Religion in Children's Literature

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Religion in Children's Literature


The representation of religion and spirituality in works of juvenile and young adult fiction and nonfiction.


Many scholars regard religion as one of the thematic foundations of children's literature. Born from the early didacticism of the medieval era, religious works represent some of the earliest examples of literature published solely for young audiences, offering moral instruction to children and seeking to address many of the broad spiritual questions that interest early readers, such as the meaning of life and the nature of the afterlife. However, despite the gravity and seemingly wide appeal of such subject material, religious-themed books form only a small percentage of works within the broader spectrum of children's literature. While such spiritual elements as God and faith make regular appearances within children's texts, they rarely register as the primary focus of the narrative. As such, many works that address religion as a supplementary aspect of the lives of their characters are left out of the critical discussion surrounding faith and literature. Instead, most critics point to works that address religion more overtly—albeit in an allegorical sense—when discussing spirituality in children's literature, focusing heavily on such works as C. S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia series (1950-1956), Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea series (1968-1972), and J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings series (1937-1955), among others. The Narnia series, for example, is often held as one of the best examples of contemporized religious fiction. Featuring a dense mythology reflective of Judeo-Christian belief systems, complete with a single overarching deity in the form of the lion Aslan, C. S. Lewis's fantasy epic contains a wide series of biblical allusions, such as Edmund's betrayal of Aslan and his siblings in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (1950). This act carries several strong and obvious echoes to Judas's treacherous actions toward Jesus Christ, which is further enhanced by the death and resurrection of the martyr figure, Aslan. Indeed, Lewis fully intended to create a direct link between Aslan and Christ rather than just establishing a symbolic tangent, commenting himself that, "If Aslan represented the immaterial Deity, he would be an allegorical figure … In reality however he is an invention giving an imaginary answer to the question, 'What might Christ become like if there really were a world like Narnia and He chose to be incarnate and die and rise again in that world as He actually has done in ours?' This is not allegory at all." Lewis's portrait of Aslan-as-Christ is deepened further through his expression of Aslan as a lion with all the inherent power and underlying threat evident in the Old Testament portrayals of God and the coming Messiah. As the beavers remind the Pevensie children, Aslan is good, but not gentle. Many scholars have noted how Lewis's depiction of religious tradition couched in the fabrics of fantasy allowed him greater latitude in his recreation of biblical canon. For example, children immersed in the magical tales of Narnia have often been unaware of the Christian tenets at work—a subtile success which has greatly broadened the appeal of Lewis's canon beyond merely Christian audiences—even though some critics, such as Margaret P. Esmonde, have qualified the series as "thinly disguised Christian allegory."

It should be noted that more allegorical works of religious fiction, such as the Narnia and Earthsea series, have been among the most critically and publicly popular works of modern children's fiction, while more didactic, overtly religious works have been markedly less popular and marginalized to the realm of specialized publishers and religious institutions. Researchers Julia H. Nixon and Robert C. Small confirmed this trend, asserting that, "in spite of the traditional influence of Christianity on American, very little has been written in the literature available to children that reflects this influence." They further asserted that, "the Christian religion appears only infrequently in novels for young adults and then generally in a superficial fashion. Religion is a part of the setting, but rarely a part of the theme." However, this dearth of religious didacticism in children's literature is largely confined to the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Although the deeply allegorical works of authors such as Lewis and Tolkien dominate much of the modern discussion of religion in children's literature, religion has existed as a dominant theme within the genre for centuries. Religious institutions are often credited as being one of the primary forces behind the first written tracts for children. One of the earliest examples of such stories are classical fables, which often had strong religious undertones. Mary Ellen Snodgrass has suggested that these short, allegorical tales were "models of discretion and right thinking derive[d] from many sources, including the pagan stories of the Mediterranean, Zoroastrian, and Sufist lore, Gypsy tales, and Oriental stories adapted from Confucius and Buddhist jataka tales." Eventually, the convergence of religion and children's literature became more overt, with religious institutions publishing several of the first mass-produced books written especially for children in the late eighteenth/early nineteenth century. In 1809 the Religious Tract Society in England issued their first children's publications, which were reprints of previous adult works altered to appeal to a younger audience. Heavy with Christian dogma and strongly didactic, these tracts were meant to instill obedience and understanding of the word of God in children. Later in the nineteenth century, the first religious magazines for children appeared, including the children's monthly, The Child's Friend, which Kate Montagnon argues, "elevated English values, purveyed the message that it was better to be pious than rich, and included gross narratives and pictures of heathen barbarity. Death was luridly prominent with titles like 'You are not too young to die' and 'The dying Sunday scholar.'" These early primers were purpose-oriented, striving to save souls rather than enlighten or amuse, a philosophy manifested in such works by early writers as Leigh Richmond and Mary Martha Sherwood, who was responsible for a series of books that featured highly moral, yet gruesomely detailed descriptions of the horrible fates awaiting immoral children. Yet, Montagnon notes, these early books by the tractarians offered a important resource that, while often unpleasant in message and approach, nevertheless "in providing a mass of reading material for the newly literate, helped to set a trend for later literature in which the themes of death, repentance, and poverty overcome by virtue remained important."

By the mid-nineteenth century, the formerly dogmatic message of these juvenile religious works began to shift as authors began adapting Christian messages into more non-secular writings. In her study of Christian fables, Snodgrass has asserted that texts like Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol (1845) "elevate[d] Christmas without glorifying the sectarian concepts of Christ, virgin birth, manger miracles, shepherds, magi, or angels," a trend that helped set the later paths of such nonsectarian works as O. Henry's "The Gift of the Magi" (1905), which simultaneously conveyed the message and generalized spirit of Christmas without resorting to overt symbolism. With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, book publishing became cheaper and more prevalent, allowing a greater diversity of works that, according to Montagnon, forced writers to reposition their stories for a wider variety of audiences. John Gilliver has argued that, "children's writers in the mid-nineteenth century stressed the value of work and induced a sense of reverence for progress, industry, and science. The secularization of the religious message, as the utilitarian note deepened, was not to be resisted…. This was a religiousness which lent a thin, but nicely protective, veneer to the industrial and economic motive and the growth of British Imperialism; the emphasis on the conveniently ambiguous notion of Duty led easily to the blurring of the Christian with the Englishman abroad." Another major trend that further weakened the influence of the formerly dominant and heavy-handed tracts was the rise of fairy tales, which emphasized a spirit of fantasy that was generally anathema to most organized religions of the period, who often condemned these sorts of stories in the strongest terms. However, many authors were able to reconfigure popular fairy stories as Christian fables, as seen in the works of George Cruikshank. By the twentieth century, overtly religious books were on the decline, primarily left in the hands of specialty presses like Lion Publishing, Pickering, and Victory Press. Recent years have seen a minor shift in this trend, with religious picture books, featuring a greater culturally diverse emphasis, making a mild resurgence, as evidenced in such titles as David A. Adler's One Yellow Daffodil: A Hanukkah Story (1995) and Chris Deshpande's Diwali (1985).

Yet many publishers remain reluctant to issue the sort of didactic religious works that once dominated the genre, even when presented in milder tones. This is especially true of young adult literature where Lucy Fuchs has suggested that there "may be strong evidence of a value system at work. But rarely will that value system be tied to any religion." She has attributed this reluctance to "the concern among authors and publishers … that any discussion of religion at all may offend the non-religious, and a sympathetic portrayal of any particular religious group may be seen as proselytizing. On the other hand, an unsympathetic portrayal may be seen as offensive and discriminatory. With these considerations in mind, it may be easy to see why authors would just as soon avoid the subject altogether." As a result, there is a relative dearth of modern religious children's texts, given the breadth of titles and subgenres that populate contemporary children's literature. Many critics have worried that this lack of appropriate materials for interested readers may represent an unfortunate trend. Gail Radley has questioned: "If we avoid the questions intrinsic to religion—who are we? why are we here? how should we conduct ourselves—what is there to guide and sustain young readers?" Similarly, K. L. Mendt has suggested that, "Another benefit of these novels is that they provide young adults with points of contact between religion and history. Religious beliefs fueled many events we now consider to be of major historical importance, and students need background on world religions to understand history. Even history-in-the-making requires a basic understanding of belief systems for intelligent response."


Rudolfo Anaya

Bless Me, Ultima (novel) 1972

Richard Bach

Jonathan Livingston Seagull [photographs by Russell Munson] (juvenile fiction) 1970

Judy Blume

Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret (young adult novel) 1970

Elizabeth Coatsworth

The Cat Who Went to Heaven [illustrations by Lynd Ward] (juvenile fiction) 1930


The Classic of Filial Piety (prose) c.200 B.C.-A.D. 350

The Twenty-Four Examples of Filial Piety (prose) c.200 B.C.-A.D. 350

Chris Deshpande

Diwali [photographs by Prodeepta Das] (juvenile fiction) 1985

Hermann Hesse

Siddhartha: Eine indische Dichtung [Siddhartha] (novel) 1951

Jamake Highwater

Anpao: An American Indian Odyssey (juvenile fiction) 1977

M. E. Kerr

Is That You, Miss Blue? (young adult novel) 1975

Charles Kingsley

The Water-Babies: A Fairy-Tale for a Land-Baby (juvenile fiction) 1863

Madeleine L'Engle

A Wrinkle in Time (juvenile fiction) 1962

Ursula K. Le Guin

A Wizard of Earthsea [illustrations by Ruth Robbins] (young adult novel) 1968

The Tombs of Atuan [illustrations by Gail Garraty] (young adult novel) 1971

The Farthest Shore [illustrations by Gail Garraty] (young adult novel) 1972

Sonia Levitin

The Return (juvenile fiction) 1987

C. S. Lewis

*The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe [illustrations by Pauline Baynes] (juvenile novel) 1950

*Prince Caspian: The Return to Narnia [illustrations by Pauline Baynes] (juvenile novel) 1951

*The Voyage of the "Dawn Treader" [illustrations by Pauline Baynes] (juvenile novel) 1952

*The Silver Chair [illustrations by Pauline Baynes] (juvenile novel) 1953

*The Horse and His Boy [illustrations by Pauline Baynes] (juvenile novel) 1954

*The Magician's Nephew [illustrations by Pauline Baynes] (juvenile novel) 1955

*The Last Battle [illustrations by Pauline Baynes] (juvenile novel) 1956

George MacDonald

At the Back of the North Wind (juvenile fiction) 1871

Walter de la Mare

Stories from the Bible (juvenile fiction) 1929

Michael Morpurgo

The War of Jenkins' Ear (juvenile fiction) 1993

Shirley Rousseau Murphy

The Ring of Fire (juvenile novel) 1977

The Wolf Bell (juvenile novel) 1979

The Castle of Hape (juvenile novel) 1980

Caves of Fire and Ice (juvenile novel) 1980

The Joining of the Stone (juvenile novel) 1981

Emilia Marryat Norris

The Early Start in Life (juvenile fiction) c.1867

Robert O'Brien

Z for Zachariah (juvenile novel) 1974

Katherine Paterson

Bridge to Terabithia (young adult novel) 1977

Jacob Have I Loved (young adult novel) 1980

Rebels of the Heavenly Kingdom (young adult novel) 1983

Preacher's Boy (young adult novel) 1999

Robert Newton Peck

A Day No Pigs Would Die (young adult novel) 1972

Chaim Potok

The Chosen (young adult novel) 1967

The Promise (young adult novel) 1969

My Name Is Asher Lev (young adult novel) 1972

Jane Ray

Noah's Ark: Words from the Book of Genesis (picture book) 1990

The Story of Christmas (picture book) 1991

Cynthia Rylant

A Fine White Dust (young adult novel) 1986

Missing May (young adult novel) 1992

Anna Sewell

Black Beauty: The Autobiography of a Horse (juvenile fiction) 1877

Mary Martha Sherwood

The History of Little Henry and His Bearer (juvenile fiction) 1814

The History of the Fairchild Family: or The Child's Manual: Being a Collection of Stories Calculated to Shew the Importance and Effects of a Religious Education. 3 vols. (juvenile fiction) 1818-1847

Catherine Sinclair

Holiday House: A Series of Tales (juvenile fiction) 1839

Christopher Smart

Hymns for the Amusement of Children (children's poetry) 1771

Suzanne Fisher Staples

Shabanu: Daughter of the Wind (young adult novel) 1989

J. R. R. Tolkien

The Hobbit, or There and Back Again (young adult novel) 1937

The Fellowship of the Ring: Being the First Part of The Lord of the Rings (young adult novel) 1954

The Two Towers: Being the Second Part of The Lord of the Rings (young adult novel) 1954

The Return of the King: Being the Third Part of The Lord of the Rings (young adult novel) 1955

Cynthia Voigt

Tree by Leaf (young adult novel) 1988

E. B. White

Charlotte's Web [illustrations by Garth Williams] (juvenile fiction) 1952

*These seven novels comprise The Chronicles of Narnia series.


Margaret P. Esmonde (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: Esmonde, Margaret P. "Beyond the Circles of the World: Death and the Hereafter in Children's Literature." In Webs and Wardrobes: Humanist and Religious World Views in Children's Literature, edited by Joseph O'Beirne Milner and Lucy Floyd Milner, pp. 33-45. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1987.

[In the following essay, Esmonde explores how death, religion, and spirituality are more easily embraced as thematic elements in children's literature than in most adult-centric literary genres.]

In her novel, The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin has one of her characters ask: "What is sure, predictable, inevitable—the one certain thing you know concerning your future, and mine?" "That we shall die," the protagonist replies.1 The one thing that mankind has always known is the one thing that twentieth-century man finds most difficult to accept. In a culture that venerates youth, those who in another age would have been glad of the reverence accorded grey hair, are busy disguising that grey with dyes and creams, hiding wrinkles with plastic surgery, bald heads with hair transplants, and mature figures with tight jeans and gold chains, gulping elixirs and pills that promise extended youth and frantically gyrating at discos—anything in order to blot out the quiet voice that whispers: "Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return."2

In earlier ages, man was on better terms with death. The Judeo-Christian heritage of Western Europe stressed the fact that man, an exile and a pilgrim here on Earth, was bound for the Heavenly Jerusalem where "God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there by any more pain: for the former things are passed away."3

The life of man was often short, violent and filled with pain. In his admonition to Beowulf, Hrothgar summed up the human condition:

Now for a time there is glory in your might: yet soon it shall be that sickness or sword will diminish your strength, or fire's fangs, or flood's surge, or sword's swing, or spear's flight, or appalling age; brightness of eye will fail and grow dark; then it shall be that death will overcome you, warrior.4

The omnipresent icon of the grinning skeleton and the Dance of Death quickly disabused man of any illusion of "deathlessness." But, on the other hand, this same heritage held out the bright promise of the Heaven of the Just. Quoting the Old Testament prophet Isaiah, Paul told the Corinthians: "Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him."5

But as the result of a complex concatenation of events beginning about the middle of the nineteenth century, man lost his heavenly bearings. The evidence of modern science, particularly geology which indicated that the earth was millions of years older than the five millennia implicit in a literal interpretation of the Bible, and astronomy which demonstrated that man was not the center of the universe but only an insignificant inhabitant of a small planet circling a small sun in a galaxy of millions of suns and a universe of millions of galaxies, eroded Western man's beliefs. Darwin's The Origin of the Species, which denies Genesis' account of man's beginning, Sir James Frazer's Golden Bough, which suggested that Christianity was just another version of a universal myth, and Sigmund Freud's psychological studies which indicated that man did not truly possess free will, all eroded irreparably man's religious certitude of his heavenly destination. Death became the end of all things, not a glorious new beginning.

The same science which shook the foundations of religious belief offered man the means to deceive himself about the reality of death. The steadily decreasing rate of infant mortality, the increasing longevity of man, and the relegation of the aged and the dying to nursing homes and hospitals made it quite possible for the modern child to reach adulthood never having experienced death at a personal level.

Death, which had been a staple of children's literature in earlier centuries, became taboo in children's fiction by mid-twentieth century. In his desire to protect children from all unpleasantness, twentieth-century man suppressed their experience of death. The potent symbol of the grinning skeleton which reminded earlier generations of their mortality became just another costume possibility on Halloween.

But the past decade has witnessed what one reviewer has labeled a "death renaissance" in children's fiction. And the National Education Association recently announced that "the study of death is probably the last of the old taboos to fall in the schools."6 In classes across the country youngsters of all ages "study" death by "visiting cemeteries and funeral homes, reading novels and essays about death and even taking turns lying in coffins."7 Only the strong possibility that the study of death might lead students into such prickly questions as "What happens after death?" dissuades some school districts from the subject.

In her critical review, "Facing the Other Fact of Life: Death in Recent Children's Fiction,"8 Jane Abramson concluded that a large number of the "death" books recently published for children of various ages in response to this new trend are unsatisfactory because they are either "problem-solving" books which can pass only as bibliotherapy or "mediocre, soap operatic" sermons. With few exceptions these books avoid mention of an afterlife, preferring to depict death as "the great fertilizer." Dead pets (and dead relatives?) "help flowers grow." She concludes that "the best books involving death reveal an author's personal vision of life. These titles have lasting value as literature because death is part of the story not merely the raison d'etre of the book."9

But even in the books recommended by Ms. Abramson, the question of an afterlife is largely ignored. No realistic novelist has attempted to describe "what happens next." In this totally secular age, the hereafter, so familiar to our ancestors, has become a terra incognita. The mysterious land of death has been left to those writers whose stock-in-trade is unknown lands and metaphysical realities—the fantasists.

The best fantasy literature, so often reviled as escapist, has dealt with the subject of death honestly, neither disguising the pain of the survivors nor avoiding the question of an afterlife. Never has it tried to pacify children with the soul-shrinking idea of death as "the great fertilizer." Fantasists such as Ursula Le

Guin and J. R. R. Tolkien have presented death and the hereafter in a sensitive and thought-provoking manner, not as a problem to be solved but, as Ms. Abramson suggests in her article, as part of their personal vision of life.

The most traditionally religious of the fantasists who have dealt with the question of an afterlife is C. S. Lewis in his Chronicles of Narnia. The thinly disguised Christian allegory, whose central focus is Aslan's redemptive death and resurrection, climaxes in the seventh book fittingly called The Last Battle. At the conclusion of the book, Aslan explains to all the assembled protagonists in Neo-Platonic terminology that they are dead "as you used to call it in the Shadow-Lands."10 England and even the old Narnia have been mere shadows of reality. With their deaths, reality begins. "The dream is ended: this is the morning."11 In a direct aside to the reader, Lewis concludes his chronicle with a final consoling passage:

And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story, which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.12

J. R. R. Tolkien, a colleague of Lewis' at Oxford, also examines death and the afterlife in his work. In his essay, "On Fairy-Stories," he argues that "Escape" is one of the main functions of fairy stories, particularly the "Great Escape," the escape from death. But he concludes: "Few lessons are taught more clearly in them than the burden of that kind of immortality, or rather endless serial living, to which the 'fugitive' would fly."13 He further points out in his essay that the consolation of the fairy-story, the joy of the happy ending, does not deny the existence of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance. "It denies … universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the wall of the world, poignant as grief."14 Though he does not deny the sorrow of mortality, Tolkien suggests that it is not a curse but a blessing which gives meaning and joy to those who must live in a mortal world.

In his own "fairy-story," The Hobbit, the theme of death is introduced at the climax of the novel. Having passed succeedingly complex tests on his path to maturity, climaxing in the moral dilemma of the Arkenstone, Bilbo Baggins faces the final test of maturity—death. Since the story is essentially a fairytale, with its necessary eucatastrophic ending, Bilbo himself escapes death, but the child reader who has closely identified with the little hobbit, experiences the loss of a true friend in the moving scene between Bilbo and the dying Thorin Oakenshield. Thorin, "wounded with many wounds," takes leave of Bilbo and adds: "I go now to the halls of waiting to sit beside my fathers, until the world is renewed."15 Bilbo kneels, filled with sorrow, to bid Thorin farewell. "Then Bilbo turned away, and he went by himself, and sat alone wrapped in a blanket, and … he wept until his eyes were red and his voice was hoarse. He was a kindly soul. Indeed it was long before he had the heart to make a joke again."16 So movingly does Tolkien describe the death of Thorin that the child hears or reads the passage with tears running down his cheeks. Though, in keeping with his essay, Tolkien implies that Thorin looks forward to renewal in a future life, Tolkien offers no facile comfort, no denial of grief. There are tears and it is a long while until time heals the wound of loss.

Though Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings trilogy is not officially considered children's literature, it is widely read by adolescents. And in the trilogy, they see the further development of Tolkien's examination of human mortality. The story presents many deaths—the brave, repentant death of Boromir, the magnificent burial rites of Theoden, the fearful suicide of Denethor, the squalid end of Sarumen diminished to Sharkey—but most of all it is concerned with putting death in perspective by challenging the reader to consider the function and value of death itself.

That the question of death and immortality was a major theme in Tolkien's trilogy is confirmed by a comment he made in reply to a letter inquiring if the theme of power was the dominant motif in The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien answered, "But I should say, if asked, the tale is not really about Power and Dominion: that only sets the wheels going; it is about Death and the desire for deathlessness."17

Tolkien develops the theme of death and immortality through three characters: Elrond and Elros, the twin sons of Elwing and Earendil the Mariner, and Arwen Undomiel, the daughter of Elrond. Elwing, the mother of Elrond and Elros, was of Eldar (elven) descent while Earendil, their father, was half-elven, half-human. At the end of the First Age, the Valar gave Elrond and Elros the irrevocable choice as to which kindred they would belong. Elrond chose the immortality of the Eldar and was granted the same grace as those of the High Elves that still lingered in Middle-earth: that when weary at last of the mortal lands, they could take ship from the Grey Havens and pass into the Uttermost West. Elros chose the mortality of Mankind, but a great lifespan was granted to him "many times that of lesser men." Though a long lifespan was granted to his descendants as well, they had to remain mortal since the Valar were not permitted to take from them their mortality, the Gift of Men (or the Doom of Men, as it was afterwards called). Elros' descendants begrudged the choice of their forefather and desired immortality within the life of the world which was the fate of the Eldar. This discontent eventually brought about their downfall and the destruction of their kingdom, Numenor.

The reader wonders at first at the choice of Elros and sympathizes with his descendants. Who would not choose to live forever if he could? Throughout the trilogy, though his purpose is obscured by the heroic action of the epic heroes, Tolkien concerns himself with justifying Elros' choice by proving that mortality is indeed a gift and not a curse. The elves, immortal beings living in a mortal world, witness the passing of many beautiful things. All else but they must grow old and die. All the things of the world that they cherish, they must inevitably lose, until at last they are almost forced to seclude themselves in retreats like Rivendell and Lothlorien where they can, after a fashion, make time stand still. But they cannot otherwise reverse the inexorable passage of time. In the end, even Elrond knows the full bitterness of his immortality when he must part from his daughter Arwen who has chosen mortality in order to marry Aragorn.

In marrying Aragorn, Arwen shares with him "the Gift of Men," but she does not fully realize the meaning of her choice until the time of Aragorn's death. As his death approaches, Aragorn declares to Arwen: "Lo! we have gathered, and we have spent, and now the time of payment draws near." Yet she "could not forbear to plead with him to stay yet for a while. She was not yet weary of her days, and thus she tasted the bitterness of the mortality that she had taken upon her." To her grief at his imminent death he says: "I speak no comfort to you, for there is no comfort for such pain within the circles of the world." Arwen replies: "But I say to you, King of the Numenoreans, not till now have I understood the tale of your people and their fall. As wicked fools I scorned them, but I pity them at last. For if this death is indeed, as the Eldar say, the gift of the One to Men, it is bitter to receive." Aragorn replies: "But let us not be overthrown at the final test, who of old renounced the Shadow and the Ring. In sorrow we must go, but not in despair. Behold! we are not bound for ever to the circles of the world, and beyond them is more than memory."18

As Aragorn's remarks suggest, physical death is not the end of man. Tolkien clearly implies that there is life beyond Middle-earth in "the Uttermost West" where at the end of time, man will live forever in the place prepared for him by the Creator before the beginning of the world.19 In the end of Tolkien's trilogy, Frodo, the Christ-figure of the story, wounded with incurable spiritual wounds, is granted the grace to sail beyond this world into eternity: "And the ship went out into the High Sea and passed on into the West … and then it seemed to him that as in his dream in the house of Bombadil, the grey raincurtain turned all to silver glass and was rolled back, and he beheld white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise."20

Both Tolkien and Lewis use the conventional imagery of the sunrise, the morning, the ending of the dream, and the green country as symbols of afterlife which will be blissful, lived in union with Iluvatar, the Father of All. Both authors enjoy immense popularity with young and old readers precisely because they have successfully coupled Judeo-Christian heritage with the mythic dimension of heroic literature and dare to say unequivocally that man exists beyond death, that death is a new beginning, that we are not bound forever to the circles of the world, and that beyond them is eternal life.

Less traditional than Tolkien and Lewis is the work of Shirley Rousseau Murphy in her fantasy sequence which includes The Ring of Fire, The Wolf Bell, and The Castle of Hape. These fantasies reveal Ms. Murphy's concern with the idea of rebirth to higher levels of existence if man lives virtuously in his present life. In The Ring of Fire, she introduces the idea that spirits exist which all mortals long for, but which are "so far removed from Ere [her imaginary fantasy world] and from this time and place, that few can guess at the reality of their beings. To be mortal is to understand mortality. But beyond that, the next step of your spirit's life can only be grasped when you are ready."21

In another section of the same book she writes:

For the spirit moves onward, born yet again in a form we do not understand, born yet again on a plane farther removed from Ere than the plane in which the Luff'Eresi (the superior but mortal beings) now dwell. So are the planes of the universe. One and another and another beyond all counting by man. And each of you must move from the one to the other in lives that shine like hours in our mortal days. Must move or, trapped in a lust for cruelty that destroys the spirit, must die bound in one body forever.22

This same theology is repeated in her third book, The Castle of Hape, in which the seer, Ramad of Zandour, is told by the Luff'Eresi that man will be

… born again, Ramad, provided one equips himself to be reborn. If he does not, if he has created evil, or nurtured evil with his way of life, if he has sucked upon the misery and pain of others, then he goes not forward into new lives but dies and turns to dust. It is the choice of each.23

Murphy stresses throughout her fantasies that man has control of his actions and that he will achieve a higher level of existence only if he lives virtuously in this life. She acknowledges the presence of evil in her world, but also assures the reader that, though it may temporarily triumph over the good, evil brings about its own destruction—the death of the soul and the end of all existence.

While Murphy suggests we enter higher and different levels of existence, Ruth Nichols' protagonist in The Song of the Pearl experiences reincarnation into other earthly existences. Mary Margaret Redmond dies at the end of the first chapter of the book, but her death is only a beginning. After she has regained her spiritual bearings in the peace of a mysterious pavilion, she must go back through various previous reincarnations to discover the initial reason for the hatred which emerges in each reincarnation to prevent her from achieving a higher level of existence. She is told by a spiritual guide that "neither life nor death lasts forever"24 and that, when she has made peace with herself, she must return to Earth to resume her pilgrimage. But first, she must "understand and finish this story, so that a new one can begin."25

To get back to the root of her hatred, Margaret must go all the way back to ancient Sumer to her reincarnation as Tirigan, a young monarch assassinated by a usurper. His hatred for his murderer and his own curse of that murderer has echoed down through various reincarnations. Seeing the truth, Margaret can transcend her hatred and is promised in the future that, because she has overcome hatred, henceforth she will be rich in love. She is promised by the goddess Inanna: "You have known what it is to receive help: now you shall help others, and in the future many shall be made joyous by your love … Your story is vaster than you can conceive, and your adventures are just beginning."26 Ms. Nichols' book departs radically from Judeo-Christian teachings as she draws upon Eastern myth and theology as the basis of her interpretation of life after death. But her views are not essentially so different from the others, for Margaret comes to realize that hatred is sterile and that revenge can destroy the revenger as thoroughly as the aggressor. She learns that love is the key to higher existence and that man must strive to live virtuously and in doing so he can gain eternal life.

The greatest and most moving examination of death and afterlife is to be found in the award-winning Earthsea trilogy of Ursula K. Le Guin. In A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, and The Farthest Shore, she explores the meaning of death as seen through the eyes of youth. With Taoism and Jungian psychology as her ideological bases, she also draws upon the idea of reincarnation as well as the heroic epic tradition and classical mythology to explore the relationship of life, death, and the hereafter.

In the first book, A Wizard of Earthsea, the young protagonist, an apprentice wizard named Ged, in his pride and arrogance, misuses his great natural ability in order to summon the dead into the world of the living. Too inexperienced to control the spell, he also loosens a terrifying "shadow" which cripples him, then pursues him throughout Earthsea until he turns and faces it.

Symbolically, Le Guin indicates that the very young do not and cannot cope with the knowledge of personal mortality. When Ged first deals with death in working a spell on Gont to please the witch's daughter, he is saved from a full realization of death by the intervention of Ogion. But when he summons the long-dead princess Elfarran to prove himself better than his fellow student Jasper, he discovers too soon the truth of his own mortality. Le Guin depicts that knowledge as a shapeless black monster who severely wounds Ged before being driven off by the Archmage at the price of his own life. Though Le Guin describes Ged's wounds as physical, they symbolize the psychic wounds a child sustains who realizes his own mortality too soon. Ged's paralysis is analogous to the depression and inertia of children exposed too early to death or life-threatening experiences.

All of his subsequent adventures and perils bring Ged closer to the inevitable confrontation with the reality of his personal mortality. But each encounter strengthens him also. His friend Vetch's love, demonstrated by the revelation of his true name, awakens in Ged for the first time the ability to care about someone other than himself. His attempt to save the son of Pechvarry, the fisherman, in spite of the danger to himself, demonstrates his emotional growth. Similarly, in his encounter with the dragon of Pendor, he again puts the welfare of his people before his own safety.

His ability to resist the lure of power offered by the Terrenon Stone and the sexual temptations of Serret also indicate a growing maturity. When at last he returns to Gond and Ogion, his teacher, through his suffering he has learned humility, patience, responsibility, self-control and, most importantly, love. He can finally "hunt the hunter" and give the monster his own name. When he names "the shadow of his death [italics mine] with his own name"27 he has made himself whole. Ged comes of age by accepting his own mortality.

The Tombs of Atuan, the second book of the Earthsea trilogy, offers in symbolic terms the female coming of age. The protagonist Tenar, renamed Arha the Eaten One at the time of her initiation as priestess of the Nameless Ones, must choose whether to serve the gods of darkness and death who offer her immortality as an endlessly reborn priestess, or take back her own name, and live in the service of life.

Like Ged's, Tenar's testing is intricately intertwined with the theme of death. Her consecration at age six as priestess involves her symbolic death, but it is not until she orders the sacrifices of three men to the Dark Powers that death forces its reality on her. In a conversation with Ged, she considers the choice she must make in order to free herself from the evil gods: "If I leave the service of the Dark Ones, they will kill me. If I leave this place, I will die." Ged assures her that she will not die. Only Arha will die. He adds: "To be reborn one must die, Tenar. It is not so hard as it looks from the other side."28 Like Ged, Tenar achieves maturity by choosing to serve life.

Of the trilogy, the book concerned with death most particularly is the third, The Farthest Shore. Of this book Le Guin herself has written: "The Farthest Shore is about death. That's why it is a less well-built, less sound and complete book than the others. They were about things I had already lived through and survived. The Farthest Shore is about the thing you do not live through and survive. It seemed an absolutely suitable subject to me for young readers, since in a way one can say that the hour when a child realizes, not that death exists—children are intensely aware of death—but that he/she, personally, is mortal, will die, is the hour when childhood ends, and the new life begins."29

In this powerful book, Ged, now Archmage of Roke, and Arren, young Prince of Enlad, journey throughout Earthsea to find the reason why men are losing all joy of life. Hare, a ruined wizard, provides the first clue. "No death. No death—no!! No sweaty bed and rotting coffin, no more, never. The blood dries up like the dry river and it's gone. No fear. No death."30 All crafts and arts falter because people are obsessed with fear of death, and to win a kind of life-in-death, they sacrifice the joy and achievement of living. Even Arren is touched by the madness engendered by the fear of death. When Ged is badly wounded, Arren does nothing to help him. Later, he confesses to Ged: "I was afraid of you. I was afraid of death. I was so afraid of it I would not look at you, because you might be dying. I could think of nothing, except that there was—there was a way of not dying, for me, if I could find it. But all the time, life was running out, as if there was a great wound and the blood running from it—such as you had. But this was in everything. And I did nothing, nothing but try to hide from the horror of dying."31

Ged replies: "There is no safety, and there is no end. The word must be heard in silence; there must be darkness to see the stars … To refuse death is to refuse life."32 He explains that the knowledge of mortality is a great gift. "It is the gift of selfhood. For only that is ours which we are willing to lose. That selfhood, our torment and glory, our humanity, does not endure. It changes and it goes, a wave on the sea. Would you have the sea grow still and the tides cease to save one wave, to save yourself?"33

Le Guin does not offer any easy comfort to her readers. Again and again, Arren expresses his fear of death and the Mage agrees that death is terrible and to be feared but adds that life is also terrible and must be feared and praised.

Confronted at last in the Land of the Dead, the sorcerer who has disturbed the balance between life and death by tampering with forbidden lore, asks: "What man would not live forever, if he could?" Ged answers: "All who ever died, live; they are reborn, and have no end, nor will there ever be an end. All, save you. For you would not have death. You lost death, you lost life, in order to save yourself."34 When the sorcerer offers to share his immortality with Arren, the prince turns from him in disgust. He has at last understood the meaning of the song called "The Creation of Ea":

Only in silence the word,
only in dark the light,
only in dying, life:
bright the hawk's flight
on the empty sky.35

Nor does Le Guin soften her picture of life after death by intimating that the dead dwell in some pleasant paradise. Her description of the land of the Dead suggests analogies with the Greco-Roman Hades, a place in which the shades of the dead dwelt in neither pain nor happiness. Dryness characterizes this land whose stars are unchanging, a place where

… the marketplaces were all empty. There was no buying and selling there, no gaining and spending. Nothing was used; nothing was made … All those whom they saw—not many, for the dead are many, but that land is large—stood still, or moved slowly and with no purpose … No marks of illness were on them. They were whole and healed. They were healed of pain and of life … Quiet were their faces, freed from anger and desire, and there was in their shadowed eyes no hope.

Instead of fear, then, great pity rose up in Arren, and if fear underlay it, it was not for himself, but for all people. For he saw the mother and child, who had died together; but the child did not run nor did it cry, and the mother did not hold it or ever look at it. And those who had died for love passed each other in the streets.

The potter's wheel was still, the loom empty, the stove cold. No voice ever sang.36

Le Guin's interpretation of life after death seems to include all of the major approaches used by various other authors. She draws on classical mythology, the heroic epic mythos, the idea of gods and dark powers, and the idea of reincarnation as well. Arren confronts death in a terrifying journey through the underworld as do many other epic heroes, and at the end of the trilogy he takes his place as the High King of Earthsea. Gods, dragons, primal powers and great heroes contribute a feeling of authenticity to her epic.

In her treatment of the spirits of the dead, she seems to suggest the idea of reincarnation. There is a land of the Dead, classical in nature, but its inhabitants such as the spirit of the great hero Erreth-Akbe seem to be merely apparitions, holographic images of spirits who once lived upon earth in that human form, for of Erreth-Akbe and the others, Ged says: "He is alive. And all who ever died, live, they are reborn and have no end, nor will there ever be an end."37

In the final analysis, no living man knows what lies beyond the grave, and it is this ignorance on which life is based. Again, in The Left Hand of Darkness, Le Guin writes: "The unknown, the unforetold, the unproven, that is what life is based on. Ignorance is the ground of thought. Unproof is the ground of action. If it were proven that there is no God, there would be no religion … But also if it were proven that there is no God, there would be no religion …"38 Each fantasy author who attempts to expand the child's comprehension of metaphysical reality stresses three virtues: the protagonist's faith in a spiritual reality, his hope of achieving a higher level of existence in that spiritual reality when physical life is ended, and most important of all, what Paul calls the greatest of the virtues, love. Each protagonist in the novels discussed must grow in love for his fellowman even to the point of sacrificing his own good for the good of others.

Shirley Murphy's protagonists believe that man will be born again only if he has not created evil or nurtured it with his way of life, if he has not sucked upon the misery and pain of others. Having overcome hatred, Mary Margaret Redmond is reborn to give love to others and is promised a new existence vaster than she can conceive. Tolkien's Frodo wins through to a higher level of existence by sacrificing himself for the good of Middle-earth. He tells the faithful Sam: "I tried to save the Shire, and it has been saved, but not for me. It must often be so, Sam, when things are in danger: some one has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them."39 Ged saves his world by sacrificing all of his mage-power to close the door between death and life.

Lewis, Tolkien, Murphy, Nichols, and Le Guin have chosen to express their beliefs about life and death in term of fantasy terms because, as Le Guin has written: "Fantasy is the natural, the appropriate, language for the recounting of the spiritual journey."40 Realistic fiction is a most unsatisfactory medium for expressing a truth which is beyond reason, beyond mortal knowledge. Students may visit cemeteries and funeral parlors; they may lie in coffins indeed, but until educators and writers overcome their fear of the metaphysical aspect of death, children will be denied true insight into the function of death as part of life. Until then, death will be only the corruption of the grave, the great fertilizer.

It remains then for fantasies to confirm that death is "terrible and must be feared."41 These writers dramatize for their young readers that "in sorrow we must go but not in despair. Behold! we are not bound for ever to the circles of the world, and beyond them is more than memory."42


This essay is being published posthumously.

  1. Ursula K. Le Guin. The Left Hand of Darkness. New York: Walker and Co., 1969, p. 52.
  2. Genesis 3:19.
  3. Revelations 21:4.
  4. Beowulf, in The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 4th ed., ed. M. H. Abrams et al. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1979, I, 59.
  5. I Corinthians 2:9.
  6. Gene I. Maeroff. "Schools Take Up Study of Death," New York Times, 6 March, 1978, p. 1A.
  7. Maeroff, p. 1A.
  8. Jane Abramson. "Facing the Other Fact of Life: Death in Recent Children's Fiction," School Library Journal, 21:4, December 1974, 31-33.
  9. Abramson, p. 33.
  10. C. S. Lewis. The Last Battle. New York: The Macmillan Co., 1956, p. 173.
  11. Lewis, p. 173.
  12. Lewis, pp. 173-174.
  13. J. R. R. Tolkien. "On Fairy-Stories," in Tree and Leaf. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965, pp. 67-68.
  14. Tolkien. "On Fairy-Stories," p. 68.
  15. J. R. R. Tolkien. The Hobbit. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1966, pp. 300-301.
  16. The Hobbit, p. 301.
  17. Glen GoodKnight. "Death and the Desire for Deathlessness," Mythlore 3:2, Whole No. 10, 19.
  18. J. R. R. Tolkien. The Return of the King, 2nd ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965, pp. 343-344.
  19. Tolkien is here following a long tradition in locating Paradise somewhere in the West to be reached by sailing on the unknown seas.
  20. The Return of the King, p. 310.
  21. Shirley Rousseau Murphy. The Ring of Fire. New York: Atheneum, 1977, p. 194.
  22. The Ring of Fire, p. 177.
  23. Shirley Rousseau Murphy. The Castle of Hape. New York: Atheneum, 1980, p. 93.
  24. Ruth Nichols. The Song of the Pearl. New York: Atheneum, 1976, p. 127.
  25. The Song of the Pearl, p. 128.
  26. The Song of the Pearl, p. 151.
  27. Ursula K. Le Guin. A Wizard of Earthsea. Berkeley, CA: Parnassus Press, 1968, p. 203.
  28. Ursula K. Le Guin. The Tombs of Atuan. New York: Atheneum, 1971, p. 114.
  29. Ursula K. Le Guin. "Dreams Must Explain Themselves," Algol, No. 21, November 15, 1973, p. 14. Rpt. The Language of the Night, ed. Susan Wood. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1979, p. 55.
  30. Ursula K. Le Guin. The Farthest Shore. New York: Atheneum, 1972, p. 61.
  31. The Farthest Shore, pp. 135-136.
  32. The Farthest Shore, pp. 136-137.
  33. The Farthest Shore, pp. 137-138.
  34. The Farthest Shore, p. 204.
  35. A Wizard of Earthsea, p. 7.
  36. The Farthest Shore, p. 196.
  37. The Farthest Shore, p. 204.
  38. The Left Hand of Darkness, p. 52.
  39. The Return of the King, p. 309.
  40. Ursula K. Le Guin. "The Child and the Shadow," The Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress, 32:2, April, 1975, 147.
  41. The Farthest Shore, p. 185.
  42. The Return of the King, p. 344.

