Snow always takes me back to childhood, even when it is inconvenient or the conditions on the roads become downright scary. There is a magical quality to the silence and purity that blankets the world and that feeling seems to override any memory of the impracticality or frustration heavy snow can bring.
Two of the first ‘proper’ books that I remember lsitening to when I was a child feature snow. One was The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis, which must be one of the best loved children’s books around. The other is far less well-known these days.
I remember being curled up against my mother, probably way too young for the horrors of the story by today’s standards. I listened entranced as Kitty took the journey from Good-night to Good-morning on Christmas Eve. The book was ‘Down the Snow Stairs’ by Alice Corkran.
The book left an indelible imprint on my mind. Many years have passed since my mother had first read the words of an earlier century to me. I hadn’t seen the faded blue-green cover with its evocative, gilded picture since my childhood, yet so well did I remember it, that a chance find a couple of years ago had me pouncing on the copy, exactly the same edition as the one I remembered.
It was published in 1887 and is the kind of Victorian moral tale that can give a child nightmares. Goblins and strange creatures personify all the ‘crimes’ of childhood as Kitty, having thoughtlessly caused her little brother’s illness, journeys through a landscape where she sees all her faults brought to life in the Land of Naughty Children. She sees the great spiders weave the Webs of Lies that entrap children, watches those who are lost in the Maze of Disobedience, and weeps for the frozen children who chant a litany of ‘Me-me-me,’ grasping with icy fingers at anything they can, taking it only so that no-one else may do so, yet finding no pleasure in aught they touch.
It is near the end of her journey that she meets Love, she who can give the Kiss of Forgiveness and set them free. Love shows Kitty the beautiful guardian child and the playful sprite of temptation that accompany all children and shows her the star that will guide her home. Kitty, however, plays with the sprite and listens to its promptings, meeting many more strange creatures… like I and Myself, a child and the image of himself that he has created and which occupies all his attention.
At last she listens once too often to the sprite, obeying the whispers of temptation and her guardian child fades and withdraws. It is only when Kitty realises her error and gives the child her absolute trust that the guardian can return, called back by Love.
Though the tale might well be dated and seems to heap the guilt of sin upon the head of Kitty and the other children who disobey the strict Victorian code, there is loving forgiveness too and the chance to try again. Persistence and perseverance, courage and wonder are the lingering taste of the story for me. The illustrations by Gordon Browne stayed with me, the pictures as familiar now as they were so many years ago. Yet beyond the dated pictures are other images, even stronger, imprinted on the pages of the imagination that carried a deeper message. The book addresses aspects of childhood behaviour, and misbehaviour, yet the analogy to the way we can lose sight of our innermost self in the distractions of the world, even as adults, is a strong one.
Fairytales and children’s stories are sanitised today, their horror is removed or softened in a Disney-esque manner to safeguard small minds from traumatic images.
Quite apart from the symbolic meanings of many of these stories, such tales once served a purpose, allowing children to face the very real nightmares of life within the safe environment of a mother’s arms and within the pages of a book.
Oddly enough, although I remembered the story and the images I formed in my mind of Kitty’s journey, it was not the gothic horror of Victoriana that made its mark. What remained with me above all was the idea of that beautiful guardian child… the inner child of the universe… a voice of clarity born of Love that always knows the way Home.