The Book of Beasts: Animal & Human Nature in Children’s Literature
The following speech was delivered online in English and Korean on the 5th of December 2020. The event was entitled: ‘Building Up Cross-Cultural Understanding Through Children’s Literature Between Australia and Korea: 2020’, convened by Dr Hyung-joo Judy Park. Dr Park has a PhD in Australian children’s literature from Macquarie University and is a leading Korean scholar of children’s literature.
Thank you for the invitation to join you for this special event exploring Australian children’s literature. Thank you to Ambassador James Choi for the warm introduction and to my fellow author, Tania McCartney. My heartfelt thanks Dr Park Hyung-joo. Dr Park is a remarkable scholar and it is wonderful to know that Australian children’s literature has such a strong and passionate advocate in Korea. Thanks also to the National Library for Children and Young Adults in Korea, the Bang Jung Hwan Research Institute, the KCICA at Sookmyung Women’s University, the Australian Embassy in Seoul, Lim Bo-Young of the Australia-Korea Foundation and Kim Hyelin of the Korea-Australia Foundation. I was looking forward to meeting you in Seoul, but am glad we can still meet here electronically. I hope that we will meet soon face-to-face.
My name is Christopher Richardson. I am the author of seven books for children, as well as an academic with a background in literature and security studies. In 2016, I graduated from the University of Sydney with a PhD entitled Childhood Policies and Practices in the DPRK: A Challenge to Korean Unification, exploring the children’s culture of North Korea.
During the Japanese colonial era Korean authors – whether conservative or progressive, collaborators or resisters – understood that children’s literature was a space where the future of Korea would be contested. The very survival of Korean language and culture were at stake. My own research is focused on the decades post-liberation, as Kim Il Sung brought North Korean literature under the control of the Korean Workers’ Party via the Federation of Literature and Arts. In 1951, at the height of the Korean War, Kim Il Sung famously called for North Korean writers to become “engineers of the human soul” and children’s literature would prove central to this project.
In his treatise On Juche Literature, Kim Jong Il ordered North Korean writers to “develop children’s literature into our style of literature that conforms with our Party’s policy and our children’s characteristics,” adding that exposure to foreign children’s stories risks “making [North Korean children] incompetent beings for the times and revolution and prisoners of reactionary fatalism.”
Leading by example, both Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il wrote children’s stories of their own, or – as is more likely – employed ghost writers to pen tales in their names. And so it is that North Korean children grow up, for example, with The Butterfly and Rooster, a revolutionary tale that pits a plucky anti-imperialist butterfly against a marauding Yankee rooster. To hammer the unsubtle message home, the wicked rooster is bedecked in red, white, and blue, and smokes a corncob pipe like General Douglas MacArthur, whilst the North Korean butterfly is dressed in humble worker’s garb. Animals and nature are abiding features in children’s literature in North Korea, as elsewhere in the world.
The DPRK is, above all, a cultural and psychological dictatorship, most clearly exemplified through the myth and hagiography of the leaders themselves. These tales are embedded deeply in North Korea’s children’s literature and educational culture.
Yet this is far from a new idea. In Plato’s Republic, as Socrates says to Adeimantus:
… our first business is to supervise the production of stories, and choose only those we think suitable, and reject the rest. We shall persuade mothers and nurses to tell our chosen stories to their children, and by means of them to mould their minds and characters which are more important than their bodies.
Even now, North Korea children are called to be prepared to die for their Supreme Leader. The Chosun Children’s Union ritually pledges to “turn out as human bullets and bombs” to protect North Korea from its foes, whilst those children who die rescuing portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il from flood or fire are said to “live forever”.
The Chosun Children’s Union, like the Soviet Young Pioneers and Hitler Youth, was modeled on the British scouting movement of Robert Baden-Powell. They even share the same motto: “Be Prepared!” And who do you think wrote the following inspiring words for children?
