- "It Would Be Awful Not to Know Greek":Rediscovering Geoffrey Trease
Athens had never looked lovelier than in that early golden sunlight. His heart swelled with the beauty of it. He wanted to run up to every foreigner, pluck him by the cloak, and ask, What do you think of our city? Isn't it a splendid place?(Web of Traitors 16)
Confined though it is to corners of the past, the historical novel has unequalled power to open windows for the young. For those who have experienced at firsthand very little time, it expands reality into a fourth dimension. It reveals whole new worlds, and at the same time throws the child's own world into new perspective. Simply to realize that people did this, or believed this once—though they no longer do—is the first step on a major mental journey. Living, in imagination, at a time when children took on adulthood at an earlier age, the child is introduced along with the protagonist to adult activities and concerns. Adult characters are often more central to the story than in a tale of here and now, and whatever historical figures and events may be introduced are likely to reflect, to some degree, their real-life complexity. The child who has witnessed the opening moves of the American Revolution with Esther Forbes' Johnny Tremain, or kept watch with Kipling's centurions on Hadrian's Wall, or met Rosemary Sutcliff's Boadicea or Geoffrey Trease's Garibaldi has seen something of the intricate relationship between individuals and events that creates all history.
A genre that can achieve so much naturally presents fearsome challenges for its authors. Unlike the story of here and now, the historical novel for the young cannot assume the reader's familiarity with its world—not even the limited familiarity of adult readers with at least some period of the past. Like fantasy, it must create its own world as it goes; unlike fantasy, it cannot create that world to its author's specifications, but must conform conscientiously to whatever painstaking research reveals. This essential background, moreover, must be incorporated into the story so unobtrusively [End Page 23] that it never becomes tedious for the reader. In fact, the story must be more than usually enthralling, simply to overcome the automatic bias against history that most young readers bring with them today. For many authors, additional problems stem from the biases of traditional history itself—a history which cares mainly for white, upper-class fighting men, and has little interest in arts, crafts, sciences, social justice, ecology, or female creatures.
If anyone makes these challenges look easy, it is Geoffrey Trease—which may be why, in an age that expects good art to be difficult for all concerned, his work has not had much attention. For while all historians of children's literature acknowledge that Trease was the first British author to re-create and revitalize the genre from a post-Victorian point of view, they have little to add in the way of analysis or even detailed appreciation. Both John Townsend Trowbridge (in Written for Children) and the Oxford Companion team of Humphrey Carpenter and Mari Prichard pay close attention to Trease's first revolutionary children's book, Bows Against the Barons (1934), whose Marxist Robin Hood introduced "the radical, 'committed' historical story" (Townsend 182) to children's literature. Both sources go on to acknowledge that by the time he wrote Cue for Treason (1940), Trease had outgrown the one-sided, propagandistic approach of Bows. Beyond this, Carpenter and Prichard have some general praise for Trease's "narrative skill" (541), while Townsend calls Cue for Treason "richly improbable," but "a strong, exciting story" (183). Neither source more than mentions Trease's later achievements in the genre, though Townsend continues to list him among British writers "of importance" (210), among writers "active and prolific through the post-war years" (221), and among "highly regarded" writers still active since 1973 (330). Even Margaret Meek, author of the Walck monograph on Trease and the entry on him in Twentieth-Century Children's Writers, devotes most of her commentary to his role as innovator in several...