I remember the first time I read The Wind in the Willows – I wept profusely when I finished because I wanted it to go on forever. When we are children we have much better developed imaginations and have the time and inclination to allow ourselves to escape into flights of fancy. This is right and healthy as it helps the individual to develop into a whole and intelligent individual. In his ground-breaking study of the psychological functions of fairy tales, The Uses of Enchantment, Bruno Bettelheim concludes that “the minds of both creative and average children can be opened to an appreciation of all the higher things in life by fairy tales, from which they can move easily to enjoying the greatest works of literature and art.”
The development of fantasy itself owes a great deal to children’s literature, but this does not mean that fantasy is only for children. However, the Harry Potter books have made it trendy to read fantasy again, but I think it’s worth reminding ourselves of the great tradition that preceded Rowling’s books and helped children to grow up realising that it is okay to be imaginative and to continue dreaming.
Fairy tales were originally dark, horror stories told by word of mouth that became sanitised into nursery morality tales by Charles Perrault whose versions of ‘Sleeping Beauty’, ‘Little Red Riding Hood’, ‘Cinderella’ et al appeared in the 1690s. Then the Grimm brothers’ interpretations of such as ‘Hansel and Gretel’, Rapunzel’ and Rumplestiltskin’ appeared in 1812. Hans Christian Anderson on the other hand was more original, writing mostly his own folk tales, for example ‘The Ugly Duckling’, ‘The Little Mermaid’ and ‘The Tinder Box’, first published in 1835. Even Aesop’s Fables, the first anthropomorphic fantasies in which animals are given the attributes of humans, from the sixth century BC were originally intended as general folk tales.
Texts such as The Pilgrim’s Progress and Gulliver’s Travels are sometimes called children’s books, but were not aimed at children, only abridged and reprinted for the younger market. Swift’s comic masterpiece in its original form is biting political satire that includes grotesque and disturbing writing that was removed or ‘bowdlerised’. Whilst through the years many early books for children came in the form of poetry, such as William Blake’s Songs of Innocence (1789) and the wonderful nonsense verse of Edward Lear (1846), the first great children’s fantasy novel is Lewis Carroll’s unparalleled Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865).
Both Carroll (Rev. Charles Dodgson) and his book have been the subject of much literary analysis and psychological, particularly Freudian, scrutiny. Alice has been interpreted as a satire on Oxford academia or the court of Queen Victoria; it has also been considered to be a parody of the English legal system, or merely a study of the unconscious mind. Whatever the interpretation, it will always be haunted by the rumours about the relationship between the author and little Alice Liddell for whom it was written.
The novel is surreal, episodic, absurd, grotesque and haunting. Who could ever forget the Mad Hatter, the psychotic Queen, the leering Cheshire Cat, the sentimental Mock Turtle and the stoned Caterpillar? Carroll later wrote an afterword explaining how reading Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is similar to “that delicious dreamy feeling when one first wakes on a summer morning”. Through the Looking Glass (1871) is a more carefully structured book (based on chess moves) that contains the greatest nonsense poem of all time – ‘Jabberwocky’ and marvellous characters like Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Both Alice books are witty, playful and downright entertaining, full of clever conceits and genuine comedy.
Whilst much great children’s fiction was being produced the next major fantasy text to appear was L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz (1899), which was the first book to create a wholly American mythology. Particularly memorable is the anti-climax when the wizard, Great Oz, turns out to be a humbug balloonist and ventriloquist. Baum wrote fourteen Oz books about Ozma, Glinda, Jack Pumpkinhead and Tiktok, all full of magic and adventure. It’s a sign of our times that more people have seen the film than read the book of The Wizard of Oz, and Baum is still under-rated in American literary history. Apparently, the name Oz came from the third drawer on Baum’s filing cabinet where the files for O – Z were kept.
In terms of children’s fantasy an important author is E. Nesbit whose Five Children and It (1902) and The Phoenix and the Carpet (1904) are both novels about children finding magical creatures who grant wishes that only get them into trouble. Her fantasies are very much embedded in English culture. J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan was originally a stage play (1904) and has proved to be incredibly influential to both the stage and screen. The idea of never growing old has captured the imagination of millions.
