espite the attempts of Victorian evangelical protestants to steer British children towards appropriately moral reading, such as those religious tracts and magazines that appeared in great numbers, the latter half of the nineteenth century is appropriately called the Golden Age of children's literature in recognition of the many childhood classics that children today continue to enjoy. These classical works of children's literature, which include Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and George MacDonald's The Princess and the Goblin are not the grim moral tracts evangelical writers feverishly published, but rather celebrate children's capacity for imagination and belief. Here then, for the first time, is the appearance of the modern genre of children's literature, with its emphasis on the joys of childhood and childish imagination. Finally, it is noteworthy that the evangelical writings by authors such as Reverend W. Carus Wilson and Maria Edgeworth are not read by children today. It is clear then, that fairy tales and fantasies attained a prominent and since uncontested position in children's literature.
To begin with, many of these enduring children's works are fantasies in which their child protagonists converse easily with magical creatures, and the rules of reality are, for a time, suspended. In fact, fairy tales and fantastical fables were never truly subsumed by attacks on what the evangelicals conceived to be immoral literature. Although the magazines and bound volumes of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century were largely evangelical works, chapbooks continued to cater to childish tastes for the fantastic and numerous editions of popular tales such as Cinderella and Tom Thumb remained in circulation throughout England. Moreover, the translation and publication of the popular brothers Grimm's Popular Stories in 1823 indicates the growing acceptance for such tales in the English market.
However, although translations of European fairy tales, by authors from Charles Perrault to the brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen, continued to be available to English children, it was not until almost the middle of the century that English authors wrote fantasies for children. Indeed, John Ruskin was so unsure of the reception for his fairy tale, The King of the Golden River, that he delayed publication until 1851 (Sandner, 9). Children's fantasy literature really takes off from the 1840s onwards with the publication of Edward Lear's Book of Nonsense in 1846 followed by Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland in 1865. Indeed, in the ensuing decades, some of the most important works for children were published, and almost all of these works are fantasies. Charles Kingsley's The Water Babies, first appeared in MacMillan's Magazine in 1862 while George MacDonald published his fairy tales in a compendium for children only in 1867, and At the Back of the North Wind followed in 1871. With these and other authors, children's literature moved away from the grimly moral tone of evangelical tracts with their portrayal of realistically suffering children to worlds populated by talking rabbits and stubborn lobsters.
Indeed, studies of children's fantasy literature indicate that contrary to the hue and cry of evangelical reformers, from the turn of the century onwards, Victorian perceptions of childhood underwent a change that allowed for the emergence of fairy tales and fantasy in mainstream children's literature. In fact, the Humphrey Carpenter points out that William Blake precipitates this change with his Songs of Innocence published in 1789. Here, Carpenter apprehends Blake celebrating childish simplicity (7). Carpenter traces this celebration of childhood to Wordsworth's 1807 "Ode: Intimations of Immortality," which glorifies the childhood innocence that the adult loses in growing up:
But trailing clouds of glory do we come From God, who is our home: Heaven lies about us in our infancy! Shades of the prison-house begin to close Upon the growing Boy, But he beholds the light, and whence it flows, He sees it in his joy; The Youth, who daily farther from the east Must travel, still is Natures priest, And by the vision splendid Is on his way attended; At length the Man perceives it die away, And fade into the light of common day. [lines 65-77]
This presentation of the pure, unpolluted child contrasts sharply with the evangelical notion of children as inherently sinful beings who must be taught to fear God. David Sandner continues Carpenter's argument in his study of nineteenth-century fantasy, pointing out that although the English Romantic poets did not write for children, their visions of childhood and endorsement of the innocent child's capacity for imagination were instrumental in reversing the prevalent evangelical trend of producing fire and brimstone cautionary tales for childish consumption (7). Although Carroll, Kingsley, and MacDonald were all clergymen, their tales of blood-thirsty cards, chivalrous salmon, and scheming goblins are vastly different from the grim tales of youthful deaths that earlier clergymen such as James Janeway and Reverend Carus Wilson deemed appropriate. The sharp contrast between these two groups of authors, the former celebrating childhood innocence the latter viewing children as inherently sinful, underscores the new perception of childhood. More importantly, however, is the fact that religion continued to influence children's literature. Kingsley and MacDonald's, like C. S. Lewis's later world of Narnia, views on faith and salvation remain readily apparent throughout their works.
