In the 1980s it was far more common for kids to be sent out of the house because their mothers were sick of them (and it was almost always the mothers doing the caregiving). “Get out of the house, you kids! I don’t want to see you again til dinnertime!” The mother in this story is a little kinder than that, but I’m reminded of the vibe.
So the kids go to a wasteland which just so happens to have a fantasy portal in the shape of a tunnel. The tunnel appears to be manmade. Tunnels are an inherently scary feature of the urbanised landscape. Stephen King made the most of this in the 1980s with IT (you know, with the clown and the red balloon.) Australia’s own Paul Jennings also wrote a tunnel/sewer story. See “There’s No Such Thing” in his Unbelievable collection.
The tunnel/sewer is, symbolically, the man-made equivalent of the forest cave. It makes sense that humans have developed a fear of caves. Wild creatures tend to sleep in there, and if not wild creatures, perhaps other humans. Humans have always been the most dangerous ‘creatures’ to humans. We’re called super predators for a reason.
There’s a strong Narnia vibe to this one, though I guess all portal fantasies which start in the normal world and land kids in a wooded area are going to remind me of Narnia. On top of that, we’ve got the boy who is turned into stone, a trope utilised by C.S. Lewis, and which can be found in fairytales much older than C.S. Lewis.
Anthony Browne’s fantasy world offers nothing by way of explanation. We are never told what, how or who turned the boy into stone. Readers are left to create that part of the story for ourselves. Anthony Browne’s books expect the reader to craft at least half of the narrative, which is part of the Surrealist, postmodern experience.
As you read Anthony Browne’s books, look carefully at the skyline. In this story, as well as in Zoo, Browne lines the horizon with industrial buildings to convey a fearful, repressed emotion in the young characters. In this particular story, the skyline buildings change as the characters start to view them differently.
The painting below is by a Russian artist, and features a similar line of industrial buildings between landscape and sky.
So much has been said about Narnia already. Can I add a single thing to the corpus by blogging about storytelling techniques in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe?
Probably not, but my 10-year-old is studying this novel at school. She’s home sick today. I know the rest of her class is watching the 2005 film adaptation this afternoon for a compare and contrast exercise, because they send home permission slips for PG rated material. (Honestly, heh, I showed this to my kid when she was about 5.) It’s been a while since we cracked open the DVD, so today we are rewatching The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, together at home, under a blanket.
This blog post is mainly about the 2005 film adaptation, not about the novel. I haven’t read the novel since I was in my late teens, though I keep meaning to go back. I bought myself a beautiful illustrated version for my 30th birthday. What’s keeping me from dusting it off? Probably all the commentary around it, and knowing how problematic it is as a vehicle for certain ideas.
Spufford considers The Chronicles of Narnia the ‘essence of book’. (He went on to write Unapologetic.) As a child, the Christian bits meant least to him, but the allegories weren’t mysterious to a church-going boy. What Spufford loved about Narnia was the sensuousness of it. Looking at it critically from an adult point of view it’s easy to criticise this series as a ‘dog’s breakfast’. (After all, it has water nymphs and Father Christmas in the same world.) But Lewis loved all of these elements and he had the ability to bring his passions to life. No other series delivered a world like those ones did. (A modern audience has Harry Potter for an equally sensuous setting, bringing many different elements together.)
Reading as an adult, Spufford noticed misogyny and racism. The racist elements are easy enough to figure out — Lewis was influenced by Arabian Nights and other things. The author’s feelings about women, on the other hand, are harder to figure out. There are a lot of dangerous snake women who keep popping up in the different chronicles and there are no women (apart from mothers) who are safe, at all. Fantasy is a horribly revealing form. People make fantasy out of the deep material of their imagination. Where did this misogyny come from?
C.S. LEWIS: MISOGYNIST BUT NOT SEXIST
Spufford reminds us that C.S. Lewis’ mother died when he was very young. He adds that it now ‘seems unfair to ask the past to know what the present knows’. I disagree wholeheartedly with Spufford on this point. Missing a mother does not make misogyny. As evidence, I proffer every single misogynist who has a perfectly good mother. Instead, all we need for misogynistic tales to thrive is a misogynistic world. And the 1950s were nothing if not that.
Others make the case that The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe is empowering to women. Here’s the argument in a nutshell, from what I can gather:
Lewis wasn’t making women subservient to men; he was making humans subservient to God. Lewis intends to exalt divinity, not men. (Gah, now that’s a damn stretch.)
Sure, the bad people in Narnia are women, but bad women are powerful women. (I am on board with this argument. I get this one. We’ll know we’ve reached true gender equality when we see as many flawed women in positions of power as there are flawed men. Unfortunately, we’re nowhere near that point yet. This real world fact means that a preponderance of terrible females in positions of fictional power feeds into the existing idea that women are generally terrible when given any power at all.)
Susan and Lucy are allowed to be heroines. (Yes, but very specifically female ones. As my ten-year-old said as they laid their heads upon poor, dead Aslan, “Ugh, so they make the girls cry.” Moreover, Lucy is given the stereotypically feminine role of healing, like a wartime nurse.)
Lewis isn’t ranking masculine coded activities as higher than feminine coded activities. He doesn’t rank Peter’s skill with the sword HIGHER than he rates Lucy’s ability to heal and empathise. (I’ve heard this a lot before, but ranking is beside the point. Simply assigning gender to certain tasks keeps women in their ‘rightful’ place as caregivers, nurturers and providers of emotional labour.)
All of the main characters in Narnia embody feminine characteristics, because submission (to God) is a feminine coded thing to do. All people are feminine to God. And this is the Christian ideal. (Sure, Peter looks after Lucy’s feelings at times, but on the other hand he’s in a clear patriarchal big struggle with his own brother. Peter is a benevolent sexist, at best.)
Some have pointed out a difference between ‘classical heroism’ (masculine) and ‘spiritual heroism’ (feminine). These characters go on a spiritual journey, therefore they all go on a feminine journey, rendering gender binaries moot. Some go so far as to say Lewis is even critiquing classical heroism.
Lewis plays so much with so-called feminine and masculine virtues that we can’t even think of his characters in this binary gendered way. (Yes, this is always a sticking point in such arguments. But people who study this stuff know full well which attributes are coded feminine by the dominant culture and which are coded masculine. People who use this argument are derailing.)
That is not an exhaustive list of the arguments in favour of gender equality in the Narnia Chronicles. Instead, I want to leave you with a quote from Lewis himself:
I do not believe that God created an egalitarian world. I believe the authority of parent over child, husband over wife, learned over simple to have been as much a part of the original plan as the authority of man over beast.
The Weight of Glory, p 168
If you don’t see that exact ideology shining through in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, I don’t know what to tell you.
