The Looking Glass : New Perspectives on Children's Literature, Vol 7, No 3 (2003)

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Alice's Academy

Elizabeth L. Pandolfo Briggs, editor


The Enemy Without: Post-1945 British Animal Fantasy and the Safety of Home Space

Karen Sands-O'Connor


Karen Sands-O'Connor is assistant professor of English at Buffalo State College where she teaches children's literature, literary criticism and twentieth-century British literature. She is co-author of Back in the Spaceship Again: Juvenile Science Fiction Series After 1945 with Marietta Frank, and she has recently contributed essays to Diana Wynne Jones: An Exciting and Exacting Wisdom and Utopian and Dystopian Writing for Children and Young Adults.


In this issue we take a trip back to the Empire, a pretty short trip author Karen Sands-O'Connor argues in her article. According to Sands-O'Connor, Empire lingers on in British animal fantasy long after Britain officiates at its funeral. Masquerading as rhetoric for the good old days, it becomes clear that child readers are taught some pretty unsavory values by some of our favorite furry friends.
(Elizabeth L. Pandolfo Briggs, editor)

 

"We hate the outside. The outside is full of enemies. We only go out because we have to get food for our families." (Fantastic Mr. Fox 78)

In British animal fantasies after 1945, the main characters look outward at the world beyond their doorsteps--but not with eager anticipation. The Wide World, as presented in these postcolonial-era fantasies, has little to recommend it, and characters peer out of it or--should they be so unlucky as to have to interact with it--scurry back home as soon as possible. The outsiders are the enemies; unfortunately, the outsiders are often presented as foreigners or members of the lower classes in a world of upper class British rule, creating unconsciously classist and isolationist worlds for the child reader to confront. Overall, the animal fantasies of this period underscore the value of staying home--at all costs.

Post-1945 British animal fantasies often start with a vision of the home, firmly ensconcing them in the realm of domestic fantasy. Like stories of toys that come to life, animal fantasy is, according to Peter Hunt, "rooted in a world recognizable to the child; like Winnie-the-Pooh it offers power and comfort simultaneously" (Introduction 185). No world is more recognizable to the child than the home, and British authors of this period recreate a very conservative, traditional ideal for the home. Precedence for this emphasis on home in animal fantasy goes back a considerable distance, but notably reached its apex in Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows (1908). Although Grahame's story centers on bachelors rather than families, the idea of the essential nature of the home frequently takes center stage. All of the major characters' homes are described in vivid detail. Leaving home (as in the Gipsy caravan adventure) and even contemplating leaving (Rat's intention to go to sea) are given negative value. The final and pivotal episode in the book details the recapturing of Toad's stately manor home, Toad Hall, from the Wild Wooders who have temporarily overrun it. Christopher Clausen suggests that, in The Wind in the Willows, "Although several of the characters are tempted by travel, home is clearly where the characters belong and where, after many vicissitudes, they return" (142). This, Clausen adds, makes Grahame's novel a children's book. Home has always been a centerpoint for British domestic fantasy, to help make the child reader comfortable in a world where strange things happened.

Of course, it is not only the child reader who might find comfort in fantasy, but the adult author as well. As Jan Needle's alternative view of Grahame's novel, Wild Wood (1981) suggests, books written for children often only subtly disguise the adult issues of the authors who write them. Needle designed her alternative version of The Wind in the Willows from the viewpoint of the Wild Wooders, and reveals Grahame's classic to be riddled with the unease between the comfortable upper middle classes and those who live outside their world--the stoats, weasels, washerwomen, and jailer's daughters of the world. Many of the animal fantasies of the post-1945 period mirror this unease almost as if time had stood still; the world represented in these books has the comfortable upper middle classes still in charge, and still uneasy about it. Although Peter Hollindale and Zena Sutherland claim that the writing in this period was "unusually free of pressures to promote approved conformities" ("Internationalism, Fantasy, Realism" 259), many of the books actually maintain these conformities. Issues of class, increasingly tied up with nationalism, are treated as if the Empire had never fallen. Post-war Britain was a place of change--the nation had less power, more and different kinds of immigrants, and new groups of people demanding their rights. It is little wonder that British authors of the time turned backward to images of the family and the domestic fantasy to recreate a safer space.

