The book I'm currently taking to my favorite spots for morning coffee in the woods and on the hill is Innocence & Experience: Essays & Conversations on Children's Literature, edited by Barbara Harrison and Gregory Maquire. Published in 1987, I picked it up in a used bookstore in Tucson many years ago, but somehow never got around to reading it fully until now. The collection is compiled from talks presented at the Simons College Center for the Study of Children's Literature in Boston...yet is full of ideas that also apply to other forms of writing, story-telling, and art.
"Writing is a journey," says Jane Yolen (in her contribution to the volume), "a journey on which the author goes hand in hand with her characters. If everything is written down in the author's mind before the journey is started, then (in the words of Truman Capote) you are not a writer but a typist. You have to be open to wonder as you go along, wonder and discovery, uncovery, and recovery. Discovery: the act of coming upon something that is unexpected. Uncovery: finding out all you can about your discovery. Recovery: using your discovery to tell more about character, setting, plot, and ultimately theme.
"It is theme -- that elusive word that literature teachers mangle (sending elementary school children home with the instructions to find the 'author's intent' and high school students to discover 'thematic underpinnings' of a book) -- that I want to deal with now. The theme of every quest story, every hero story, is -- in Joseph Campbell's words, 'fundamentally...inward.' The hero seeks himself, seeks to mature, so that when he comes into his powers, he uses them for others, not himself.
"That is why the story of Jason is a quest but not a hero tale, for vainglorious, selfish, egotistical Jason wants all the honors and does not share. He is the earliest antihero. The heroes we pattern our children's books upon are most often the unlikely hero, the youngest son in the fairy tale, who goes forth like Tolkien's Frodo, although he does not know the way. It is Arthur pulling the sword for his foster brother Kay. And Taran discovering that he really does not know his name. And Morgan unriddling for the sake of the riddles themselves, not because he wants a kingdom. And, I hope, Jakkin, who tries to save the dragons of Austar and in doing so discovers and saves himself.
"But to ask someone to offer the author's intent (friendship, loving-kindness, do no cry over spilt milk) and grade it as the correct answer is to overlook the simple fact that each reader reads a different book. The book is created between the author and the reader, re-created at each reading. William Black wrote, 'A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees.' Which is not to say that the tree the wise man sees is the correct one. Only what he sees. And again Blake, 'The apple tree never asks the beech how he shall grow, nor the lion, the horse how he shall take his prey.' When we discuss books, we are all like the blind men and elephant, each describing a different thing, a different part, that which we hold in our hands. "