Friday, June 11, 2021

Lion at School by Phillipa Pearce.

One of the interesting perks of being a devoted bookworm is having the opportunity of exploring a new talent.  That opening statement is not dishonest exactly, though perhaps it doesn't tell enough of the whole truth.  The writer up for discussion today is no longer qualified as an unknown quantity when I decided to make this my first article on her.  I'd had the luck to discover the talent of a writer like Phillipa Pearce by the time I came to today's topic.  One of these days I really will have to get around to her most famous book.  There's a lot to talk about there, and I'm still trying to wrap my mind around it.  That's sort of the explanation for choosing this title to talk about.  Sometimes I find it helps to start out slow and small, then gradually climb to the top of the mountain when the reader is ready and willing for a clear view of the whole panorama.  What I've read from the author so far has left me curious to learn more about her and her type of storytelling.  The curious part is how she's left so little to go on.  It can be frustrating as hell for any critic who wants to present a good snapshot of the author for the reader.  At the same time, I can't deny that there's anything irregular about such circumstances.  The sad truth is sometimes things like this just happen.  It shouldn't comes as any kind of surprise to discover that a lot of genuine talent has an unfortunate habit of slipping through the cracks of awareness and memory.

Philippa Pearce is one of those writers who seem destined to present a challenge to anyone who would like to examine her life in relation to her art.  Some authors, like Dickens, are able to become famous enough for their lives to be presented as more or less open books.  Sometimes, however, you're lucky enough to stumble across what might be called the also rans.  These are the names that wind up as accidental flash-in-the-pans without really deserving such a fate.  Richard Matheson or George Clayton Johnson are two good examples of the kind of writer I'm talking about.  Both are pioneers in the fields of Horror, Fantasy, and Science Fiction.  Now can anyone tell me who they are?  If the answer turns out to be an impossibility, the sorta good news is you can't entirely be held responsible for something you don't know about.  It's more the fault of a show business model that seems fundamentally designed not to be able to keep track of the very names that helped build it up.  As a result, the Horror genre is dominated by names like Stephen King, yet it never pays attention whenever the very same author makes an open acknowledgement of the debt he owes to the two writers just mentioned above.

The net result is that writers like Pearce, along with Johnson and Matheson wind up as regrettable footnotes when they should probably be at least something approaching solid and respectable brand names, if not outright household titles.  The trouble is that a lot of elements that should be in place for such a preservation process just aren't when the artist needs them, more often than not.  That leaves a certain amount of avid readers out there having to scramble just to uncover anything as basic as a simple author biography.  In the case of Phillipa Pearce, one of the crucial factors that seems key in getting any proper read on her biography has to do with what might be called the importance of place.  Perhaps it should be stressed here that questions of nationality don't enter into it.  Looked at from that perspective, place doesn't stand any sort of chance.  Instead, the phenomenon I'm describing has a lot to do with the psychology of first impressions, the way any well made landscape can impact itself on the artistic imagination in a way that produces creativity, as opposed to ideology.  I can even think of several good examples of what I'm talking about.

J.R.R. Tolkien always liked to say that the first time he ever became aware of his surroundings was in the idyllic countryside of the late Edwardian period.  This was a time when industrialization still hadn't quite chipped away at the local ecology.  It was still possible to enjoy a few green fields of earth, and to any mind with the capacity or talent for artistic creativity, the impressions such a landscape can leave behind might, under the right circumstances, be able to find their way into the ranks of aesthetic immortality.  This is the case with Tolkien, as the fields and pastures of his childhood in Sarehole Birmingham later wound up becoming not just the Shire, yet also a great deal of the secondary world we now know as Middle Earth.  

Stephen King is another writer who seems to have discovered the artistic importance of place.  He's never talked about it as much as Tolkien, and yet if anyone picks up some of his books, one of the elements in them that strikes the perceptive reader is just how good the author is at making certain landscapes come alive and jump off the page, giving that novel's action a sense of immediacy that helps to draw the reader in.  It makes sense to me, for this reason, to think of King as one of the last great, almost pastoral-regional writers in the history of American letters.  There's just something about the old, Gothic, New England landscape that always manages to bring out the best in King's descriptive abilities.  The same process at work in both these authors appears to be in play with the writer under discussion here today.

In the case of Philippa Pearce, one of the first things to note is the place in which she was born and raised.  In her case, that meant the Mill House, down by the River Cam.  It's the kind of setting that manages to have a reputation, and not be well known outside of its own setting, or region.  The reason for that is pretty simple when you realize most Americans, for instance, have no curriculum incentive to learn about other places than their own home.  A place Cambridge, England, however, does at least carry a vague, general sense of familiarity about it.  Don't they have like some sort of famous university going on up there?  Well, as of this writing, that's still the case, yes.  It's also the setting for the location of both the River Cam, and the Mill House, where Philippa grew up.  She wound up as the daughter of Ernest Alexander and Gertrude Ramsden Pearce.  Her father was a miller and/or local flour and corn merchant.  It sort of explains why the whole family was even living at the Mill House in the first place.  Like many residents of certain New England factory towns, the House provided a useful, cheap, and efficient means of housing the local working population (web).  I can't tell for certain, yet this seems to be one of the few cases where the working men and women's accommodations weren't really bad, or degrading for the local morale.  On the contrary, there seems to have been little complaint about a housing complex that appears to have been more upscale and comfortable than the usual fair the working classes had (and in many cases still have) to put up with.