1908 saw the publication of The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Graham – one of the best written children’s books. Charming, graceful and eternally enchanting it is full of laughter, happiness, danger, suspense and magic. It is strangely both simple and yet complex. The image of Mole and Ratty having their picnic by the pastoral idyll of the River Bank reminds me of those glorious summer holidays when I had not a care in the world; the blustering Toad dressed as a washerwoman, escaping prison filled me with delightful laughter; the fight with the weasels and stoats at Toad Hall terrified me beyond measure. And then there is what might be the most beautiful chapter ever written for children – ‘The Piper At the Gates of Dawn’ – a mystical interlude in which Rat and Mole meet the great god, Pan. The Wind in the Willows, more so than most children’s books, is one that can be reread and enjoyed by adults.
Like many classic children’s books, Doctor Doolittle (1920) has become more famous as a film, which is a shame as Hugh Lofting’s books are not only engaging and funny, but contain some extremely memorable characters. This series of books sustains a witty, light atmosphere alongside compelling and fantastical adventures (Hugh Lofting also included his own illustrations). The Doctor and his entourage go to Africa, to the moon, meet a creature who was alive before Noah’s flood and, of course, find the mythical pushme-pullyou. The Doctor Doolittle books have never gained the wider recognition they fully deserve but they certainly justify a respectful place on the shelves of any young fantasy fan. The Doctor is eternally optimistic and one of the most laid-back heroes encountered in literature. The idea of talking to animals must be one of the most popular fantasies amongst children (not to say adults – how many of us wish our pets could talk?)
Not much more can be said about A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh (1926), which has suffered from severe disneyfication, although the pictures in our minds are really those sketched by E.H. Shepard (who also drew the famous pictures of The Wind in the Willows). The bumbling bear of little brain, along with the boastful Tigger, brave little Piglet, the clinically depressed Eeyore, pompous Owl, the bumptious Rabbit and sensible Christopher Robin take on the typical roles of any self-respecting Harlequinade.
In the 1920s a writer appeared who became the most famous and well-read children’s author ever and yet who became rather unfairly maligned: Enid Blyton. Whilst the accusations of racial-stereotyping may have some foundation, she, more than any one single author, encouraged millions of children to read, much in the way the Harry Potter books are doing today. Although she is best known for her adventure books, her first full-length fiction work was The Wishing Chair (1937), that takes children into fairytale adventures and in terms of fantasy the marvellous creations in stories about The Magic Faraway Tree, which is a portal to a million different worlds, is a significant contribution that inspired the minds of countless young readers.
C.S. Lewis wrote The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950) as a consciously Christian fable, where Aslan is Christ resurrected by “Deep Magic from the dawn of Time”. The wardrobe is a brilliant conceit and the subsequent Narnia books are extremely literate and thrilling, making these the ultimate books to be read by children of all ages. It still surprises me that some people have read Harry Potter but not the Narnia Chronicles – surely some mistake!
From the 60s onwards children had the pleasure of reading Roald Dahl whose prose is tougher and more irreverent than most children’s books had been before. He appeals to the naughty child within us all and his books contain some of the most imaginative and original ideas ever seen in print. My own favourites are James and the Giant Peach (1961) and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964), which both owe something to the nonsense of Lewis Carroll.
At about the same time appeared another writer of great importance to fantasy in general, Alan Garner, whose mystical adventure stories appealed to older and more sophisticated readers. The novels tended to be more serious, containing some philosophical depth – perhaps some of the most literary of all children’s fantasy. These are the kind of books that would be enjoyed as much by adults. Michael Moorcock, for one has vociferously argued his preference for Garner over the safe and gentle nursery fables of Lewis and Tolkien. Garner’s fiction tends to contain echoes and analogies from Nordic and Celtic mythology.
Other important fantasy texts worthy of mention include Russell Hoban’s The Mouse and His Child (1967) about clockwork toys who attempt to discover who they are and how they work; Ted Hughes’ The Iron Man (1968) contains pathos and a brooding atmosphere, and last, but not least, Gerald Durrell’s greatly under-rated The Talking Parcel (1975) with cockatrices, griffons, moon-calves and a giant sea-serpent with an ear trumpet.
Today children’s literature is dominated by fantasy authors such as Brian Jacques, Terry Pratchett, Philip Pullman and David Almond and there is something of a renaissance in not only children’s literature but in fantasy itself. Most of the accolades are going to J.K. Rowling for the Harry Potter books, for which parents and English teachers are most grateful, but has anyone noticed how similar they are to a certain series of books by Ursula LeGuin that began with The Wizard of Earthsea (1968)? That’s about a boy who goes to wizard school and has adventures fighting against the dark forces of evil … oh!