fantasy and childhood

This is excepted from my 2009 book, A Guide to Fantasy Literature, now available as a Kindle eBook.

Fairy-Tale Fiction

A third ring of fantasy [of five discussed in this chapter], in many ways distinct from the sweeping canvas of High Fantasy and the rollicking escapades of Adventure Fantasy, is the delicate canvas of the Fairy Tale. While in many ways a smaller canvas, it is no less ambitious; think of a miniature painting, which still contains an entire world within its borders.

As a branch of fantasy literature, fairy-tale fantasy serves up a cluster of psychologically rich stories. These deep tales are rife with domestic problems, dreadful challenges, and astounding transformation and redemption.

The term “fairy tale” is misleading, as only a small number of such stories actually involve fairies. The German term for such stories is Märchen, freely translated as tales of wonder.

Fairy tales, and fiction that draws on those themes, range from “once upon a time” bedtime stories like Cinderella or The Little Mermaid, rooted in polished literary collections by writers such as Charles Perrault in the late 1600s or Hans Christian Andersen in the 1800s, up to modern stories by Angela Carter, Jane Yolen, Patricia McKillip, Donna Jo Napoli, and others.

While fairy tales were demoted in Victorian times to the nursery, their original sources in oral lore were powerful, often gruesome cautionary tales. Even the fairies for whom the genre is named were once held to be dangerous, annoyed if crossed, and prone to taking revenge in dreadful ways. Early collections of such tales by folklorists such as Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, who collected Germanic tales in the early 1800s, were full of awful, cruel behavior, mostly used to scare children into being good.

Over time, the fairy-tale stories in published forms were cleaned up and sanitized. In sweeter renditions, fairy tales made perfect bedtime stories for the child, nicely tucked into the cozy bed, on the boundary between being awake and crossing into the magical world of dreams.

Fairy tales have several significant features. First, they tend to deal with personal transformation. People (or creatures) change in dramatic, often miraculous ways. The ugly duckling is transformed into a beautiful swan, the toad into a prince, the cinder-maid into a princess, the fool into a wise person.

Second, these tales are easily recognized by their domestic settings, close to home, full of familiar detail. But in fairy tales, these are homes or villages full of shadows and sometimes hidden malice. On a very personal, psychological level, fairy tales explore some invisible boundary between the safety of home with proper behavior – ideally a place of good parents, obedient children, a loyal spouse, a protective lord not far away – and what happens when some boundary is overstepped.

Capricious dangers abound, in the dark forest nearby, or force their way into the cottage or manor house itself, to lurk in dark corners until the wrong word is said or wrong deed done.

The traditional tales so often introduce dangers from within or very near to home: the careless or evil parent, the jealous sibling, the scheming spouse, the old crone or strange man at the door.

In some cases, the transgression is caused by our own penchant for foolishness, vanity, greed, or curiosity, to transgress a command or forget a promise, to open the door or talk to strangers or look into the forbidden chest or mirror or behind the locked door.

When the stories venture outside the home, they quickly leave the relative security of the cottage, village, or protective castle to cross the boundary into the dark forest, the foreign land, the wilderness full of monsters.

The old versions of Cinderella, Snow White, Beauty and the Beast, or Little Red Riding Hood were full of this legacy of terrible deeds, dark shadows, and uncontrolled passions. As Donna Jo Napoli said in an interview:

Fairy tales deal with the evils we know exist in the 
world around us and in ourselves.
– interview (2001), with Philip Martin

Today’s authors use resilient forms of these old traditional tales to explore modern relationships. Their stories blend fairy-tale themes of mischief, malice, and moxie with contemporary issues of dysfunction, alienation, disenfranchisement, poverty, abuse. The evil stepparent, the child bride, the wicked witch, are reinterpreted to expose social injustices and evil deeds.

As Midori Snyder notes, in modern fiction today, Sleeping Beauty takes on new forms “as a helpless 1950s stay-at-home girl, a bold space opera heroine, an oppressed time-traveling queen, a stoic Holocaust survivor, a sexually abused child, and myriad others.”

Jane Yolen’s 1992 book Briar Rose, for instance, tackled the subject of the Holocaust with a fairy-tale approach, using not only themes from the Briar Rose/Sleeping Beauty story but also what Yolen called “fairy-tale logic,” which allowed her to imagine an escape from a concentration camp where in fact there had been none. In a 2001 interview about the novel, Yolen noted:

The idea for an adult novel on the subject “Briar Rose,” 
had come to me when I was watching the documentary “Shoah” in which the concentration camp Chelmno was described – a camp in a castle. Castle, barbed wire, and the gassing of innocent folk. It suggested the fairy tale “Sleeping Beauty” in a horrible way.

