15 September 2006

Modern Values in Arkadians Time

In a discussion on the Child_Lit email list this spring, I offered some examples of values that strike me as pervading today’s children’s fiction--even fiction set in past societies where some of those values weren't much in evidence.

I decided to test my statement against Lloyd Alexander’s The Arkadians (1995), set in a comic version of mythological Greece. How well does that book match up to my list of contemporary values? In no particular order they were:

Hopefulness is, to an extent, necessary for any plot to proceed: there's no fun for readers if the protagonist just gives up. But the author affirms or casts doubt on that hope by how well the protagonist actually succeeds. The Arkadians is a comedy, and it has a comedy ending: not just one marriage but three. Plus, we have the promise of a complete rebuilding of a burned city, total reconciliation between warring cults, and the resurrection of the one major character we've seen killed. With that sort of atmosphere, it would be hard not to maintain hope.

  • Be yourself instead of trying to fit into what your family or your society wants you to be.
The female protagonist, Joy-in-the-dance, defies her mother. The little boy comic relief, Catch-a-Tick, defies both parents. The hero, Lucian, has no family to speak of, but at the outset of the novel he becomes a whistle-blower at his job, and has to flee for his life and then find his calling. Everyone is being himself!

  • Literacy is important.
Lucian decides to become a storyteller. He convinces the high priestess of the feminine cult to write down its wisdom and found a school. A little wild boy's father decides to send him to that school. Score several more points for literacy. (Of course, for a book author to pooh-pooh literacy is like expecting a shoemaker to recommend that children go barefoot.)

  • Girls can do anything boys can do.
The backdrop to The Arkadians is that hypothetical time in pre-archaic Greece when male-dominated warrior and hunting cults were driving out female-dominated nature cults. The rivalry of male and female therefore runs through the book like hormones through high school. And guess what? The female power is reaffirmed alongside the male. Plus, the main female character (come to think of it, the only female in the adventuring band) is a strong, capable young woman with no expectations of a second-class or domestic future.

  • Tolerance is good.
And everyone gets along at the end. No Trojan War or feuds among gods here. Those cults are reconciled. Isolated peoples are made into friends.

Now I have nothing against all those bulleted values. I rather like 'em, in fact, and my own writing tends to affirm them. But they're not the way the ancient Greeks or most other societies on this planet have lived their lives. Our society today is exceptional. Again, I think that's all for the good. I also suspect that it would be difficult, perhaps impossible, for a mainstream children's book--even one set in the past and meant to reflect a past society--to contradict many of those values today.

1 comment:

Jude said...

Great post. Since we live in a world where the values of different civilizations frequently clash, it's good to put it in perspective. This makes me want to analyze some fiction.