The Mill House of Great Shelford, Cambridgeshire, was the first home Philippa ever knew.  Because of its more upscale living conditions, her childhood seems to have been able to be one of decent enough comfort and stability.  She seems to have been able  to enjoy the best of both worlds, as she came of age in a setting that combined elements of the metropolitan with the green and cozy enchantment of the Cambridge countryside.  It's almost as if she was given an interesting sense of options.  A turn in one direction would take you into a normal, thriving, civic population.  Just a few more turns of the corner, however, and you could find yourself in the midst of Geoffrey Chaucer country, with the rolling hills, and the steady quiet noise of the rivers and waterways.  It's easy enough to see how this strangely harmonious, and organic mixture of the urban and the English countryside could find a way to form a positive shape in the mind of a young future artist.  Tolkien, in that sense, was perhaps a bit less lucky than Philippa.  In addition to an equanimity of setting, she seems to have benefited from her specific sense of place in another way.  Philippa Pearce's educational history is sketchy, at least to start with.  Her schooling didn't really begin until she was eight years old.  The reason for that appears to have stemmed from a temporary on and off again childhood illness.

Nonetheless, I sort of have the impression that she suffered very little from what could have been a real setback in any other location.  It is just possible that the young Philippa entered her first day of school with a lot (if not all) of the academic ammunition she needed in order to get by tucked under her arm as she walked into class for the first time.  My reason for thinking this is because while normal class hours might have been denied to her for longer than usual, the same can't be said for any available reading material within reach.  As is the case with family settings like those of Tolkien or J.B. Priestley, Philippa seems to have been encouraged to take an interest in whatever it is that draws a reader to the words and worlds found within the pages of a book.  There are two reasons why they did this, one practical, the other less obvious.  The first is just plain common sense.  If you're a parent, and you know that school is on the horizon for your young pitcher, then I suppose it can at least make a kind of sense to encourage them to start taking to literature in the hopes of doing well in class later on.  That seems to have been part of the logic at play in Philippa's parents allowing her easy access to the world of books.  The second reason is a bit more interesting, as it has to do once more with the occasional importance that place can have on a developing mind.  

It's been established that the author's hometown was located in Cambridgeshire.  Since not everyone lives there, it probably takes more than just a few mental beats to realize that means Philippa was born, grew up, and spent a great deal of her early life never too far from the same University that has long since helped put Cambridge on the map.  The was a place that was long established before her time, way back in 1209 as it turns out.  That means it's had more than seven centuries to it; more than enough to time for the University to help set its stamp on the land surrounding it.  What few seem to realize (perhaps because this is a facet so fundamental as to be almost primal in its general lack of awareness) is just how much of a difference an academic setting can make to any society that is able to grow up around it.  It helps set a tenor, or specific character note to not just the landscape, but also the kind of people who are born, raised, or find themselves drawn to such places.  

Perhaps its a mistake to call such settings a Republic of Letters, however, on the whole, there does tend to be a certain sense of deference to learning and the Liberal Arts in places like Cambridge or Oxford than you tend to find elsewhere, even in most big cities.  This can sometimes result in households where the written word and the people who make it are held in a greater sense of regard than, say, places like Las Vegas.  This seems to have been the case with Ernest and Gertrude Pearce, as they gave their daughter ample opportunity to soak up the truths buried under various imaginary lives.  It takes perhaps a beat or two more before the full truth of the matter starts to sink in.  The reality seems to be that Philippa Pearce owed her skill with books to the fact that she was the ultimate product of a University setting.  She was, in effect, a College Town girl.  It doesn't seem to have hurt her chances, in any case.  Beginner's, Elementary, and eventually even College doesn't seem to have presented her with much of a challenge.  On the contrary, the final results tell of someone who thrived in an academic setting.  Again, luck of the draw, at least in terms of birthplace, seems to have been a good determining factor here.  

From there her professional career is best described as an admirable mixture of the remarkable and the pedestrian.  She seems to have had not much in the way of any personal drama, which might make her a boring subject for the contemporary biographer, yet is probably more of an accomplishment because of that.  Instead, she found herself a steady employment, first as a civil servant, then as a writer and producer of BBC radio programs for school kids.  In addition, she seems to have managed the job of children's editor for the Oxford University Press on the side.  Not a bad record, all things considered.  There's still the question of the stories, and where they might have come from.  I can't even begin to hope to find that kind of an answer in just a simple review article.  Still, it is sort of the ultimate question you have to ask if you want to get at the very heart of literary criticism.  What I think works best is to start out small, and then just keep building on from there as best one can.  That's why I decided to start out with a relatively light piece from her collection of works.

The Story.

"Once upon a time there was a little girl who didn't like going to school.  She always set off late.  Then she had to hurry, but never hurried fast enough.