Lucy Fuchs (essay date winter 1992)

SOURCE: Fuchs, Lucy. "Religion as a Source of Strength or Weakness in Young Adult Literature." ALAN Review 19, no. 2 (winter 1992): 33-5.

[In the following essay, Fuchs discusses how religion is depicted, both positively and negatively, in young adult literature, commenting that, "most children's books studiously avoid any mention of religion."]

According to polls, most Americans maintain a belief in a Supreme Being, and a very large number of us attend a church, synagogue, or temple at least sometimes. Religion is alive in America and in the children in our schools.

Yet most children's books studiously avoid any mention of religion. In children's books we may find detailed descriptions of personal behavior, and we may know all the dark secrets of young people and the way they relate to their parents, their teachers, and each other, including detailed sexual relations. In all of these we may find strong evidence of a value system at work. But very rarely will that value system be tied to any religion. The "r" word religion is often just not mentioned.

Of course, religion may be avoided in books for the same reasons that schools do not allow public praying and that Christmas scenes may display Santa Claus but not Jesus and Mary. Churches continue to constitute strong influences on society; and, even if religion is thought of as a private concern, children's books, as we have seen, do not shy away from private concerns. Rather the concern among authors and publishers seems to be that any discussion of religion at all may offend the non-religious, and a sympathetic portrayal of any particular religious group may be seen as proselytizing. On the other hand, an unsympathetic portrayal may be seen as offensive and discriminatory. With these considerations in mind, it is easy to see why authors would just as soon avoid the subject altogether.

For these reasons some of the most powerful books for young people are those in which the author had the courage to talk about religion. A survey of such young adult books revealed that, although there were not many, they were often some of the best books, even award-winning ones. I shall mention only some of them here, but I wish to make it clear that this list is not inclusive. Some of the books deal with religion only in the background although it is integral to the story. Examples are some of the books of Katherine Paterson such as Jacob Have I Loved and Bridge to Terabithia. In others religion is clearly in the forefront and is the story itself.

A Religious Quest

One of the books in which the story is a religious quest is Cynthia Rylant's A Fine White Dust. In this story we see a young man, Peter, at the end of the seventh grade, attending a revival which will change his life. Peter does not become religious that summer: He has always been so. He mentions that, although his parents don't go to church, he does. Religion attracts him, and he finds that he "likes" Jesus. The reader cannot doubt the sincerity of this boy's attraction nor can one help but feel his fear of hell, of having Jesus reject him. That summer is a long boring one, and Peter feels that, although he always enjoyed them, he is now too old to attend a Vacation Bible School. Then the revival preacher hitch-hikes into town. Interestingly enough, when Peter first sees him, he thinks of the hitch-hiker as an axe murderer who may claim him as his next victim.

He is indeed the preacher's next victim but in a manner far different than he expects. Peter is strongly attracted to this preacher; the first night of the revival Peter is "saved," and he feels happy, cleansed, safe. Some of the effects are not so good: conflict with his parents and with his best friend. But the preacher, James W. Carson, reaches out to him, sees into his very soul, and tells him he knows that Peter too is called to be a preacher. Will Peter leave home and accompany him on his travels and preaching? Carson asks. Peter, although in great pain at leaving, says he will go. He does not go. The preacher leaves without him, although not alone, taking with him a girl who works at the cafe.

Now Peter knows what hell truly is, and for a while he is there. Slowly he finds his way out, and slowly he realizes that he is most fortunate: he has parents who will never leave him and the best friend in the world, Rufus, who rescued him the night he waited three hours in vain for Carson.

In the end, Peter says of the broken pieces of a Bible School ceramic cross, "the pieces aren't him [Carson] at all. They're me. They're me and God and all the powerful feelings I have about God." And then he says, "The Preacher man is behind me. But God is still right there, in front" (Rylant, p. 106).

The pattern of this book is rather a common one: when religion is portrayed as a sincere faith or relationship with God, it is usually seen positively. When churches or religious leaders are portrayed, their image is often negative.

There are some religions that are portrayed favorably. For the most part, they are those which demand a renunciation of modern life. Orthodox Judaism, such as is found in books by Chaim Potok, with is requirements that oppose the modern materialistic world, is seen as making its adherents strong. The Quaker and Shaker religions are similarly viewed, as in, for example, Robert Newton Peck's book A Day No Pigs Would Die.

Taking Religion Seriously

When personal religious experience is seen as positive or a source of strength, that strength will certainly be needed, for deeply religious people are often portrayed as suffering. The message seems to be that, as long as one simply retains the trappings of religion, one is readily accepted; but, as soon as one takes religion seriously, one is suspect.

Nowhere is this theme shown more powerfully than in the book Is That You, Miss Blue? by M. E. Kerr. The setting is Charles School in Virginia, a private Episcopal school for girls. The main characters are Carolyn Cardmaker, whose father is a minister, and Flanders Brown, who is sent to Charles School after her parents separate. Cardmaker immediately lays it out for Flanders: "The choir wears crosses and Reverend Cunkle wears one. Some of the faculty wear them, a few students wear them, and Miss Blue is worn by one. You'll be seeing a lot of crosses, don't worry" (Kerr, p. 11).

Miss Blue, who calls Jesus her Buddy, is also probably the best teacher at the school. Yet when she tells the others that Jesus has visited her in her room and he knew that she knew he was there, she is treated as mentally unstable. Whatever her religious experience is, the administration does not want her to stay, and soon she is sent away.

Cardmaker, the Preacher's kid, as she calls herself, is poor, on a scholarship, and resentful of the fact that her father chose the ministry rather than opportunities to make money. Flanders' father seems willing to make money any way he can. He is an atheist, although Flanders is not.

Cardmaker decides that she will be an atheist: God never helped her much. The interplay in this book between belief and unbelief, religious experience and worldly experience, sincerity and falsehood, between men and women, is powerful. And again organized religion as portrayed in this religious school is a sham compared to the true religious experience of Miss Blue and the depth of Cardmaker's faith that even disillusionment cannot destroy.

Two other books that take place in a religious school are The Chocolate War and Beyond the Chocolate War by Robert Cormier. The school, Trinity High School, is staffed with Catholic religious brothers, although there is little religion here. Instead we find the Vigils, a student group who run the student body and make life miserable for the weak and the young. Archie Costello, the leader of the Vigils, has his counterpart in Brother Leon, who eventually runs the school. There are others who are kind, such as the gentle and sensitive Brother Eugene, but he has a nervous breakdown and eventually dies.

In the second book of the series, things have not changed. However, Jerry Renault, victim of the first book, finds redemption. He spends time with relatives in Canada where he finds what he calls "The Talking Church." It (or maybe God) speaks to him. Later he faces up to his enemy, the animal-like Emile Janza. Janza tries to fight him, but he refuses. And by refusing to fight, Jerry wins. The Christ image could not be more obvious. Given a choice, Jerry returns to Trinity High School.

Having a Religious Experience

God's voice is heard also in Tree by Leaf by Cynthia Voigt. Clothilde, whose life is falling apart around her (father home from World War I with a horribly disfigured face; rejection by wealthy grandparents; brother leaving to accept the life style of grandparents; favorite maid leaving to go and work in the mill; mother at loose ends), has a religious experience as she walks in the beautiful woodland that was mysteriously deeded to her by a great aunt. She is called to the woods by a Voice which seems to be everywhere and all around her. She asks for four things from the Voice: that her brother not leave on a cruise; that her maid not be hurt by her abusive father; that Clothilde's own father get better; and that the land remain hers. Only to the last does the Voice say no. In the end all of the wishes come true, but not in the way she had thought of them.

Is this Voice God? That is not clear. What is clear is that Clothilde thinks of it as God. Earlier in the book she thinks of God and thinks she could do better if she were God. But later she changes her mind; she knows she would not make a good God. She also searches for God in the church but does not find Him. Clothilde is not much of a "church" person, but she is deeply spiritual.

In Judy Blume's Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret, Margaret is searching not just for God but for a religion. She tries various church services, only to find that none of them satisfy the hunger of her heart for communication with God. All through the story, Margaret talks to God with the fresh sincerity of a young girl who has found that, no matter what happens, God is there to listen and understand. She prays to have her period, prays for a bra and something to put in it, prays for relationships to work out. But her contact with God is more than one of always asking for things: she wants God to share her life with her.

The hunger for God, religious experience, spiritual meaning of life is as certainly present in young people today as it ever was. It is unfortunate that so few novels for young adults deal directly with the subject. Perhaps equally unfortunate is the fact that churches, which are supposed to provide an answer to such yearnings, often betray their members in books for young adults.

Works Cited

Blume, Judy. Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret. Bradbury, 1970.

Cormier, Robert. Beyond the Chocolate War. Knopf, 1985.

——. The Chocolate War. Pantheon, 1974.

Kerr, M. E. Is That You, Miss Blue? Dell, 1975.

Paterson, Katherine. Bridge to Terabithia. Crowell, 1977.

——. Jacob Have I Loved. Crowell, 1980.

Peck, Robert Newton. A Day No Pigs Would Die. Knopf, 1972.

Potok, Chaim. My Name Is Asher Lev. Ballantine, 1972.

Rylant, Cynthia. A Fine White Dust. Bradbury, 1986.

Voigt, Cynthia. Tree by Leaf. Atheneum, 1988.

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Mary Ellen Snodgrass (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: Snodgrass, Mary Ellen. "Christian Fable." In Encyclopedia of Fable, pp. 81-90. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio, 1998.

[In the following essay, Snodgrass traces the origins of the Christian fable from its inception to the present, noting that, "[f]ables as models of discretion and right thinking derive from many sources, including the pagan stories of the Mediterranean, Zoroastrian, and Sufist lore, Gypsy tales, and Oriental stories adapted from Confucius and Buddhist jataka tales."]

Because the education of the learned typically consists of traditional lore grounded in classical studies, authors have maintained well into the Christian era the value of fables as exempla and didactic lessons. Fables as models of discretion and right thinking derive from many sources, including the pagan stories of the Mediterranean, Zoroastrian, and Sufist lore, Gypsy tales, and Oriental stories adapted from Confucius and Buddhist jataka tales. Around 1000 C.E., Pope Sylvester II, born Gerbert of Auvergne, introduced Arabian learning in the story "Strike on This Spot," an Egyptian exemplum told by Caliph Abu-Bakr around 630 C.E. The fable of Dhun-Nun's discovery of the lost science of manufacture draws meaning from an inscription on a stone statue that instructs readers to "Strike on this spot for treasure." (Shah 1982, 55) Dhun-Nun succeeds where others fail because he studies the simplistic injunction and deduces that the spot is the end of the shadow, where he unearths a trapdoor and a cache of tools and instructions.

Additional Christian application of Aesopic fables derives from St. Gregory of Tours, who shunned the false fables of the pagans and substituted his own style, as in "The Boy and the Grapes" in Book IV of The Miracles of St. Martin (sixth century C.E.), and from Paulus Diaconus [Paul the Deacon] or Paul Warnefried, a Lombard who joined the Benedictines at Monte Cassino in the late eighth century C.E. and reprised three classic fables—"The Fable of the Sick Lion," "The Calf and the Stork," and "The Gout and the Flea." From the canon of rhymes, jingles, and earthy lyrics of the Rhineland comes "The Priest and the Wolf," an anonymous dilemma tale from the University of Cambridge collection that dates to 1000 C.E. The scenario is typical of confrontations between the priestly and profane, often with comic or satiric results.

Other models of folk verse derive from the Goliardic tradition. The exuberant secular verse cycle of studentenlieder [student songs] later known as the Carmina Burana [Songs of Beuron or Beuern] (twelfth century) was originally compiled and illustrated around 1230 and amended and added to until the early fourteenth century. It was recovered in Bavaria at Benediktbeuern, which lies between Innsbruck and Munich, but was not published until 1847. The identity of a few of the authors seems certain: Peter Abélard, Walter of Châtillon, Reinmar der Alte, Heinrich von Morungen, Walther von der Vogelweide, Otloh of St. Emmeram, Bishop Marbod of Rennes, Godfrey of Winchester, Godfrey of St. Victor, Dietmar von Aist, Neidhart von Reuenthal, and Der Marner.

A cultural curiosity, the Carmina Burana is comprised of crude, macaronic songs sung by wandering students to whom the fictional Golias or Guzzler served as champion and patron saint. Fleshed out with random profane verses, barroom ballads, ecclesiastical plays, hymns, crusader's anthems, rambunctious gaming and wooing songs, pastorals, dances, satires on church doctrine and practice, doggerel and animal noises, and jeering ditties, these diverse vernacular works credit minstrels, prelates, and troubadours for a widespread mob mentality sparked by an irreverent, raffish spirit bent on carnality and fun. Although rooted in Christian tradition, risqué lyrics sprang from the liberal arts that wandering students sampled during brief stints at major European universities. To earn their way from school to school, they juggled, entertained, riddled, and sang at banquets in a polyglot style that salted simplified phrases in liturgical Latin with bits of medieval French, Provençal, Greek, and Middle High German.

"Olim lacus colueram" [Once I Dwelt on the Lake], a popular segment in thumping trochaic tetrameter and feminine rhyme, dramatizes the dilemma of a spitted swan spiced and roasted on a rotisserie, anticipating the serving platter. Done to a turn, he moans:

Eram nive candidior,
Quavis ave formosior,
Modo sum corvo nigrior;
Miser, miser!
[I was once whiter than snow,
Shapelier than any bird you can name,
Now I am blacker than a crow:
Oh me, Oh my!]
(Harrington 1925, 379)

In a droll testimonial and death plaint, the swan regrets that he has wasted his youth and, like a wandering student, embroiled himself in vice. Gnashing his beak, he expires to supply a delectable main course to chomping diners. Reprised in 1937 by composer Carl Orff, the fable, contained in "In Taberna" [In the Tavern], becomes the twelfth part of a cantata that features 25 of the initial collection of 350 lyrics. Although it lacks the "once upon a time" quality of fable, the scenario suits the definition of fabula in its compressed action, anthropomorphized animal protagonist, and didactic intent. It bursts the boundaries of fable by reaching beyond morality to drollery.

The spirited verse and prose tales of the thirteenth century enlarged and enlivened the canon of Christian fable. Westphalian clergyman Gerhard von Minden composed "Journey in a Well," a trickster tale set in a well with tandem pails. As the fox lures the wolf to uncertain peril at the bottom of the shaft, the returning bucket carries the fox back to safety. His cynical rejoinder clashes with models of Christian charity: "That's how it is in the world; one goes up and the other goes down." (Green 1965, 156) Von Minden struggles to square the theme with Christian principle by drawing a parallel between the weight of the animals and the enormity of their sins. An unlikely dust-off pictures the fox accepting his penance along with his freedom. Later in the thirteenth century, Petrus Alphonsus, a Christianized Jew and godson of Alphonse I, King of Aragon, collected Arab fables for similar purpose—to provide parents teachable models of probity for their children. Dotted with dialogue are "A New Use for the Gold-Brick Game" and "A Storyteller's Trick," a story-within-a-story told in the style of Scheherazade, along with "A Friend in Need Is a Friend Indeed," a dying father's advice on how to test true friendship. Devoid of the survivalism of purely literary fare, the stories create an artificial climate to nurture Christian tenets.

A contemporary of Petrus Alphonsus, Walter Map (or Mapes), a worthy chancellor of London, canon of St. Paul's, and archdeacon of Oxford appears to have written his own Goliardic entries in De Nugis Curialium [Nuggets from the Meetinghouse] (late thirteenth century), a miscellany of gossip and satire containing two verse fables, "The Dialogue between Water and Wine" and "The Dialogue between the Body and the Soul." In the latter, the body plays the part of the querulous sinner who pleads, "Dic mihi, si noveris, argumento clari, exeunt spiritu a carne quid sit caro?… Videtne? vel loquitur?" [Tell me, if you know, in clear logic, when the spirit leaves the body, what becomes of the flesh?… Does it see? or speak?] (Harrington 1925, 399) The spirit spares no anguish in describing the agony of souls doomed to the flames of hell. Such discourse was useful pulpit material to prelates facing a hardened citizenry for whom carnal pleasure was an antidote to everyday hardships.

The late Middle Ages perpetuated the tradition of Aesopic lore and folk fare alongside pulpit exempla. An English Cistercian monk, Odo of Cerinton (Cherington or Sherrington), collected fables in prose about 1200, most of which rely on Phaedrus and Reynard the Fox stories rather than Christian models. The best of the lot include "The Mice in Council," a reprise of "Belling the Cat," and "The Stupid Men of Willebeg," a fool tale about taxpayers who strap a bag of money about a rabbit's neck. A French prelate, Jacques de Vitry, made his reputation on preaching and rose from bishop of Acon in 1216 to cardinal bishop of Tusculum in 1227. Among his Sermones Vulgares [Ordinary Speeches] are "An Overconfident Astrologer," the tale of a sky-watcher who predicts the date of a king's death, "A Spoiled Horse," a folk fable, and "Penny Wise and Pound Foolish," a fool tale about a crafty boy whom Henry the doorkeeper instructs to buy a purse. The errand boy purchases a lesser bag and keeps half the money for himself, then learns that the doorkeeper had intended to give him the bag filled with money. Vitry's beast tale, "The Wolf's Logic," turns on the cynicism of a wolf who advises a lost lamb with specious logic: "Melius est ut comedam te quam quod mater tua amittat te" [It is better that I should eat you than that your mother should lose you]. (Harrington 1925, 426) Typical of Middle Ages misogyny is "An Ancient Saying Illustrated," which delights in the devil's quarrelsome wife, who gives her spouse such grief that he proposes returning her to her father. To his father-in-law's question, "Where is home?" the devil replies, "Infernus, ubi nunquam tantam discordiam vel molestiam sustinui" [Hell, where I never suffer such quarreling and misery].

As the Reformation battered entrenched Catholicism, ministers continued to put advice-laden fable to use in illustrative sermons. In the early sixteenth century, famed German minister and reformer Martin Luther translated fables into mundane anti-Papist homilies and pulpit illustrations. In "The Mouse and the Frog," the predominance of lesson to action tips the Aesopic model toward hard-line sermonizing. The fable's emphasis on trickery concludes with a warning to Christians: "Be careful whom you go about with. The world is full of treachery and falsehood. Anybody who has influence over another has him, as it were, in a sack. But treachery often strikes back at its own master." (Green 1965, 74) A more lethal story, "The Wolf and the Lamb," reminds hearers to avoid arguing with bigger, stronger adversaries. A familiar tale to readers of Aesop and La Fontaine, the story places in harm's reach a callow lamb, who takes issue with the wolf for accusing him of muddying the stream. The wolf's senseless retorts press him to rage. Luther abandons the story without a moral at the last line, which pictures the lamb torn to tasty bites. Himself a lamb during his hard-fought conversion of followers to Protestantism, Luther may have identified with the incautious neophyte who accused an aggressor of muddled logic.

Among late seventeenth-century Augustinian prelates, Abraham a Sancta Clara, an Austrian named Ulrich Megerle in his premonastery days, enriched his sermons with fables. Tinged with folk dialect, "The Young Fox and the Old Fox" contrasts mismatched animal voices with witty repartee:

"Father, I want to fly."

"You young dreamer," rejoined the old one, "what nonsense is this?"

"Father I want to fly," repeated the young one.

"You whipper-snapper," said the old fox, you've hardly got enough hair on your tail to wipe a blackboard, yet you want to fly!"

(Green 1965, 69)

Reminiscent of an exchange between Daedalus and Icarus from Ovid's mythology, this discussion of flying leads to a bad end. To the oldster's concern, the bloody young flier remarks, "The flying … was as smooth as could be, Father. But the landing—why, the devil saw to that!" (Green 1965, 69) Sancta Clara's spirited give and take provides families with a model impasse between the old adviser and the young daredevil, a motif found worldwide in intergenerational quid pro quo.

A priest and storyteller of the early nineteenth century, Johann Peter Hebel, sometimes labeled a German Robert Burns, amassed folklore in his native Heidelberg. Through skill and determination, he achieved the rank of headmaster and overseer of the Evangelical Church. An influence on poets Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Rainer Maria Rilke and on fiction writer Franz Kafka, Hebel wrote understated verse in the folksay of his homeland. In one example, "The Starling of Segringen," a barber teaches his pet bird clever phrases, but the bird prefers to utter the master's common epithets—"God's will be done," "Well, well, did you ever!" and "in company." (Green 1965, 95) Thus, when customers encourage the bird to perform, they hear the nettled Barber's cry of "You blockhead!" The jocular plot ends with the starling talking itself out of the bird-catcher's snare. Hebel, intent on warning the naive of dissolute companions, cannot pass up a "nota bene" [note well], which concludes "Many a young man who roams around rather than stay at home, has fallen into a snare 'in company' and never got out again."

A Christian apologist of the late nineteenth century, French poet Francis Jammes, a native of Tournay in the Pyrenees, celebrates folk communities in lyric free verse. He develops one of St. Francis's themes, humanity's cruelty to animals in De l'Angélus de l'aube à l'Angélus du soir [From Dawn Bell to Evening Bell] (1898). Worn and dejected, an aged cart horse collapses in harness and wings heavenward. At St. Peter's station, the horse asks about his departed mother. The horse's unselfishness wins him a place in heaven among departed animals. Jammes enlarges on the theme of earthly viciousness by naming as corroborative sufferers the wretched who had carried heavy stones, those who had circled merrygo-rounds all day, and the ones that perished needlessly in the bullfighting arena. In contrast to cold, pain, and weariness on earth, heaven's animals frolic and suckle their young in peace. They have no need to fear the world's cruelty, for "not one single human being was to be found in all this paradise." (Green 1965, 140) A benign fable, Jammes's kindly story omits the coal-stoked hell of conversion stories to encourage livestock owners and animal masters voluntarily to respect their four-footed brethren.

The best-loved Christian fables of the nineteenth century were written by social and historical novelist Charles Dickens, author of A Christmas Carol (1843) and Christmas Books (1852). At the height of his fame, Dickens was able to move readers as well as audiences at his lectures and public readings to repudiate sources of human misery by intense glimpses of poverty and the cruelties of such social institutions as orphanages, workhouses, corrupt law courts, and boarding schools. A meticulous researcher, he visited many of the locations that became settings for his books. He used his craft and humanitarian spirit to denounce corrupt officials, stony-hearted business leaders, and impersonal landholders and bankers. Through intensely melodramatic characterization, he ridiculed the vanity, materialism, and complacency of Victorian England and declared that greed and snobbery separated classes and enabled the privileged to overlook or ignore those suffering want, exploitation, and neglect.

Composed during one of Dickens's financial nadirs, A Christmas Carol appeared only five years after Oliver Twist (1838) and preceded Dickens's most popular novels—David Copperfield (1850), A Tale of Two Cities (1859), and Great Expectations (1861). In mid-October 1843, the author faced a 25 percent reduction in his journalist's salary of £200. Influenced by Washington Irving's The Keeping of Christmas at Bracebridge Hall (1820), he wrote a story that elevates Christmas without glorifying the sectarian concepts of Christ, virgin birth, manger miracles, shepherds, magi, or angels. He completed the text of his first unserialized novella by the end of November—just in time for holiday publication—and expected the best-seller to earn £1,000. Although it was immensely popular in the United Kingdom and America, production costs reduced the profit to £250, which was not enough to quit his debts.

The marvel of Dickens's holiday fable is its growth into a December classic—a staple of drama, recitation, ballet, art, tableau, advertising, and silent enjoyment for celebrants of Christmas the world over. The story, a dramatic montage of Christmases past, present, and future, steals into readers' memories like a holiday carol. It's a rare person who can't quote Tiny Tim's toast, "God bless us, every one." Every Christmas season, millions of people watch one of numerous film versions. Others reread the tale of the emergence of love and open-heartedness in literature's darkest miser, Ebenezer Scrooge, whose reclamation from pinchpenny misanthrope to beneficent lover of humankind begins with four ghostly visits and concludes with a merry celebration and the good news that Tiny Tim will live. The reformation of Scrooge has become so much a part of world culture that his name equates with mean-spiritedness and greed just as the title resurrects hope of reclamation and redemption.

Not only a nonsectarian plea for generosity, the story also dramatizes the activities of two families observing traditions of Victorian England, where holly, roast goose, pudding, charity, religious ceremonies, parlor games, gifts, dancing, and hospitality entertained citizens and warmed their hearts. The growth of Dickens's fame as a holiday writer led to his publication of The Chimes the next year and to two magazines, Household Words and All the Year Round, which featured Christmas articles. To the end of his life, Dickens gave profitable annual readings from A Christmas Carol, expressing with drama, voice, and gesture the timeless charm of his fable.

The late nineteenth century produced additional Christmas fables, two of which were written by American poet and short fiction writer Henry Van Dyke. A Congregational minister in Newport, Rhode Island, and ambassador to Holland and Luxembourg from 1913 to 1916, he came from respectable Dutch stock and claimed a Princeton-educated physician as grandfather and a father who pastored the First Presbyterian Church of Germantown, Pennsylvania. Van Dyke's published sermons earned him fame, including a translation of the German romantic poet Friedrich Novalis's The Blue Flower, and two original Christmas fables: The Story of the Other Wise Man (1896) and The First Christmas Tree (1897).

Van Dyke's most popular work, The Story of the Other Wise Man, is a gauzy fabrication drawn on the inspiring figure of Artaban the Median, an astronomer and humanist of Ecbatana who accepts an invitation to join the Magi as they follow a pulsing star toward Bethlehem. The modern framework of the Christmas story is set among human ills, which Van Dyke pictures in graphic description that a parish minister would know firsthand:

The year had been full of sickness and sorrow. Every day brought trouble. Every night was tormented with pain. They are very long—those nights when one lies awake, and hears the laboring heart pumping wearily at its task, and watches for the morning, not knowing whether it will ever dawn."

(Van Dyke 1923, xi)

The author pictures the hero as the consummate piddler, easily drawn into other people's troubles, even though he rides the great horse Vasda, which carries him rapidly toward his destination. The wandering mage chances to witness Herod's slaughter of the innocents, spends his lustrous pearl to rescue a girl from Macedonian soldiers, and arrives at Golgotha 33 years too late to pay his respect to the Christ Child, who is by then a grown man facing execution. Van Dyke concludes his fable with Artaban's death as he is caught up in the temblor that marks Christ's crucifixion. Near death, Arbatan hears a voice from heaven. Quoting from Matthew 15:40, Van Dyke cites Christ's words as though they were intended for the old mage: "Verily I say unto thee, inasmuch as thou hast done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, thou hast done it unto me." The citation serves both as epimythium and as a charge to Van Dyke's congregation.

Apart from the tales of the aforementioned learned authors, theologians, and preachers, Christian fable also claims folk origins. For example, the Romini of Ripanj, Yugoslavia, express their Gypsy traits in a dialogue between God and St. Peter entitled "How the Gypsies Became Musicians." The story uplifts the fate of a homeless people through the blessing of the fiddle, which God places on St. Peter's shoulders. Intended as a humanizing element in drinking halls where competition often led to violence, fiddle music served God's purpose to lift spirits and prevent quarrels. St. Peter, overjoyed that the fiddle had life-preserving powers, encouraged God to make more fiddlers. In the closing dialogue, God asks:

"But who could there be?"

"Let there be the Gypsies," answered St. Peter. "Let them amuse people so that they may not shed blood when they drink and make merry."

"Let it be so," said God.

And so it was.

(Tong 1989, 103)

The benevolence of the fiddle story typifies piquant, often wistful Gypsy fable, which ameliorates the harsh life of wandering outcasts who traditionally contend with prejudice and genocide.

In Volume 1 of British Folktales, folklorist Katharine Briggs records the peasant versions of brief encounters with Christ, a motif that also permeates the religious lore of Jews, Mormons, and Buddhists. In a Lancashire version, "Christ and the Peas," Christ calls on a poor woman and asks for food. To her reply that she cooks stones in her kettle to make her children think they are peas, he instructs her to lift the lid. She obeys and finds that the pot is indeed full of peas. A typical poor people's miracle, the story demonstrates obedience. Lacking a moral, the fable bears intrinsic worth by linking piety among the poor with an earthly reward for faith. Variations of the story alter the outcome from reward to punishment. An ominous wandering Christ tale from Gloucestershire, "The Owl Was a Baker's Daughter," turns a girl into an owl for being stingy with bread.

A contemporary of Van Dyke, North Carolinian William Sydney Porter, popular short fiction writer and creator of the surprise ending, is better known by his pen name, O. Henry. In 1895, he was convicted—and later exonerated—for embezzling $4,702.94. He fled to Honduras and South America, then returned to serve his sentence when he learned that his wife was near death from tuberculosis. For three years and three months, he bore #30664 on his shirt in the Ohio State Penitentiary in Columbus, where he worked in the dispensary. From his cell, he studied and pondered human dilemmas and published the first 14 of his 600 clever, episodic short stories and human interest vignettes.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, O. Henry produced a popular Christmas fable, "The Gift of the Magi" (1905). The simple story about two tender nobodies, Jim and Della Young, expresses O. Henry's forte—populist plots that celebrate forgivable shortcomings and endings based on an unforeseen zinger, the quick catch in the last lines that reveals a tidy change of heart or moral requital. Seeking for funds for the right gifts for each other, the penniless pair have no cash to spare and only two items to take pride in—Jim's gold pocket watch and Della's cascade of brown hair. The author chooses Della as his focus in this story of Christmas Eve penury:

One dollar and eighty-seven cents. That was all. And sixty cents of it was in pennies. Pennies saved one and two at a time by bulldozing the grocer and the vegetable man and the butcher until one's cheek burned with silent imputation of parsimony that such close dealing implied. Three times Della counted it. One dollar and eighty-seven cents. And the next day would be Christmas.

(O. Henry 1986, 360)

At Madame Sofronie's, Della swaps her hair for $20, but the fable ranges beyond her afternoon's shopping trip to ennoble and reaffirm the Christmas spirit.

With a mix of alarm and misunderstanding, O. Henry's double surprise carries the last half of the story to its end. The husband's inexplicable behavior at dinner implies fearful reprisal or, at the least, disappointment. After Della opens his gift of tortoise shell combs to adorn her short bob and he receives the platinum fob chain for his pawned watch, the two are left to meager chops for dinner and nothing to spare. Discreetly, the author withdraws from their domestic impasse to append his moral: "In a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest. Of all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the Magi." (O. Henry 1986, 364) In concluding the short story in the style of a fable, the storyteller elevates his "foolish children" to symbols of Christmas love and selflessness. His well-matched duo, aptly named Mr. and Mrs. Young, extend the holiday theme to a prediction of marital harmony based on agape, the Greek concept of giving without thought of return.

An offshoot of Christian fable is a body of Mormonia, which reprises Protestant and Catholic pulpit material in the folk experiences of southwestern settlers. In 1956, Austin and Alta Fife attempted to dispel faulty notions about Mormonism by collecting a volume of Mormonia, Saints of Sage and Saddle, which follows the cult from Calvinist persecution in England across the prairies to the Great Basin of Utah. The study of Mormonism and its abhorrence of European mores opens on the epic trek west, which concluded July 24, 1847, with the arrival of the Saints in the Great Salt Lake Valley. The Fifes cite favorite marching songs: "Ye Saints Who Dwell on Britain's Shore," "And Should We Die before Our Journey's Through," and a salute to the handcarters, "As on the Road the Carts Were Pulled." Beloved fables of Christ in disguise reverberate through local collections with examples of lonely widows and hungry children whom the deity blesses for their obedience and faith. Additional southwestern animal stories and story-songs laud the tender-hearted who feed and water weary burros and toss crusts to the prowling lobo. The corpus of Mormon stories, tied to the barren and unforgiving desert, enhances Christian fables with the promise of blessing to those who persevere and who share their limited means with fellow outcasts and the poor and hungry.

One of the strongest strands of English fable in recent times comes from English fabulist Richard Adams, author of Watership Down (1974), The Unbroken Web: Stories and Fables (1980), and Tales from Watership Down (1997). In The Unbroken Web, Adams relates additions to English bird lore in "Why the Robin's Breast Is Red," a pourquoi story that belongs to the Christianized Arthurian canon. Set on Good Friday, the tale tells of the robin that made a nest near the gate of Jerusalem, where it witnesses the torment of Jesus on his way to execution on Calvary's hill. A curious bird, the robin, darting from bush to hedge, follows Jesus past the Stations of the Cross to Golgotha. As the crucifixion progresses to its barbaric conclusion, the robin tries to pull the nails from Jesus's hand and the crown of thorns from his head. A centurion stops a soldier from stoning the robin. In the end, Jesus blesses the bird. Adams identifies Longinus as the witness who retrieved Jesus's corpse and the savior of the robin, whom he transports to England to bring luck to people's houses. A beneficent story, it departs from heavier proselytizing common to the Middle Ages to connect compassion with good fortune.


Adams 1980; Brick,; Briggs 1991; Cantor 1994; Carmina Burana 1974; "Charles Dickens,", http://www.mala; "A Christmas Carol," http://www.neurop2,; Curtius 1953; Dickens 1963; "Dickens Page,"; "Dickens Project: University of California,"; Fife and Fife 1956; Giuliano and Collins 1986; Harrington 1925; Henry 1986; Kunitz 1942; "The Other Wise Man,"; Parlett 1986; Raby 1997; Shah 1982; Snodgrass, Encyclopedia of the Frontier Literature 1997, Encyclopedia of Southern Literature 1997; Tong 1989; Van Dyke 1923.

Clare Bradford (essay date spring 1999)

SOURCE: Bradford, Clare. "'Providence Designed It for a Settlement': Religious Discourses and Australian Colonial Texts." Children's Literature Association Quarterly 24, no. 1 (spring 1999): 4-14.

[In the following essay, Bradford discusses how certain religious works for children—specifically from the Australian colonial era—were utilized as a method for justifying colonial expansion.]

Emma: How favoured the place seems, Mamma; as if Providence had designed it for a settlement.

Mrs. S.: It might indeed have been so ordained, my dear: you know nothing happens without God's knowledge: the party might have been under His especial providence when they selected it.

(A Mother's Offering to Her Children)

In the above quotation from A Mother's Offering to Her Children (1841), the first children's book published in Australia, Mrs. Saville is convinced not only that God is an Englishman but that imperialism is part of the divine plan. The settlement in question, in the far north of Australia, is represented in this exchange between mother and daughter as having been waiting for British ships to land, like a sleeping princess waiting for the kiss that will awaken her, and Emma Saville, modeling for the book's child readers how the imperial project is to be understood, articulates the identification of Christianity and imperialism naturalized in A Mother's Offering and many other Australian colonial texts for children.1 As well, this passage displays a feature common in Australian narratives of exploration and settlement: a telling silence concerning the original owners of the land, the Aboriginal people who had for many thousands of years enjoyed the advantages of the place "ordained" by Providence as a British settlement. The nineteenth-century children's texts that I discuss in this article belong to a period of colonial expansion, when the Australian landscape was transformed and British rule established. They all display the naturalized racism of their time, manifested in the assumption that white races are inherently superior to black races, and they mobilize discourses of Christianity in order to justify the imperial project.2 Their narratives, which focus on the adventures of white children and young people, depend for drama and excitement upon two kinds of conflict: with a strange and often hostile land and with Aborigines generally constructed as Other—barbaric creatures, whose actions and words are always set against a normative British model. But colonial texts do not display a homogeneous set of ideologies; while they are all influenced by discourses of imperialism, they are also shaped by other discourses: of religion, race, class, and gender. And these discourses (as well as the ideologies they embody) are frequently at odds with one another, producing textual conflicts that speak eloquently of the complexity and ambivalence of colonial experience.

The central site of conflict in Australian texts is derived from the fact that "settlement" also constituted "invasion." The main thrust of colonization took place between 1788 and 1901, the period between first settlement and the founding of the nation of Australia; land was appropriated, cities established, and the Aboriginal population decimated through dispossession, warfare, and disease. At one extreme, Aborigines were viewed as examples of natural man, "brutish and unregenerate, lacking shame and moral sense" (White 13), while an opposing point of view held by philanthropic settlers and churchmen promoted the equality of all humans as children of God. The historian Henry Reynolds points to the conflict between the philanthropists' position and the inexorable march of imperialism: "the concept of racial equality was inconvenient in a society bent on dispossession and a threat to all those individuals and institutions with capital invested in Australia" (106).

It is impossible to overestimate the importance that Aborigines placed and continue to place on their spiritual connections with the land; individual Aborigines derived their identity from the land of their birth through a complex system of totemic associations. Rituals and ceremonies ensured the safety of the land, the renewal of plants and animals, and the coming of the rains. When white settlers appropriated land, Aborigines at first believed that these newcomers must be reasserting spiritual connections with the land known in a previous existence, so foreign was the notion that land could be claimed purely for gain. Many of the texts manifest powerful tensions between explicit and implicit treatments of Aboriginal spirituality; while its very existence is explicitly denied, or depicted in ways that serve the colonial imperative to locate Aborigines within the category of primitive Other, these texts display a lively anxiety (generally through symbolic and metaphorical references) about indigenous beliefs and especially about their connections with the land.

The other principal area of unease in Australian texts relates to Australia's original incarnation as a penal settlement, a dumping ground for Britain's excess population of (principally English and Irish) convicts. From the earliest days of the colony, religion played an equivocal role in the management of the convict population; religious beliefs and practices could be mobilized to support the harsh systems of incarceration and punishment that operated in the colony, or to promote the conversion and rehabilitation of convicts. Australian texts that thematize the country's convict beginnings are laced with contradictory ideological moves, in which discourses of religion (especially as they relate to doctrines of sin and forgiveness) are invoked to support one or another version of the convict figure. Irish convicts, most of whom were Catholics, were required to attend Anglican worship in an attempt to wean them away from Catholicism, whose links with Irish nationalism were considered a possible focus for sedition, with the result that Catholicism was constructed by Irish Catholics as the religion of rebellion against an unjust regime, but within Protestantism as the religion of a dangerous subclass, hopelessly enmeshed in superstition.3

These two sites of tension, Aboriginality and convictism, are played out in Australian texts against the background of a landscape radically different from the European landscapes regarded by the first settlers as normative. This strangeness provided a locus where settlers might project their sense of being exiles and aliens. In particular, the physical landscape was variously interpreted in religious terms: as a place of darkness, antithetical to Christianity; as a void waiting to be transformed into a godly space; as a garden needing only Christianity to become a new Eden. In addition, Australian landscapes in children's texts are frequently used symbolically as transformations of human good or evil and as projections of white fear and unease concerning Aboriginality and Aboriginal spirituality.

