Strange Bedfellows? “King Lear” and “The Natural History of Ants”

Some strange things happen to King Lear in Shakespeare’s tragedy about the proud king of ancient Britain who gives away his crown, loses all — including his wits — and finds himself in tatters on a heath in a raging storm, accompanied only by his (perhaps witless) court fool and a truly noble, young nobleman pretending to be a madman (Edgar).  At one point, the three of them crowd together inside a hovel to seek nighttime protection from a raging storm — a mad king, a fool, and a nobleman feigning madness, all huddled together: strange bedfellows, indeed!

Title page: "The Junior Class-Book," by William Frederick Mylius (London: M.J. Godwin, 1813) Cotsen new accession.

Title page: “The Junior Class-Book,” by William Frederick Mylius (London: M.J. Godwin, 1813) Cotsen new accession.

But even this amazing juxtaposition might not seem stranger than finding a (greatly shortened) version of King Lear cheek-by-jowl with “The Natural History of Ants,” which outlines the behavior of ants and uses it to model virtuous conduct for children.  Yet, that’s just what I came across recently while cataloging a newly-acquired Cotsen Library book: The Junior Class-Book, or, Reading Lessons for Every Day of the Year, by William Frederick Mylius (London: M.J. Godwin, 1813).

How did such seemingly disparate items as Lear and ants  come to be yoked together?  Credit a literary miscellany for children, a genre featuring abbreviated excerpts (fiction, prose, poetry, religion) from a wide variety of authors on an intentionally wide variety of subjects and topics.  Like the once-popular literary miscellanies for adults, those for children were samplers of sorts, but they were also meant to subserve an underlying didactic purpose as well. The sheer variety in the selection of materials in children’s literary miscellanies was intended to make them both more engaging and more readily-digestible to young minds, as per Enlightenment thinking on education.  It was also meant to provide a wide array of information on all sorts of topics that educators of the time thought children should know about: morality, history, geography, natural science, and classical mythology, among them.

Religion, once the exclusive foundation of early childhood learning (“A is for Adam”) was no longer the sole basis for childhood reading by the time of this book’s 1813 publication.  In a Preface, Mylius, the book’s compiling editior, is quite explicit about the role he intends the miscellany to play and how this differs from prior practice:

It is now a maxim sufficiently established in schools that children of both sexes are to be practiced and perfected in the art of reading by a miscellaneous collection.  Fifty years ago, the Bible was the only book used for English reading… a miscellany has great advantage… a stepping stone and ladder to all knowledge…

The variety of a miscellany for children is thus the point, as well as one of its key means to achieving its pedagogical ends.  The unusual range of material in The Junior Class-Book certainly got my attention!

But to be accurate, I should also stress how stress that Mylius imposes considerable didactic order on his selections — this is definitely not free-form, study-what-you-will learning!  The eclectic overall work is carefully divided into weekly reading selections — to be commenced on the week “after the Christmas Holiday” — and each week’s reading is further subdivided into six passages, one for each day of the week.  (“Six days a week,” you ask?  Sunday, while a day of rest, was presumably not a day without reading and study in Mylius’s eyes, but one still revolving around the Bible, not assignments from his book.)


First page of “Contents” for “The Junior Class-Book”: from Fenelon to French Cookery to Shakespeare.

The first “Contents” page listing of readings should, I hope, give you with some idea of the variety of the content and format, as well as how the clearly didactic orientation is leavened by literature and variety: “Industry & Idleness,” “On Lying,” and “The Folly of Ambition” (almost sermon-like in their moral titles) are accompanied by “Of Bird’s Nests.” (Yes indeed, this passage discusses how birds’ nests are actually made, but it also stresses what humans can learn from observing how birds themselves learn how to build nests: learning from others’ learning — quite a sophisticated, psychologically-oriented  approach, when you think about it.)

