Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Travelling Fantasy Blog Tour: Children and Fantasy

This month the Travelling Fantasy Blog Tour discusses Children and Fantasy. It's my topic because this is the month my book The Constant Tower comes out. Although there is one adult POV in the novel, I think of Constant Tower as a young adult book because YA often deals with the fear of loss, the desire to please a parent, and other stuff that childhood nightmares, hopes, and fears are made of.

Fantasies and Fairytales often begin with a story about children or youths. Whether  or not, the child grows into adulthood during the course of  the story, one can be sure that the hero's life has been affected by some great trouble in his -- or his parent's-- past.  Trauma abounds in fantasy, and a novel that is conspicuously empty of children, childhood trauma, family issues, childhood betrayal just doesn't feel right. And a fantasy peopled with only adults (and without backstories or flashbacks) feels unreal.

That said, a story decides where to put children, and a story decides if it is going to be a YA story or an adult story. Childhood has its own fears; youths has its fears and wishes; adults fears, wishes, and regrets. An adult story containing children needs to deal with the child's fear/desire for its own  safety. It must identify with a child’s awe, powerlessness, or ignorance and the adult's response to that -- even if only in passing. A writer of an adult fantasy has to write from a child's viewpoint at one moment, and from the adult viewpoint at another.

Fantasy is as old as religion because fantasy often deals with the supernatural and with such mysterious things that cannot be guessed at by the rational mind but which can be understood with a childlike heart. To paraphrase St Paul wrote: We see now like people looking in a dark mirror but one day -- when we see God-- we will see clearly, as if seeing God face to face. And as Jesus Christ said, "Whoever does not have faith like a little child he will not see/receive the kingdom of God." So there is something in fantasy about "seeing" which Aristotle's effect on the Christian church attempts to put away. Thus adults are plagued with a desire to be rational and to "use their brains" while the primitive church considered childlike imagination and meditation a way of approaching the unknown.

In my opinion, the three most important aspects of  children are: A) their need for a loving, guiding parent B) their childlike -- often irrational-- way of looking at the world and C) their awareness of their own helplessness, powerlessness, and (for lack of a better word) ignorance of the world. But these three aspects of children are rarely shown in a realistic manner.

Offhand, I can only think of books like A High Wind in Jamaica, and Henry James "Turn of the Screw" where the child mind has been shown in its terrifying un-adult worldview. When the thought-life of children pop up in some fantasy stories, we usually end up with characters like the sister of Paul Atreides in Dune, kids so prescient that they are turned into wizened psychics. And children are generally not allowed to be too needy because in worlds where heroic stuff has to be done — childhood has to be amended, unless the helplessness of the child aids the hero/heroine's maternal streak. Generally, teen angst in fantasy spurs the main character onward. There are rites of passages, vengeance, and journeys to begin. 

In fantasies, kids are often freed from their bad destinies by going on a journey or they are pulled out of perfect Edenic homes and thrust into a cruel world. (Of course there are stories such as George MacDonald's "The Day Boy and The Night Girl" where the children aren't aware of the limited worldview they've been given by traumatized well-meaning parents.

But what if the Edenic world they were pulled from was not as perfect as it was supposed to be? Or what if they are unable to runaway? What does one do with that? And what if there are no adults around? Then the control of events is in the hand of a youthful character who is learning/discerning truths as he goes along.

The fantasy writer who writes about youthful characters must be both adult and child throughout the writing of the book. The adult reader will have to watch events with both a child's eye, and an adult's eye, perceiving disasters the child has yet to understand. But at the same time, the adult reader will encounter her youthful self and perhaps reconnect to her own forgotten childhood innocence. At the same time, a child who is reading the fantasy must learns and discern along with the youthful character. Perhaps he should know a little more than the main character in some things, and a little less in others. But at the end, there should be hope for both the youthful character and the youthful reader. . .whether the hero has had his adventure far from home, or whether he -- like those in my novel, The Constant Tower-- was forced to stay at home and endure. 