Religion, Landscape, and the Feminine

White settlers in Australia at first read the landscape for its differences from and similarities to the British landscapes with which they were familiar, and representations of the land in early Australian texts reflect the complexities of colonial experience—the meanings, both positive and negative, that attached to British and Australian landscapes, and the ways in which relations between land and people (black and white) were constructed. In this discussion I draw on Bob Hodge and Vijay Mishra's formulation of the history of representations of the land in Australian cultural production:

Sometimes images of the country are provided as the context for human actions, and in these cases the context (location, setting, landscape) provides a complex comment on the main action being represented. On other occasions, images of the country function as transformations of people or aspects of people (e.g. women or Aborigines, fear or desire).


The idea that countries are gendered feminine is, of course, a pervasive one, present in expressions such as "the Mother Country," "Mother Russia," "Mother India." From the earliest days of the colony, Australia was depicted as a woman to be "mastered" and "possessed" by explorers and settlers. At first glance, this imagery is reminiscent of the language used by the first colonizers of America, who commonly represented the glories of the New World in terms of "erotic discovery and possession," succeeded after settlement by images of "filial receptiveness" (Kolodny 4), so that the land was both lover and mother. The complexity and variety of Australian colonial experience was such that a multiplicity of versions of the feminine were used to represent the land; as Kay Schaffer notes, "The bush … takes on the seeming attributes of woman, whether described as a passive landscape or an alien force; a place of exile or belonging; a landscape of promise or of threat" (Women 61). For the interior of the Australian continent was found to consist not of a longed-for inland sea or tracts of fertile land, but a vast desert, the Outback. Thus, Hodge and Mishra point out, "the avowal of the [Australian] land as woman is undercut by its disavowal" (164), a disavowal displayed through representations of the land as an ancient mother incapable of nurturing, or as a seductive but malevolent whore.

The epigraph, the passage from A Mother's Offering in which Providence is said to have designed Australia for a settlement, is typical of the way in which British imperialism was aligned with discourses of religion. Specifically, the Old Testament injunction that humans should "be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it" (Genesis 1:28) was seen by many as the principal justification for the appropriation of the land from its original inhabitants. As the Presbyterian clergyman J. D. Lang said in 1856, "God's first command to man was 'Be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth.' Now that the Aborigines had not done, and therefore it was no fault in taking the land of which they were previously the possessors" (qtd. in Reynolds 171). This conviction that the land was to be tamed and used was, as I have noted, frequently expressed in gendered terms, with the masculine principle (colonist and Empire) endowed with the right to subdue the feminine (Aborigines and the land). But such an alignment of discourses of religion, gender, and colonization was pervaded by the will to truth and excluded and silenced any other view of the land. Colonists were not alone in mobilizing images of the feminine to represent the land, for the notion of land-as-mother pervades Aboriginal culture: a mother who nurtures and is in turn nurtured by her children, within a set of religious rituals and practices that are "written on the land" and encode the rights and obligations of individuals and groups. But Aboriginal relationships with the land, like Aboriginal practices of managing and caring for the land, and of farming and harvesting crops, were invisible to many colonists (as the quotation from Lang's speech demonstrates), or, if they were visible, were treated as the random habits of ignorant savages. In a similar way, the religious beliefs within which these Aboriginal practices were grounded were rarely acknowledged, and if they were, they were characterized as devil-worship or superstition.4 For the deployment of images of the feminine by Aborigines and by colonists proceed from two entirely different views of land. Within Aboriginal discourses, the land-as-mother is the site of the sacred; within colonial discourses it is a resource to be enjoyed, exploited, and controlled.

Children's narratives of adventure and settlement display many of these complex and shifting connections between land, the feminine, and religion. Having adventures and exploring the land are activities undertaken by colonial boys and frequently involve rites of passage through which boys become men. The most usual setting in colonial children's texts is that of the homestead on a sheep or cattle station, which provides a base from which boy heroes move as they undertake a series of adventures. Many of these adventures occur in the Australian bush in uncleared land inhabited by Aborigines and native animals, and the movement between home and the bush conforms to a metanarrative in which the homestead replicates the imperial home, the bush the colonial space waiting to be explored and subjected to imperial rule. The homestead, together with its acres of cleared land, constitutes a symbolic center. It is the safe haven where women and girls exercise their civilizing and spiritual influence, the little piece of mother England reminding colonizers of their true earthly home; above all, it symbolizes the eternal home of which it is a shadow and whose joys it anticipates. It follows, then, that what is "out there," in the uncolonized space beyond the acres of pastures and grazing land, is at best neutral, at worst hostile, to the colonial and evangelical enterprise. In either case it is capable of being "mastered" and of being incorporated into the feminine "home," but it is endowed with a variety of meanings, even within the same text, because the will to truth that informed colonial discourse obscures a number of ruptures and contradictions that can be seen from a postcolonial perspective but that were largely invisible to colonial authors.

As I have noted, settler and adventure novels for children focus on the activities of boys and men, with girls and women confined to the domestic sphere. Many such novels were written by women authors, and so the question arises whether women's stories of religion, colonization, and the land differ from those of male writers. Schaffer asserts that the novels of Australian women writers in the first half of the twentieth century "reiterate masculine constructions in their representation of the feminine" (Women 107), especially in regard to their writing of the land as feminine, and that in order to speak with authority, women writers "must wear a male disguise" (103). Certainly nineteenth-century women writers lived and wrote within a context dominated by colonial discourse, but they were also influenced by the discourses of femininity that prevailed at the time, and these two discourses (of colonialism and femininity) were not always congruent. At the same time, colonial female-authored texts for children do not constitute a homogeneous category, for they were produced in a variety of contexts, by authors manifesting different ideologies, and while some female-authored texts display strategies of resistance to dominant ideologies, others are firmly aligned with them.

Emilia Marryat Norris's The Early Start in Life (c.1867) is a symptomatic settler novel in which Alexander and Maggie Stirling, a brother and sister, migrate to Australia with their younger brothers, Hugh and Archie, to take up land as settlers following the death of their parents. The book promotes to its young readers the values of godliness, hard work, self-discipline, and the possibilities of the New World. It treats Christianity, for the most part, as a source of moral and ethical principles rather than of transcendent spiritual values, with Alexander and Maggie's progress from poor orphans to prosperous landowners depicted as their reward for virtuous living. As Sara Mills notes, "feminine" women "concerned themselves with their families and maintaining relationships, but also tended to the spiritual and moral well-being of the family group" (94), and Norris's depiction of Maggie Stirling draws on just such discourses of femininity, applying them to Maggie's interactions with an extended family group that includes both the men and women employed to work on the Stirlings' cattle station and the Aboriginal people who are assimilated into the world of the homestead.

The land depicted in The Early Start in Life is both exotic and hospitable, a pastoral setting full of flowering trees and timid native animals. It is entirely in keeping with the figure of Maggie as Angel in the House that Norris represents the bush principally as a garden, and in this sense it is a feminine space readily incorporated into an edenic "home."5 Indeed, in this novel the principal spatial opposition is that between the settlers' home in the bush, a place of simple living and honest labor, and the city, a place of vice and immorality. At a number of points in the narrative, Maggie articulates moral qualms concerning the impact of colonization: she laments the necessity of cutting down trees, she disapproves of cruelty to native animals, and she demonstrates an unease about the appropriation of land from Aborigines. But these "feminine" qualms are set within a framework that valorizes the colonial enterprise, and they are undermined through the depiction of Maggie as idealistic and immature. The episode in which the men of the party begin their tree-felling opens with this sentence: "There was more noise in the forest that morning—at least noise of civilisation—than, I suppose, had ever been heard there since the days when first it came into being" (73). Here, and throughout the novel, the land is a virgin space waiting to be inducted into civilization, so that when Maggie protests about the felling of a tecoma tree on the grounds that its flowers will be spoiled, Alexander's response reads as the commonsense (and condescending) voice of masculine reason: "'Well, it does seem almost a shame to imperil them, Maggie,' answered her brother. 'But you see I want this great big trunk of a tree. Is he not a splendid fellow? But I will get you some of your "great glorious trumpets," my dear'" (73). Another way in which Maggie's "feminine" sensitivities are undermined is through their subordination to a narrative drive built on a succession of masculine adventures and crises; the events of domestic life are decidedly pallid against masculine adventures involving conflict with Aborigines, life in the goldfields, and the temptations of the city.

Maggie Stirling is central to two stories of religious conversion in The Early Start. One involves a former convict (the significantly named Daniel Lowman), and the other concerns an Aborigine who frequents the Stirlings' station, and who (even more significantly) is known as Monkey. The insertion of the figures of Lowman and Monkey into the narrative offers a useful starting-point to consider how race, class, gender, and religion are treated. Lowman arrives at the homestead, recommended and engaged by a friend of the Stirlings, as a stockman, "an athletic, powerfully-built fellow of about forty years of age" (90). Focalization through Maggie offers a view both of Lowman and of Maggie's sense that his appearance displays his moral integrity:

Maggie was very much taken with Lowman's appearance, at first sight; and he certainly looked very picturesque in his straw hat, coloured shirt, and immense yellow beard. However, she declared it was not Lowman's good looks that she cared about, but his frank, straightforward expression of face, which showed him to be an honest man.


Monkey's appearance, on the other hand, is the cause of terror and consternation, for when the servant Hannah sees him for the first time, she believes him to be a devil. The narrator describes him as "not the devil, but something very alarming in the shape of a man, being frightfully ugly, and almost entirely unclothed. Maggie was a very brave girl, and she was the first to speak. 'I believe it is an Australian native,' she said. 'Don't be foolish, nursey; it is no more the devil than you are'" (95). The Aborigine's "ugliness" and state of nakedness work as the inverse of Lowman's good looks, manifesting the state of primitive darkness in which he is located. Maggie's "bravery" at being the first to speak is a marker of the class difference between her and Hannah and establishes her authority within the domestic world of the homestead; at the same time, the narrative position outlined in the description "something very alarming in the shape of a man … frightfully ugly, and almost entirely unclothed" is close to Hannah's view of Monkey, perhaps offering a more orthodox and "mature" perspective than that of Maggie, who despite her bravery is depicted (as the tree-felling episode demonstrates) as young and inexperienced. Maggie speaks to Monkey "in a very gentle voice, as if speaking to a little child," and offers him a loaf of bread; this evocation of maternity confers on Maggie the role of good white mother, with the Aborigine as eternal child, his lack of bourgeois mannerliness in eating the bread subsumed into childish ungodliness.

Lowman's conversion begins when Maggie visits the stockman in his hut. Overcome at Maggie's concern for him, Lowman confesses himself to be "a bad man; a worse man than your little innocent heart could dream of. I am not fit to be spoken to by you. If you knew all that I know of myself, you would not touch me even with your clothes" (125). Lowman's avowal of his sinfulness draws on two strands of intertextual reference: the heightened discourse of melodrama, and those New Testament episodes in which Christ's saving power is said to extend to the very garments he wears (Matthew 8:8; 9:20; Mark 6:56). Such mingling of references inscribes Maggie as an Angel in the House, bringing spiritual healing to the members of her household, and it invests Daniel Lowman with the glamor of a man with a past, a bad man yearning to be redeemed by an innocent young girl. While the narrative steps around the possibility of physical attraction between the two, it locates Lowman's crime within a gendered context, for he was deported as a convict to Botany Bay after he killed a man who threatened to take sexual advantage of his widowed mother. Although Lowman has repented of his crime and undergone punishment, he regards himself as eternally lost; for him, sinfulness is constitutive of the shame of his convict past and his incapacity to assimilate into middle-class sociality. The discourses of femininity that work through this text construct Maggie as the agent of Lowman's salvation, encoded through his participation, at Maggie's invitation, in family worship at the "beautiful little spot in the wood" where the Stirlings have made their church (116); finally, he is reunited with the sister with whom he has lost contact following his deportation and restored to his family name. As Mark Fleming, he is the very model of a repentant sinner, and his transformation is constituted by his reincorporation into a white, middle-class Christianity that offers prosperity to the godly.

The story of Maggie's attempt to convert Monkey to Christianity inscribes a very different set of ideologies. The depiction of Monkey in this episode exemplifies a feature of feminine discourse noted by Mills as characteristic of the work of women travel writers: a concentration on "descriptions of relationships with members of the other nation, foregrounding their individuality rather than membership in another nation" (97). The episode's ideologies of race draw upon the tenets of Social Darwinism, which gained ground in the second half of the nineteenth century, and which were brought into service to justify the dispossession of Aborigines and the implementation of genocidal practices against them.6 Thus positioned as belonging to a marginal position between animals and humans, Monkey is taken in hand by Maggie, who tries to "teach the black to speak; and she found him by no means a dull scholar" (229). Naming, and agency in naming, are signifiers of the differences between Lowman and Monkey, the two candidates for salvation. Lowman chooses to be known by a name that signifies self-abasement and is reconfigured as Mark Fleming following his experience of salvation. Monkey, on the other hand, is without agency in the selection of his name, which signifies his distance, as a primitive and savage, from the Stirlings. Moreover, whereas Lowman fully understands the ideological frame within which his name fits, Monkey's knowledge is so limited that the multiple connotations encoded in "Monkey" are beyond his capacity to understand.

Like Lowman, Monkey is an adult male; unlike Lowman, his relationship to Maggie is that of child to mother. Maggie tests Monkey's religious belief by questioning him about creation:

"Monkey, do you know who made you and me, and all these trees, and everything?" said Margaret, as if speaking to a very little child.

"You?" asked Monkey, with some interest.

"No; I could no more make them than you could. Did you never hear that a great Spirit made you?"…

"No," said Monkey. "Not hear that. What mean great spirit?"

Margaret saw that the man knew absolutely nothing, and that if she taught him, it must be from the very first rudiments.


Maggie's viewpoint does not allow for the existence of religion outside Christianity, so that notions of Aboriginal spirituality are utterly outside the text's frame of reference: if Monkey does not share Maggie's knowledge of the "great spirit," it follows that he knows "absolutely nothing." For his ignorance of the divine constitutes a marker of Monkey's lowly position within the hierarchies of races and demonstrates how discourses of religion are mobilized in this and many other colonial texts to install white, Christian people at the pinnacle of evolutionary progress.

Following Maggie's instruction concerning the death of Christ, Monkey manifests what Maggie believes at first to be a signifier of belief: "one day Margaret could with difficulty prevent herself from crying, when, at the conclusion of the often-repeated story of the Cross, the man said 'Good Jesus! Love him!'" (361). But the following narrative move reaffirms those sturdy binaries (white and black, civilized and savage, religion and superstition) on which colonial ideologies rely:

Poor Monkey had made a little cross of wood, with a knife which Maggie had herself given to him, and had carved upon it a rude—very rude imitation of a human figure. This cross he had stuck up on a mound of grass; and at the time Margaret surprised him, he was prostrate upon his face, with his hands joined over his head, saying: "Good Jesus! Kind Jesus!"

The thought flashed through Margaret's mind,—"Why, I have made the man an idolater!" but this conduct of Monkey's was simply the effect of a little knowledge and a vast amount of ignorance, which naturally had turned into superstition and idolatry.

Margaret said to him: "That is not Jesus; that is only a piece of wood. Monkey must not pray to wood."


Monkey evinces in this episode the colonial truth that locates him within the order of primitives and savages. While, in evangelical terms, he has a soul capable of being saved, it is his "natural" inclination to turn to idolatry, and in this way the work of evangelization is represented as demanding of Maggie a determination and strength of purpose that, in the end, focuses on her virtue rather than on Monkey's salvation. Religious discourses are filtered through discourses of race and class: Monkey's blackness symbolizes the primitive superstition to which he is "naturally" prone, placing him in the lowest order of humanity, far below even the subclass inhabited by superstitious, idolatrous Irish Catholics.

The Early Start in Life concludes with a group portrait that displays the novel's twin aims of socializing its readers as Christians and colonizers:

Oh, it was an evening to be remembered, seated out there in the glorious sunset, with the leafy trees overhead, and the far expanse of beautiful wood beyond them, surrounded by every earthly blessing that God could give them! so happy in themselves and in each other—and, above all things, happy in that, though separated by such long distance from their native country, and cut off from the public means of grace, they had been enabled to remember the God of their fathers in a strange land, so that the blessing which is promised to those who obey His commandments, to remember their Creator in the days of their youth, had come upon them abundantly; and godliness had given them the promise, not only of this life, but of that which is to come!


There is no place for Monkey or other Aborigines among this happy group of settlers who sit in the glorious sunset reflecting on their good fortune, since the prerequisite of earthly prosperity and heavenly bliss is Christian belief, a state inaccessible to Monkey by virtue of his race. Lowman is included despite his convict past, for he has been reabsorbed into the middle-class sociality that is his birthright; moreover, his crime is canceled out by its motivation, the defense of his wronged mother.

The crucial unspoken connection embodied in the novel's final image of the young settlers is that between religion and colonial power. In an act of retribution for their murder of a white man, Lowman kills several Aborigines and hangs their bodies along the path to the forest until "nothing remained of them but some whitened bones" (220). Such stern measures, redolent of the Old Testament principle of "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth," are in sharp opposition to Maggie's feminized and gentle Christianity, manifested in her misgivings concerning the dispossession of Aborigines and her attempt at converting Monkey. But the novel's closure leaves no doubt which version of religion prevails, for despite the text's erasure of this connection, the Stirlings' prosperity rests on acts of invasion and violence that are justified by their possession of what Monkey lacks: the right, as white, Christian colonizers, to appropriate the land.

Sophia Tandy's The Children in the Scrub (1878), published by the Religious Tract Society, is more exemplum than adventure narrative and is built on a comparison between two settler families (the Smiths and the Mullinses) that shows how Christian virtue triumphs over irreligion. While the Smith family is unfailingly righteous, the Mullins family, consisting of Joe and Jane and their four children, is split between saints and sinners: on the side of the saints are Joe Mullins and the three younger children (Janie, Edward, and Tommy), whereas Jane Mullins and the eldest son, Richard, not only are unbelievers but are hostile to the evangelical efforts of Joe, the Smiths, and even the younger Mullins children. The religious values of the novel, which emphasize faith in Jesus and personal holiness, are based on the tenets of Methodism, and the alliance of religion and femininity is expressed through the association between Christian virtue and good housekeeping (Bessie Smith works at converting Jane Mullins while assisting her to hang wallpaper), and through the depiction of Christ as a maternal and gentle savior.

The neat division of saints and sinners outlined at the beginning of the novel sets the scene for a sequence of events in which Janie, Edward, and Tommy are lost in the bush. Narratives involving Australian children lost in the bush are endemic in Australian cultural production in nineteenth- and twentieth-century texts; in artworks, novels, short stories, poetry, and film; in works for children and for adults. In general, the trope consists of three components: the children themselves, the setting in which they are lost, and those who search for them or whom they encounter during their wanderings. In The Children in the Scrub, the landscape in which the children are lost is invested with moral and religious significances that, in Hodge and Mishra's terms, "comment on the main action being represented" (144), and this investment makes for a contradictory reading of the land.

Most significantly, the three children have left the safety of home and of settled land and are thus Christian souls lost in a dangerous, unchristian location; at the same time, their piety is capable of transforming the land and reconfiguring it as godly space. The hollow gum-tree in which the children find shelter during their first night in the bush illustrates this transformative move: "The three children peered through the darkness into the hollow, but it looked so black and dismal they shrunk from the idea of entering, till at last, summoning courage, Edward said, 'I'll go in if you'll stay here'; then, without stopping to give the matter a second thought, he stepped boldly in" (111). It is, naturally, Edward who dares to broach the darkness of the hollow tree, but it is Janie who invests the place with religious significance: "remembering that her father … had often told her nothing happened by chance, but that every event was ordered by God's overruling Providence, she felt no doubt in her own mind that it was Jesus, the Good Shepherd, who had led them back to that spot that they might find shelter for the night" (111). The children spread grass and leaves for their beds, place sticks to block the entrance to the hollow tree, offer their prayers to Jesus and sleep calmly, but the narrative pulls back from this scene to insist on the pathos of the contrast between the sleeping children and the sinister darkness of the bush: "Through the dark hours of that night, in the desolate bush, the three lost ones slept calmly and sweetly, totally unconscious of the screams of the screech-owl, the cries of the curlews, or the frightful yelling of the wild dogs" (115).

Interwoven with the story of the three lost children is that of the two people, their mother and their brother Richard, who are spiritually lost through their lack of belief and trust in God and who find their faith through tribulation. Overcome by exhaustion after five days of searching, Richard sleeps in the bush and experiences a consolatory dream in which he meets the children, "gloriously clad in fine raiment" (138), in a beautiful garden. When he awakes, he finds himself near the gum-tree, and at length discovers the children safe inside its hollow. The narrative concludes with Richard proposing to convert the gum-tree into a chapel, where their father will conduct a Sunday service at which the family will "thank God for having saved you, and for having led me to the same spot" (155). In this way, the bush is claimed for Christianity, emptied of its former associations with darkness and evil and reconstituted as an extension of the settlers' home and as a site for Christian worship. In The Early Start in Life, the bush is simultaneously colonized and redeemed through its incorporation into the feminine realm of the settlers' homestead. But the bush in The Children in the Scrub carries two strands of meaning: it is a place of evil and darkness, hostile to Christianity, and it symbolizes the spiritual state of participants in the drama of religious conversion.

"The Natives Have No God": Aboriginal Spirituality and Colonial Texts

At the time of white settlement, Aboriginal culture was supported by a complex system of religious beliefs that had developed over thousands of years and that were linked with ancient traditions of individual and group ownership of and responsibility for tracts of land and topographical features. The Eurocentricism of most colonists meant that it was difficult if not impossible for them to understand a system of belief so different from Christianity; moreover, Aboriginal culture is, as Hodge and Mishra write, "typically enigmatic and deceptive" (72), involving sets of knowledges available to certain groups and individuals and carefully guarded by law and custom. These systems of control provided effective means of protecting Aboriginal traditions and practices from the white invaders.

For many years following white settlement, Aborigines maintained a steady and consistent refusal to abandon their religious beliefs in favor of Christianity, maintaining as best they could their traditions and ritual practices and their spiritual connections with their lands; it was not until a large number of Aborigines had been forcibly removed to reserves and mission stations that they accepted the necessity of conforming to Christianity (or of seeming to do so) in order to gain protection. Children's texts betray a deep unease about "savages" who by resisting conversion and maintaining their customary practices contest one of the givens of colonial discourse: that colonization offered Aborigines a system of belief infinitely superior to their own. The conversion of Aborigines, which might have functioned as a means of legitimizing white settlement, was, as the story of Monkey demonstrates, no straightforward matter.

A documentary text for children, F. L. Mortimer's Far Off: Asia and Australia Described (1852), uses brutally simple terms to argue Aboriginal depravity: "the natives have no GOD; yet they have a DEVIL, whom they call Yakoo, or debbil-debbil…. People who know not God, but only the devil, must be very wicked" (283). Mortimer denies Aborigines a knowledge not only of the Christian God, but of any god, any system of spiritual or religious belief or practice: "Some heathen countries are full of idols, but there are no idols in the wilds of Australia. No,—like the beasts which perish, these savages live from day to day without prayer, or praise, delighting only in eating and drinking, hunting and dancing" (280). While "heathen countries … full of idols" are located within a binary system that implicitly opposes them to the normative British model of monotheistic Christianity, Mortimer constructs Aborigines as occupying a place below that of heathens and on the border between animals and humans.7 Having no god, or gods, they are characterized in terms of a vast absence ("without prayer, or praise") of human and specifically spiritual qualities.

In order to sustain the fiction that Aborigines are lacking in religious beliefs, colonial texts must represent Aboriginal rituals and religious practices as devoid of spiritual significance. This is especially true of the descriptions of corroborees8 that constitute a trope in documentary texts and in settler and adventure novels for children. Mortimer's representation of "the Corrobory" is typical: "But though these savages are so wicked, and so wild, they have their amusements…. At every full moon, there is a grand dance, called the Corrobory…. Nothing can be more horrible to see than a Corrobory" (284). Typical of much colonial discourse, Mortimer's description empties Aboriginal rituals of any religious meaning by linking the corroboree with the full moon (and western connotations of madness), through the collocation of "savages … wicked … wild," and through the ironic putdowns "they have their amusements" and "grand dance." So emptied of meaning, the corroboree becomes the focus of colonial projections of Otherness, encoded in "Nothing can be more horrible to see than a Corrobory." Many colonial texts, such as W. H. G. Kingston's collection of adventure stories Tales for Old and Young (1862), make explicit what is hinted at in Mortimer's text, that corroborees are to be constituted as a diabolical act; Stephen Bradford, the hero of Kingston's narrative, describes a corroboree in these terms: "A harmless pastime in itself, but the poor wretches intend it as a sort of worship to the spirit of evil. They have no notion of prayer, nor do they use any other sort of religious ceremony. They are addicted to perform these antics also before going to war" (95). Kingston's treatment of the trope, like Mortimer's, is posited on the absence of religious beliefs among Aborigines. And like Mortimer's claim that corroborees take place at the full moon, Kingston's reference to the "poor wretches … addicted to perform these antics" constructs Aborigines as without agency, ruled by the "natural" impulses of savages.

The prevalence of accounts of corroborees in colonial children's texts, and the remarkable uniformity in the way they are represented, suggest that they carry out important ideological work in these narratives. In fictional texts they are almost always focalized through the perspective of boys or young men who have been captured by Aborigines or who are engaged in adventures, and this narrative strategy enacts an opposition between Aboriginal participants in corroborees (wild, strange, possessed, irreligious) and the rational, sensible, white Christian boys who observe them. But the fear and dread attributed to white children who observe corroborees in fictional texts are, I think, related to a particular fault-line within the discursive regime that works within Australian colonial texts to legitimate white invasion and settlement: the slippage between the construction of Aborigines as godless savages and an awareness, never disclosed but always in danger of revealing itself, of the existence of indigenous spirituality.

While descriptions of corroborees generally focus on the reactions of white boys to Aboriginal practices observed in the here and now of white settlement, other episodes refer to white children's exposure to the signs of ancient ritual practices. In Richard Rowe's The Boy in the Bush (1869), two boy adventures, Harry and Donald, visit the Cave of the Red Hand, located in a mountain range and known locally for the Aboriginal rock paintings it contains. The red and white hands painted on the walls of the cave evoke questions about origins and meanings:

"Don't they look queer, Donald?" said Harry; "just as if they were murderers and people getting murdered poking their hands out of the stone. I wonder who did them, and what they mean."

"Why, the black fellows don't know," answered Donald. "They say the old people did them, but they don't know who the old people were. I expect a flood drowned them."


Harry's reading of the hands as "murderers and people getting murdered" projects onto the paintings white fear of black savagery, a common thread in children's texts and one that downplays the uncomfortable colonial facts of white violence upon the bodies of black people. The discourse of the text circumvents the notion that the paintings might encode meaning by refusing the possibility of cultural transmission: Donald's response to Harry's question implies that there is no continuity between the "now" of colonization and the "then" of time before white settlement, no present Aboriginal knowledge about the "old people."

Yet this insistence on discontinuity in black traditions is contradicted in the next passage, in which Donald recounts a bowdlerized version of "the story the black fellows tell about the Flood," a story about a sleeping giant who, upon waking, causes floods: "They say he is a giant—taller than that blue gum on the ridge. The old fellow puts them into a great funk. Up at our place I went out one day with a black fellow after honey … he took precious care to leave some of the honey for the old giant. If he's asleep, though, I don't see what good it would do him" (41). While the Aborigine who leaves honey to appease the sleeping giant acts against rationality ("If he's asleep … I don't see what good it would do him"), his actions manifest his orientation to a mythical past. Thus the text displays a contradictory position concerning Aboriginal spirituality: that it has failed to survive colonization ("the black fellows don't know … who the old people were") and that it is reflected in Aboriginal cultural practices after white settlement. Donald's account evokes from Harry this observation: "They're a queer lot, the black fellows … but they're a long sight better than new chums—they were born in the colony just like us. A black fellow can ride like a native, but those Englishmen look so scared when a horse begins to buck" (41). Through this narrative move the "queerness" of Aborigines, manifested through the painted hands and through the story of the Flood, is reduced and made manageable for child readers by being reconfigured into a comparison between "natives" (white people born in Australia) and "new chums" (British immigrants to Australia); in this scheme, Aboriginal culture and religious beliefs are constructed as a sort of harmless eccentricity that is overshadowed by the fact that "a black fellow can ride like a native." Even allowing for the ironic voice of the narrative frame within which the boys' adventures are set (for the adult narrator of The Boy in the Bush tells their adventures with an eye to readers positioned both to admire and to smile at the boys' colonial exuberance), the terms of the comparison, in which Aborigines are represented as "born in the colony just like us," constructs "us" as the true natives.

The episodes I have discussed exemplify some of the tensions and uncertainties displayed in colonial representations of Aboriginal spirituality and religious practices. The child readers of these texts are reassured as to the relative status of white and black people through a bundle of discursive strategies: Aboriginal rituals are represented as devil-worship, as "natural" expressions of savagery, as empty signifiers, as harmless foibles. In all cases, the effect is to construct a clear distinction between colonizers and colonized, between the certainties of Christianity and a set of Aboriginal practices represented as strange, incoherent, and barbaric. Yet representations of Aboriginal culture in colonial texts are characterized also by an insistence on the numinous. In The Boy in the Bush, for example, Donald and Harry's discovery of the cave is followed by an adventure narrative in which they lose their lantern and wander the labyrinth of tunnels inside the mountains. When at length they retrace their steps to the cave, they again pass by the hands painted on the rocks: "[When they first entered the cave] the faded red fingers seemed burnt up by the blazing sunlight; now they pointed dim beneath the dewy moonlight. When the boys thought of the dismal darkness the hand pointed to, they hurried by it as if it had power to push them back into the gloom" (49-50). The red fingers, pointing to the "dismal darkness" of the subterranean world, have been shaped by the black hands of Aborigines and constitute material manifestations of Aboriginal belief in a spiritual world, so that the painted hands of the cave evoke fear and awe through their evocation of an ancient spirituality impervious to colonization. Harry and Donald, for all their swaggering about being "natives" of the land, are exposed as the merest newcomers; while the will to truth is present in the boys' trivialization of Aboriginal belief, their sense of the power of Aboriginal culture exposes a gap between what is said and what is not said, and in this way the instability of colonial discourse is displayed.

As well as commenting on the action represented in colonial texts, images of landscape function, as Hodge and Mishra argue, as "transformations of people or aspects of people," and in many texts for children, such transformations involve projections of colonial unease concerning Aboriginal spirituality. Alfred St. Johnston's In Quest of Gold (1885) is an adventure novel in which two white boys, Alec and George Law, search for gold in order to save their family farm, which must otherwise be sold to pay debts to a swindler who has cheated their widowed mother. Within this melodramatic frame, the narrative carries the two boys and their Aboriginal servant, Murri, across dangerous terrain, and after an episode in which George has fallen down a precipice, the three camp in the open for the night. The narrative at this point is momentarily focalized through Murri's point of view, before shifting to the more usual strategy of focalization through the heroic white boys:

Murri, who lived in life-long dread of ghosts, debil-debils, and evil spirits, was trembling with superstitious fear. He thought [George's] cry had proceeded from the awful blackness round them—for the sky was overcast and the night was very dark—and cowering down he flung fresh wood on to the fire and made a cheerful blaze. Even Alec and George were glad of its bright companionship, for though they feared no invisible visitant it was eerie and wild on that lone mountain side, with the starless night sky above them, and a black stillness all around.


Here the "awful blackness" of the night functions as a transformation of Aboriginal "superstition." While the terms "starless" and "black stillness" encode a vast absence, the tensions of this passage are precisely those between absence and presence, between colonial constructions of Aborigines' lack of religion and a conflicting sense of the presence and potency of indigenous spiritualities:

Murri had crept quite near to [George] … and then, with that simple poetry of thought that all savages seem in some degree to possess, he added that what had alarmed him was that the darkness itself had stirred, and was moving towards him. "That is a grand idea and a terrible one, isn't it?" said George…. "To make a sort of personality of the very darkness. I believe superstition is catching, for I can myself almost believe that I see the darkness moving."


The narrative moves in two ways to reassure the young reader of the primacy of colonial truths: one is to subsume Aboriginal belief into a universalizing and trivializing construction of the primitive ("that simple poetry of thought that all savages seem … to possess"); the other is to interpret George's attraction to the "grand idea" of animate darkness in terms of the feverishness that he is suffering following his fall: "'Geordie, you are ill,' said the matter-of-fact Alec. 'I am sure you are, or you wouldn't talk such nonsense'" (104).

I have argued that the intersection of religious and colonial discourses in children's texts treats Australian landscapes in a variety of ways: as ungodly, godly, or neutral locations; as symbolic representations of the spiritual states of characters; and as projections of colonial ambivalence concerning Aboriginality and especially Aboriginal spirituality. In broader terms, the land is of course the principal focus of the imperial project, and here Christianity plays an equivocal and ambiguous role in colonial representation. For the inescapable facts of Australian colonial history (invasion, the theft of land, and the slaughter of many thousands of Aborigines) are scarcely compatible with the principles of the Christian Gospels, however loosely defined, and the discursive strategies of denial and projection are incapable of containing the tensions between the two.

George Sargent's novel Frank Layton (1865) manifests an uneasy preoccupation with the terrible effects of white settlement on the indigenous population, and with the role of Christianity within colonization. Interspersed with the novel's series of adventures are several episodes in which characters debate the morality of white settlement and black dispossession, and it is the saintly Mercy Matson (like Maggie Stirling, the conscience of her family) who puts the argument against colonization:

I only regret that wherever our white race has gained a footing, it has been a war of extermination—the strong against the feeble; and that the poor natives, when not destroyed, have been driven from their cherished possessions, and unrelentingly left to pine in unhealthy backwoods or dreary and inhospitable deserts. I regret still more, that religion and civilization have not gone hand in hand, and that efforts have not been made to bring back the wanderers to God and heaven.


Like Maggie's feminine misgivings, Mercy's invocation of religious discourse suffers from comparison with the main thrust of the narrative, which centers on the Boys' Own heroics of a series of adventures around life on a cattle station and in the goldfields. The gender politics of this text construct a contrast between the active masculine and the passive feminine, and in the passage above, Aborigines are interpolated within the feminine discourse attributed to Mercy. Accordingly, they are represented as weak and helpless, without agency, their actions rendered through the passive constructions "destroyed," "driven," and "left to pine." In this way discourses of Christianity are framed within a set of assumptions about the feminine that collide with and are inevitably overshadowed by the masculine discourses of adventure and activity that dominate the text. The passage also offers a clear example of the ways in which religious discourses are implicated within colonialism: Mercy's regret "that efforts have not been made to bring back the wanderers to God and heaven" erases reference to the material losses of land and food sources that constitute the Aborigines as "wanderers," promoting a quietism that treats Aboriginal dispossession as the price of "civilization."

The dilemma of Aboriginal dispossession is addressed in Frank Layton by way of another episode, in which an evangelical solution is proposed. In the passage below, Challoner Matson, Mercy's brother, tells of a kind of feudal village that embodies an Aboriginal sociality based on evangelical principles, a utopia established by a farmer with "strong feelings of sympathy with and benevolence towards the aboriginal natives" (247). In this settlement, Aboriginal men are employed (and paid) as shepherds and workmen, live "in comfortable huts" with their wives and children, are "decently clothed" and attend public worship:

On the morning after my arrival, I was invited by my host to attend public worship in the hall of his farm; and there I found myself in the company of a group of worshippers, all, except our two selves, with my friend's wife and children, the dark-skinned and despised natives of the country. They sang the praises of their God and Saviour in soft and musical tones; their eyes glistened with tears when they heard of the love of Jesus; they knelt in prayer at the footstool of Him who has "made of one blood all nations of men." It was a melting and reviving, and yet a depressing sight.


Within this utopia, Aborigines are displayed as Christians, but lesser Christians, constituting a homogenized group ("dark-skinned and despised natives") differentiated from white worshippers, who are identified as individuals. Their "soft and musical tones," their "eyes glisten[ing] with tears," feminize the colonized and construct them as objects of evangelization. At the same time, the text's utopian vision erases a double dispossession: the physical removal of the Aborigines from their ancestral lands to a feudal settlement, and the psychic disruption by which they are transmuted into Christians.

My discussion ends where it began, since the identification of imperialism and Christianity encoded in Emma Saville's view of a settlement designed by Providence, in A Mother's Offering to Her Children, is closely related to Challoner Matson's vision of Aborigines whose conversion to Christianity leaves the way clear for the appropriation of their land. For as I have said, land (and the economic advantages of ownership and expansion) is after all the main object of colonization,9 and the most striking features of the children's texts are the consistency of the discursive regime within which they work, the strenuousness with which they mobilize discourses of Christianity in order to legitimate colonial acts of invasion and dispossession, and the gaps and ruptures that characterize their treatments of religion. The Early Start inLife, The Children in the Scrub, and Frank Layton all conclude (like many other Australian colonial novels) with the building of a church or chapel in the bush, an image that incorporates many of the strands of signification that I have rehearsed. These buildings serve symbolically to locate Christianity in a space constructed as tabula rasa, a space previously empty of religion, and to displace colonial unease concerning Aboriginal spirituality. They claim the land for Christ by incorporating it within the civilizing ambit of home and the feminine. Most of all, in constituting the bush as a place of Christian worship, they appropriate the status of natives of the country, claiming for themselves the spiritual connection to the land that rightfully belongs to its indigenous inhabitants.

  1. By "Australian colonial texts" in this discussion I mean colonial texts employing Australian settings and characters, whether published in England or in Australia, and whether by Australian or British authors. Few children's books were published in Australia until the second half of the twentieth century; most colonial texts were published in England for the dual audience of English and Australian children.
  2. My understanding of "discourse" is based upon Michel Foucault's work, which views discourse as the principal mode by which institutions and social practices exercise and maintain power. Discursive regimes define what is seen to be "true" and "right" within their particular spheres.
  3. Michael Hogan points out that "for about thirty years, Catholics were denied freedom of worship, education in their faith, sacramental marriage or the consolation of their sick and dying" (25), and that, more importantly, "within the Irish Catholic community … there was a strong belief that Catholics had been persecuted and discriminated against from the start" (27). Samuel Marsden, the colony's second chaplain, described Catholics as follows: "[Catholics] are extremely superstitions, artful and treacherous which renders it impossible for the most watchful and active government to discover their real intention. They have no true concern whatever for any religion nor fear of the Supreme Being; but are fond of riot, drunkenness and cabals; and was the Catholic religion tolerated they would assemble together from every quarter, not so much from a desire of celebrating Mass, as to recite the miseries and injustice of their banishment, the hardships they suffer, and to enflame one another's minds with some wild scheme of revenge" (qtd. in Hogan 33).
  4. David Collins, a judge-advocate who came to Australia on the First Fleet in 1798, expressed a view of Aborigines dominant for the next century: "It has been asserted by an eminent divine, that no country has yet been discovered where some trace of religion was not to be found. From every observation and inquiry that I could make among these people, from the first to the last of my acquaintance with them, I can safely pronounce them an exception to this opinion" (qtd. in Hogan 17).
  5. See Kolodny for an extended discussion of the land as garden (and colonization as gardening) in the writing of American women pioneers.
  6. The tenets of Social Darwinism were frequently marshaled to support the theory, widely held in Australia until the middle of the twentieth century, that Aborigines were a doomed race, incapable of living in a civilized community (see McGregor). Henry Reynolds notes that such beliefs were used by many colonists to justify violence against Aborigines: "In the new harsh darwinian world a Queensland settler could declare publicly: 'and being a useless race what does it matter what they suffer'" (121).
  7. Indeed, an important colonial text, John Curtis's The Shipwreck of the Stirling Castle, claims that Australian Aborigines exist within "the zero order of civilisation" (qtd. in Schaffer Wake 73).
  8. The Macquarie dictionary glosses "corroboree" as "an Aboriginal assembly of sacred, festive or warlike character." The term has been replaced in contemporary Aboriginal usage by "ceremony" and "business" (Arthur 17-18, 20).
  9. In the 1990s, questions of land ownership, land rights, and Aboriginal spirituality still constitute a site of conflict in Australian political and public discourse, a state of affairs that looks set to continue for many years.
Works Cited

Arthur, J. M. Aboriginal English: A Cultural Study. Melbourne: Oxford UP, 1996.

