Reviews 2011

Uncharted Depths: Descent Narratives in English and French Children’s Literature

Uncharted Depths: Descent Narratives in English and French Children’s Literature. Kiera Vaclavik. Legenda: Oxford, 2010. 148 pages. £45 (hardback).

Descent into the underworld is one of the most recurring narrative patterns in World Literature. Its popularity throughout history and across cultural boundaries has never failed, nor has interest in the issues it is supposed to address: death and life after death, knowledge of the unknown, and the adjustments involved in growing up. These topics cannot be delayed until adulthood, and so we should not be surprised to find children’s literature grappling with them and treating them by adapting old schemas to young minds. One of these schemas is the subterranean journey called ‘katabasis’ in ancient Greek, that is ‘climbing down’. Vaclavik shows that the “process of proximization does not entail the eradication of key elements of traditional katabasis and their replacement with mere fluff or overbearing didacticism” (123). She demonstrates that katabatic texts for children have to be considered as literary and as original as the works to which they allude. Her second main purpose, linked to the former but more theoretical, is to correct allegations made by certain narratologists (in particular Genette) concerning children literature with a more precise and less stereotyped inventory.

To explore the relationship between the three founder katabatic narratives : Homer’s Odyssey, Virgil’s Aenid and Dantes’s Inferno and their prolific lineage, Vaclavik enlisted eleven texts: Antoine de La Sale’s Le paradis de la Reine Sybille (1437); François de Fénelon’s Aventures de Télémaque (1699); William Hayley’s The Triumphs of Temper (1781); Stéphanie de Genlis’s Alphonse et Dalinde (1784); Jules Verne’s Voyage au Centre de la Terre (1864); Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865); George MacDonald’s The Golden Key (1867) and The Princess and the Goblin (1872); George Sand’s La Fée Poussière (1875); Hector Malot’s Sans Famille (1872) and Henry Ridder Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mine (1885). She limits herself to English and French literatures, arguing that they are the “two national literatures that have received most attention in critical work on katabasis to date” (4) and those which borrowed the most from each other, especially with regard to children literature.

She focuses on the development of the katabatic pattern in children’s literature during the 19th century, “considered as the quintessential age of underground” (3), which she associates with progress in the earth sciences and mining. She also pays attention to the previous four centuries during which this literature was reserved for a scarce and privileged public. The first, rather abstract, chapter endeavours to define the relations between the original narratives and their rewritings. It is followed by three more illustrative chapters dealing with the differences and resemblances concerning the descriptive of subterranean landscapes and inhabitants, the role of genders and the authors’ intentions. The study is purely narratological and assumes a distinction between fiction (story) and narration (telling), but the historic and generic diversity of its corpus prevents her from neglecting the main changes occurred in mentalities and social behaviours.

In the first chapter, basing herself on" the five forms of ‘transtextual’ relationship" outlined by Gerard Genette in Palimpsestes: intertextuality, paratextuality, metatextuality, hypertextuality, architextuality”, Vaclavik, due to the insufficient scale of the borrowings, concludes that the relation between original katabasis and their rewritings is intertextual rather than hypertextual. Fortunately she decides soon after to put the accent on hypertextual phenomena and opens the next chapter with the distinction between thematic transposition which modifies action and diegetic transposition which modifies fictional world and characters. Her arguments reveal how the characters of the ur-texts have been adapted for young readers, with the example of Fenelon who makes Telemaque encounter dead monarchs in order to instruct the young Duke of Bourgogne. Then she points out that illustrators tend to express the characters’ emotion while the text tries to provide descriptive equivalents for unknown realities. She reveals too that the katabatic narratives for children are not as linked to the contemporaneous representations of hell as one might suppose.

In Chapter 3, reluctant to follow the example of an author who denounces the masculine exclusivity of the “hero story” beginning from the very first Epic of Gilgamesh, Vaclavik avoids focussing on gender differences. Instead, she prioritises age differentiation, thereby shedding light on the treatment of feminine characters in the original narratives, like Virgil’s Sybil, who was fated to gain knowledge and experience at the expense of her beauty and youth. Vaclavik then exposes the progressive evolution of feminine characters through rewritings, with the case of the fantasy or fairy tales, like Lewis Carroll's Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, where the young girls are not yet fixed in predetermined social roles, but instead show that they are capable of taking the initiative and show evidence of self-reflexivity. She even reveals some feminine forms in the illustrators’ charts and sketches. In doing so, she avoids an overly simplistic, reversible dualism and instead points out that both genders are central to the human unconscious.

The last chapter "explores katabatic narratives in terms of their capacity to educate and entertain" (97). The didactic project is based upon the identification of the reader to the characters. Due to age of the katabatic narratives studied, what is future for the characters is past for the readers. So “by taking the reader back to a point at which foundational events had not yet occurred, the katabasis can reinvigorate and defamiliarize the past” (101). The evolution between old and new katabatic narratives is marked at the 19th century by the popularizing of sciences, promoted by Verne, Sand, Haggard, and even Carroll, which needs to be harmonized with ethics. Vaclavik argues that children appreciate scenes with death, blood and violence and that they are not the angels adults might like to imagine. Then she insists on their access to comparative reading of old and new katabasis and the pleasures it affords.

This strong study leaves very little to be desired. A slightly more restrictive interpretation of hypertextuality might be helpful, as her current, rather loose use of “intertextuality” overlaps with hypertextuality as well as other transtextual relations. As a result, Vaclavik risks entangling Genette’s established categories. One can also regret the lack of references to other European literatures. The German Novalis chose a word used to nominate a mining land newly put in operation for his nom de plume. He was fond of geology, mining and education, and he predicted that Heinrich von Ofterdingen would end with a katabatic journey. Subterranean excursions are more frequent in Italian didactic works, for example Stoppani's Bel Paese, than in fictions, and Pinocchio’s descent into the whale is not subterranean but sub-mediterranean. But this could be a good reason to ask oneself why Dante’s Inferno has impressed English children’s literature more than Italian children’s literature.

The precision and the originality of Vaclavik’s views opens up a wide-range of new questions. Her conclusions regarding a katabasis experienced in a science museum allows us to hope that she will engage in further investigations into katabatic literature.

Nicole Biagioli
University of Nice-Sophia Antipolis, France