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Heroism, heroes and heroines in children’s literature (or, the one where I talk about Edmund but not Peter)

I watched Prince Caspian last night. It is, as is nigh tradition with my relationship with the Narnia books and films, a complicated thing but even amidst that complexicity, I was struck by something. I was struck by Edmund and his wry growth as a character in a way that I’ve never quite realised before.

Edmund is somebody who’s lived and lost and been subject to the moods and madness of life in a way that, I think, not many of the other characters in Narnia are. His journey is the fall, the rise; and it is perhaps worth nothing that those that fall often rise harder than those who have not. He’s perhaps one of the few perfect notes in the film, commenting wryly that: “Last time I didn’t believe Lucy, I looked pretty stupid.” He is, I think, a bit of a hero.

I’ve talked about heroism before on the blog, about characters such as Ruth Hollis from KM Peyton’s work and Roberta from the Railway Children by E Nesbit and it’s a topic that I keep coming back to. I think the recursive nature of this thought process centres around my belief that children’s literature allows us to engage in the process of ‘creating’ heroes, but I think another part of this thought process centres around the idea of flaws. Good literature, truthful dark and honest literature, acknowledges those flaws. It acknowledges the Katniss, the Ruth, the Roberta and the Edmund through letting them be flawed but also letting them learn from those flaws and letting them grow. Letting them live. Letting them be.

There’s a reason that Peter the High Pain In the Posterior never ever hits home with me and I think that a lot of that comes from his perfection. He is an exalted character, both in the books and the films and the television adaptations; the noble elder brother who Decides Things and Looks After Family and Does The Right Thing. He isn’t real to me somehow. He’s lost in a melee of ciphers and metaphors and implications and I never quite manage to find him in that.

But I found Edmund. Oh God, it’s taken me far too long but I have, at last, found Edmund Pevensie. I’ve found his bravery, his foolishness, his complexicity, his realism, and I am giddy with the implications of that finding. It’s as though I’ve known somebody for a thousand years and only now have I come to see his true face.

Character does that; characters who hide from you and give you the something that you expect them to see, whilst the reality of them is hand-held somewhere dark and deep inside them and they’ll only let you see it when you’re ready, willing and able to see it. And that moment, oh that moment when you do, it is intoxicating.

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A couple of thoughts on Mockingjay Part One and the nature of heroism

I’m conscious that this is a children’s literature blog and I don’t want to start segueing off into telling you about what I had for dinner or things like that, but I do want to tell you a little bit about Mockingjay Part One.

The film is an adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ novel Mockingjay (part of it – it’s been split into two films) and it is rather blindingly awfully brilliant. I saw it last night and can’t quite shake that dark pained truth that it has; that way that it situates stillness against rage and pain against love. Love, as President Snow knows, is destructive. Deathly.”it’s the things we love most that destroy us.”

Jennifer Lawrence is the raging anti-centre of these films. She is the Mockingjay; this figure isolated, this totemic individual that says a thousand things with just the look of her eyes and the shift of her body. Her stillness is immense.

Is Katniss likable? To me, yes. Immensely so.  She is a hero. She is heroic. She fights for what she believes in, even though she may not know what she’s fighting for. Freedom? Love? Hope? She is the after-effect of a former world, she is the impact of the Hunger Games, she is not the same person she once was. She is a teenage girl but she’s more than that and less than that, all at the same time.

She is a hero. A complex messed up individual who stands for something deep and strong and hopeful and shameful all at the same time. A dilemma of sorts encapsulated in a stubborn, bruised shell of a person.

Heroism. Dark blues, greys and blacks; a colour spectrum of heroism encapsulated in the muddy tones of a film bedding in to say big things and horrible things and necessary things and awful, timely, relevant things.

I think of heroism a lot with young adult literature. I think that that framing of a person in the centre of a dialogue, of a narrative, is in a way creating heroes. A centre of story, a breaker against the tide.

And I think that reading that narrative is heroic, I think that every time you pick up a book you’re creating a little intervention in the narrative of the everyday. You are sticking your hand up, marking your flag in the sand, stopping in your way down the road of your life to say – this matters. This moment matters, right here, this story I am engaging with, this moment of text and I.

And that story, right there, that involves a thousand moments of heroism. A redefinition of heroism, no – perhaps a wider interpretation of heroism is required. The heroic nature of the young adult protagonist; the mark of placing themselves against the world and fighting to hold onto it.

I love Katniss. I love what she is. I love that she is. Complex, brave, shattered women exist.

Heroes exist.

We should not ignore that.

 

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Superman, heroes and heroines (or: how literature lets us make heroes)

I saw Man Of Steel earlier (don’t worry, no massive plot spoilers.) Suffice to say I didn’t really like Russell Crowe as Jor-El but I adored Henry Cavill as Superman. I felt he really got the farmboy wholehearted goodness of Superman and made it big.

Man Of Steel has left me thinking about the nature of heroes and heroines, and how these come across in literature, and why we have them, and what they mean.

And I think that, in the world of children’s literature for this is a children’s literature blog and it would be somewhat eccentric if I suddenly started analysing Fifty Shades of Grey, that heroes are something quite special and that thinking starts with some heroes in particular.

The first is Bastian Balthazar Bux. Bastian is the hero (occasionally anti?) of The Neverending Story. He’s a bullied, withdrawn child who reads a book and is drawn into a fantastical land which can only be saved by a human. (On another note, my God, were we all scarred for eternity by what happened to Artax in the film? Yes? It’s not just me still sobbing is it?). The second is Tom of Tom’s Midnight Garden by the glorious Philippa Pearce. (For an excellent review of this, I’d point your attention here.)

These are different characters from vastly different genres and vastly different mediums but they are, I’d argue, all heroes. And I think their heroic commonality comes from this.  Somebody believes in these individuals, whether it’s Lois Lane, the guy who gives Bastian the book, or whether it’s the friend that comes when you least expect it. So it’s the expression of faith, the supportive sidekick or love interest, or simply the onlooker who says “I believe in you” – that’s a lot of what makes us heroes. Belief. Hope, really. Hope that these people can find the greatness within themselves.

And I think, perhaps, with books, we make heroes everyday through the very act of reading. We input our belief and hopes onto the page, we turn the page in the hope that what we hope will happen, and we map our emotional state onto a story until it is done. We activate the story, we call the hero to arms, and we cheer them on their way simply through being in their story. We activate the text, and we become part of the text, and we share their journey towards and achieving heroism.

The act of reading is a bit amazing, really.

It’s a bit like a superpower when you come to think of it.

(We can be Heroes)