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Fixing the Classics?

BY Simcha Fisher

| Posted 2/15/13 at 10:47 AM

 

Every so often, someone decides that it's time to "fix" Huckleberry Finn.  You can't have that n-word in there, especially if you're going to be reading it at school -- especially if you're going to be reading it aloud.

Or can you?  Since I'm not black and I don't have to put up with racial tension of any kind, maybe I'm making the problem out to be simpler than it really is.  But anyone who's actually read the book will easily understand that (a) Mark Twain used that word because the people he was writing about used that word; and (b) Jim is more noble and intelligent than most of the white characters in the story.

It would be a horrible shame to simply miss out on reading this book; but I think that skipping it altogether is preferable to going in and changing Twain's words, as some have suggested doing. You just can't do that.  He wrote what he wrote, and it does no one any favors to pretend that the cultural sensibilities of 2013 America demonstrate the apex of human civilization.

That being said, there are ways to retell the classics without doing any violence to the original work.  A few years ago, I read Beowulf:  A New Telling by Rober Nye out loud to my kids, and boy oh boy, did they love it.  It's not completely faithful to the original Beowulf, and it's not supposed to be.  The kids would not have sat through the original Beowulf (I mean the original in translation; the true original starts out " Hwæt! We Gardena  in geardagum" and it just goes on like that).  Now they have a general idea of the story, and will be much more likely to read the original when they get older.  

That being said, I have a proposal to make:  will someone, for the love of sanity, rewrite The Princess and the Goblin?  Call it a retelling, and make it clear that this is an alternate version.  I've tried and tried to read this thing to my kids, and they've tried and tried to listen.  It's a great story, and the next book, The Princess and Curdie, is even better. George MacDonald was a brilliant thinker, and his mind was an bottomless well of strange and gorgeous images and ideas.  C. S. Lewis famously referred to him as his "master."  I want my children to know about the fire of roses; I want them to hear the passages where the monstrous Lena's paw feels, to Curdie, like the soft hand of a child.  I want them to see that little Irene is a princess because she is brave, truthful, and courteous.

But then there are passages like this:

There was not, however, any immediate danger, for the execution of the goblins' plan was contingent upon the failure of that unknown design which was to take precedence of it; and he was most anxious to keep the door of communications open, that he might if possible discover what that former plan was.  At the same time they could not then resume their intermitted labors for the inundation without his finding it out; when by putting all hands to the work, the one existing outlet might in a single night be rendered impenetrable to any weight of water; for by filling the gang entirely up, their embankment would be buttressed by the sides of the mountain itself.

Yeesh.  You try reading that out loud to your kids, and see how long they stay focused.  It's not that they can't deal with fancy or old-fashioned language.  They loved Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.  It's just that I'm not even sure MacDonald is writing in English sometimes.  It's hard to preserve the dramatic tension when I keep having to stop and ask, "Does everyone understand what's going on?" and the answer is always, " . . . No . . . "

So, what do you think?  Do I have to turn in my Lit. Snob card?  And which classics have you found are the best for reading aloud to kids?