Cult of Childhood

The movie offering to our little one this week—the one that was supposed to entertain and delight while she was recovering from a deep sick spell—was Peter Pan.

Peter Pan started as a play, I know. And it was afterwards novelized. Of course, the essence of Peter Pan is that he resists growing up.

What is so great about being a child that Peter Pan wants to keep it?

Another movie has that glorifies childhood. Winnie the Pooh and Christopher Robin have a bond that they know will only last through childhood; the ache of that moment is so strong through A.A.Milne’s prose:

“If you live to be a hundred, I want to live to be a hundred minus one day so I never have to live without you.”

“If ever there is tomorrow when we’re not together… there is something you must always remember. You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think. But the most important thing is, even if we’re apart… I’ll always be with you.”

Which…like a flipping minnow, makes me remember…A.A. Milne and JM Barrie wrote these two characters of childhood in the same time and place in history: England, within 20 years of each other. Peter Pan was a play in 1904, and Winnie was 1920s.

One hundred years earlier, in a different place, the Brothers Grimm published the children’s stories they had been collecting. Unlike Barrie, and totally different from Christopher Robin, the brothers had no interest in children

They collected these stories for philological purposes. Philology is a word we don’t really use anymore, we now call it linguistics.  At that time in history, Europe especially was interested in how human races developed. The brothers Grimm wanted to find a trace of how language had developed and look part the limitations of written words. The oral tradition preserved in the stories that had been handed down since before people could remember, were the clues they were following.

Who first said “Once upon a time…”?  The Grimm’s tracked that as best they could, and used that linguistic record to see where the races had settled. At that time, their languages defined the races: Germanic, Scandinavian, Slavic, and more.

At that time, Germany didn’t even exist. It was a geographic area of many different factions. The Grimm’s wanted to unite it.

A lot of people wanted to use racial arguments for territorial rule. This was also the time of colonial expansion. Germany was too factioned at the time to colonize much, but England had almost the opposite problem. Their race—superior in their eyes—had the burden to rule in their widening empire.

Over time, these racial definitions redrew the maps for most of Europe. Deep into the 20th century, during the Cold War, soviet expansion over ‘Slavic’ territory continued.

That was one offshoot of the study of fairy tales, one that was closer to the original intent of Jacob Grimm’s motivation.

Another offshoot was that people were once again exposed to the stories they loved as children. These were an illiterate tradition of story telling, but they were now transcribed. Just like Chaucer saved the English language from the Norman conquerors, the brothers Grimm brought these stories back to light.

They were not the first.  Charles Perrault, a Frenchman, brought us Puss in Boots, Cinderella and Red Riding Hood. And even earlier D’Aulnoy had invented the phrase “Fairy Tales.”

After the Grimm’s, though, something happened.  Hans Christian Anderson in Denmark wrote original fairy tales. He was also trying to promote the united Scandinavian identity. His stories were written not long after the Grimm’s published theirs.

Then back to England. Oscar Wilde, who died in 1900, wrote fairy tales too.  These were very English, satirical Victorian pieces. The very structure of the story is childish, even if the topics are not.

The idea of children’s’ literature is firmly in place by the 20th century. And JM Barrie, with Peter Pan, gives us the idea that growing up is to be resisted.

The idea of a boy having the adventures—as also occurs in Doctor Doolittle (also from that time)—how exciting!

And then after WW2, the beloved Wardrobe opened, and the four siblings discovered Narnia. Battle fought, good conquers, and a kingdom won, but then the children return home as children.

In my homeland, America, another man became tangled with the idea of childhood. Walt Disney founded his creative empire on the imagination of children. Which coincided so well with the population growth of America—the baby boomers and their newly affluent parents.

Those same parents who had lived through the depressed as children, and the rationing of the world at war.

If they could be adored by the stuffed creatures in the hundred acre wood…

Or be able to fly through adventures in a Neverland island of constant adventure and no responsibility…

It might not have been for them in their girdles and suit-and-tie days. But their children could watch Davy Crocket and by gum, they would HAVE that raccoon tail hat.

And Disneyland still is freshly painted and pretty and more popular than ever.

What I don’t know, and hope to find out, is whether any other non-English-speaking culture has this same cult of childhood. I haven’t read enough translated literature to be sure.

I’m sure Peter Pan has been translated for others. But does France have a correllary character? Did the brothers Grimm have a hero boy that descended from their original hausmarchen?

I would love to read those stories too.