“Florizel and Perdita” provides a more distinctly “literary” reading selection for the opening weeks, although a title perhaps not as immediately familiar to a modern reader as it would have been at the time of the Junior Class-Book‘s publication.  A retelling of an episode from Shakespeare’s The Winters Tale, “Florizel and Perdita”  is abridged from Charles and Mary Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare, first published in 1807 to huge critical acclaim and general popularity and never since out of print.  Intended as an introduction to the then utterly-canonical (more unquestionably so then than today, believe it or not) plays of Shakespeare, the Tales were abridged narrative versions of twenty plays, intended as “easy reading for young children,” as the Lambs wrote in their own Preface.  But the selections are also quite didactic in their import, as the Lambs made clear at the end of the Preface, where they refer to their Tales as:

strengtheners of virtue, a withdrawing from all selfish and mercenary thoughts, a lesson of all sweet and honorable thoughts and actions, to teach courtesy, benignity, generosity, humanity… examples teaching these virtues…


Beginning of “Florizel & Perdita,” adapted from Lamb’s “Tales of Shakespeare.”

Encouraging virtue and providing lessons for both thought and conduct: classic goals of didactic literature.

Reading the Tales now, their didacticism is striking and unambiguous — as you might expect in a version of Shakespeare from this time aimed at “young children.”  And this is is even more explicit in Mylius’s abridgement of Lamb in his Junior Class-Book.  The innocent virtue of Perdita — described as a “poor deserted baby” — is explicitly rewarded with happiness, marriage, and celebration, all traditional hallmarks of comic dramatic structure.  King Leontes, her father, repents the jealousy and wrath that led him to banish his daughter (his actual intent being her death).  Yet Mylius manages to distill Lamb’s twelve-page rendition of Winter’s Tale into a four-page anecdote of climactic discovery and reconciliation that captures the essence of the longer version to a remarkable extent, at least in my opinion — and one that does reasonable justice to the original play too.


Reading for the 18th Week: “King Lear” in 8 pages.

The complex psychological and moral story of King Lear is similarly pared down by Mylius into just eight pages — compared with about fifteen pages in Lamb’s retelling of Shakespeare; his version also endeavors to tell more of the original story of Lear, not just focus on the final episode, as his “Florizel and Perdita” did.  Mylius outlines the context of the original story — Lear compelling his three daughters to compete in extolling how much they each love him — although he refers to Cordelia’s “plainness of speech” in refusing to “flatter” Lear, rather than her “appearance of ingratitude,” as Lamb phrases it.  Similarly, Mylius describes Lear as “incensed,” “full of wrath,” and “so little guided by reason and so much by passion,” in lieu of Lamb’s “dotage to old age…clouded reason…[inability] to discern truth from flattery…[and] fury of resentment.”  Likewise, near the end of his narrative, Mylius (rightly) labels Goneril and Regan as “wicked women” but not “monsters of ingratitude,” as Lamb terms them.  In all three cases, Mylius seems to be deliberately simplifying not just the language, but also the emotions, psychology, and motivation of the characters to make them more self-evident and comprehensible to younger readers.  Ingratitude, dotage, and flattery’s deceptiveness are, after all, pretty complex ideas for a child to grasp — and hard to do justice to in eight pages, either!  (Sub-plots and some characters are also eliminated, including Edgar, in both retellings of Lear for children, I should add, changing the cast of Shakespeare’s “strange bedfellows” referred to above.)

Much of the horror of Shakespeare’s play is mitigated — or left out altogether — in the retellings of both Mylius and Lamb — but both include the death of Lear, an “unhappy and misguided old man,” as Mylius terms him, at the end of his “tragical and instructive narration.”  (Some eighteenth-century versions of the play for adults changed Shakespeare ending to create a happy reconciliation of Lear and Cordelia, more akin to comedy or romance than tragedy.)  Lear’s life thus provides a cautionary tale, his fate something to be avoided by avoiding such character flaws and behavior.


Conclusion of “King Lear”: “By the help of sleep and medicine, [Cordelia] and her physicians at length succeeded in winding up the untuned and jarring senses” of Lear.

To an adult reader today, King Lear might not seem like the best source of a story for children: a father behaving badly and driven mad by old age and pitiless remorse; resentful, spiteful children who lie to him and plot revenge; and a certain level of violence ending in suffering and death.  But Shakespeare was seen as a “special” writer in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (again, even more so than now), an unmatched user of language and a perfect portrayer of human nature and activity.  And children can better appreciate complex character and motivations — even evil — and some level of violence in a story better than many of us once thought.  Just look at the popularity of the Harry Potter stories with children, some quite young; seldom have child readers (or movie-goers) found them too frightening or too violent to be compelling. Or perhaps that’s actually  part of their appeal?  Some parts can verge on being too scary or too extreme, but there are lines that don’t get crossed.


