“The Thing sitting in the corner seemed to be interested. It got up and moved towards Barney into the light. Barney was glad to see it was Somebody after all. Funny way to dress though, he thought; rabbit-skins round the middle and no shoes or socks.” (p.7. Stig of the Dump, Clive King, 1963)
I very rarely remember books that I read in school; I more readily recall books that my parents bought for me or read to me. Stig of the Dump is the exception. A popular book in schools the world-over, this novel, published in 1963, tells the story of an enduring friendship that cuts across time and cultural divide.
Coming to this book again as an adult provides a slightly different experience, but Barney’s imaginative freedom (is Stig real, or made-up?) means that we can easily part with the real-world and be carried back into a childhood playground, where cavemen can of course live in a dump-site and scare away bullies and robbers.
It is this imaginative power of the book’s central character that has allowed the major question of the novel to go unanswered for many years – is Stig real or not? We will never know, but he is real to Barney and that is all that matters for the book’s moral core – friendship, tolerance, understanding and kindness – to stand the test of time and be a source of great entertainment for both children and adults.
In fact it is Barney’s imagination that makes his everyday reality more meaningful, as he uses mundane objects to try and make Stig’s environment more comfortable for him. His inventive use of jam jars, tin cans, clay and logs makes Stig’s ‘cave’ more of a home, and it is through this imaginative play that Stig and Barney find a way to communicate, allowing Barney to reach depths of understanding and empathy for another that he might not have had before.
Barney’s friendship with Stig makes him stronger; in standing up to bullies and robbers and various other elements that threaten Stig’s home, Barney finds a way to ‘fix’ an adult world that is still fundamentally broken. Although written long after the Second World War, King perhaps makes a point about the state of the adult world by positioning Barney between only two locations for his story – Granny’s house and the rubbish dump. Granny’s house is characterised by what adults will allow Barney to be, and the dump allows childhood freedom, where he can play and have fun, but also learn and grow.
Children had to grow-up fast following the war, in order to replenish a depleted labour market; the golden age of childhood ended, blurring the lines between childhood and adulthood, in a way that perhaps King is disappointed by. We still need children to be children in order to puncture a corrupted and desperate adult-world, bringing much needed light into a darkened environment.
The dump may in fact represent this fatigue with the world, with the rubbish tip being created by adults that clearly have a disregard for the environment. But the dump is ‘saved’ by Barney and Stig’s friendship, turning the rubbish tip into a home, a place that needs protecting, and a space where childish adventure can flourish.
In this way there is not one hero of this tale, but two. Barney makes Stig real to the reader and Stig makes Barney’s playfulness appear enlightened, and so together they turn a crumbling world (the dump) into something worth saving. King demonstrates that relationships like this have endless rewards; after improving Stig’s world, Barney is invited into Stig’s at the conclusion of the novel.
The ritualistic movement of stones through the valley is an act so at odds with the way that Stig has been living in the rubbish dump, that we are not sure whether Barney has travelled into the past or is helping build a new future. Barney helps moves the stones towards the sunset as though welcoming a new and better world, one that tips its hat to the merits of the natural world and walks away from man-made destruction.
Perhaps this is the real value to the friendship between these two characters – to bring the past into the future in a new respect for a world suffering from lack of care and respect. These themes resonated with a post-world war environment, but is also a major topic for readers in the 21st century, as global societies grapple with how to save a planet ravaged by the mistakes of human beings.
Childhood imagination and innocence save the day for King, and can surely not be discounted today, when anxiety around protecting children, protecting the environment, and protecting diverse communities are core concerns.
Long may Stig and Barney continue to imagine and play in the rubbish dump!
Recommended to readers aged 7 upwards