Sunday, November 18, 2007

Some notes on recently read children's books

1. Elizabeth Marie Pope's The Sherwood Ring

I read Pope's The Perilous Gard when I was a child. It was a Newbery Honor book, and I liked it a lot, although I don't know how it would hold up to adult re-reading. The Sherwood Ring is entertaining, but not as good, and most of the time Peggy's actions are just an excuse for ghosts to narrate more of their own stories. The sexism in the novel is... very 1958. Appallingly so. At least Pope got the humanities scholar=poverty thing right. She was a humanities scholar herself, and probably knew from experience.

2. Garth Nix's Keys to the Kingdom series

I've read two of the books in this series, and right away I was annoyed by the days-of-the-week conceit. Okay, seven days of the week, seven wacky adventures. This is, of course, no worse than the Harry Potter seven years in school, seven wacky adventures. Still. Seven keys to the kingdom is like six Signs of the Light, and like Will in The Dark Is Rising, Arthur keeps being directed by magic beyond his understanding, which, I am sorry, is irritating.

Nix's cosmology is interesting, filled with pastiche but in a self-aware way. Grim Tuesday reflects slightly (not deeply) on the meaning of pastiche and originality in art. The cosmic and the comic intertwine playfully in this series, which is much different from Sabriel's high seriousness.

Sabriel seemed to be Nix's Oxford School shout-out, deeply tied to land, kingdom, lineage, and law. The Keys to the Kingdom is also in love with the law, but the rightful heir is (thankfully) no longer part of a particular blood line. Arthur is chosen as the rightful heir nearly randomly: asthmatic, he is chosen because he is on the point of dying (or so the chooser thinks). Unlike Sabriel, whose Ancelstierre is clearly a fantastic England, Arthur apparently lives in Australia, slightly in the future (Monday features email; Tuesday has "luminescent e-paper").

I'm always fascinated by Nix's representations of text. In Sabriel, text is lex, an emanation of both reality and law (the two are nearly interchangeable in that series). In The Keys to the Kingdom on the other hand, text is either completely banal, i.e. telegrams, receipts, memoranda, and endless records which are filed and can never be found, or the embodiment of will. Which is to say, there is a legal will, which is a volition in and of itself, and is moreover an actual character in the series.

It's hard to tell the two kinds of text apart; there's a critical moment in Monday in which Arthur and Suzy have to work alone, because a pit of "bibliophages," adders that will annihilate any text-bearing thing, separates him, the Will, and Suzy from Mister Monday's lair. The Will cannot cross because it is, ultimately, just text, "entirely composed of type" (interestingly enough), and in that sense indistinguishable from the label in Arthur's shorts. It also has no real medium and no materiality; in Monday it inhabits the body of a frog, and in Tuesday it takes the form of a woman and a bear. These media are incidental to the actual Will, which can flit about as disembodied type if necessary.

There is, of course, a unique codex, the Compleat Atlas of the House and its Immediate Environs, but in spite of its foreign, hand-written text it resembles nothing so much as Wikipedia, for Arthur always opens it seeking specific answers, and gets them (although, as with Wikipedia, some entries are more helpful than others). The textual world of The Keys to the Kindgom is that of the information age, ephemeral, abundant, both banal and all-controlling.

I need to think more about this approach to text in comparison to that of the Sabriel trilogy.


skg046 said...

I read Perilous Gard for the first time in my early twenties--straight after rereading Dean's Tam Lin and DWJ's Fire and Hemlock, IIRC--and found it fascinating. I don't know how much of that remembered fascination is eyeballing the book's setting and how much is of the book itself, though. Someone had told me just prior that Pope had been an advisory friend of sorts to the early SCA crowd.

Natalia said...

I think The Perilous Gard, such as I remember it, is much better than The Sherwood Ring. The whole thing about feeling the weight of the rock above you was damn cool. I kind of hate it that the fairies fix Kate's insufficient performance of femininity, though.

Britney said...

I am of the age of ten, and I think that what you said about Keys to the Kingdom is totally wrong. It is one of my favorite series I ever read. Also, you need to update your blog. Book five is out already, and book six is coming out soon.

Natalia said...

Thanks for your comment, Britney. I tend to read what's available at my local public library, so perhaps they haven't received the most recent books yet.