Peace cannot be certain unless we show that we are always fully prepared to defend ourselves … [A]n invader would only find himself ramming his head against bayonets and well-aimed bullets if he tried landing on our shores.
The answer is not Kim Il Sung or Stalin, but Baden-Powell. It was only after the horrors of the First World War that Baden-Powell’s exhortation that the children of the British Empire “be prepared to die for the country” was excised from the official scouting manual.
I was a proud cub in Australia, but let us not kid ourselves if we think our own children’s culture is divorced from politics, even the politics of states. Children’s stories matter. Children’s culture matters. That’s why we’re here today. The fact that children’s books are seldom reviewed in Australian newspapers, and children’s authors – unless they are celebrities or panel show comedians – receive almost no media attention whatsoever, is a tremendous failure of the moral and intellectual imagination.
I first began exploring the intersections between children’s culture and the national imagination in 2004. For my Honours thesis, I researched Edward Lear’s assault on the political and cultural assumptions of the Victorian Age. Through his limericks and songs, Lear waged a nursery war against the pieties of empire and the scolding moralism of writers like the Reverend Isaac Watts or Charles and Mary Lamb.
Lewis Carroll soon joined the battle, famously lampooning the Rev. Watts’ “How doth the little busy bee?” in his delicious poem “How doth the little crocodile?” in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The topsy-turvy justice of Lewis Carroll’s tyrannical Queen of Hearts, “sentence first – verdict afterwards,” satirically skewered the hypocrisy of Victorian legalism, whilst anticipating the absurdities of Twentieth Century totalitarianism and the show trials of the Soviet Union and North Korea, McCarthyism in the USA, or – for that matter – our current culture of online shaming and abuse.
Animal imagery is central in the works of Lear. Before he was an author, Lear was the pre-eminent ornithological draughtsman of his day. I have a copy of Lear’s exquisite Leadbeater’s Cockatoo on my study wall.
Lear’s avian affinity explains why so many of his humans look like birds.
Whether through the violent and predatory beasts of Lear’s limericks, or the star-crossed – sometimes same sex – lovers of his exquisite nonsense songs, such as “The Owl and the Pussy-cat” and “The Duck and the Kangaroo,” Lear ushered in modern English language children’s literature. Children’s poetry and fiction now assailed the status quo, instead of always reinforcing it.
Befitting the scope of his revolutionary genius, Lear soon drew the eye of John Ruskin, Wilkie Collins, the Tennysons, and Queen Victoria herself. A century later, W.H. Auden would write a poem commemorating Edward Lear, remarking how “children swarmed to him like settlers. He became a land.”
North Korean children are still waiting for their Lear.
In 2004 and 2005, my own first work for children was published – six non-fiction books from Scholastic in the X‑Zone series – but my true passion lay with poetry and fiction.
In 2015, after ten years’ writing and many setbacks, my debut novel was published by Penguin Australia. Since then it has been my great joy to visit countless schools, libraries, bookstores, and literary festivals to talk about my work and to meet thousands of readers and fellow writers.
An epic maritime fantasy, Empire of the Waves tells the story of two children, Anni Tidechild – daughter of the librarian of the floating city of Pel Narine – and Duck Knifetooth – the son of the greatest sea captain and explorer in the history of the imperial city. Set in the flooded world of Salila, Empire of the Waves is a tale of love and war, of pirates and monsters and a boundless sea that teems with life. Superficially, my thesis and novel appear to be radically different projects – one a work of scholarship, the other fiction – yet they took shape at the same time and share a common purpose. Both are meditations on the power of tales to shape the world. And both are meditations on the lives of children in times of tyranny and war.