In fact, Carpenter seems to argue that children's fantasy actually continues the tradition of the moral didactic tale. Thus while children's fantasy literature embraces a different notion of childhood from that espoused by evangelical writers, it continues to convey lessons from the adult writer to the child reader and to search for an ideal. A survey of Lear's rhymes, with their references to "the sunset isles of Boshen" and the "Land where the Bong-tree grows," leads Carpenter to conclude that "Lear is stating a theme that becomes central to the great children's writers: the search for a mysterious, elusive Good Place" (13). The underlying similarities of this recurring Good Place are apparent, from little Johnny whose tortured death places him "far out of the reach of this world of sorrow and sin" (The Children's Friend, 1824, vol. 1, 17) to dirty Tom whose dip in the cool refreshing stream results not in his death, as Sir John and his men believe, but rather in his transformation: "his whole husk and shell had been washed quite off him, and the pretty little real Tom was washed out of the inside of it, and swam away" (Kingsley 51). Whereas evangelical writers once promoted ideal children as little martyrs patiently suffering painful deaths to attain Heaven, later writers constructed an ideal that was rooted in childhood innocence and attainable only in fantastical spaces removed from the mundane reality of everyday life.
Finally, the late Victorian fantasist, G.K. Chesterton highlights the relation between the traditional moral tale and children's fairy tales and fantasies in his 1908 essay on Fairy Tales:
If you really read the fairy tairy tales, you will observe that one idea runs from one end of them to the other — the idea that peace and happiness can only exist on some condition. This idea, which is the core of ethics, is the core of nursery-tales. The whole happiness of fairyland hangs upon a thread, upon one thread. Cinderella may have a dress woven on supernatural looms and blazing with unearthly brilliance; but she must be back when the clock strikes twelve. The king may invite fairies to the christening, but he must invite all the fairies or frightful results will follow. Bluebeard's wife may open all doors but one. A promise is broken to a cat, and the whole world goes wrong. . . This is the profound morality of fairy-tales; which, so far from being lawless, go to the root of all law. Instead of finding (like common books of ethics) a rationalistic basis for each Commandment, they find the great mystical basis for all Commandments. We are in this fairyland on sufferance; it is not for us to quarrel with the conditions under which we enjoy this wild vision of the world.
Carpenter, Humphrey. Secret Gardens: A Study of the Golden Age of Children's Literature. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1985.
Chesterton, G.K. "Fairy Tales" in All Things Considered. 1908. 8th ed., 1915. Project Gutenberg E-Text. Produced by Robert Shimmin, Jayam and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team. 7 March 2004. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/11505/11505-h/11505-h.htm. Accessed 6 August 2007.
Kingsley, Charles. The Water Babies: A Fairy Tale for a Landbaby. 1863. Ware, Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Limited, 1994.
Sandner, David. The Fantastic Sublime: Romanticism and Transcendence in Nineteenth-Century Children's Fantasy Literature. Westport, Connecticut and London: Greenwood Press, 1996.
Wilson, Carus W. The Children's Friend: for the Year 1824. Vol. 1. Kirkby Lonsdale: A. Foster, 1824. Reproduced online by The Hockliffe Project , Centre for Textual Scholarship at the De Montfort University, Leicester. Accessed 23 July 2007.
Wordsworth, William. Ode: Initmations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood in The Oxford Book of English Verse: 1250-1900 Sir Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch, ed. Oxford: Clarendon, 1919. Reproduced online by Bartleby.com, 1999. www.bartleby.com/101/. Accessed 6 August 2007.
Last modified 6 August 2007