Work in Progress
Times change; books change. But should they? What happens when they do, and why?
Legend has it that E. Nesbit, who has been credited with founding the modern children’s book, used to wait eagerly at Christmas for her annual ‘Waverley’ novel. One wonders what she would have thought of the situation a hundred years later, when her own children’s books are thought to be too difficult for the modern child.
Take the example of Five Children and It. In the original 1902 version, the children, much given to asking the immortal Psammead for flawed wishes, are able to fly:
The Sand-fairy blew himself out, and next moment each child felt a funny feeling, half heaviness and half lightness on its shoulders. The Psammead put its head on one side and turned its snail’s eyes from one to the other...
The wings were very big, and more beautiful than you can imagine - for they were soft and smooth, and every feather lay neatly in its place. And the feathers were of the most lovely mixed changing colours, like the rainbow, or iridescent glass, or the beautiful scum that sometimes floats on water that is not at all nice to drink.
‘Oh - but can we fly?’ Jane said, standing anxiously first on one foot and then on the other.
‘Look out!’ said Cyril; ‘you’re treading on my wing.’
‘Does it hurt?’ asked Anthea with interest; but no one answered, for Robert had spread his wings and jumped up, and now he was slowly rising in the air. He looked very awkward in his knickerbocker suit - his boots in particular hung helplessly, and seemed much larger than when he was standing in them. But the others cared but little how he looked - or how they looked, for that matter. For now they all spread out their wings and rose in the air. Of course you all know what flying feels like, because everyone has dreamed about flying, and it seems so beautifully easy - only, you can never remember how you did it; and as a rule you have to do it without wings, in your dreams, which is more clever and uncommon, but not so easy to remember the rule for. Now the four children rose flapping from the ground, and you can’t think how good the air felt running against their faces. Their wings were tremendously wide when they were spread out, and they had to fly quite a long way apart so as not to get in each other’s way. But little things like this are easily learned.
All the words in the English Dictionary, and in the Greek Lexicon as well, are, I find, of no use at all to tell you exactly what it feels like to be flying, so I will not try. But I will say that to look down on the fields and woods, instead of along at them is something like looking at a beautiful live map, where, instead of silly colours on paper, you have real moving sunny woods and green fields laid out one after the other.
And now let us move on to 2004, to the book of the film, copyright (not entirely irrelevantly) by Sandfairy Merchandising. Here is the same scene:
Jane squealed. When Anthea and Cyril turned to look, they couldn’t believe their eyes – Jane had sprouted a pair of wings!
Anthea was next to scream, as she too sprouted wings from her back, and then Cyril did the same.
‘Robert!’ growled Cyril. ‘He must have made a wish!’
There was a beating noise at the window. It was Robert – and he was flying!
Cyril opened the window.
‘You’ve done it again!’ he yelled. ‘What were you thinking?’
Robert hovered just outside the window.
Now, before traditionalists amongst us (and possibly Mr Gove) commit hara-kiri, we might point out that the second version is supported by copious illustrations (as well as, presumably, memories of the film), and so the words are not so important as they were in the original. We now don’t need the contact with the narrative voice, or the details or the evocation of emotions or atmosphere. And we wouldn’t expect our readers (and by implication our fictional characters) to accept the Greek Lexicon as a natural reference point for vocabulary. But, it might be argued, this is surely simply a matter of progression – children of the 21st century are used to multimedia and the relegation of written language to a subsidiary role.
But does the language that is left have to be quite so clichéd, quite so functional?
Or was Ludwig wrong when he suggested that ‘Die grenzen meiner sprache sind die grenzen meiner welt.’ Or should we re-interpret our concepts of language?
The question is, how important was the stuff that was left out? Take another classic, Treasure Island, and a classic scene. Jim, the narrator, has been pursued up the mast of the Hispaniola by the murderous coxswain, Israel Hands.
Now that I had a moment to myself, I lost no time in changing the priming of my pistol, and then, having one ready for service, and to make assurance doubly sure, I proceeded to draw the load of the other and recharge it afresh from the beginning.
My new employment struck Hands all of a heap; he began to see the dice going against him, and after an obvious hesitation, he also hauled himself heavily into the shrouds, and with the dirk in his teeth, began slowly and painfully to mount. It cost him no end of time and groans to haul his wounded leg behind him, and I had quietly finished my arrangements before he was much more than a third of the way up. Then, with a pistol in either hand, I addressed him.
“One more step, Mr. Hands,” said I, “and I’ll blow your brains out! Dead men don’t bite, you know,” I added with a chuckle.
He stopped instantly. I could see by the working of his face that he was trying to think, and the process was so slow and laborious that, in my new-found security, I laughed aloud. At last, with a swallow or two, he spoke, his face still wearing the same expression of extreme perplexity. In order to speak he had to take the dagger from his mouth, but in all else he remained unmoved.
“Jim,” says he, “I reckon we’re fouled, you and me, and we’ll have to sign articles. I’d have had you but for that there lurch, but I don’t have no luck, not I; and I reckon I’ll have to strike, which comes hard, you see, for a master mariner to a ship’s younker like you, Jim.”
I was drinking in his words and smiling away, as conceited as a cock upon a wall, when, all in a breath, back went his right hand over his shoulder. Something sang like an arrow through the air; I felt a blow and then a sharp pang, and there I was pinned by the shoulder to the mast. In the horrid pain and surprise of the moment - I scarce can say it was by my own volition, and I am sure it was without a conscious aim - both my pistols went off, and both escaped out of my hands. They did not fall alone; with a choked cry, the coxswain loosed his grasp upon the shrouds and plunged head first into the water.
That was taken from Oxford University Press’s World’s Classics: but Oxford publish another version (1988):
and in that, the same scene reads
I scrambled up the rigging, but Hands followed me.
He threw his knife and pinned me to the mast. I fired my pistols, and he fell into the water.
Gone are Jim’s devious character, the tension of the conversation, the virtuoso narrative blindness (‘In order to speak he had to take the dagger from his mouth…’), Jim’s denial of responsibility (‘I scarce can say it was by my own volition’) and much more. This may seem to be terrible loss – but only to certain readers – those who have faith in a certain form of language, and a certain attitude to narrative, and a certain way of conjuring images into the reader’s brain. To them, not only is the second version sacrilege, but it is also positively damaging to its readers.
The alternative view might be that it is better for readers to read this than nothing at all – and it might lead them to the ‘real thing’; and if it doesn’t, then it doesn’t matter – the world is full of good stories; and in any case, that kind of reading isn’t really very useful to anyone in 2013.
So… are we dealing with an article of faith, rather than a matter of linguistic concern?
(See this blog strand, Part 3!)