Salila is a world of moral ambiguities. I commenced writing the novel in 2003, Australia still reeling from the Bali Bombing terrorist attacks the year before, and just weeks after the start of the Iraq War, in which Australia joined George W. Bush’s “Coalition of the Willing” to remove Saddam Hussein from power. Empire of the Waves is no more a simple allegory of the post‑9/11 world than The Lord of the Rings was a mere allegory of the world wars. Yet Empire of the Waves is very much a product of its decade of creation. It was a decade when North Korea was never far from headlines either. Like Kim Jong Il, the tyrant Filip Able is the playboy heir of a beloved national leader, a dictator who would have preferred to carouse and make art than lead a nation, yet proves unable to resist the lure of power and so seeks to build Weapons of Mass Destruction (not a nuclear weapon, in Filip Able’s case, but rather access to the cosmic powers of the Shadow Realm through an alliance with monstrous creatures called the felmane).
Meanwhile, I wanted to process my post-Iraq War horror at the Manichean myths of my own childhood that had contributed to so many of us thinking that the West must be on the “right side of history” in every war. Wavelord Able’s desire to eliminate the scourge of piracy in Salila mirrored George Bush’s crusade against global terrorism, whilst the tension between his floating city of Pel Narine’s hegemonic military, political, economic, and cultural ambitions was juxtaposed against the virtues of founder Gorgo Narine’s more enlightened founding documents.
Of course, the post‑9/11 world inspired a lot of mediocre art and commentary that identified the hypocrisies of the War on Terror, whilst committing what Bertrand Russell termed the fallacy of the “superior virtue of the oppressed”, thus justifying the most grotesque of crimes, at times romanticizing even terrorists and tyrants. I made certain, therefore, that the pirate clans in Empire of the Waves were no less morally ambiguous than the floating cities they are fighting. Even the heroic pirate Captain Bloodhook – who turns out to have close family ties with Anni Tidechild – is depicted as a man of compromised morality and great violence. I wanted my heroes to make the reader squirm, much as the heroes of the Old Testament or The Iliad and The Odyssey take our breath away at their capacity for cruelty and vice.
In most superhero movies – the dominant genre of storytelling this century, for adults and for children – the collateral damage of intervention is limited to a few smashed cars and buildings that spare those trapped inside, whilst creating audience-delighting tableaux of destruction. If only our bombs and drones operated with such exquisite aesthetic and ethical discernment. As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote, “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” In far too many children’s stories – whether from North Korea or the democratic West – one only needs to find the evil foe to exorcise our demons. George Lucas has insisted that he intended Star Wars as an allegory of the War in Vietnam, presumably with Obi-Wan Kenobi as a galactic Ho Chi Minh, and the US as the republic that became an Empire. If so, then Lucas failed, not only because his message was lost in a storm of plastic merchandise and lucrative spin-off opportunities, but also because his movies failed to depict the Rebels with the necessary complexity to warrant such lofty moral aspirations in the first place.
As a child, the most interesting thing for me about Star Wars was the mysticism of the Force. One of the most depressing aspects of the recent movies in the franchise – facsimiles of facsimiles – is their loss of interest in the numinous. One can at least admire the scope of George Lucas’ Campbellian ambition. Much like our own world, Lucas’ galactic habitats teem with life and spirit, both at the centre and periphery of the tale. There is always something happening in the corner of the screen, even if it is just an odd-looking creature lumbering or flying by.
In that respect, there are echoes in Star Wars of The Lord of the Rings, the greatest of the Twentieth Century fantasies. J.R.R. Tolkien delighted in what the devout Catholic writer termed “sub-creation”, the act of building and populating a new world with new life. C.S. Lewis does the same in Narnia, and both Inklings took the time – in The Silmarillion and The Magician’s Nephew respectively – to compose their own creation myths. An act of sub-sub creation!
