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the door in the wall

29 january 2011

Over the decades, Newbery Medal judges have consistently loved stories of the Middle Ages. Not quite as much as stories of orphaned 12-year-olds who are avid readers, but enough to ensure that the Medal goes to a medieval tale every ten years or so. Of course, it's so much the better when a children's historical novel of the Middle Ages features an orphaned 12-year-old avid reader.

Robin, in Marguerite de Angeli's Medal winner The Door in the Wall (1949), isn't technically an orphan, but he might as well be. His aristocratic father is off at the Scottish wars, and his aristocratic mother is at court waiting upon the queen. Robin himself is supposed to be serving as a squire in a relative's household, but he's contracted what appears from a few centuries' perspective to be polio, and he must learn from some helpful monks how to walk with crutches and fend for himself. The whole chivalry-and-jousting scene being closed off, Robin's life looks walled in. But "thou has only to follow the wall far enough and there will be a door in it," says one of the monks (16). We have a title.

So Robin, who hadn't counted on needing any liberal arts classes, learns to read, and to write while he's at it. "Reading is another door in the wall," the monks tire not of telling him (29). And off Robin sets with a monk and a minstrel to his kinsman Sir Peter's castle, to prove that physical disability is no bar to noble usefulness.

That's the progressive element of The Door in the Wall, and for what it's worth, it's well-handled. Not many children's books before or since have had physically disabled protagonists. Robin is a realistic hero, psychologically. He gets frustrated, at times, but he adapts quickly and is mostly cheerful – perhaps realizing that the use of crutches is not the worst thing that could happen to a well-born medieval youth. After all, he doesn't have scurvy, or scrofula, or the Plague; and he hasn't been taken for ransom by surly Welshmen and cast into a dungeon on bread and water.

The last is a near escape. Sir Peter's castle is a local cynosure. "The Welsh, yonder, have long wanted this castle, for it be strong," somebody explains (81). One is tempted to tell them to buy their own freaking castle, but this is the Middle Ages, folks. None but the mighty deserve the real estate.

Suffice to say that Robin outwits the Welsh and saves the day. Which is good, because up until his final adventure, there's no plot whatsoever in The Door in the Wall. Robin just sort of hangs out with the monks, and then travels across an England rich in exposition but short on incident.

It's all very snappily handled, and I enjoyed reading it. Medieval stories, like lecture notes composed on paper that's yellow to begin with, date well. There's not much of 1949 about the story. Polio was much in the news then, a major American public-health scourge of the postwar years, but there's not much "proleptic" about Robin's illness: that is, de Angeli never tips her hand to allow that she's really talking about a topical 20th-century problem in 14th-century guise.

The larger question is why children's medieval historicals have such enduring appeal to critics and educators. The Middle Ages seem timeless, I suppose (at least to anybody but a medievalist). The far left likes them because anything pre-capitalist must be superior to our fallen modernity. The far right likes them because they are perceived as an age when you shut your mouth and minded your betters. And those of us in between dig the crazy costumes.

There's therefore a comforting, if somewhat tendentious, appeal in the stable certainties of our imaginations of the Middle Ages. They're like a great anvil on which one can lay a single theme and hammer away at it, as with Robin's disability in The Door in the Wall.

But perhaps there's some paradoxical sense in which the least medieval thing about modern times is our need for a Middle Ages. I'm sure lots of historiographers have pointed this out, but medieval people themselves didn't look to a dead-certain past to anchor their existences. They were skeptical about classical culture and in many ways radical innovators in art. By contrast, and to judge by our children's literature, we are deeply confident in the enduring power of the medieval; and we keep writing the same books about it over and over and over again.

De Angeli, Marguerite. The Door in the Wall. 1949. New York: Random House, 1990.