The Aeneid with Rabbits: Children's Fantasy as Modern Epic
Despite their apparent dissimilarity, children's literature and the epic tradition are often intertwined. This is seen perhaps most clearly in the frequent retelling and repackaging of epics such as Beowulf and the Odyssey as children's books. If there is potential for epic to become children's stories, however, there is also potential for children's stories to become epic, and a number of important works of children's fantasy have been discussed as epics in their own right. In this thesis, I examine the extent to which writers of children's fantasy can be viewed as working in an epic tradition, drawing on and adapting epic texts for the modern age as Virgil and Milton did for their own times. Looking specifically at key works of British fantasy written post-WWI, I argue that children's literature and epic serve similar social and cultural functions, including the ability to mythologise communal experience and explore codes of heroism that are absorbed by their intended audience. Rosemary Sutcliff's retellings of epic texts for children suggest the ways in which epic can be reworked to create new heroic codes that are a combination of their source material, the values of their new cultural context, and the author's own personal worldview. This potential is further explored through Richard Adams's Watership Down, an animal story that functions in part as a retelling of Virgil’s Aeneid with rabbits. J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit uses the tension between epic and children's fairy-tale to examine the codes at the heart of Norse and Anglo-Saxon epic, and suggest an alternative that nonetheless allows for the glory of an epic worldview. Both T.H. White and Sutcliff engage with the Arthurian myth and the Matter of Britain in ways that use children's literature as a starting point for national epic. Finally, C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman each make use of Milton's Paradise Lost (and, in Pullman's case, of Lewis's earlier work) to produce very different fantasies that each look ahead to the end of epic. Cumulatively, these books illustrate the manner in which children's texts provide a home for the epic in a postmodern age in which many critics suggest the epic in its pure form can no longer survive. The rise of scientific empiricism, combined with national disillusionment following WWI, has been argued to have left epic's traditional worldview of myth, religion and the supernatural impossible to be used without irony. Children's fantasy, ostensibly addressed to “an audience that is still innocent” (Gillian Adams 109), allows authors to eschew irony in favour of story-telling, and explore ideas such as courage, honour and transcendence that lie at the heart of epic.