Walter de la Mare – Collected Stories for Children

Old stories, but deliciously living language in Walter de la Mare’s 1947 Carnegie win

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Collected Stories for Children
Jacket for 1957 edition of ‘Collected Stories for Children’ by Walter de la Mare, illustrated by Robin Jacques.

The 1947 award marked a new departure for the Carnegie Medal: it was the first time the Medal had gone to a collection of short stories. Walter de la Mare’s Collected Stories for Children was stretching the definition of ‘published in that year’, for it was a collection of 17 stories produced throughout de la Mare’s career. The decision to allow such previously published material, provided ‘a subtantial part of the contents’ had not ‘already appeared as a complete book’, had been taken only in 1944 (Library Association Record Nov 1944, p. 196). It’s possible that this revision was made with de la Mare in mind, for the opportunities to honour this grandee of children’s literature were likely to be limited. Certainly Eileen Colwell notes that the award itself was made partly because the committee felt that de la Mare’s contribution to literature should be recognised.  In a sense, then, this award was one which sought to consolidate part of Britian’s existing heritage of children’s literature.

The collection itself fits strongly within the trend for texts which deal with ideas of heritage and nationhood, since although the stories are original to de la Mare, they have the ‘feel’ of traditional tales. Some are explicit reversionings of well-known stories:  the opening tale, ‘Dick and the Beanstalk’, is a charming ‘making new’ of ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’, in which Dick, ‘what is called a lively reader’, discovers Jack’s beanstalk and sets out to find out the truth of the story, only to get considerably more than he bargained for.  Others create folk tales for particular areas, such as in the ‘The Sleeping Boys of Warwickshire’, the story of three maltreated chimney sweeps who fall into an enchanted sleep after their master attempts to entrap the, in their dreams in order to make them into more passive workers. (As far as I’ve been able to tell, the story isn’t based on any actual local legend.)

The ‘magicking’ of the British landscape which is evident in The Little Grey Men and The Little White Horse is evident throughout de la Mare’s writing. Each story is lush with description: who can resist Griselda’s seaside home by which:

On calm summer evenings unearthly dancers had been seen dancing between the dusk and the moonlght on the short green turf at the edge of the sands, where bugloss and sea-lavender bloomed, and the gulls had their meeting place, gabbling softly together as they preened their wings in the twilight.  – ‘A Penny a Day’

Throughout the collection, the beauty of the landscape retains a numinous quality, whether or not it is peopled with magical creatures.

Walter de la Mare is of course best known for his poetry, and the great joy of this collection is in the language. His description of a scarecrow, ‘nothing but a dumb, tumebledown, hugger-mugger antiquated old hodmadod’, is absolutely delicious, full of words you want to roll around in your mouth, and I love the description of Myfanwy’s possessive father, whose ‘dark brows loured at the very thought’ of losing his daughter. de la Mare often employs the quite formal, slightly archaic tones which are common to many Victorian tellings of fairy tales, but this is language which lives. Although the tone and the amount of description might initially be offputting to children more accustomed to the quick pace of contemporary children’s books, I think that the sheer joy of de la Mare’s language would win them over, especially if the stories were being read out loud.

The one uncomfortable aspect of this collection is the story ‘Sambo and the Snow Mountains’, which features a black British child who is consumed with a desire to be white. The story is more nuanced than this bald summary makes it sound: Sambo’s desire for whiteness is prompted by the racist comments of other chldren, which trouble him even though he knows that in his own country, ‘to be black was bliss […] it was white boys who would be laughable there’. He sets out on a journey to the snow mountains, where he believes he might become white through exposure to the white landscape, and poses as the doctor for a dying old lady who loves all things white, having disguised his black skin with whitewash. The old lady ultimately affirms the value of blackness, telling him:

White gives back all colours; black welcomes them in […] A black man whose mind is free from darkness and his heart from cruelty is in truth whiter than any one whose soul is in the shades.

Sambo responds ‘de blackest ob all dings, lady, dat is a lie’, and washes off the whitewash, resolving to tell the lady the truth about himself. But she dies in the night, leaving him all that she has with the wish that he ‘never put on anything but white for me’. We can assume she means him to wear white clothes, but Sambo interprets this as an injunction to once more whitewash his skin. He lives out his life as a rich man, and a kindly master, but always with whitened skin. But from time to time ‘a voice would cry out on him as if from the very recesses of his being. “O but for a moment, to be black again!”‘. In many ways, then, this is a tragedy about race and racism, and it’s clear that de la Mare’s ntentions were to decry racist attitudes. I think from the point of view of the Carnegie committee in 1947, it may have seemed relatively progressive. It’s marred, though, by the racist caricature of Sambo. As the quote above shows, despite being third-generation British, Sambo speaks a pidgin English, and he’s characterised as ‘slow’ (indeed, he suggests that being white would make him ‘quicker at his tasks’). As is the case with other stories of this type (such as Hoffman’s ‘Story of the Black Boys’) the binary of white as good and black as bad is largely preserved. Ultimately I think it’s hard (especially for a white writer) to write a story about a black child’s quest to become white without it ending up somewhat racist, whatever the intention. On the whole, this isn’t a story I’d be keen to share with contemporary child readers, at least not without some serious discussion. (I would be interested to hear the thoughts of other readers, especially those more equipped to discuss issues of race.)

Sambo aside, I think this collection was a worthy winner of the Carnegie Medal, albeit one which was clearly aimed at celebrating a tradition of children’s literature rather than promoting something new.

The Library Association Record which announces de la Mare’s win also includes a poem he inscribed in the copy of his book he presented to the LA. It’s rather lovely and I’m not sure that it’s very widely known (I’m not very familiar with his poetry but it doesn’t come up on a Google) so I’m reproducing it here:

 

The Harebell

In the clear sunshine, hour by hour,I’ve toiled, but toiled in vain, to paint this flowerBrushes, and box of colours from this shelf,And nought else with me but the flower itself.Nothing alive – so steadfast yet so frail – Could ever bloom on paper, I know well;But poor and clumsy though the copy be,I could not wish for happier company. 

It seems it might, if I gazed on and on -That wiry stalk, those petals, blue yet wan.The solemn beauty of that marvellous cup -At last, for very love, give its strange scent up.

 

SOME UNSCIENTIFIC RATINGS AND NOTES…

My overall rating: 7/10 – I couldn’t immerse myself in this in the way I can with some other winners, but SUCH delight in the language

Plot: 9/10 – This varies from story to story, but in general there’s the plottiness and suspense of a good folk tale

Characterisation: 7/10 – Folk tales aren’t necessarily character-focused, as a rule, but these characters do really live. de la Mare has a particularly good eye for his child characters, who could easily end up a bit twee but have a zest that makes them more realistic.

Themes: Magic, countryside, morality, evil, folk tales

Publisher: Faber and Faber

Brother John
Robin Jacques’ illustration of a disgruntled-looking brother John playing his bassoon, from the story ‘The Dutch Cheese’.

Illustrator: Robin Jacques illustrated the edition I had – I love the image of poor brother John in

‘The Dutch Cheese” trying to drive away the fairies by playing his bassoon – but the first edition was illustrated by Irene Hawkins

Author’s nationality/race: White English