"One morning she was hurrying along as usual when she turned a corner and there stood a lion, blocking her way.  He stood waiting for her.  He stared at her with his yellows eyes.  He growled, and when he growled the little girl could see that his teeth were as sharp as skewers and knives.  

"He growled: 'I'm going to eat you up.'

"Oh dear!' said the little girl, and she began to cry.  

'Wait!' said the lion.  'I haven't finished.  I am going to eat you up unless you take me to school with you (1-2)".  From there, things just got complicated, real fast.

An Unintentional Curiosity.

I can't say I blame anyone whose initial reaction to the passage cited above basically just amounts to "What the frak did I just read"?  I guess I can kind of understand where that comes from.  It's one thing to run across a story of the fantastic.  What we've grown less used to, it seems, is running across one of those older examples, the ones where either the writer or the story itself chooses to open on a scene that amounts to a literary assault of the senses.  If the current reigning tastes of audiences are anything to go by, the results seem to tell that we like the fantastical elements in our fiction to not pile it on all at once.  These days we tend to prefer to have the fantastic sneak up on us gradually, with just a hint here, maybe.  A quick note of unease there.  In other words the contemporary audience seems to prefer it if the unbelievable elements in a story are able to build themselves up one bit at a time.  There appears to be a comforting element in such an approach.  The unspoken conviction seeming to be that it allows the audience to ease their way into the story without shattering the suspension of disbelief.  We appear to have grown so accustomed to this method of approach, that anytime one of us encounters a story that proves its possible to step outside this box, then the result seems to come off as the mental equivalent of a slap in the face.

If this is the sort of reaction that Pearce's words are able to jar out of us, more or less without a moment's thought or consideration, then I suppose if it proves anything, then it has to be the sometimes alarming swiftness with which the collective audience mindset is able to ossify into forms of a creative expectation.  This doesn't seem to be an entirely rational, or clearly thought out process, although if challenged, an equal and possibly related rush to find the nearest logical defense tends to crop up with just as much swiftness as the initial note of jarring aesthetic confusion.  However, just because some creative choices can throw the audience for a loop, this reaction in itself can't tell us much about the quality of the creative choices involved in making the story work (or otherwise).  I'm not talking here about a current trend (almost a kind of neurotic obsession, really) with the desire to "Subvert Expectations".  For one thing, most of what I've seen for myself of this phenomenon tends to show very little in the way of artistic talent.  Indeed, any considerations of art proper always seem to wind up being left at the door.  Instead, what we have in the opening sentences of Pearce's story is an apparently older form or method of telling a story.  There seems to be nothing new or revolutionary about it.  However this tells us very little about its inherent artistic qualities, if any.

In order to find that out, we have to ask just what the writer is trying to achieve by putting her words on paper?  The first thing that jumps out at the reader (once the dust has settled, and we've calmed down enough to read the words on the page with a bit less shock) is that Pearce is aiming her story at little kids.  This might help us toward a better understanding of the kind of genre (namely Young Adult Fiction) that we're dealing with.  Still, the story itself remains unexamined.  What of the narrative on its own terms?  Is there any validity to it?  Or does it just seem too far out of left field for the contemporary audience to accommodate?  If the latter answer is true, then I'll just have to count it as kind of a shame.  I can't shake the idea that there is a lot more going on in Pearce's story than such a limited worldview reading is able to grant or give it credit for.  

One of the first things to jump right out at the reader is the way Pearce takes what appears to be a naturalistic setting, and then flip it on its head.  Her opening setup consists in describing the daily trials of a normal, average, school girl.  A very noticeable element of how the author establishes this setup has to do with Pearce's skill with narrative economy.  The actual setup itself is limited to just three sentences of description.  This in itself is neither a pro or con judgment call.  Back in the Victorian era, readers expected their authors to be encyclopedic in their handling of description and characterization.  As time has gone on, however, we seem to have valued brevity as the soul of art.  If this is the standard we're holding all writers to for the moment, then Pearce is able to meet that challenge in spades.  The description appears scant, yet what's remarkable about it is how it's able to suggest a lot without having to say as much.  We aren't told much about the main character, yet Pearce is able to find just the right words for the job so that we are able to pick up on a literal secondary world of inference.  It's a feat that's all the more remarkable when you recall the the author has told us her main character's name, and if you're not careful it can walk right by you unnoticed.

Betty Small appears to be one of those girl-next-door types in training.  She's a good kid, does her best to be well-behaved, and yet you can tell there's just something ill-at-ease about her.  This comes through in the line about how she doesn't like going to school.  It's a setup for which the payoff comes just a page or two later, when we learn that she prefers to hang back a bit from her peers.  The main reason why is something we'll come to in a bit.  Right now, what's evident is that Pearce has done three things in succession.  She's given a us a character sketch.  This portrait is by no means flat, and instead has a healthy sense of life to it.  What's more important is that the writer has found the humanity of the main lead.  Betty's troubles are ones that are easy for a lot of middle school kids (young girls, in particular) to identify with.  Her essential wallflower status makes her situation one with just enough familiarity to instantly put us on her side before we even find out what happens to her.  The fact that all of this is a matter of implicit rather than direct statement is testament to Pearce's creativity.  She has an instinctive trust when it comes to both her child and adult readers.  A fourth grade student reading this book, for instance, will attain an immediate sense of a shared predicament without any need for the writer spell things out, the pickup will be more or less instant.  That same reader, coming back to this story with adult eyes, will then be able to articulate all the unspoken drama going on in the text.  All of it takes a great amount of talent, and Pearce's ability to pull this level of characterization off in just three sentences is a marvel all its own. 

