- Landscape in Children’s Literature by Jane Suzanne Carroll
The title of this volume is slightly misleading. Although it does contemplate landscape, it focuses particularly on Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising series, not on children’s literature generally. In the final [End Page 492] chapter, Carroll takes a swing at three other literary works, but this short chapter seems like an afterthought to what is actually an in-depth analysis of the functions of landscape in Cooper’s fantasy series.
As an examination of the uses of landscape in The Dark Is Rising, Carroll’s book builds on Charles Butler’s Four British Fantasists: Place and Culture in the Children’s Fantasies of Penelope Lively, Alan Garner, Diana Wynne Jones, and Susan Cooper (2006). Butler claims that one of the affinities shared by these authors is an interest in “the potency of place” (7), which shows itself through a connection to Oxford and a focus on home and “locations of historical or archeological significance” (44). What Carroll adds to Butler’s wide-ranging exploration of place and culture is a narrowed application of topoanalysis, based on theories drawn from cultural geography, to the five books in Cooper’s fantasy series.
Carroll begins by summarizing the ideas of geographers and landscape historians such as Carl Ortwin Sauer, W. G. Hoskins, Jacquetta Hawkes, and Richard Muir. As Butler has shown, Hawkes in particular influenced Cooper, who read her archeological history of Britain, A Land, when she was in school and later became friends with Hawkes and her husband, J. B. Priestley, even dedicating The Grey King to the couple. Applying the concepts of landscape history to Cooper’s work is thus an eminently sensible thing to do. However, I am not convinced by Carroll’s argument that Cooper’s series is “unusually representative of children’s literature as a whole” (7) simply because it is popular and has won many awards. The same argument could be applied to Philip Pullman and J. K. Rowling, among others.
According to landscape historians, landscape contains topological features that have accrued symbolic significance over the centuries. In Britain, the setting for Cooper’s books, that significance can easily be traced to medieval times. As Carroll states,
Like real environments, literary landscapes are composed of a series of identifiable topological commonplaces—topoi—and the literary representations of such elements conform with traditional, morphological forms which make use of the same physical features and symbolic functions and support the same kind of narrative action. These topoi are embedded in the canonical tradition of landscape representation and have been distilled through centuries of repetition and use. Topoi are pure elements of landscape, irreducible in their basic components and unchanging in their significance.(3)
Carroll examines four topoi, which she labels the sanctuary topos, the green topos, the roadway topos, and the lapsed topos.
The first of these topoi, the sanctuary, describes enclosed spaces, both sacred and domestic, which share three characteristics: a vertical dimension (unlike most landscape, which tends to be horizontal), strong boundaries, and a central space that is the heart of the topos. After examining these features in depth, Carroll briefly summarizes the use of the sanctuary topos in medieval literature and children’s literature before moving into a detailed discussion of how Cooper employs it in each of the five books in her series.
The green topos includes gardens, farms, pleasance, and wilderness. Gardens and farms are bounded spaces, while the pleasance and the wilderness are unbounded, but all participate in the dialectic of “decay and death as well as renewal and life” (49). For those unfamiliar with the [End Page 493] term “pleasance,” the pleasance and the wilderness are the positive and negative aspects of overgrown wild spaces, with the pleasance an idyllic Arcadia like the River Bank in The Wind in the Willows, and the wilderness dangerous and untamed like the Wild Wood. As in the previous chapter on the sanctuary topos, Carroll begins her discussion of each subtopos with a quick trot through medieval literature and children’s literature, then focuses on...