Coming Home with Coraline, Wilbur, Mr Tom and Odysseus

Home is a core concept in children’s literature–being at home, leaving a home, finding a new home, coming home. Reading the books of our childhood is like a kind of return to a past home. Here is a piece by John Hale, my father, written after rereading the Odyssey, Charlotte’s Web, Coraline, and Goodnight Mr Tom, all cherished works on the family bookshelf. It’s nice to come home…

Homecoming

Nostos, homecoming, drives the plot of the first Odyssey. And of much other fiction, myths and epics, novels and children’s literature. What’s more, these themes and truisms of an odyssey, a difficult return home, go deep into actual living.

       If travel broadens the mind (Odysseus is polutropos), it also shows us where we belong. Wordsworth, snowed up in Germany, learns to write about his childhood, localized in Cumberland; the whole growth and forming of his imagination.

       The magic of the Odyssey lies, for me, in how much Homer makes the homecoming mean. Not only in time—ten years at Troy, ten coming home, but in the return from exile—he must win back home, wife and kingdom. He is recognised there by his old nurse, and by his dog, his very old dog. Some dog!

•••

        To pack in so much meaning is daunting. Few have done it. Virgil did it, by returning his refugee hero to a new home decreed by fate, for the founding of the new Troy. He has first to recognise it (recognise it especially as not Carthage).

        Farfetched as these plots may seem, they match our own lives. Refugees in millions leave their homes, by force and fear. Individuals too may need to leave home and make a new one. Settlers abound, especially here in the Antipodes. I never dreamt as a child in London that I would end my days at Latitude 46 degrees south. Now I wouldn’t go back even if I could.

•••

        For children’s fiction these oscillations enrich for me, as I re-read them, classics like Goodnight, Mister Tom, Charlotte’s Web, and Coraline one actual and one two possible classics.

         In the first one a young boy, Willy, finds himself undergoing wartime evacuation, from blitzed London to a quiet village, and billeted with a crusty recluse, Tom. They gradually appreciate each other. Willy makes a new home, Tom expands his. Then Willy is compelled, by his deranged mother and the governmental system, to return to London, to his former home. The home situation is dreadful, most movingly presented. Tom must rescue Willy, regulations notwithstanding. The child comes home, from his old hellish one to make a new one. We identify with the feelings of both characters, to the point of the wonderful finish, when Willy names his new father.

           In the other classic, Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White, we identify differently, with Wilbur the pig, the simpleton runt of the litter, more than with the clever spider. Animals make a home, and unlike humans know exactly what to do. They know how to nestle. Here is Wilbur, settling himself to sleep, after he has been proclaimed within Charlotte’s web “SOME PIG.” He has received extra-special fresh straw from his amazed humans. However, “the straw seemed scratchy—not as comfortable as the cow manure, which was always delightfully soft to lie in. So he pushed the straw to one side and stretched out in the manure.” He’s had a busy day, being terrific. Now it will end perfectly too, at the home he has re-made.

          Like any dog, arranging itself for repose by treading in a small (body-size) circle, three or four times to flatten the base, Wilbur makes his nest. I wish I could show that nostos is connected with nest and nestling.

•••

In a third new classic, Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, Coraline moves through a brick wall to another version of her home, replete with her “other mother” and “other father.”  Their eyes are not eyes but black buttons. It’s a nightmare odyssey, where home is not left or sought but transformed. A duplicate reality, a home made strange, as it might well be by a divorce or disaster.

        She finds her way through the bricked-up doorway, a move that resembles Alice’s through the looking-glass. (There is a looking-glass too.) However, the sense of impending trauma is new. It conveys a young child’s sudden drastic meeting with change, in the home itself; an odyssey more like Willy’s.

        Home has become haunted and dangerous. She must rescue it, by courage and intelligence. Does possessiveness approach malevolence in mother love? This charming and sinister tale includes a dark version of homecoming, like Willy’s in Mister Tom.

         The more that the itch to come home is intensified in Homer’s original, the more disturbing becomes his itch to leave home again, in one last outing. Greeks and medievals alike gave us this variation on the theme as well. Like Ernest Shackleton, or Reepicheep in The Voyage of the Dawntreader It is a theme which gives many variations, in life and in mytrh.

John Hale

29-4-2022

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