Academic journal article Style

Animal Carnivals: A Bakhtinian Reading of C. S. Lewis's the Magician's Nephew and P. L. Travers's Mary Poppins

Academic journal article Style

Animal Carnivals: A Bakhtinian Reading of C. S. Lewis's the Magician's Nephew and P. L. Travers's Mary Poppins

Article excerpt

In the past two decades, the work of Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin has become increasingly important to the criticism of children's literature. Caryl Emerson, one of his translators and editors, argues that Westerners most admire Bakhtin's views on "the novel as subversive genre, carnival as permanent revolution, and culture as a battleground where marginal figures endlessly undermine all centers" (qtd. in Vice 154). Recent works of scholarship such as those by John Stephens and Robyn McCallum have recognized Bakhtin's theories as powerful constructs for understanding novels written for children and young adults. (1) Stephens devotes part of his study to "carnivalesque" texts that "interrogate the normal subject positions created for children within socially dominant ideological frames" (120). (2) McCallum examines "the representation of dialogic conceptions of subjectivity in adolescent and children's fiction using a Bakhtinian approach to subjectivity, language and narrative" (3). Both Stephens and McCallu m are concerned with the interaction of human characters, especially with the ways in which children or adolescents act to form identities and to appropriate ideologies that may be at odds with empowered adults. (3) I have chosen here to address two novels for children that were published much earlier than those discussed by Stephens and McCallum, whose example texts yield more readily to postmodern readings. In The Magician's Nephew (1955), by C. S. Lewis, and Mary Poppins (1934), by P. L. Travers, heteroglottic language and carnivalized action create polyphonic exchanges in which power relations between characters are negotiated; in the episodes on which I will focus, however, it is not only adult and child characters engaged in this transaction but also humans and animals.

It is true that neither of these novels for children is dialogic to the degree that Bakhtin claims for Dostoevsky's work; that is, all voices within the text do not bear equivalent ideological or narratological weight. It is also true that the carnival pageantry of these novels at times seems orchestrated by the central figures of Aslan and Mary Poppins. Nonetheless, at certain moments in each book, the nature of the power struggle between humans and animals helps to move these texts in the direction of a more explicit polyphony and a more carnivalesque style of action.

Bakhtin's notion of carnival appears germane to the novels of Lewis and Travers in general and to the episodes I have selected in particular. For one thing, throughout their children's novels, Lewis and Travers bring together heterogeneous collections of characters from all orders of being--humanity, mythology (Greek, Norse, Christian), the animal world (both talking and nontalking beasts), and other fictional sources (for example, nursery rhyme and fairytale figures) (4)--and have them mingle in festival-like gatherings reminiscent of medieval carnival celebrations. (5) For another, the interaction among these disparate characters often results in the suspension of hierarchical barriers and in what Bakhtin calls "carnivalistic mesalliances" that mingle "the sacred with the profane, the lofty with the low, the great with the insignificant, the wise with the stupid" (Problems 123). As Bakhtin argues,

All distance between people is suspended, and a special carnival category goes into effect: free and familiar contact among people. This is a very important aspect of a carnival sense of the world. People who in life are separated by impenetrable hierarchical barriers enter into free familiar contact on the carnival square. (123)

Because carnival laughter is directed at exalted beings, power shifts occur in accordance with "the peculiar logic of the 'inside out' (a l'envers), of the 'turnabout,' of a continual shifting from top to bottom, from front to rear" (Rabelais 11). In a chapter from Mary Poppins entitled "Full Moon," which depicts the zoo animals turning the tables for one evening and caging human visitors, this power shift is temporary and therefore more directly analogous to the mock crowning and decrowning of the carnival king important to Bakhtin's notion of carnival. …

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