Even the Disney versions, those versions of fairy tales so popular with young viewers, often present a fairly evil villain. But the commercialized versions dilute the raw power of the tales, falling into a routine of sappy romances, comic sidekicks, and formulaic endings. As Jane Yolen pointed out in an essay, “Once Upon a Time”:

Cinderella, until lately, has never been a passive dreamer waiting for rescue. The fore-runners of the Ash-girl have 
all been hardy, active heroines who take their lives into their own hands and work out their own salvations. . . .

To make Cinderella less than she is, an ill-treated but 
passive princess awaiting rescue, cheapens our most 
cherished dreams and makes a mockery of the magic inside us all – the ability to change our lives. [The Disney film 
version] set a new pattern for Cinderella: a helpless, hapless, pitiable, useless heroine who has to be saved time and time again by the talking mice and birds because she is 
“off in a world of dreams.”

. . . Poor Cinderella, Poor us.

– Quoted by Terri Windling in “White as Snow: 
Fairy Tales and Fantasy,” introduction to Snow White, 
Blood Red (1993)

Fairy tales, and their modern expressions in fiction today, deal ultimately with choices we make every day: to help a stranger, face a fear, stand up to the powerful, or conquer our base instincts. The fairy tale often comes down in the end to a practical lesson, usually learned the hard way, of personal or household value – about the difference between foolishness and wisdom, cowardice and pluckiness, laziness and industry, dumb luck and just desserts.

They also explore the eventual redemption found in tales of wonder – the transformation or wisdom gained from fairy-tale’s school of hard knocks needed to live “happily ever after” in today’s uncertain world. Next time, we won’t waste our three wishes on sausages or make fun of the village fool or forget our promises.

While High Fantasy describes great battles to ultimately defeat great enemies, and Adventure Fantasy teaches codes of behavior to keep at bay the pesky and everpresent forces of chaos, Fairy-Tale Fiction reveals the closest evil, that dwelling within us, or within those in our immediate surroundings.

As Terri Windling wrote, a fairy tale “goes to the very heart of truth. It goes to the very hearts of men and women and speaks of the things it finds there: fear, courage, greed, compassion, loyalty, betrayal, despair, and wonder.”

We have met the enemy and he is us. Fairy tales have given us our most memorable villains: the jealous witch in Snow White, the stepsisters of Cinderella, the wolf of Little Red Riding Hood who takes the place of sweet grandmother. Are they not so villainous precisely because they reside so close to home?

[This is an excerpt from the chapter, “Types of Fantasy: Five Rings of Tradition” in A Guide to Fantasy Literature by Philip Martin (Crickhollow Books, 2009), which examines the significant differences between sub-genres of this literary field, named here as High Fantasy, Adventure Fantasy, Fairy-Tale Fiction, Magical Realism, and Dark Fantasy/Horror.]


This is either just a curious coincidence . . . or . . .

I happened to notice that three blockbuster works of fantasy all got published, at least according to the stories told by their own publishers, when a young reader of the manuscript (or self-published book in one of the cases below) happened to recommend the work to an adult parent who was influential in the literary world.

One somewhat recent case was the acquisition of young author Christopher Paolini’s first book, Eragon (the first in an eventual four books in his bestselling Inheritance cycle).

According to the UK’s The Guardian:

Novelist Carl Hiaasen was on a fishing holiday in the area; his stepson saw [Paolini’s self-published] book in a shop, read it, loved it and showed it to Hiaasen who immediately contacted his publishers [Knopf, where it ended up on the desk of Michelle Frey, who ended up making a mega-offer to Paolini]. Paolini’s feet have barely touched the ground since.

A similar young-reader-as-advocate story is told about the publishing of J.K. Rowling’s first Happy Potter book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (HP and the Sorcerer’s Stone in the U.S.). According to Bloomberg Businessweek:

It’s not every exec who turns to his 8-year-old daughter for advice. But that’s what publisher Nigel Newton did when he received a manuscript from an unknown children’s author in 1997. The founder of Bloomsbury Publishing PLC handed Alice a sheaf of papers and asked her to read them. “She came down from her room an hour later glowing, saying: ‘Dad, this is so much better than anything else,”‘ says the 49-year-old Newton.

The third example: the decision to acquire J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit was similarly influenced by a very young reader. Here’s the story, from the New York Times:

Rayner Unwin took charge of the publishing house George Allen & Unwin in 1968 after the death of his father, Sir Stanley. The senior Unwin paid his son a shilling when he was 10 to write a reader’s report on a manuscript by J. R. R. Tolkien called ”The Hobbit.” The title, published in 1937, became a classic. . . . ”My father still has a copy of that reader’s report,” said Merlin Unwin, who noted that it included observations in schoolboy handwriting like: ”This is an excellent book. This will appeal to all children between the ages of 7 and 9.”

Out of the mouths of babes . . .

I do suspect this is more than just a coincidence. It says a number of things about how fantasy novels (and many other works of fiction) are chosen for publication. First, for the work of new, unknown authors, it’s a non-scientific, somewhat random process of luck. Many good works, undoubtedly—and perhaps some great ones—never make it out of the slush-pile oblivion for lack of an enthusiastic and well-connected advocate.

