I can now reveal the cover art for my upcoming children’s book, ‘Merlin and Guinevere: A Happenstance Meeting.’ A massive thank you to Catherine Redgate at g00glie-eye Designs for the gorgeous artwork!
The film version of L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz has been cited as an influence by authors as prolific as Salman Rushdie and continues to be celebrated the world over as a cinematic classic. I haven’t watched the film since I was Toto-sized, but its brightness and vivacity have stayed with me over the years. The original children’s book, I was pleased to discover, is equally as colourful as its film counterpart.
Baum’s novel was a bestseller following its release in 1900 and its popularity has never faded. One potential reason for its enduring success is the balance Baum strikes between traditional fairy tale moralism and mad, modern, multicoloured magic. On the one hand, The Wizard of Oz has the tightly cyclical structure of a traditional children’s story: characters are continually faced with tests and through courage, ingenuity and teamwork, their assailants are overpowered. The moral presented through the adventures of Dorothy and her companions is a moving one: only you have the power to change yourself; anyone who claims to be able to wave a magic wand and fix your problems is an instant is a fraud. This moral isn’t force-fed to the reader, and perhaps wields greater power for that very reason. The traditional structure of the story is disguised by Baum’s astounding creativity; images like the stocking-clad feet of the squashed witch and the army of flying monkeys are products of a truly childlike imagination.
A whale is stout about the middle,
He is stout about the ends,
& so is all his family
& so are all his friends.
He doesn’t mind his blubber,
He doesn’t mind his creases,
& neither do his nephews
& neither do his nieces.
You may find him chubby,
You may find him fat,
But he would disagree with you:
He likes himself like that.
Whale, Mary Ann Hoberman
This week I’ve been indulging in childhood nostalgia, by re-reading the Harry Potter series. I’ve only reached the second book so far, but I am already falling head over heels in love with the series all over again. I’d always assumed that Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was the most childish of the series (not that that’s an entirely bad thing: the way the narrator’s understanding advances with Harry’s is admirable), and certain moments, like the scene in which the Dursleys flee to a decrepit shack out at sea, upheld this prejudice. For the most part, though, I was thoroughly and surprisingly impressed by The Philosopher’s Stone.
J.K. Rowling’s writing is unabashedly sophisticated. The plot is multi-layered, featuring several small but satisfying subplots. Considering the scope of the series as a whole, it’s amazing to appreciate how much is established from the outset; even the smallest, seemingly insignificant details allude to future events in the series. Rowling’s language itself emphasises this sense of intricacy, she inventively crafts terms, such as ‘unDursleyish’, which perfectly matches its meaning. Rowling makes great use of humour, too; several lines in The Philosopher’s Stone made me chuckle out loud. This comedy sets Rowling’s writing apart from other children’s authors:
Friday was an important day for Harry and Ron. They finally managed to find their way down to the Great Hall for breakfast without getting lost once.
Rowling’s characterisation is similarly adept. While the Dursleys appear almost irredeemable, they are not mere caricatures. There’s an underlying darkness, for example, to Petunia’s character, who is so intensely jealous of her sister that she attempts to crush the magic out of her son. This sense of depth is characteristic of Rowling’s writing; like George R.R. Martin, no character is entirely good or entirely evil (though I’d argue that Voldemort is a notable exception).
The popularity of the series has endured because of its underlying adult themes. Although the books are humorous and full of light-hearted moments, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is not merely the frivolous story of a boy wizard and a school for magical children, but is instead a series which poses deep and probing questions about friendship, love, bravery and death. This is evident even in the first book: Harry’s encounter with the Mirror of Erised is an astoundingly poignant moment in The Philosopher’s Stone. The fact that Harry is an orphan is not simply a convenient plot mechanism, as it allows for an exploration of Harry’s grief for his parents, which develops throughout the series as he comes to appreciate the magnitude of his loss.
When Dumbledore leaves one-year-old Harry on the Dursleys’ doorstep, McGonagall ponders the significance of the night’s events: ‘Every child in our world will know his name!’ J.K. Rowling can’t have fathomed, writing those lines, that one day McGonagall’s prophecy would come true. From this fantastic introduction to the series, however, it’s easy to appreciate the reasons behind Rowling’s phenomenal success.
The lights from the parlour and kitchen shone out
Through the blinds and the windows and bars;
And high overhead and all moving about,
There were thousands of millions of stars.
There ne’er were such thousands of leaves on a tree,
Nor of people in church or the Park,
As the crowds of the stars that looked down upon me,
And that glittered and winked in the dark.
The Dog, and the Plough, and the Hunter, and all,
And the star of the sailor, and Mars,
These shown in the sky, and the pail by the wall
Would be half full of water and stars.
They saw me at last, and they chased me with cries,
And they soon had me packed into bed;
But the glory kept shining and bright in my eyes,
And the stars going round in my head.
Escape at Bedtime, Robert Louis Stevenson