Even animal fantasies that seem to be about keeping a family together, such as Dodie Smith's The Hundred and One Dalmatians (1956) or Roald Dahl's Fantastic Mr. Fox (1970), have no internal strife at their core. The Dalmatian family breaks up because an outsider--Cruella deVil--steals the puppies, not because the children and adults fail to communicate, as is often the case in more realistic fiction. In Fantastic Mr. Fox, the guns of outsiders threaten to destroy the family by killing the father. In both cases what must be secured is the home, and in both cases it is the adults (more specifically, the fathers) of the family who achieve this goal. This use of a traditional, patriarchal family structure is not unusual in fiction of this time; Nicholas Tucker and Nikki Gamble note that "it might be argued that postmodern culture sees in the child a symbol of nostalgia. This trend can be detected . . . with the call for a return to 'traditional values' and the attribution of society's problems to the breakdown of the nuclear family" (Family Fictions 44). The Dalmatian puppies and the small Foxes exist, not as individuals, but purely as appreciative audience for their brave and clever parents:

. . . many of them had been in this horrible place for months, without hope until Lucky had spread the news that his father and mother were coming. Proud Lucky now, taking his father along the rows of hero-worshipping pups!

(Dalmatians 107-108).

"Boggis's Chicken-House Number One!" cried Mr. Fox. "It's exactly what I was aiming at! I hit it slap in the middle! First time! Isn't that fantastic! And, if I may say so, rather clever!"

The Small Foxes went wild with excitement.

(Mr. Fox 39-40)

Parents, in these stories, are heroes, and their children rely on them to keep their homes safe.

The Hundred and One Dalmatians and Fantastic Mr. Fox, even with their surface focus on the family, embody the two main concerns about home that enter into many other British stories of the period. In Dahl's book, the Foxes must protect a home from enemies outside, and they do so by outwitting and stealing from the enemy. In The Hundred and One Dalmatians, the parents have to reunite their family, and then reclaim the ancestral home which has been taken by the outsiders; like Toad Hall, Cruella deVil's Hell Hall once belonged to landed gentry, and must, in the story's conclusion, be reclaimed for the modern-day equivalent (Mr. Dearly, the Dalmatians' owner, works for the government). Hell Hall becomes Hill Hall once again, and Cruella, like the nameless Stoats and Weasels in The Wind in the Willows, is never heard from again.

Most of the other animal fantasies of this period do not bother with even the surface emphasis on family; if family is present at all, it exists only as background or scenery for the main character. The key issue remains the home, both what constitutes a home and how to keep it safe from outsiders. Many of the animal characters in post-1945 children's fantastic fiction travel further afield than those in The Wind in the Willows, but in the end they all affirm the need for a traditional and very British home setting. British animals often leave home for a good cause but eventually they return or recreate the traditional domiciles they have left behind. Foreigners are treated with mistrust, and the less powerful must be kept in their place. Thus, these fantasies underscore Roderick McGillis's point that, "much of the literature we say detaches and liberates us may do just the opposite--it may silently prompt us to conform to certain social modes of behavior and to accept certain cultural and political values" (The Nimble Reader 113). The overall picture presented in post-1945 British animal fantasies may include more of the Wide World than The Wind in the Willows, but it accepts and approves of only the smallest part.

One example of the British animal facing the Wide World can be found in Margery Sharp's Miss Bianca tales, the first of which is The Rescuers (1959). Miss Bianca, a white mouse owned by a British Ambassador's son, travels the world to various embassies. The upper class ambassadress (as she calls herself) rescues and patronizes prisoners, using them to secure and underscore her place in the mouse world as she eventually becomes Perpetual Madam President of the Mouse Prisoners' Aid Society. She is an excellent example of how, as Tony Watkins describes it, "dominant groups attempt to render as 'natural' meanings which serve their interests" ("History and Culture" 35). The Miss Bianca books present a socially and racially stratified world in which the main goal of the protagonist is to retain her position of authority and affluence over both her own world and the outside world.