It also says something about the basic appeal of fantasy and how it often crosses the “intended recommended age-categories” often assigned to books. The Harry Potter series and The Hobbit are preeminent examples; both were marketed at first as children’s books, but have achieved a devoted readership among adults.

And of course, good works of fantasy (like many good works of genre-based literature) are much-loved by readers, who appreciate a good story and the richness of adventure, magic, and all that . . . but this may be under-appreciated by acquisitions editors seeking more “literary’ (i.e., non-genre-tainted) standards. (In the case of Tolkien, The Hobbit helped to established its genre. But at the time, many literary reviewers did not know what to make of this strangely appealing tale.)

Perhaps there are lessons to be learned from these three bonanza-blockbuster tales of publishing serendipity.

(Blog post on the Creeping Past Dragons blog by Philip Martin, director of Great Lakes Literary and author of A Guide to Fantasy Literature.)

Neverland. It is the home of our eternal childhoods, with all those wonderful dreams and adventures.

In J.M. Barrie’s play and novel, Peter Pan, it is plural. There are many Neverlands, one for each of us.

With the death of Michael Jackson, a childish pop star on a strange quest for his lost youth, we all find ourselves reflecting on issues of childhood, fantasy worlds, and the reluctance of leaving a creative, carefree youth for the burdens of maturity.

While we must, perhaps, become grown-ups (drat!), we need not leave all things imaginative and fantastic behind. Our lasting love of great books for young readers, especially those of fantasy literature that celebrate the wonder of childhood, must reflect some bit of that in all of us.

Indeed, a good book is like the story of Peter Pan, the boy who never grew older. It never ages. We can pick up the novel Peter Pan, or The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, or Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, or (insert the name of your favorite here!), and remember being like those children, and travel with them on their adventures one more time.

if you haven’t read it, the story of Peter Pan by J.M. (James Matthew) Barrie is quite lovely, full of the Victorian whimsy that I’ve suggested is a cornerstone of modern fantasy.

Here’s a bit about Neverland.

I don’t know whether you have ever seen a map of a person’s mind. Doctors sometimes draw maps of other parts of you, and your own map can become intensely interesting, but catch them trying to draw a map of a child’s mind, which is not only confused, but keeps going round all the time. There are zigzag lines on it, just like your temperature on a card, and these are probably roads in the island, for the Neverland is always more or less an island, with astonishing splashes of colour here and there, and coral reefs and rakish-looking craft in the offing, and savages and lonely lairs, and gnomes who are mostly tailors, and caves through which a river runs, and princes with six elder brothers, and a hut fast going to decay, and one very small old lady with a hooked nose.

It would be an easy map if that were all, but there is also first day at school, religion, fathers, the round pond, needle-work, murders, hangings, verbs that take the dative, chocolate pudding day, getting into braces, say ninety-nine, three-pence for pulling out your tooth yourself, and so on, and either these are part of the island or they are another map showing through, and it is all rather confusing, especially as nothing will stand still.

Of course the Neverlands vary a good deal. John’s, for instance, had a lagoon with flamingoes flying over it at which John was shooting, while Michael, who was very small, had a flamingo with lagoons flying over it. John lived in a boat turned upside down on the sands, Michael in a wigwam, Wendy in a house of leaves deftly sewn together. John had no friends, Michael had friends at night, Wendy had a pet wolf forsaken by its parents, but on the whole the Neverlands have a family resemblance, and if they stood still in a row you could say of them that they have each other’s nose, and so forth. On these magic shores children at play are for ever beaching their coracles [simple boat]. We too have been there; we can still hear the sound of the surf, though we shall land no more.

Peter is a young boy, still with his baby teeth, and he stays that way. How old?

“I don’t know,” he replied uneasily, “but I am quite young. . . . Wendy, I ran away the day I was born.”
. . .
“It was because I heard father and mother,” he explained in a low voice, “talking about what I was to be when I became a man.” He was extraordinarily agitated now. “I don’t want ever to be a man,” he said with passion. “I want always to be a little boy and to have fun. So I ran away to Kensington Gardens and lived a long long time among the fairies.”

And he now lives with “the lost boys.”

“Who are they?”

“They are the children who fall out of their perambulators when the nurse is looking the other way. If they are not claimed in seven days they are sent far away to the Neverland to defray expenses. I’m captain.”

We’re all captains of our own Neverlands. If we have a good library of fantastic books, we can travel there anytime we like. Far better to do it in fiction, of course, than trying to change who we are physically, to try in vain to alter reality, as we can learn from the sad story of Michael Jackson.

(Blog post on the Creeping Past Dragons blog by Philip Martin, director of Great Lakes Literary and author of A Guide to Fantasy Literature.)