Foucault, Michel. "The Order of Discourse." Modern Literary Theory: A Reader. Ed. Philip Rice and Patricia Waugh. 3rd ed. London: Hodder Headline, 1996.

Hodge, Bob, and Vijay Mishra. Dark Side of the Dream: Australian Literature and the Post-Colonial Mind. Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1990.

Hogan, Michael. The Sectarian Strand: Religion in Australian History. Melbourne: Penguin, 1987.

Kingston, W. H. G. Tales for Old and Young of All Classes. London: William Kent, 1862.

Kolodny, Annette. The Land before Her: Fantasy and Experience of the American Frontiers, 1630-1860. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1984.

McGregor, Russell. Imagined Destinies: Aboriginal Australians and the Doomed Race Theory, 1880-1939. Melbourne: Melbourne UP, 1997.

Mills, Sara. Discourses of Difference: An Analysis of Women's Travel Writing and Colonialism. London: Routledge, 1991.

Mortimer, Favell L. Far Off: Asia and Australia Described. London: T. Hatchard, 1852.

A Mother's Offering to Her Children by a Lady Long Resident in New South Wales. 1841. Sydney: Jacaranda P, 1979.

Norris, Emilia Marryat. The Early Start in Life. London: Griffith Farran Okeden, c.1867.

Reynolds, Henry. Frontier: Aborigines, Settlers and Land. Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1987.

Rowe, Richard. The Boy in the Bush. London: Bell & Daldy, 1869.

Sargent, George. Frank Layton: An Australian Story. London: Religious Tract Society, 1865.

Schaffer, Kay. In the Wake of First Contact: The Eliza Fraser Stories. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1995.

——. Women and the Bush: Forces of Desire in the Australian Cultural Tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1988.

St. Johnston, Alfred. In Quest of Gold, or, Under the Whanga Falls. London: Cassell, 1885.

Tandy, Sophia. The Children in the Scrub: A Story of Tasmania. London: Religious Tract Society, 1878.

White, Richard. Inventing Australia: Images and Identity, 1688-1980. Sydney: George Allen and Unwin, 1981.


John Gilliver (essay date December 1986)

SOURCE: Gilliver, John. "Religious Values and Children's Fiction." Children's Literature in Education 17, no. 4 (December 1986): 215-25.

[In the following essay, Gilliver examines religious thought as an aspect of children's literature and how the "the religious or spiritual values of children's books" act as a representation of what moral values adults wish to pass on to their children.]

If, as has been argued by Durkheim, the religious ideas of society are related to their ultimate social values, then in the religious or spiritual values of children's books we may begin to see what ultimate values, what sense of purpose and meaning, adult society wishes to pass on to its children. I hope here briefly to examine religious values in children's fiction since 1790 as a means of placing the present and present anxieties in the perspective of a tradition of anxiety and failure.

Prior to the 19th century, children had long been regarded as innately devilish, which is why they were swaddled for so long, so tightly, and were flogged so frequently. It was the new, professional seriousness of the 1790s about education and the child that helped to set a new value on the child. It was also in the first whisperings of this call for fresh attention to be paid to the child that the entrepreneurial Newbery spotted a market. The 1790s was also a time of growing industrialisation in England and of revolution in France; the old order was collapsing, and it was fear for social stability that brought the Evangelical Movement so rapidly into the field of children's fiction. In this the Evangelicals came as much as politicians as priests and sowed an initial impurity in their spiritual values—an utilitarian motive, despite their antirationalist stance—that was ultimately to confound them.

The Evangelicals feared that the middle-class child would find books in the new market which were indifferent to religion (and indeed could already point to Sandford and Merton, Harry and Lucy, and The Purple Jar) and that the lower orders might leave aside their bibles for such revolution-inspiring works as Tom Paine's The Rights of Man (1791).1 Their concern also goes some way to revealing the early 19th-century understanding of the nature and purpose of Christianity as the outside support for authority. Godwin Peak later in the 19th century remarks in Gissing's Born in Exile: "let the dogmas do what they still can. There's a vast police force in them, at all events."2 The concern, shared by George III, that every child should be taught to read the Bible, was a double-edged one in which the political edge was to blunt the spiritual.

The message that from Jesus had been so critical and radical is used by the Evangelicals in children's fiction as a bastion of the status quo. Stories were both to illustrate to children how they could save their souls and to counter insurrection and revolution. In Mrs. Sherwood's The History of the Fairchild Family (1st part 1818) the key notion is submission. Happiness is defined as submission to the word and will of God. Heaven and Hell are literal returns on a child's moral account; saving interest is accrued by the qualities of dependency: meekness, diligence, truth-telling, obedience. Religion entails the acceptance of the biblical word of God as literal, guaranteed truth and the admission that man is sinful and that his only hope lies in the doctrine of Atonement. God is the stern Judge who will finally calculate the child's earthly account, but Who may be spoken for in the meantime by the child's own father. Mr. Fairchild reproves his youngest child with the words: "I stand in the place of God to you, whilst you are a child."3

Parents assume an awesome power; naturally, they discourage ambition and initiative, and exhort the child to constant vigilance and self-examination. Mrs. Fairchild gives Lucy a note-book that she might note every day "the naughty things which pass in your heart." She reminds Lucy that she has not been naughty: "not because there is any goodness or wisdom in you, but because your papa and I have been always with you, carefully watching and guiding you from morning till night." The sort of self-consciousness and precocity which this religiousness bred was vigorously condemned by L. B. Lang: "The children are eternally watching themselves, probing themselves…. It is Self, Self, Self from morning till night."4

The more emotional qualities, such as generosity, impulsiveness, sensitivity, warm-heartedness, were ignored; the general impression is of indifference to spontaneous human feeling. Fiction and poetry were deeply distrusted. An actively felt, inward compassion or spirituality was neither cultivated nor required. The result was a precocious and fixed sense of station and of right.

However, there remained one essential characteristic which prevented Evangelical children's fiction from developing simply into a dull policeman's caution that everything might be used in evidence, and it stemmed from the depth of its neurosis about salvation. In Evangelical fiction moral and religious training had to be "evangelized": developed not by reason but by harrowing of the quickened feeling. The middle-class child is first terrified, then offered the noble path—to lead others, by example, to obey the Law of God. Revolution is thus averted and God is restored to the mind. At the end of Holiday House, the admirable Frank lies dying, refuses laudanum, conceals his sufferings, rivets his hands together, and "with an expression of placid submission"5 comforts his audience with the hope of God and of Christian joy. As far as the doctrinal and moral message is concerned the key word is "submission," but, however febrile, the wider emotional impact of the scene is intense; it offers to the starved imagination and emotions of the 19th-century child an image of noble and courageous heroism.

This was the point of growth in the religious story, though, ironically, it was to be taken in a secular direction. The creative potential and energy of this writing could not be developed in a religious way without a weakening of the literal understanding of God and Heaven. Where the dogma remained paramount, or held at a respectable standstill, writing like Holiday House could become only an increasingly clichéd and sentimentalized formula or else be over-taken and overshadowed by other developments. Indeed although doctrine is the sine qua non of Holiday House, the children are allowed a youth and impulsiveness unknown before; this element of spontaneity gives the children's emotions and the story itself the promise of flexibility. The way was open for the exciting narrative to be developed. Under such pressure, and unable to develop, the doctrine of the Evangelical tale lost impetus and soon began to be diffused into the work ethic and the "mother ethic."

At the same time, after 1840, the basis of Christian religion came under increasing pressure. The new sciences were beginning to undermine the historicity of the Bible. Literalism was attacked by Feuerbach in The Essence of Christianity and Strauss in Das Leben Jesu. Fortunately, for the middle classes, by the 1850s, the political crisis in England had passed and a new complacency and gemütlichkeit could settle; though, as a long-term insurance, ranks closed against the working class in a hardening of the utilitarian, nonconformist work ethic. As religion itself became difficult ground intellectually, the call for work and for soap provided a convenient rallying point for middle-class religious zeal. Simultaneously, the affective courage of the child's holy death and the depiction of innocent liveliness in children's stories promoted the growth of the values of steadfastness and charity as a central meaning of religiousness. While continuing to secure its position of dominance, the middle class could afford to demand charity of itself.

Mrs. Charlesworth's Ministering Children (1854) illustrates children's acts of charity in which the poor are sought out to be fed, clothed, or comforted. Charity entails the active pursuit of the needy to care for. The emphasis is on busyness; Martha rather than Mary exemplifies the Christian religious state. Herbert, a young gentleman in Ministering Children, says with a busy sense of noblesse oblige and without a hint of irony: "I suppose I was born to help the poor!" For the poor, who are expected to achieve but a dim understanding of religion and God, awakened spirituality entails a sense of remorse and humility and a return to hard work with renewed gratitude. The religious message passed on from the middle-class child to the poor was essentially one of busy, cheerful acceptance of one's lot; it was a comfortable doctrine, benefiting both the conscience of the middle class and their position.

Most children's writers in the mid-19th century stressed the value of work and induced a sense of reverence for progress, industry, and science. The secularization of the religious message, as the utilitarian note deepened, was not to be resisted. Generally, to be religious required acceptance and respectability, respectability required an improving seriousness with regard to life, and life, of course, meant work. Tom in The Water-Babies (1863) learns to "stick to hard work and cold water" and so emerges

as a great man of science, and can plan rail-roads, and steam engines, and electric telegraphs and rifled guns….

This was a religiousness which lent a thin, but nicely protective, veneer to the industrial and economic motive and the growth of British Imperialism; the emphasis on the conveniently ambiguous notion of Duty led easily to the blurring of the Christian with the Englishman abroad. Bravery and stoutness of heart could be respectably attributed to the young and well-bred English adventurer and in a popularly attractive way helped to blend Christianity, trade, and colonialism together as a romantic adventure. Kingsley in 1855 finds his noble ideal in the simple, unimaginative manliness of the young adventurer, Amyas Leigh; in 1857 Tom Brown's ambition is physical strength mixed with a rough sense of justice and courage; in 1860 Hain Friswell's central message to boys is to be "bold, brave" and "all ABOUT and OUT."6

Even when the Dickens—and Mayhew—inspired vogue for social realism provided the children's religious author with fresh impetus in the street arab formula (the innocent slum child surmounting huge difficulties with the aid of a Bible text), the assertion of the value of belief in God is swallowed in the final impact of Dickensian pathos and stage sentiment. In Hesba Stretton's (Sarah Smith) stories, such as Jessica's First Prayer, conversion to goodness is a simple matter of a change of will; God is perceived at a childlike level and as essentially concerned, loving, and forgiving.7 Yet the happy endings suggest that the Christian journey is to the material, to a comelier home, food, fresh air, and friends, to a deck-chair amid flowers where no further spiritual questions are necessary. The spiritual basis of the stories is essentially humanitarian and sentimental.

The ultimate effect of the cult of poverty and child innocence was to create "society's child" rather than "God's child" and to imply ultimately not the presence of God's concern, but the absence of public responsibility. Though ill usage died hard, the real impact of Dickens and Hesba Stretton, I think, is evidenced in that society at large began to feel the growing weight of the buck as it lay in their hands and could not be simply passed on or up to God. As far as religion itself was concerned, the old straightforward didactic attitude to children, satirized by Dickens and Lewis Carroll, was made no longer acceptable by an enlarged sympathy for the mind and feelings of the child. At the Back of the North Wind (1871) tried perhaps to point a more serious way ahead for the religious story; although using all the stage clichés, it largely freed itself from religious dogma by internalizing the Christian message and translating it into a poetic vision. Macdonald, however, was ahead of his time.8

In 1863 E. Renan published his Vie de Jésus, which completely excluded the supernatural; in the 1870s and 80s the sense, in religion, of misgiving and constant apprehension deepened. By the turn of the century questions about religion and morality had become so problematic that refuge from complexity was sought in the assertion of simple, social virtues and in vigorously conventional activity, obliterating worry. Commentators had begun to be worried about falling standards; Horace Scudder complained in 1867:

Such books as will not keep are about as good as breakfast cakes; producing an instantaneous inflation and, as inevitably, an aching void afterward.9

The problem shared by adult society and children's books was what could authorize morality if morality was not to be circumscribed by religion and if religion as political policeman was aged and failing.

A covert code, however, was gradually replacing the unsupportable and uncomfortable authoritarianism of moral and religious didacticism; according to Salmon,10 it largely consisted of "a scrupulous regard for honour."11 Children's fiction with an avowed religious concern now followed the secular example in urging the child to play the game in the healthy outdoors. Religiousness is made synonymous with vigorous decency and, then, decent vigorousness. Even in Charlotte Yonge, still in the by now anachronistic tradition of Mrs. Trimmer and the Evangelicals, religious faith is equated with valour and unquestioning activity—seizing for its example on the adventure of spreading the Gospel abroad.12

The Great war helped further weaken adult and external authority and saw the final overthrow of the Victorian father (to which end Dickens, Butler, Gosse, and Freud all contributed). Quiller-Couch registers the mood:

we left you youngsters to wipe up the mess, and you must restore the garden in which we shall walk humbly with you.13

This sense of failure served to give a greater measure of freedom to the young and also to increase diffidence, indifference even, with regard to religion and large issues. With its gentle irony Winnie-the-Pooh (1926) acknowledges the newly felt bathetic quality of the human adventure:

"When you wake up in the morning, Pooh," said Piglet at last, "what's the first thing you say to yourself?"14

"What's for breakfast?" said Pooh. "What do you say, Piglet?"

"I say, I wonder what's going to happen exciting today?" said Piglet.

Pooh nodded thoughtfully.

"It's the same thing," he said.

The old, authoritative religious message could confidently claim faith in itself no longer. Indeed in North-cliffe's papers for girls, religion was banned. Even in missionary literature for children, by the 1920s, the religious meaning had closed with the secular. In E. H. Hayes' Wiliamu: Mariner Missionary (1922) the central vision amounts to "teaching the natives to live decently in separate houses." Religious concern is for the spread of civilisation in terms of decency and trade; it is a concern indistinguishable from the social and economic values of an age, a country, and a class.

After the turn of the century, the general trend was away from the troubled adult world, which was so fraught with intellectual problems that it seemed impossible for children's fiction to think through a path that touched on adult realities. Miss Minchin exclaimed in A Little Princess to Sara Crewe, "How dare you think!"15 To think now would indeed have been daring; it was far easier to slide into simple, middle-class sentimentalities epitomized in Enid Blyton. Writing of this time was not only sodden in illusion, as George Orwell aptly noted, its illusions also projected the illusoriness of sureness and hid its deeper trepidation.16 With utmost, apparent confidence it avoided unattractive realities to the point of turning its back on life. Religious questions were lost in the strident affirmation of the decent and the clean; the spiritual basis of which was little more than a middle-class nationalism.

The first steps towards renewal came in the rediscovery of myth and poetry: if children's fiction dared not think consciously, myth and poetry could enable it to do so subconsciously. In turning to these, it was also inevitable that children's fiction would turn again, in some form, to religion, since much had been slowly at work during the 19th century and early 20th century from Coleridge and Arnold to Kierkegaard and Jung to associate religion with story and poetry. The argument was that religion apprehended truth through image and symbol, not through naked concept, and was founded on faith and what in us responds to value and not upon logical demonstration. Arnold argued that it was the "Aberglaube" of religion (the unnecessary miraculous foundations and historicity) that had been undermined by science, not its essential spirit.17 He even went so far as to say that a religion without poetry was no religion at all and that "most of what now passes with us for religion and philosophy will be replaced by poetry."18 The language of the Bible, he maintained, was literary and needed to be read with the flexible spirit born of literary training (Literature and Dogma); thus as the Bible is understood as poetry, and its truths as poetic truths, so the spirituality of Christianity becomes paramount.

Later, Karl Jaspers argued further that the real task was not to demythologise religion, but to recover mythical thought in its original purpose. Jung argued that poets resorted to myth as a means to wisdom, psychic health, and a purposive religious outlook on life; myth seemed to harness the spiritual with the moral aspect of religion that Arnold strove for.19 Myth could also effectively incorporate into its form 19th-century pantheism, the internalisation of the religious demand, and the new shattered image of the innocent child in a way that the Victorian vogue for heroes and heroic mythology could not. The Hobbit (1937) reveals, I think, an early receptiveness to these influences; despite shortcomings, it illustrates a new poetic in children's fiction and a new religious outlook.20 Hopefulness is here but as a glimpse of purpose or spiritual value in a landscape which eludes final comprehension. Religion is both undogmatic and unallegorical; its meaning has largely to be intuited. God is Unseen, but potentially present. More immediately visible is the negative: Gollum presents the soul lost in a spiritual wilderness—he clings with poignant desperation to his useful, tiny bit of materialism, his birthday present to himself, such comfort and such magic.

After Tolkien a new concern for the magic and poetry of life emerged. In Hughes' The Iron Man (1968), Hogarth is able to stretch the sympathetic imagination and tolerance for the nonhuman to learn to make friends with the strange Iron Man and so to meet an unusual problem with imaginative intelligence. For Hughes, the story or myth is "a kit" which enables us to reconcile the "full presence" of the "inner" with the "outer world."21 In stories such as The Earthsea Trilogy (1968-73) and I am David (1965) a search for identity is linked with an imaginative search for spiritual help and meaning:

Then David decided that he must have a God; it might help. But which God should he choose?22

The world is one now which admits there are few solid assurances:

There is no safety. There is no end. The word must be heard in silence.23

The journey here is an inward one; progress on it demands sensitivity, openness, endurance, courage and doubt; religious meaning is tentative, nonliteral, and

incipient. There is certainly a degree of dramatised heroism, but this heroism which asks "What is a good man?", in its capacity for doubt, is a very different heroism from that of the late 19th-century adventure stories. By comparison, C. S. Lewis's allegorical Narnia series, muscularly dogmatic and doctrinal, seems more simply to have clothed a retrogressive 19th-century outlook in fantasy and to have missed the profounder change: "There are no accidents. Our guide is Aslan."24

It was possibly the new integrity and spiritual questioning in children's fiction which encouraged Singer to say: "the child has become the guardian of those moral and religious values which the adults have rejected in the name of an ill-conceived notion of social progress."25 Yet J. R. Townsend and Singer have also noticed the pervasion of children's fiction with the "smart values"26 of a new didacticism. Something already seems to be going wrong.

On the theological level the Arnoldian call for poetry and the Kierkegaardian cry for the religious demand to be internalized have gained a widening audience. Don Cupitt has forcefully argued that religion is "a cluster of spiritual values":

He (God) is needed—but as a myth…. Now the religious life is an inner drama, the story of our response to the eternal religious requirement. It must be expressed in story-form, and religious stories are myths.27

For others Christianity invites not dependency, but questions, choices, responsibilities, and Christ has become an intensely suffering, human figure. The religious person needs here a degree of imagination or poetry and of tolerance for uncertainty. It has been argued recently that Christianity, arising out of a story, needs to be understood through the aesthetic imagination.28

Bringing this to the educational level, religious education has seized upon the use of contemporary stories as a means of teaching the "relevance" of religion and morality to pupils in whom the 20th-century tradition of indifference to religion has hardened. One danger is that the larger vision can be quickly narrowed, by tactless handling and ideological objectives, to the use of stories for specific moral or religious lessons—and suddenly it would seem we are not so far away, after all, from Mrs. Trimmer and the Evangelical Movement.

Jean Holm comments: "Coming to terms with the dark side of life … is difficult for children … fortunately many of the stories for children are ideal for this purpose."29 In The Wind Eye (1976), we read, "Christians plunge from what they can see into what they can't. It's called having faith—it's dangerous." Such statements may lend themselves to the tones of a disconcertingly didactic collusion between writers and educationalists. Religion may have returned, but the danger may be that in becoming so quickly conscious of the means, intentions, and effects of its return, it is already coarsening its new found spirituality. It may still be that the new theology will ultimately command a more sensitive hearing in children's fiction. However, if the new spiritual concern translates into the overconscious emotional drama (a life-line for relevant teaching and an easy market for writers) then it seems we will be back to the tight, religious knot of the admirable Frank in Holiday House—making of it a looser end doctrinally, but otherwise just as self-absorbed and precocious. God will have been removed off-stage, but the Self will have remained audience and actor, vainly undogmatic, still eternally watching itself.

Sheila Egoff has commented that contemporary authors tell children "how to live emotionally, as their predecessors told them how to behave."30 The new religious stirring in children's fiction may simply become no more than fuel to this trend; turning its back perhaps on the role of politician or policeman, but for that of psychologist rather than priest. Something with less articulate, less conscious, and less obvious designs may well be preferable. As Huck Finn said with unpretentious sanity:

But I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she's going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can't stand it. I been there before.31

The heart of the present unease is simply the problematic heart of the long tradition of religious involvement in children's fiction: the utilitarian strain, whatever its degree, has ultimately bred not religious and spiritual values, but paganism.


  1. T. Day, The History of Sandford and Merton (3 vols., 1793, 1796, 1798); Maria Edgeworth, The Purple Jar (1796), and Harry and Lucy (1801).
  2. G. Gissing, Born in Exile (1892).
  3. Mrs. Sherwood, The History of the Fairchild Family.
  4. L. B. Lang, "The Fairchild Family and Their Creator," Longman's Magazine XXI (April 1893), reprinted in Salway, ed., A Peculiar Gift.
  5. C. Sinclair, Holiday House (1839).
  6. C. Kingsley, Westward Ho! (1855); T. Hughes, Tom Brown's Schooldays (1857); J. H. Friswell, Out and About (1860).
  7. Hesba Stretton, Jessica's First Prayer (1867).
  8. G. Macdonald, At the Back of the North Wind.
  9. Horace Scudder, "Books for Young Children," Riverside Magazine (Jan. 1867), reprinted in Haviland, ed., Children and Literature.
  10. E. Salmon, Juvenile Literature As It Is (1888).
  11. An extract from this work by Salmon is reprinted under the title "Books for Boys" in Salway, ed., A Peculiar Gift.
  12. Charlotte Yonge, The Making of a Missionary; or Daydreams in Earnest (1900).
  13. A. Quiller-Couch, "To the Front from the Backs," The Cambridge Review, Feb. 24, 1915.
  14. A. A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh.
  15. F. H. Burnett, A Little Princess: Being the Whole Story of Sarah Crewe (1905).
  16. George Orwell, "Boys Weeklies," Horizon Magazine, May 1940, reprinted in Collected Essays.
  17. Matthew Arnold, Literature and Dogma.
  18. Matthew Arnold, Essays in Criticism, 2nd Series (1884).
  19. C. Jung, Modern Man in Search of a Soul.
  20. J. R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit.
  21. T. Hughes, "Myth and Education," CLE, 1970, 1 (March), 55-70.
  22. A. Holm, I am David.
  23. Ursula Le Guin, The Farthest Shore.
  24. C. S. Lewis, The Silver Chair.
  25. I. B. Singer, "I See the Child as the Last Refuge," New York Times Book Review, Nov. 9, 1969.
  26. J. R. Townsend, "Didacticism in Modern Dress," in Egoff et al., eds., Only Connect.
  27. Don Cupitt, Taking Leave of God.
  28. M. Warnock, "Imagination—Aesthetic and Religious."
  29. Jean Holm, Teaching Religion in School; R. Westall, The Wind Eye.
  30. Sheila Egoff, "Precepts, Pleasures and Portents: Changing Emphases in Children's Literature," in Egoff et al., eds., Only Connect.
  31. Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn.


Arnold, Matthew, Literature and Dogma. New York: Ungar, 1970. (Originally published, London, 1884.)

Cupitt, D., Taking Leave of God. London: S.C.M. Press, 1980.

Edgeworth, Maria, "The Purple Jar," in From Instruction to Delight: An Anthology of Children's Literature to 1850, Demers and Noyles, eds. Toronto: O.U.P., 1982.

Egoff, Sheila, and Stubbs, Ashley, eds., Only Connect: Readings on Children's Literature. London: O.U.P., 1980.

Haviland, V., ed., Children and Literature: Views and Reviews. London, 1973.

Hayes, E. H., Williamu: Mariner Missionary. London, Pioneer Series, 1922.

Holm, A., I am David. London: Puffin, 1977.

Holm, Jean, Teaching Religion in School. London: O.U.P., 1975.

Hughes, T., The Iron Man. London: Faber & Faber, 1968.

Jung, C., Modern Man in Search of a Soul. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981.

Le Guin, Ursula, The Farthest Shore. London: Puffin, 1973.

Lewis, C. S., The Silver Chair. London: Fontana, 1982.

Macdonald, G., At the Back of the North Wind. London: Collins, 1958.

Milne, A. A., Winnie-the-Pooh. London: Methuen, 1974.

Orwell, George, Collected Essays, Vol. 1, G. Orwell and Angus, eds. London, 1968.

Salway, L., ed., A Peculiar Gift: Nineteenth-Century Writings on Books for Children. London: Kestrel, 1976.

Tolkien, J. R. R., The Hobbit. London: Longman, 1968.

Twain, Mark, Huckleberry Finn. London: Puffin, 1963.

Warnock, M., "Imagination—Aesthetic and Religious," Theology, 1980 (Nov.), LXXXIII.

Westall, R., The Wind Eye. London: Macmillan, 1976.

Maureen Nimon (essay date December 1988)

SOURCE: Nimon, Maureen. "From Faith to Good Fellowship: Sunday School Magazines in the Late Nineteenth Century." Children's Literature in Education 19, no. 4 (December 1988): 242-51.

[In the following essay, Nimon studies how the "narrowly didactic" "Sunday School magazines" for children evolved over the course of the nineteenth century.]

Twentieth-century commentators, concerned to trace the emergence of children's literature as we define it today, have been dismissive of nineteenth-century Sunday school magazines because of their narrowly didactic origins. Instead, they have concentrated their attention on titles of greater literary worth such as Aunt Judy's Magazine. Yet Sunday school magazines are of some significance in the history of children's reading if only because they were the "most easily accessible literature for most children"1 in Great Britain for a substantial part of the nineteenth century. Moreover, they appear to have been readily available in many parts of the English-speaking world. In South Australia, for example, they were the children's items most frequently advertised in the local press from the 1850s to 1900.2 A study of two prominent Sunday school magazines highlights the ideological curriculum to which their readers were exposed. It also reveals how the religious code of values and behaviour preached through their pages gradually evolved into one that was essentially social and secular.3

In the 1860s the role of the Sunday school magazines in promulgating religious values was unequivocal. They could clearly be seen to be part of evangelical efforts to reform society. Yet, by the end of the century, they had changed so much as to be scarcely distinguishable from other children's magazines of the time. Certainly, they still contained some Christian instruction, but their emphasis by then was recreational. The process of their evolution may be traced in four ways. First, it can be seen in the modification of the original dominant themes of the magazines. Second, it can be seen in changes in the nature of the rewards and punishments meted out in stories. It appears again in the adoption of new forms of narrative; and finally, it is reflected in a shift in the rationale used to justify certain kinds of behaviour.

A powerful impact is made on the reader who systematically examines the annual volumes of The Children's Friend for the 1860s. Both editors and contributors believed their tasks to be a God-given duty. The future welfare of the nation depended on them; there could be no compromise in their manner. The stories, anecdotes, and poems which filled their pages were brusquely and boldly to the point, banishing ambiguity. The seriousness of their chosen themes and the severity of their treatment of them made few allowances for the youthfulness of their intended audience. The Child's Companion and Juvenile Instructor for the same years was milder in tone, and relied less on direct exhortation and more on narrative forms. In its pages the punishments visited on wicked children were less life-threatening than those in The Children's Friend.

Nevertheless, there was a remarkable consistency in the themes that dominated the content of the two magazines. These themes were that life is a time of trial; the world is the physical revelation of God's power, presence, and purpose; Christianity is the key to human happiness and progress; prayer and the Bible are the spiritual support needed to live piously; and children's behaviour should be characterised by kindness, politeness, truthfulness, and obedience.

In the pages of the Sunday school magazines children were ininstructed that life is a short interval in this world given to people as an opportunity by which they might win salvation. The new year was often an occasion for articles which sought to impress upon children the relentlessness of the flight of time, our helplessness to alter any part of the past or to secure for ourselves the certainity of a personal future. In these articles, God would appear in His most fearsome capacity, that of the judge who watches our every action, monitors our every thought. This austerity, however, is relieved by God's willingness to forgive those who turned to Him:

The old year has gone—gone for ever! We cannot recall one misspent moment! We cannot blot out one thoughtless or unhallowed word we have spoken. We cannot cancel any unkind action we have done. How solemn the thought that the record of all our thoughts, words and actions of the past year, and all previous years, is in God's "Book of Remembrance" … Let us pray that, during the new year on which we are, by God's good providence, privileged to enter, TIME may be well spent by us: every day may we be seeking to do the will of "our Father which is in heaven"; then will it indeed be to us "A HAPPY NEW YEAR."4

The importance of each action was also emphasised by the "awful warning" stories. These were brief, often couched in rhetorical language, and were notable for the extreme nature of the consequences which inexorably followed some minor misdemeanour. One boy, having stolen a marble, fell into a life of crime and was finally hanged for murder. Another took an apple and years later was transported for theft. Nevertheless, such terrible fates could be avoided if the sinner confessed and begged forgiveness.

The treatment of death in the magazines lent weight to the theme of life as a time of trial. Readers were warned:

Life is short; improve the hours
You may only have today.
(Ibid., p. 68)


For even now my feet may stand
Upon the river's brink;
I may be nearer to my home,
Much nearer than I think.
(p. 110)

Yet children were also assured that if they were afraid to die, they should find comfort in the knowledge that death was merely a gateway to a better land where God waited for them.

In the Sunday school magazines the world was described as the physical evidence of God's power, presence and purposes. Nature revealed the greatness of God. In The Children's Friend for 1861, a poem on "The Use of Flowers" described their function as being to comfort people and to remind them when they despaired that He who cared for the flowers would much more care for them. Animals, too, showed forth the wonders of God's creation. Bob, the fireman's dog, proved to be brave, faithful, and dutiful. Thus children might "learn useful lessons even from the beasts and birds" (ibid., pp. 33-34).

The theme of Christianity as the key to human welfare and progress was an assumption that underlay much of the content of these magazines. It strongly shaped their assessment of other cultures, which invariably were judged deficient when measured against the criterion of Christian civilization. This emerged clearly in the stress placed on the importance of the work of the missions and the need to give them constant support.

Christianity transformed the people converted to it. Anecdotes from Labrador, New Zealand, and Madagascar told of the great change which the Bible wrought in the hearts of the heathen. They underlined the worldwide endeavour of missionaries and presented a panorama of spreading Christianity driving back the walls of darkness. Children were constantly urged to contribute to the missions' civilizing task by donating their pennies.

Those readers inspired by the high ideals of the magazines were advised that prayer was a means of obtaining the grace to live and die as God decreed. The Bible was the other source of strength, guidance, and truth, always "in reach of the poorest child."5 Sick children, too, might draw comfort from their bibles, and constant perusal would make the reader into the kind of person likely to succeed. The view of the Bible as a source of earthly influence was also revealed in the story of the African who asked Queen Victoria for the secret of England's greatness. He received in reply a copy of the Bible.

The ideal children of the Sunday school magazines were kind, polite, truthful, and obedient. Through volume after volume, they returned kisses for blows and averted wrath by giving soft answers. Their gentleness and Christian charity shamed their companions into renewed attempts to practise virtue. Conscious that "Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord,"6 these children knew that the feature most prized in their conduct towards their parents was obedience.

Obedience was undoubtedly a child's first duty. The need for obedience permeated the Sunday school magazines so that in a single volume generally there would be several stories concerning it. There were even stories that advised children to guide their actions by what they thought their parents would want them to do if they were not there to give them specific instructions.

Virtuous children won praise. Sometimes they were given material rewards. Lilly refused to buy cherries without her mother's permission. When her mother knew this, she bought some for Lilly as a reward. Generally, though, good children had to be content with admiration and the knowledge that their actions were pleasing to God.

Conversely, wicked children found that their behaviour led inexorably to disaster. The seriousness with which The Children's Friend regarded questions of good and bad conduct is indicated by the severity of the punishments inflicted for wrong doing. Disobedience was not only deplorable, it was terrifyingly dangerous. Little Sammy ignored his mother and lost an eye by playing with a candle. Another child, told not to touch a poker, did so and burned his hand very badly. Obedience was not only the godly choice, it was also the wise one.

Thus in the 1860s the Sunday school magazines taught their readers the purpose and meaning of life and a code of behaviour by which they might fulfill that purpose. Their major recurring themes complemented each other to construct a vivid picture of the world as God's creation. It was a picture presented with unchallengable confidence, devoid of half-tones, forbidding doubt or apathy. By 1870, however, their messages became less severe, and over the next two decades, the nature and extent of the changes taking place in them were dramatic.

In content the religious gave way to the recreational. Direct Christian instruction almost disappeared. Nowhere were the concepts taught earlier contradicted; occasionally they emerged as passing references. But they were no longer central concerns. Rather they were taken for granted, part of the underlying framework of assumptions expected to shape the way readers of the magazines looked at life.

The sense of urgency, the need to be constantly on guard against temptation, the atmosphere of struggle in a harsh and dangerous world, had gone. There were still illustrated texts and hymns and puzzles based on the Bible, but the tone of the magazines had altered strikingly. By the early 1900s, title pages advertised their stories as stirring and claimed them to be by popular writers. In 1903, The Children's Friend even ran a competition which it urged children to enter by the enticement of ten pounds prize money. Readers were told to imagine "all the nice things you could get"7 with such a sum. The editors of the 1860s would have been appalled by such encouragement to self-indulgence.

As the messages of the magazines grew milder, so did their punishments for wrong doing. In a story in The Children's Friend in 1861, a boy won a white pigeon, but soon lost it when a jealous competitor released it from its cage. To ease the boy's disappointment, his mother comforted him by telling him that "if Arthur had acted so ungenerous a part, it would sooner or later come home to him." Shortly afterwards, the ill-fated Arthur died after being kicked by a horse and suffering some hours of agony. Arthur's punishment was both extreme and unrelated to his action. Readers taking such a story to heart might well wait in dread to be struck down for their small misdemeanours. Later in the decade, sinners still suffered greatly, but their afflictions were less arbitrary than in "The White Pigeon." The child who lost his eye playing with a candle suffered as a result of his own actions. His story showed that parental directions reflected a better understanding of the world than that of children and so were to be followed even when not understood. In this way the practice of obedience became less a matter of faith and more one of reason.

As punishments were moderated, awful warning stories grew fewer. In the 1860s, many articles in The Children's Friend were of the awful warning kind: brief, economic, and constructed to point a moral in the baldest and most threatening terms. By the 1870s, the magazine's stories were still consciously didactic, but a tone of persuasion was beginning to replace exhortation and harangue. In form, short, dogmatic, and heavy-handed items were replaced increasingly by longer narratives. These longer stories dealt with a real rather than an artificially devised landscape in which every single action, no matter how minor, held an inescapable consequence. Their characters were often children who were recognizably human, rather than personifications of virtue or vice.

The greater length of stories was matched by an increasingly realistic and full portrayal of domestic life. In literary terms it was probably this factor which was chiefly responsible for modifying the nature of punishments administered. Authors who carefully described family life in a way intended to make it convincing and immediate to their audiences were bound by the constraints of probability, leading them to develop their plots in terms of the common experiences of daily living rather than those of dramatic emphasis. Thus a serial in The Children's Friend in 1870 detailed several small incidents in the life of a nine-year-old. The description of Nellie's home life lent credibility to the tale by its mundane detail, but it also restricted the scope of the action unless the tenor of the story was to change drastically.

Living in a quiet village and the only child of loving parents, Nellie enjoyed an enviable degree of security both material and psychological. The elements of the plot were inherent in the facts so far given. Nellie had a tendency to impatience which her parents hoped to check. Thus when she sprained her ankle, she received loving and gentle attention, but her enforced inactivity was seen by her parents as a providential opportunity by which she might learn patience. They made use of the accident in a number of ways to guide Nellie's growth in self-control, culminating in the doctor's taking her on visits to see a patient whose sufferings helped Nellie put her own inconvenience and minor deprivation into perspective. The awful warnings of earlier volumes were similar to exemplars employed in sermons to point a moral; "Nellie Vaughan" is rather a narrative in literary terms, conveying moral instruction but with claims to be a genuine short story.

Even where the old story forms still appeared, they were not without alteration. In "Bobby's Fright," an awful warning story in The Child's Companion and Juvenile Instructor, its translation into a more realistic and less threatening style than employed earlier may be seen. Bobby's story began in the same style as those of the 1860s when to steal a single apple or sixpence was to step irrevocably into a life of crime. But by 1886, when greedy Bobby stole one of the squire's apples, he was merely caught and beaten. His school master came along and cut short the beating, but warned the boy that many a thief who had died in prison had begun by stealing apples. Bobby should try to be honest in little things so he would find it easy to be honest in big ones. Here the amelioration of the punishment is not the point. The key is the implication that Bobby's future was saved by this incident, not doomed by it.

Another notable change which occurred in the final decades of the century was a major shift in the reasons advanced for acting in approved ways. As time passed, the justification of good behaviour was likely to be social and secular rather than religious. The same standards of personal conduct were advocated now as before. The implication remained that good behaviour was that which was pleasing to God. But what was stated was that good behaviour was socially desirable; it facilitated relationships between people and bestowed on those who practised it composure, self-respect, and the esteem of others. Children who were patient and obedient contributed to a satisfying and peaceful family life. When a father advised his son to be well-mannered, his advice was not founded on the need to "love one another." Rather he was concerned that the boy's behaviour would help to establish his social status, showing him to be a gentleman.

The energy previously devoted to encouraging readers to support missionaries overseas was now directed to helping charities at home. These charities were concerned with the immediate material needs of their recipients, not their spiritual welfare. Readers were asked to donate picture books and toys to a creche in Stepney for working mothers. Likewise, help was asked for the Fresh Air Mission which gave poor city children the chance to spend a week in the country. By "doing good" to those outside the family, children could help to ease social tensions.

Thus in general terms the changes in Children's Friend and Child's Companion show that the tradition of religious writing which had stimulated publishing for children was exhausted by 1900. Insofar as the magazines continued to advocate a personal piety and a demanding code of ethical behaviour, a fragment of the early tradition lingered on in them. To this degree they remained true to their original purpose. Nevertheless their innovations were more significant than the traditions they maintained. To study them, therefore, is to discover how content, narrative forms, and ethical codes were gradually modified in line with the new concept of childhood which characterised late Victorian society, the adoption of which was signified principally by legislation requiring children to attend school. It is surely one of the special values of children's reading materials that their inherent simplicity lays such developments open to examination more readily than alternative forms of evidence. At the same time, they reveal how children's leisure reading at that time was designed to be part of their informal education.