Miss Bianca, who lives in the palatial Porcelain Pagoda several flights above the other mice, assumes her position of privilege by dint of her "ambassadorial" duties: "she had frequently assisted, from the Boy's pocket, at diplomatic soirees" (Rescuers 27). Despite her vast experience, Miss Bianca displays remarkably provincial attitudes. Anything less than tiaras and ballgowns puts her out of her element, as seen when she encounters Norwegian sailors who run a branch of the Prisoners' Aid Society:

At least fifty Norwegian mice were gathered there--singing and shouting and drinking beer. The most part wore sea boots and stocking caps; some had gold earrings in their ears, some had a patch over one eye. A few had wooden legs. It was in fact the most piratical-looking party imaginable, and how any one of them ever got into an Embassy, Miss Bianca really couldn't imagine.

Never had she felt more uncomfortable.

(Rescuers 26-27)

The "Embassy Standard" clearly includes only a certain type of person, an upper-class, well-dressed person--a person like Miss Bianca, who wears a silver chain around her neck to set herself apart. To suggest that others might need to be included in Miss Bianca's world is disconcerting to her; although she completes the Norwegian job, she is glad to get home again because, "she felt she would never really understand Norwegians" (Rescuers 143). In Britain, she would never have to face pirates in the Embassy; she can count on the predictability of her world.

Miss Bianca may not understand other European countries, but at least she knows what country she is in when she travels to them. The British retain moral superiority over countries who do not understand how to keep the lower classes in their place, such as Norway, but Europeans are still considered marginally civilized by Miss Bianca. The case is considerably different with other parts of the world, particularly in areas of former British colonization. In Miss Bianca in the Orient (1970), Sharp haphazardly blends bits and pieces from various eastern cultures, lumping them all together as "the Orient." Although the presence of elephants and women in saris suggests India or Pakistan, the servant-girls read The Arabian Nights and the poetry read at court seems to be Japanese haiku, although the description is a bit vague. "Poetry written in Oriental, discovered Miss Bianca, had very short lines, with the same few number of syllables in each, and no more than six lines altogether making up a stanza" (Orient 54). To further emphasize that "the Orient" is one specific place, and "Oriental" a real language, the word "Bulbuls" in Miss Bianca's own attempt at Oriental poetry has a footnote which reads, "Oriental for nightingale" (Orient 54). Just as she belittled the prospect of Norwegian culture, Miss Bianca denies the worth of Oriental culture by dismissing the poetry as "lacking in heart!" (Orient 54; emphasis in original). Miss Bianca's small island country has more heart than an entire continent.

Within her own country, Miss Bianca increasingly has to work to maintain the world to which she is accustomed. Although in the original book, her palatial home and silver chain were enough to guarantee her position and rank, she later discovers that even the wealthy cannot rest on their laurels. She must continually set herself apart or risk losing her privileged status. Loss of status is dangerous, because it leads only to one horrible consequence: a mixing of the classes. Miss Bianca exerts a great deal of effort to see that this does not occur, even as she rescues people. When she suggests the rescue of a kidnapped orphan girl in Miss Bianca (1962), the other mice worry because she has no home to go to, and fear that the child will "be on our hands for generations" (Bianca 16; emphasis in original). Miss Bianca convinces them to attempt the rescue only after she promises to find a suitable home for the destitute girl. She does so, but notably the home she finds is with a family of poor people; they speak in dialect and cannot distinguish the orphan from their daughter/sister who was lost. The poor, the story underlines, must take care of the poor; after all, one is very much like another and as long as they stay in their place everyone remains happy in their own homes.

Similarly, in The Turret (1964), Miss Bianca does her utmost to rescue the prisoner while still maintaining her status. In this case, the prisoner is actually a criminal, and Miss Bianca takes on the duty of reforming him. Their interaction is limited to the time it takes Miss Bianca to properly educate him on her morals and values, and then she returns once again to the Porcelain Pagoda. The former prisoner, on the other hand, rejoins working-class society. The lower classes must ultimately be kept away from the upper classes, because only in such a society can Miss Bianca retain her power, wealth and privilege, symbolized in her lovely home.