I think this level of hidden detail is what accounts for the narrative to keep working even after reality gets turned on its head.  Right after these three moments of character building, the plot establishes itself in a way that could almost be right at home in a surrealist painting, either that or a very messed up Twilight Zone episode.  All that happens is the main character turns a corner, and all of a sudden there's a living, breathing lion right in the path of an oncoming little girl.  The description alone makes it the stuff of nightmares, no matter your age.  It's what happens next that just cements the weirdness.  The second bit of insanity is realizing that not only is a lion in your path, the damned thing can also talk and think as if it were an actual human being.  Some readers may know that sort of thing happens all the time in Aesop, however that's not quite the way Pearce is presenting it.  Instead, the author is taking the reader by the hand, and leading us through what appears to be a natural setting.  The very minute we feel comfortable in these secondary surroundings is when she chooses to pull the rug out from under us.  An element of the fantastic is introduced, and its made up of one improbability after another.  Lions don't appear out of nowhere, neither do they talk or threaten your life unless you take them to school with you.  As I've said, the whole thing sounds like the Twilight Zone.

I suppose the real curiosity is that Pearce is somehow able to make this whole setup work.  Her sense of establishing action and payoff come at a much more rapid pace than the ones readers of straightforward novels are used to dealing with.  There's a sort of logical reason for this, and it has to do with the kind of story the writer has to tell.  Among the other attributes of Pearce's story, one of the most obvious should be the fact that she has to gear it toward roughly a middle-school centric audience.  Once we arrive at this level of comprehension, the reader soon begins to find that they might have stumbled upon an occasional sort of literary gray zone.  There's a sort of trick involved with the sort of books you used to read when you were just a kid who had yet to even conceive of surviving the obstacle course of high school.  It's like there was a lot more leeway in how some writers could tell their stories.  What I recall about my own experience of those years is that the style and incidents contained in the books I was allowed to read in elementary school is just how free form they could be.  It's the sort of quality that can be described.  The trick is how hard it is to wrap your mind around it if you've been away too long.

I say they were (and probably still are?) free form.  What I mean by that is they existed in much the same state of creative flux as their designated audience bracket.  Middle school is very much that classic point of childhood.  It's the time when your mind has very much begun to come into its own, and yet you're still very much a kid.  The adult mindset is still something of a long enough ways off.  Maybe that explains the strange, anything goes approach of a lot of the books I recall reading back then.  A lot of them, such as the Kiddie Gothic books of John Bellairs and Betty Ren Wright, were straightforward descriptive narratives.  You could always count on guys like R.L. Stine or Bruce Coville to honor the tried and true prescriptions of the novelistic tradition, even when the subject matter was all about how My Teacher is an Alien.  There was weirder subject matter than that in the books of my childhood, for the record.  Stine, for instance, could tackle familiar Gothic fair such as haunted houses and living dummies.  However his own books can sometimes veer out into more experimental territory, such as a supermarket carton full of eggs that come from anywhere except the planet earth.  That is also just the tip of the iceberg, by the way.  

From there, you could talk about such fair as a summer camp run by a werewolf, cats and dogs having separate social societies of their own apart from their human owners, or kids able to converse with talking plant life, or just going next door to talk to neighbors who happen, once again, to come from outer space.  If Urban Fantasy is one of the primary modes of modern American literature, then the writers of middle school fare seem to have taken that basic idea and somehow found a license to run wild with it.  In most grown up novels of this sort, the typical expectation is that you have to build up to the fantastic elements.  The writers need to explain themselves a lot more.  In the modern children's middle school book, however, this unstated requirement seems to have been tossed out the window.  I can't say I know why, though.  There might be a cynical reason for this included in the mix.  The idea being that since kids are dumb, then who cares what they read?  However, even if that's the case in some scenarios, I have seen examples from other authors who were trying to put too much effort into their work in order to be written off as cheap cash-ins to believe that this is true the majority of the time.  It seems to be more that a lack of expectations, or snobbery on the part of editors and booksellers, has had the unintended positive result of allowing children's authors to have a bit more freedom in the stories they want to tell.  The result is books and primers where the mixture of mundane and marvelous is both more loose and bold.    

