Monday, March 19, 2012

The Critical Place of Fantasy in Children's Literature

As I've written before on this blog, story and literature have great power to teach, enrich and transform us (see here & here). Stories provide access to other world's and experiences with the potential to change us and deepen our understanding of what it means to be human. Stories help to bind us together as people, whether families, communities, races or even nations. They also offer us insights into the fullness of the human condition. We rejoice in the images and stories of human loyalty, valour, forgiveness, faithfulness, courage, patience, love, devotion, sacrifice and so on. But stories also offer us windows into experiences that are not our own. Experiences of death, cruelty, hatred, betrayal, genocide, murder and so on.  And while it is difficult for us to come face-to-face with the dark side of humanity, story helps to grasp, understand and appreciate life's joys, but also its sorrows and tragedies. It also does more. For through fantasy, myth and legend we are led to contemplate worlds and dimensions well beyond the bounds of earth and the physical. Through the power of human imagination we contemplate the metaphysical; things not yet understood or experienced directly. Mystery and wonders not perhaps thought possible when limited by reason.

There have been many writers, philosophers, mystics and theologians who have observed the relationship between the imagination and reason. To be human is to be a creature that doesn't just reason unemotionally in the light of the available data encountered in life.  From birth we learn from our mistakes as we encounter our world. The first touch of a hot surface gives us data that will shape future actions. We learn to ride our first bike by gathering knowledge and elementary understanding of physics and we practice till we cease to fall. We begin to 'read', observe and learn from the books, images, sounds, tastes and smells of our world to expand minds and apply learning. But we also look beyond ourselves and wonder is the physical reality all that there is? We learn to love as we are loved and imagine a future with expectation and doubts. We are creatures that imagine and hope, not just beings who reason. We attempt to envisage our futures, and imagine if material existence is all that there is. We imagine and make meaning; we don't just 'reason' the world.  Children's authors seem almost intuitively to know this.

C.S. Lewis was one author who thought a great deal about these things and reached the conclusion that imagination and reason are related human qualities. Lewis. like others, argued that imagination is a key to meaning. We derive meaning as we encounter signs within our world - words, images, sounds, tastes, experiences and of course stories. Imagination he saw as ‘the organ of meaning’ and reason as the organ to determine truth or falsehood. Meaning he argued is part of our journey towards determining truth or falsehood. So imagination is no dispensable frippery, able to be encouraged or discouraged on the basis of whim or fancy.  No, it is vital to humanity and its well being.

Some books that tap this need

Some of the most popular children's books in history have been fantasy novels written in the last 100 years. J.R.R. Tolkien's 'Lord of the Rings' has sold over 150 million copies, J.K. Rowling's 'Harry Potter' books have sold over 500 million copies, 'The Chronicles of Narnia' by C.S. Lewis have sold 130 million copies. Of course the trail blazers before these were the likes of 'Alice in Wonderland' by Lewis Carroll,  'A Christmas Carol' by Charles Dickens', the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen and of course The Brothers Grimm.  And centuries before these, Homer's 'The Odyssey' and other great Greek myths and legends inspired generations with tales of giants, witches, gods and superheroes. Modern collections like 'Greek Myths' by Ann Turnbull and illustrated by Sarah Young bring these to life for new generations.

However, in recent times there has been an explosion of writing for children and young adults that not only embraces fantasy but sub genres of horror, magic, the occult and so on. Some of this writing seems altogether too dark and perhaps an appeal to the darker side of the human condition. This is a question for us to consider. Nevertheless, fantasy in its broadest manifestations stimulates the imagination, creativity and wonder, and we need more, not less of it. As a parent or teacher there are careful responsibilities to be considered here and choices at times to be made.

There are many places to start if you wish to broaden your children's experience of fantasy. My personal preference is to begin with those examples of fantasy tied most closely to the known world before branching out beyond it. Here are a few suggestions.

Fantasy for Younger Children (0-6 years)

For most children under six years, the first experience of fantasy will be via traditional fairy tales and fantasy rooted in the real world. Beatrix Potter's 'Tales of Peter Rabbit' will captivate preschool children from a young age. Roald Dahl's less gruesome tales may be appropriate for some. 'Fantastic Mr Fox', and 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory' are but two good places to start.  Kenneth Grahame's 'The Wind in the Willows' is timeless and authors like Dr Seuss with tales like 'The Lorax' and Bill Peet with illustrated stories like 'Cowardly Clyde' offer a first step from the safety of the known world to others yet imagined. 

E.B. White's 'Charlotte's Web' is a classic that in the most gentle and elegant of ways introduces ideas of death, new life and the metaphysical.

Classics like 'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland', 'The Wizard of Oz' and 'Peter Pan' will also work with children aged as young as 6 years. 

Modern classics like Ted Hughes' wonderful story of 'The Iron Man' will captivate young boys.