An egalitarian society may not have been the goal in the Miss Bianca books, but in Richard Adams's Watership Down (1972), the young rabbit Hazel envisions a society where the weak are as welcome as the strong:

"Wherever we settle down in the end," thought Hazel, "I'm determined to see that Pipkin and Fiver aren't sat on and cuffed around until they're ready to run any risk just to get away . . ."

(Down 31)

But although equality is eventually achieved for some, the new society that Hazel and the other rabbits establish largely recreates conditions in the old warren, a patriarchal, hierarchal institution with a military-style police force to keep other rabbits in line. The ideal society for Adams does not have innovation at its base, but tradition, and the element of the fantastic in the novel (i.e. the talking rabbits) only serves to further his ideology.

In many ways, Watership Down is a very unfantastic fantasy. The rabbits only speak clearly to each other; not to humans at all, and to other species only in a pidgin language. The rabbits do not wear clothes, or eat like humans. In fact, Adams takes great pains in his "Acknowledgement" and throughout the book to indicate that his rabbits replicate the natural habits of real rabbits, and that the places to which they journey are real places. "I am indebted," Adams writes, "for a knowledge of rabbits and their ways, to Mr. R. M. Lockley's remarkable book, The Private Life of the Rabbit . . . Nuthanger Farm is a real place, like all the other places in the book" (Down acknowledgement page). These and other editorial comments are designed to give the reader the sense that Adams's book is not, in fact, fantastic at all, but merely represents what rabbits would really think and say if they could talk: a natural history novel. The true-to-life appearance of the book is necessary to the acceptance of the fantastic notion of the rabbits' speech, and on beyond that to a belief in the correctness of the societal vision Adams puts forth as ideal.

The indirect parallels that Adams draws between rabbit society and human society, however, make wholesale acceptance of Adams's authority a dangerous leap of faith. As Mary Hilton notes in her introduction to Potent Fictions, "Many matters which, traditionally, have been assumed in Britain as universal common sense (the accepted different abilities of women to men, for example), have been shown by cross-cultural research to be merely local habits of mind" (7). Despite the fact that the rabbits claim to learn to "come closer together, relying on and valuing each other's capacities" (Down 130), the warren they create replicates the patriarchal and hierarchal warren they originally left. Hazel, the rabbit who leads the expedition, leaves the old warren in disappointment after the Chief Rabbit will not listen to his warnings about a coming danger. He hopes that in the new warren, all rabbits will be listened to. In addition, he wants to find a place where he will no longer be ordered about by the Owsla, the old warren's policing agency. He even becomes concerned when Bigwig, an Owsla rabbit, expresses a desire to join the expedition, reasoning that, "although Bigwig would certainly be a useful rabbit in a tight corner, he would also be a difficult one to get on with. He certainly would not want to do what he was told--or even asked--by an outskirter" (Down 27). But Bigwig's strength proves not to be a threat in the new warren--it is Hazel who holds all the power.

Hazel becomes Chief Rabbit, and he likes to portray himself as a more egalitarian leader than his predecessor in the old warren, "asking" other rabbits rather than ordering them (Down 382) and otherwise appearing a friend of the common rabbit. But Hazel, like the Chief Rabbit of the old warren, takes advice only when it suits him. He consistently disregards the warnings of the visionary rabbit Fiver, even though it was on the strength of Fiver's prediction that they left the old warren in the first place. After Fiver leads them to Watership Down, the narration claims that "There was no more questioning of . . . Fiver's insight" (Down 131) but in fact this is not the case. When Fiver later asks Hazel not to go on a raid of a nearby farm, Hazel ignores him and nearly dies of the injuries he sustains there. Although Hazel listens to Fiver during the siege on their warren, and acknowledges his assistance, he also makes it clear that as a general rule he will run the warren on his own design. He does not, for example, ask Fiver--or any other rabbit--for advice when he goes to meet General Woundwort. And Hazel leaves the warren in the charge of the strong-arming Bigwig, and not Fiver's vision. Rather than create an innovative and cooperative teamwork approach, the new warren that Hazel creates mirrors, rather than contrasts, the old warren.