If I had to pinpoint any sort of text that helps frame the kind of stories I'm talking about, then I'll have to recommend that you try and pick up a copy of "Bob the Dinosaur goes to Disneyland", by Joe R. Lansdale.  Not only am I not making that title up, it's also something of a cheat, since it appears as part of that author's very adult collection of horror fiction known as Bestsellers Guaranteed.  At the same time, I can't help but regard it as also very apt.  The very strangeness of Lansdale's short story, the casual and easy-going surreality of his narrative about a couple giving birth to a young, healthy T-Rex, just manages to act as a neat capsule summary or snapshot of the type of story I've been trying to suggest for all this time.  It wouldn't surprise me to learn that Lansdale noticed it as well, and that his story might in part be something of a satire or parody of this same material.  In the case of Philippa Pearce's "Lion at School", what we have appears to be a more lighthearted version of the kind of story Lansdale is telling.  The tone is kept light, and yet there's an awareness from the author of the inherent oddity in the very story that is emerging from her word processor.  It's something Pearce is even willing to lampshade in the way she describes the reaction of others when Betty walks into class with a lion right behind her.

"The lion ran with the little girl on his back to school.  Even so, they were late.  The little and the lion went into the classroom just as the teacher was calling the register.  The teacher stopped calling the register when she saw the little girl and the lion.  She stared at the lion, and all the other children stared at the lion, wondering what the teacher was going to say.  The teacher said to the little girl: 'You know you are not allowed to bring pets to school.'

"The lion began to swish his tail...The little girl said: 'This is not a pet.  This is my friend who is coming to school with me.'  The teacher still stared at the lion, but she said to the little girl: 'What is his name, then?'  'Noil,' said the little girl.  'His name is Noil.  Just Noil.'  She new it would be no good to tell the teacher that her friend was a lion, so she had turned his name backwards: Lion - Noil.  The teacher wrote the name down in the register: Noil.  Then she finished calling the register (4-5)".

If the opening of the story happened to strike an off-kilter note, the two passages just cited above shows no real interest in trying to bring some kind of reassurance to the situation.  Instead, the text just seems content to double down on the weirdness factor.  I'm pretty sure some of the readers examining what transpires in the scene above are busy doing all the necessary the mental calculations.  They should have a pretty good idea of the absurdity of the situation once the whole picture comes clear.  They aren't just thinking about the image of a lion being led into a children's classroom, some of the more caustic minds out are even able to picture what could happen next if you apply real life logic to the circumstances.  It goes without saying that things would get unfortunate real damn quick.  If a lion walked up to a school girl on the street and she managed to get it into her home room class, then what happens next can be summed up in a number of descriptive words: chaos, panic, pandemonium, rip, tear, blood, pain, heartbreak, an either momentary or permanent loss of reason, and maybe what Jack London once described as "The Law of Club and Fang".  All this is bound to be what would happen if a normal wild animal like a lion ever managed to get that far into a public education facility.

However, that's real life, this is a fairy tale we're being told here, in essence.  The fact that Pearce's narrative is one impossibility stacked upon another does little to address the real nature of her text.  If the reader is unwilling to deal with the logic of a fairy tale story on its own terms, then all that can be learned is that Pearce's fable cannot truly be read by just everyone, there may be limits to the imaginative capacities of some in the audience.  Then again, that in itself isn't really the most remarkable discovery out there.  Besides, it still leaves the two most important topics out of the discussion.  To ignore them is to lose track of the point of storytelling as whole.  The first thing to ask about Pearce's story is just what does it mean, if anything?  The second question is also the most important.  Is it any good?

Conclusion: An Enjoyable Oddity.

One of the first things that jumps out at me from reading Pearce's work is that I'm more or less back in familiar territory.  A while back I spilt a great deal of digital ink waxing nostalgic about certain period in the history of books for children.  At the risk of sounding like a broken record, this was a time that seems to have lasted from roughly the 1950s (the period where Philippa got her start in the industry) and culminating somewhere around the mid-point of the 90s.  It was a successful run that turns out to be surprising and gratifying in just how long it was able to last.  The main result of this specific branch office of publishing was a very particular type of book.  Those old Dell Yearling or elderly Scholastic tomes might have been geared for children.  However, I'll swear, at their best, a book like Scot O'Dell's Island of the Blue Dolphin, or The House with a Clock in its Walls contain a level of literary sophistication that makes them just as compatible for the tastes of adult readers as anything by Dickens, Austen, or DeLillo.  This was the publishing tradition to which Philippa Pearce lent her not inconsiderable talents, and her ability to hold her own in such a crowded market, along with the fact that most of her books remain in print has got to be some kind of testament to her staying power.

The story under discussion here comes as part of a collection of similar fare, all of it by the same author.  Pearce's anthology is called Lion at School and Other Stories.  Already that title alone should give the veteran reader an idea of just what to expect.  On the bill of sale, in addition to the title story, we've got a fable about a girl whose fingers take on their own semi-magical qualities, while another finds herself having to confront a monster that exists only in her dreams.  There used to be countless other examples of books just like it lining the bookstore children's shelves back in the day.  Pearce doesn't come off as all too different in that regard.  What I hasten to point out is that this isn't the same as calling her bland, or mediocre, however.  Far from that being the truth, as I've pointed out above, she seems to have mastered the incredible skill of packing all the details necessary for a story with three-dimensional characterization into just a few scant words of sentences, where other, more adult-oriented scribblers need at least paragraph or two to accomplish there efforts.  Perhaps her skill at pulling off the particular technique is itself a pointer to a refinement of artistic brevity.  I would maintain, however, that there is no inherent merit in the questions of length, unless we're heading into the danger zone of under or over describing the situation.  Other than these two related narrative pitfalls, the question of length shouldn't be all that great a concern.

