Modern children’s books deal with all kinds of grotty things that were never found in the “J” section of the library when I was young; peeing, for instance. Harry Potter aficionados will remember that toilets are critical to the story from the get-go — the scene of troll fights and conversations with Moaning Myrtle; even in the apocalyptic endgame of Deathly Hallows, you have to flush yourself into the Ministry of Magic.
In the 1950’s and 60’s, when I was clambering into consciousness, children’s books — and most of those published for adult audiences — depicted a world without excretion. I was devouring narrative for a long time before Rabelais or Cervantes or Boccaccio or Chaucer crossed my path, and it seemed almost self-evident that once one became an adult, at least if one had lived well and done all that was right and good, one would never need a toilet again. No one in stories did — no matter what privations they suffered, what journeys they undertook far from the works of man.
People must have had no idea how this colossal omission warped children’s worldview. When you are small, and have just figured out how to make it from one bathroom break to another without chagrin, the notion of a Platonic Ideal Existence, in which there is no peeing nor desperation to pee, vexes the spirit and entices the imagination. Observation confirms that the adults one knows well — the ones who escort you into the restroom — still have to go, but perhaps they have not yet achieved exalted status? (Like Alyosha Karamazov, at least for a time, one waited for evidence that a human creature could indeed transcend corruption.)
I cut my epic teeth on Tolkien, around the age of eleven. Nobody in The Lord of the Rings ever goes to the bathroom. Seriously. Maybe Elves are slightly supernatural and don’t have to, but what about the peregrinations of Men — and the earthy, beer-loving Hobbits –across the face of Middle-Earth? No matter how many miles of wilderness the Fellowship covers, no matter how many camps they make and strike, no one ever… goes. Or even alludes, in the most roundabout manner, to anything involving, say, entrenching tools.
Frodo puts on the Ring, virtually by accident, and disappears, causing much consternation about his absence in an early chapter. The “Prancing Pony” inn has wonderfully comfortable rooms, accommodating both Men and Hobbits, but the facilities are nowhere mentioned; when Frodo re-appears in the inn’s common-room, where beer is being tapped by the gallon, does he make the most natural excuse for his absence? No, he does not.
The whole business confused me. It may be the reason that, decades later, when I tossed off my spoofy mystery novels, the first victim was shot point-blank in the men’s room of the County Building, and the second was chucked off of an overpass onto a passing landscaper’s truck full of manure sacks.
“Drive Nature out at the door, it will come in again by the window,” remarked Carl Jung. Or words to that effect.