Here’s the vital thing to grasp about Lewis and his world view: He didn’t just believe that there is a biological difference between the sexes; he believed there was a spiritual difference as well. To him, femininity represents subjection to God. Men, to Lewis, were literally closer to God. This is still the case for many fundamentalist Christians.
However, C.S. Lewis did believe in political and vocational equality. Donald Trump, by the way, is exactly the same. This is why it’s important to make a distinction between sexism and misogyny. C.S. Lewis, like Donald Trump, was not a clear sexist. He did believe that women were capable of contributing fully to the world (and was happy for women to do just that, recognising that their labours would benefit him). However, he was a keen upholder of the police force of patriarchy, otherwise known as misogyny. For more on this point, I refer you to the excellent book Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny by Kate Manne, specifically page 89.
The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe is a classic portal fantasy. C.S. Lewis knew to really dwell on the portal. Getting all four children through the portal dominates the first quarter of the story.
C.S. Lewis also made full use of The Symbolism of Altitude, which is not only symbolic but also lends dimensionality to a landscape. Characters go below ground (with the beavers), above ground and high above ground (up trees, on mountains, in a palace).
The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe features an ensemble cast with no stand-out main character. The story crosscuts between Lucy and Edmond, or whoever happens to be the most alone and vulnerable at the time. However, we definitely empathise with Lucy. For my purposes, I nominate Lucy as ‘the main character’. She is also a ‘viewpoint’ character, because when Lucy sees Narnia for the first time, so do we. However, Edmond undergoes the biggest character arc so we could just as easily pick him. (If not more so.)
Lucy’s main shortcoming is that she is the youngest, and therefore expected to be immature and unreliable.
Nobody believes Lucy when she walks through the back of the wardrobe. Honestly, wouldn’t you believe Edmond?
Edmund’s lie of omission, failing to tell his siblings about his encounter with the White Witch, drives much of the drama in the first Narnia story. Interestingly, though, he is probably judged more harshly by contemporary readers than Lewis intended. It is almost impossible, now, to imagine the feelings a child – used to the privations of wartime Britain – might experience on being offered some Turkish Delight. This is one of those occasions where some of the context is lost in the passage of history. If you had grown up with rationing, been shipped out to the country for protection, and found yourself in a magical land where you were offered extraordinary, rarefied sweet things, wouldn’t you lie too?
The Pevensie children stumble into a fantasy world entirely by accident, and as soon as they get there, their mission is to have fun with it. When the learn the stakes, they at first turn down the Call to Adventure (saving everyone from the White Witch), which Joseph Campbell calls Refusal of the Call. It’s mandatory, basically. Against their will, the children are forced to fight on behalf of everyone, proving their mettle.
Edmond is the black sheep of the Pevensie kids, but I can see why. Peter is so annoying. I call him Patriarchal Peter — we see another identical personality in Peter from Famous Five. “Just do as I tell you! I’m the better-looking, more sensible one!” Peter shames Edmond constantly by demoting him to the status of ‘girl’, first by insulting him during cricket, then by telling him he deserves to wear a girl’s fur coat, as if lying is a naturally feminine attribute. (Highly, highly problematic. It makes my skin crawl.)
The White Witch is your classic Thriller villain — her desire is for power, at whatever cost. She’ll even kill you and your family. She’s almost inhuman, but her logic is understandable to a human audience (she’s not a supernatural horror villain). This makes The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe a children’s action thriller, by my reckoning. Within the setting, the White Witch is a descendent of Lilith the ‘Jinn’. In real world, ancient Jewish mythology, Lilith was a female demon, representing all things “dark and terrifying.” In Jewish folklore she was referred to as the first wife of Adam. She left the Garden of Eden because she did not want to be Adam’s wife. (Why ever not?) A ‘jinn’ is a term sometimes used to refer to genies.
C.S. Lewis has included in his character web the entire gamut of familiar opponent (the siblings), really scary new opponent (White Witch), possible opponent (the Professor), annoying adult opponent (the housekeeper) as well as a false-ally (Mr Tumnus), a possible opponent who turns out to be on their side (Aslan) and everything in between. The true goodness of each character is kept as a reveal, as the audience, alongside the characters, work out who is good and who is evil in this strange new world.
In a thriller (yep, I’m sure this is a thriller), the hero (heroes plural in this case) need a special super power to help them overcome their enemy. The Pevensie kids are pretty ordinary but Father Christmas turns up to help them out. He endows them with actual gifts — a sword for Patriarchal Peter, bow and arrow for Susan, healing medicine for Lucy and I’ve completely forgotten what he gave to Edmond, oh well.
(My daughter thought Father Christmas was the Professor. Like me watching Game of Thrones, old men in grey beards all look the same. Are we meant to think the professor is secretly the Father Christmas of Narnia? The Professor portrayed as bafflingly conspiratorial in the film.)
The children are led by their allies, Mr Tumnus (after he turns), by the beavers and so on. The kids just keep ploughing along the path and battling whoever fights them. That’s the big plan. When they find themselves on the throne they aren’t all that surprised — it’s their birthright. (This is a very white story, in more ways than one.)
The Battle scene is hugely elongated in this film and reminds me of the most boring parts of Lord of the Rings (ie. most of it).
I found this image on Comic Vine, so the similarity must be obvious to everyone. (Return of the King came out two years prior.)
In 2005, the CGI of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe would have been enough to impress. Now it’s showing it’s age a little. (Characters don’t look fully integrated with the background scenery.) But if you enjoy watching strange creatures running towards each other then doing hand-to-hand combat, this movie is for you.
During this big struggle, I started to side with the White Witch. Tilda Swinton has great costume, great hair, her own fake lion’s mane (or maybe it’s meant to be real) and she gets lots of low angle shots which allow her to show her power. Whatever you say about this White Witch, she knows what she wants and she goes for it. She ain’t no bitch of the patriarchy.
For Peter, Susan and Lucy, their experience in Narnia is a run-of-the-mill coming-of-age story in which they discover their true power.
But Edmond undergoes a more significant character arc, because he had the furthest to come. He shifts from lying traitor to loyal younger brother who knows his place in the patriarchal hierarchy. Peter says, after saving him during Battle, “When are you going to learn to do as you’re told?” echoing the wrapper story of the London bombings. Even before then, he is shown as acceding power to older brother Peter.
This is seen as a good thing, because now the brothers are less Cain and Abel, more like friends. And friends is always a good thing, right?
Edmond’s arc doesn’t sit right with me. The idea that ‘younger siblings must obey older siblings’ led to significant fraternal bullying in the past. Now, with smaller families and/or more vigilant parenting, sibling hierarchy has mostly disappeared. If older siblings are still in charge it’s because they’re developmentally more advanced, not because of a patrimonial culture which grants permanent, life-long power to eldest children, especially to eldest sons.