This can also be seen in the new warren's treatment of does. Female rabbits play no part in the expedition from the old warren or the creation of the new one, in spite of the fact that Fiver's prediction of destruction of the warren applies to all rabbits:

"If we believe Fiver," said Hazel, "it means that we think no rabbits at all ought to stay here. So between now and the time we go, we ought to persuade as many as we can to join us"

(Down 27).

The narrative records no rabbit attempting to persuade a doe to join them on their journey.

The second-class status of females in the book continues throughout, even after it occurs to the bucks that they cannot get along without does. Hazel says, "we have no does--not one--and no does means no kittens and in a few years no warren" (Down 195). But does are worthwhile in their reproductive capacity only. Adams again makes this appear to be a natural view of rabbit existence by the language he uses:

The kinds of ideas that have become natural to many male human beings in thinking of females--ideas of protection, fidelity, romantic love and so on--are, of course, unknown to rabbits, although rabbits certainly do form exclusive attachments much more frequently than most people realize. However, they are not romantic and it came naturally to Hazel and Holly to consider the two Nuthanger does simply as breeding stock for the warren

(Down 256).

Watership Down may be less authoritarian than the old warren for bucks, but does remain possessions and objects. Adams uses both dialogue and narration to make this patriarchy seem normal, natural, and appropriate.

Through his constant extolling of a traditional, conservative way of life, Adams uses the fantasy of talking animals to promote a societal vision which replicates rather than innovates. Miss Bianca works to preserve her way of life by ensuring that animals beneath her think that they belong there. And Mr. Fox's family and the hundred and one Dalmatians also put home, and the preservation of a traditional way of living, at the top of their priority list. Even though Britain was changing, both internally (becoming a multicultural society) and externally (ceding its world domination to the United States), children's literature refused to recognize the differences and in so doing created a stagnant (if safe) vision of British society where the traditional British child reader would feel at home and also never have to acknowledge change. Acting in loco parentis British authors protected their child readers from having to face reality. The threats to the traditional home were closing in on Britain after the close of World War II, and those at the top fought like animals to eliminate the enemy and preserve their way of life, if only in the fictional world.

 

Works Cited

Adams, Richard. Watership Down. New York: Macmillan, 1972.

Clausen, Christopher. "Home and Away in Children's Fiction." Children's Literature 10 (1982) : 141-152.

Dahl, Roald. Fantastic Mr. Fox. 1970. New York: Bantam, 1982.

Grahame, Kenneth. The Wind in the Willows. 1908. New York: Golden, 1968.

Hilton, Mary (ed). Potent Fictions: Children's Literacy and the Challenge of Popular Culture. London: Routledge, 1996.

Hollindale, Peter and Zena Sutherland. "Internationalism, Fantasy, Realism." An Illustrated History of Children's Literature. Ed. Peter Hunt. Oxford: OUP, 1995. 252-288.

Hunt, Peter. An Introduction to Children's Literature. Oxford: OUP, 1994.

McGillis, Roderick. The Nimble Reader: Literary Theory and Children's Literature. New York: Twayne, 1996.

Needle, Jan. Wild Wood. London: Methuen, 1982.

Sharp, Margery. Miss Bianca. Boston: Little, Brown, 1962.

---. Miss Bianca in the Orient. London: Mammoth, 1970.

---. The Rescuers. New York: Dell, 1959.

---. The Turret. New York: Berkley, 1965.

Tucker, Nicholas and Nikki Gamble. Family Fictions: Anne Fine, Morris Gleitzman, Jacqueline Wilson and others. London: Continuum, 2001.

Watkins, Tony. "The Setting of Children's Literature: History and Culture." Understanding Children's Literature. Ed. Peter Hunt. London: Routledge, 1999. 30-38.

 

Karen Sands-O'Connor


Volume 7, Issue 3 The Looking Glass,September, 2003

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"The Enemy Without: Post-1945 British Animal Fantasy and the Safety of Home Spaces"
© Karen Sands-O'Connor, 2003.

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The Looking Glass: new perspectives on children's literature

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