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Oblique Wisdom: The Secret of Evergreen Middle-Grade?


Probably right around the age of nine, I discovered Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain. These books opened up a world of adventure, mystery, and wisdom for me – and are probably the reason why I love fantasy so much. Fast forward twenty years, and this past weekend I cracked open The Book of Three, the first book in the series. Reading it over the course of an afternoon (it’s a much faster read today than I remember it being), I think I stumbled on an aspect of middle-grade fiction that I think might be universal in evergreen titles (the classics that never go out of print, never stop being popular): oblique wisdom transparent for the reader but opaque for the hero.

Some Thoughts on the Heart of Middle-Grade Fiction

There is a world of difference between middle-grade (MG) and even young adult (YA) fiction. While both are lumped together as “children’s fiction,” everyone knows that an eight year old looks at the world very differently from a sixteen year old. Differences in awareness, concerns, and our ability to articulate our thoughts and emotions drive many of the fundamental differences between MG and YA books. An eight year old can love Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth, but the themes and concerns of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games would likely go over that same child’s head.

Classic MG titles like The Phantom Tollbooth and Dealing with Dragons show us fundamental truths about the world. Most of these truths are foundational, and so basic that MG readers will already understand them before they ever pick up a book. Research has shown that by the age of five, kids understand and apply complex rules of “fairness” in their behavior. They might not be able to articulate those rules, or explain why something is right or wrong, but they have already formed a sense of it.

The best YA fiction helps us to negotiate the muddier waters of an adult reality. Books like Collins’ The Hunger Games, or Pullman’s The Golden Compass transition a child’s black-and-white value system to the shades of grey that (unfortuntely) operate in the adult world. But middle-grade, at its heart, is there to provide the initial vocabulary. It teaches us how to articulate values every child knows, but might not be able to otherwise express.

Fairy Tales, Learning Better, and the Role of the Teacher

The 18th and 19th centuries saw the rise of popular children’s literature. In particular, Charles Perrault, the brothers Grimm, Alexander Afanasyev, Hans Christen Andersen, and Gregory MacDonald all contributed to popularizing stories with magical characters that grew to be beloved by children in their respective countries. These early fairy tales were often based on oral storytelling traditions, and employed a remarkably consistent morphology (I recommend Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale and Luthi’s The European Folktale: Form and Nature for a detailed discussion).

In the 20th century, Robert A. Heinlein argued that all stories (irrespective of audience) could be reduced to three categories: Boy Meets Girl, the Brave Little Tailor, or the Person Who Learns Better. The vast majority of early fairy tales – and the majority of middle-grade fiction – fall into either the Brave Little Tailor or Learns Better structures. Within the confines of these archetypes, the mentor (or dispatcher, in Propp’s terminology) is a standard element. Consider Merlyn in T.H. White’s The Sword in the Stone, Dallben (and Coll, and Gwydion) in The Book of Three, Morwen and Kazul in Dealing with Dragons, Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. What in A Wrinkle in Time, or Mrs. Frankweiler in From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler:

Each of these mentors is an adult, placed by the story’s plot in a parental/guardian position relative to the story’s hero. That the hero may be a hidden monarch or a prophesied savior is immaterial for the mentor’s role. From a plotting standpoint, the mentor is there to initiate and end the adventure.

Pushing the Hero Towards Adventure

Parents typically protect the hero. They want to keep the hero guarded against all of the vicissitudes of the outside world. The mentor, however, does not. The mentor recognizes – in their infinite wisdom – that the hero needs to face danger to grow. Merlyn puts Wart in potentially life-threatening situations because he hopes the lessons will make Wart a better king. Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which fetch Meg, Charles Wallace, and Calvin and put them directly in harm’s way. Kazul and Morwen – ostensibly – have few qualms about placing Cimorene in what the novel’s society considers danger. In this sense, the mentor often adopts the role of dispatcher in Propp’s morphology. In some cases, as in Morwen and Kazul, the mentor can play the role of helper just as easily.

Starting Points: Explaining the Lesson at the Start of the Book

Mentors are by definition wise. And invariably they share that wisdom with the middle-grade hero before the adventure starts. Consider Dallben’s exchange with Taran the Assistant Pig-keeper:

“Tut,” said Dallben, “there are worse things. Do you set yourself to be a glorious hero? Do you believe it is all flashing swords and galloping about on horses? As for being glorious…”

“What of Prince Gwydion?” cried Taran. “Yes! I wish I might be like him!”

“I fear,” Dallben said, “that is entirely out of the question.”

“Buy why?” Taran sprang to his feet. “I know if I had the chance…”

“Why?” Dallben interrupted. “In some cases,” he said, “we learn more by looking for the answer to a question and not finding it than we do from learning the answer itself. This is one of those cases. I could tell you why, but at the moment it would only be more confusing. If you grow up with any kind of sense – which you sometimes make me doubt – you will very likely reach your own conclusions.

“They will probably be wrong,” he added. “However, since they will be yours, you will feel a little more satisfied with them.”

