Empire's Children: Empire and Imperialism in Classic British Children's Books

By M. Daphne Kutzer | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 6

Empire Then and Now: Conclusions

Arthur Ransome is the last writer I will discuss in detail. He wrote just before and during World War II, and is the last children’s writer to reflect issues of empire in easily recognizable and definable ways. But the desire for empire does not go away after World War II—or perhaps it does, to be replaced by its close cousin, nostalgia for a lost and more powerful Britain and a more perfect British past. Empire becomes generalized into a longing for past glories. Fred Inglis, writing of Kipling’s Puck books, asserted that “The idea of England transcends the real history of empire, devastation, invasion, and colonization,” 1 a statement that applies as readily to later twentieth-century British children’s books as to Kipling’s.

Nostalgia for a vanished and powerful Britain takes many forms in children’s books both during and after World War II, but is most likely to show up in either historical fiction or in fantasy works. This alone is a shift from the earlier, pre-World War I Period. Before World War I, images of empire are more likely to appear in realistic fiction than in fantasy; whereas directly after the war, in Milne and Lofting for example, empire has receded into the world of fantasy. Partly this has to do with the rise and fall of the popularity of fantasy as a genre in children’s writing, but I think it also has to do with increasing disquietude about empire and its effects, disquietude that is perhaps too disturbing to look at realistically and is more safely approached in the realm of fantasy or in the safety of the distant past.

Perhaps the most famous of World War II-era fantasies is Tolkien’s tale of Middle Earth, beginning with The Hobbit (1937) and continuing in the three volumes of The Lord of the Rings (written 1936-1949). The four volumes, taken together, provide an epic tale of the struggle of democratic and largely disenfranchised people—the hobbits in particular, but also in different ways the elves and the dwarves and other magical beings—against the Dark Lord Saruman, a despotic and totalitarian ruler. Tolkien wrote the bulk of the

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