What does matter is how good Pearce is in making us care about what happens to the main character in a situation that is, on the face of it, little less than patent absurdity.  I think a lot of what makes the story work so well as it does hinges on its main character.  Some readers out there must know a girl like Betty Small.  She's bound to be one of those quiet, retiring types you tend to run into somewhere around the classroom  More than this, some of you reading this might know her on a very close level.  Some of you might very well be her parents.  You must have some idea of what I'm talking about.  She's probably a very good girl, sweet, well-meaning and natured.  Perhaps even her school reports hint at a lot of promise in her future, if she'll just remember to keep applying herself.  Her biggest hurdle as far as you, her teachers, the school counselor, and maybe even her doctor are concerned is her lack of self-confidence.  This is the part where it's all too easy to play pin the blame on the donkey.  However, in the case of girls like Betty, I don't think the real trouble is parenting.  I think it's more like there was some necessary kind of experience that was needed, and yet somehow it never came along, and she never faced it and grew as a result.  Like you, I haven't got a clue what that should turn out to be.

All I know for sure is that the way Pearce presents her main character is that of a girl who exists in a state of suspended readiness.  She's got a world of opportunity before her, and yet she can't quite seem to assert herself, or otherwise take life by the horns.  Then along comes a lion out of nowhere, and the whole paradigm shifts.  The rest of the story is short enough to the point that if everything that happens after to the two leads is described after they get to school, then I'll have just basically re-told the whole damn thing.  Instead, I think it's best to close with a brief discussion on any possible meaning of the final element in Pearce's literary equation.  What about the lion itself?  What could that be all about?  A quick glance at the source material doesn't yield much in the way of easy answers.  The title character just shows up out of the blue in front of the story's main lead as she's headed toward what was, up until then, an perfectly normal situation.  That said, the narrative itself does key us in on one important aspect that makes the whole thing stand out.  The idea of a lion loose in a civilized metropolis is cause for alarm.  The key thing to remember, however, is that such occurrences, not matter how dangerous, are still far from unnatural.  It may be a tragedy waiting to happen, yet there's nothing unexplainable about it.

If you run across a lion out on the streets, and then find out that it can talk?  That does seem to make a whole world of difference.  A wild animal on the loose is one thing, this is something else.  If there's one thing most folks are willing to agree upon (unless even that is also up for grabs by now), it's that animals such as lions are incapable of human speech.  To come across one that can not only talk, but do so in a way that reveals a sentient, human-like intelligence, one capable of rational discourse and insight; yeah, I'm afraid we're definitely dealing with something out of the ordinary.  The curious part is that this is the one element of her story that Pearce never really bothers to explain.  The writer is content to present us with a mystery, and leave it at that.  If you've kept doing the necessary sort of math up to this point, you should be close to arriving at just about the one conclusion left.  This is no record of mere life that Pearce is transcribing, the whole opening action and setup have left us well in the realm of the fantastic.  

The story may not be as full-bore fantastic as anything by the Brothers Grimm, however the terrain appears to be the same for all that.  If  this is the case, then one thing be abundantly clear.  It's probably a mistake to treat the characters as if they were one-hundred percent capable of existing in real life.  Pearce may be using her fantasy to explore the nature of very realistic and complex life issues, however, either the writer or the story itself has insisted on treating recognizable daily facts in the trappings of the unreal.  If that sounds like an impossibility, then I'll have to correct you there.  It may be true that we've reached a point where the artistic mingling of the mundane and the mythic acts as a blow against the willing suspension of disbelief.  Even if I were to agree with such an idea (and I can't say that I do) the fact would still remain that our ancestors had a continual habit of confounding whatever our modern expectation of "good writing" may be.  A quick glance at the contents in the works of writers like Aesop, Ovid, or the tales of Mt. Olympus show an artistic sensibility that is far from ill at ease with mixing the ordinary with the otherworldly.  A traveler on the road in an ancient myth can be going about his or her business one moment, and then find themselves holding conversations with griffins, gorgons, or immortals on the very next page.

This appears to be the very same technique on display in Pearce's story.  Her main character is able to run across the lion out of the clear blue sky not because that is where the talking beast has come from (at least I don't think so, I could always be wrong about that), rather it's because the secondary world in which both figures live and have their unreal being appears to be operating on the kind of storytelling logic found in the realm of myth and fable.  It's a discoverable fact of the story which might help us gain further access to its meaning.  If we take the story and its characters as fabelistic figurations, then the surprising thing is just how it helps everything about the tale make sense.  The way the lion is presented in the narrative is that of a curious mix of motivations.  On the one hand, there is a clear sense of threat.  The lion threatens to eat Betty at one point, and it's clear that it has little regard for any thing like using its classroom voice.  At the same time, there's always this strange sort of ambivalence about it.  Despite the lingering sense of threat, the title character also displays a capacity for playing fair, if not playing all that nice.  It will allow Betty to live, if she'll just be willing to satisfy some unstated and latent curiosity about certain human institutions.

