Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Cap o' Rushes

On my sister's shelves in Christchurch is a collection of
books she saved from our childhood in Masterton: the
Junior Classics, 10 volumes published for "The Young
Folks' Shelf of Books" by P F Collier & Son Corporation
of America. Looking through them again, I see how
influential they were on my imagination in the 1950s.
What I hadn't realized then is that they were published
in 1938 and still bore the stamp of the Victorian era on
them: further proof that the cultural world in which my
generation grew up, from the late 40s to the early 60s,
was still essentially the prewar world of the 1930s and
earlier, unmodified even by knowledge of the Holocaust
and the atom bomb. Notwithstanding the advent of
rock'n'roll in the late 50s, real postwar social change did
not hit us in New Zealand till the mid-60s. Meanwhile,
there were books like these, respectable enterprises
produced for the edification and improvement of young
minds, containing traditional stories gathered from all
around the world. They're very much the kind that were
hawked, like encyclopedias, from door to door in those
days: in fact, that's probably how my parents acquired
them, perhaps even before I and my siblings were born.

If I look in volume 1 (Fairy Tales and Fables) I recognize
again long-forgotten tales like "Cap o' Rushes," "Tom Tit
Tot," "One Eye, Two Eyes, Three Eyes" and even
obscurer Irish ones like "Hudden and Dudden and Donald
O'Neary," as well as "Rapunzel," "Blue Beard" and the
usual suspects. Some are illustrated with drawings of
shrunken witches and manikins that come straight out of
medieval European mythology. That figure of the little
black manikin, embodiment of evil, looking now like an
early draft of H R Giger's alien, is a peculiarly resonant
one: Giger undoubtedly drew on it for inspiration. Even
the word "manikin" still has an ugly power.

The other volumes introduced me to Norse mythology,
Greek heroes, extracts from great books ("Tom Sawyer
Whitewashes the Fence") and stories like "The Gold Bug"
by Edgar Allan Poe among other things. They drew on all
cultures and literatures. Solid, heavy, thick with print and
formidably bound, there they stand shoulder to shoulder
on the shelf, still in good shape after 70 years, during just
a few of which they would have been in active use. Even
then I think we had a sense that they were somewhat old-
fashioned, like the wind-up gramophone in the hall, but
the Junior Classics did their job for me anyway, opening
up my imagination at least a crack and whetting a lifelong
appetite for knowledge. I'm glad they're still around, like
favourite aunts.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I just want to say that your blog is fabulous...keep up the invigorating work!