Other writers speak on this topic below:

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Fantastic Children
by Warren Rochelle
Children in fantasy, or children and fantasy or children’s fantasy—those seemed to be the three likely variants of this month’s topic for the Great Traveling Fantasy Roundtable Blog. Hmm, but what about fantastic children—children with magical powers? Such gifted and special beings do show up in children’s fantasy—and they are definitely children in fantasy—and, I would argue, they might also be the children that the children who read children’s fantasy yearn to be.

I certainly did. After reading The Chronicles of Narnia in third grade (and since reread many, many times), I wanted to have conversations with animals, go for morning rides in forests on the back of a centaur, saying hello to rabbits and squirrels who said hello back. But the Pevensies, for all that they becomes the Kings and Queens of Narnia, and manage to “clean up the messes made by adults,” are still English school children (Ford, Companion to Narnia, rev. ed., 2005 140). So is their cousin, Eustace, and so is his friend, Jill. They know magic is real; they can recognize by its feel, but they are not magical.

I so wanted to go to Narnia—okay, I still want to go to Narnia, but I wanted to be not just around the magical—I wanted to be magical. I can recall running on the playground in the sixth grade, at the ripe old age eleven or twelve, and running, running, and thinking if I just kept running, and with the right wind, that I could spread my arms, just like a plane, and fly.

I know, I know, fantasies of flight are not unusual. We all dream of it, often literally. And it is those children—the ones who can fly—that I want to consider here, the children in fantasy who are fantastic, the sons and daughters of the fey, the young witches and warlocks. I want to take a closer look at the fantastic children in two novels: the four of my own, Harvest of Changelings, and Harry in the first installment, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. There are quite a few others, of course, such as Will Stanton of Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series, the Princess Eilonwy in The Prydain Chronicles, and the young Ged in A Wizard of Earthsea.

In Harvest, none of the four—Jeff, Russell, Hazel, and Malachi— know they are magical in the beginning. The slow awakening of their magical abilities, such as flight (of course), teleportation, and being able to call up a wind or start a fire, comes as a surprise to all of them. This awakening becomes part of the personal growth and struggle and identity crisis of each of them—a coming of age, as it were—and is a dominant theme in the novel. Each of the four are already outsiders: Jeff and Russell are both learning disabled and survivors of abuse; Hazel is unusually gifted and has been raised by indifferent grandparents; and Malachi is marked by his size and appearance, and his intelligence. Learning that they are magical thus further sets them apart, even as it expands their notions of just how the world really is. They are no longer of the mundane. Their specialness is also that of mission, of quest—they discover that there are things they must do—that only they can do.  They are chosen ones, and they must confront evil.

These same patterns—and no, I didn’t do this on purpose—are easily discernible in Harry, who when we first meet him on 4 Privet Drive, is an outsider, living under the steps—not “normal” as his aunt and uncle profess to be.  They are Muggles—mundanes—Harry, like his parents, is not.  He is a wizard and like my protagonists, has to learn what this means and how to use these inborn powers deliberately and with intent. He, too, has to grow into his abilities, and this, too, is a struggle of identity and growth, a coming of age, of growing up. He, at least, can do this in a world where magic is acceptable, that of Hogwarts Academy and the rest of the wizarding community. Harry, “the boy who lived,” is, of course, the chosen one, fated to be the enemy of the great evil of Rowling’s universe, Voldemort.

Will Stanton turns out to be “the last of the Old Ones, immortals dedicated to keeping the world from domination by the Dark . . . [and] the force of the Dark is rising.” Another chosen one.  So is Ged. The still-all-too-human protagonists of these stories, as magical as they are, still have all the frailties and foibles and fears that are part of childhood, of growing up, of being human.  And yet, they have been chosen for great deeds. Grails await. The Pevensies are also apparently chosen—they fulfil an ancient prophecy; their rule restores the kingdom. Any unusual abilities seems only to come after death (but that is another essay).