This exchange – which we find in chapter one – outlines the arc at the heart of The Book of Three. Taran obviously fails to grasp the wisdom of Dallben’s warnings – otherwise, he would never run off after Hen Wen and begin his exciting adventures. But reading this exchange, an adult reader instantly sees the timeless wisdom of Dallben’s teaching. And I would argue that a nine year old reader gets it just as well.

The Triangle of Understanding in Middle-grade Fiction

The Triangle of Understanding in Middle-grade Fiction

The reason for that is because of Dallben’s obvious wisdom. A nine year old might not be able to articulate this wisdom, to communicate it anew, yet nonetheless it strikes a chord. We know Dallben’s interdiction will be broken, that Taran will go out on an adventure. And we know that the adventure will change him, make him recognize at least a part of Dallben’s teachings. The same model can be found in Madeleine L’Engle, Susan Cooper, Diana Wynne-Jones, L. Frank Baum: all of the classic middle-grade fantasists understood the power of foreshadowing the lesson at the start of their books.

Contrary to what many grown-ups believe, children well understand the difference between reality and fiction. They know that Taran’s adventures are dangerous. If they did not grasp the inherent wisdom of Dallben’s warnings, why would they be scared or excited when Taran faces Achren or the Horned King? While Dallben’s warnings might go right over Taran’s head, even a young reader will still understand and recognize their wisdom. They may not be able to explain what they have understood, but that does not mean they have failed to grasp its underlying significance. The reader knows what lesson is coming before they’re even finished with chapter one: which is why the book’s conclusion – when Taran has had his adventures, and has learned at least a little more wisdom – is so satisfying.

The Obliquity of Wisdom: Mediating the Mentor and the Hero

This structure is satisfying because the reader not only understands the mentor’s wisdom, but the hero’s desires. What nine year old doesn’t want an exciting adventure slaying monsters? We want Taran to have his adventure, we want him to face down monsters and evil, and to come out stronger, smarter, and happier at the end. We know that Taran will get into trouble by breaking Dallben’s interdiction, but there remains that niggling little voice inside that says adventure is worth it.

The relationship brings to a mind the best line of the trailer for Martin Scorsese’s film adaptation of Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret, where Isabelle warns Hugo that they can get into trouble and Hugo responds “That’s how you know it’s an adventure.” That exchange encapsulates the reader’s mediation between grasping the hero’s immature desires, and internalizing the mentor’s wisdom. If the hero were not in danger, if the hero did not break the mentor’s rules, then there would be no adventure.

Developing One’s Own Vocabulary: The Learning Hero in Middle Grade

As MG novels progress, the hero has to gradually develop their own vocabulary for the mentor’s teachings. The hero cannot just parrot the mentor’s lessons: that would not show any development on the part of the character, and would thus be fundamentally unsatisfying. Instead, the hero rationalizes an initial rejection of the mentor’s lesson and then builds an acceptance of the lesson by getting (proverbially – or literally) kicked in the teeth by life.

Note that there are examples where authors have tried to deviate from this pattern. Joseph Delaney – in his 2004 novel The Last Apprentice – tries to invert the classic structure. Delaney’s hero understands the wisdom of the Spook’s interdictions. However, he finds that certain rules are overly stringent. He does not break them due to a failure of understanding: instead, he breaks them because he actively disagrees with their universality. These books are a little too recent to be deemed evergreen, but I am curious as to how they will age over time. They have not resonated with me the way the more classic structure has, but that may have more to do with my own tastes (my fiancée accuses me of being an old-fashioned curmudgeon) than with any actual weakness in an inverted structure. Eventually, time will tell whether the mirror image of the classic structure can function as well as the original.

Regardless of whether the author plays it straight or flips the structure, at the end of the story the hero has learned a lesson and articulates it in words different from those of the mentor. What matters is that the lesson cannot be presented didactically: kids can smell that kind of condescension a mile away, and overt morals ruin good stories. Nobody likes to be patronized, least of all a nine year old. If the action and emotion of a story cannot imply a lesson through subtext, then it is a weak lesson that simply won’t resonate.

By finding a different subtext-driven way of articulating (or potentially refuting) the mentor’s earlier wisdom, a classic MG novel can show the reader how that wisdom can be applied in a fictional context. Just as the hero’s understanding of reality is broadened, so too is the reader’s conceptual vocabulary. Like Dallben says:

“…If you grow up with any kind of sense – which you sometimes make me doubt – you will very likely reach your own conclusions.

“They will probably be wrong,” he added. “However, since they will be yours, you will feel a little more satisfied with them.”

And that, ultimately is what childhood and fiction are both about.

7 Comments Post a comment
  1. All good MG books are set in moral universes (by which I mean actions have consequences), the young heroes learning adult lessons as they go. And the Wise Mentor trope is an old one. I find it interesting that the Wise Mentor often disappears entirely from YA stories, or his “wisdom” becomes less helpful and more ambiguous.

    July 26, 2011
    • @Marion: Thanks! I like your point about moral universes. Although, I have to wonder: isn’t all fiction set in moral universes? If there are no consequences, what happens to the story’s tension?

      August 1, 2011
  2. Nicely done. A well described sideways glance.

    July 31, 2011
    • @Munk: Thanks! I’m glad you enjoyed it!

      August 1, 2011

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