When the Pevensie children return to their primary world, ‘the wonderful adventure [in Narnia] has been merely a “time-out”, a picnic.’ Nikolajeva likens these books to a modern computer game, in which the player ‘dies’, but simply plays the game again, consequence free.
The fact is that in most quest stories for children…the protagonists, unlike the hero in myth (or a novice during initiation), are liberated from the necessity to suffer the consequences of their actions. What is described is not the real rite of passage, but merely play or, to follow Bakhtin’s notion, carnival.
For more on Nikolajeva’s concept of ‘picnic’ and how that relates to ‘genre’ in children’s literature, see this post.
The Cat Returns is a 2002 feature-length anime about a teenage girl who is transported against her will into a feline fantasy world after saving a cat’s life. Writer Aoi Hiiragi also wrote the script for Whisper of the Heart. This is a sort of sequel to that, where the main character writes this story. In written form, this is an ‘urban fantasy’, which literary agents have recently started to call grounded, contemporary fantasy (I believe it’s a rebranding thing).
Like a number of animated cartoons, The Cat Returns started out as a comic book series, though the film is quite different.
Japanese Title of The Cat Returns
The Japanese title is Neko no ongaeshi, which literally means ‘The Cat’s Favour’. But that’s not a great translation because there’s no exact equivalent of ongaeshi in English:
It means ‘to return a favour’ or ‘to prove a gratitude’. In Japan, the word is perceived as rather antiquated and poetic and describes the space between action and reaction of gratitude. In this context ‘action’ can be described as: an invitation for a project, assistance to a solution for an abstract problem as well as direct support at the workspace. All this leads to a ‘reaction’ which may occur later in time, or have a different context. Even in Japanese it is difficult to comprehend this word which makes it open to imagination and potential.
‘The Cat Returns A Favour’ isn’t exactly catchy, so I suppose that’s one reason we got ‘The Cat Returns’ in English. It’s also a sequel, so.
Themes In The Cat Returns
Returning favours is a strongly prosocial custom shared across cultures and across species. In some cultures, the rules of favour are more proscribed than in other cultures. In Japan, there are two times per year that you are expected to give thanks and gifts to everyone in your social circle. (More on Japanese gift-giving culture.) Japanese people are expected to bring back trinkets from a big trip after returning home. This nuisance custom means some Japanese people avoid telling all their neighbours they’re going on holiday at all.
The nuisance aspect of favours and gifts is explored in The Cat Returns. Though the concept of ongaeshi is specifically Japanese, many people can relate to the emotional labour surrounding reciprocity and gifts.
The Grateful Crane
For Japanese people, the concept is connected to a traditional folktale:
ONGAESHI is … connected with the traditional fairy-tale ‘Tsuru no Ongaeshi’, which translates into ‘The Grateful Crane’. After a crane gets rescued from death by a young man, it appears in front of him a second time in disguise of a human girl. The young man is being really helpful and takes the stranger into his house. To prove her gratitude the crane-girl secretly weaves cloth out of her own feathers every night to give them to her rescuer, who is surprised at the sudden gift but also really happy because her cloths sell easy at the market. Soon after that the girl appears to be sick. The man is worried and tries to figure out what is the reason behind her illness and peeks into her room at night. When he sees how she actually plucks out her feathers for his sake, she just flies away. This fairy-tale narrates about the fragility of give-and-take, thankfulness and gratitude.
This makes The Grateful Crane an ur-Story of The Cat Returns. There’s a long tradition of female characters making huge, health-sacrificing sacrifices for the sake of male characters in stories. (These stories are still popular today, even in picture books. Male characters make different kinds of sacrifices — non-domestic ones.)
In The Cat Returns, the gender has been flipped, but like the poor young man, Haru starts off dissatisfied with her lot. She finds a love interest in the fantastical creature. There’s transmogrification of course — a super popular trope in Japanese folklore.
Animals inherently contain a sense of mystery, and so I think it makes sense that we would use literal transformations into animals in stories to talk about parts of ourselves and our relationships that are difficult—or impossible—to explain.
Haru is one of those hopeless, klutzy heroines who sleeps through her alarm. Bella Swan is a really popular example of the klutzy girl. Haru’s mother takes a hands-off approach, refusing to step in and wake her. Haru is late for school, and we assume she’s chronically late, that this is like any other morning. This is Haru’s psychological shortcoming. She is also revealed to be romantically unsatisfied — the boy she likes is going out with a younger student. In Japan, the age hierarchy is especially stark, so it’s a real kicker that the love interest is going out with a younger girl.
At first I thought Haru was younger. At 17, this character could pass as a 12-year-old, though by the end of the story she does seem 17.
Haru’s klutziness is very common for female YA characters. Does klutziness make them more likeable? They certainly seem less intimidating, and everyone identifies with embarrassment, so klutziness can lead to audience empathy. TV Tropes calls this trope Butt Monkey.
I place bumbling characters like Haru somewhere between low mimetic and ironic on Northrop Frye’s Displacement of Myth and Typology of Characters hierarchy, though Haru does have that flash of heroic brilliance when saving the cat.
She’s a good athlete. Once she gets into the fantasy world she joins a group and rather than ‘save the day’ on her own, she is mostly saved by the Baron (love interest), though occasionally she has a good idea.
Haru is in opposition to her classmates because of her low social capital, but none of them is an out-and-out foe, unlike in lots of Western teen dramas. Western writers often craft a peer arch nemesis. Bullying is also a problem in Japan of course, but often in stories the high school is depicted as more of a safe haven than a big struggleground. Take The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, for instance, in which the science lab sparkles with magic. When polled, the overwhelming majority of Japanese high school students enjoy school. (But they are passive in their studies and have low self-esteem in general.)
80.4% of Japanese high school students claimed that they “enjoy school life”, compared to 77.4, 77.5 and 75.4% for America, China and Korea.
Contrast this portal fantasy with a YA novel such as Dorothy Must Die, by Danielle Paige. The main character has major issues with a girl in school who bullies her for being poor. This dynamic is established before the cyclone which transports Amy to Oz, where she meets an entire cast of goodies, baddies and everyone in between.
This is one of those stories where a bungling ordinary person finds themselves caught up in fantastic things. These types don’t often have proactive plans — their plan is to avoid whatever’s happening to them. In that case, the plans of their opponents are well-thought-out and successful.
The plan of the cats is to shower her with gifts of the sort they themselves would like to receive in return for the gift of life.
