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
https://calmgrove.wordpress.com/2013/11/11/kenning/). It’s possible that this may be typical of changing sensibilities, recognising fantasy’s ability to be a force for good in childhood development.