Dan Dare dashes to aid comic historians

29th August 1997 at 01:00
If the reconstructed Vikings were doing overtime in York this Bank Holiday, so were the architects of literary history with a little help from Dan Dare.

As 170 worldwide children's literature specialists met to ponder on the place of books for children in history, visitors queued at the nearby Jorvik Centre complete with its ninth-century sounds and smells.

"They are invited to give themselves up to a past that has been constructed for them," said Valerie Krips of the University of Pittsburgh, one of the speakers at the biennial congress of the International Research Society for Children's Literature, held at York University.

Dan Dare, the Fifties cartoon-strip action hero, was the star example of a fictional character invented to make the right kind of history. Tony Watkins, director of the Centre for International Research in Childhood at Reading University, said the Eagle's "pilot of the future" - who narrowly escaped being called Dorothy Dare or Lex Christian - was created amid Festival of Britain fervour as "a very English hero" to provide post-war youth with "clear moral and ideological ways of seeing past, present and future".

In the strip by Robert A Heinlein, set in far-off 2000, Dan's exploits "set an example of truth and honour to the rest of the universe" as flying saucers hovered above village greens. He was intended, Professor Watkins said, "to make the future seem more hopeful in human terms . . . he was constructed out of the decline and disappearance of the (British) Empire and is a representative of liberal nationalism tempered by faith in the United Nations, a heroic adventurer who displays Christian zeal".

Dan's brave new world coincided with the first appearance of the I-Spy series which, Professor Krips of Pittsburgh said, "suggested the possibility of a Britain teeming with things worth seeing and combined the rural vision with the historic". She noted that I-Spy was now published by English Heritage: "at some point the here and now has become living history. The past as heritage has come to provide a kind of sacrament, taken for granted by initiates. Heritage presents itself not as truth but belief."

And belief in any kind of history, insisted the keynote speaker, Jerry Griswold of San Diego State University, cannot be taken for granted. Proceeding on the lines of "What makes Stonehenge a ruin?" (answer: acquired knowledge), he argued that the child's understanding of history is part of the same breakthrough as learning to listen to a story.

It's all in the phrase "Once upon a time", Professor Griswold says - the recognition of the moment, the transcendental "long view" and the relationship between moment and context. Even the Sleeping Beauty had a sense of history: "If not, why did she ask the prince why he'd taken so long?"

COMMENT, PAGE 14

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