More from Gretchen Rubin and “The Happiness Project”

Gretchen discusses symbolism and children’s literature:

[C]hildren’s literature often plunges a reader into a world of archtypes. Certain images have a queer power to excite the imagination, and children’s literature uses them with brilliant effect. Books such as Peter Pan, The Golden Compass and The Blue Bird operate on a symbolic level and are penetrated with meanings that can’t be fully worked out.

There’s quite a bit there. Yes, one of the attractions of childrens’ literature is that its never difficult to figure out who wears the (metaphorical) black hat. And yes, the value of symbols and logos is well established, going back at least to the Supreme Court decision in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624 (1943).

On the other hand, I’ve generally been wary of reading too much into literature. Its always been a pet peeves when heavy duty academics try to read too much into two of my favorite mental retreats: The worlds of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, and everything by Wodehouse (the worlds of Blandings Castle, Market Snodsbury, everything Jeevesian or Woosterian, The Angler’s Rest, and the production lot of the Superba Llewellyn Film Corporation).

But I don’t think Gretchen means heavy duty academia reading heavy duty socio-political messages into reading that I suspect were never intended by the author. I take her as pointing toward more universally recognized symbols, like the man on horseback riding to the rescue, (or as Bertie Wooster, would have put it, “the arrival of the United States Marines.”)

I do love those in children’s literature: I think the early Harry Potter books did an excellent job for instance. (Like Homer Simpson, I never reconciled myself to the loss of er, Graystache) And I think I’m reading off the same page as Gretchen there.

Indeed, maybe because of the love of children’s literature, I’ve seen symbols in other media. For instance, I’ve always had a particular attraction for the Phantom of the Opera. The story of the disfigured genuis pining for a lost love/beauty is particularly replete with all sorts of symbols.

Or maybe it comes from reading Wodehouse, who uses symbols (or is it allegories?) for devastating comic effect like noone else:

Fate was quietly slipping the lead into the boxing-glove.
stubbed his toe on the brick of Fate
The face was drawn, the eyes haggard, the general appearance that of one who has searched for the leak in life’s gaspipe with a lighted candle.

And I must point out that per one of my favorite websites, Cracked, there are in fact real life codes all around us. See here.

Finally, back to Gretchen, this time quoting C.S. Lewis and his essay “On Three Ways of Writing For Children”:

When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty, I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up

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