  1. S. A. Egoff, Children's Periodicals of the Nineteenth Century, p. 11.
  2. M. Nimon, Children's Reading in South Australia, 1851-1900, p. 75.
  3. The content of this article is based on a study of the annual volumes of The Children's Friend for 1861, 1865, 1869, 1870, 1878, 1879, 1880, 1886, 1890, 1892, 1893, and 1903, and of the The Child's Companion and Juvenile Instructor for 1860, 1862, 1863, 1865, 1867, 1886, 1888, 1889, and 1890. Both were published in England.
  4. Children's Friend, 1861, p. 2.
  5. Children's Friend, 1861, p. 173.
  6. Children's Friend, 1865, p. 56.
  7. Children's Friend, 1903, p. 17.


Egoff, S. A., Children's Periodicals of the Nineteenth Century. London: Library Association, 1951.

Nimon, M., Children's Reading in South Australia, 1851-1900. Unpublished Ph.D. thesis, Flinders University of S. A., 1988.

Weimin Mo and Wenju Shen (essay date spring 1999)

SOURCE: Mo, Weimin, and Wenju Shen. "The Twenty-Four Paradigms of Filial Piety: Their Didactic Role and Impact on Children's Lives." Children's Literature Association Quarterly 24, no. 1 (spring 1999): 4-14.

[In the following essay, Mo and Shen offer a critical reading of the classic Confucian text, The Twenty-Four Examples of Filial Piety, and expound on how the work attempts to establish a moral standard for Chinese children.]

The texts that make up the orthodox canon of Confucianism, The Classic of Filial Piety and its supplement The Twenty-Four Examples of Filial Piety, could be considered the oldest example of children's literature that still has a strong impact on children's daily life.1The Classic of Filial Piety has been dated by modern scholars to the period between 200 B.C. and A.D. 350 (Barnhart 73). Consisting of a series of conversations between Confucius and one of his disciples, Tseng-tzu, it provides a systematic instruction in filial piety and represents the epitome of the literary classics on the topic (Traylor 63-64). Written in archaic Chinese, which is drastically different both syntactically and semantically and far more compact than the modern language, it employs fewer than four hundred Chinese characters and is divided into eighteen short chapters that children can easily read, memorize, and recite.2 Until the beginning of the twentieth century, Chinese children from well-to-do families started their education at home at private schools for their clan. For around two thousand years, until the downfall of the Qing dynasty in 1911, The Classic of Filial Piety was the first textbook for schoolchildren in China, the work from which they learned both ethics and how to read. Even though in ancient times literate people made up only a small percentage of society, the scholar class in China successfully instilled those teachings into every aspect of life. Moreover, The Twenty-Four Examples of Filial Piety, which embodied the teachings of the earlier book, powerfully reinforced its predecessor's didactic role. Thus The Twenty-Four Examples of Filial Piety has been traditionally accepted as an official supplement to The Classic of Filial Piety; the stories in this supplement were so popular that even nonliterate people became thoroughly versed in Confucian teachings.

According to Confucius, filial piety encompasses all aspects of human social life and is implied by all the virtues associated with human behavior. It is the keystone that organically links politics, ethics, and religion in a way not found in other cultures. The eighteen chapters of The Classic of Filial Piety provide fundamental principles regarding the role of filial piety, and a glance at some of the chapter titles gives some idea about its importance in life of the Chinese. They delineate the duties of filial piety in relation to social institutions and for people in all walks of life: "Filial Piety in Relation to the Five Punishments," "Filial Piety in Relation to the Three Powers," "Filial Piety in Government," "Filial Piety in Mourning for Parents," "Filial Piety in the Son of Heaven," "Filial Piety in High Ministers and Great Officers," "Filial Piety in Lesser Officials," "Filial Piety in the Common People," and so on. In his introduction, Confucius explains that filial piety provides the foundation for an all-embracing rule of conduct:

Our bodies—to every hair and bit of skin—are received by us from our parents, and we must not presume to injure or wound them:—this is the beginning of filial piety. When we have established our character by the practice of the filial course, so as to make our name famous in future ages, and thereby glorify our parents:—this is the end of filial piety. It commences with the service of parents; it proceeds to the service of the ruler; it is completed by the establishment of the character.

(Doeblin 142)

Chapter Ten, "An Orderly Description of the Acts of Filial Piety," describes how filial piety is linked to ethics and politics:

He who thus serves his parents, in a high situation, will be free from pride; in a low situation, will be free from insubordination; and, among his equals, will not be quarrelsome. In a high situation pride leads to ruin; in a low situation insubordination leads to punishment; among equals quarrelsomeness leads to the wielding of weapons. If those three things be not put away, even though a son every day contribute beef, mutton, and pork to nourish his parents, he is not filial.

(qtd. in Barnhart 118)

Obviously Confucius believes that filial piety has the moral power to purify politics.

Shortly after filial piety became a central concept within the Confucian ethic, touching stories of filial models in real life began to be appreciated, recorded, and popularized. Since the Han dynasty (206 B.C. A.D. 220), the authorized histories of each dynasty in China have added to the list of paragons their own examples of admirably filial sons and daughters, as well as officials and emperors noted for their filial behavior. For many centuries their stories have been known as The Twenty-Four Examples of Filial Piety, and they personify the ethical implications of filial piety. Since they were written in a more colloquial language and provided literary imagery, they soon became more popular than The Classic of Filial Piety itself. Illustrated in paintings, dramatized on the stage, and repeatedly told in teahouses all over China, they are known to every household. The stories of the twenty-four paragons still exert a strong influence in teaching filial piety to Chinese children today. The Chinese ancients have handed down to posterity at least two versions of The Twenty-Four Examples of Filial Piety (Hsu 81). To this day, if one visits bookstores in Chinatowns throughout North America, one may not find a separate edition of The Classic of Filial Piety, but several different editions of The Twenty-Four Examples of Filial Piety will be available. Most are new versions that have been translated from the classical Mandarin into modern Chinese and rewritten for children. Recently we bought the seventh (1995) edition of a version published in Taiwan. Rewritten in easy-to-read Chinese, each story is illustrated by modern artists. Its cover carries an award tag that says "The Best Student Reader Recommended by the Press Bureau of State Council." The analysis presented in this article is based on that version.3

One of the reasons that these stories have lasted for thousands of years and show no signs of sliding into oblivion may be that they dramatize the fundamental belief of Confucianism that support and care for the parents should precede all other obligations. Filial piety is not simply another version of love and respect toward parents but the pinnacle of virtue in Chinese culture: without grasping the true import of filial piety, one can hardly understand Chinese ethics. When this dictum of Confucian belief is followed in full, filial piety requires children to satisfy parents' wishes and take care of their safety at all costs. Parents are always right. Children should not only spare no trouble in obtaining a cure when parents are ill, but also divorce without hesitation if the parents are displeased with their daughter-in-law (Hsu 81). In years past, a son could even arrange to replace his parents in jail if they were convicted. In fact, the twenty-four stories so vividly reflect the value of filial piety that they have been copied, sometimes to the letter, by sons and daughters in real life (Hsu 81). When taken to extremes, filial piety induces guilt. Children can never do enough to redeem what they "owe" their parents.

Before taking a look at the actual stories, we want to clarify some basic concepts of Confucianism. Whether Confucianism is a religion, a philosophy, or a system of moral teachings is still a matter for debate. The Chinese-American scholar Francis C. M. Wei succinctly expresses our position in this article: Confucianism is "the system of ethico-political ideas of the Chinese as developed through the ages, and as such we see a religious element in it. It is a cultural system of the Chinese people" (36). Through ancestor worship, Confucianism blends religion with ethical and political ingredients and cooks them together in the work of Chinese culture.

If we accept Confucianism as a religion, it has, indeed, a humanist facade. The renowned Chinese scholar Lin Yutang points out,

To put it briefly, Confucianism stood for a rationalized social order through the ethical approach, based on personal cultivation. It aimed at political order by laying the basis for it in a moral order, and it sought political harmony in man himself. Thus its most curious characteristic was the abolition of the distinction between politics and ethics.


In reality, however, the practice of Confucianism is far more complicated than Confucius could have anticipated, especially with the implementation of ancestor worship. Indeed, some ancestor worship practices became totally irrational and potentially detrimental to children's development, nor were they consistent with Confucius's ideals. This article is not intended to blame either Confucius or Confucianism for some values that now seem out of date. As Francis Hsu points out, "no individual and no author can construct out of the air a pattern of living that generations will slavishly observe…. Confucianism became dominant in traditional China not merely because the ruling groups promoted it, but because it was in deep agreement with the ways the Chinese have followed from time immemorial" (378-79). Today, unreasonable extremes of filial piety are still being advocated in certain quarters; reflected in an over-all attitude toward children that we now deprecate, they grew out of some traditional practices of Confucianism connected with the Twenty-Four Examples.4


The overall attitude that these texts take toward children is first of all reflected in the Twenty-Four Examples by a few touching stories of dutiful, loving children. For example, in a war-ridden period, a man named Jiang Ge refuses to leave his mother behind and run away alone. He insists on carrying her on his back when he flees his home village. He always saves food for her, going hungry himself. He tries his best to keep her warm while he freezes in his ragged clothes. He manages to make a little money so that his mother can live more comfortably. When his mother feels dizzy riding in the buggy on their way home, he gets a wheelbarrow and lets her sit inside. He pushes her all the way home himself (66-74). Another paragon is a brave girl by the name of Yang Xiang. When she sees a tiger attacking her father, she jumps onto the tiger's back and fights desperately with the beast, disregarding her own safety. Finally the tiger gives up and her father is rescued (119-25).

In most of the stories, including those of Jiang Ge and Yang Xiang, the characters are presented as real people, not simply pious fictions. Every story indicates a specific time in history and an exact geographic location. The accuracy of the settings is understandable because these characters are designed to serve as models for children. The more realistic the treatment, the more convincing their deeds, and the more powerful their examples. In other words, they are all "true stories." As Jacqueline Rose points out in another context, an "emphasis on geography and territory … is central to the didactic stories" (56).

A second noteworthy feature is the excessive digression in some of the stories. Besides depicting filial acts, the stories also include irrelevant elements—for example, aftermath stories or tales about the experiences of the parents. While these episodes have nothing to do with filial behaviors, their inclusion can be justified because most of the characters are well-known historical figures and children are expected to know about them. What may puzzle scholars of children's literature more is how problems are resolved in many of the stories. In at least half of them, the resolution is so outrageous, extreme, or improbable as to defy belief.

For instance, the first story of the Twenty-Four Examples tells of a boy named Yao Zhong-hua, who always has his father and stepmother in mind. In spite of maltreatment and physical abuse, he still serves them wholeheartedly. His father constantly beats him, and his stepmother often attempts to compromise him, then denounces him to his father. He never complains. When the stepmother tries to kill Yao by burying him alive in a dry well, suddenly a dragon appears out of nowhere and rescues him. His filial behavior becomes so well-known that when Emperor Yao (2357-2258 B.C.) hears about it, he is so touched that he gives Zhong-hua his two daughters in marriage and later bequeaths him the throne. Thus the boy becomes Emperor Shen (2257-2208 B.C.).

In another story, a boy named Meng Zhong lives with his widowed mother and always takes good care of her. Set in the Three Kingdoms period, during which the warlords fought constantly, the story shows how difficult life was for peasants. Meng Zhong, however, always saves some food for his mother. One snowy day, his mother becomes very sick and has a craving for bamboo shoots, which are impossible to find in the winter. Meng Zhong goes out alone into the woods, falls down on his knees in the snow regardless of the piercing cold, and prays for his mother: "Heavenly God, please have mercy on me!" To his surprise, there is a thunderous explosion in the snow, and out of the ground pop five bamboo shoots (202-9).

Other paragons also have personal ways of serving their parents. When his stepmother is longing for the taste of carp, a boy named Huang Xiang strips naked and lies flat on the frozen top of a lake to melt the ice with his body heat so that he can fish. In the end the ice cracks and two carp jump out on their own (102-9). Such resolutions are of course unrealistic, but they do reflect Confucius's precepts about giving parents the "utmost pleasure" in nourishing them and displaying the "utmost solemnity" in sacrificing to them.

The most shocking stories might be those about "Old Man Lai" and "Kuo Ju." The former is about an old man's filial piety toward his even older parents. In order to entertain his senile parents, seventy-year-old Old Man Lai wears a colorful outfit like the harlequin's, twists his hair into a pigtail, and puts clown's makeup on his face. Laughing heartily, he waves a toy tambourine, pretending to fall down like a toddler so that his parents will feel tickled by his childlike play. He will do such tricks at any time, so long as his parents enjoy them. Everyone in the village praises him for his filial love (146-53).

The message of "Kuo Ju" is that filial piety may require the sacrifice of a child. A poor man by the name of Kuo Ju and his wife have a difficult problem. His aged mother is very sick and needs nutritious food and medicine that they cannot afford. Finally, they decide that the only way to solve the problem is to get rid of their three-year-old only son and save the money for Kuo's mother since "We have only one mother but we can always get another child." The couple goes out to a field to dig a pit for the purpose of burying their child alive, but shortly after Kuo starts digging, he miraculously strikes gold. It transpires that the gods are moved by his filial piety, and this is the couple's reward. Both the child and the mother are amply provided for, and the family lives happily ever after (111-17).

Indeed, in most of the twenty-four stories the protagonists eventually move the emperor or the gods by their intrinsic moral perfection as demonstrated by their filial acts. These powers then assist them at a critical moment and reward them for their piety. While one might wonder how the authors of these stories could expect children to suspend their disbelief to such an extent, we need to bear in mind that the twenty-four stories were not selected for their literary merits. Unexplained, however, is why these stories are meant to be viewed as "true stories" so that children will be influenced by the characters' virtues, since the resolution of problems in the stories relies, most of the time, on magic elements found only in fantasies and fairy tales. The answer can only be found in the tales' religious values and their connection to the practice of ancestor worship.

Confucian ancestor worship not only embodies all the characteristics of the Chinese approach to the supernatural but is also, to the Chinese, the positive proof and reinforcement of all their other religious beliefs. It is an active ingredient in every aspect of Chinese life and the main link between the world of mortals and the world of spirits (Hsu 248). In fact, the Chinese envision the world of spirits as similar to the world of mortals: the three interrelated domains—the Domain of Judgment, the Western Paradise, and the Court of the Supreme Ruler of Heaven—are all governed by a hierarchy of officials. Chinese attitudes toward the gods reflect the relationship between a ruler and his subjects. They respect the gods but do not identify with them; they lack the emotional attachment to them of most Western believers. Confucius's approach to the spiritual world provides a theological basis for ancestor worship. He says in the Analects, "Devote yourself to man's duty … respect spiritual beings but keep [your] distance…. Until you are able to serve men, how can you serve spiritual beings? Until you know about life, how can you know about death?" (qtd. in Fingarette 2).

To understand Confucian ancestor worship from a Western (Christian) perspective, the writings of the pioneer Western sinologist Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz are helpful. His information about China was primarily based on his correspondence with Jesuit missionaries to China in the seventeenth century. The conflicts in culture and in religious orientation were intense. Nevertheless, Leibniz's analysis and interpretation of the Chinese religious outlook and ancestor worship are accurate:

It seems to me that one can conclude that the Chinese view such veneration toward ancestors and people of great merit as advantageous so that those who practice the cult expect some benefit from it. However, they could with equal justice believe that every act deemed a virtue by the sages—and among them gratitude is not the lowest—confers considerable happiness on humankind, either because this is itself the nature of the human condition or, more likely, because of a superior power providentially governing all.

(62, 76)

Three hundred years later, Leibniz's assessment is still consistent with that of modern scholars. Both Herbert Fingarette and Francis Hsu agree that "the Analects does [sic] indeed represent the world of a humanist … render[ing] a kind of pragmatic homage, when necessary, to the spirits" (Fingarette 2). Hsu writes that although human-centered, Chinese see no dichotomy between flesh and spirit:

The structural and psychological similarities between the two worlds are so great that the Chinese find the overlapping not at all bizarre. The absence of a clear-cut demarcation sometimes produces situations which to the Westerner's mind are neither of a worldly nor godly nature, but which do not strike the Chinese as even "in-between" because of the interlinked nature of the two worlds in their minds.


The Chinese, then, believe that their ancestors, like deities, protect them and wish for their happiness. They also keep their ancestors' tablets or pictures in the shrine at home, kowtow, burn incense and candles, and say prayers to them. Historical accounts of apotheosis are not rare, and local and national temples have been built to honor and worship meritorious people such as Confucius; his temples can be seen all over China. In short, aesthetic illogicality and literary inconsistency are able to exist in The Twenty-Four Examples of Filial Piety because the epistemological context in which those stories are read has already prepared children to accept the overlap between the spiritual and material realms and to suspend their disbelief. The stories affirm that as long as one follows every nuance of the instruction in filial piety, there will be sure rewards from either the gods or one's ancestors. If one is reverent enough to lie naked on top of the frozen lake like Huang Xiang, they will make the fish jump out of water; if one prays for parents in the piercing cold like Meng Zhong, they will make the bamboo shoots pop up unseasonably; if one is willing to sacrifice a son by burying him alive like Kuo Ju in order to save food for one's parents, they will let one find a pot of gold.

Obviously these stories are written to strengthen children's religious understanding that filial piety is the deities' command and should be fulfilled at all costs. Whatever is done for parents or ancestors will never be too much and will eventually be rewarded by them or the gods. Self-sacrifice is a means of cultivating filial piety even if you have to bury your child alive or make a fool of yourself by pretending to be a seventy-year-old toddler. Understanding the religious and psychological context in which these stories are told or read can aid scholars of children's literature to understand why these ambivalent stories have lasted so long and to help them decipher the stories' aesthetic illogicality. Nevertheless, questions remain about how Confucianism put an aureole around the Chinese ancestors' heads and how ancestor worship functions as a religion. In order to answer these questions, it is necessary to explore the tenets of Confucianism further.

Filial piety became part of Chinese ethics long before Confucius was born. It was first named as one of the five cardinal duties by Emperor Shen (2257-2258 B.C.), who was then the "General Regulator" during the reign of Emperor Yao (2357-2258 B.C.) (Traylor 5). Confucius lived during a chaotic period of Chinese history. As an ambitious statesman, he envisioned an ideal society and wished to realize eternal peace and harmony for China. His The Doctrine of the Mean states his conviction that "benevolence is the characteristic element of humanity and the great exercise of it is in loving relatives. Righteousness is the accordance of actions with what is right, and the great exercise of it is in honoring the worthy" (qtd. in Traylor 24). In order to promote benevolence and righteousness, Confucius believed that society needed something that would help establish a kind of social membership pass—an institution that would encompass all virtuous acts. Necessary to social stability would be strong ties of mutual dependence; to achieve those ties Confucius established the formula for filial piety. In other words, Confucius built an idealized hierarchical ethical structure by making filial piety a badge of virtue. In Chapter Thirteen of The Classic of Filial Piety, the "Amplification of the Perfect Virtue," he suggests that the legitimacy of a ruler's power should rely on how successfully he could serve as a role model for the implementation of filial piety (Doeblin 145). If the ruler could base his virtue on filial piety, he would promote benevolence and righteousness in his subjects by the "nature of influence," and society would become stable. The Confucian recipe for achieving the goal of a self-sustaining society is put forth even more clearly by his disciples in The Great Learning: "There is filial piety; that is the very principle with which the sovereign should be saved…. There is benevolence; that is the very principle by which the masses should be treated…. By the loving example of the one family, a whole state becomes loving" (qtd. in Traylor 26-27). Confucius had great faith in the moral influence of the First Family. He believed that filial piety could be constantly rejuvenated through ancestor worship because benevolence and righteousness could be instilled by stimulating people's sense of responsibility through ceremonies (Fung 18).

In order to guarantee that his system of mutual dependence would work, he formed another idea to complement it, one very similar to "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." This practice is called "rectifying names," which means constantly checking one's behavior against one's position and obligations to others and thus strengthening the restrictive function of the whole mechanism. Confucius explained the "rectification of names" in The Doctrine of the Mean: "To serve one's father as one would require his son to serve himself…. To serve one's sovereign as one would require the sovereign to serve himself…. To serve one's elder brother as one would require his younger brother to serve himself…. To serve one's friend as one would re quire him to serve himself" (qtd. in Traylor 30). If one reads between the lines, it is not difficult to notice that there is a loophole in this self-regulating system. According to Confucius, everyone should reflect on the impact of their acts on each other, but he omitted the ruler. When one speaks of the duty, "To serve one's sovereign as one would require the sovereign to serve himself," it is apparent that the ruler is responsible only to himself; there are absolutely no binding restraints at this level. And indeed, the system Confucius developed did not form a smooth circuit; the electrical current of filial piety could not run without accidents. In reality, to the disappointment of Confucius, love and respect often became a one-way street, and the "rectification of names" became a tool to discourage the younger generation's desire to protest or rebel and to keep children in a subservient position. Since nothing could be done to control a ruler's selfish acts, even in Confucius's lifetime the practice of filial piety deviated from what he preached.

As one might expect, there has been an overwhelming number of rules regarding how the young or those of inferior status should behave themselves but very little about standards for the older generation or social superiors. The Confucian classic Book of Rites, which was compiled in the first century B.C., lays out dozens of rules regarding the proper deportment of the younger generation, such as:

For all sons it is the rule: in winter, to warm [the bed for their parents] and to cool it in the summer; in the evening to adjust everything [for their repose] and to inquire [about their health] in the morning…. Sons and sons' wives who are filial and reverential, when they receive an order from their parents should not refuse, nor be dilatory to execute it…. If a parent has a fault, [the son] should with bated breath, and bland aspect, and gentle voice, admonish him…. If the parent be angry and [more displeased], and beat [the son] until the blood flows, he should not presume to be angry and resentful, but be [still more reverential and more filial].

(qtd. in Traylor 7-10; see our note 2)

In light of this type of instruction, it is not difficult to understand how the behaviors of the filial children in the Twenty-Four Examples were molded; the tales are simply literary illustrations of the rules of filial piety, psychological products of Confucius's ideal system. Take, for instance, eight-year-old Wu Meng. His family is so poor that it cannot afford a mosquito net. In order to let his parents sleep, every night Wu Meng sits up and takes off his clothes in order to attract the mosquitoes to his own body (93-101). Another paragon, also a poor boy, is the twelve-year-old Huang Xiang. He lives with his father (his mother died long ago) and takes such good care of him that in summer he tries to cool off his father's bed by fanning it before his father goes to sleep and in winter he gets under his father's quilt first to warm it up with his body heat (164-73). These characters literally carry out what is suggested in The Book of Rites.

In other parts of the world, such family paradigms might be considered child abuse. But until recently in China many of the stories have been viewed not only as required literature for children, but also as behavioral standards that the young must follow. In his 1981 comparative study of Chinese and American cultures, Hsu summarizes the implications of filial piety in Chinese daily life:

Chinese did not only take their children for granted—they minimized their importance. The important thing to Americans is what parents should do for their children; to Chinese, what children should do for their parents…. I obtained at least five instances in which men and women were said to have sliced flesh from their arms to be boiled in the medicine pot of one or another of their parents. One man did this twice during one of his father's illnesses. Because the elder's condition remained serious, the filial son decided to take a more drastic course of action. He cut out a piece of what he thought was his "liver" instead. Both he and his father died shortly afterward.

(80, 82)

The self-sacrifice shown in this extreme example reflects the power of the religious paradigms in the Twenty-Four Examples. The paragons are, in fact, the saints of Chinese ancestor worship.

Within ancestor worship, all departed ancestors, like gods, have needs that are similar to those of the living, and continue to influence and assist their living relatives in the world (248-49). We ourselves can offer a firsthand example of how divine the images of departed ancestors are in the eyes of their living posterity. When we were in college, a classmate was caught cheating during the final examination. Because of this incident his grade was lowered by a letter. His distraught parents took him to his grandfather's grave and made him reflect on the impact of his ignominious act on the dignity of his grandfather. Ironically, everyone knew that this man had been a notorious collaborator with the Japanese during World War II. Notwithstanding the grandfather's disgraceful history, his right to be worshipped by his descendents was not affected.

Two of the child paragons' stories are directly related to piety to dead ancestors rather than living parents. In one of them, a man named Ding Lan misses his parents so much after they die that he has two wooden carvings made in his parents' images. He puts them in a shrine and kowtows to them every day, morning and evening. His wife does not like the idea, and one day, without his knowledge, she sticks a needle into the finger of one of the figures. To her surprise, blood starts to ooze out. When her husband hears about it, he is very angry. His wife regrets what she did and asks the wooden figures to pardon her wrongdoing. The bleeding stops (193-201).

Another paragon's name is Wang Wei-yuan. In order to take good care of his ailing mother, he turns down several offers of well-paid official positions. Instead he prefers to till the land in the mountains even though that means that he continues to live from hand to mouth like a hermit for many long years. Later his mother dies. He is sad and feels sorry that he was not rich enough to allow his mother to live a more comfortable life. One stormy day, when a torrential rain is pouring down with lightning flashing and thunder rumbling, he suddenly remembers that his mother was afraid of thunderstorms. Wang Wei-yuan rushes out into the storm and runs all the way to his mother's grave. He throws himself on top of the grave, crying, "Mother, I am here to stand by you. Don't be afraid!" (184-92).

These two stories provide models for children mourning departed parents, as suggested in The Book ofRites. Indeed, until the end of the Qing dynasty (1911) it was criminal for one to absent himself from a father, mother, or paternal grandparents in order to perform the duties of public office (qtd. in Traylor 7). The story of Wang Weiyuan can be seen as a footnote to those laws. As for Ding Lan's story, the warning is clear: neglecting one's obligations to one's ancestors or committing acts of sacrilege toward them or toward your husband's ancestors will eventually be exposed.

Robert Bellah observes that "every religion tries to remake the world in its own image, but is always to some extent remade in the image of the world" (qtd. in de Bary 58), an observation that also applies to Confucianism. In practice, accession to the throne on the grounds of personal merit lasted for only two generations. After Emperor Yu, the successor to Emperor Shen, political power began to be passed within the family, and the pattern was never reversed. As a result, there have been many brutal rulers in the history of China. But most Confucian scholar-officials remained reticent about the evil and despotism of the rulers. Indeed, they themselves were often deeply involved in evil, currying favor with the ruler by gratifying his wishes and forgetting their obligations as Confucian clergy. To be sure, two thousand years or so have seen some upright, outspoken Confucian martyrs, such as Ch'iu Chun (1421-1495) and Lu Liuliang (1629-1683). Unfortunately, their voices sounded thin and weak in the wilderness of indifference.

For example, Lu Liu-liang used Confucian doctrine, especially the rectification of names, to affirm the moral responsibilities that govern human relations and the ruler's "paternal" obligations, but he was disappointed at the dysfunction of the scholar-officials and strongly denounced their acquisitiveness (de Bary 65). His criticism accurately reveals the tragic dilemmas that Confucianism faces. Historically, Confucian scholar-officials never had the power to make sure that tyrants were kept from the throne. Since this was the case, practice almost required Confucian scholar-officials to be spineless, and that spinelessness may be part of the explanation for the excessive irrationality of the Twenty-Four Examples. To make use of the celestial charm of benevolence and righteousness with which Confucianism crowned him, the ruler called forth Confucian scholars to serve, but only on the condition that they would be absolutely obedient and submissive. When the traditional autocracy stunned the world with its outrageousness and cruelty, it was equally appalling that its subjects could be tolerant of the subservience imposed on them. In order to keep the populace submissive, a cult-like slavishness had to be instilled in people as early as possible. When people constantly deprecate and demean themselves, chances are that the ruler is safe.

Obviously, the purpose of the Twenty-Four Examples is to mold the child reader by holding up ideal children as examples. It provides another example of an adult conception of children's literature as primarily educational, regardless of how children feel. Rose notes that such a conception "dominates much aesthetic theory in general…. [It] sets up literature as something which can save us from what is most socially and culturally degenerate…. Writing for children can contribute to prolonging or preserving … values which are constantly on the verge of collapse" (43-44). Filial piety has been used with great success as a foundation for Confucian social engineering, but Chinese children have paid a heavy price. If, as Rose claims, in every culture much of children's literature sets up the child as an outsider who must be acculturated to a "proper" understanding of childhood (2), and if a didactic aesthetic approach to children's literature can be justified as acting "as a defense mechanism against a possible confusion of tongues" between adult and child (70), we would nonetheless argue that for Chinese children, the outcome is much more negative and devastating than in any other cultures.

A great number of Chinese writers in the May Fourth Movement of 1919 wrote essays based on their childhood experiences that attacked the inhumane practices of filial piety advocated in the Twenty-Four Examples. Chinese traditional and classic literature is also full of "antiheroes" rebelling against Confucianism. For example, in the classic eighteenth-century novel The Dream of the Red Mansion, the young protagonist, Jia Baoyu, often tries to play truant or pretend to be sick whenever he is forced to read Confucian classics, but he loves to read poetry and novels even at the risk of being caught and reprimanded (Cao 90-91; 713-14).

Still more importantly, in sharp contrast with their disaffection for The Twenty-Four Examples of Filial Piety, children evince enthusiastic and independent admiration for the traditional fantasy novel The Journey to The West or Hsi Yu Chi.5 This collection of episodes about a pilgrim and his supernatural disciples focuses on the Monkey King, Sun Wukung, who sets off to learn religion and attains immortality. Capable of "cloud flying" and seventy-two transformations, he commands an army of 4,800 monkeys and lives a carefree life. Accidentally, he disrupts the normal celestial social order, which is hierarchical and resembles that of the human world, by causing a disturbance in Hell and stirring up conflicts with the Dragon King in the Eastern Ocean. The officials of Heaven decide to get him occupied in order to keep him out of trouble. The Monkey is delighted to be invited to Heaven and to take the position they offer. But later he realizes what a demeaning position they have asked him to fill. He flies back home and revolts against Heaven, stealing and consuming elixirs that confer immortality. Of course, names have to be rectified and it is a crime for an inferior to revolt against his subservient position, so the Monkey is arrested and is about to be executed. At this point, however, the Jade Emperor of Heaven finds out that the Monkey is immortal and cannot be killed. Finally he is set free by the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy, Kuan Yin, on the condition that he escort the priest Tripikata to the Western Paradise.

It is small wonder that this story has such longlived appeal for children. Historically, they have clearly seen in Sun Wukung a rebellious model who vicariously did what they longed to but were unable to do—revolt against a stifling and oppressive system. If we compare the readership of this book with that of The Twenty-Four Examples of Filial Piety over time, the latter has always been officially promoted while the former has been selfselected. The difference reveals, perhaps, how children feel about the practices of filial piety and ancestor worship.

With the example of the reception of The Journey to the West in mind, we might ask: when modern children read the stories about such models of virtue, how do they respond to them? Would children still trust their parents after they read the story of Kuo Ju, who intends to bury his son alive because he wants to save money for his mother's nutritious food and medicine? When American children read Ed Young's Lon Po Po (1989), a Caldecott awardwinning rendition of the Chinese version of Little Red Riding Hood, they love the image of Grandma. Would such children still have the same feelings for Grandma or for all adults if they realized that Grandma has the right to have her grandchildren's lives sacrificed for her own? When reading the story of Wu Meng, the questions that would naturally come to a child's mind are "Do I have to feed the mosquitoes in order to show my love for Mom and Dad?" and "How could I possibly do that?" And the stories of Huang Xiang or Meng Zhong would probably elicit questions such as "What if the ice cracked and I sank to the bottom and drowned?" or "What if I was freezing to death while kneeling in the snow? Mom and Dad, it hurts. Do you really want me to do that?"

Every Chinese is familiar with Meng Jiao's "The Song of the Traveler," an eighth-century poem written during the Tang dynasty. One line is well-known for the analogy it draws regarding filial piety: "How could it be possible for the inch-long grass to repay enough the sunshine it has received?" As a result of this mentality, one always looks forward to getting old and reaching the senior position so that one can be served by the younger generation and vent on it the bitterness at the treatment suffered at the hands of the previous older generation. The Chinese saying "After many a long year, the daughter-in-law has finally stuck it out and become a mother-in-law" exemplifies the bitter cycle that each generation has passed through.

For almost a century since the May Fourth Movement, the Confucian tradition of the previous two millennia has undergone reexamination and reevaluation in the context of, and conflict with, Western ideas. Filial piety is one of the Confucian ideas that has been most severely criticized for imposing on the individual humiliating, subservient obligations and suppressing the desire for freedom and democracy. One of the radical opponents of Confucianism remarks, "The effect of the idea of filial piety has been to turn China into a big factory for the manufacturing of obedient subjects…. In the extremes of the fil ial piety cult, 'cannibalism' was demanded in the name of Confucian morality" (qtd. in Traylor 70-71). But absolute submission was not something all Confucianists promoted. In fact, Mencius (372-289 B.C.), the best-known follower of Confucius, formulated a doctrine justifying tyrannicide by declaring that killing a tyrant is not killing a king (Ching 72). Unfortunately, his brilliant ideas did not enter the mainstream of Confucianism.

It is true that Confucianism has made great contributions to the formation of the magnificent Chinese civilization. Yet we strongly believe that the outrageous subservience, humiliating submission, destructive guilt feelings, and inhuman sacrifice advocated in the stories should be resolutely rejected so that children's rights will be respected. Certain articles in the United Nations Universal Declaration on Human Rights (1948) should be adopted instead:

Article 1. All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.

Article 3. Everyone has the right to life, liberty and the security of person.

Article 5. No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

(Qtd. in Ching 69)

Post-structuralists may hesitate before claims of universality of values for fear of being accused of cultural hegemony. "Recognizing the great diversity of values and their roots in cultures was once one step in the direction of moral condemnation of colonialism and brutal missionary expeditions. But ethical relativists' insistence on an incommensurability of cultural values … is rather a denial of overlapping and converging of values between different cultures in human history" (Li 29). We are not talking about the violence of punishment in some cultural versions of Cinderella, a story remote from children's reality. We are faced with the real physical and emotional sufferings of children in everyday life. How would individual differences be respected when conflicting interpretations of cultural code of conduct occur within a culture? Xiaorong Li argues in her article "Postmodernism and Universal Human Rights":

When a girl fights to escape female genital circumcision or foot-binding or arranged marriage … the relativist is obliged to "respect" the cultural or traditional customs from which the individuals are trying to escape. In so doing, the relativist is not merely disrespecting the individual but effectively endorsing the moral ground for torture, rape, and murder. In moral issues, ethical relativists can not possibly remain neutral—they are committed either to the individual or to the dominant force within a culture.


Li's argument should convince us of the urgent need to stop valuing the Twenty-Four Examples so highly.

Confucian ancestor worship is the only popular religion in China, especially when the role of religion is considered in terms of its impact on social, moral, cultural, economic, and political aspects of human life. Filial piety is the essence of Confucianism, and as an important part of the Chinese cultural legacy, the ideal of filial piety still exerts a strong moral impact on the Chinese. The Confucian Classic of Filial Piety and its literary heir, The Twenty-Four Examples of Filial Piety, are still being read, recommended, and appreciated. To this day, the latter is still being introduced to children as "Best Student Reader Recommended." While its long life is a cultural reality, we should not close our eyes to its advocacy of values so extreme as to offend modern humanist sensibility, such as outrageous subservience and humiliating sacrifice. The code of ethics preached by The Twenty-Four Examples is detrimental to children socially, personally, and emotionally and should not be honored unquestioningly.


  1. Based on Gillian Adams's definition of children's literature as writings that are "routinely associated with children, even if their purpose is didactic or they were not written specifically for children" (1). We have tried to get as many references as possible but found that the available resources are very limited. We wrote summaries of the stories from The Twenty-Four Examples of Filial Piety from our translation of the Chinese edition published in 1995 because we could only locate a version in Chinese. As for the translated quotations from The Classic of Filial Piety, we used a few authorities' translated editions, double-checking the translations with the original version on the Chinese Website: We kept all the Chinese names in the quotations as they appeared in the translated texts, although scholars may spell the same name differently.
  2. When one translates archaic Chinese into modern Chinese or English, one must fill in the words that are not written in the original text but understood in the context. Archaic Chinese was China's official written language until the May Fourth Movement in 1919, at which time the Chinese abandoned it because of its inconvenience in use and ambiguity of meaning as well as its role as a symbol of the old tradition. The spoken language has been used in writing ever since.
  3. It is out of the scope of this article to talk about the difference in terms of people's attitude about the tradition of filial piety between Taiwan and Mainland China. It is true that there has been no publication of the twenty-four paragons' stories in Mainland China since the Communists came to power. But this absence does not mean that people's attitude toward the tradition has changed. In fact, those stories continue to be told to children orally in Mainland China to pass on the tradition. We were both brought up in Mainland China and did not leave there until the mid-1980s. Our knowledge of the twenty-four paragons is from childhood storytelling and later from reading other related books.
  4. In the history of culture, every ethnic group has experienced conflicts of beliefs and change of values within itself. No doubt, Confucianism will still hold its own for the Chinese as a system of humanist culture and as a fundamental viewpoint concerning the conduct of life and society no matter what happens in this world (Lin 4). However, some practices of filial piety do deserve reconsideration.
  5. The book was collected from an oral tradition, but it is believed that the person who finally rewrote the oral stories into the modern version is Wu Cheng'en, probably during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

Works Cited

Adams, Gillian. "The First Children's Literature? The Case of Sumer." Children's Literature 14 (1986): 1-30.

Barnhart, Richard M. Li Kunglin's Classic of Filial Piety. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1993.

Ching, Julia. "Human Rights: A Valid Chinese Concept?" Confucianism and Human Rights. Ed. William Theodore de Bary and Tu Weiming. New York: Columbia UP, 1998. 67-82.

Cao, Xueqin. Hong Lou Meng / The Dream of the Red Mansion. c. 1754. Taipei: Wenhua, 1977.

De Bary, William T. The Trouble with Confucianism. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1991.

Doeblin, Alfred. The Living Thoughts of Confucius. New York: Fawcett World Library, 1959.

Fingarette, Herbert. Confucius—The Secular as Sacred. New York: Harper and Row, 1972.

Fung, Yu-Lan. The Spirit of Chinese Philosophy. Trans. E. R. Hughes. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1947.

Hsu, Francis L. K. Americans and Chinese: Passage to Differences. Honolulu: UP of Hawaii, 1981.

Hsieh, Yu-wei. "Filial Piety and Chinese Society." The Chinese Mind. Ed. Charles A. Moore. Honolulu: East-West Center, 1967. 167-87.

Leibniz, Gottfried W. Writings on China. Trans. Daniel J. Cook and Henry Rosemont, Jr. Chicago: Open Court, 1994.

Li, Xiaorong. "Postmodernism and Universal Human Rights." Free Inquiry 18.4 (1998): 28-31.

Lin, Yutang. The Wisdom of Confucius. New York: Modern Library, 1938.

Rose, Jacqueline. The Case of Peter Pan or the Impossibility of Children's Fiction. London: Macmillan, 1984.

Traylor, Kenneth L. Chinese Filial Piety. Bloomington, IN: Eastern P, 1988.

The Twenty-Four Examples of Filial Piety. Tainan, Taiwan: Shi Yi Cultural Affairs, 1995.

Wei, Francis C. M. The Spirit of Chinese Culture. New York: Scribner's, 1947.


Dara Gay Shaw (essay date winter 1995)

SOURCE: Shaw, Dara Gay. "The Treatment of Religion and the Independent Investigation of Spiritual Truth in Fiction for Young Adults." ALAN Review 22, no. 2 (winter 1995): 20-2.

[In the following essay, Shaw presents an overview of several young adult novels in which the primary protagonists undergo their own individual searches for religious understanding.]

