First, a confession. Writing this piece would be, I thought, a walk in the park. Years of working with children in public libraries and decades of reading fantasy and indeed writing it, would mean that a couple of hours work would result in a piece written that would be pithy and profound, balanced and comprehensive.
No such luck. Instead, I started to get lost in the thickets of all the fantasy worlds I had ever read about. It was not quite the Dark Wood of Dante’s Inferno, more an enchanted forest that I just didn’t want to leave. Starting to think about the dozens of books which formed me, not just as a writer for children, but as a person, had me wandering through internet sites in order to check totally extraneous details, following that fatal route to Amazon.co.uk where a childhood classic can be bought for just a couple of euros (until you add on the postage!), and remembering more and more writers of wonderful books, some of them no longer fashionable, some of them even out of print. My initial list became a tome, branching out everywhere into further connections, other great books. Desperate pruning was required, one path had to be chosen through the thickets and one trail of breadcrumbs followed if I was to hope of ever getting home.
So first of all, this piece is neither balanced nor comprehensive. The books I talk about here are the ones I know and love. Darren Shan may be wonderful, but I have never read him, so he’s not going to be discussed in this piece or included on the list at the end. This list names authors that I have not the space to discuss here, but who are well worth introducing to a new generation of readers.
First, let’s look at the classics; and now some further confessions. I never warmed to Alice (she seemed a bit of a know-it-all), mammy Wendy inPeter Pan irritated me – she should have been out there having adventures with the boys – and I felt that The Wind in the Willows went down the tubes when the story moved away from the adventures of Rat and Mole to those of obnoxious Mr Toad. I loved Edith Nesbitt’s books, however, and George Mac Donald’s and Hans Andersen’s stories, despite (or perhaps because of) their melancholy, totally engaged me. Andersen’s The Snow Queen, is to my mind, one of the greatest pieces of short fantasy ever written.
If we look further back, beyond the fairy tales of the historical past to the mythological stories of Greece and Rome, we find stories that are so powerful in themselves that almost any version is worth reading. But perhaps the best retellings, though most suitable for the 11+ age group, are the imaginative and subtle versions of the Greek myths in The Golden Shadow and The God Beneath the Sea, by Edward Blishen and Leon Garfield, complemented by Charles Keeping’s amazing illustrations.
Michael Ward has demonstrated how C.S Lewis’ classic Narnian books owe a great deal to Classical mythology, and these seven books must figure as required reading for any child interested in imaginative literature. Another wonderful writer for children, Philip Pullman, has put on record his hatred of Lewis’s work, and some of his criticisms are valid – Lewis lays on the Christian symbolism heavily at times, and his view of a woman’s role is unfortunately very much of his era. Even as a child, Aslan forbidding Lucy and Susan to engage in battles with the words “For battles are ugly when women fight in them” infuriated me as a baby feminist. It also, as a baby pacifist, had me asking the question – how can a battle be anything other than ugly? The apocalyptic The Last Battle upset me so much that even now, when I re-read it I have to skip the first part, when the talking beasts are being killed and the woods are being cut down. But what Pullman ignores in Lewis is his breath of imagination, and the sheer joy to be had by reading these books.
No child should miss the experience of being part of the great romp in Prince Caspian, where Aslan frees those have been enslaved; the dry (or should it be marshy?) humour of Puddleglum in The Silver Chair, or the wonderful description of the creation of Narnia in The Magician’s Nephew. Indeed, some might criticise Pullman for doing precisely what he criticises in Lewis. There is a very clear agenda in the marvellous Northern Lightstrilogy; but, as in Lewis, the agenda does not have to be taken on board in order to love the books. Children’s fantasy is not about belief or non-belief. It is about the immersion in another world. J.R.R. Tolkien’s world of Middle-Earth is perhaps the most fully realised one of all of these alternate worlds, a place where the reader, with the unlikely Hobbit heroes, can face evil and fear and sorrow and yet come home safely to the Shire.
Like Pullman, the great Alan Garner, despite his relatively small output, is one of the masters of fantasy with an uncompromisingly dark edge to it. Younger children will enjoy The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath, while older readers will have a greater sense of darker depths in Elidor and The Owl Service. The Owl Service, in particular, is a frightening book that pulls no punches when it comes to creating a sense of unease. In this it resembles Moon Eyes by Josephine Poole, a writer who has an amazing gift for creating tension. I read this when I was about 11, and have never forgotten the fear – there is a deep sense of real evil threatening Kate and her brother, left alone to the mercy of Aunt Rhonda and her mysterious dog, Moon Eyes. The outstanding fantasy author of the 1980s, the much-loved Roald Dahl, has the same ability to pull us into the dark side of the imagination; he refuses to write down to his audience. The Trunchbulls, the Wormwoods, the frightening witches of the book of the same name – all are terrifying, and all have the reality of a nightmare.
