Leon Garfield MYLES McDOWELL - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

What is one to say … of the view of life expressed in, for example, Smith, by Leon Garfield: is that simplistic? The word hardly seems an apt description for a kaleidoscopic view of fortune and deservings such as Garfield presents. Schematic, I suggest, is the more appropriate word. And in this word, I think, is contained one of the essential differences between an adult's and a child's view of life. By and large adults have effected a bifurcation between the moral and the physical imperatives. But this understanding is itself of fairly recent growth, having its springs in the development of scientific rationality during the last three centuries; and in popular terms perhaps is restricted to presently living generations of 'advanced' countries. A common nineteenth-century European view, in all strata of society, would have been that a moral power could, and frequently did, overrule the physical laws. A personal accident that befell one was not explicable in terms of a chain of physical cause and effect, but as a 'judgement' for some earlier moral failing. This schematic moral view of life is essentially childlike; and what is more, it is inconceivable that one should reach the more sophisticated state of discriminatory thinking about the varieties of cause and effect without going through the more primitive stage of belief that an omnipotent, omnipresent, omniactive power controlled all manifestations. From a child's point of view not only is such a view safe and reassuring, it is also optimistic. Good will triumph, and not because it has public support and sympathy (that being almost one of the characteristics of what we call good), but because it must. Evil will be punished, again a benign power reigns. (p. 54)

Myles McDowell, in Children's literature in education (© 1973, Agathon Press, Inc.; reprinted by permission of the publisher), No. 10 (March), 1973.