Adolescence is a time of great questioning when young people try to sort out their own place and purpose in the world. During this period of their lives they often question the values and traditional beliefs of their parents and extended families. This independent investigation of spiritual truth is a recurring theme in adolescent fiction. Young adult fiction can serve as a wonderful vehicle for stimulating growth in an adolescent's awareness of the broad diversity of religious traditions and practices. It can also serve as a vehicle for stimulating growth in an awareness of the unity that exists in the underlying spiritual truths common to the great world religions.

Many of the well-known works of adolescent fiction, such as Judy Blume's Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret, Robert Peck's A Day No Pigs Would Die, Katherine Paterson's Jacob Have I Loved, Robert Cormier's The Chocolate War, and Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time, treat religious themes directly. When young readers pick up one of these books, they are exposed to the spiritual, moral, and religious topics that the author has chosen to weave through its pages. Consequently, the writer and reader of adolescent fiction may interact as spiritual teacher and student. The books mentioned above explore diverse religious themes and focus on the process of spiritual questioning. In addition, I will offer other works as a source for heightening the awareness of the shared spiritual truths of different world religions. Sometimes, however, the authors of fiction for adolescents seem to be highly critical of religion, especially in its organized form.

In The Chocolate War, there is a reflection of the hopelessness and loss of faith that is found in much serious modern fiction. The setting of the book is a Catholic school for boys, but within the walls we find evil manifested in the cruelty, both psychological and physical, that gangs and bullies inflict on weak victims. Trinity is a school bereft of spiritual guidance, where souls are destroyed. Evil emanates from Brother Leon, the assistant headmaster monk, who, venomous and cobralike (p. 23), probes for hidden weaknesses and defects in his students (p. 35). He is what Madeleine L'Engle describes as the type of teacher who is an unNamer, an Annihilator (p. 55). Cormier's imagery suggests a negation of religion. He refers to prayer as a body of religious hoopla (p. 54), to Jesus as "a guy who walked the earth for thirty-three years like any other guy" (p. 11), to John the Baptist and the crucifix as grotesque (pp. 14, 93). To T. S. Eliot's question, "Do I dare disturb the universe?" (The Chocolate War, p. 97), which is quoted several times, the answer is no. The bad guys win and the good guys are defeated, uttering, like Brother Jacques, a "feeble protest, too little, too late" (p. 39). This young adult novel leaves the reader feeling demoralized, questioning organized religion and its leaders and agreeing with T. S. Eliot who said, "Our times are corrupt, the whole of modern literature is corrupted by secularism" (Ozick, p. 151).

Religion and morality are an essential part of Robert Peck's autobiographical A Day No Pigs Would Die, which is set in Shaker farm country in Vermont in the 1920s. Moral proverbs like "Never miss a chance to keep your mouth shut" (p. 67) and "Wood heats you three times, when you cut it, when you haul it, and when you burn it" (p. 113) season the text. In the opening pages, the reader sees Rob, a boy who finds himself socially set apart from others his age because of his Shaker beliefs (p. 17). Rob's spiritual realizations are subtle. He realizes that everyone in the world doesn't "live strict by the Book of Shaker" (p. 123). He also begins to challenge the decisions of his elders that concern cruelty to animals (pp. 103, 127). Similarly, Katherine Paterson's Jacob Have I Loved has a setting permeated with one religious tradition. The islanders of Rass had shared a strict Methodist way of life since the early nineteenth century when a missionary succeeded in converting the entire populace. On Sunday, the people keep the sabbath, read the Bible exclusively, and attend morning and evening church services as well as Sunday school. On Wednesday night, prayer meetings are held where believers pray for everyone on the island that isn't present (p. 26).

Sara Louise, the central character, delights in the fact that something on the island is free, "unproscribed by God, Moses or the Methodist Conference" when the Captain says he can swear at the orange tomcat because there is nothing in the Bible about how to speak to cats (p. 74). Paterson approaches the idea of an adolescent spiritual struggle, questioning the loss of Christian faith head-on in this book. Sara Louise determines that God Himself hates her when she hears Romans 9:13. Her ranting and over-zealous grandmother, knowing that Sara Louise is plagued with jealousy over her twin sister, quotes her this passage (p. 131). Sara Louise then stops praying and going to church (p. 134). Through the disquieting characterization of the grandmother, the author seems to warn against the harmfulness and the potential cruelty of religious fanaticism. Sara Louise remains a steadfast Methodist although, when she marries a Catholic man, she agrees to raise their children in his faith (p. 171).

A most remarkable rendition of the adolescent's independent investigation of spiritual truth is found in Aidan Chamber's N.I.K.: Now I Know. In this book, Nik, the protagonist, is an atheist. He is drafted somewhat unwillingly into serving as a researcher for a play to be written and performed on the theme of what would happen if Jesus returned today. His history teacher convinces him to take the job, saying that "people have a long history of believing in God…. Religion includes the whole of the human race, the good and the bad, which makes it a perfect topic for historical study" (pp. 13-14).

Nik falls in love with devout young Julie, who becomes his spiritual guide. Julie is active in the antinuclear movement. After a demonstration, she rushes to the aid of a man in the street who appears to be injured. She is told to stay back but does not listen. He is a terrorist who has made himself a living bomb. As a result she is badly burned and nearly blinded. She must reconcile her suffering and her religious beliefs. Part of the book consists of her transcribed tape-recorded letters to Nik. Ultimately she rejects a romantic relationship with Nik because she feels it will interfere with her spiritual mission.

All the common arguments and modern objections to religion are explicitly written into this challenging and thought-provoking book. For example, if men are made in God's image, why do they go around murdering each other and in the name of God? (p. 14). The reader follows Nik's search for the answers to his questions and suffers with the characters. This book is an affirmation of the age-old principles of Christianity, prayer, mediation, suffering and love.

Another novel in which an independent investigation of spiritual truth is sparked by romance is Cindy Savage's Nothing in Common. Love often leads young people in unexpected directions. Here Katie meets Matt, who is a member of a little-known but widespread religion, the Baha'i Faith. Their friendship leads her to carefully investigate many of her friends' religions—Catholicism, Judaism, Buddhism, Mormonism, and the Baha'i Faith—through observation of religious services, talks with believers, and books. A secondary theme of the book concerns the difficulties young adults face when they resist pressure from peers to use drugs, drink, and explore sex.

Katie's search worries her parents, who do not believe in organized religion. They allow her to attend a weeklong Baha'i School retreat, where she joins the faith as a member. Returning home, she finds herself unable to tell her parents that she has joined the faith. When she finally musters the courage, they react with anger but eventually accept that she has thought out her decision carefully. Nothing in Common explains many of the Baha'i principles.

The theme of a home split by parents that belong to two different religions, which Paterson touches on in Jacob Have I Loved, is further explored in Blume's Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret. Because Margaret doesn't know whether she is Christian or Jewish, she, like Rob in A Day No Pigs Would Die, experiences social exclusion (one of the horrors of adolescence). She does not belong. Should she join the Y of the Jewish Community Center? (p. 35) Encouraged by her teacher, Margaret embarks on a project to alleviate her spiritual confusion. She attends temple services with her Jewish grandmother. She attends a Presbyterian church with Janie Loomis. She goes to the Methodist church with Nancy. And she even winds up in a Catholic confessional, unable to confess after causing pain to Laura Danker. When her maternal grandparents push her toward Christianity and her paternal grandmother pushes her toward Judaism, Margaret rebels, temporarily concluding that she doesn't need religion at all (p. 134). In the end, when she reports back to her teacher, she concludes that her search will continue until she finds a religion for her own children because she doesn't want them to have to go through the struggle of spiritual search (p. 143).

Margaret only feels God's presence when she is alone (p. 120). She cannot find God in either the temple or church, both of which she feels are remarkably similar (p. 63). Though the book ends with a prayer of praise, it is a private prayer. Organized religion is rejected at least for the time being.

The spiritual conflict between Judaism and Christianity is further elaborated in the beautifully written My Name Is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok. The Hasidic community is too narrow for a genius-driven young artist, who cannot help but be touched by the beauty and passion of the art inspired by the life and teachings of Jesus. He says:

I am an observant Jew. Yes of course, observant Jews do not paint crucifixions. As a matter of fact, observant Jews do not paint at all—in the way I am painting. So strong words are being written and spoken about me, myths are being generated: I am a traitor, an apostate, a self-hater, an inflictor of shame upon my people; also I am a mocker of ideas sacred to Christians….

(p. 9)

Asher Lev is caught in the web of his art, which is disturbing to both Christians and Jews. The Master of the Universe instructs him to "Paint the anguish of all the world…. Let people see the pain…. We must give a balance to the universe" (p. 348). Potok seems to concur with Madeleine L'Engle's observation, "When you are looking for truth, then look in art, in stories, songs and sculpture" (L'Engle, p. 26) and again, "Now I confess that it is difficult for me to separate art and religion for art is often the most authentic expression of religion" (L'Engle, p. 31).

The spiritual concepts of beauty and balance are combined in Sheila Garrigue's The Eternal Spring of Mr. Ito. Sara, the protagonist of this book, is about the age of Margaret in Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret. And, like Jacob Have I Loved, The Eternal Spring of Mr. Ito begins around the time of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Set in Vancouver, Canada, the book revolves around the spiritual teacher/student relationship of Sara, a British evacuee, and her uncle's Japanese gardener who goes to die in a mountain cave rather than be humiliated in a concentration camp. Sara defies her family in order to continue her friendship with Mr. Ito and his family. Garrigue's book explores the harmony between Christianity and Buddhism, along with many other Buddhist spiritual concepts and traditions, like nirvana and karma. This book cries out against war and prejudice.

There are things that Sara likes about her own church, like the feeling of belonging, the smells, and the singing, but she is also attracted to what Mr. Ito has to teach her about Shintoism and Buddhism. She likes Mr. Ito's short prayer and wishes her minister would try one like it for a change (p. 40). Mr. Ito teaches her that Buddha's teachings are like those of Jesus: their purpose is to help people to live good lives, keep mind and body pure, and to hurt no living thing (p. 116). When she questions him about the war that has caused deep pain to everyone she knows, Mr. Ito tells her that perhaps the purpose of war is to teach how good peace is and to urge people to try harder, because mankind, yet imperfect, is still on the path (p. 118). Different kinds of people were put on this earth to show different roads to heaven (p. 115).

Like Asher Lev, Mr. Ito is an artist. Mr. Ito creates bonsai trees. Sara learns from him and ultimately saves and returns a two-hundred-year-old tree to his family. Mr. Ito's art affirms the harmony of man with nature. Made with sand, stone, and the tenacious, yet fragile bonsai tree, Mr. Ito's art is a prayer that seeks to show the harmony, beauty, and purpose of everything in creation (p. 117).

Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time is unique among the works considered in this paper. In Reaching Adolescents: The Young Adult Book and the Schools, Arthea S. Reed maintains that L'Engle incorporates Christian theology into her stories, but that usually her treatment of the subject is indirect and symbolic (p. 97). A Wrinkle in Time's protagonists have to overcome great physical and spiritual obstacles on their quest to save Meg's and Charles Wallace's father from the forces of darkness. A Wrinkle in Time affirms the power of love, courage, and self-sacrifice to conquer evil. L'Engle explains that a source of humanity's anguish is the separation of the intellect from the spiritual heart. For this reason she makes the villain of the story a naked disembodied brain because "the brain that is not informed by the heart is evil" (p. 36).

It is evident from the sampling of fiction for adolescents treated here that there is a wealth of material for the development of a thematic unit on comparative religion for those young people who have embarked on their personal search for spiritual meaning and purpose. The unit could be modeled after the one on Dealing with the Fear of Death, which is presented in its entirety in Reed's book (pp. 216-221). Other books mentioned by Reed that could be included in such a unit are Siddhartha by Herman Hesse (Buddhism), The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis (Christian theology), and the Autobiography of Malcolm X (Islam in America). One that is not mentioned is My Experiments with Truth by Mahatma Gandhi (Hinduism).

Madeleine L'Engle said, "Sometimes we are given the miraculousness of life by unexpected teachers" (L'Engle and Brooke, p. 64). Each of these authors is one of these teachers. It cheers the spirit to read their words that refuse to give in to despair and hopelessness. These young readers live in a world where they may have "to hurt a great deal in order to grow and deepen, but there is below all that happens a Yes to the fact of creation … that all shall be well" (L'Engle, p. 44).

Works Cited

Blume, Judy. Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret. Dell, 1970.

Chambers, Aidan. N.I.K.: Now I Know. Harper and Row, 1967.

Cormier, Robert. The Chocolate War. Dell, 1974.

Garrigue, Sheila. The Eternal Spring of Mr. Ito. Bradbury, 1985.

L'Engle, Madeleine, and Avery Brooke. Trailing Clouds of Glory: Spiritual Values in Children's Literature. Westminster Press, 1985.

L'Engle, Madeleine. "The Mysterious Appearance of Canon Tallis," Spirit and Light: Essays in Historical Theology, The Seabury Press, 1976, pp. 19-46.

L'Engle, Madeleine. A Wrinkle in Time. Dell, 1972.

Ozick, Cynthia. "A Critic at Large: T. S. Eliot at 101," The New Yorker, November 20, 1989, p. 151.

Paterson, Katherine. Jacob Have I Loved. Avon, 1980.

Peck, Robert. A Day No Pigs Would Die. Dell, 1972.

Potok, Chaim. My Name Is Asher Lev. Fawcett Crest, 1972.

Reed, Arthea J. S. Reaching Adolescents: The Young Adult Book and the School. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1985.

Savage, Cindy. Nothing in Common. Baha'i Publishing Trust, 1988.

K. L. Mendt (essay date spring 1996)

SOURCE: Mendt, K. L. "Spiritual Themes in Young Adult Books." ALAN Review 23, no. 3 (spring 1996): 34-7.

[In the following essay, Mendt reviews how spiritual themes in young adult novels can lead readers to a greater understanding of other religions and cultures.]

We Americans have plenty of material things: cars, houses, running shoes, brand name convenience foods, and video games. However, we often lack spiritual things: ceremonies, faith, a sense of transcendence, and spiritual connection. Spiritual poverty can leave us empty and lost when we experience a crisis in our lives, such as a divorce, a layoff, a longdistance move, a life-threatening illness, or the death of someone close.

A crisis in the lives of young adults is the psychosocial crisis of identity versus role confusion as described by Erik Erikson. It is the task of the adolescent to leave childhood behind and to define herself, to create an identity that can sustain her through the loss of innocence that we know of as the passage into adulthood. Those who remember young adulthood might agree that the passage can be as emotionally confusing and exhausting for the adolescent as any crisis an adult might face. Young adults can thus benefit from a sense of spirituality in their lives, an aspect of themselves they can draw on to help them integrate their new understandings of adult concepts, concepts such as their own mortality, for example.

Because young adults are immersed in the psychosocial crisis of identity definition and are beginning to decide for themselves what they will ultimately believe in terms of spirituality, young adulthood is an opportune time to explore spirituality. It is an opportune time to learn about the myriad belief systems operating in our world, the young adult quest for spiritual knowledge, and the young adult process of identity definition in relation to spirituality. Many young adult books can provide the spiritual information young adults need to assuage the loneliness of their passage; some of the possibilities are presented here.

Knowledge of Belief Systems

One way in which young adults can benefit from reading literature with spiritual themes is through an enlarged understanding of religious beliefs. The often compelling and action-packed offerings of many writers can grab and hold the younger reader long enough to interest him in unfamiliar countries and religions. In addition, the characters make beliefs and practices real, more immediate to the reader. In Pamela Service's The Reluctant God, for example, the main character is Ameni, an adolescent ancient Egyptian whom modern, fourteen-year-old Lorna awakens 4000 years after his death. Ameni was entombed at an early age because he became a god upon his father's death and was thus sacrificed to guard the ancient Egyptian dead. Ameni had quite a nice life before becoming a god, and was not thrilled at the prospect of dying so young nor at gallivanting around England with Lorna, 4000 years later, looking for a stolen urn. Service's writing pulls the reader into Ameni's reluctance, his search for the urn, and his experiences in both ancient and modern Egypt. The story also conveys basic information about the Ancient Egyptians and their spiritual beliefs and shows how concern for the dead is a point of contact among many belief systems.

A young adult novel that explains basic Buddhism while solving a mystery and pointing out the peculiar problems and joys of the life of a military family is Carol Farley's Ms. Isabelle Cornell, Herself. In this book, preteen Isabelle moves to Korea with her family and uses her new-found knowledge of Buddhism to solve a mystery on the military base. The reader experiences the culture shock of Isabelle's unhappy move to Korea, her attempts to navigate in Seoul (both physically and spiritually), and the effect upon her minister stepfather when she declares herself a Buddhist. Her stepfather's reaction points out similarities between Buddhism and Christianity. Meanwhile, the mystery Isabelle is compelled to solve keeps the plot moving.

Three other books that illustrate the daily lives of people subscribing to various belief systems include M. E. Kerr's Is That You, Miss Blue?, in which Christian boarding school students witness the persecution of a teacher who believes she has communicated with Jesus; Suzanne Fisher Staples' Shabanu, Daughter of the Wind, in which readers learn about young Shabanu's experience in rebelling against her Moslem/Pakistani heritage; and Chaim Potok's The Chosen, in which the friendship of two young Jewish boys is severely tested as they grow into young men because of their families' different interpretations of Judaism. Another benefit of these novels is that they provide young adults with points of contact between religion and history. Religious beliefs fueled many events we now consider to be of major historical importance, and students need background on world religions to understand history. Even history-in-the-making requires a basic understanding of belief systems for intelligent response. A good example of a young adult book that illustrates this connection between religion and recent history is Sonia Levitin's The Return. In The Return, an Ethiopian Jew named Desta, persecuted in her own country, makes a long and dangerous trek to a camp in Sudan as the first leg of her journey to Israel. Desta, already an orphan, loses her older brother during the journey and has to grow up fast as she becomes responsible for her younger sister, Almaz. She later joins a group of friends (including the boy she is betrothed to) and finishes the journey to Sudan. However, they nearly die of starvation and thirst on the way to the camp because famine has come to the area. In the final chapter, Desta arrives at the Western Wall and compares herself to "the captives who returned from Babylon to reclaim Jerusalem once again as their home" (Levitin, p. 177). She feels she, too, has returned.

The Quest for Spiritual Knowledge

Another common thread in spiritual literature is that of the quest for spiritual knowledge or the spiritual journey. Many of the characters in young adult books journey in search of knowledge of good and evil, of the self, and of the meaning and mysteries of life. In Anpao: An American Indian Odyssey by Jamake Highwater, Anpao sets out to find his father, the sun, to ask his permission to marry. During his long journey, Anpao hears stories of the origin of the world and of its many creatures and strange phenomena. He becomes a man through his journey because he learns to see how good and evil exist in all things, including himself. The journey ultimately becomes so important to him that Anpao says, "I have become my journey and my journey has become me. Without it I am nothing. When I pause I forget who I am or why I exist" (Highwater, p. 123).

Another book in which the character and the journey merge is Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha, a book many remember from their own young adult days. It is the story of Siddhartha's lifelong search for knowledge about himself and the meaning of life, as well as his quest for spiritual peace and for the source of reality. Siddhartha wants to begin his quest because he feels he already possesses all of the knowledge his community can give him. However, Siddhartha's father will not approve of Siddhartha's plans. Siddhartha thus attempts to overcome his father's authority through sheer obstinance in a scene that will strike chords of recognition in many readers, both young adult and adult. After wearing his father down, Siddhartha begins a physical and spiritual journey that takes him from religious fanaticism to material and sensual depravity and ultimately to the knowledge he seeks. Siddhartha has been a landmark novel for generations of young adults and will probably continue to be so for generations to come.

Two other books concerned with spiritual journeys are Walkabout by James Vance Marshall and The Island by Gary Paulsen. In Walkabout, two American children stranded in the Australian Outback meet a bush boy who is on a spiritual quest for manhood. The bush boy helps the children, but by doing so allows the children to inadvertently endanger his journey to manhood. In Paulsen's The Island, fourteen-year-old Wil finds (or is found by) an uninhabited island in Wisconsin that becomes his spiritual home. On the island he meditates, writes, paints, and seeks to know. But his unconventional search for knowledge makes many people, such as his parents, uncomfortable because they just cannot see the value in Wil's pursuits, nor in his connection to the island.

The importance of the young adult journey, in both fiction and life, is not the destination but the experiences of the journey, the experiences that can make us human, understanding, and wise. The pilgrims in young adult literature show readers that if they fix their eyes on the goal, they might miss the journey, and forget, as Anpao says, who they are or why they exist.

Identity Definition in Relation to Spirituality

Young adults, in defining themselves, choose from the myriad beliefs available those beliefs that contribute to the identities they mold, identities that differentiate them from the rest of the seemingly monolithic adult world. The struggle to differentiate, to avoid conformity and develop individual identity, should be a struggle in which they recognize their uniqueness but in which they also discover how values and beliefs are shared by humans all over the world. For example, a student might realize that various explanations for the origin of the world, although dissimilar at first glance, show a common core of values: the preference for good acts over evil acts, for example, and the importance of spiritual growth. It is the young adult's task to choose those beliefs whose answers most satisfy her.

Rudolfo Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima exemplifies this notion of a variety of beliefs but with common values, from which six-year-old Tony must choose his own path to salvation. Should he believe in the old magic of Ultima, the curandera, the Catholic faith of his mother, or la gente's legend of the golden carp? This notion of choice as the foundation of identity is echoed in his options for his future: a farmer-priest as his mother, a Luna, desires; a vaquero as his father, a Marez, desires; or a scholar, as Ultima the curandera, seems to see as his future. It is Tony's task to assess the possibilities and decide for himself what he will adopt as his own set of beliefs.

Another book in which the main character searches for his own answers is Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach. Jonathan is in search of the right way for him, for the beliefs that most fit with his vision of life, a vision in which perfect knowledge of flight is the highest goal. Jonathan leaves behind the rest of the seagull crowd but gains paradise and transcendence. Two particularly appealing aspect of Bach's book are its search for principles around which to build a life and its main character, Jonathan, who is a bird and, therefore, not a member of any established religion. In addition, the book is simple enough for the most immature young adult, yet at the same time conceptually dense enough to satisfy more mature readers.

A final example of young adult literature showing young adults making spiritual choices as a foundation for adult identity is Katherine Paterson's Jacob Have I Loved. In this novel, the narrator, Sarah Louise, enters adolescence and plunges into turmoil, blaming her beautiful, talented twin sister Caroline and the Bible verse about the twins Jacob and Esau (Romans 9:13, "Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated") for her bitterness. Her rage, however, finally spurs her into building herself "a soul" (Paterson, p. 228) and a life of her own. To develop a life of one's own is the task of young adulthood, and Jacob Have I Loved portrays that struggle with insight and compassion.


Many young adults are truly in crisis during the passage into adulthood for a variety of reasons. In addition, many young adults are dealing with new understandings of concepts such as death, their own mortality, spiritual transcendence, and the soul. Young adulthood can be a time of loneliness, emotional turmoil, and confusion. However, it can also be a time of spiritual growth, introspection, and values clarification, especially when young adults can exercise their capabilities for formal operational thought through spiritual themes in young adult literature. Through such literature, their experiences are enhanced by exposure to information about various belief systems and the humans who subscribe to them, to characters in search of spiritual understanding or knowledge, and to characters integrating various beliefs into their emerging adult identities. All too soon, the crises of adulthood will be upon today's young adults; they need now to begin building the spiritual foundations that will sustain them through the uncertain future.

Gail Radley (essay date spring-summer 2001)

SOURCE: Radley, Gail. "Spiritual Quest in Young Adult Literature." ALAN Review 28, no. 3 (spring-summer 2001): 24-5.

[In the following essay, Radley examines works of juvenile fiction that feature characters willing to explore the spirituality of both their own and foreign religions.]

Religion and fiction can be a troublesome blend in literature for young people. While the early history of children's literature is rife with message-driven works, secularism predominates in education and hence in literature for young audiences. Can religious concerns be the focus in this literature when prayer in the schools is a regular news item? When classrooms are a garden of skin tones, nationalities and belief systems? Whose truth shall we tell? The evangelical Christians'? The atheists'? The Jews's? The Moslems'? That of the latest messenger of doom? As Yeats put it, "The best lack all conviction while the worst / Are filled with passionate intensity" (qtd. in Gardner 41). Who are we to put forth opinions that might shape young lives in the innermost sense? Shoghi Effendi, a central figure in the Baha'i Faith, pointed out that "moral issues which were clear a half century ago are now hopelessly confused."

Many writers have found it simpler to avoid spiritual issues altogether, to stay with the safe and secular. "[W]e keep ourselves occupied with surfaces", according to John Gardner (60). But as a writer for The Dallas Morning News pointed out, each new year is a time of taking stock, of making resolutions to guide us through the year to come. A new millennium would seem to be an occasion for yet more serious evaluating and resolving (1G). This is no less true for young people who will be saddled with many of the very difficult questions technology continually brings us. If we avoid the questions intrinsic to religion—who are we? why are we here? how should we conduct ourselves—what is there to guide and sustain young readers?

One solution a number of writers have grasped is to portray protagonists as learning to seek the answers within themselves—not bad advice, in many respects. Organized religion, then, is presented as quirky, repressive, even destructive. Wisdom dictates passing it up for one's inner code. For example, in Cynthia Rylant's A Fine White Dust, Peter falls under the spell of a traveling revivalist who breaks his promises to Peter. Rather than reject God along with the preacher, Peter turns to his personal vision of God and spirituality. It is a strengthening message with which to shield oneself from inevitable disillusionment. But what will feed the soul? What will one find when one turns inward if the soul has not been fed?

Lois Ruby's Miriam's Well would seem to be heading in the same direction. The story is told through the alternating viewpoints of Miriam, an ardent follower of an offbeat Christian sect, and Adam, Jewish by heritage if not by commitment. Because Ruby has created a sect wound around the teachings of a fictitious preacher, Christian readers are unlikely to feel offended. Adam stands in for a sort of everyman. On a scale of one to ten, Adam rates his religion as number ten in reflecting his identity (8). Adam serves as a contrast for Miriam in both religion and commitment; his disinterest allows his Judaism to escape critique.

Both characters grow throughout the course of the story. Adam once dismissed Miriam as "the deadest girl in class" (6) and "a religious fanatic" (7). But after being paired with Miriam for a school project and learning that she has cancer, Adam begins to care about the plain, straightlaced girl. Her commitment impresses him. Visiting her church, he notes, "I felt 100 percent sure that she believed" (100). Gradually, Adam, whose thoughts initially centered on sliding through school and on his girlfriend, finds himself becoming more serious. He is offended when his friend, referring to Miriam, crudely says, "Isn't she going to croak anyway?" although he realizes not long ago he "would have said the same thing" (218). When Miriam accompanies Adam to his brother's wedding, Adam easily explains the sights and sounds at the synagogue to her—he has absorbed more of his religion than he realized.

Most readers will share Adam's disbelief and alarm as Miriam, stricken with cancer, fights medical treatment. She soon becomes the focal point of a legal battle, her mother and church represented by Adam's lawyer father on the one side and Adam, the medical personnel, and most of the community on the other. As her pain and desperation grow, the reader assumes Miriam's growth will come through rejecting the restrictions of her faith and accepting treatment. But Ruby does not yield to this frequentlyused theme. Miriam remains firm in her commitment though a sort of compromise is reached. She is legally compelled to accept a limited form of treatment. She also experiments with metaphysical healing. And, of course, her church rallies with prayer. Which approach effects her eventual remission? Any or all of the approaches might be responsible. But Miriam credits divine intervention; she has come through a challenging test and remained firm. One final test for her, as presented by her preacher, is to bring Adam into the fold.

This is where Miriam manages to draw a line between her preacher's view of Christianity and her own conscience. The wedding gives Miriam genuine respect and appreciation for an alternative approach to spirituality, making her unable to convert him: "… now that I've met the grandmas and the rabbi, and now that I've seen [Adam] stand up there under the wedding canopy, with that purple skullcap on [his] head" (261). This respect is real progress for Miriam, but it comes at a price: she tells him that she can't see him any more. "I'm fish, and you're fowl," she tells him. "We can't live in the same medium" (260), and Adam soon agrees, "We were fish and fowl, apples and oranges. It had to end" (262).

Certainly, the respect, appreciation, and commitment demonstrated in Miriam's Well are qualities that will serve young people well into the new millennium. But this separate but equal sort of toleration short-changes a generation described as "the most racially and ethnically diverse generation in the country's history" (Times Picayune A22).

The Samurai's Garden by Gail Tsukiyama takes multiculturalism a step farther. The time is World War II. Stephan, a 20 year old Chinese student is sent to his family's beach house in Japan to recuperate from tuberculosis. The forced exile becomes a time of retreat and introspection for the young man. He finds he has much empty time to fill in sparsely populated Tarumi. At first, walks on the beach, letter writing, and painting occupy him. "Even the light [in Tarumi] is revealing," he notices. "[Y]ou can't miss the smallest nuance, the slightest sound" (20). With this heightened sensitivity, Stephan looks toward the few people that make up his new world for company. Matsu, the reclusive caretaker of the beach house, is a man who has worked for the family most of his life, yet Stephan feels that he barely knows him. Matsu quietly assumes the role of Stephan's caretaker. After Stephan learns that his father has been having an longterm affair, Matsu takes him to a Shinto shrine. "You never struck me as the religious type," Stephan comments. "There's still a lot you don't know about me," is Matsu's cryptic response (87). Stephan reports, "My parents had never placed a great emphasis on religion. What I learned during my childhood was through attending St. Matthew's, a Catholic primary school in Hong Kong" (87). But as a budding artist, Stephan is drawn both to beauty and to the worlds that exist within people; he is a searcher.

The rituals of the Shinto religion seem foreign and awkward to Stephan. Still, he approaches the shrine, as Matsu demonstrates, claps three times, and pulls the braided rope to ring the bell because, as Matsu explains, "You must let the gods know you are here" (90). Then Stephan attempts to pray, reaching out to God for the first time, perhaps, in many years.

Matsu's effort is to awaken and comfort, not to convert. He sees no conflict in recognizing the spirituality inherent in every religion. He easily follows the shrine visit with the gift of a Christmas tree so that Stephan won't feel homesick. The same openness Matsu embodies allows Stephan to discover the spiritual aspects in the Japanese observance of New Year's, just as Miriam discovers the richness of a Jewish wedding. Says Stephan, "Having grown up in Hong Kong with the firecrackers and vibrant colored celebrations of Chinese New Year, I find there's something more spiritual in Japan on this day of renewal" (95). But, unlike Miriam, Stephan does not feel the need to separate himself from what is different. Nor does the fact that the Chinese and Japanese are at war turn him away.

Further awakening him to the life of the soul is Sachi, the once-beautiful friend of Matsu's younger sister, Tomoko. Stricken with leprosy, the teenaged Tomoko killed herself with her father's fishing knife rather than bring the dishonor of disease to herself and her family. Then Sachi began to show signs of the rash. Her father let her know that the Samurai "maintained their honor by committing" such a suicide as Tomoko's (131). But Sachi could not bring herself to that. Her inability to kill herself was yet another blow to her parents.

Telling her "[it] takes greater courage to live" (139), Matsu conducted Sachi to the remote mountain village of exiled lepers, Yamaguchi. There she began a new life, forging new purposes and strengths. Matsu insisted that she cultivate a garden. "He showed me that life is not just from within, it extends all around you whether you wish it to or not," she says (43). "I am thankful for any kind of beauty that may find its way to Yamaguchi" (127). This affirmation of life is a common theme in books that touch on religion.

But unlike Sachi, Stephan is only a temporary exile. His health steadily improves, and his life in China awaits as tensions between the Japanese and Chinese increase. It seems everything stands between Stephan and the world he has discovered in Japan: nationality, war, religion, culture. Just before he returns home, he pays another visit to the Shinto shrine, performing the rituals as if they were his own. He holds no false hopes:

I knew all the praying in the world wouldn't stop the war from continuing, or make my parents love each other again. I wanted to leave a message on the wall by the altar … so that even if I never returned to Tarumi, something of me would remain.


The wish is doubly fulfilled the next day. When Stephan tries to express to Matsu his fear that the war will change things between them, Matsu replies, "It is another life. It will never have anything to do with us" (211). The sense of interconnection is cemented when Stephan opens Matsu's parting gift—two blank books. As he begins to write, the reader senses that Stephan's openness and wisdom will spread beyond himself, just as Matsu and Sachi's has. It is a quiet, accepting spirituality that draws in rather than excludes.

Books that mention religion often present it as this sort of backdrop—a part of the characters' landscape, though not a driving force. Sometimes the characters' religious and cultural training creates the central problem for the protagonist. This is the case for Shabanu, by Suzanne Fisher Staples. This young Pakistani Muslim must confront the powerful dictates of family, culture, and religion propelling her into an unwanted marriage in order to be true to herself.

In The Return, by Sonia Levitin, religion is presented as the reason for persecution. Desta, a Jewish Ethiopian, flees her home for the Promised Land. While religious issues are not directly addressed, Levitin portrays a young person remaining firm in her faith despite great pressure to turn away.

For Tony of Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya the task is to face hatred, ridicule, and misunderstanding within his Catholic environment in order to reconnect with the positive aspects of traditional mystical beliefs. Religious issues are presented, though they are somewhat obscured by the mist of childhood; Tony is only six when the novel begins. But the lesson he learns is one of affirmation of life and good works, and so the novel serves to reinforce the common thread running through all religious systems, a vital message from the past in coming to terms with the diversity of our futures.

The War of Jenkins Ear by Michael Morpurgo confronts the reader with a still more direct question: would you recognize the messiah's return? Toby, the unhappy inmate of an English boarding school, finds his world turned upside down while walking in the woods with a new student, Christopher. Christopher faints; when he comes to, he reveals that Jesus instructs him during these spells, that he, in fact, is Jesus. "You will be my Peter, my Rock, my first disciple," he tells Toby (43).

Sensing Toby's need for proof, Christopher promises a miracle. Christopher's first "miracle", though persuasive to Toby, can be easily dismissed as luck or coincidence: a valued rugby player is injured and unpopular Toby finds himself on the team and suddenly part of the inner circle. "Bit of a miracle, really" one of the boys comments (50),—and suddenly Toby believes.

The idea that Jesus should reappear among seemingly ordinary schoolboys seems fantastic to modern sensibilities. The physical presence of God or His prophet seems to many a picture from a distant past or a shadowy vision far into the future, certainly not part of day-to-day life. The reader waits for the moment in which Christopher is revealed to be a charlatan like the preacher in Rylant's A Fine White Dust or at least a confused, perhaps emotionally disturbed, child. That moment never comes.

Christopher is unwavering in both humility and conviction. His words hauntingly echo those of Christ. When he and Toby become blood brothers, Christopher states, "You are in me … and I am in you" (55). Toby asks him if he can heal, and Christopher responds, "If you believe I can, then I can" (57). When war between the boarding school and the town boys threatens, Christopher takes an unpopular stand for peace, advising that "[o]ne of us has to offer a hand across the river" (149). He lays hands on Mr. Binley's critically ill daughter, Jenny, and he foretells events. Toby goes through the usual testing of faith. As Christopher's only disciple, he is bursting with the good tidings and longs for someone with whom to share his knowledge. But when the second disciple, Hunter, joins them and then adoring young Benedict Swann, Toby misses his unique position and Christopher's undivided attention. He wavers between doubt and certainty. His biggest test comes when the headmaster reveals Christopher's claim before the school, insisting that both Christopher and his followers recant. Christopher confirms his belief in the voices that tell him he is Jesus and is expelled. Hunter recants and so will remain at the school. The school awaits Toby's decision. Toby weighs release from the hated school against his parents' disappointment. He turns from self-interest to issues of truth. He believes in Christopher still—yet Jenny is still desperately sick, despite Christopher's efforts to heal her. Toby recants.

Now, the reader thinks, as Christopher departs amid the derision of his peers, and Toby and Hunter sink into embarrassed isolation—now Christopher will be revealed as a false prophet. But the book closes with the sight of Jenny frolicking in the field with her parents.

"My God," Matron whispered, "she's up. She's better. That's the first time that child's been on her feet in a year." Swann looked up at Toby and smiled. "See?" he said.


On this note, the Biblical words "And a little child shall lead them" ringing in the readers' thoughts, the novel ends, leaving the question of Christopher's true identity hauntingly open. With it, the reader is forced to ask, would I recognize the appearance of a messiah amongst us? Would I have the courage to stand apart from the rest, to be one of the faithful?

The questions are often particularly pressing for young adults. As the chair of a religious studies department notes, "There's an absolute thirst for spirituality" (Katz qtd. in Wheat 1) They don't want to be told what to believe. But they do want to explore issues, and we owe them this opportunity to explore with us. The accent is on explore. Novelist Frederick Buechner, describing his works, says

If you're preaching from a pulpit or otherwise grinding an ax, you only let the things happen that you want to have happen.


Then he indicates the place from which authentic writing comes:

… insofar as fiction, like faith, is a journey not only forward in space and time but a journey inward, it's full of surprises.


Even those of us who feel we've found truth are still seeking—or should be. When search ends, faith becomes static. Search should never end because there are always those nagging doubts and confusions, the unsettled feeling of imperfect understanding, deeper levels of understanding to explore. When writers turn to these areas, readers can discover with them.

Works Cited

Anaya, Rudolfo. Bless Me, Ultima. NY: Warner, 1972.

Buechner, Frederick. "Faith and Fiction." Going on Faith. Ed. William Zinsser. NY: Marlowe, 1999.

Effendi, Shoghi. "153: Politics (Shun Politics Like the Plague)" Directives from the Guardian. Online. Internet. 26 August 1999. Available 154.html.

Gardner, John. On Moral Fiction. Basic, 1978.

Levitin, Sonia. The Return. NY: Fawcett, 1987.

Morpurgo, Michael. The War of Jenkins' Ear. NY: Putnam, 1995.

O'Connor, Colleen. "Spiritual Writers' Resolutions Focus on Community, Environment." Dallas Morning News. 2 January 1999: 1G. NewsBank. Internet. 18 August 1999. Available f=doc

Ruby, Lois. Miriam's Well. NY: Scholastic, 1992.

Rylant, Cynthia. A Fine White Dust. NY: Bradbury, 1986.

Shephard, Scott. "Changing Racial Attitudes Hold Hope for Future; New Generation Is More Diverse." Times Picayune. 28 February 1999: A22. Lexis-Nexis. Internet. 19 August 1999. Available … 5a3&_md5=9e84fbec8cefb7a76a94e58eca5b135d

Staples, Suzanne Fisher. Shabanu. NY: Knopf, 1989.

Tsukiyama, Gail. The Samurai's Garden. NY: St. Martin's, 1994.

Wheat, Jack. "Students Seeking Reassurance in Spirituality." Miami Herald 13 June 1999: 1B. Newsbank. Internet. 18 August 1999. Available


James T. Henke (essay date June 1982)

SOURCE: Henke, James T. "Growing Up as Epic Adventure: The Biblical Collage in Z for Zachariah." Children's Literature in Education 13, no. 2 (June 1982): 87-94.

[In the following essay, Henke explores the biblical allusions in Robert O'Brien's Z for Zachariah, arguing that the protagonist's "growth and survival is played out against the background of a Biblical collage that imbues her struggle with mythic significance."]

Although Z for Zachariah is a reasonably successful work, having gone through several printings since 1974, the book has received scant critical attention.1 Probably, this dearth derives from the fact that there seems to be little in the novel to which critics need attend. On the face of it, Robert O'Brien's Zachariah is a straightforward tale of survival. Certainly it is this, but it is also much more. The book recounts the heroine's passage from childhood to adulthood. The process of her growth and survival is played out against the background of a Biblical collage that imbues her struggle with mythic significance. O'Brien's heroine is an emblem of man's epic quest for growth, freedom, and renewal.

