It's not often that one has the opportunity to read and review a children's book that raises some fundamental questions about children's literature. Usually, this happens only with "classic" children's literature--"Alice in Wonderland," the Curdy books of George MacDonald, C. S. Lewis' Narnia cycle, Tolkien, the Mary Poppins books, and so on. I purposely exclude fairy tales because one enters a very special field with folk literature. From time to time, however, some publisher or other gets the strange notion of reissuing a more or less forgotten work, and there is a chance then to re-evaluate the field in a general way, to ruminate on the state of children's literature and what passes for same.
Owen Barfield's "The Silver Trumpet," first published in 1925, is a story that is part parable, fable and fairy tale. It is too long to read in a single sitting, the plot is intricate and makes demands on the memory and attention, there is a multitude of characters of different generations which we have to keep track of, the wrong people suffer, it seems, too long, and there is a certain breeziness of style that does not conform with our staid ideas of classic fairy-tale diction. But all of these are not faults: They are part of what makes the story work. All the classic elements of an "old fashioned" children's story are there: twin princesses, various kings and princes, a miraculous trumpet (which gets hidden and almost forgotten for much of the story), a helping dwarf, a witch who is good (maybe), an enchanted frog--excuse me, toad --and a sinister coven of Amalgamated Princesses. With elements such as these, it is small wonder that C. S. Lewis, who lent his copy to Tolkien, later wrote to Barfield that "it is the greatest success among his children that they have ever known. . . . All the things which the wiseacres on child psychology in our circle said when you wrote it turn out to be nonsense."
Barfield, a follower of Rudolf Steiner, wrote his story with the idea of bringing out, as he put it, "the importance of the feeling element in life," symbolized by the silver trumpet. It was Barfield's contention that reason "laced with feeling" could become an avenue to truth, and very simply, this is what the story is about.
It is that kind of explicit statement that raises the question why writers such as MacDonald, Pyle, Lewis, Tolkien, Travers and Barfield wrote the books they did. Do their intentions have anything to do with why their books endure (even if momentarily neglected) while others vanish? Straightforward answers to such questions are probably impossible; however, there are various elements common to these writers which we would do well to consider when evaluating any children's books. Such writers as these think that there are certain things that children ought to know about, which can only be approached indirectly: things that matter not because they promulgate a religious creed, make the world safe for democracy, or cater to the violent circumstances of life, but because travelers through this world are beset by dangers that can be steered through safely only by men and women who hold certain principles to be true, and who try to live by them. This is the great appeal of Tolkien, I think: Children become anxious when Bilbo or Frodo are tempted by the selfish power of the Ring, and they experience relief when those private battles are won, though the war may be far from over. Some parents and educators may fuss about this anxiety, saying it is not healthy: But is it then healthy not to be concerned whether one has the strength of character to resist pride, envy, greed, sloth, and the other demons that crouch by the wayside?
What these writers try to say to children is that these problems do matter, and their questions are the right ones to ask. Why do children love Mary Poppins? Probably because, unlike most adults, Mary Poppins doesn't lie. She has principles, and she stands for them, and to children, this is heroic. Why do they love Bilbo and Frodo Baggins? Because they endure hardship, meet challenges, and grow: And to children, this also is heroic. The fortitude of the young prince and the courage of the princess in Barfield's tale betoken the heroism of each, and this appeals to children because the heroic is what they wish for themselves. And why not? Why do we adults not wish it for ourselves, and worse, why do we not always wish it for our children?
"The Silver Trumpet" is not a classic, but it is cut from the same cloth: not because of its motifs and characters but because of the idea behind the story and the intention of the author. It is a welcome addition to a pathetically small shelf of worthwhile contemporary children's literature.
One note should be said about the illustrations, which are unfortunate. The illustrator, Josephine Spence, appears to have a very immature understanding of the body, and the drawings are, for the most part, stiff and lifeless. They are also dotted with anachronisms that do not capture the charm of Barfield's own. The general pastel tone and blandness of expressions detract from the story. It would perhaps have been better left un-illustrated.