[(essay date April 1997) In the following essay, Drout explores Cooper's use of Anglo-Saxon source materials for her creation of the The Dark is Rising sequence.]
Legendary, mythological, and historical materials have long been sources for English literature, and the study of the ways sources are adapted has been a significant aspect of critical practice. One of the standard assumptions of source study is that sources carry their histories with them, and therefore readers encountering legendary or historical materials are able to supply a fuller context for the reference from their existing cultural knowledge. Part of literary-critical practice for the past hundred years has been the explication of such references and the attempt to understand and explain the contexts they bring to bear. Such work is most evident in the study of ancient and medieval cultures, where it focuses on the recovery of lost contexts, but it can also be found, for example, in the work of Joyce-scholars attempting to unwind the layers of multilingual references in Finnegans Wake.
There are serious theoretical objections to the reflexive practice of source study, the most obvious being that source-based interpretations privilege the experiences of a particular (and perhaps privileged) group of readers who possess the context to which a reference metonymically refers. This objection is strengthened in the case of source-study of children's literature. Whereas it is reasonable to assume that adult readers possess at least a modicum of the shared cultural context necessary to ensure communication through reference, the intended readers of children's books are likely to be encountering many references for the first time. Presumably they do not have what E. D. Hirsch calls the "cultural literacy" (10-18) to reconstruct a reference from an allusion. Nor may they be sophisticated enough to understand fully the idea that the adaptation of a source is equivalent to its modification, or that adaptations often work to fix ambiguous meanings. What would appear to an adult reader or critic as the adaptation of source material would seem to be to many (particularly younger or less acculturated) child readers either authorial invention or, more problematically, factual history.
Source study would therefore seem to be an unrewarding approach to the analysis of children's literature. Such study privileges one sort of reader, the informed, educated critic, at the expense of another, the less educated (perhaps naive) child and replicates in discourse the sorts of vertical power relations stereotypical of the interactions between adults and children. These sort of objections are reasonable, and I do not intend to refute them in this paper. I hope to demonstrate, however, that examination of the sources for a certain type of children's literature can be a fruitful critical practice. I will argue the counterintuitive proposition that even though children cannot be expected to reconstruct the cultural context of historical and mythological allusions, these allusions--or, more accurately, the allusions intertwined with their previous political appropriations--fundamentally shape the text beyond the control of the author and beyond the conscious apprehension of the...