There are big struggles all the way through this story, starting with the minor embarrassment of being caught sneaking into Japanese Literature class late, then the humiliation of falling over a stick in front of her love interest.
The jester scene at the banquet is one of the first big big struggles, where we learn what’s at stake — this guy really is a Caligula type with complete disregard for life.
The scene in the maze offers some great meta-commentary, as the opponents watch our heroes from above, commenting on their progress like the two old men in The Muppet Show.
There is actually so much battling that I lose interest after a while, which is a personal preference against too much action.
The final life and death situation occurs when Haru must find her way back to the real world. The Cat Returns utilises flying — in line with every other Studio Ghibli production— the animators are very good at creating aerial views. Does flight equal freedom in this case? I’ll argue yes, because although Haru is being transported down to Earth rather than up to Heaven, she now knows who she is and is free to be herself.
Haru has become more responsible after her adventure in the cat kingdom. She’s had a near brush with marriage, and faced the possibility of never coming home again. This seems to have hastened her personal development. Haru is also sporting short hair.
The main message in this film is fairly trite — believe in yourself and you’ll be a success. TV Tropes call this an ‘Aesop‘, because it’s such obvious and cliched advice. (Though perhaps not so obvious if you subscribe to the idea that there is no ‘essential self’.) In any case, this message is common in children’s stories.
Haru is no longer interested in that boy from school — she’s rather creepily got a new crush on the older cat guy from the fantasy world.
Leaving that weirdness aside, Haru is now far more mature than she was — almost too mature to be in school. When she’s released from the high school environment, we trust she’ll do well in the world. (Or perhaps she decided to turn into a cat to be with The Baron?)
FURTHER STORYTELLING NOTES
Subversion and Inversion of Tropes
Muta appears to be a ‘fat bastard’ but this trope is inverted when he turns out to be loyal to his friends.
Ravens are not terrible in this story. Usually they’re foreshadowing death, but here they are helpful creatures who will come to your rescue even after you’ve insulted them.
Haru’s life gets worse, not better, when she becomes a princess. (Most modern princess stories are inverted — unlike in traditional fairytales, which are classic examples of The Marriage Plot — the plot ends when the girl gets married to a prince, because her life will be perfect from now on and the story is therefore over.)
Scott Dikkers (founder of The Onion) has created a taxonomy of humour. Meta-humour is one of his 11 categories. There’s a lot of slapstick and wordplay in The Cat Returns (though some of the wordplay is lost in the English dub). The Cat Returns also offers some good examples of meta-humour, which I figure is one of the more rare, as I have less success finding examples of it.
When the opponents offer commentary on Haru and co’s success in the maze, that is a form of metahumour. The opponents are aligning themselves with the audience. We, too, are watching them from above.
“Enough of your cheesy light show!” Muta says to The Baron, as The Baron’s house lights up during the setting of the sun. This joke strikes me as odd — I would have taken the beauty of the setting sun at face value. I wonder if the animators wondered if it was too much, and there was a discussion about whether to cut back on it? In any case, it’s an example of metahumour, reminding the audience that this has been created for the benefit of an audience — that audience being Haru, and also being us.
Passive Tea-drinking Scenes Transformed
The Spring 2018 issue of the SCBWI Bulletin has the following writing advice from Joelle Anthony:
The most common scene I come across when working as a freelance editor is the one where the characters are sitting around talking. Generally, the author adds in a cup of tea, a cocktail, or a lovely meal as the “activity” the characters are participating in while they talk. And talk. And talk. Occasionally, the conversation escalates into a heated argument, or turns embarrassing and awkward, but regardless of how the scene plays out, having characters sit around talking is usually boring for ht reader, and it rarely moves the story along int he way the author is hoping.
Why do we do it? Two reasons. First, it’s easy. […] The second reason we do it is because that’s how we do things in real life. […]
Have a look at each scene as you’re revising. If it reads like a slice of life, ask yourself if adding an activity might take it to the next level … one that’s more interesting and also serves the story and characters in a more productive way.
My experience in writing groups is that we all tend to write a sit-down-and-chat scene early on — usually around chapter two. This chapter then needs to be cut entirely. With stories set in a place like Japan, drinking (green) tea is such an important and common custom, it might actually seem weird not to include a tea-drinking scene.
Joelle Anthony offers some suggestions for avoiding boring tea scenes, which the creators of The Cat Returns have utilised:
Physical activities that mirror the mood of the scene
Activities which are the opposite of what’s going on
Something that might change the mood of the scene. If the characters are fighting, could doing this activity lead them to laughter, and would that be useful to you?
Opportunities for combining scenes are excellent choices. For example, if an upcoming scene is one of these characters working in the garden, combine the two scenes so this conversation interrupts their work (adding tension).
During the obligatory tea scene with The Baron, Muta and the raven are engaged in a dual. They fling insults at each other, adding both action and humour. Finally, Haru is literally carried out the door by cats, adding visual interest. Also, the fact that this takes place in a beautiful, ornate, dollhouse type environment helps. Interesting scenery always helps with the boring scenes.
Light and Dark Symbolism
There is no night-time in the cat kingdom, which is partly what makes it seem like an snail under the leaf setting. The real world, though, doesn’t rest at night. Creepy things happen at night. Light usually suggests hope, renewal, or intellectual illumination. Darkness implies the unknown, ignorance, or despair.
The lightness of the cat kingdom is subverted, as it is revealed that the place is not a utopia at all.
Am I Going Mad?
In urban fantasy the author is juggling realism against ridiculous, unbelievable events. What would you do if you saved a cat and it stood up and talked to you? What would you do if you noticed the weeds in your front yard had grown a metre longer overnight?
The number of lampshading options for character surprise at odd events feels like a closed group:
Haru’s bestie asks if she banged her head.
Haru’s mother assumes she’s been working too hard and goes back to bed.
This is known as the Pinch Me trope. (There doesn’t have to be literal pinching.) Other options utilised in storytelling:
The character assumes they are dreaming (very common)
Or assumes they are hallucinating (very similar)
Anything outside these obvious ones probably have to be specific to the story. Can you think of other examples?
OTHER STORIES ABOUT FELINE COMMUNITIES
Forest: Journey from the Wild by Sonya Hartnett (2001)
Varjak Paw by S. F. Said (2003)
Warrior Cats series by Erin Hunter (starting 2003)
This month I wrote a post on Teaching Kids How To Structure A Story. Today I continue with a selection of mentor texts to help kids see how it works. Let’s look closely at another wordless picture book, this time by Shirley Hughes: Up and Up, from 1979.
STORY STRUCTURE OF UP AND UP
Up and Up is a carnivalesque portalfantasy, and the portal is the huge chocolate egg.
