Voldemort Versus Mount Olympus: London’s Tribute to Great Children’s Lit

July 29, 2012 § Leave a comment

I an think of nothing better to jolt me out of a bleak blogging block than the sight of JK Rowling reading JM Barrie’s Peter Pan, live, to the entire world (except the USA, who saw it four hours later).

Many have criticized (or backhandedly praised) London’s Olympian bash as pushing whimsy more than ceremony. Even I watched the first twenty minutes and thought the whole thing seemed a little Masterpiece Theatre-ish, and that Masterpiece Theatre really does belong on the small screen, and not live, in front of thousands. Just doesn’t quite fit, thematically, in a stadium.

But as the night wore on, I realized that London’s show was largely a philological one, for better or worse: a show that, rather than depicting the uniformity of its mindset and citizens as China did, attempted to catalog and define its greatest contributions to the world of information and literature, from Shakespeare to the world wide web. The biggest–and most nonsensical stop, for those who weren’t sure what they were looking at–was in the realm of children’s literature, which owes British writers…well, pretty much everything.

Voldemort, the villain from the Harry Potter series, towers over child actors playing patients at the Great Ormond Street Hospital at the London Olympic Opening Ceremony. Below him is Cruella deVil from Dodie Smith’s The Hundred and One Dalmations

And though there are many who wonder what a giant Voldemort puppet has to do with the Olympic games, children’s literature seems to me to be the most appropriate layover in a journey of British words. No other literature in their canon so distills the mythic narrative of the hero into something attainable by the reader–a child. And what are the Olympics, by virtue of their very name, if not a celebration of the potential within ordinary human beings to achieve at least the physical capabilities of mythic heroes.

You may have noticed that, with the exception of the league of Mary Poppinses that flew in to save the day, all of the children’s book characters depicted were villains: Voldemort, Cruella de Vil, Captain Hook, the Queen of Hearts, the Child-Catcher (side note: all of these characters have literary origins, and though I’m certain that the point of the scene was to draw attention to Britain’s history of children’s literature, and not children’s film, the Child Catcher, from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, appears courtesy of Roald Dahl, who wrote him into the 1968 film screenplay–he did not appear in Ian Fleming’s original book.)

The heroes of the scene weren’t the characters we expected to see: there was no Harry Potter, no Peter Pan. Instead, the children being menaced by the villains of their nighttime imaginations are saved by the staff of the Great Ormond Street Hospital, with a little help from Mary Poppins.

If you’re a die-hard Pan-fan like myself, then you may already be familiar with the Great Ormond Street Hospital, which has been a children’s-only hospital since it opened its doors in 1852. Its history has been inextricably linked with British children’s literature since 1929, when JM Barrie, the author of Peter and Wendy and Peter Pan, or, The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up donated the rights to the Peter Pan books to the hospital. Great Ormond Street has been the beneficiary of both book sales, sales of film rights, and royalties whenever the play is performed ever since. In a Guildhall dinner speech that year, Barrie claimed at Peter, who had been a patient in the hospital “put me up to (it).”

A performance of Peter Pan at the hospital in 1929–Barrie can be seen standing towards the back of the room.

“It has long been the role of children’s literature to exorcise nightmares,” says Seth Lerer in Children’s Literature: A Reader’s History from Aesop to Harry Potter. The nightmares that appeared in the “Olympic Bedtime Story” in the opening ceremony were indeed exorcised, even if Harry Potter didn’t appear: the progression from nightmarish dream-scape to idyllic story-time was accomplished by many rather than just one, which despite its focus on individual physical achievement has always been a key theme of the ceremony surrounding the Olympic games. We don’t need one hero to save us–we can become the heroes.

Captain Hook menaces the children of the Great Ormond Street Hospital in a scene from the 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony in London

Was the sequence a little strange? No doubt. But my heart-cockles were warmed by the focus on literary heroes as well as feats of strength–a reminder that it’s what we dream about as children that inspires us to grow and to achieve, and to become the stuff of legends.

You can currently watch the “Olympic Bedtime Story” sequence here, and hopefully NBC will keep it up for a good long while.

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