Exploring Law, Myth, And Children’s Literature


In Nomos and Narrative, Robert Cover writes, “For every Constitution, there is an epic.” According to Professor Desmond Manderson, these epics are not just inscribed in the founding myths of our nations, but in every aspect of our culture – even children’s literature. On March 6th Professor Manderson gave a lecture entitled “From Hunger to Law: Myths of the Source, Interpretation, and Constitution of Law in Children’s Literature.”

Professor Manderson was invited to Harvard Law School as part of the 2006 Workshop series entitled Culture of Law – Culture in Law. This event series was sponsored by The Arts & Literature Law Society, The Canadian Law Students Society, and in part by a grant from the Association of Canadian Studies in The United States. Desmond Manderson is a Professor of Law at McGill University and holds the Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in Law and Discourse. His work is rigorously interdisciplinary, developing connections between law, aesthetics and philosophy. One of his ongoing projects is the Shakespeare Moot on law and interpretation, developed in conjunction with the Department of English at McGill. He has a forthcoming book entitled Proximity: Levinas, Torts and the Soul of Law.

The lecture he gave Monday was also the product of interdisciplinary research into sociology, child psychology, and literature. Manderson’s goal in the lecture was to convince the audience that law is to be found equally in statute books and children’s literature – in this case Maurice Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are. Beginning by drawing the connection between myth making and law making in a particular legal culture, Manderson argued that myths “constellate our grasp of reality” as a way of helping us make sense of our world and our own relationship to law within it. For Manderson, law exists in relationships in literature in works like Moby Dick, Billy Budd, and Antigone as much as in traditional legal frameworks. Thus “law” is the focus of legal institutions, but that is not where it lives. To quote Marc Gallanter, “to look for law in a court room is like looking for health in a hospital.”

Sendak’s cult favorite children’s book is the story of a young boy who behaves like a wolf and is banished to a desert island where only wild things live. For Manderson, this simple picture book actually contains a complex narrative of the way we come to understand injustice, punishment and the movement towards civilization. The savage is represented as a child who neither understands the rules nor the consequences of breaking them. All legal systems require complicated rationales to legitimize rule structures. Likewise, children hinge together consequences to try and explain objective rules structures in their lives. In Sendak, the child’s purpose is to be reunited with his mother: law’s purpose is stability, clarity and justice.

Professor Manderson also spoke about interdisciplinary research more generally at an informal brown bag lunch on Tuesday. Speaking first about some of his own wide-ranging projects, from social geography, musicology, and Shakespearean performance, he encouraged students to be interdisciplinary in their ideas as well as in their work. Advocating for theoretical eclecticism, he motivated students to break down disciplinary frameworks and explore avenues beyond comparative studies. For Manderson, areas of legal scholarship like law and literature can be more than merely hobbies. If given a real critical edge, law and society research can break the “hermeneutic seal,” directly addressing the alienation people feel from the law that governs them. These areas of scholarship have a unique pedagogical contribution to make. As justice is about moving past words, art, music and drama are able to give students and the public a real visceral experience of law in action.

The Arts, Literature and Law Society Events continue next week on Monday March 13th. Elena Paul, executive director of Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts, will lead a session on careers in arts and entertainment law.

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