The reliability of reality


While skimming through Zoe Brooks’ online feed of articles about the genre of magic realism (or magical realism) — where Zoe had kindly referenced my post on Angela Carter’s The Magic Toyshop  — I came across an interesting if perhaps contentious article. Colleen Gillard dared to tell us ‘Why the British Tell Better Children’s Stories’ in The Atlantic (January 6th) by claiming that British history has encouraged fantastical myths and legends while American tales, coming from a Protestant tradition which saw itself as escaping from insular superstition, tended to focus on moral realism.

The article lines up an impressive array of examples from both sides of the divide. On the one hand you have The Wind in the Willows, Alice in Wonderland, Winnie-the-Pooh, Peter Pan, The Hobbit, James and the Giant Peach, Harry Potter, and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe; and on the other you have classics like The Call of the Wild, Charlotte’s Web, Little Women, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Pollyanna, The Little Engine That Could, even The Wizard of Oz and The Cat in the Hat.

From my point of view I can see exceptions, especially in British children’s fiction.

For example, against the sheer fantasy of Alice in Wonderland stands the preachiness of Charles Kingsley’s The Water-Babies (for all that he claims there is no moral), and the corpus of Victorian children’s tales isn’t lacking in pushing Christian virtues to the fore: think of Ruskin’s The King of the Golden River which imbibed its morality from the wellspring of the heavily-edited Grimm fairytales, for example. A century later C S Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, with its well-known Christian subtext, follows in a similar tradition. But, with my little knowledge of classic American juvenile fiction, I do find it difficult to conjure up instances of full-blooded fantasies free of Protestant vitues from across the Atlantic.

Quoting academic Meg Bateman Gillard suggests that a key difference between Britain and the US may be that Americans “lack the kind of ironic humor needed for questioning the reliability of reality,” supposedly very different from what the writer identifies as the wry, self-deprecating humour of the British. This means, she proposes, that American tales can come over as a bit “preachy” to a British audience; grounded in principles of self-impovement and advancement, Americans of European extraction may have lacked the same sense of their newfound landscape having the kind of antique mystery that their British and Irish counterparts did.

Jerry Griswold, another academic discussed in the article, identifies (in his study entitled Feeling Like a Kid: Childhood and Children’s Literature) five basic story mechanisms children find particularly compelling. These are (1) snug spaces, (2) small worlds, (3) scary villains, (4) lightness or flying, and (5) animated toys and talking animals. These are undoubtedly ‘all part of the serious business of make-believe’. Most successful children’s books, Griswold says, commonly include these same emotional themes. Why? “Kids think through their problems by creating fantasy worlds in ways adults don’t. Within these parallel universes, things can be solved, shaped and understood.”  Griswold believes that through children’s metaphorical re-enactment of these mechanisms “stories serve a purpose beyond pleasure, a purpose encoded in analogies. Story arcs, like dreams, have an almost biological function.”

I’m in no doubt that the whole gamut of fantasy — from myths through legends, folklore and fairytales, and on to literary genres like modern fantasy — weaves its spell on children of all ages because it speaks of greater truths than those contained in and constrained by any simplistic religious morality. If, as scholars like Griswold suggest, it appears that fantasy — “the established domain of British children’s literature” — is critical for childhood development, then is it surprising that it’s as popular as it is?

All is not lost, though. I detect (again, only through limited experience) that American fantasy literature is already tapping into a sensibility that is more pagan, occasionally more in tune with nature and deeply familiar with the deep well of history and tradition. Though set in New York Polly Shulman’s The Grimm Legacy (2010) mines the European fairytale legacy, while Cornelia Funke, a German author now living in the States, draws on the Grimm fairytales via a magic mirror (also in New York) in Reckless (2011) and its sequel. Rachel Hartman’s young adult novel Seraphina (2012) — along with its sequel — is set in a fantasy world involving dragons amongst touches of European medieval and Renaissance culture, for all that she’s North American through and through. And Lev Grossman’s adult fantasy The Magicians (2009) — also with sequels — plays inventively with Lewis’ Narnia conceit (but without the implicit religious dogma) and even explicitly references the Harry Potter books, while remaining for the most part on the East Coast. Whether drawing from dark Teutonic forests, mystical Celtic hills or forbidding medieval fortresses several North American fantasists seem intent on exploring the roots of magic and mysticism which their forebears from across the sea harboured.

Will they successfully transplant, or indeed have they already transplanted, the magic and Otherworldly denizens of Europe to the New World? Are Rip Van Winkle’s mysterious moonshine men still playing nine-pins in the Catskills?
I neglected to include another example of a recent US children’s fantasy which displays “the roots of magic and mysticism” from across the sea that I’d mentioned above: fellow blogger Lizzie Ross’ Kenning Magic (reviewed at It’s possible that this may be typical of changing sensibilities, recognising fantasy’s ability to be a force for good in childhood development.

