Eleanor's Childhood Favorites
When it came to books, Eleanor never shied away from a chance to bring up one of her favorites, especially those that informed her childhood love of reading. In a 1987 piece written for The Children's Book Council's "Books Remembered" column, she mentioned Arthurian legend, fairy tales, James Jean's astronomy books, the animal stories of Rudyard Kipling and the Limberlost novels of Gene Stratton-Porter as her most beloved childhood books.
I present in this section a listing of those books and some additional others that captured young Eleanor's imagination.
Arthurian Legend (1138 - present)
Stories of the King (1910) by James Baldwin
The Sword in the Stone (1938) by T.H. White
It's unknown the exact edition from which Eleanor read her stories of King Arthur and his knights, though she described it as having a gray cover and black and white illustrations. It seems likely to have been Baldwin's volume, but Eleanor never said that directly. Her affection for Wales (most obviously in Time and Mr.Bass) comes from here, I'd guess, and Merlyn's "back sight and insight" in T.H. White's Arthur stories (which Eleanor seems to have admired but not regarded as definitive) are very similar to Mr. Bass's "second sight" as his combination of assured authority and personal oddity. He also claims to be one of the "old ones," which is quite similar to Mr. Bass's being an "ancient one."
Eleanor on the book: "'Here lies Arthur, once King and King to be.' His death meant the passing of goodness and courage and idealism, the breaking up of the ring, the scattering of the great knights: all of that gone, perhaps forever. I remember now the almost unutterable poignancy I felt - sadness mixed with longing - yet a sense of exaltation, of having touched something fine and powerful and strength-giving. For me, as a child, Arthur's story was equal to the adult experience of Greek or Shakespearean tragedy." - "The Unforgettable Glimpse" - The Green and Burning Tree p.3
Fairy Tales (1835-1872) by Hans Christian Andersen
Eleanor's deep admiration for the work of Hans Christian Andersen is evident not only in her many mentions of his stories, but also in her Andersenian unpublished children's novel Griselda's Great Ambition. As an aside, she specified more than once that her favorite Andersen illustrator was Arthur Rackham.
Eleanor on the stories: "I cannot say for certain that empathy was born in me when I first read "The Little Match Girl," but I do know that it made one of the deep impressions of my childhood." and "And is it possible that my love of the sea, my desire to be near it, to be able to look out over it, was born at the moment of my earliest reading of the first lines of "The Little Mermaid" and deepened by the poignancy and visual beauty of the tale that followed?" - "The Unforgettable Glimpse" - The Green and Burning Tree, p37,38
A Girl of the Limberlost (1909) by Gene Stratton-Porter
A Girl of the Limberlost was one of a series of novels about Elnora Comstock and the titular swamp in Indiana. It's a Dickensian sort of story with lots of detail and extended dialogue. One of the main plot points is that Elnora's mother refuses to sell her land for oil extraction and logging. Eleanor's work seems at least in part inspired by the novel, especially in its portrayal of a strong relationship between an older person (in this case the Bird Woman) and a younger one (Elnora). The Bird Woman's moral philosophy also seems to have had a big impact on Eleanor's own: "Among the only ones who live beyond the grave in this world, the people who write books that help, make exquisite music, carve statues, paint pictures, and work for others." And one of her most valued writing tenets - that all good novels arise from their settings - seems to have been at least partially inspired by the novel. In her "Books Remembered" piece, Eleanor recalls having a "wholehearted response when I was ten and eleven to Gene Stratton-Porter's intensely felt sense of place."
Eleanor on the novel: "[Stratton-Porter's] descriptions [of Limberlost] must have brought place vividly before this child's eyes, because the lasting result has been to cause in me a fierce and bitter resentment when I read of the spoilation of our wilderness and national parks; of the clear-cutting of the nation's ancient forests or any irreplaceable habitat like the South American rain forests; of the ruin of Alaska and the Arctic, which are being littered with the ugly remains of our search for oil." - "The Seed and the Vision" - The Seed and the Vision, p. 21
The Three Mulla-mulgars (1910) by Walter de la Mere
Eleanor held great admiration for Walter de le Mere's epic story of three brothers seeking their father's kingdom.
Eleanor on the novel: "Here is another created world, complete with landscape, inhabitants, language and beliefs." - "A Country of the Mind" - The Green and Burning Tree, p198
Peacock Pie (1913) by Walter de la Mere
In Beyond Silence, Peacock Pie arises because Andrew's mother had read him poems from that book when he was younger; bookshop owner Dunstan recites "the song of shadows" in its entirety and says of de la Mere: "He gives you what you can't explain. He brings the whole scene before you in just those few words."
Eleanor on the poems: "...in Peacock Pie I find thirteen poems at least...that express to perfection de la Mare's sound of melancholy, loneliness and desertion." - The Fleas in the Cat's Fur - The Seed and the Vision p114
Wind in the Willows (1908) by Kenneth Grahame
Eleanor on the novel: "Julia began unpacking all the delicious things Hulda had put in the basket. She felt like Mole when he and Ratty went on their picnic by the river and Mole could hardly believe people really did this wort of blissful thing, because he himself had led such a dull sort of life by comparison. Daddy was reading The Wind in the Willows to her and Greg every evening for a half an hour before Julia went to bed, a book that told all about Mole and Toad and Ratty." - Julia's Magic, p. 21
Just So Stories (1902) and The Jungle Books (1894) by Rudyard Kipling
Eleanor on the novels: "After all these years, when I repeat the names in The Jungle Books, something eerie still happens - I get the feathery thrill around the back of my neck and down my arms that in Scotland they call a "gru." "Bagheera," I whisper, "Shere Kahn, Mowgli, Darzee, the Bander-Log, Baloo...and the whole world of Kipling's jungle rises in my mind. The years fall away, and there's no distance at all between the time I was ten and now. How the man could write!" - "The Seed and the Vision" - The Seed and the Vision p20
Beatrix Potter's animal stories (1902 - 1930)
Eleanor on the author: "Stern, yet tender, this double but not divided being was capable of caress in her minute and searching observations of the natural world, but, as well, of completely unsentimentalized portrayals of foxes and rats scheming for dinners of ducks and kittens. For Beatrix Potter...had an unerring sense of audience.. And for them she exerted every discipline of artistry at her command..." - "The Sense of Audience", The Green and Burning Tree