It can’t be coincidence that I could also describe Jesus as a child in much the same way.

So, what is going on here with these gifted, fantastic children? Is it an inherent power of this great myth of the gifted, the chosen, the sent?  Is this, as C.S. Lewis argues, an affirmation of the truth of the Christian myth? Or, is this wish fulfillment?  Could these stories be an attempt, through metaphor and myth, to explain the truly gifted, such as Daniel Tammet, the autistic savant with his seemingly magical computational abilities, his unbelievable memory? A plot device? As our heroes learn to use and understand their magic; so does the reader. They ask the questions to understand what is happening, and so the reader comes to understand as well.

I think the answer to all these questions is yes. I think that when we encounter fantastic children—gifted, magical children—in fiction, and when we tell such stories, we are trying to explain what can’t be explained—the mysterious wiring of Tammet’s brain, the mysteries of religion—the mysteries of anyone who is given great abilities and the time and place to exercise them. As the heroes grow, so does the reader.

I still wish I could fly. I still want to go to Narnia.

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Warren Rochelle has taught English at the University of Mary Washington since 2000. His short story, "The Golden Boy” (published in The Silver Gryphon) was a Finalist for the 2004 Gaylactic Spectrum Award for Best Short Story and his novels include The Wild Boy (2001), Harvest of Changelings (2007), and The Called (2010. He also published a critical work on Le Guin and has academic articles in various journals and essay collections. His story, “The Boy on McGee Street” was published in Queer Fish 2 (Pink Narcissus Press, 2012).
http://warrenrochelle.com

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Children and/in Fantasy
by Sylvia Kelso


There’s always been a strong link between children, or the idea of children, and modern fantasy: partly through the juvenilizing of fairytales – Grimm’s collection were domestic rather than fairy stories – and partly through the tacit but powerful view that fantasy is the opposite of rationality, and hence something left behind, when, as St. Paul wrote, “a man” will “put away childish things.”

This is largely a view beginning with the Enlightenment, but fantasy has still had its English defenders, beginning with Coleridge, and  moving on of course, to that T-man, with the ground-breaking 1930s lecture “On  Fairy Stories.” Tolkien conflates fantasy and fairy story, and valorizes both, but predictably, he has to confront the “childish challenge” before he can defend the power of faery for adults.

Children AND fantasy is thus something of a default setting: as Tolkien noted, not all children are either enchanted by or even comprehend fairytales. Even Lewis Carroll can fail notably with children, beginning with me. I only read the Alice books with appreciation once I cd. identify the wicked parodies, eg. of Wordsworth, recognize the chess game moves, and understand the nonsense. As a child, I found the whole deal not only bewildering but at times outright menacing.

Children IN fantasy tends to branch out from this default connection. Being considered the rightful audience, children, it seems, are easy for adults to insert as characters IN fantasy/modern fairytales. Children are, perhaps, taken not only as the rightful audience, but thanks to their supposed readiness to accept the unreal, as fantasy’s best audience. As flow over, their presence in the text, especially as pov characters, not only offers a viewpoint child readers can readily accept,  but their acceptance of the unreal events presumably makes such credence easier for children outside the text. And partly, of course, modern fantasy and fairy tale stories were once, mostly written FOR children.

Modern fantasy starts around the turn of the 19th century, almost as a descendant of imperial romance (think Rider Haggard) and ghost stories (think Sheridan LeFanu.) Andrew Lang, Lord Dunsany, and perhaps most importantly, George McDonald, whose books span both adult and child audiences, seem to be the founders of the form.

In contrast, modern children’s fantasy starts about the same time as modern children’s fiction, sometime in the middle of the 19th Century. One of the earliest and most illustrious examples is Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies, which is not a fairytale, but is most certainly fantasy, and as a child, a beautiful illustrated edition had my whole-hearted allegiance.

