Thursday, July 18, 2013

One Thing Leads to Another

Unsurprisingly, I recently wrote about the value of reading old books, I say "unsurprisingly" since that is the topic of most of my writing.

After the hustle and bustle of the holidays last January, I was in need of a fun and undemanding book to read. I had had Mother Carey's Chickens by Kate Wiggin on my list for awhile and it fit the need. It is a charming story about a family who are suddenly bereft of their father and must make their way in the world without his support. Naturally, there are many themes of family adjustment to grief, family cooperation as they learn to work together to manage, and individual sacrifice as one after the other they must give up cherished hopes and dreams or personal ambitions for the sake of the family. I recommend this delightful book to anyone, but my point here is to first remark on how one thing leads to the next.

In the opening pages, an older daughter is reading to her younger brother from a family favorite: The Water-Babies by Charles Kingsley. The reference to that fairy tale put the seed in my mind that that should be my next choice for a children's book to read. Though my children have read it, I never have. So one book led to the next.

I have read other books by Mr. Kingsley, such as Madam How and Lady Why and The Heroes before, so settled in readily to his unique storytelling style. Kingsley's direct comments to the reader lend an instant intimacy and connection to the author as he relates not only the tale he has to tell, but little asides of humor or sympathetic understanding. His facility with and relish for the English language result in richly colorful and textured vocabulary and word pictures in the reader's mind. Though written well over a hundred years ago, his books are never "out of date," but rather, exhibit a timeless quality. His deep faith and confidence in a God who formed and rules the world underpins all his fantastical and whimsical imaginings. His joyful trust in truth, beauty, and goodness mixed with pure fun allows for profound and lasting incidental instruction for life.

Speaking of incidentally, not only had I read the reference to Water-Babies in Mother Carey's Chickens, but discovered Mother Carey's Chickens in Water-Babies. Thus I was instructed in a legend I was hitherto ignorant of.

In case you are not familiar with his writing, I warn you that a common rampage of words is a hallmark of his books, exhibited by long lists of synonyms or rhyming or categories of words. Rather than annoy the reader, however, the general impression is of someone who so thoroughly knows and loves the language that he cannot resist going on a little tangent to revel in it. No child need be made aware of the potential vocabulary building this little tendency might incite in his own mind as he experiences these. I need not remark that the lack of such word play in modern books is possibly tragic.

Water-Babies is a fairy tale. One of the rewards of a fairy tale is the understanding of the real world it affords to children, for somehow in the unrealistic adventures of make-believe, children inexplicably glean lasting principles about reality. The lesson of this particular fairy tale is common to most of them: "you reap what you sow." The moral for little boys and girls is the universal one as well: do unto others as you would have them do unto you", the second commandment, which Jesus said summed upall the law. These themes are woven
throughout a sequence of adventures that take Tom, the miserable little chimney sweep, into all corners of the world, mostly by way of the ocean. He encounters many dangers, makes many friends, and eventually learns his lessons. It is pure fun all the way.

There are countless lessons for the adult reading this children's story too. It is clear that Kingsley knows the older reader will see these, intends him to, though his younger audience, inexperienced with the ways of the world, will miss them entirely. For me, involved in educating children, I found the following incidents to be particularly amusing.

Toward the end of the book, Tom finds himself "at the near end of nowhere - very much like the far end of somewhere." where he first encounters "Waste paper land, where all the stupid books lie in heaps, up hill and down dale like leaves in a winter wood and where he saw people digging and grubbing among them to make worse books out of bad ones, and threshing chaff to save the dust of it for a very good trade they derive thereby, especially among children..."Then, two stops later, he finds "little people writing little books for little ones...who would much rather have fairy tales." Then, this priceless gem of an incident occurs, balm to my soul, which is too often wearied with our country's "modern" obsession with "core standards," "test scores," "no child left behind."

In Tom's travels he encounters some creatures who are "all heads and no-bodies,,,growling and grumping; wailing and weeping and whining... and here are the words of that song, which they sang night and day to their idol "examination":

"'I can't learn my lessons. The examiner's coming,' and that is the only song they knew." 

In this place, Tom noticed a great pillar, "on every other side of which inscribed:"playthings not allowed  here." Young Tom is besieged with questions from these unfortunate heads calling out to him, "Can you show me how to extract this square root?"; "What is the lattitude and longitude of Snakesville, Oregon, U.S.?"; "What was the name of S---'s mother's thirteenth cousin's niece's cat?"; How long would it take a school inspector to tumble head over heels from London to York?"; etc. etc., culminating in: "Can you tell me the  name of a place that nobody ever heard of, where nothing ever happened, in a country which has not been discovered yet?"

To all of these, Tom retorts: "And what good on earth will it do you?" What good indeed! This is delightfully reminiscent of Charlotte Mason's famous quote:

The question is not,––how much does the youth know? when he has finished his education––but how much does he care? and about how many orders of things does he care? In fact, how large is the room in which he finds his feet set? and, therefore, how full is the life he has before him?  (School Education, pages 170-71)

"Well," Tom sighs resignedly, "they did not know that. All they knew was that the examiner was coming." Then this further sad query, "Can you tell me anything at all about anything you like? Anything you like...for as fast as I learn, I forget...My Mama says that my recollect is not adapted from methodic science and says that I must go in for general information."

The relevance of such tongue-in-cheek sporting for me is comforting. This is precisely why the reading of books written in a former era is enlightening. There is nothing new under the sun. To know the thoughts of past thinkers is to receive instruction for the present. As we ponder current events in light of the truth of Scripture and the knowledge of former authors on the errors of their particular time, it helps us gain  understanding because we see that one thing really does lead to another.

For the joy of reading,



  1. Oh Liz. I haven't read The Water Babies. ( shame on me) and you gave me such a good review that it is going in my stack!

  2. Bonnie,

    You're not that far behind me since I also just read it for the first time! We should all think about putting classic children's books in our book group discussions as there are doubtless lots of children's gems we have all missed along the way.