This leads to the main action of the narrative, where the reader observes what happens when Betty brings a lion to school.  The interesting thing about setups like this is that it's like you can almost expect them to go just about any damn where you please.  The entire establishing setup is so off-the-wall it's like a door was kicked open somewhere, and that allows the writer the ultimate liberty to run as wild as their imaginations please.   It's sort of an ideal setup when you stop and think about it.  Whether or not this is what Pearce has done, I can't say that it felt devoid of any importance or entertainment.  Indeed, I think the word that kind of sums up the story is to call it somewhat heart-warming.  They way Pearce is able to bring this literary sentiment about is once more through Betty as a character, and what the lion is able to do for her on the modern rite of passage known as the school yard playground.  It can be brutal out on that strip of dust sometimes, or at least that's how I remember it.  That's the place where you sometimes learn what little kids are made of.  It's something a lot of us forget as adults, and I'm sure there are a lot of reasons for that.  The biggest one might have to do with the fact that you either never followed up on your words and actions way back when, or else maybe it was all just bluff, and you never really were as tough as you liked to pretend.

It's a rite of passage that Pearce doesn't seem to have forgotten, however.  Based on the way she handles the main setting in her story, Philippa appears to be the kind of woman with an incredible sense of personal recall, and one of the memories that was forever seared in her brain was what it was like to hold your own out on the elementary school playground.  This is the part in which one aspect of the lion's meaning becomes somewhat clear.  A few paragraphs ago, some ink was spilled on the nature of the main character, and how that determined the conflict at the heart of the story.  Betty is the kind of girl who seems to have a lot of potential going for her.  All she really needs is to learn to have the confidence necessary for it.  That's where the lion comes in for the final time, and what transpires between them and the school yard itself, as both as setting and a kind of crucible is what determines whether or not Betty really is willing to live up to her future potential.  

I've done the best I could here to both give as much information as possible about the story without giving anything away.  Part of the problem with trying to get across the final setup in a tale like the one that Pearce has to tell is that there's always a lingering danger of things degenerating into a kind of bland, Hallmark sentimentality.  It's the sort of trap that too many of the would-be writers for children out there have fallen into for various reasons.  I think a lot of it has to do with not knowing how or where to locate just the right emotional resonance for their respective narratives.  Stuff like that is where you start to get real close the heart of the problem.  All narrative art is, at best, its own form of a high-wire balancing act.  The job of the writer is to maintain that balance from start to finish.  It's the kind of task that sounds a lot easier on paper than it is in real life practice.  I think a lot of it has to do with learning how to spot a false note in an otherwise competent symphony.  It turns out a lot of children's authors aren't all that good a telling a true note from a false, the result is that its easy enough for the sharp reader (no matter their age) to spot when a story begins to derail.

This is a trap Pearce is able to avoid, however.  In closing out her story, she makes sure to keep a light and whimsical tone without ever once sliding in the puerile sentiment, or even flat, declarative moralizing.  Instead, she is able to let the final narrative events happen, and let that serve as statement enough.  It all manages to come together in a satisfactory enough manner, though it still leaves one question unanswered.  Throughout her entire account, it's the lion himself who remains something of a mystery from start to finish.  We never do find out much about who he is, where came from, how it is that he is able to both talk and think like a human being, and just what it is he means.  It is just possible to say that he might represent a part of the assertive qualities that Betty needs in order to survive.  That's probably a true enough observation, and it does help shine a bit of light on the title character.  The curious part is how this still doesn't manage to shine enough light on the entire picture.  We know a part of what the lion is doing there in the story, and yet its just one limited aspect.  All the rest of it still remains in the shadows.

In a way, this is kind of what makes the story work for me.  I know its possible that some readers out there might be chomping at the bit to here me say this.  They're the completionists in the aisles, the ones who can't or won't declare a story good until every T is crossed, and every I dotted.  To this type of mindset, I'm willing to declare that sometimes a lingering sense of mystery is just what the doctor ordered.  It's the sort of narrative mystique that's likely to appeal most to fans of the Gothic or Fantastic genres.  Guys like me tend to get a kick out of a having a fantastical element show up in an ordinary setting, it's like one of the main attractions in the kind of fiction I enjoy.  Nor am I alone in this enjoyment, by any means.  The type of story Philippa Pearce has told in The Lion at School is just one such example.  It is a flight of fancy that harkens back to the wild imaginings of Aesop and the Brothers Grimm.  It manages to be both an intriguing mystery, and a vote of encouragement and confidence for the young pitchers who are its target demographic.  The good news is that actual adults can also find a lot to enjoy about it as well.