The story opens with the following wonderfully detailed Where’s Wally-esque opening spread, with foreshadowing of the big balloon partially hidden behind a tree:
WHO IS THE MAIN CHARACTER?
The girl in Up and Up doesn’t have a name, though she may be one of the characters from another Shirley Hughes book. Hughes’s characters all have a similarity to them. Children are drawn like sprightly little old people, somehow.
When characters in children’s books don’t have a name, this turns them by default into The Every Child.
WHAT DOES SHE WANT?
The girl wants to fly like a bird. We see this from the opening spread. A bird flies past; she stands up to watch it leave. At first we don’t know if she’s just interested in bird watching or perhaps feather-collecting, but the following spread cements that wish.
Her natural opponent is gravity, but gravity does not make for an especially interesting opponent. We can’t care about gravity — whether it wins or loses. Gravity just is.
Like many children who go off on carnivalesque adventures, her parents don’t pay attention to her. I guess this is a universal feeling children have, no matter how much time parents have.
Her main human opponent is introduced a bit later — the old man with the telescope, who is the most hellbent on bringing her down. He’s a mad scientist archetype, and so keen to arrest her that he even uses his hot air balloon which he has in his backyard.
WHAT’S THE PLAN?
Shirley Hughes utilises the rule of threes during the opening sequence, giving the girl three separate plans to fly like a bird.
Run and leap (trips and falls)
Make wings out of paper and jump off a ladder. (I have personally done this as a kid, though I didn’t have enough faith to actually make the leap!)
Inflate balloons and float up into the sky. (Gets stuck on a twig.) At this point the story has already crossed over into fantasy realm. First, the girl blows up the balloons with her breath, but these are behaving like helium balloons. Second, there’s no way 9 balloons would lift a girl up into a tree.
All of her plans fail so she goes home in a grumpy mood. She’s standing in her entrance hall when something amazing happens. A massive chocolate egg is dropped off by the postie.
The ‘portal’ takes the girl back into the mundane world rather than into a parallel world. The chocolate egg is something I haven’t seen elsewhere, and to be honest I’d never even realised any connection between my chocolate eggs at Easter and the fact that eggs normally house baby birds.
Though these pictures are simple black and white line drawings, I imagine this is the part in ‘Wizard of Oz’ where everything turns technicolour (or perhaps the colour has been seeping in since the balloons fantasy page). What follows is maybe a dream, or maybe it’s real within the world of the picture book. Picture book fantasies generally work like that — they can often be interpreted as the young child’s inner world fantasy.
The Big Battle in this story is preceded by a chase sequence in which people on the ground are chasing the girl to see this amazing spectacle. There’s a large dose of showing off involved here — the wish fulfilment in this fantasy is ‘everyone looks at how amazing I am and I am briefly the centre of attention’.
So we can predict she will defeat the old man chasing her. It’s all part of her own fantasy of being a hero.
You know from the beginning if a character is going to have a anagnorisis because there will be something wrong with them. They might not appreciate someone, or they might be lonely, or they might not treat their friends well. In those stories, the character will almost certainly have changed by the end.
But in a carnivalesque story the point is to escape the mundane world and have fun for a while. That’s it. The carnivalesque story structure has more in common with comic structure than with dramatic structure. Though more ‘fun’ than ‘funny’, there is nothing to be learned except ‘that was really fun’ or ‘so that’s what fun looks like’.
HOW WILL LIFE BE DIFFERENT FROM NOW ON?
The point of a carnivalesque story is that it will actually be the same as before… with one small difference. Now the girl knows what it is to have real, unfettered fun. The scene at the end where she’s eating a boiled egg and toast shows the mundane nature of her everyday life. (Boiled eggs are quite often used in fiction to show ‘ordinary’, though less so these days. I think kids are eating fewer boiled eggs in general.)
The author grew up in Cambridgeshire but calls it Castleford here. This allows her to deviate from reality, placing objects where she likes them. It’s a convenient trick.
For the purpose of some of her fiction, including Tom, Pearce put a creative spin on the Cambridgeshire countryside. Thus, the villages of Great Shelford and Little Shelford became Great Barley and Little Barley. And the major city of Cambridge became Castleford minus the famous university. Oddly, the cathedral city of Ely, which figures prominently in Tom, retained its real name. And running throughout, the omnipresent River Cam became the River Say. Although not specifically mentioned in the book, all indications are that, since the real house and garden were located in Great Shelford, Pearce placed Tom and Hatty’s garden in, or very close to, the renamed Great Barley.
The story has been criticised for romanticising aristocratic England. We are lead to believe it’s a huge shame that the beautiful old mansion has been broken down into flats, but what is the alternative? For plebs to continue to live in servitude, while the aristocratic class live like kings?
The Mysterious Mansion
The aunt and uncle’s house is a large house surrounded by many little ones. We know immediately that this house is ‘different’. Mysterious. We can expect mysteries. It is also old — linked to the past — and was once a mansion but has since been divided into smaller flats. The aunt and uncle’s house lies north of Cambridgeshire, where the author herself grew up and where she set her stories.
Compared to Australians, at least, English readers are quite likely to believe in ghosts. It is therefore no surprise that Tom jumps to this conclusion after going through the portal.
This is a portal fantasy. The fantasy has similar workings to The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe in that a child stumbles upon a door to another world inside the house where they have been sent to escape something going on at home. When they go back to prove their discovery the world has disappeared — this world is meant only for Tom.
The story starts with a case of measles.
Measles have been a problem for humans for centuries. While white people developed some immunity over the centuries, they carried the measles virus to native people around the world and put severe, irreparable dents in their populations. In the 1950s, around 500,000 children a year caught the disease, and about 100 died as a result. It was therefore taken seriously. Tom’s Midnight Garden was published in 1958, and although breakthroughs were already being made at around this time it took another 10 years for children to start being vaccinated in Britain. However, people still weren’t vaccinating their children. As recently as 1988 there were still 80,000 cases of measles a year among children in England, including 16 deaths. This changed when the vaccination was combined into the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine. The number of measles cases dropped significantly after that. But in 1998 there was another hit to the program after some false news emerged that vaccines cause autism. There has been some recovery from this scare, with around 95% of children receiving the vaccination, but there is still a large proportion of children of the 1990s who missed the vaccine and may never have it.
His moral shortcoming is introduced first, though I may be having a different reaction to Tom as an adult reader who is now a mother — Tom doesn’t understand the reason for his being sent away and is in a strop about it. Instead of thinking about how much his brother must be suffering with measles he is completely inward-focussed and laments the loss of the summer he imagined, having fun with his brother climbing the apple tree in the backyard and so on. He fails to say a genuine farewell to his mother, though this is somewhat mutual.
