Fostering, apprenticeship and magical education

The truism of writing for children is “first, get rid of the parents”. The traditional way of doing so, of course, is to semi-orphan children and provide them with evil stepmothers to throw them out into the world, such as in fairy tales. E. Nesbit and other early 20th century authors had an absent or deceased father or mother, with the other parent overwhelmed by the need to work and provide for the family. The children are free to have adventures, often while trying to contribute to family finances. By the 1950s, children still had to get away from parents to have adventures, but middle class children could go off on bicycles in long summer holidays, and also go to boarding schools with an incredibly lax attitude to pupil safety and child protection, where they could foil robberies, get trapped on mountains and escape from kidnappers with abandon.

So, JK Rowling used two traditional tropes at the beginning of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone: she killed off Harry’s parents, and sent him to school. Again, schools for wizards and witches have a long and respectable tradition in children’s literature; the Mage school on Roake and Miss Cackle’s academy for witches, for example. 

An apprenticeship for witches and wizards has perhaps an even longer tradition, of course. And in contrasting two different descriptions of apprenticeship: that of Tiffany Aching in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld and Nathaniel’s in Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus trilogy.

In Stroud’s alternate version of London, magicians are the ruling class, and non-magically educated people (commoners) have no opportunities for social advancement and few rights. The status quo is preserved by separating children identified as magicians very young and having them fostered by magicians, removing them from contact with commoners and forbidding them from using their birth names.

Nathaniel’s experience is particularly unhappy, as his master Arthur Underwood is a cold man, not much respected by the other magicians in the civil service, so Nathaniel is not socialised into magician society. He craves only power in the first book, and has no empathy with the lives of commoners. His apprenticeship has failed him in personal, professional and, to begin with, magical growth.

Tiffany Aching, by contrast, is 9 years old when her magical education begins. She comes from a loving but distracted family, so has a strong sense of herself as part of the community of farmers of the Chalk. The Summer Lady in Wintersmith calls her “Farm Girl” to emphasise how unsuited she is to be an avatar of Summer, but it does express Tiffany’s roots well. 

Tiffany’s apprenticeship, with Miss Level, Miss Treason and with Granny Weatherwax, inducts her into the local community where witches have a role as health visitor, midwife, social worker and magistrate, but also into the community of witches. She still has strong roots in the Chalk, where she works for her neighbours and the sheep, and is still a dairy maid and cheese monger. Her apprenticeship fully prepared her for her future career, but also enables her to make mistakes, empowers her to put them right and to grow up. That is what education should be.

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