Genres In Children’s Literature: Lecture 10: Defining Fantasy In Children’s Literature

As Fanny Howe reminds us, the fairy tale is a form in which, like Midas’ golden touch, a simple wish conjures up a reality that was all along potential. Not better, just possible.

Emily Carr, Fairy Tale Review

David Beagley, LaTrobe University, available on iTunes U

  • Fantasy comprises the largest segment of children’s literature, and is close to being the biggest area in adult literature too, eclipsed only by crime.
  • Fantasy didn’t start with Harry Potter, though the popularity of that series has given it a huge kick along. (Children’s literature experts can’t pinpoint using the theories of literature why Harry Potter became such a huge success. Other, earlier fantasy series are arguably better, or just as well done.) Since Harry Potter, tentpole examples of fantasy include A Series Of Unfortunate Events, Artemis Fowl, Dark Materials, Eragon, all of these big, best-selling series just since the late 1990s.
  • Twilight later challenged Harry Potter in the amount of marketing around it, from movies to pale make-up for teenage boys.
  • With the release of movies such as Red Riding Hood, fairytales are now being returned to the adult realm.
  • Overall, remember that fantasy is far from new. Works such as Peter Pan have been around forever. Fantasy has always been here and is here to stay.

Reading Material

  • Refer to Literature And The Child for a good basic book on children’s literature, by Lee Galda and Bernice E. Cullinan
  • For an Australian focus refer to Maurice Saxby: Books In The Life Of A Child (1997) and Give Them Wings have some very good explanations of fairytales and fantasy as a genre written by different people and gathered by Saxby.
  • Fantasy is very clear on morality. Fantasy goes for extremes rather than shades of grey. Villains are very villainous, heroes are morally correct and act for the greater good.
  • Refer also to the work of Natalie Babbitt  (1987) Fantasy and the Classic Hero, in Innocence and experience: essays and conversations on children’s literature, ed. Barbara Harrison & Gregory Maguire. Boston: Lothrop, Lea and Shepard

Primary and Secondary Worlds (The Perilous Realm)

  • If we call where we are now the ‘primary world’, a parallel/secondary world may be influenced by the primary world but it is different in some way. The earliest use of the word fairy comes from 1393 from a writer called Andrew Gaury (sp?). Tolkien pointed this out as a mistranslation — it was supposed to be ‘of fairy’ not ‘a fairy’ and reflects a prejudice about fantasy and the fairy world. Fairy is a place. Fairy is the world of Rip Van Winkle, about a man who out in the woods meets some people, has a party and wakes up to what he thinks is the next day but is actually 20 years later. The secondary world is not inferior to the primary world. Another term used is the ‘perilous realm’. This is a world of danger and darkness, of the forest, through which Red Riding Hood walks. In the Twilight Series it’s the world Bella discovers, of vampires and werewolves.
  • Hollow Lands is about how children are taken off to a place to grow up differently. Fantasy is a dangerous, threatening place that ‘takes’. It is not just an escape into something, though it can be. It can be the world of little toys in Winnie The Pooh (as in Toy Story). These stories are humorous but they are also sad — the loss of childhood.
  • How do secondary worlds operate? (PM = primary world. SW = secondary world.)

OPTION ONE

One option: PM and SW are totally separate. (Rowan of Rin.)

OPTION TWO

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. It is not here. Completely separate from this world. (The Hobbit, Eragon, The Wizard of Earthsea, Deltora). Even in the derivative worlds such as the steampunk ones, ‘This is what the world would be like if we did not have things like electricity, computers, nuclear power, in which computers are made out of wood with brass keys.) What happens when the two worlds get closer together? It’s possible to move from one world to another through a portal. (Narnia, Magic Faraway Tree, Magic Wishing Chair, Alice In Wonderland, Oz, Monsters Inc)

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OPTION THREE

Characters can cause things to happen in each other’s world. Although they occupy the same place they are kept separate. (Harry Potter, Peter Pan and Wendy.) There is overlap but they are still largely separate.

OPTION FOUR

Worlds are the same world: We are completely oblivious to whatever’s happening under our very noses. (Toy Story is a classic one, Indian In The Cupboard, The Borrowers, Mrs Frisby And The Rats Of Nimh — Nimh is a real mental health organisation)

THE FANTASY GENRES AND IMAGINATION

The key element in all those four kinds of secondary worlds is imagination, creating an image, an image of things which are not actually present. So the author and the reader are both creators of these worlds. Imagination is the key to all human understanding. At some stage everything we learn must be a leap of faith into the unknown. As Lao Tsu put it: The journey of 1000 miles begins with a single step. Even as scientists, as rational observers, we must for a moment think what could, what might, what if. And that’s when we start taking those steps. We must dream the future, then step into that world. So the experimental scientist is no different from the author writing a story and just wondering, or the person daydreaming about what could be. When we dream of these future truths, while they don’t exist now except as fantasies, we aim to create them as realities. We explore the boundary between the knowledge we have and the possibilities we have.

If we accept only that which we see, we go nowhere. We need someone taking us into the unknown: that which can be measured and organised is limited to what the human can see now. Imagination, on the other hand, takes us past the probable (though we can predict things based on what we’ve already seen) and into the unknown.

Fantasy stories use our imagination to understand what is happening here in reality. The term ‘speculative fiction‘ is used to describe stories that consider what is not… yet. This enables exploration of great, broad concepts.

Cosmology vs Cosmography

Cosmology is the whole universe and cosmography is how it’s created/written down.

Tolkien is a master of cosmography. He had a real talent for languages and started inventing them as a teenager. During the first world war he created languages as a means to keep himself sane during big struggle. Tolkien’s languages are studied by academics today. Then he started wondering who would speak these languages, so he created fictional characters and the rules of their society. Lord of the Rings came from this thought experiment.

WHAT IF?

100 years ago relativity in physics would have been seen as a fantasy story as in fantastic as in ‘non-existent’. Tolkien argued that fantasy worlds exist because we can’t prove otherwise.

Fantasy stories are usually asking ‘what if’? What if animals could talk? What if children could fly? What if toys could come alive? What if you could travel across the galaxy and turn left? What if you could become invisible? What could happen? What if magic was a human skill?

Types of fantasy stories stem from the what if question: Wish fulfilment (Harry Potter – what if I could escape from this horrible world from being at the bottom of the heap to the top?), Time travel stories (Madeline L’engle), Anthropomorphic Stories (animals operate as humans — Peter Rabbit), Utopia (the perfect world — Gulliver’s Travels is one of the earliest one), Dystopia (the horrible world — Z for Zachariah, The Lake At The End Of The World — particularly stories that happen after a nuclear holocaust).

REALIST STORIES CAN BE A TYPE OF FANTASY

Harriet as observer of the adult world is often profound in her critique; however, she is often, but not always, self-conscious about the limits to her knowledge. Perry Nodelman cites Harriet the Spy as an example of how “some non-fantasies are also about the implications of fantasy” (Nodelman 176). Harriet’s spying may be viewed essentially as a make-believe game that becomes too entangled with real life. Ultimately when her journal is discovered, Harriet must reevaluate the limits of her imaginative game of spying. She begins to understand the effects she may have on real people and real lives, including her own.

Naomi Hamer

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