In Empire of the Waves as well, physics and metaphysics are inextricably bound. There is a pre-Copernican cosmology of spheres, presided over by an ancient Owl who creates all things, as Aslan the Lion sings new worlds into being in The Chronicles of Narnia. The Sisters of Rhea, embodied in the character of Sister Ignatia Antares – Anni Tidechild’s mentor and close friend – leads an order of nuns dedicated to the teaching of the Prophetess. These nuns preserve memories of a time when the world was green. Above all, we see a unity between God and nature in the culture and religion of stout sea-faring gnomes called wibbens. These wibbens worship three caretaker gods: Bool, the giant ray and Keeper of Wisdom, Zalora, the white horned whale and Keeper of Starlight, and Nasp, the giant squid and Keeper of Shadows. What we deem “supernatural” is instead encompassed in an expanded vision of the natural.
When I was an undergraduate, I was obsessed with The Book of Beasts,a medieval bestiary translated from Latin by T.H. White, author of The Once and Future King, and another key figure in Twentieth Century children’s literature. The Book of Beasts is, essentially, a Twelfth Century zoological text, yet not in ways that we would recognize. In The Discarded Image, C.S. Lewis compared our post-Enlightenment approach to nature with that of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. He observed that, “to us, an account of animal behavior would seem improbable if it suggested too obvious a moral. Not so to [the medieval mind].” The Book of Beasts contains delightful ruminations on the theological and moral value of the natural world. Take, for instance, this medieval description of the whale:
The [whale] lifts its back out of the open sea above the watery waves, and then anchors itself in the one place … Sailing ships that happen to be going that way take it to be an island, and land on it. Then they make themselves a fireplace. But the Whale, feeling the hotness of the fire, suddenly plunges down into the depths of the deep, and pulls down the anchored ship with it into the profound.
Our anonymous medieval zoologist adds that, “this is just the way … unbelievers get paid out … people who are ignorant of the wiles of the Devil … anchor themselves to him, and down they go!” In Paradise Lost, Milton likened Satan to “that sea-beast / Leviathan, which God of all his works / Created hugest,” whilst Job notes that Leviathan is a vain creature, one that “beholdeth all high things: he is a king over all the children of pride.”
Nature, and animals in particular, take on a similar – if less didactic – role in Empire of the Waves. The diabolical felmane recalls the Biblical Leviathan, whilst the felmane Queen Dagar points towards the Canaanite god, Dagon, sometimes depicted as part man-part fish. Salila is a world of omens: a sea that roils with snakes foretells doom, the future of a child can be read in the slimy entrails of an urchin, and the birth of hundreds of white turtles becomes a portent of renewal. The pirate Li Fan says, as these newborn turtles rush into the sea: “And so it always is … that hope springs anew, growing in the quiet places of the world, unseen.” This vision of the natural world is a reflection of my childhood spent on the beaches of the north coast of New South Wales: a place of rugged beauty and unlimited imagination … and a place of meaning too.
To the alliance of evangelicals and neoliberals gleefully filling our skies with carbon and despoiling the common heritage of land and sea, the view of nature in Empire of the Waves might seem – like that of The Lord of the Rings – to be pantheistic, verging on heretical. Certainly, it is easy to destroy a forest in the name of progress, to factory farm animals as loving and inquisitive as pigs, or eviscerate a reef with industrial nets, if you believe God gave us this world to use solely for our own extractive ends. The vision of nature and animals in Empire of the Waves challenges and invites us to act as shepherds not as lords and to join in the eternal dance of creation and recreation.
But what responsibility, if any, do writers and filmmakers have for the stories that we tell and the worlds that we create? We cannot place sole blame for unjust wars or economic inequality or environmental ruin on storytellers. Many writers I know believe that tales change nothing at all, for good or ill, which seems almost as bleak as it is surely wrong. I suspect writers are more important than we fear, yet less powerful than some might hope. If stories changed nothing, then the advertising industry would be out of business, states like North Korea would not invest so much time and effort in producing propaganda, and religion would lose all its power. Ideology – Left or Right – is a form of storytelling too.
