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The Lion and the Unicorn 24.1 (2000) 110-127

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Children and Other Talking Animals

John Morgenstern

Everyone knows the difference between adult stories and children's stories; children's stories are "simpler" than adult stories. Everyone, however, does not include the majority of writers and critics of children's literature who are generally inclined to question or dismiss this difference that seems so obvious to common sense. As sympathetic as I am with those who would deny the difference, I cannot help but think that the sophisticated denial is always an echo of an initial, naive affirmation. To explore this problem further, I shall compare a specific feature of C. S. Lewis's adult science-fiction trilogy to its counterpart in The Chronicles of Narnia. In the Narnia books, Lewis makes use of a device commonly associated with children's literature, the talking animal. Many people expect to find talking animals only in children's literature although, as soon as one makes such a generalization, one thinks of exceptions such as Gulliver's Travels or Animal Farm. Invariably, generalizations about the nature of children's literature meet with such exceptions to the point where one becomes quite skeptical about this difference that is so obvious to everyone. While I share such skepticism, I cannot bring myself to deny the difference, and so I am prepared to offer a theory of what it means to be "simple."

The problem with this task is that the term "children's literature" is something of an oxymoron and, as Peter Hunt has pointed out, the contradictions inherent in the term has created opposing, critical "camps" (6). Jacqueline Rose has defined one such "camp" in The Case of Peter Pan, or, The Impossibility of Children's Fiction, in which she argues that the "simple" is a fiction or disguise that enables the adult to "colonize" the child. As her title suggests, Rose's strategy is to deny the difference, and the result of this strategy is a powerful analysis of the complexity of a seemingly simple text; however, this strategy is based upon asserting what is clearly an analogy between socialization and colonization. Indeed, it is not so much an analogy as an inversion of the true situation, which is to say that colonization is a case of inappropriate socialization, a case of [End Page 110] treating adults as if they were children. Her analogy is only meaningful because children are different from adults, a difference that is reflected in the nature of their literature. On the other hand, in Poetics of Children's Literature, Zohar Shavit begins by assuming that the "child" is an historical construction and then, somewhat inconsistently, ends up privileging the "simple" as that which really addresses the child. Unfortunately, the result of this strategy is to develop a definition of the "simple" that comes dangerously close to colonizing children as the "simple-minded." I intend to negotiate my way between these positions but in accepting the "risks" (Rose 143) of asserting a poetics of children's literature, I have necessarily devised a definition of the simple that insists upon the existence of the child as something more than its cultural representation.

In his adult novel Out of the Silent Planet, Lewis invents an alien race called the hrossa. The hrossa look like large seals, and it would be interesting to consider the difference between talking animals and aliens, a difference that Lewis actually analyses early in his novel. When the hero of Out of the Silent Planet, Ransom, confronts an alien being whom he first mistakes for "a big, black animal," his initial fear turns to elation when he discovers that "the creature was talking. It had language" (55). Ransom is a philologist and is excited by the opportunity to study a new language; indeed, he speculates that "the very form of language itself, the principle behind all possible languages might fall into his hands" (56). The process that continues from this initial encounter consists of a language lesson in which Ransom and the hross exchange vocabulary items. During the course...


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