“Regulus,” as envisioned by painter J.M.W. Turner.

Mylius’s adaptation of King Lear is not unique among his selections in dealing with complex or potentially-disturbing stories either.  He also includes one titled “Regulus, the Roman Patriot” (adapted from Baldwin’s History of Rome) a history-based account of a Roman general captured by the Carthaginians during the Punic Wars, imprisoned for six long years, then sent back to Rome to urge peace terms favorable to the Carthaginians but not in Rome’s best interests.  Refusing to do so once back in Rome, Regulus returns to Carthage under the terms of his release, only to be subject to “excruciating torments” by the “cruel” Carthaginians for his refusal to place his own life before Rome’s interests.  This is hardly “kid stuff” and would probably not find its way into most books for children today.  But it is a compiling story — as anyone who has seen J.M.W. Turner’s stunning painting Regulus can attest — and it tells a story of stoical courage, patriotism, and “nobility” of character that was not so unusual in British children’s stories of the time, especially those for boys.

Readings for Weeks 18 to 20: From "King Lear," to the "Natural History of Ants," to "Robinson Crusoe"

Readings for Weeks 18 to 20: From “King Lear,” to the “Natural History of Ants,” to “Robinson Crusoe.”

As such, “Regulus” presents an important facet of the sort of reading material that educators thought children should read in 1813 — and which they no doubt did actually read. Turner must have gotten the original germ of an idea for his 1828 painting from somewhere and the dates are suggestive!

But what about the ants?  After all, I did mention them in the title of this blog posting.  And the “Natural History of Ants” does help us better understand Mylius’s overall miscellany, in particular because it’s the selection immediately preceding “Regulus”!  Reading for a Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday (“Regulus” is a two-day reading selection, as is “Florizel and Perdita” — “King Lear” is a unique five-day reading epic in The Junior Class-Book, a testament to both the complexity of the plot and its perceived importance as a piece of literature.)


Beginning of the “Natural History of Ants”: “They are seen diligently going from the ant-hill in pursuit of food for themselves and their associates…”  (“Associates”?  Are they all part of a law firm?)

Worker ants are presented as models of cooperation and diligence; they work together and they work hard; they “work continually … not sharing in the pleasures of the other parts of their community” (i.e. their “idler” children, who get to remain snug in the ant-hill!).  Ants also plan and defend their mound in concert, again working in “community” and even caring for the wounded and dead, according to the passage.  This rendition of “natural history” may seem a little poetic and anthropomorphized to a reader today, and Mylius’s selection is based on a work originally authored by poet Oliver Goldsmith (who also displayed his interest in children’s educational materials in works published by John Newbery).  Nevertheless, Mylius presents ants as models of social virtue, general benevolence towards their ‘associates,” and even patriotic virtues.  And he includes some of Goldsmith’s points of distinction between English and other European ants to make even clearer another at least implied meaning of the passage.  Rule Britannia!

So, we’ve seen how Mylius shapes material taken from Shakespeare and about Roman history, bird’s nests, and ants into the larger didactic whole of his miscellany.  Personally, I’m convinced that he does a masterful job of this.  But his didactic motivation is not without a sense of humor.  He includes William Cowper’s playful poem, “Dispute Between Nose and Eyes,” in which Nose and Eyes contend for ownership of the spectacles, using Tongue to argue and Baron Ear to hear the case (get it?).

And the verdict?

… whenever Nose puts his spectacles on,
Either by daylight or candle-light, Eyes should be shut.

I’ll let you puzzle out the full import of that poem for yourself — some works defy literary exegesis!


Picturing “Alice in Wonderland”: How Do Child Readers Imagine It?

Tenniel's 's original illustrations from "Alice in Wonderland"

One of John Tenniel’s original illustrations for “Alice in Wonderland” (Cotsen 657)

Alice in Wonderland has been delighting children and grown-ups for over 150 years now. In addition to Lewis Carroll’s text, the illustrations by John Tenniel and other, later illustrators have been a major source of readers’ delight.

Try to imagine Alice without any illustrations of the famous characters and scenes, either by Tenniel or other illustrators. Virtually impossible isn’t it? Carroll himself provided very, very little descriptive detail, if you actually look at his text. So our sense of how Alice and all the inhabitants of Wonderland look is strongly conditioned by illustration, when you stop to think about it. Textual and visual elements of Alice seem inseparably intertwined, with the illustrations shaping meaning, extending it, and sometimes commenting ironically on the text. Tenniel’s Queen of Hearts and Mad Hatter look comically absurd, rather than menacing or hostile, illustration leavening the tone of the words, which can be quite edgy, or even scary, all by themselves.