As I recall it, Water Babies was notably clear of the problems that beset later children’s fantasy. One such problem emerged as my mate Natasha Giardina wrote her PhD thesis, on the transmission of ideologies through children’s fantasy; this was the uncertainty of the narrative voice. Adults until after WWII still seemed unsure how to write for children. For example, does the narrator try to speak as an omnipotent pov to children? (Yes, very often, cf. the asides in The Hobbit.) Does the quasi-adult voice work? (Not very comfortably, no.)  Does the narrator try to enter the child’s view point? (Occasionally, and not all that well, in pre WWII texts like The Hobbit. The one exception I can think of is Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons books. ) Worst of all, does the author, with or without using the narrator’s voice, attempt to preach? That is, to impress on the child reader, consciously or unconsciously, the morals, and more worryingly, the ideologies of the adult world?

The answer to the latter was a resounding Yes. Hardly surprising, since none of us can completely escape our culture and world-view, but very uncomfortable for the analyst, when such world-view includes racism and sexism – evident even in the Harry Potter books – as well as religion, as in the famous case of the Narnia books. In contrast, such preaching rarely occurs in adult-aimed fantasy. It seems a lasting adult assumption that children, even when reading for pleasure, have to be taught.

So children in fantasy may represent not only the primary audience, but also the work’s target, in moral and ideological terms: that is, what happens to child characters, what they learn or fail to learn, does not “simply” provide amusement, as for an adult  reader, but are a powerful socializing tool. “It’s only a story,” in a dismissive tone, with implicit rider, “and a kid’s story, what can it matter?” is one of the silliest assumptions ever made. To the child, lacking adult experience against which to test the text, it’s a manual for the world ahead, and what that  manual says can be easily be swallowed whole.

In adult-directed modern fantasy, children are not central characters, for the simple reason that a child protagonist instantly shifts the story to the Children’s or YA category. Children here are, at best, appurtenances – or perhaps hindrances – to the main characters. It’s a rare female fantasy protagonist who has even born a child, let alone takes one around with her.  I can think of only one novel, Pat Wrede’s Caught in Crystal , where the protagonist does actually take children on a Quest, and I can’t think of any male fantasy protagonist who does so. Some of them do have children, but usually these are shuffled off to the side, or hurriedly grown up to take a bigger part in the story.

The exception to the no-children rule is  the children who grow up, beginning with magical or other extraordinary powers and becoming, so often, the main character of the novel or series.  Perhaps the most powerful, certainly the most enchanting sections of T.H. White’s classic The Once and Future King, are those he didn’t get from Malory – the work on Wat’s adventures as a child.

But for the child who does not grow up in the course of events, most often, those with any important role in adult-aimed fantasy are those familiar characters, the youthful prince or princess who is a pawn in the power struggles of one or more kingdoms.  At times such children are befriended, protected, guarded, or their causes promoted by the adult protagonist or other characters, but they themselves have little part in the action. In Patricia McKillip’s Ombria in Shadow an orphaned ducal heir fulfills this role, and the main male and female characters largely act in his interests.

Tolkien, of course, had the best of both worlds with the hobbits. Their view point is central to both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, they are no bigger than well-grown children, and they can behave like children, particularly in Pippin’s case. Yet they are in fact adults, and longer-lived than humans – thirty-three, not twenty-one, is the age for hobbit maturity. So Middle-earth remains a domain where children’s wonder and innocence in the face of the unreal are central for readers of all ages, and a domain that both child and adult readers can enter without worrying about publishers’ categories. (Though I wouldn’t introduce the Black Riders in Book One to any child under ten, myself. )



Sylvia Kelso lives in North Queensland, Australia. She writes fantasy and SF set in analogue or alternate Australian settings. She has published six fantasy novels, two of which were finalists for best fantasy novel of the year in the Australian Aurealis genre fiction awards, and some short stories in Australian and US anthologies.  

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