All of these and many more examples will stimulate the imagination and lead young readers to imagine 'What if...?'.

Fantasy in the Primary Years (7-11 years)

I have already mentioned J.K. Rowling, Tolkien and C.S. Lewis who offer a perfect way to expand the appetite for fantasy amongst readers in the primary years.  But there are many other options for children aged 7-11 years.

Tolkien's 'The Hobbit' is worthy of special attention in this age category. This is of course the pre-cursor to 'Lord of the Rings' and is a masterpiece. It is a magical adventure that appeals to children and adults.  Bilbo Baggins was a hobbit who wanted to be left alone in quiet comfort. But the wizard Gandalf came along with a band of homeless dwarves. Soon Bilbo was drawn into their quest, facing evil orcs, savage wolves, giant spiders, and worse unknown dangers.

Emily Rodda has multiple series for independent readers including the popular 'Rondo', 'Rowan of Rin', 'Deltora Quest' and 'The Three Door' series.

Then of course, there are the historical novels that venture through time-slip to worlds beyond. Books like Brian Caswell's 'Merryll of the Stones', Gary Crew's story of the Batavia in ‘Strange Objects’, Ruth Park's 'Playing Beatie Bow' and many more.

Fantasy for Older Readers (12-14 years)

'The Life Of A Teenage Body-Snatcher' by Doug MacLeod is about sixteen-year-old Thomas Timewell who discovers an occupation and world not previously known to him. Set in England in the 1820s this is NOT a bland horror story. Rather it is a complex tale filled with suspense, humour, action and even some romance.

'The Bartimaeus' Trilogy by Jonathan Stroud is a little darker and tells the story of Nathaniel, a young magician with only one thing on his mind, revenge. Nathaniel is an apprentice to the great magician Underwood and is gradually being schooled in the traditional art of magic.

'Artemis Fowl' by Eoin Colfer has been popular with boys aged 12-14. Artemis is an unusual anti-hero, who while the 'bad guy', is a likable boy-genius criminal. This is darker then Harry Potter but very funny at the same time.

Philip Pulman's 'His Dark' trilogy has also been popular with older readers. 'Northern Lights' (i.e. 'The Golden Compass' in the USA), 'The Subtle Knife' and 'The Amber Spyglass' tell the story of two children, Lyra Belacqua and Will Parry as they wander through a series of Parallel universes against a backdrop of epic events.

One of Australia's most prolific writers of fantasy for older readers and adults is Garth Nix. Those of his books suitable for older children include 'The Ragwitch', the six books of 'The Seventh Tower' and 'The Keys to the Kingdom' series. 'The Seventh Tower' sequence of six books follows two children from distinctly different societies in a world blocked from the sun by a magical Veil that leaves the world in complete darkness. His 'Keys to the Kingdom' series chronicles the adventures of a 12 years old asthmatic boy Arthur Penhaligon who is chosen to become the Rightful Heir of the 'House' that is the centre of the universe. The core storyline involves Arthur attempting to defeat the Morrow Days, the criminal trustees of the House.

There are many classic older series that must not be forgotten. One of my favourites is Susan Cooper's 'The Dark is Rising' series of five books that depict a struggle between forces of good and evil called 'The Light' and 'The Dark'. The series is based on Arthurian legends, Celtic mythology and Norse mythology. 

At the outer edges of this genre are books that take readers to places darker than I would care to go with most readers but which some older readers will find engaging. Books like Neil Gaiman's acclaimed 'The Graveyard Book' come to mind.

A last word

While there has been criticism at times that fantasy is used by authors to push morality and religion (C.S. Lewis was regularly criticised for his Christian allegorical tales of Narnia), it is important to recognise that all fantasy projects beliefs, values, morality and at times deeply religious or spiritual ideas. There is a strong argument for accepting the claim by many that modern fantasy has usurped ancient myths, legend and religiously inspired fantasy and literature. While some who see little meaning and significance in traditional religious tellings of the human story, we must not delude ourselves that non-religious fantasy exists. It doesn't. For all fantasy, in a sense, is religious in that it generally assumes, discusses or promotes a set of beliefs, actions and emotions reflecting at the very least some speculation of an ultimate reality, power, order or being beyond the material world as we know it. As such, parents and teachers have a responsibility to understand the books that their children read and to engage with them as they encounter this rich material.


Cathy said...

Oh Trevor, your blog never stops being useful to me! Thanks for sharing the usefulness.

Our 7 year old has just paused in the 3rd Harry Potter book, being thoroughly wrapped in the story, but getting a bit scared by some scenes.
Your post has thrown up a few more titles to try while he waits to continue with Potter later on.


ReflectiveTeacher said...

Excellent post!
I am an escapist. Fantasy is my escape!
Loved reading through and seeing so many of my favourites discussed :)