As Kim Jong Il ponders in On Juche Literature, do writers represent the world? Or make it? Or do they, perhaps, in representing, make? Kim Jong Il was asking from a position of great power, but also from a position of anxiety. For he understood, as his son well understands, that tectonic shifts in children’s culture mark tectonic shifts in a society. And so Kim Jong Un seeks to root out heterodoxy. Indeed, if North Korea’s mythmaking were enough to make its people loyal, then it would not need to build prison camps with between 80,000–150,000 political prisoners, or to demand such strict surveillance and self-criticism. If Christians lived in thrall to the precepts of Christ’s parables, then the faith would have taken fewer turns towards pogrom and inquisition and war in its 2000 years of history.
In recent years, there has been a resurgence of didacticism in English language children’s literature, as if the contradictions of human nature can be resolved through story. This is naïve. The human brain is not programmed or reprogrammed so easily. Reading The Chronicles of Narnia is no more likely to convert a child to Christianity than reading His Dark Materials is likely to convert a Christian child to atheism. What Lewis and Pullman do so well, however, is to play a part – an important part, but one part all the same – in a democratic discourse. Books are social objects. The context of the reader matters: family context, peer and education context, and the broader social, political, and economic context too. Reading Animal Farm in Sydney is not the same as reading Animal Farm in Pyongyang.
This is one reason why I oppose censorship in children’s literature, and want to resist the temptation of sending fairy tales, for instance, down the memory hole. Encountering a challenging, even an offensive, idea is no more likely to make a “good” child “bad”, than a violent video game is likely to cause a high school massacre, as if a + b must = c. The plucky butterfly does not always flap its wings and cause a hurricane. Didactic children’s literature – still less a turn towards some kind of neo-socialist realism, as some seem to be proposing – is no more likely to redeem our fallen world than bad stories are single-handedly responsible for destroying it.
Censorship is a fool’s errand in any case. Svetlana Gouzenko – wife of the famed Soviet spy and defector Igor Gouzenko – recalled how in her childhood the Young Pioneers staged a mock trial of famous fairy tale characters, only for the Russian children to revolt. As Gouzenko writes in Before Igor: Memories of My Soviet Youth:
For the October celebrations that autumn our class produced a small play in which a group of Young Pioneers expelled the heroes of Russian fairy tales as ‘non-Soviet elements’ … [T]he group leader, a girl called Zoya Mechova … explained the old fairy tales about princes and princesses, exploiters of simple folk, were unfit for Soviet children … Cinderella was dragged before the judges and accused of betraying the working class. Next came Father Frost, who was accused of climbing down chimneys to spy on people. One by one [they] were condemned to exile. The only exception was Ivan the Fool, who was set free because he belonged to the common people and was no traitor to his class … Zoya Mechova made her summing up speech, but nobody heard it. The children in the audience began to cry. ‘Bring them back! Bring them back! Don’t shoot them!’ The uproar was deafening.
Stories are remarkably resilient.
Acknowledging that children will want what they will want is not the same, however, as simply shrugging and saying that it does not matter what children read, as long as they do read. This is a common refrain, especially as Australian children read less than ever and literacy standards are in free-fall. We must reject that argument as well. Beyond its disconcerting relativism, this laissez-faire attitude reduces literacy to the technology of neo-liberalism, in which the only function of a book is to improve a child’s reading skills, improve her grades, and so prepare her for the world of work. This is one reason why the language of Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, for instance, or Ruth Park’s Playing Beatie Bow, would now be seen as too sophisticated and challenging for many upper primary students. Why bother with aesthetics, let alone metaphysics, when functional literacy is the principle goal of reading? Or why trouble with ambivalence and heteroglossia when literature is increasingly reduced to a subsidiary of the social sciences?
Authors are often asked to instill in teenagers a sense that reading books is “fun”. Of course, reading may be fun at times, but rarely in the way most children understand the word. Reading – like learning an instrument, a sport, or second language – often demands discipline and patience. Reading brings pleasure through a dawning sense of mastery, opening the reader to a world of intellectual, emotional, and aesthetic possibility. It is futile for children’s literature to compete with the shallow mesmerism of Youtube, The Emoji Movie, or the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Moreover, it is moral, aesthetic, and intellectual surrender. Nor will a panicked increase in overzealous testing rebuild our reading culture. Most of the state-mandated directives on reading in Australia are themselves unreadable.