The paragraph about the apple tree in the description of his own backyard tells us Tom’s need: He needs to be close to nature in order to be happy.
Tom’s desire is to stay in his own house and enjoy the freedom of typical summer holidays. Like many stories about children of this age, this is about one boy’s quest for freedom — spiritual if not actual.
Tom’s mother is his first opponent, for wanting something different — she doesn’t want him to catch measles, and I’m sure she doesn’t want to have to look after more than one sick son at a time.
Uncle Alan and Aunt Gwen are opponents simply by virtue of conspiring with his mother to host him at their house.
Once at his aunt and uncle’s house a mysterious character is introduced, though adult readers will recognise The Woman In The Attic trope — “Mrs Barthlomew upstairs” who is the owner of the mysterious grandfather clock which strikes 13 o’clock. She dresses all in black and other adult characters give the impression she’s not to be messed with.
Tom is fighting against his imprisonment. He plans to get around his measles quarantine in any way he can, even if it means never actually leaving the house. For starters he’ll find out the yard is like, even though it’s apparently nothing to write home about.
When he finds the magical garden he confronts his aunt and uncle, who lied to him about their poky little backyard. He realises only he can see it.
Now he needs to find out as much about it as he can.
The mystery deepens as characters emerge on the scene:
Are they ghosts?
Is Tom, perhaps, a ghost in the style of Sixth Sense or The Others? These Dead All Along films are much more recent than this children’s book of course, but they were based on older stories such as “An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge” from 1890 (also an episode of The Twilight Zone). I’m thinking maybe Tom died of the measles and though he thinks he was waving to his brother Peter he was actually waving to the live version of himself? The thing about the Dead All Along trope, once you realise the character is dead all along, everything prior in the story makes more sense. That’s not what happens in this case. The explanation is a bit different.
The battle scene is Tom rushing downstairs trying to get through the gate and failing, realising he can never go back.
I’m sure this book is a Rorschach test, with the reader imposing individual meanings onto the text. For me this story is about the end of childhood. You can never go back. But what if you could? You can, of course, but only in your mind.
There is a ‘Scooby Doo’ chapter at the end in which all is explained. Mrs Bartholomew heard Tom screaming her name and summons him up to ‘apologise’, but really she wants to tell him that she is Hatty and Tom was sharing her memories.
In this story, however, the abundant and delicious food is used to show how Tom is stifled. He lies in a ‘snail under the leaf setting’ — safe from harm in the suburbs with people who care for him and his every need met — but for a boy who needs to spread his wings this is a prison.
Aunt Gwen’s cooking was the cause of Tom’s sleeplessness — that and lack of exercise. Tom had to stay indoors and do crossword puzzles and jigsaw puzzles, and never even answered the door when the milkman came, in case he gave the poor man measles. The only exercise he took was in the kitchen when he was helping his aunt to cook those large, rich meals — large and richer than Tom had ever known before.
The Technique of Side Shadowing
For a breakdown of the 3 main types of literary shadowing see here.
Side shadowing lets the reader know how else the story might have panned out. One reason for using this is to offer alternative endings, to ask the reader to consider some sort of theme, like justice, or if the character made the right choice in the end.
But in the case of Tom’s Midnight Garden, Philippa Pearce uses side shadowing mainly to reassure us that ‘This is not just your run-of-the-mill ghost story. I know you think you know how this is going to pan out because you’ve read plenty of ghost stories, no doubt. But I’m telling you you’re in for a surprise!”
She achieves that message with the following passage, written using ‘would’. Notice too the metafictive reference to “Tom’s” reading lots of children’s books — when Tom is a stand-in for the child reader:
Tom resolved that, as soon as he was better, he would call on Mrs Bartholomew. True, she was an unsociable old woman of whom people were afraid, but Tom could not let that stand in his way. He would boldly ring her front door bell; she would open her front door just a crack and peer crossly out at him. Then she would see him, and at the sight of his face her heart would melt (Tom had read of such occurrences in the more old-fashioned children’s books; he had never before thought them very probable, but now it suited him to believe): Mrs Bartholomew, who did not like children, would love Tom as soon as she saw his face. She would draw him inside at once, then and there; and later, over a tea-table laden with delicacies for him alone, she would tell Tom the stories of long ago. Sometimes Tom would ask questions, and she would answer them. ‘A little girl called Harriet, or Hatty?’ she would say, musingly. ‘Why, yes, my late husband told me once of such a child — oh! long ago! An only child she was, and an orphan. When her parents died her aunt took her into this house to live. Her aunt was a disagreeable woman…’
So the story, in Tom’s imagination, rolled on. It became confused and halting where Tom himself did not already know the facts; but after all, he would only have to wait to pay his call upon Mrs Bartholomew, to hear it all from her own lips. She would perhaps end her story, he thought, with a dropped of her voice: [old fashioned melodrama based on the oral tradition] ‘And since then, Tom, they say that she and her garden and all the rest haunt this house. They say that those who are lucky may go down, about when the clock strikes for midnight, and open what was once the garden door and see the ghost of that garden and of the little girl.’
Tom’s mind ran on the subject. His cold was getting so much better […]
For me the side shadowing happens at exactly the right moment, as my attention is starting to flag and I’m wondering if I can already predict the ending of this story.
Pearce also makes use of foreshadowing and also backshadowing in this story — an example of backshadowing is the reference to Hatty’s sons dying in The Great War, which she explains is now known as the First World War. This sort of real world detail is knowledge shared between audience and characters.
Portal fantasy or portal speculative fiction is a story which transports the characters into a magical world via a gate/wardrobe/magical tree or anything else the author might imagine. As a child, this was my favourite kind of story, alongside the everyday humorous category of middle grade fiction written so well by Beverly Cleary.
A PORTAL CAN BE ALMOST ANYTHING
Rabbit holes (Alice In Wonderland)
Mirrors (Through The Looking Glass). Mirrors are commonly thought to be a doorway to other worlds. It is traditionally considered unlucky to look in a mirror from Good Friday through Holy Saturday until the early hours of Easter Sunday. You might bring forth lurking bad spirits.
In various religious practices the vesica piscis (which looks like two intersecting circles) represents a doorway where the spirit world enters the material world.
In various religions, the doorway marks the portal between the real world, and the world of either Heaven or Hell.
When Iris’s elevator button-pushing is disrupted by a new member of the family, she’s pretty put out.
That is, until the sudden appearance of a mysterious new button opens up entire realms of possibility, places where she can escape and explore on her own. But when it becomes a question between going it alone or letting someone else tag along, Iris finds that sharing a discovery with the people you love can be the most wonderful experience of all.
LINGER IN THE PORTAL
Spending time in the portal itself is key.