Z for Zachariah is Ann Burden's journal account of the events of eighty-one days in spring and summer (May 20 to August 8), one year after a nuclear holocaust has destroyed the eastern United States, perhaps the entire continent, and possibly the entire world. Sixteen-year-old Ann—who turns seventeen during the narrative—has survived in a small valley (probably in the Pennsylvania hill country). Through a meteorological quirk, the valley has remained virtually untouched by the radiation that has destroyed all life outside of its immediate confines. The girl is alone. Her family had set out to explore the "deadness," looking for survivors. They did not return.

Into Burden Valley comes John R. Loomis, a chemist. He has traveled through the deadness in a one-of-a-kind suit that protects its wearer against radiation. However, he is accidentally contaminated, and Ann nurses him through a near-fatal bout of radiation sickness. The man recovers physically, but mentally he becomes increasingly more unstable. Perhaps due to the radiation sickness and his long, lonely, and fruitless search for life in the deadness, Loomis gradually becomes psychotic. He tries to rape Ann, who eludes him and then hides in the woods. Finally, after weeks of hiding from her attacker, she steals his "safe suit." After a final confrontation with Loomis, she leaves the valley in search of another green place and other human life.

Will Ann Burden succeed in her quest? I posed this question to several hundred students, grades 7 through 9, who attended the annual "English Festival" hosted by the English department of my university.2 The consensus was that she would find her new valley and the children she so desperately wants to teach. To be sure, much of this optimism can be attributed to the youthful reader's identification with the strong, courageous teenage heroine. I suspect, however, that a good deal of it also is elicited by the Biblical analogies with which the author laces Ann Burden's narrative. It is worth pointing out here that virtually all of the following allusions were noted by the students in their group discussions.3

First, the most obvious element in Zachariah's Biblical collage is the allusion to Eden.4 Compared to the radiation-burned wilderness that surrounds it, Burden Valley with its greenery, its cows, calf, chickens, and wild creatures is a Paradise. Growing in the valley is Ann's favorite flower, the blossom of the crab-apple. While she is picking greens to make a salad for the recuperating Loomis, she stumbles across the blossom-covered tree in a field. To emphasize the Biblical parallel, O'Brien has Ann tell us of her dream of marrying in a church filled with apple blossoms. This recollection leads her to decide that, when he is recovered, she and Loomis will be able to "marry" the following year when the crab-apple tree is again in bloom. Thoughts of marriage then lead the girl to dream of the day when the valley will be peopled with hers and the chemist's children. Before Ann heads back to the house, she cuts sprigs of blossoms from the tree to give to the sick man. One final detail of this episode reflects O'Brien's careful artistry. The insane and coldly brutal scientist is a cruel parody of Adam, the first father. Hence the author appropriately chooses a crab-apple to parallel the tree of Eden. As the heroine notes in her journal, the blossoms of the crab are especially beautiful and fragrant, but the fruit is "hard and quite sour."5

Though John R. Loomis is a perverse Adam, he is also more appropriately a type of the Serpent. When the heroine first spies him, he is entering the valley, covered from head to toe by the "greenish plastic-looking [slick and shiny?]" safe suit (p. 21). As did the original serpent, the chemist brings his "Eve" a terrifying gift, the knowledge of evil. This is a knowledge that Loomis himself perhaps has only recently fully acquired. After the nuclear attack, he and his coworker Edward were stranded in the underground laboratory where they had been perfecting the safe suit. Edward wanted to leave the safety of the lab, take the suit, and search for his wife and child; but Loomis was afraid that he might not return. Eventually, they quarreled and the chemist killed Edward. Once again we must pause to note a small detail. Every character mentioned in the work has a last name. The professor who heads the army radiation project is "Kylmer" (Kill-more?). There is Loomis and Burden and the deceased Burden family. We are even told of the Kleins, who owned the valley's store and who disappeared with Ann's family into the deadness. That is, everyone has a last name but Edward. Although he is prominently mentioned several times, particularly by the terrified John in his delirium, he remains simply "Edward." The author seems to be inviting the reader to speculate on what Edward's family name might be. Is the reader to wonder if, like John's, that name might be "Loomis"? Possibly. But whatever Edward's last name, his killer is another Cain haunted by fear and guilt and driven to wander in the wilderness.

In addition to its Edenic identity, Burden Valley is also the Egypt of Exodus, the land of the Israelite captivity. Ann's valley has an ample supply of pure water, but also flowing through it is Burden Creek. This stream, actually a small river, originates somewhere outside the valley and is radioactive. The river is a "dead stream," according to Ann. The weeds and trees along its banks are dead or dying, and "no fish swims into it, or if it does, it dies and drifts away" (pp. 29-30). The presence of the contaminated stream is a parallel to the river of blood described in Exodus. Because the Pharaoh would not release the Hebrews, God caused Aaron, upon the command of Moses, to turn the Nile (?) into blood: "And the fish that was in the river died; and the river stank, and the Egyptians could not drink of the water of the river" (7:21).6 Earlier in the Exodus account, Moses and Aaron had asked the Pharaoh for permission to travel "three days' journey into the desert" to worship their Lord. The ruler had upbraided them: "Wherefore do ye … let [keep] the people from their works? get you unto your burdens … Behold, the people of the land [the Hebrews] now are many, and ye make them rest from their burdens" (5:1-5). During Loomis's illness, Ann Burden (surely the name is no coincidence) goes to the valley chapel to pray for his recovery.7 She goes three times. When the chemist's fever breaks and he regains consciousness, he begins anxiously to question her about the progress of the spring planting. When she tells him that there has been no progress—she had been tending him—he becomes "very disturbed." When she informs him that the only times she left the house were to pray for him, he becomes, according to Ann, very irritated and exclaims: "Three times to church, and the fields not planted" (pp. 110-11). True to the Biblical parallel, as soon as he is able to walk with the help of a cane, Loomis spends much of his time on the back porch of the house, seated in a chair, and watching Ann cultivate the corn. He looks, so the girl thinks, "rather like an overseer" (p. 120). Just so, in response to the Hebrews' request for a three-day prayer journey, Pharaoh commanded his "taskmasters" to increase the severity of the Israelites' "burdens" (5:6-13).

Perhaps, the most interesting Exodus parallel of all centers on the dog Faro (Pharaoh). Faro, who originally had belonged to Ann's cousin, is a hunting dog with exceptional tracking ability. After she escapes from the house, thwarting Loomis's rape attempt, he begins to break the dog to a leash. When the man is fully recovered from his illness, he plans to use the animal to track the girl down and to drag her back to literal slavery. Eventually, the deranged chemist makes the attempt; but Ann, with the dog and her tormentor in close pursuit, makes for the radioactive stream. She later recounts how she "walked partway across the water on a series of flat stones, then jumped across a narrow pool … [to] the opposite bank" (p. 177). Too late, the man recognizes the trap. He tries to stop Faro; but from her hiding place, the girl fires a shot over his head, causing him to drop the leash. Following Ann's scent, the dog—instead of using the stepping-stones—splashes into the water and swims across. The next morning Faro dies. Here, of course, the analogy is to the Pharaoh of Exodus who pursued Moses and the Israelites, intending to bring them back to captivity. Like Faro, his pursuit also led him into waters that were his death. And Ann, skipping over her stepping-stones, in a sense is like "the children of Israel [who] walked upon dry land in the midst of the sea" (14:29).

Although O'Brien favors allusions to the Old Testament, he does not neglect the New. Indeed, much of Zachariah's Exodus episode serves double duty as an analogy to a key chapter in the life of Christ. On the eve of his public ministry, Jesus underwent a rite of passage. In the wasteland, he fasted forty days, accompanied by a most unwelcomed companion, Satan, who tempted, tormented, and tested him. So it is with Ann Burden. Her journal entry of June 30th details Loomis' attack upon her and her flight from the house. She is living in a cave in the woods and has been for two days, since on or about June 28th. Ann leaves the valley on August 7th. However, it is on August 6th that she finally decides to steal the safe suit that will allow her to traverse the deadness. She begins this day's entry with the statement: "I feel more hopeful than I have in a long time," and ends it with the declaration: "Now I am ready" (pp. 172, 178). A few hours later, before dawn on August 7th, the heroine has the suit. She tells us that "although I was still in the valley, I began to feel that my journey had begun" (p. 181).

For forty days (on or about the night of June 28th until the night of August 6/7th), Ann Burden has been tormented and tested. Loomis tracks her to her cave and burns her supplies. Attempting to cripple her so that he can capture her, he grazes the girl's leg with a round from his .22 caliber rifle. She lives in a hollow tree, and like Christ she "hungered" (Luke 4:2). Near starvation, she exists on wild mushrooms and blackberries, on vegetables and raw eggs that she is forced to pilfer from her own farm (pp. 174-75). In the Biblical test, Satan had asked Christ to prove that he was the son of God: "command this stone that it be made bread" (Luke 4:3). To end her torment, Ann need only to do as Loomis demands during her first encounter with him after the rape attempt: "act more like an adult and less like a schoolgirl" (p. 145). Christ refused the invitation to submit to evil. So does O'Brien's heroine.

Thus, after forty days of trial, Christ began his public life. Luke tells us that he went down into Galilee and "taught in their synagogues" (4:13-15). In her entry of August 6th, Ann recounts a dream that has come to "dominate" her thoughts:

there is another place where I can live. And I am needed there. There is a schoolroom lined with books, and children sitting at the desks. There is no one to teach them…. They look as if they have been waiting for a long time.

(p. 173)

So, Ann Burden begins her "public" life. The young woman, who before the holocaust had wanted to become a teacher, enters the deadness. In the final passage of her journal, she describes a dream-vision that she experiences on her first night outside the valley: "In the dream I walked until I found the schoolroom and the children. When I awoke … the dream was gone, yet I knew which way to go" (p. 188).

To conclude our delineation of Zachariah's Biblical allusions, we can glance briefly at a few that seem less central to the literal details of the novel or at least less elaborated upon in its action. The title of O'Brien's book is explained on one level by the heroine's Bible Letter Book, a text from which she has learned her alphabet. In that primer "A is for Adam," and "Z is for Zachariah." The girl tells us that "for a long time I assumed that Zachariah must be the last man" (p. 61). Perhaps, then, "Zachariah" may refer to John R. Loomis or even to Ann herself. On the other hand, the novel's title may allude also to the cryptic book of Zechariah that foretells the destruction of Jerusalem, the coming of Christ, the restoration of Jerusalem, and reign of the Lord "over all the earth" (14:9). Interestingly enough, those who survive the initial destruction "shall flee to the valley of the mountains" to wait for the restoration (14:4-5). Another Bible story that deals with massive destruction and the temporary confinement of survivors awaiting renewal is, of course, that of the Great Flood. Burden Valley, with its human survivors, domestic and wild animal life, is an ecological ark surrounded by a sea of radioactive devastation. Finally, O'Brien may be glancing at two other Old Testament heroes, David and Joseph. Ann Burden's cousin, who lived with the family and was in effect an adopted child, is named David. Her brother is Joseph.

These last two allusions serve as a good starting point for a discussion of one of the apparent problems of O'Brien's use of Bible lore. What bearing, for instance, can the David and Joseph stories have on Ann's? In the novel, these simply were two "actual" boys who disappeared into the deadness. How can Burden Valley be Eden, Noah's ark, and the Egypt of Hebrew tribulation all rolled into one? The Bible analogies just do not seem to mesh; they appear to be a haphazard jumble—at first. Yet on closer examination, all of them do fit, even those with only a tenuous analogical relationship to Ann. Joseph, for example, was sold into slavery as a boy. Nonetheless, he rose to eminence in Egypt as the Pharaoh's surrogate, lived to a ripe old age, and peacefully died prophesying that the Hebrews would eventually achieve the Promised Land. David, a youth born to the land, triumphed over the warrior-giant Goliath. Adam and Eve were driven from the Garden, but they populated the earth. The children of Israel escaped the Egyptian captivity, and after wandering in the wasteland, found the Promised Land. Christ defeated Satan, survived the wilderness, and went on to teach and to bring mankind salvation.

Like a thoughtful student's photo collage, Robert O'Brien's Biblical allusions, when viewed as a whole, are consistent. They convey the themes of youthful innocence in conflict with evil, the idea of growth through tribulation, the attainment of freedom, and the promise of renewal. As Ann Burden heads west through the deadness, she searches "the horizon for a trace of green." Doubtless, she is also watching for the circling birds in the west that Loomis saw (or thinks he did) as he was entering her valley (p. 188). Long ago, another survivor, Noah, watched the sky for birds that would tell him if the land were once again safe for man. He found them. No wonder, then, that so many of O'Brien's young readers are convinced that his heroine will realize her dream.8

Obviously, the author did not construct his elaborate artifice simply to provide his readers with hope that Ann will find another valley. Her story is the story of a frightening passage from adolescence to adulthood. By setting that passage against the background of a collage of Bible myths, O'Brien invests Ann Burden's experiences with a mythic quality.9 The process of the heroine's testing, her development into a self-confident young woman, her yearnings for freedom, and her desire for renewal symbolized by the dream-children for whom she searches represent, in microcosm, the epic questing spirit of man. Moreover, by linking Ann to the familiar heroes of old and by inviting his young readers in turn to identify with her, he may be attempting to tell them that their own journeys from childhood to adulthood—though sometimes terrifying—are a kind of enactment, in miniature, of the history of mankind's painful gropings toward freedom and new life. Eventually, all children must walk through the deadness, but Z for Zachariah seems to be assuring them at least of a chance of finding "a trace of green."

  1. For example, a survey of the MLA International Bibliography, 1974 through 1979, failed to yield even one article devoted to the novel. Margaret P. Esmonde, "After Armageddon: The Post-Cataclysmic Novel for Young Readers," Children's Literature, 6, 1977, 211-20, is generally informative but covers too many novels to be able to spare more than a paragraph to Z for Zachariah. Kenneth L. Donelson and Alleen Pace Nilsen, Literature for Today's Young Adults (Glenview: Scott, Foresman, 1980) contains some brief, but useful, comments on O'Brien's novel. See below.
  2. The Third Annual English Festival, April 29-May 1, 1981, Youngstown State University, Youngstown, Ohio.
  3. During six festival "Insight" sessions, I discussed O'Brien's novel with approximately three hundred and sixty students, sixty per session. The students were divided into small discussion groups. First, I asked them if they had noticed any similarities between some of the events in Zachariah and some familiar Bible stories. In each session, a number of students responded affirmatively and pointed out specific parallels. Then, I asked the small groups to discuss other possible Biblical allusions, making lists to share later with other groups in the session.
  4. Esmonde focuses briefly on the Eden parallel (pp. 219-20).
  5. Citations to the novel are from Robert C. O'Brien, Z for Zachariah (New York: Dell, 1974), pp. 66-67; hereafter cited in text.
  6. Citations to the Bible are from The Holy Bible (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing, n.d.). The text is King James version.
  7. Donelson and Nilsen note that Ann Burden's name is particularly appropriate since she carries the burden of "rebuilding civilization" (p. 48).
  8. Donelson and Nilsen point out that one mythic archetype central to Zachariah is that of the Biblical Joseph, one "who leaves home on a danger-fraught mission and returns as a stronger and better person." They believe, and rightly so, that the presence of this archetype in the novel is one reason why "readers feel confident that she [i.e., Ann] will safely complete her quest" (p. 34).
  9. Susan Terris, review of Z for Zachariah in The New York Times Book Review (March 2, 1975), p. 8. Although Terris's remarks are generally favorable, she finds Ann Burden "too good and too courageous" to be true. On the contrary, as a heroine Ann is "true," true to the epic myths of heroism that O'Brien has her reenact.

Norton D. Kinghorn (essay date spring 1986)

SOURCE: Kinghorn, Norton D. "The Real Miracle of Charlotte's Web." Children's Literature Association Quarterly 11, no. 1 (spring 1986): 4-9.

[In the following essay, Kinghorn characterizes E. B. White's Charlotte's Web as a "hymn to the barn," noting the text's elegiac qualities.]

From the time of its first appearance in 1952, reviewers and critics have heralded E. B. White's Charlotte's Web as a children's classic, but they differ widely on the question of what it is about. Taking his cue from a chance remark of White's (Letters 481), Roger Sale believes the book is a "hymn to the barn"—a hymn of "celebration and praise" of the life that begins and ends there (258). In a 1952 review Eudora Welty suggested that the book was about "friendship on earth, affection and protection, adventure and miracle, life and death, trust and treachery, pleasure and pain, and the passing of time" (49); many others have seen friendship as the main theme. But to John Rowe Townsend, the animals in the barn are really people, through whom E. B. White teaches us about ourselves, some of us loyal and intelligent (like Charlotte), other poor, fat, and unheroic (like Wilbur), still others greedy and self-seeking (like Templeton) (241).

On the question of who the book is about, there is even less agreement. At least one reviewer thought Fern was the protagonist, and John Rowe Townsend finds Fern central to the meaning of the novel:

The death of Charlotte … is the death of a person, made bearable by the continuance of life through her offspring. The barn and farmyard are a world. The passage of seasons, the round of nature, are unobtrusively indicated.

Outside the life of the farmyard there is another world, not perhaps more real but on a different plane, which is that of commonplace human life; and perhaps the most poignant thing in the book is the passage of small girl Fern from involvement with the animals as people to a perfectly normal, but imaginatively regressive, preoccupation with the glittering actualities of the fairground. Fern has begun the saving of Wilbur, but by the end she has forgotten him; that is life, too. Childhood passes.


But while Charlotte's Web is about Fern, there is probably not a case for Fern as the protagonist of the story, for, as Rebecca Lukens maintains (17, 66), Fern's character is left quite flat and undeveloped. After the beginning, when she saves the runt pig with her child's argument for justice, Fern soon becomes unobtrusive in the story of Wilbur and Charlotte and the barn, almost invisible, to become visible only occasionally to remind us that the story is, after all, partly hers, and to represent the evolution of the species human beings. White spent two years in the research for and composition of Charlotte's Web, and then, sensing that the book was not quite right, put it aside for a year. When he returned to the story, he rewrote it completely, primarily to add Fern—a change that he later believed "a lucky move … a narrow squeak" (Letters 644, 649). Fern is important in White's tale in the way that Gatsby is important in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, or that Willie Stark is important in Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men, or Kurtz in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. She is not the protagonist of the story, but the point cannot be made without her.

Rebecca Lukens identifies Wilbur as the sole protagonist of the story, for Wilbur's character develops, Wilbur changes (17, 66). But if the story were essentially about Wilbur, White might have called the book "Forever Wilbur" or "Wilbur and the Web" or "Just Plain Wilbur" or "The Oink of the Pig." He didn't. Instead, his title highlights another character and her creation—Charlotte A. Cavatica and her web. White himself, with characteristic economy, says that "the theme of 'Charlotte's Web' is that a pig shall be saved," and then proceeds in praise of spiders:

As for Charlotte herself, I had never paid much attention to spiders until a few years ago. Once you begin watching spiders, you haven't time for much else—the world is really loaded with them. I do not find them repulsive or revolting, any more than I find anything in nature repulsive or revolting, and I think it is too bad that children are often corrupted by their elders in the hate campaign. Spiders are skilful, amusing, and useful …

(Cerf, "Trade Winds" 6)

In fact, the book is centrally about Charlotte—Charlotte the artist, the friend, the writer and rhetorician. If the book has a protagonist she is it. For she effects the outcome of the series of events; she is the one who acts heroically and unselfishly; she expresses or draws together all the themes of the book; it is she upon whom we fasten our attention from the time she first appears and for the duration of the book.

Above all, it is the web Charlotte weaves that most essentially expresses the meaning of the book. The web is a means of catching food, a medium of communication, a means of transportation. Symbolically, the web is the passage, the threshold, between one existence and another, between life and death, between the innocent (but wise) world in which all living creatures are equal and equally deserving of a place in the sun or the barn, and the world of "commonplace human life" (Townsend 241), in which every creature not human is either food or profit—a world populated by the species H. L. Mencken called "homo-boobiens." As a symbol of transition, the web is central because Charlotte's Web is about change—inevitable, irresistible, implacable change—change in two worlds: the world of the barn, of the seasons, all of nature; and the world of humans, who appear in the novel as interlopers, creatures lost to the mysteries of nature, no longer able to fathom the miracle of a spider's web or the chirping of crickets or the coming of spring.

The "hymn to the barn," White's description of Charlotte's Web, does much more than simply celebrate and praise; it serves as the emotional accompaniment to the plot. If Charlotte's Web is about change—passage from one existence to another—then the hymn, with its lyrical interludes, chronicles and choruses that transition. Signalled by the lists Perry Nodelman describes (116-18), it is one of many webs in the novel, securing the reader's emotional participation in the life-death-rebirth cycle and in the loss of paradise. The early parts of the hymn catalog, in glorious fashion, the sights and sounds and smells of the barn, Wilbur's new home (Charlotte's Web, 13-14). The prose is exuberant. All things considered the barn is a pleasant place indeed.

Later, the hymn celebrates the coming of summer to the barn and the farm. Blossoms appear and "make the air sweet"; "the days grow warm and soft" (42); the barn becomes "a wonderful bed of timothy and clover" (43). And there are the sounds of birds. But nested in the songs of the birds is a foreshadowing of another kind of song: "The song sparrow, who know how brief and lovely life is, says, 'Sweet, sweet, sweet interlude; sweet, sweet, sweet interlude.'" This kind of preparation for change is typical of every passage of lavish description. In the first part of the hymn to the barn, the smell of the barn makes it seem that "nothing bad could happen ever again in the world." And though "Everywhere you look is life" in the summer, the very passing of one season into the next indicates the brevity of that life.

In mid-summer, a paean to twilight contains a threat of death: "The thought of death came to [Wilbur] and he began to tremble with fear" (62). But the reader remembers what Charlotte has promised Wilbur—to save him from the carnivorous Zuckerman. Death, still at this point in the narrative, is only just a possibility, nothing to keep one awake during the coming night.

The hymn continues through the summer in a generally contented mode. There is the swing in the barn upon which Fern and Avery zoom into the sky and then come "sailing back into the barn" (69). There are more effusive catalogs—of Wilbur's dinner (75), of the refuse in Zuckerman's dump (97). There are more descriptions, such as Charlotte's web on the foggy morning that highlights the message it contains: "The web glistened in the light and made a pattern of loveliness and mystery, like a delicate veil" (77).

But at last summer draws near its close and the tone of the hymn changes from exuberance to sadness:

The crickets sang in the grasses. They sang the song of summer's ending, a sad, monotonous song. "Summer is over and gone," they sang. "Over and gone, over and gone. Summer is dying, dying."

The crickets felt it was their duty to warn everybody that summertime cannot last forever. Even on the most beautiful days in the whole year—the days when summer is changing into fall—the crickets spread the rumor of sadness and change.

"Summer is over and gone," repeated the crickets. "How many nights till frost?" sang the crickets. "Good-bye, summer, good-bye, good-bye!"


The hymn to the barn has turned from celebration and praise to something deeper, which the animals feel in their blood and the humans understand pragmatically. To Mrs. Zuckerman it is just another summer almost gone; to Fern and Avery the end of summer is the loss of freedom, the beginning of school; to Lurvy it is time to dig potatoes (113). The animals, on the other hand, sense a deeper change, beneath thought, more fundamental than work or school. Charlotte hears the song of the crickets and knows that she hasn't much time left.

The tone of the hymn has turned elegiac—summer is gone, death comes to some creatures, everything changes. The elegy, or lament, or perhaps lamentation, continues until spring returns and Charlotte's daughters hatch and set forth.

Charlotte, near death, tells Wilbur of the return of life to the world:

Your future is assured. You will live, secure and safe, Wilbur. Nothing can harm you now. These autumn days will shorten and grow cold. The leaves will shake loose from the trees and fall. Christmas will come, then the snows of winter. You will live to enjoy the beauty of the frozen world, for you mean a great deal to Zuckerman and he will not harm you, ever. Winter will pass, the days will lengthen, the ice will melt in the pasture pond. The song sparrow will return and sing, the frogs will awake, the warm wind will blow again. All the sights and sounds and smells will be yours to enjoy, Wilbur—this lovely world, these precious days….


(With apologies, one presumes, to Kurt Weil's "September Song.")

The description of Charlotte's death is the most desolate in the book. The world is not so lovely, as its most heroic citizen takes her leave:

She never moved again. Next day, as the Ferris wheel was being taken apart and the race horses were being loaded into vans and the entertainers were packing up their belongings and driving away in their trailers, Charlotte died. The Fair Grounds were soon deserted. The sheds and buildings were empty and forlorn. The infield was littered with bottles and trash. Nobody, of the hundreds of people that had visited the Fair, knew that a grey spider had played the most important part of all. No one was with her when she died.


And then spring comes again to the barn—the "warm delicious cellar, with the garrulous geese, the changing seasons, the heat of the sun, the passage of swallows, the nearness of rats, the sameness of sheep, the love of spiders, the smell of manure, and the glory of everything" (183).

The hymn to the barn, then, provides the lyrical background to the unfolding drama. From a celebration of life in the barn, of all of nature, of the changing seasons, to the elegy for the passing of Charlotte, the cycle is complete, life returns with the spring. That is, much returns. But Charlotte is gone, and while her daughters and granddaughters, a few of them at least, take her place in the doorway of the barn, no one can really replace her in Wilbur's heart: "She was in a class by herself" (184).

The hymn provides the lyrical background for still another change, another passing—something else, too, has been lost with the falling leaves of autumn and the snows of winter. The hymn to the barn is in part a lament for Fern's lost childhood, or rather the loss of the mystical tie that exists between a sensitive child and the earth and all the creatures and things of the earth. After the fair and Henry Fussy and the Ferris wheel, Fern puts aside her association with the barn and the creatures who live there: "Fern did not come regularly to the barn any more. She was growing up, and was careful to avoid childish things, like sitting on a milk stool near a pigpen" (183).

White is quite specific about this change in Fern; it is more than just growing up. It is the fall from innocence, the loss of paradise—a paradise in which every living creature has a raison d'etre, in which all life exists on an equality absolute. This paradise is Edenic and primitive. It is the world of Indian myth and legend, of the one-ness of all life. Fern's prelapsarian state—her rapport with nature—is not perfect, for though she understands the animals of the barn and follows their conversations with apparent ease, she never talks to them, nor they to her. They accept her presence, assume her friendship and trust her to come near, but they do not acknowledge her presence in any other way.

From this imperfect Eden, the world of the barn, Fern falls into adulthood (or at least stumbles a step in that direction—she is only eight) or into the real world, in Townsend's words "that of commonplace human life" (241). Townsend is philosophical about Fern's fall: "… that is life…. Childhood passes" (242). But the fall is neither so simple nor to be tossed off so easily. The reader must sense the quality of the change—must feel the loss of paradise.

What then is the nature of Fern's passing? Is it like Charlotte's death, a great sadness, followed in spring by the birth of 514 little copies of Charlotte? Or is it like the coming of winter, always containing the promise of spring—spring that seems more lovely than all the previous springs? Probably neither of these, though Fern's passing is like Charlotte's death in that she lives on in another guise, and though it is as inevitable as the return of the seasons.

For one thing Fern's passing, her fall, is into a world peopled by the species homo sapiens; and White is quite specific about human beings in this book—his images, his metaphors, depict human life in less than honorific terms. This is the satire of the novel, satire that Roger Sale finds "not altogether satisfactory" (264).

Once again, the web is the key to the satire, the informing symbol, which introduces a series of analogies between the two worlds, animal and human. The first of these analogies is from Charlotte herself as she begins to form a plan to save Wilbur. Her logic is irrefutable:

Charlotte was naturally patient. She knew from experience that if she waited long enough, a fly would come to her web; and she felt sure that if she thought long enough about Wilbur's problem, an idea would come to her mind.

Finally, one morning toward the middle of July, the idea came. "Why, how perfectly simple!" she said to herself. "The way to save Wilbur's life is to play a trick on Zuckerman. If I can fool a bug," thought Charlotte, "I can surely fool a man. People are not as smart as bugs."


The proof is in the web, in its message. Lurvy is the first to read the message, "SOME PIG!" and he is so frightened that he utters a prayer and then runs to fetch Zuckerman. In one of the funniest scenes in the novel, Lurvy and Zuckerman consider the web; they are helpless in the snare of Charlotte's prose—frightened and trembling. Zuckerman tells his wife: "A miracle has happened and a sign has occurred here on earth, right on our farm, and we have no ordinary pig" (80). Mrs. Zuckerman, the one bright hope for human beings at this point, seems to know that the real miracle is not the pig but the spider, but soon she too succumbs to the spell of Charlotte's prose. Of course, the web only confirms the belief of the men about the pig. They knew it all along.

Zuckerman takes his news to the minister for spiritual guidance. The minister counsels secrecy and promises to turn his powers to an interpretation. "There can be no doubt," says the minister, "that you have a most unusual pig. I intend to speak about it in my sermon and point out the fact that this community has been visited with a wondrous animal" (82). The minister speaks truth, but is no more open to miracles than the farmer; the truly wondrous animal escapes his notice—the web; as web, is beyond his feeble imagination.

When the minister asks whether the pig has a name, Zuckerman replies: "My little niece calls him Wilbur. She's a rather queer child—full of notions" (82-83). The irony of this scene is devastating, and reminds again of the two worlds, for Fern, in her prelapsarian state, can distinguish between miracle and pig, as Zuckerman and the preacher cannot. And Charlotte's trick—Charlotte's web—spreads to trap everybody for miles round. The tourists arrive by the hundreds to see the amazing pig. The Zuckermans are so busy promoting their miracle pig that the farm begins to go to smash, a piece of information that White drops in so unobtrusively that one could easily miss it. On Sunday the minister, true to his word, offers his interpretation to a church full of people: "… that the words on the spider's web proved that human beings must always be on the watch for the coming of wonders" (85). As for Fern," … she found that the barn was not nearly as pleasant—too many people. She liked it better when she could be all alone with her friends the animals" (85).

Fern's preference for the barn and the animals of the barn, and her talk of their conversations cause her mother some concern. Although her curiosity is temporarily piqued by Fern's version of Charlotte's story of one of her cousins, Mrs. Arable regains her adult composure and keeps both feet planted solidly in the world of "commonplace human life." When she takes her questions about Fern's suspected abnormality to Dr. Dorian, the conversation turns naturally to the pig and the spider's web—the miracle. The doctor proposes that the real miracle is the web itself and the spider that made it. When Mrs. Arable disagrees, Dr. Dorian draws a comparison between the spider and Mrs. Arable, as seamstresses—to Mrs. Arable's humiliation.

Mrs. Arable is not convinced that spiders can be the purveyors of miracles, and as for the web: "I don't understand it, and I don't like what I can't understand" (110). And there we have it: fear or dislike for the unknown—one of the differences between the two worlds, characteristic of human beings. Mrs. Arable wants to know whether Dr. Dorian believes that animals talk:

"I never heard one say anything," he replied. "But that proves nothing. It is quite possible that an animal has spoken civilly to me and that I didn't catch the remark because I wasn't paying attention. Children pay better attention than grown-ups. If Fern says that the animals in Zuckerman's barn talk, I'm quite ready to believe her. Perhaps if people talked less, animals would talk more. People are incessant talkers—I can give you my word on that."


To understand the meaning of the web we, like Dr. Dorian, must at least believe it possible that animals can talk, and might do so, if only we had the ability to pick up on it.

Dr. Dorian's function in Charlotte's Web is not immediately clear. He has nothing really to do with the narrative of the barn or with Wilbur's story. He does not affect the outcome in any way. Rather, he is a kind of choral figure, commenting on the story of Fern, clarifying the satire against human beings. He exists only on a level above story. And he is puzzling for another reason: he would seem to be the only human in the novel with a foot in both worlds, an example of a human not blind to the true miracles of the earth. But that is only partly the case, for while Dr. Dorian the scientist has an open mind on the question of communications among animals, Dorian the man "has never heard one say anything." Perhaps Dr. Dorian represents the best that is possible for a member of the species that has lost paradise.

The good Doctor also understands the nature of human growth and change—not, however, without some cynicism:

Well, I don't think you have anything to worry about. Let Fern associate with her friends in the barn if she wants to. I would say, offhand, that spiders and pigs were fully as interesting as Henry Fussy. Yet I predict that the day will come when even Henry will drop some chance remark that catches Fern's attention. It's amazing how children change from year to year.


True to Dr. Dorian's prediction Fern is "caught," by Henry Fussy, and a Ferris wheel, and shortly thereafter loses interest in the barn, and Wilbur, and Charlotte.

The dominant symbol of the change in Fern is the web, not Charlotte's web but several images of webs, most of them man-made. Charlotte herself provides the clue that readers are supposed to look for other, less obvious webs. Wilbur has just made an unsuccessful attempt to spin a web:

"You needn't feel too badly, Wilbur," she said. "Not many creatures can spin webs. Even men aren't as good at it as spiders, although they think they're pretty good, and they'll try anything. Did you ever hear of the Queensborough Bridge?"

Wilbur shook his head. "Is it a web?"

"Sort of," replied Charlotte. "But do you know how long it took men to build it? Eight whole years. My goodness, I would have starved to death waiting that long. I can make a web in a single evening."

"What do people catch in the Queensborough Bridge—bugs?" asked Wilbur.

"No," said Charlotte. "They don't catch anything. They just keep trotting back and forth across the bridge thinking there is something better on the other side. If they'd hang head-down at the top of the thing and wait quietly, maybe something good would come along. But no—with men it's rush, rush, rush, every minute. I'm glad I'm a sedentary spider."


The Queensborough Bridge is one of man's webs. While Charlotte's web satisfies her basic need for food, man seeks "something better on the other side." The spider's web is the mark of her patience; the bridge represents man's impatience ("rush, rush, rush, every minute") perhaps his materialism (time is money, the saying goes).

Wilbur's ludicrous attempt to spin a web with Templeton's string tied to his tail (56-57), which precedes, by a chapter only, the passage describing the swing in Zuckerman's barn, perhaps foreshadows the play of Avery and Fern on the swing. The swing in Zuckerman's barn is also an inferior web, for, like the Queensborough Bridge, it is man-made, and, like the bridge, traffic on it goes back and forth; no one ever simply hangs and waits for "something good to come along." What else White has in mind is difficult to say. There is of course the parents' fear that a child will fall. But fall to what? Its starting point is the hay loft; at its apogee the view is of sky and clouds (freedom?); its perigee is the north barn door (the passage?). That is about all one can say with certainty. Perhaps the sky and clouds represent one world, a world of imagination in which all things are possible. The children always wind up, after several trips to and fro, back on the barn floor—not the basement, where the animals live, but the floor above, apart from the peace and certitude of "the dung and the dark."

The rest of the webs appear at the fairground, that version of the world of "commonplace human life" that Townsend calls "imaginatively regressive," and which is obviously a symbol of man's materialism. The webs of the fairground share characteristics of earlier man-made webs. The merry-go-round is a sign, to humans, of growing up:

The children grabbed each other by the hand and danced off in the direction of the merry-go-round, toward the wonderful music and the wonderful adventure and the wonderful excitement, into the wonderful midway where there would be no parents to guard them and guide them, and where they could be happy and free and do as they pleased. Mrs. Arable stood quietly and watched them go. Then she sighed. Then she blew her nose.

"Do you really think it's all right?" she asked.

"Well, they've got to grow up sometime," said Mr. Arable. "And a fair is a good place to start, I guess."

(131-132; italics mine)

So the fair, with its merry-go-round and its midway, is an approved route to maturity. But White is very careful to inform us of what sort of passage this is that leads into the midway, through the almost nauseous repetition of the empty word "wonderful." The merry-go-round, like the swing, leads nowhere but around and around. And the children are drawn to this gaudy world much as flies are attracted to Charlotte's web.

The merry-go-round is only a small version of a larger web, the Ferris wheel. True to Dr. Dorian's prediction, Henry Fussy catches Fern's attention and together they ride the Ferris wheel. Like the rope swing, the Ferris wheel affords glimpses of sky and clouds and even of distant vistas; but like the swing and the Queensborough Bridge, always returns the rider to the place from whence he began.

After the Ferris wheel and Henry Fussy, Fern does not think of Wilbur and Charlotte again. She is forever arrested in the world of bright lights, jangling music, the wonderful midway, and the web of the Ferris wheel. And there can be little doubt that this world is not only commonplace and imaginatively regressive, it is also crassly materialistic. To Charlotte, the saving of Wilbur is an artistic and moral achievement, and the ultimate act of friendship. But in the world of human beings, Wilbur receives his award for promoting the tourist trade, for "attracting many valuable tourists to our great State" (157). "A pig shall be saved" from the fate of becoming bacon, porkchops, and ham hocks, not out of any goodness or tenderness or creativity in man, but out of pride that a miracle should occur "right here on our farm," and for the profit motive. Pride and profit—two motives that have always made humans a prey to the confidence game—now prove them vulnerable to the stratagems of a selfless, heroic spider who can write.

Because Charlotte can write, there is one further aspect to the meaning of her web. Ultimately, it is a symbol of language—that most intricate and ingenious network of communication, which according to scientists elevates humankind to a lofty level above the rest of the animals.

The chief commentary on language in Charlotte's Web is from Charlotte herself—Charlotte the writer, the lexicographer, the rhetorician. While her web catches flies, the words that she weaves into it catch man. "If I can fool a bug," she thinks, "I can surely fool a man. People are not as smart as bugs" (67). The rhetoric she uses on this inferior creature is of his own invention, as ancient as the written language, as prestigious as Aristotle, Quintillian, and Cicero. Even the other animals seem to possess a smattering of it. When the rat Templeton refuses to go to the fair, for instance, the old sheep catalogs all the "disgusting leftover food" that can be found there. Templeton is snared: "That's enough!" cried Templeton. "Don't tell me any more. I'm going" (123). Later, Wilbur offers Templeton a bribe based on the same appeal, to convince the rat to secure Charlotte's egg sack for him (168). Templeton is as vulnerable to rhetoric as the Zuckermans; he has much in common with human beings: his attraction to the fair, once he has learned what delights await him there; his acquisition of apparently useless items, a rotten goose egg, for example.

Charlotte is not only a skilled rhetorician, but also a sensitive manipulator of words; her knowledge of connotations is considerable. When she opines that the spell of "Some Pig" may be wearing off, and a lamb suggests "Pig Supreme" as a new message, Charlotte responds, "No good. … It sounds too much like a rich dessert" (87-88). And she commands all forms of discourse in addition to persuasion. She delivers a scientific lecture on spider anatomy to Wilbur, and she is a capable ceremonial orator:

"I am sure," [Charlotte] said, "that every one of us here will be gratified to learn that after four weeks of unremitting effort and patience on the part of our friend the goose, she now has something to show for it. The goslings have arrived. May I offer my sincere congratulations!"


But it is in her web that Charlotte best expresses herself. The web symbolizes the persuasive capability of language, as it points up human helplessness before the printed word. It never occurs to anyone but Fern, and to a lesser degree Mrs. Zuckerman and Dr. Dorian, that it is just possible (if miraculous) that other creatures might have language, too. Even when one of those creatures does send a message in human language, humans do not think to write back or talk back, they are so taken in by the message itself and by its referent. How ironic that man's one distinguishing feature is also his most vulnerable spot. Charlotte's real web is language, stuck together by rhetoric; and man, pathetic fly that he is, in his fallen state, is trapped in this most ingenious web.