At the same time, and at the last, there is still the curious mystery or possible meaning of the lion itself.  The curious part is how there seems to be a bit of a trick involved here.  Taken in isolation, the figure makes no sense, which is not the same as saying he's not entertaining.  On his own, he is a charming, yet somewhat inscrutable oddity, an anomaly of the printed page which leaves us with as many questions as when we started.  What if this literary figure is no longer taken in isolation, however?  What would happen if it were possible to take this character or trope of a fantastic, fictional big cat and turn it loose in stories of a similar, or somehow related bent, even if they are all written by different and separate authors?  It's just something I noticed, or picked up on during the course of my reading life.  Pearce's entry makes it the third time I've run across this particular story idea, and that's what has left me intrigued after a span of time.  It's become a possibility that I'm curious to explore in the next two entries here on the Scriblerus Club.  That, however, is another (and yet somehow related) story.  


  1. (1) King's "Here There Be Tygers" kept coming to mind for me during this!

    (2) I don't know that the problem of obscurity for people like, say, Richard Matheson is *as* bad as you think. I think it's way worse in some ways, but considerably less in others. Here's an anecdote to help illustrate what I mean, and take it with a grain of salt because of the incredibly small sample of people involved; but take it also as perhaps being relatively representative. I was at work the other day and got asked a question by two co-workers, both of whom are considerably younger than myself; one is a college-age white dude, the other a high-school-age black girl. They'd been discussing Megan Thee Stallion and asked for my opinion of her. I said, guys, I'm a 46-year-old; I know who she is and do not care anything about her beyond that. Nothing against her at all, just don't care. So they asked what some of my favorite musicians were and I said Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, and U2. They had never heard of any of those people. This neither surprised me nor disappointed me; I mean, why *would* a girl in high school in 2021 know who Bob Dylan is?

    So they asked me about some other types of things, and before long the name "Stephen King" came up.

    They both knew who Stephen King was. The guy was skeeved out by my being a fan; the girl was intrigued.

    My point is, King's name clearly has MASSIVE cultural penetration, even among young people whose knowledge of musical history fails to include someone as well-known as Bob Dylan. That being the case, King's own name is clearly going to be notable and viable for decades yet to come, and along with that will come his many mentions of Richard Matheson, Shirley Jackson, etc. As always, only a tiny percentage of people who encounter those names will actively explore them; but a tiny percentage is larger than 0%, and therefore, Matheson's name will be carried into the future in at least a small way. I would call that a win, in and of itself; and in a world where high-schoolers and collegians may literally have never even heard the name "Bob Dylan," that's a pretty big deal, relatively speaking.

    (3) Here's where I reveal that, to the best of my knowledge, I've never encountered the name "Philippa Pearce." I'm a book-loving 46-year-old with an English degree, too, so if she's escaped MY attention, well ... I mean, that says a lot. About me, about her; about the very world itself, perhaps. But I look at it this way: things go the way they go, and there's no use fretting about it TOO too much. Better by far to just continue hollering the names of those you want to not be forgotten, and that's what you're doing here. It's a great thing; sincerely.

    (4) I think the idea of place as an influence on writing is a fascinating subject. Personally, I don't feel as if place HAS to be a big element of one's writing, but I also think that is probably is at least as often as not, and probably more.

    (5) Interesting to consider that Pearce growing up in a college town might have made the very notion of learning something which she was comfortable with growing up. I doubt it works like that for everyone, but surely it must for some.

    (6) Every time I see a photo of one of those Dell Yearling paperbacks, it's like someone has injected a hit of pure nostalgia directly into my veins. Even if I never had the book I'm seeing (which is true of every single one included here!).

    (7) "Lion at School" sounds rather delightful. I wish I'd read it as a kid! I bet I'd have enjoyed it. Probably still would today.

  2. (2) My own reasons for worrying about Matheson's obscurity stem from the very little critical commentary (just two book-length studies in the span of a single decade) that I've been able to turn up on the Zone scribe. I agree with King scholar Stanley Wiater that he's "the most famous author you've never heard about". With any luck, I at least HOPE it's something I can contribute to remedying.

    Also, that girl's reaction to Dylan. Oy Gevalt!

    (3) Pearce's current notoriety appears to stem from just one of her books, "Tom's Midnight Garden". She's not a one book wonder, yet that's what time and public awareness have turned her into.

    (4,5) To be fair, I can see how some writers would be less impacted by it than others. Dickens and Ira Levin, or even Joe Hill, for instance, seem more cosmopolitan and less pastoral in their writings than the likes of King of Tolkien. In that sense, perhaps place doesn't always have the literary sense of importance all the time. That said, when it does happen, the results can sometimes be pretty memorable.

    (6) All I can do is consider myself pretty damn lucky in that regard.

    (7) I'd say its pretty good enough, yes.

    (1) For the record, that was more or less intentional. Let's just say that story's time in the spotlight is closer than you think. Say, after maybe just two more semi-related articles. Or at least I think there's a connection there. Not an intentional, just a general thematic one. Stay tuned.


    1. (2) Wasn't just the girl; it was both of them. And of the two, she seemed more curious by far!

      (4) I also found myself thinking about Alan Moore, who has lived virtually his entire life in Northampton and has done a ton of writing about it, but has also written lots of things most definitively NOT set there.

      (6) Absolutely!