One obvious reason to linger in a portal is to give an audience the enjoyment of being transported to another world. Another reason is to make sure the audience doesn’t zone out for a moment and lose track of where they are.
In Interstellar, we spend quite some time in the wormhole thing that allows our hero to push books off the bookshelf in her bedroom in an earlier era. (Interstellar is an example of Science Fantasy.)
A lot of first time authors write portal fantasy and first time authors don’t tend to be ready for publication.
The reason a lot of first time authors write portal fantasy may also be to do with the fact they grew up on portal fantasy, when it was big. This may be a bad sign that they haven’t read anything since their own childhood.
Even if agents do request a full for a portal fantasy they tend to get sick of the whole rigmarole of going into the new world from the real one and being told everything that’s new about the world. This gets same-old, same-old and is rarely as interesting as the author thinks it is.
Also, once you stop the action to describe the new world, the narrative drive flags.
As someone says in the comments: “Who cares what the publishing industry wants? If you want to write a portal fantasy, write it. Share it with people, polish it as best you can, and put it up on Amazon.”
NOTES FROM A WRITER/EDITOR
As an editor specialising in YA and MG, I tend to see a lot of portal fantasies (stories where the protagonist finds themselves in another world, where most of the conflict then takes place). And I’ve found that sub-genre to have some very common problems.
The most common problem I see with portal fantasies is that the conflict is impersonal. The protagonist is transported to another world, one they usually didn’t know existed, then required to save and/or escape it. My question: why should they (and therefore we) care?
Questions to ask to avoid your portal fantasy having an impersonal conflict:
Why does this world matter to the protagonist in a deeply personal and unique way? What does it mean to them that it doesn’t to anyone else? Why/how will it continue to matter after they save/escape it?
Another common problem with portal fantasies: negative goals. By that I mean, the MC typically wants only to get home or to avoid being captured/killed on this new world. Without a positive goal to back this up, it ends up making the conflict feel stagnant and, again, impersonal.
As you write your portal fantasy, ask yourself what your character wants beyond escape or survival or to save this other world just because that’s the right thing to do (or because “fate”). Could saving this world lead to him/her getting something they want, maybe in their own world?
Another way to make a portal fantasy personal if the character’s central goal is to simply survive or save a world they have no reason to care about: work that growth arc! How can they change while hiding from the evil alien monkeys on Earth-2? How does that impact their future?
Another common flaw in portal fantasies is poor world building. Don’t be afraid to dig deep, get wild, think about how the differences between that world and your character’s world would stand out and affect things at a level your readers might not have realised.
A well-done portal fantasy: Ready Player One (the movie specifically). The Oasis (the “other world”) MATTERED to Wade, and the stakes, though Oasis-focused, were grounded in the real world. The Oasis’s salvation was deeply entwined with Wade’s growth arc. Great world-building too!
The Magic Faraway Tree— a magical tree in The Enchanted Wood where a different land swings round at random times
PORTALS IN PICTURE BOOKS
Many picture books are of the structure Home-Away-Home, in which the child starts the journey at home, leaves for an adventure then returns safely. In these books, there is often an image of the front door, or perhaps of a window. This behaves in a similar way to a portal (door or otherwise) in a fantasy novel.
Is it still a ‘portal fantasy’ if the doorway takes you back into the mundane world but with extra powers? If so we’ll add:
“The doors to the world of the wild Self are few but precious. If you have a deep scar, that is a door, if you have an old, old story, that is a door. If you love the sky and the water so much you almost cannot bear it, that is a door. If you yearn for a deeper life, a full life, a sane life, that is a door.”
Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Women Who Run With the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype
In a sprawling mansion filled with peculiar treasures, January Scaller is a curiosity herself. As the ward of the wealthy Mr. Locke, she feels little different from the artifacts that decorate the halls: carefully maintained, largely ignored, and utterly out of place.
Then she finds a strange book. A book that carries the scent of other worlds, and tells a tale of secret doors, of love, adventure and danger. Each page turn reveals impossible truths about the world and January discovers a story increasingly entwined with her own.
The following notes on Fantasy in Children’s Literature are from lecture by Prof David Beagley, La Trobe University, available on iTunes U, combined with my own thoughts.
People in the children’s book world ask…’Is it suitable?’ ‘Is it the right age level?’ ‘Is it about a contemporary problem?’ These are important questions, but not of primary importance. The primary question should be ‘Is this a good book?’, or ‘Is this a good writer, writing a good book?’
Genre, and talk of genre, irritates the hell out of me, actually. I do not see why something should be the sole type of property of one type of book and not of another. -I’ve got this notion that there’s space to get round anyone’s prejudices, and if you can just think of the right way you can slide round all the nonsense they talk and do something that involves both their Yes and their No. I spend a lot of time before I write a book thinking about this space into which I can slide.
Diana Wynne Jones, in interview with Charles Butler
What happens in a fantasy can be more involving than what happens in life, and thank goodness for that.
Ida Rentoul Outhwaite was an Australian illustrator who for a short time was probably the best paid illustrator in the world.
Enid Blyton made use of these tropes — fairies good, goblins bad, small in size, based in nature.
There’s a lot more to fantasy than the greeting card fairy. The secondary world is inextricably linked to the primary world: The secondary world is often a commentary on the primary world, and and offers a different perspective on reality.
Modern fantasy tends to be sequential. Trilogies are preferred (or longer). A lot of the time this is a marketing tool, but there are other reasons. There is now time for the setting to be properly established. The reader truly understands the full world of the story, which may be very different from our world. Second, enthusiastic readers repeat-read (especially young readers). So rather than reading the first Harry Potter fourteen times, they read the entire series twice.
Supplementary reading list for this course: Artemis Fowl. Not a very nice person. A 12-year-oldgenius super-criminal who wants to set up a worldwide criminal network, but using what he has discovered about the fairy world. The fairy world on the other hand are determined to keep themselves secret to avoid being exploited by humans. So they want to stop Artemis, but after a while Artemis becomes integral to protecting them. (Artemis is the character arc inverse of Walter White from Breaking Bad.)
Rowan of Rin series: Not grand, high-fantasy. Rowan is a little boy who lives in a village like so many other ones: medieval, non-industrialised (why do so many fantasies take place in non-industrial circumstances? — perhaps if those things were present it would be science fiction, not fantasy).
One of Beagley’s favourite authors is Garth Nix, especially his trilogy. (Nix is an Australian author.) Nix has several other series too.
