have a conversation the child (and the parent) isn’t ready to have. When it comes to literature, however, I think it is more than acceptable. Part of the reason books like Alice in Wonderland and The Jungle Book are so popular is because they contain those so-called lies. But they aren’t so much as lies as they are an escape. People, especially children, love books because they offer a sort of escape from reality. It goes hand in hand with the promotion of children’s imagination. Children, for the most part, are able to discern between what is and isn’t real in a book. That doesn’t mean they don’t enjoy the unrealistic nature of a book—that’s exactly what they are drawn to. The fact that some books can maintain a foundation to some type of truth about reality and the world around us simply helps to make more believable and relatable to the audience.

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