Before the pandemic brought a halt to such events, I ran a workshop for a group of 15-year-olds that compared the creation myths of Ursula Le Guin, Tolkien, Lewis, and Empire of the Waves. We talked at length about history and politics and metaphysics. In my experience, there is nothing I would teach a postgraduate that I cannot share with high school students. Students from working class backgrounds, from immigrant or refugee backgrounds, are just as hungry, if not hungrier, for this. My favourite school visit last year was to a school where a majority of students were born in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and North Africa. And every North Korean exile I have ever met is hungry for knowledge and experience.
In the aftermath of World War Two, there was a renaissance in children’s literature in Britain from which the whole world benefitted. In part, I think, this was because a generation of children raised with first hand experience of German bombs and flattened cities, simply did not find the old myths and tales to be sufficient anymore.
Many of the great writers of that time, like Lewis and Tolkien, were themselves veterans of war, and well understood the trauma of a generation that had come of age in the shadow of the Blitz and the atomic mushroom cloud. It was not coincidence that the British NHS and welfare system emerged from the same worldview that birthed the golden age of Puffin Books.
My own childhood, on the other hand, coincided with the post-Cold War unipolar moment. The collapse of the Soviet Union and triumph of American-style neo-liberalism ushered in an era of brash triumphalism and a carnival of consumerism and environmental degradation. In the aftermath of 9/11, the Iraq War, and the Global Financial Crisis, austerity eroded the welfare state and social media divided us against one another. We threw so much away. Too much. So here we stand in the midst of a pandemic. Great Britain and the United States – still the principal sources of our global children’s culture – are exposed as unprepared for the Coronavirus, their post-World War Two purpose seemingly forgotten, their social fabric fraying along with their health and education systems. In that respect, then, South Korea and Australia are both outliers.
Like that post-war generation, the generation of children emerging from the pandemic is also sensing that the old myths are insufficient. Our politicians and educators and writers have promised them one world, yet delivered them another. One day – perhaps soon – when the Kim dictatorship is gone, North Korean children will confront the same problem. A cultural edifice built on the foundation of Kimist hagiography is no preparation for a world without it.
W.H. Auden (quoted in James Fenton’s ‘The Strength of Poetry’) argued that:
[T]he primary function of poetry, as of all the arts, is to make us more aware of ourselves and the world around us. I do not know if such increased awareness makes us more moral or more efficient. I hope not. I think it makes us more human, and I am quite certain it makes us more difficult to deceive, which is why, perhaps, all totalitarian theories of the State, from Plato’s downwards, have deeply distrusted the arts. They notice and say too much, and the neighbours start talking.
Let us not seek to make our children too pious or too moral, neither let us surrender to a fake-news relativism that believes in nothing but our feelings or the logic of the market. Let us tell complex stories, challenging stories, stories that make us harder to deceive. We need more children’s stories in translation, not just English to Korean, but Korean to English. Gatherings like this are a step in that direction. And I look forward to the day when we can run an event not just in Seoul, but in Pyongyang too.
Empire of the Waves, like so many children’s fantasy adventures, plays with the trope of the “chosen one”, the messianic saviour of the world. Anni Tidechild is the heir of Zarrin Shek, her ancestor likewise called upon to save the world from the menace of the seemingly implacable felmane. And yet, the twist, revealed late in the novel, is that Shek did not have cosmically ordained superpowers or magical abilities, but rather gained her power through the wisdom of learning the language of her enemies, of making peace, and finding common cause in unlikely places. It was Zarrin’s tragedy that she then unleashed apocalyptic violence and destruction all the same. The question, then, is will young Anni Tidechild learn history’s lesson? Is there another path for Anni – and for all of us – to choose together?