14 thoughts on “The reliability of reality

  1. earthbalm

    Another thought-provoking post. I need time to consider this one. My knowledge of American children’s literature is even narrower than my knowledge of British.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ll take “thought-provoking”, Dale, thanks! The impression I get is that the US has a different kind of homegrown fantasy, the kind that goes for alien abduction, conspiracy theories and Scientology and less with the genius loci. But I’d be happy to be persuaded otherwise!


  2. I am a new author of children’s fantasy fiction – one who also called on knowledge of British history and folklore in writing my own work. I therefore found this to be a fascinating study. It’s one that does indeed prompt further thought. It did prompt me to to consider how that great US story-telling conglomerate, Disney, would be much poorer had it not been for the ready supply of excellent British fiction to feed it. Similarly, I’ve read a lot of fantasy fiction by US authors (I think I’ve listed a few on my own blog) and have found that (almost without exception) the tales have been heavily influenced by ‘old world’ influences. Game of Thrones is a case in point. Had G.R.R. Martin not been influenced by Hadrian’s Wall and the War of the Roses, the story would be a very different one, and probably not be experiencing its present measure of success.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Game of Thrones is an excellent example of the indebtedness of New World fantasy to Old World history and tradition, Steve, though I confess I haven’t tackled G R R Martin yet. I’ll have a good trawl through that list of yours. How’s your own novel doing? Hope to get round to it before too long!


    1. There you have me at a disadvantage, Elizabeth, as I have managed to avoid both books and films! I dare say you’re right, but I’d have to ask my daughter for details before saying yea or nay! Glad you liked this, anyway. 🙂


  3. This post is fascinating, Chris – real food for thought.
    That Protestant outlook could certainly be influential on which stories are popular in the States. According to this article
    the Harry Potter books are the most banned in America – largely because of their occult themes. Seems magic scares some Americans (at least many of those in authority) whilst it beguiles us. Though, of course, we have a strong Protestant influence in our own culture. An interesting topic.


    1. That’s an interesting point about Harry Potter, Lynn. An ABC poll in the US suggested that 83% of Americans identify themselves as Christians. “Most of the rest, 13 percent, have no religion. That leaves just 4 percent as adherents of all non-Christian religions combined — Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and a smattering of individual mentions.”

      On the other hand a 2014 survey found that a little over 50% of Britons had no religion whatsoever, and we do know that church attendance in the UK has been falling over the years, despite a resurgence in evangelical membership.

      So we can deduce that it’s not surprising that anything that smacks of the occult, magic or what could be interpreted as Satanism (!) is not going to be American flavour of any month soon! Even nature-worship (aka ecology) is going to be a red rag to many fundamentalist US Christians, so that any sense of continuity with a pagan past will be completely anathema to most of that 83%.

      Well, that’s the impression I get anyway! I could be barking up the wrong tree … oh no, that’s nature-worship, isn’t it?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. The 83% doesn’t surprise me. In a straw poll of American bloggers I’ve met online – and, as you know, there are many – there is only one who actually identifies himself as an atheist. Most others are clearly religious (many mention God in their writing, even though their blogs are nothing to do with religion). It’s almost the exact opposite of the UK, where you expect most people you meet to have no religion, or at least to be non committal on the subject.
        Interesting how we’ve secularised and the States hasn’t. There must be a whole PHD’s worth of study in the reasons why.

        Liked by 1 person

          1. Interesting. I knew that church and state are officially separate in the States and that strangely here, they’re not. I’m not sure if the argument is valid, though, that we would hold onto religion more tightly if we didn’t see Anglicanism as ‘free’. Didn’t we start this pull away from the church during the Enlightenment, as the nation was at the forefront of scientific discoveries and philosophies that argued against an omnipresent being? I don’t kow enough about the subject to judge for certain, but as an atheist who was confirmed an Anglican and educated as a Catholic – I find the conversation fascinating. Thanks for sharing the link 🙂

            Liked by 1 person

  4. Generalisations always draw attention to the exceptions, but that does not make them invalid. Having encountered children’s literature from UK and USA in almost equal measure, I would agree with the assessment that fantasy is more to the fore in the former and ‘reality’ plays a bigger part in the latter. It had just never struck me before.
    It is also illuminating that I endorse, and use freely, Griswold’s five elements, with an emphasis on talking animals rather than animated toys.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s interesting that you confirm the general pattern that fantasy is more prevalent in UK children’s literature, Col, especially given the privileged position you’re in. And even more fascinating that Griswold’s elements are present in your own writing — always good to get validation!

      Liked by 1 person

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