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18 may 2014
An excerpt from a School Library Journal review is prominent on the back of my paperback copy of Natalie Babbitt's 1971 Newbery Honor book Kneeknock Rise:
Here's a wonderfully fluent fable about man's need to have something to believe in. The fable is simple and its meaning precise enough: Science cannot or will not explain all.
But it occurs to me that the simpler the fable, the less precise its meaning. The simplest fables of all become teaching stories. They can be read two different ways – like Kneeknock Rise itself, the craggy hill in Babbitt's story. They teach not by offering us a precise message, but by getting us to think about the contradictions between exclusive but compelling alternatives.
Babbitt skillfully evokes a place out of time and mind by sketching it lightly and securely (much like the technique of her ink drawings that illustrate the book). It's a tale of two villages, one mundane, one enchanted. Egan, our focal character, goes from the mundane village to the enchanted one, Instep, which sits at the foot of Kneeknock Rise. There's a howling monster at the top of the Rise, and nobody's ever been brave enough to climb up and confront it. They've made an uneasy peace with it, though, protecting their dwellings with talismans against its depredations. Over time, the peace has become quite cordial. There's an annual fair to celebrate the fiend, and the concomitant tourist industry has become the backbone of the local economy.
Well, you could imagine what happens next, even if the cover illustration didn't show a boy and a dog climbing a hill. Egan takes his vanished poet uncle's dog Annabelle and heads up the Rise, hoping to become the boy that killed the beast. He finds his uncle at the top. The poet has been hanging out marveling at the contradictions posed by the truth: that there is no monster at the top of Kneeknock Rise, just a natural wind instrument fed by a geyser. Uncle and dog are reunited, and Egan goes back to tell Instep that no terror really exists.
They don't believe him, down in Instep. He must have missed the monster; it must have avoided him. The myth is not debunked in the slightest – if anything, it's reinforced by the disappearance of the dog. The festivals will go on, and the mild, oddly comforting night terrors will persist.
"Science cannot or will not explain all?" Actually science does explain all; the monster is unequivocally prosaic. The reviewer suggests, instead, that the human need to believe in something is too strong to be confuted with prose. Spirituality will out. But Babbitt's fable resists such easy enlistment in a spiritual worldview. The Megrimum – the howling monster of Kneeknock Rise – is big business, at least on the scale of Instep. Much of the dead center of the novella is taken up with the buying and selling of gimcracks at the fair, drawn in by the magnetism of the monster. Even Egan, our skeptic,
clutched in his pocket a handful of coins saved for months toward this very moment and he beamed without knowing he was beaming. He was going to buy, but he refused to be hurried. (57-59)Egan eventually buys some nonsense, knowing he's being ripped off and not caring. He knows, along with everyone else at the fair, that the games of chance are rigged:
There were shiny prizes which nobody ever won, which, in fact, nobody ever expected to win. The prizes were too grand, and the game operators too haughty, and the games, after all, too difficult. (61)Everybody sort of knows that the story of the monster is fake, too, and they go along with it out of self-interest. Or perhaps that's too blunt a way of putting it. Near the end of Kneeknock Rise, a local chandler tells Egan
In spite of what they say, I think it's more than likely lots of people have climbed up to look. And I'd be willing to bet that none of them saw a thing at the top. But he's up there just the same. What would you expect? That he'd come right down and shake hands? Not him. He's got his own ways. (117)And moves in them mysteriously, his wonders to perform, I imagine. Is the chandler deluded, protective, devout, wise, cynical? At the top of the Rise, Egan's poetical Uncle Orr thinks about the parable of the monster in terms of other parables: the fool who is happier than the wise king, the cat who realizes that the string she plays with is no mouse but bats it around anyway. Orr is not eager to disabuse the folks of Instep – in part because he's an adult, more accepting of the accommodating power of bullshit than his postivist nephew. Kneeknock Rise is as much a parable of growing up as it is one about spirituality. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend. That's a disillusioning maxim, but growing up has always been associated with disillusionment: even when it's the disillusionment of continuing to accede to illusion.
Babbitt, Natalie. Kneeknock Rise. 1970. New York: Farrar (Square Fish) [Holtzbrinck], 2007.