Friday, October 15, 2010

goldengrove unleaving

Childhood books part 3

When I was a kid, I tended to prefer happy endings, and as I said before I even liked books where nothing too bad happens to the main characters. In fact, I think I still do! But there are some exceptions to this rule. I think I have come to appreciate sad books, and there are a bunch of books I read as a child that helped me to do that. There are so many degrees of 'sad', so many different feeling books, but I think there is something of a theme: the books I found most sad and discomfitting as a child are about growing up and about death. Here are some that I loved even though they made me sad:

The Little PrinceAntoine de Saint-Exupéry
When going through the 1,001 Books You Must Read Before You Die with some friends, we came across this book. Neither of them had read it. That made me realise that this is a book that I think everyone should have read. How can you not have read The Little Prince? As Vizzini would say: inconceivable! It confused me as a child, but it still managed to be enchanting, and of course very sad. It's not quite a children's book, it's about love and death and humanity and such. It is difficult to explain this book, let me quote it to you: "One sees clearly only with the heart. The essential is invisible to the eyes."

The Last Unicorn- Peter S. Beagle
I think I may have talked about this book before. But what can I say? It is a favourite of mine. The titular unicorn in the world realises she is alone and goes in search of other unicorns, only to find she is the last, as all other unicorns have been captured by King Haggard. I don't think this is a children's book as such, it's a fantasy book, and one I read as a child. Again, love and aging and contemplating mortality. But in the most beautiful way.

Peter Pan- J.M. Barrie
Famously sad, a children's book that doesn't talk down to children (that's how I felt about it at the time), which is actually very rare. I remember reading it vividly, walking up and down through the botanical gardens (I was on some family outing at the time, neglecting everyone shamefully because I couldn't put down the book). It was one of those books that has a hold on you for a long time after you finish it. I wasn't sure if I liked it but it was certainly powerful. The idea of growing up as a thing which you both desire and fear is pretty strong for a kid I guess. 

Uncle Tom's Cabin- Harriet Beecher Stowe
This sums up an entire group of books guaranteed to make me cry as a kid- books about injustice. Including not only books like Uncle Tom's Cabin but even the occasional Malory Towers book. But I don't know if this counts as a sad  book, maybe it is more an anger-inducing book. Also The Little Princess by Frances Hodges Burnett, which Angela reminded me about. These are nigh-on-unbearable, but also great. 

In terms of picture books: Lifetimes and John Brown, Rose and the Midnight Cat are the ones that stand out. Lifetimes is a book that is about explaining the concept of death, and the reality of living, to children. I remember it was so sad because it had a picture of a dying butterfly.

Facebook has reminded me also of The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Anderson (thanks Vicky!). I read it after seeing the movie, and was so angry about the sad ending. Unfairness! Mortality! Sadness! But somehow it grew on me, and I came to appreciate it.

A couple of others that people have mentioned and that made an impression on me include  the Narnia series and Charlotte's Web

And writing this makes me realise that a lot more of my favourite books had a tinge of sadness to them:  The Lord of the Rings for instance (which may have influenced my later love of Anglo-Saxon elegiac poetry, and was probably influenced by Tolkien's interest in the same).

Anyway, those are some books that I think do sadness well, and helped to introduce me to the fact that sadness (particularly in literature) is not all bad, and can be borne, and can make something work in a way it wouldn't with a happy ending. I think my favourite type of sadness in books is a kind of gentle melancholy, and elegiac mood perhaps, which a lot of these books share. And while I may have loved Uncle Tom's Cabin, I still find it hard to bear books that make me so passionately sad and angry. 

I think that maybe the best way of describing the sadness of these books is by continuing the title quote:

It ís the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.
'Spring and Fall' by Gerard Manley Hopkins


  1. You mention "The Little Mermaid" - a book I have never read, but which I think i know something about. I understand that the Disneyfied movie DOES have a happy ending in which no choices are hard,a nd no one loses anything. A McMansion of the literary world if you like, whereas the original book really is sad, because the heroine has to choose. Am I being hard on Disney in saying that the movie loses the point to make a cutesy story for kids which is morally fattening and means nothing?

    Must go and watch Star Trek with J. Portentous, but neither particularly sad nor particularly deep. Fun though.

  2. I love the Little Prince ... have you read any of his others. If you like I'll loan you one...

  3. What a great post! I, like you, adored A Little Princess as a child (mostly because the Sara loved reading and imagining), and I remember being absolutely outraged at the film adaptation, which, among other things, made the ending much happier than in the book.

  4. I wasn't so outraged at the changed endings of 'The Little Mermaid' and 'A Little Princess', because I'm fairly sure I saw the film versions first. And enjoyed them well enough, until I read the books and realised how well the sad endings worked.

    Duncan: I haven't read any besides 'The Little Prince'. Would love to borrow some though! Are they similar?

  5. more St Exupery at home I think.

  6. I agree that the most saddening and angering thing in books and movies ("texts"?) for me has always been injustice, but I don't think I've ever actually realised that until right now. That's why I love The Little Princess and It's A Wonderful Life, they seem cathartic. You can cry angry tears for the character and although you know that the tiny petty injustices in your life are incomparable, it allows you to analogously address them. (The Little Princess movie -which I saw before I ever read the book- is one of the only movies I ever remember crying in at the theatre. I remember being so embarrassed about it as a child that it almost spoiled the movie.

  7. Yeah, I always used to hate crying in movies (I guess I still try not to). There's something about injustice... Maybe it's particularly bad as a kid, like when your parents tell you 'life's not fair'.