Reviews 2010

Meesterwerken met ezelsoren: Bewerkingen van literaire klassiekers voor kinderen 1850-1950 [Dog-Eared Masterpieces: Adaptations of Literary Classics for Children]

Meesterwerken met ezelsoren: Bewerkingen van literaire klassiekers voor kinderen 1850-1950 [Dog-Eared Masterpieces: Adaptations of Literary Classics for Children]. Sanne Parlevliet. Hilversum: Verloren, 2009. 392 pages. €39 (paperback).

In this book edition of her doctoral dissertation, Sanne Parlevliet examines the dynamics between Dutch adaptations of literary classics for children in 1850-1950 and the historical and social contexts within which they were created. Central to her approach is the flexible nature of adaptations, which take up a position between ancient source texts and contemporary readers. In order to examine the nature and the function of the adaptations, Parlevliet carries out a poetical, institutional and ideological critical textual analysis.

An introductory chapter describes the interpretation given to the subjective notions ‘adaptation’ and ‘classic’ and a motivation for the choice of period. Parlevliet stresses the historical embeddedness of her research and situates it within a tradition of “historically oriented research of adaptations’ as opposed to ‘text oriented research of adaptations” (27-28). The latter would focus upon the literary adaptation strategies without taking into account the social context of the adaptations. In my opinion, the distinction between the two approaches is not as rigid as her opposition implies. It does, however, pin-point her position and the function of the analysis of the literary strategies within this research. Literary analysis is not a goal as such, but a means to highlight the interpretation given to changing notions as child, education, children’s literature and literary masterpieces in a certain place, within a certain period. The fact that children’s versions of literary classics are modelled on these views gives them a contemporary character and, Parlevliet argues, is one reason why literary classics are able to maintain their central position within the changing field of children’s literature. To describe this process, Parlevliet applies the characteristics of ‘written folklore’ (Assmann, Schriftliche Folklore) which serves as a framework for analysing the changing place of the adaptations in the following chapters.

The ‘classic texts’ which Parlevliet discusses are “works of world literature which were originally written for adults, but frequently retold for children” (13).1 This definition is the result of an elaborate analysis of the literary poetics concerning adaptations (Chapter Two) as expressed in reading lists, reflections and fore- and afterwords. Roughly sketched, the analysis of these sources reveals that the views on adapting literary works take the child reader more and more into account, although pedagogical concerns such as literary, ethical and aesthetic education remain of primary importance until the mid twentieth century. This interesting evolution serves as a motivation for examining the period 1850-1950, as does the position of adaptations of classics for children within the book market in this period. The institutional analysis (Chapter Three) indicates that the production of adaptations increases, despite the growing supply of ‘original’ children’s literature written in Dutch in 1850-1950. By analysing the publishing strategies and the popularity of adaptations of classics, Parlevliet points out how her text corpus can be seen as a form of written folklore as to the way it is transmitted and the status of the author. Especially the adaptations by unknown authors had the fleeting character of written folklore, as they were easily replaced by new versions of the same story.

Parlevliet intelligently uses the poetical and institutional analyses as a means to delimit the elaborate corpus of retellings of classics to enable an in-depth textual analysis. The first selection includes the literary works which were most commonly characterised as classics in the general debate on adapting world literature for children. On the basis of the production figures, the four most frequently retold stories are selected for textual analyses: Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver’s Travels, Till Eulenspiegel, and Reynard the Fox.

In Chapter Four, Parlevliet gives an overview of the most frequently used adaptation strategies, thus pursuing the ‘openness’ and variable form of the retellings as written folklore. The analysis of these changes reveals the temporality of retellings; they were altered under influence of changing images of the child constructed by adults. Ideas on the child’s literary competence are visible through, for example, the use of language and adaptation of elements of cultural context. The addition of suspense and humour reveals adult’s ideas on the literary preferences of children and deleted passages in the adaptations of the stories of Robinson, Till, Gulliver and Reynard lay bare the values and norms they considered suitable for child readers.

The influence of the historical context is pursued in more detail in the following three chapters where specific changes in the meaning of the stories are analysed. It is clear that these ideologically critical analyses demand a certain amount of flexibility and intuition from the researcher. In accordance with the relevance for the examined aspect, other texts and adaptation strategies are more elaborately discussed than others. Chapter Five describes the way pedagogical ideas on the formation of character influenced especially the story of Robinson Crusoe, which shifts from a cautionary tale on the consequences of disobedience to a positive example of self-reliance. The story of Reynard is central to the discussion of the representation of family life in Chapter Six, as the cheating fox is transformed into an ideal father and husband in several adaptations. The ideological messages on children’s relations with animals, central in Chapter Seven, remain to a large extent implicit; passages where animals are badly treated were deleted and positive relations between animals and humans added. These analyses show the socialising function of the adaptations and reveal an increasing attention for the preferences of child readers.

In the concluding chapter, Parlevliet summarises the discussed aspects of the position of adaptations of literary classics in 1850-1950 and stresses their flexible nature. The fact that they change rapidly under influence of contemporary ideological and pedagogical considerations, and of ‘original’ children’s literature ascertained the central position of literary classics in children’s literature.

This dissertation offers a detailed and pertinent analysis of the place of adaptations of classical texts in Dutch children’s literature in 1850-1950 in which theoretical aspects and rich source material fluently merge in a highly intelligent structure. A clarification of the general concepts is followed by an analysis of the poetical and institutional context, as a necessary framework and a selection procedure for the textual analysis. Moreover, Meesterwerken met ezelsoren provides valuable insights to the research of adaptations as an important section within the field of children’s literature. The description of adaptations as written folklore is one of the strongest aspects of this dissertation. Parlevliet application of the concept is innovative and, as she herself rightly points out, a matter to be pursued in further research.

Work Cited

Assmann, Aleida, ‘Schriftliche Folklore. Zur Entstehung und Funktion eines Überlieferungstyps’[Written folklore. On the origin and function of a type of tradition]. Schrift und Gedächtnis. Beiträge zur Archäologie der Literarische Kommunikation. Jan Assmann, Aleida Assmann and Christof Hardmeier red. Munchen: Wilhelm Fink, 1983.


1 ‘werken uit de wereldliteratuur die oorspronkelijk voor volwassenen geschreven zijn, maar heel vaak voor kinderen bewerkt zijn.’

Sylvie Geerts
Ghent University, Belgium