Philip Pullman is a well-known British author, especially for his Dark Materials trilogy. Northern Lights in Britain and Australia is The Golden Compass in the United States. Pullman very specifically states that he has written them to attack the Catholic church in particular and Christianity in general. He has a very specific intention in these books. This has generated a lot of heat, naturally. He sees C.S. Lewis and Narnia as the devil he has to destroy — he thinks they’re the worst propaganda to children and he hates C.S. Lewis. In doing so he has written his stories. Interestingly, a significant number of Christian people oppose C.S. Lewis because they don’t think authors should play with the biblical stories. And then Pullman comes along with his anti-Narnia philosophies. (Now Narnia looks a lot better to them.)
Tamora Pierce: One of Beagley’s favourites. She has created powerful and effective female heroes. It’s so engendered, the idea of hero in our culture. He has to be an alpha male, the white knight on the fiery steed, dripping with testosterone. But Tamora Pierce created characters such as Alana, who is a knight.
Pierce has also created the character of Beka Cooper, who is a dog. (The series is called Provost’s Dog.) Beka turns into a stronger and stronger dog as the series progresses, until finally she is a mastiff. These books are a well-written mixture of crime and fantasy.
Diana Wynne Jones, Anne McCaffrey and Jane Yolen are all modern writers creating good female characters. Yolen tends to write about unicorns and myths and legends, rewriting them very well.
Lloyd Alexander and Sue Cooper write on British folklore, Merlin, that sort of story — Welsh and Scottish legends, rewritten into modern novels (all tend to be some decades ago, 60s onwards. John Wyndham, Peter Dickenson, same thing.
Jane Aiken (Hodge?) does some very interesting time slips, looking at an alternative Queen Victorian age, in the genre that is now called Steampunk: an industrialised world but with steam driven cars and floating airships and titanic sized technology of the late 19th century. Jane Aitken was one of the first writing in this style.
Some authors write specifically for the child/adult/teen market, particularly Australian writers. Emily Rodda targets more the primary school age than the secondary. She goes a little younger, to 8-10 years old — still enthusiastic about their reading. Patricia Wrightson’sWirrun Trilogy is one of the best known Australian one, dealing with indigenous stories, putting them into the landscape.
Wirrun is a reluctant hero similar Harry Potter. He just wants to live a quiet life but he has to deal with world-threatening people. There are three types of people: people in the know (indigenous), in-landers (who have an inkling of what’s going on — farmers) and then there are the happy folk (who live on the edge of the country — completely oblivious — the bulk of the Australian population.)
Isobelle Carmody is another interesting writer, all other-world fantasy. The series is still going, started about 20 years ago, returned to it more recently.
Kate Constable — the Chanters of Tremaris has a very interesting take on the nature of magic. Magic there is sung. (The ‘chant’ from enchantment.) Men and women sing different magics because their voices are different, and also children, especially boys.
Carol Wilkinson’s dragon series goes back to ancient China and looks at the nature of the ancient dragon, who is a water spirit not a fire spirit.
Michael Pryor is the editor of a large series of books — James Maloney, Gary Crew, major writers around Australia contribute. There is a city but each person then writes their own story within that city, so the setting is shared. The people writing later have to go along with the earlier stories even if they don’t like it. [His website is called Narrative Transport.]
Victor Kelleher, originally South African, wrote Taronga in which the animals in the zoo take over after an apocalypse.
Sophie Masson divides her time between France and Australia and delves into the Grimm’s fairytale type world.
These books tend to have toys, animals, family rather than the high fantasy swords and sorcery. They include what matters to a younger child: home, play, toys. Narnia is basically the kids trying to understand the world. Also Winnie the Pooh and the little woodland spirits of Mae Gibbs, Blinky Bill. E.B. White wrote about animals (e.g. Charlotte’s Web) and toys.
Anna Fienberg’s Tashi books are based on old folklore from Europe, and the Tashi series is about a cat. They are a brilliant bridge from the picturebook first reader where the picture does most of the work, to the full-text type of novel. They’re not quite comics with text but every page has illustration, usually black and white, and is done in a sort of comic frame (though with no line) and three or four sentences to a page.
So many movies fill this area of storytelling: Flushed Away, Toy Story, A Bug’s Life. [Beagley loves Flushed Away and spends some time talking about it, but I don’t like at all.]
Older reader movies: Pan’s Labyrinth, Jim Henson’s Storyteller series, using muppet-like characters to tell Grimm (and plain old grim) fairytales. These tales are very dark.
Some recent adult movies Mirror Mirror, Red Riding Hood, Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland are very much adult takes on these tales.
The key to any evaluation of a particular genre, regardless of genre and subject matter: Is it good literature? Is it good writing? Does it extend the readers? Does it draw them in? Is it a good intellectual and creative product? How believable is the secondary world? Does the fantasy therefore encourage you to say, ‘Oh no, this is ridiculous?’ or are you intrigued? How effective is the opening? Are you encouraged to read on and forget that this is a made-up world? Is the story consistent? Is magic used to get out of plot holes, or is it used more as an embellishment? Does the fantasy world make you look afresh at your own world?
It is very easy to write cliched work. What has the author done to make their fantasy fresh and intriguing to draw you in? Cliche isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Young readers will read the same style of book over and over again. Young readers can be delighted to have 27 stories in the same series, even if it’s basically the same story each time.
Literary elements: What aspects of literature helps us determine good fantasy from the bad?
Character: Can you picture the main character straight away? Do you get a full view or is the character one-dimensional?
Setting: Especially in medieval stories, it’s easy to simply get facts wrong. Do you have a sense of the light? (The Australian light is very different from the light in a tropical forest.)
Plot: Do you know what happens? Are you able to figure things out from the details given? How does it end? (A lot of people don’t like the ending of Harry Potter, but endings are hard.) What causes the problem to emerge, what happens?
Who are we listening to? An external narrator, or through the eyes of characters? An issue with long series is that the reader is now more familiar with the world than the characters in it, so the reader will pick out inconsistencies easily.
Terry Pratchett’s series are humorous and satirical. He picks on the cliches and makes fun of everyday life. For example, he looks at the postal service, looking at the issue of lost mail.
“I think a lot about the fact that, for most of the history of literature that we know about, most literature was fantasy. Up through Shakespeare, it was not looked askance upon to have witches and magic and spirits in your stuff. The more time I spend reading and writing fantasy, the more perverse it seems to me that fiction has to pretend to act like the real world and obey the laws of thermodynamics.”
In some ways, kids like things to be right. Here is a video of a four-year-old girl complaining that the picture of a toy dinosaur is anatomically incorrect. (I’d like to see her do some work with Barbie.) In other ways, kids love to be drawn into fantastic worlds. Picturebook creators tread a fine line between the two expectations.
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.
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.
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.)
One option: PM and SW are totally separate. (Rowan of Rin.)
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)
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.
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 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.
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.