So are readers of the book. The ultimate strategy of any book is to align its readers with one or more of its characters or ideologies, in a way to ensnare them in the web of its fiction. Charlotte's Web would seem to have succeeded too well, for the critics—the best of readers—fall in with the humans of the story and miss all the real miracles of it. One loss that accompanies the fall from innocence is the loss of the ability to believe in miracles—call it faith perhaps—the ability to believe, or perceive, that spiders can write—or, more precisely, the ability to perceive the miracles of nature as opposed to miracles from nowhere.

Anne Carol Moore, an early reviewer of Charlotte's Web, faults E. B. White for not having grown up on a farm and consequently erring in the creation of Fern, for "no such country child would have spent day after day beside the manure pile to which the pig was consigned and repeated afterward to as dumb a mother as a parent's page ever invoked what the animals told her in their language" (394). On the contrary, many children, girls and boys (not the Averys, but certainly the Ferns), would sit on a milkstool by the manure pile, watching and listening to the animals. What Moore forgot is that parents and children live in two different worlds. Children do not have that pride of species that makes them believe they are sovereigns on the earth; we have to teach it to them, with a little help from the process we chauvinistically call maturation.

When I was eight or ten, about Fern's Arable's age, one of my jobs was to fetch the cows every evening at milking time. Now, cows are contrary creatures; they can find many places to hide in a large pasture. Someone told me, a kindly aunt perhaps, that if I could catch a daddy long-legs (first cousin to the spider, with a voracious appetite for mosquitoes and aphids) and if I would ask him which way the cows had gone, he would point the way for me. And I used to do that, and the daddy long-legs always pointed with one of his eight grotesquely long legs, and I always believed him. When his directions proved wrong I put it down to my misinterpretation of his advice. (Sometimes he waved more than one leg.) It occurs to me now that if I had cows to find, even today, and if I happened to meet a daddy long-legs as I set out, I might just stop and ask him for directions.

The point of this nostalgia trip is a strong feeling of mine that the key to understanding a literary text is experience. Because I once talked to daddy longlegs, I can understand how Fern can listen to the conversations of pigs and spiders. Writers write for the "hidden child within" them (at least the ones worth reading do); therefore it follows that adults should read for the hidden child within them. And this goes for teachers who would hope to lead children to the rich meaning that is literature.

Teachers and critics alike should have the wisdom to ask questions about the experiences of children—experiences and feelings analogous to those in the fiction. Do you ever talk to animals? Has an animal ever talked to you? The answers to those questions will allow teachers, critics, and children to explore the real miracle of Charlotte's Web.


Cerf, Bennett. "Trade Winds." The Saturday Review 35 (1952): 6-7.

Lukens, Rebecca J. A Critical Handbook of Children's Literature. Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman and Company, 1976.

Moore, Anne Carol. "The Three Owl's Notebook." Horn Book 28 (December 1952): 394.

Nodelman, Perry. "Text as Teacher: The Beginning of Charlotte's Web." Children's Literature 13 (1985): 109-127.

Sale, Roger. Fairy Tales and After: From Snow White to E. B. White. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978.

Townsend, John Rowe. Written for Children: An Outline of English-Language Children's Literature. Boston: Horn Book, 1974.

Welty, Eudora. "Life in the Barn Was Very Good." The New York Times Book Review (October 19, 1952): 49.

White, E. B. Charlotte's Web. Illus. Garth Williams. New York: Harper and Row, 1952.

——. Letters of E. B. White. Collected and edited by Dorothy Lobrano Guth. New York: Harper and Row, 1976.

Peter Hollindale (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Hollindale, Peter. "Plain Speaking: Black Beauty as a Quaker Text." Children's Literature 28 (2000): 95-111.

[In the following essay, Hollindale evaluates how author Anna Sewell's Quaker background influenced her young adult novel Black Beauty.]

In Part 4 of Swift's Gulliver's Travels, "A Voyage to the Houyhnhnms," Lemuel Gulliver describes the customary methods of treating horses in his own country, England, to the highly intelligent and rational horse who is now his master. He does so with his usual complacency and injudicious frankness: "I owned, that the Houyhnhnms among us, whom we called Horses, were the most generous and comely animal we had; that they excelled in strength and swiftness; and when they belonged to persons of quality, employed in traveling, racing, and drawing chariots, they were treated with much kindness and care, till they fell into diseases, or became foundered in the feet; but then they were sold, and used to all kinds of drudgery till they died; after which their skins were stripped and sold for what they were worth, and their bodies left to be devoured by dogs and birds of prey" (258-59). The noble Houyhnhnm is, not surprisingly, indignant when he hears the story of his species's degradation at the hands of Men, who are the brutish Yahoos in this land of rational equine oligarchy, and he wonders "how we dared to venture upon a Houyhnhnm's back."

I answered, that our horses were trained up from three or four years old to the several uses we intended them for; that if any of them proved intolerably vicious, they were employed for carriages; that they were severely beaten while they were young for any mischievous tricks: that the males, designed for the common use of riding or draught, were generally castrated about two years after their birth, to take down their spirits, and make them more tame and gentle; that they were indeed sensible of rewards and punishments, but his Honour would please to consider, that they had not the least tincture of Reason any more than the Yahoos in this country.


Point by point, Gulliver's account to the Houyhnhnm is in miniature the life story of one of fiction's most famous horses, Black Beauty, the eponymous hero of Anna Sewell's novel, published in 1877. Where the experiences are not Black Beauty's own, they are those of his friend, the mare Ginger.

Improbable as the parallel may seem between Swift's urbane and waspish eighteenth-century satire and an essentially simple nineteenth-century story written in the cause of animal welfare, there are similarities between the two. Foremost of these is the fictional tactic of admonitory role reversal. Instead of horses as seen by men, we are shown humankind as seen by horses. In each case the effect is to expose the callousness that is inherent in the very concept of ownership—the commodification of the living creature. In Sewell this depends for its avoidance or correction on the personal responsibility and intervention of humane individuals. Swift summarizes an accepted, economically governed process of abuse, and Black Beauty illustrates it through the flesh-and-blood experience of living horses. Swift's strategy is to empower the horse, Sewell's to dramatize its impotence, but the purposed reformative insight is the same. Of course, Swift's object is to puncture human arrogance and presumption, not to improve the lot of horses, but he still provides an analogous and prophetic text for Sewell's enterprise.

In particular, we should note the equivalent status of Reason in both writers. Swift's Houyhnhnms are embodiments of rational life and discourse, and in such company Gulliver is unwise to speak of English horses as having "not the least tincture of Reason." Likewise Black Beauty, whom we think of chiefly as a passive victim of human use and misuse, is also constituted by Sewell as the humble, unassuming voice of practical Reason, whose very simplicity gives the powerful quality of self-evidentness to his intuitions of rightness and justice in both equine and human affairs.

In its unlikely correspondence with Swift we can find some guidance to the status of Black Beauty as one of the world's best-selling novels and perhaps the most influential of all animal stories. The book's lasting popularity is often attributed to its innovative contribution to the cause of animal welfare. It survives, readers commonly suppose, because its original reformative compassion is expressed through an amateurish but engaging simplicity of episodic storytelling that appeals especially to the narrative tastes and ready sympathies of children.

The argument of this essay is that neither of these assumptions is correct. Although it is undeniable that Black Beauty is a lastingly influential propagandist text (and is still not obsolete in that role), it owes its status to literary qualities, not to revolutionary welfare insights. Considered as a tract, the book is not original at all. However different Swift's objectives may have been, Gulliver's Travels demonstrates that the leap of imagination needed to reposition the horse in human awareness was possible a hundred and fifty years earlier. John Locke, in Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693), had expressed the link between treatments of animals and human beings that is intrinsic to Sewell's thinking: "they who delight in the Suffering and Destruction of inferior creatures, will not be apt to be very compassionate or benign to those of their own kind" (180). By the end of the eighteenth century there were already instructive stories for children, designed to civilize the growing child in the use of power over other creatures, such as Sarah Trimmer's Fabulous Histories, Designed for the Instruction of Children, Respecting Their Treatment of Animals. Such educative texts were often cast, like Black Beauty, in the form of animal autobiography. In the nineteenth century, before Black Beauty appeared, humane societies in both Britain and America were already actively promoting the better treatment of horses.

Among Anna Sewell's humanitarian predecessors were a number who, like Sewell, were Quakers. They were active in the antivivisection movement, and the Quaker Joseph Pease had persuaded Parliament to insert two clauses into an act designed to protect animals in the City of London and Westminster. In so doing, he had furthered the work of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the major animal welfare organization in Britain.

On the other hand, if Black Beauty is not original as propaganda, neither is it a simple propagandist story. The book's echo of Swift reveals the unobtrusive skill that enables Sewell to constitute her hero both as helpless victim of human injury and as naively rational commentator on human behavior. His observations embrace many aspects of conduct not impinging directly on horses. Freed from the preconceptions that usually surround it, Black Beauty's stature as a classic plea for animal welfare is not diminished, but it emerges also as a more deeply imaginative, more carefully structured and more morally eclectic work than most verdicts on it have assumed. It is crucial to our understanding of the book that Anna Sewell was the product of a Quaker background and that Black Beauty is not properly intelligible as a literary work without some reference to Quaker language and ideas.

Although Quakerism is a complex phenomenon, subject to successive historical changes since its founding by George Fox and also to internal schism within particular societies at various times, certain general features can be regarded as constants of Quaker beliefs and practice. Among them are a pacific and humanitarian attitude to human behavior, a rational morality, and a clear and obdurate outspokenness in these causes. For a Quaker, to be pacific is not to be passive. The idea of "plainness" is essential to Quaker practice: plainness in its double senses of simplicity and candor.

Quaker "plainness" is often associated with visual austerity in the circumstances of everyday life. Famously—but also significantly—for many years the only prints permitted to adorn the walls of Quaker homes were of William Penn making his treaty with the Indians, the interior of a slave ship, and the building plans for Ackworth School (Punshon 131). The trio is significant because the first is an image of peaceable community with fellow creatures whom many non-Quakers would have felt did not merit it; the second is a reminder of cruelty and atrocity against other human beings; and the third is an affirmation of the power of education, Ackworth being the first Quaker boarding school. All these concerns are reaffirmed in the context and purpose of Black Beauty.

Certainly Black Beauty was designed to educate. I do not wish to deny the well-intentioned functionalism of Anna Sewell's motive in writing the book, or her success at the level of propaganda, but rather to argue that the novel breaks through the restrictive bounds of its benign utilitarianism to achieve a largely unnoticed complexity of language and narrative structure. It emerges as a much finer literary work than it is usually given credit for being.

Sewell's conscious purpose was "to induce kindness, sympathy, and an understanding treatment of horses," and the book's laconic style, its concentrated brevity of incident, its formation from self-contained chapters and episodes, though partly attributable to the ordeal of its composition during Sewell's protracted and debilitating final illness, were also astutely designed for its intended readership. Black Beauty was originally written not for children but for adults working with horses. Naturally they included very young adults indeed (like Joe Green in the book) who nowadays would still be at school but in Victorian England were already earning a living for themselves and their families. For working men and boys, with basic literacy but nothing more, and with little time for reading, the simple prose, short chapters, and instructively dramatic episodes made the book a pleasurable and effective teaching aid; and so it was for the children who quickly became its adopted audience. For half a century after its publication children read Black Beauty in a world where horses were a prominent and indispensable feature of both rural and urban life. Margaret Blount, in a study published a century after Black Beauty, records its effect on her as a child:

It made me look, on my way to school, more intelligently at the coal carts that plodded all day between the station and the gasworks, at the plaque on the wall that said for many years "Please slacken bearing rein going up hill," and I watched the carters putting on the metal brake shoes and wondered—as a horse—what it was like going downhill with a heavy load behind. But beyond these feelings was the one that if the horse were I, or anyone, and the story really about me, or people, then the school was the breaking-in stable and many people were led or driven through life with a series of owners and made to run, walk or trot without being able to argue about it.


This is a tribute to the book's continuing success in alerting children to the fate of horses, its main subject. But Blount also draws our attention to the breadth of the book's humanitarian concerns. She draws her analogy between horses and human beings because the book invites her to. The simple anthropomorphism that is often regarded as a naive limitation in Sewell's writing, the fact that Black Beauty is given a non-mimetic speaking voice, is one of its great strengths. Its uniform linguistic plainness is the reason why it seems to Margery Fisher "almost like a dialogue between horses and men" (46).

Plainness and simplicity, however, are not necessarily naive or amateurish qualities. Blount remembers the wall plaque asking drivers to "slacken bearing rein going up hill." The existence of this plaque would have been largely due to Sewell, because Black Beauty was instrumental in securing the modified use and eventual disappearance of the bearing rein. The bearing rein is the book's central image of cruelty to horses. It was a fashionable device that forced a horse to carry its head higher by exerting pressure on the head and neck. In consequence it made horses look artificially smart, at terrible cost to their comfort and also their efficiency, because a horse prevented from lowering its head could not use all its strength in drawing a load. The cruel result was especially pronounced when a horse was going uphill. Sewell's attack on this iniquitous fashion provides an excellent example of the deft narrative organization and subtleties of prose that are obscured by the book's ostensible simplicities.

The bearing rein makes carefully spaced appearances in the narrative and works as a gradually intensifying image through Black Beauty's experience of the suffering it causes. In chapter 11, when Black Beauty is still a prized, well-tended, and unblemished horse at Birtwick, his master, Mr. Douglas, meets a friend and equal, Captain Langley, who makes use of the bearing rein. Douglas's reproof to Langley is a model of Quaker admonition—rational, persuasive, courteous yet uncompromising—but it also carefully registers the social status of the two (they are "gentlemen" and equals, but not aristocratic) while subtly exposing the point of least resistance for persuasion to attack—in this case, a cunning compliment to Langley's military professionalism. Langley likes to see "my horses hold their heads up":

"So do I," said Master, "as well as any man, but I don't like to see them held up: that takes all the shine out of it. Now you are a military man, Langley, and no doubt like to see your regiment look well on parade, 'Heads up,' and all that; but you would not take much credit for your drill, if all your men had their heads tied to a backboard! It might not be much harm on parade, except to worry and fatigue them, but how would it be in a bayonet charge against the enemy, when they want the free use of every muscle, and all their strength thrown forward? I would not give much for their chance of victory, and it is just the same with horses. … You may depend upon it, horses were intended to have their heads free, as free as men's are; and if we could act a little more according to common sense, and a good deal less according to fashion, we should find many things work easier."


The stern and businesslike probity of Mr. Douglas's speech accords generally with Quaker attitudes toward the right use of language, but the passage is also a socially realistic man-to-man exchange, involving intelligent psychological calculation on Douglas's part (and on Sewell's as teacher): the appeal is simultaneously to respect for fellow creatures and to enlightened self-interest. The analogy with soldiers is a shrewd particular argument for Langley's benefit but also a vivid and telling image that furthers the book's general intertwining of human and animal welfare.

The bearing rein makes its next major appearance in chapter 22, when Black Beauty has been sold to the Earl of W——at Earlshall Park, where the Earl's fashion-conscious wife insists on its use. This is Black Beauty's first direct endurance of it, intensifying his experience from that of mere observer, as he was in chapter 11. It causes him acute discomfort, but the episode concentrates on Ginger's rebellion (chapter 23), so that Black Beauty is positioned as part sufferer, part observer. Through this incident, moreover, the book's propagandist targeting is lifted socially from the professional and gentlemanly bourgeoisie to the aristocracy.

In the episode I specially wish to consider, chapter 46, the social range of the campaign against the bearing rein is completed when it is addressed to the ordinary working man. By this time Black Beauty has fallen on hard times ("sold, and used to all kinds of drudgery") and is pulling overloaded carts for a corn dealer and baker. His driver, Jakes, uses the bearing rein. (It is the fashion for carters as well as countesses.) The focus is now squarely on the horse's own suffering. In chapter 46 Black Beauty is trying unsuccessfully to draw a cart uphill, with the bearing rein in place, and being whipped for his failure.

At this point a nameless lady intervenes. It is tempting to think of the lady as Sewell herself, playing a walk-on part in her own narrative rather as the film director Alfred Hitchcock used to make surreptitious appearances in his own movies. At any rate, the lady's views are indistinguishable from Sewell's. When she first offers to help, "the man laughed." (As if a mere woman could help!) When she offers reasons why the bearing rein might be a practical hindrance, he agrees, "with a short laugh," to try "anything to please a lady, of course."

The experiment works, and the short paragraph describing it is a masterly prose reflection of Black Beauty's physical effort: clause by clause, it matches first of all the horse's strained, laborious initial pull; then the tension of maximum breath-sapping struggle ("I spared no strength"); next its slight easing into successful movement ("the load moved on"), followed by sustained but bearable labor and the relief of final well-earned pause: "Jakes took the reins—'Come on, Blackie.' I put down my head, and threw my whole weight against the collar; I spared no strength; the load moved on, and I pulled it steadily up the hill, and then stopped to take breath" (176). Jakes acknowledges the lady's vindication but says he cannot abandon the bearing rein entirely because "I should be the laughing-stock of all the carters." Even so, when she has gone, he resolves to "try her plan, uphill, at any rate." And why? Not just because it works (enlightened self-interest again) but because the lady's linguistic and social nuancing, like Mr. Douglas's earlier, has been both courteous and shrewd: "'That was a real lady, I'll be bound for it,' said Jakes to himself; 'she spoke just as polite as if I was a gentleman'" (177). Gender contempt has been neutralized by social compliment, an effect minutely registered in the changing threefold reference to laughter.

Yet the lady has not compromised her argument, which is the same as Mr. Douglas's to Captain Langley. The social language has changed to reflect the characters and situation, but the grave and plain reiteration of principle connects the two and confirms the deft artistic structuring:

"Is it not better," she said, "to lead a good fashion, than to follow a bad one? A great many gentlemen do not use bearing reins now; our carriage horses have not worn them for fifteen years, and work with much less fatigue than those who have them; besides," she added in a very serious voice, "we have no right to distress any of God's creatures without a very good reason; we call them dumb animals, and so they are, for they cannot tell us how they feel, but they do not suffer less because they have no words. But I must not detain you now; I thank you for trying my plan."


Such strong displays of courteous interference formed a hard example for the book's young readers, and no doubt many older ones. Alison Uttley, later a celebrated children's writer and herself a formidable character, read the book as a farm child in Derbyshire in the 1890s and recorded her reactions in her autobiography. They show the strength of the book's emotional appeal and the effect of its practical advice but also reveal its unnervingness as a model for personal action: "Black Beauty was a book which enthralled us, so that it was read aloud several times. I was deeply moved by this book, and implored my father to remove the blinkers from our horses' heads. [See Black Beauty, chapter 10.] He was adamant, and explained they would shy. I kept a lookout for horses with bearing-reins, and wondered if I dared speak to strangers about this. Luckily I was too bashful to be a reformer" (147). Luckily Anna Sewell, even in her long, grave illness, was not. Instead she wove her classic story around the Quaker attitudes expressed by an unnamed character in chapter 38: "My doctrine is this, that if we see cruelty or wrong that we have the power to stop, and do nothing, we make ourselves sharers in the guilt" (148).

Black Beauty does not, of course, work consistently at a high level of stylistic and narrative skill. The chapter recounting Jakes's encounter with the lady ends worthily but anticlimactically with a disconnected afterthought about the bad effects of ill-lit stables. Sewell can revert to the simple didactic handbook at a moment's notice. But the greater part of the book is both narratively skillful and imaginative, a work of instructive art. The bearing rein is in every sense an exemplary instance of this. It is for Sewell both a unique and a representative malpractice, standing as an image of human ill-treatment of horses; but it is also an image in the poetic sense, unifying and intensifying the seemingly episodic narrative. This gives special poignancy to the occasion of Anna Sewell's funeral, as reported by her biographer, Susan Chitty. The horse-drawn hearse drew up at the Sewell house, and Anna's mother, Mary Sewell, was heard to exclaim, "Oh, this will never do!," and was shortly seen in conversation with the undertaker's man. "A moment later a top-hatted figure was seen moving to the head of each horse in turn. He was removing the bearing-rein from all the horses in the train" (222).

Mary Sewell was herself a prolific and successful writer, though she was sixty before she began. If we are surprised to find such literary expertise in Anna Sewell's only book, written with didactic motives at the end of her life, this may be because we overlook not only her good education—Quakers were pioneers in valuing the education of girls and had a tradition of encouraging articulate and reformist writing by women—but her actively literary family background. Long before she wrote Black Beauty, Anna Sewell was her mother's household critic, and by all accounts a severe and outspoken one. She fulfilled what would now be the role of the publisher's reader and editor. Nor was Mary the only practicing writer in the Sewell clan. Anna's aunt by marriage, Anne Wright, wrote a number of educational nonfiction works for children, and her Aunt Maria (Mary's sister) progressed from retelling Bible stories to writing romantic novels. Oddly, just as Anna was finishing Black Beauty, her Aunt Maria published a novel that was also about a black horse, entitled Jennet Cragg, the Quakeress.

Given Anna Sewell's education and her literary background, it is hardly surprising to find on close reading that Black Beauty's linear and episodic simplicity of narrative is deceptive. The book is carefully structured, and the unifying object of its structure is to reinforce that parallelism between horses and humankind that was intuitively perceived by Margaret Blount as a child. Of course the primary purpose of this integral analogy is to make people apply to horses the same principles of care and kindness that they should to other people, but its secondary intention, rooted in the humanitarianism of Quaker thought, is to remind people of their duties to themselves and to each other. The moral core of the book is chapter 37, "The Golden Rule," where Polly Barker voices the central precept: "you know we should do to other people as we should like they should do to us" (142).

Several examples will show how the book enforces this parallel, both in the main lines of narrative organization and in details. The story is conceived as a four-act drama. Part 1 is the story of Black Beauty's idyllic colthood, chiefly in the ownership of Squire Gordon at Birtwick Park. The only ill-treatment the horse endures in this period is accidental and due to the misguided kindness of young Joe Green after the horse's heroic gallop to summon the doctor to the squire's ailing wife. Part 2 traces a decline in the horse's fortunes. He is sold to an ostensibly good home, but one, as we have seen, where he is forced to endure the fashionable bearing rein. Before the end of Part 2, however, the horse has suffered far worse at the hands of a drunken servant and is sold on to casual and less caring ownership. There is a remorselessness about the events of Part 2. Black Beauty is virtually ruined by illustrative variants on the three major causes of equine suffering: fashion (causing horses as sentient beings to be treated as mere objects), thoughtlessness, and deliberate cruelty. All three are also important in Quaker doctrine directed against man's inhumanity to man.

Part 3 is wholly concerned with Black Beauty's life as a London cabhorse. This is an interval of relative happiness in the horse's fortunes. His owner, Jerry Barker, is thoughtful, knowledgeable, and kind; so are his family. Black Beauty has slipped in status from gentleman's horse to working horse, and Part 3 is a kind of proletarian equivalent of his earlier existence at sumptuous Birtwick Park, but place for place the horse's treatment is similarly benign. After the rapid downfall of Part 2 the horse's own experience is temporarily stabilized, so that he is spectator as much as actor and observes the human scene as carefully as the horse's. The parallels are clustered in this section. Moreover, this is the stage that shows the closest identification between the situations of horse and owner. Both Jerry and Black Beauty are comfortably housed; both are "good servants," hardworking and honest, motivated by principles of care and duty; both are clear-sighted spectators of human and animal behavior; both depend for their very survival on ability to work; and even their brief intervals of rest and pleasure are the same, as we see in their shared enjoyment of a day in the country in chapter 37, "The Golden Rule." Although it is not Black Beauty's most prosperous time, in a way Part 3 represents the novel's ideal point of moral equilibrium in relations between horse and human.

The stasis of Part 3, like that of Part 1, is closed by human illness. A key character (Mrs. Gordon at Birtwick, and now Jerry) is sick, so a human household must move to a kinder climate (the Gordons overseas, the Barkers from London to the country), and the horse must be sold. Part 4 then provides a short but dramatic finale, distilling in four brief chapters a reversal of Parts 1 and 2. Black Beauty descends into his worst state yet, followed by a dramatic rescue and the restoration of the opening pastoral idyll. Recognized by Joe Green, once the well-intentioned ignorant boy who harmed him, Black Beauty's recovered fortunes are epitomized by the recovery of his original name. Renamed by successive owners, he has never lost his "good name" in the other sense, and now he publicly retrieves it.

Even this brief outline may demonstrate that the episodic chapter-based narrative is contained within a more sophisticated unifying structure and also that Black Beauty's downfall is discontinuous, intercut with wider animal and human fates which he mediates to readers as ingenuous observer. The most obvious parallel is with another horse, Ginger. Unlike Black Beauty, Ginger has been ill-treated as a young filly. She represents the obverse of Black Beauty's fate, and nothing more clearly exemplifies the underestimated structural finesse of the novel than chapters 7 and 8, in which Ginger tells her story to Black Beauty at Birtwick. The brief preceding chapter, "Liberty," can be read as a redundant eventless episode, arbitrarily introduced as a mini-sermon on yet more desirable experiences for horses. Once we come to Ginger's story in the next two chapters, it is clear that this is not so. Chapter 6 completes the unified story of Black Beauty's youthful good luck, which point by point is then contrasted with Ginger's early memories. Ginger has not enjoyed the formative and necessary pleasure of early freedom: "it was dreadful to be shut up in a stall day after day instead of having my liberty" (23). Other contrasts are just as carefully pointed. Black Beauty was ill-treated by a cruel boy (chapter 1) but the boy was quickly and harshly dealt with; boys threw stones unchecked at Ginger, and so caused her to regard them as enemies. Black Beauty was gently broken in, Ginger harshly so. Just as Ginger's memories form a systematic sad reprise of Black Beauty's luckier early life, so they are predictions of future ordeals that Black Beauty will eventually undergo. Ginger has already suffered the bearing rein, which Black Beauty will meet at Earlshall, and she has already been kept by a good master who employed a bad groom, just as Black Beauty will be in chapters 30 and 31, "A Thief" and "A Humbug." Not only do these chapters give Sewell a pretext for educative contrasts and repetitions, but they are artistically pivotal in the structured narrative of Black Beauty's own decline.

The dual fates of the two horses, after their separation in chapter 27 at Earlshall, come together one last time in chapter 40, "Poor Ginger," where Ginger recounts the last stage of her contrasting story and is then seen dead. Without the Quaker perspective it is easy to misread this double narrative and see Ginger's fate just as a sadder version of Black Beauty's own. But Ginger's response to her ill-treatment has been violent and ill-tempered, for reasons that the modern reader is quick to excuse. Victorian Quakers did not excuse it. Sewell excites pity for Ginger and constructs her narrative to show in no uncertain terms how important it is to train young horses kindly and humanely. But pity does not entail indulgence. Black Beauty, when his turn comes to suffer, displays a quiet fortitude that contrasts with Ginger's rebellion. He is offered as a model, she as a suffering creature who should certainly rouse our pity, but also as a bad example. This is in tune with Quaker strictness. The contrasting fates of the two horses are structured with more complexity and more severity than modern sympathies can easily respond to, but they speak for the culture that produced the book.

In Sewell's thinking, what is true for horses is also true for human beings. When young Joe Green makes Black Beauty ill through well-intentioned ignorance, the groom John Manly's reaction uncompromisingly refuses to make allowances. Chapter 19, "Only Ignorance," is a sustained attack on the "Only." Ignorance, like thoughtlessness and irresponsible cruelty in the other instances that Manly cites, is not excusable, because Quaker humanitarianism is an absolute and overrides all mitigation for those who flout it. In ways such as this Black Beauty integrates good treatment of horses within a wider system of values and makes a many-sided case for education.

The structured parallel between horses and humans is most powerfully articulated through the succession of servant figures, mostly grooms and drivers, of whom Joe Green is one. As Black Beauty's fortunes decline, so do the status and quality of his carers. At Birtwick, John Manly, as his personified name suggests, is the ideal and measure by whom all the rest are judged. Black Beauty in his prime is tended by human duty in its prime. Manly's assistant, James Howard, still young like Black Beauty, has been properly trained (as Black Beauty has) and is almost as good as Manly. (Sewell repeatedly links the raising and training of colts with that of boys.) The inexperienced and younger Joe Green makes a near-fatal error but learns well—as we see at the end.

In Part 2, Mr. York at Earlshall is a lesser man than John: he is competent but pusillanimous and will not stand up for his horses. Reuben Smith (chapter 25) is a steeper fall from servant grace: a skillful and likeable man with the fatal flaw of drunkenness, disastrous in its consequences. The thief Filcher and the humbug Smirk are far worse grooms, reflecting the horse's worsening fate. In Part 3, Jerry Barker does not count in the succession, because he is Black Beauty's owner and is self-employed, but through his eyes and the horse's we see other cab-drivers, less well placed. They are mostly anonymous but include Seedy Sam (chapter 39), whose impoverished, enslaved existence and miserable death are skillfully placed to mirror Ginger's (chapter 40). Finally, in Part 4, the nadir is reached with the hideous Skinner (another personifying name) and a cruel unnamed cab-driver, before the horse's final deliverance through reunion with Joe Green. Step by step, human qualities, human status, and human fates match those of Black Beauty himself.

The constant parallels between horse life and human life, together with Black Beauty's role as a naive observer and his conversations with other horses, are Sewell's means to introduce into the book a fuller range of Quaker preoccupations. Even if she may have lapsed from membership of the Society of Friends, her moral consciousness did not stray far from them. Quaker pacifism is articulated through Black Beauty's friendship with Captain, his fellow cab-horse at Jerry Barker's. Captain has been a military horse and served in the Crimean War. More especially, he took part in the heroic but infamous Charge of the Light Brigade, the subject of Tennyson's celebratory poem, in which the British cavalry, because of a bungled order, charged straight into Russian gunfire and sustained huge losses. Three hundred sixty-two horses were killed in the charge. Captain is a survivor, and in chapter 34 his story is a powerful denunciation of what Wilfred Owen would later call "war, and the pity of war." Tennyson famously said of the brave cavalry, "Theirs not to reason why," but Sewell's horses do reason why, just as Quakers did. Black Beauty asks, "Do you know what they fought about?" Captain responds: "No," he said, "that is more than a horse can understand, but the enemy must have been awfully wicked people, if it was right to go all that way over the sea on purpose to kill them" (129). The horse's naive puzzlement is itself a sufficient moral answer.

The evils of alcohol are another repeated preoccupation. It was Reuben Smith's drunkenness that ruined Black Beauty in chapter 25, but this aspect of human behavior, like several others, is most prominent in Part 3. In chapter 42, "The Election," Jerry Barker refuses to vote for the party he would otherwise support because their candidate is a brewer, and risks incurring anger as a result. (The election Sewell refers to was the last in Britain before the introduction of the secret ballot.) Moreover, Jerry refuses to use his cab to "bring up half-drunken voters." Later, in chapter 44, Jerry acts as an unofficial missionary of the temperance movement, and it emerges somewhat improbably that Jerry is himself a reformed drinker. The damage that drunken grooms and riders cause to horses enables Sewell to show how drinkers also harm their families and themselves. Again the welfare of horses is integrated in a wider scheme of Quaker social values.

Positive social virtues such as thrift are also quietly voiced. John Manly tells James Howard that "now of course I have top wages, and can lay by for a rainy day or a sunny day as it may happen" (60), and Jerry Barker gives as one reason for his avoidance of Sunday work that "I have laid by more money in the Savings Bank than ever I did before" (137); later he roundly declares that a man who "does not pay his debts" cannot be religious, and thus speaks for the strong Quaker link between financial probity and religious devotion.

Although many of its concerns are still topical, it is difficult for modern readers to recognize the full imaginative achievement of Black Beauty because in our day horses are a valued recreational luxury, and even in the parts of the developed world where horse-meat is part of the human diet it is rare to see evidence of equine suffering in public places. Even for those indifferent to them, they are flesh and blood. In mid-Victorian England things were utterly different. Horses were ubiquitous, and a material necessity for both rural and urban life. They were a commodity, an investment, a depreciating asset like a car, and widely treated in the same unsentimental way.

Something of the standard attitude of the time can be seen in the Journal of Beatrix Potter, written slightly more than four years after the publication of Black Beauty. At fifteen Potter was already a considerable natural scientist, accustomed to keeping live animals and dissecting dead ones. Neither then nor at any time of her life was she a sentimentalist—quite the opposite—but not surprisingly she liked animals and took enormous interest in them. Her caustic comment on the disposal of a family horse is therefore indicative of the general attitudes that Anna Sewell faced: "Rufus = Prince, the chestnut horse is disposed of at last. Papa sent Reynolds to the Zoological Gardens to enquire the price of cat's meat: £2 for a very fat horse, 30/- for a middling one, thin ones not taken as the lions are particular. However, he is sold to a cab owner along the road for £15. He was bought a year ago for ninety. Papa says he never made a good bargain." And a few lines later in the same entry: "Convenient way of disposing of horses once practiced by someone Papa knew in the North of England. They turned one loose on the road, and sold the other for 7/6" (8-9).

This everyday financial commodification of the horse (which the young Beatrix takes for granted while deriving sardonic pleasure from the ludicrous human performance) suggests the national mentality that Anna Sewell's novel did so much to change. We should not underestimate the sympathetic precision with which she was able to occupy on our behalf the physical experience of horses. Nor should we belittle the modified anthropomorphism, the endemic analogy with human life, which she rightly perceived as her most powerful persuasive instrument.

For present-day readers the early impacts of modern technology especially reveal the book's alert imaginative force. Three times in Black Beauty Sewell draws our attention to the false equation between horses and engines, reminding us in the process that the historically recent arrival of mechanical engines had altered perceptions of horses for the worse. In chapter 9 Merrylegs complains that "Boys … think a horse or pony is like a steam engine or a thrashing-machine, and can go on as long and as fast as they please" (31). (He goes on to describe his vigorous methods of teaching them otherwise.) In chapter 29 Black Beauty objects to the town drivers and rail travelers who "seemed to think that a horse was something like a steam-engine, only smaller" (104). And in chapter 38 Black Beauty contrasts the gentleman who gives him a pat and a kind word with the "ninety-nine out of a hundred [who] would as soon think of patting the steam engine that drew the train" (147). Just how imaginative and how needfully prophetic these comparisons were can be seen from an official history of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, published in 1924:

When railroads were first made it was suggested that horses would no longer be required. … When motor-cars were introduced the same cry was raised, but with each change the necessity for protecting horses has really increased, since they have, as it were, fallen from their high estate and are now looked upon by the majority as a cheaper, and therefore an inferior, form of traction. The price of a horse is less than that of a motor-car, and his driving needs less skill and knowledge; therefore, even though the wretched animal is worked to death, his work will earn the cost of his successor! In this way his treatment has become, in many cases, worse.

(Fairholme and Pain 239-40)

The RSPCA had been concerned about the welfare of horses for a century, and even at this late date its anxieties continued on the very grounds that Sewell had foreseen.

Whatever its influence and individual success, it would be wrong to see Black Beauty as a central precursor of the modern story about animals. Susan Chitty claims (241) that "Black Beauty started a new category of book, the animal story." Margaret Blount, however, who calls the book "the most famous and best-loved animal book of all time," also says it is "perhaps the last of the great moral tales, the last great first person narrative in the Listen-to-my-life style" (249). It is Blount who (in both statements) seems nearer to the mark. As we have seen, there were many animal stories (and animal autobiographies) before Black Beauty, and although the succeeding years have produced numerous similarly anthropomorphic tales, the greatness of the subsequent animal story has taken different directions. Two in particular are dominant. One is the story that draws on the strengths of fable and folktale to re-create the animal world as a competitive brotherhood—a poetic antecedent of modern ecological science. The Uncle Remus stories of Joel Chandler Harris and the Mowgli stories of Kipling's Jungle Book are classic examples of this line. The other is the more intensely naturalistic story, perhaps taking its cue from early controversies about whether animals can feel pain, which seeks more daringly to occupy animal consciousness and in the process ask what "animal consciousness" can mean, and where it intersects with human consciousness. Jack London's White Fang and The Call of the Wild are great texts of this kind, as are Henry Williamson's Tarka the Otter and Kipling's magnificent story "The White Seal." Both lines of development have enormously enriched the twentieth-century children's book.

By comparison with them, Black Beauty is old-fashioned. Yet it retains its hold, not only for its propagandist strength but for its major and too-little recognized qualities as a work of literature: its power of dramatic incident, its skillful blend of episodic and integrated narratives, its balancing of individual voices with a common moral idiom, and its lucid expression of values—rooted in Quaker tradition but still urgent nowadays for horses and people alike—with which child readers are still quick to sympathize.

Works Cited

Blount, Margaret. Animal Land: The Creatures of Children's Fiction. London: Hutchinson, 1974.

Chitty, Susan. The Woman Who Wrote "Black Beauty": A Life of Anna Sewell. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1971.

Fairholme, Edward G., and Wellesley Pain. A Century of Work for Animals: The History of the RSPCA, 1824-1924. London: John Murray, 1924.

Fisher, Margery. Who's Who in Children's Books. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1975.

Kipling, Rudyard. The Jungle Books. London: Macmillan, 1894 and 1895. Includes "The White Seal."

Locke, John. Some Thoughts Concerning Education. London, 1693. Ed. John W. and Jean S. Yolton. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989.

London, Jack. The Call of the Wild. New York: Macmillan, 1903.

——. White Fang. New York: Macmillan, 1906.

Potter, Beatrix. The Journal of Beatrix Potter: From 1881 to 1897. Ed. Leslie Linder. London: Frederick Warne, 1966.

Punshon, John. Portrait in Grey: A Short History of the Quakers. London: Quaker Home Service, 1984.

Sewell, Anna. Black Beauty: His Grooms and Companions: The Autobiography of a Horse. London: Jarrold and Sons, 1877. Oxford University Press (World's Classics) edition. Ed. Peter Hollindale. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Swift, Jonathan. Gulliver's Travels. London, 1726. London: Collins, 1952.

Trimmer, Sarah. Fabulous Histories Designed for the Instruction of Children. Respecting Their Treatment of Animals. London: T. Longman, 1786.

Uttley, Alison. Ambush of Young Days. London: Faber and Faber, 1937.

Williamson, Henry. Tarka the Otter. London: Faber and Faber, 1927.



Bottigheimer, Ruth B. "Religious Writing for Children: Catechistical, Devotional, and Biblical Writing." In International Companion Encyclopedia of Children's Literature, edited by Peter Hunt, pp. 267-73. London, England: Routledge, 1996.

Critical examination of religious writing for children.

Luckenbill, W. Bernard. "Children's Books and Differing Views of Evolution—Past and Present." Children's Literature in Education 19, no. 3 (September 1988): 156-64.

Reviews the history of the ongoing debate over evolution versus creationism and how it has manifested itself within children's literature.

Nixon, Julia H., and Robert C. Small. "Christianity in American Adolescent Realistic Fiction from 1945 to 1981." ALAN Review 12, no. 3 (spring 1985): 9-12, 53.

Attempts to determine the prevalence of religious-themed works, primarily those dealing with Christianity, within the greater spectrum of children's literature as a whole.

Piehl, Kathy. "Noah as Survivor: A Study of Picture Books." Children's Literature in Education 13, no. 2 (June 1982): 80-5.

Explores how the biblical story of Noah's Ark is presented in various picture books.

Pinsent, Pat. "'So Great and Beautiful that I Cannot Write Them': Religious Mystery and Children's Literature." In Mystery in Children's Literature: From the Rational to the Supernatural, edited by Adrienne E. Gavin and Christopher Routledge, pp. 14-31. London, England: Palgrave, 2001.

Considers the nature of religious mystery in several works of children's fiction.

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Religion in Children's Literature