Professional illustrators have been reimagining Alice in new versions since the nineteenth century, including names like Arthur Rackham, Willy Pogány, Ralph Steadman, or Salvador Dali. (Yes, Dali did have a go at illustrating Alice, in his own distinctive style! More on that “curiosity” in a later posting.). The flood of the new illustrations shows no sign of abating in the twenty-first century either, based on recent editions.

Cheshire Cat (detail) by Lesley Young

“Cipher Alice” Cheshire Cat (detail) by Lesley Young (Cotsen 20836).


Another “Cipher Alice” Cheshire Cat (detail) by Lee MacArthur & David Dansey (Cotsen 20836).

But it’s worth remembering that adults haven’t been the only illustrators of Alice. Generations of children have reimagined Alice in their own pictures, mostly unpublished, but some have found their way into various publications. For instance, the Cipher Alice — a coded version of the story based on the Telegraph Cipher devised by Carroll — credits some twenty-six ten- and eleven-year old children as illustrators (in addition to twenty-nine named “code checkers” for the coder cipher text), all of whom were students at the Edward Peake Middle School in Biggleswade, Bedfordshire, England in 1990, when the book was printed by L & T Press, Ltd.


Alice & the “Drink Me” bottle, by Louise Lawson.

The students’ graphic renderings vary in style and sophistication, but all display the obvious pleasure that children have taken in Alice since 1865. Louise Lawson, for instance, pictures Alice as a smiling little girl with huge bow on her hair, wearing a variation of Alice’s traditional pinafore emblazoned with a super-hero’s “W” (“Wonderland”) and the name “Alice” added on her apron, just for good measure. She chooses to depict Alice theatrically holding up the “Drink Me” bottle at the beginning of her Wonderland adventures.

The book’s Preface, by supervising grown-up, Edward Wakeling, notes that the Cipher Alice was produced for the Alice 125 Project of the Carroll Foundation, Australia, which attempted “to set a world record for the number of different languages version of the same book.” Interest in Alice was indeed world-wide in 1990, and if anything, it has become even more so in 2016 (Alice 150), with the book having been translated into more than 170 languages in countless editions!

But as in so many editions of Alice, I think the illustrations in the Cipher Alice are “the thing” (with apologies to Hamlet), so I’d like to share some others with you. It’s one my very favorite editions, since it shows how child-readers responded to Alice. I also like the way that different children sometimes imagined quite different depictions of the same scene — there’s no one, “right” way to depict Alice, as the many different versions over the last 150 years have shown us! The illustrations are simply terrific fun to see too! (Click on any thumbnail image to see a larger version.)

Down into Wonderland via a tunnel-like maelstrom... Past curious things on the way

Down into Wonderland via a tunnel-like maelstrom… past curious things on the way.


Descending into Wonderland via a bucket in a well… Past dinosaur fossils on the way!


Alice and the White Rabbit “after the fall” — Alice looks distinctly unhappy (and wears a name-tag).


Alice (wearing a “Cool” tee-shirt) as she shrinks, becoming too small to reach the key on the table.


Tiny Alice after shrinking too small to reach the door key on the (now giant-sized) table.


The Mad Hatter (price tag in his hatband) with a hot-dog, a coke, and an earring!


Alice and a mustachioed caterpillar, who also wears a monocle and smokes a gentleman’s pipe.


Alice (with a name-tag), an unusual-looking White Rabbit, and the Court of the Queen of Hearts.


“You’re nothing but a pack of cards!” –Alice. (And how about the Hatter’s outfit shown here?)

How do these illustrations compare with how you visualize Alice, Wonderland, and its inhabitants?

If you’d like to see more illustrations of Alice, Wonderland, and all its inhabitants, come visit the exhibition now in the Cotsen Gallery: “Alice, after Alice: Adaptation, Illustration, and the ‘Alice Industry’!”

Alice after "Alice" at Cotsen Library

Alice after “Alice” Exhibition at the Cotsen Library:
April 15–July 15, 2016
Free & Open to the Public, Daily 9-5