That same sense of threat is present in The Mouse and His Child, by the idiosyncratic American author Russell Hoban, though it is greatly leavened by humour. It tells the story of a clockwork father and son in search of a home, and their quest to become self-winding. On their travels they meet the evil Manny rat and the bossy pink elephant who turns out to be not so bad after all. The story contains more than a few philosophical insights from unlikely sources, such as the Bonzo Dog Food can, with it’s picture of the Last Visible Dog. On a lighter, though still sometimes philosophical note, we have T.H White’s The Sword in the Stone. T.H. White casts an irreverent eye over the early years of King Arthur – known as the Wart – and especially his relationship with his tutor Merlin, who keeps mice in his beard and as part of Wart’s education transforms him into a whole series of animals so that he may learn to be properly human. Perhaps the success of the series Merlin may act as an impetus for children to explore the Arthurian legends and this very funny book is a good starting point. American Robin McKinley has also produced renditions of popular tales such as Robin Hood in her novel The Outlaws of Sherwood. McKinley has also written many standalone novels including her two Damar novels The Blue Sword and The Hero and the Crown.
American authors tend to do humour well, and Peter S. Beagle’s books, such as The Last Unicorn manage to be humorous and touching at the same time. The prolific Joan Aiken has written a series of novels that are not quite fantasy, though set at an imaginary time in England’s history, but it is in her collections of short stories such as A Small Pince of Weather that her gift for humorous whimsy comes across most strongly. Madeleine L’Engle is another American writer somewhat similar to Joan Aiken; her best known book is A Wrinkle in Time, a fantasy based on science in which children must battle the prophetically named IT, the artificial mind which is trying to control the world. For older readers, Ursula Le Guin is a hugely prolific author who at 82 is still writing. The first books of the Earthsea series are perhaps the most engrossing, with the young magician Sparrowhawk fighting dragons and learning about his own shadow-self. Le Guin’s young adult books are also skilled – Threshold begins in the real world with a young man and a girl who have very real problems. For time-pressed teenagers, it also has the advantage of being very short
Le Guin is on record as hating the mini-series made of the Earthsea books. While there are notable exceptions, it is notoriously difficult to bring written fantasy to the screen. Elizabeth Goudge’s charming The Little White Horse was butchered by Hollywood’s attempt to show its subtleties on the big screen. Thankfully, no-one has tried to make a film of Lucy Boston’s Green Knowe series. For readers ages 8 – 11, they are most suitable for the quieter and more imaginative child. In the first book, The Children of Green Knowe, a small boy is sent to stay with his great-grandmother and discovers the mysterious life of a very ancient house, and how being alone does not necessarily mean that you have to be lonely. The sense of past and present intersecting is also very beautifully realised in Alison Uttley’s A Traveller in Time. It will be best appreciated by slightly older girls – yes, it even has a hint of a romance – and it takes the reader on a perilous journey to Elizabethan England.
And as for Irish writers? There are a number of very accomplished fantasy writers writing in Ireland at present – some of which are listed below. But I’m going to give my fantasy vote to an Irish book by an older author, Patricia Lynch. While it may be hard for a modern child to identify with Seumas and Eileen or indeed take Brogeen the Leprechaun too seriously, The Grey Goose of Kilnevin can still move young readers, with it’s mysterious swan children and its homely protagonist, Betsey the goose. Old readers might do worse than have a look at James Stephens’ The Crock of Gold – they may not understand a great deal of it (I’m not sure I do now) but even if it is not for every child, nor indeed for every adult, it is funny and whimsical and very slightly mad.
And should we be encouraging our children to read fantasy? Is it a retreat from the real world, a way of escaping problems? In the best fantasy, the world the child enters may be escape, but it is also a world where reader may in some way learn to deal with the problems of this one, and where it is shown that seemingly insurmountable obstacles can be defeated. The mythic themes that resonate so strongly through the genre are hard-wired into our consciousness as human beings. Fantasy is about expanding the imagination and it is about delight. So my final word is – these stories are too good to be left only to children. Take yourself on a trip to the enchanted forest. Here be dragons, monsters, witches and villains; but here is also the healing power of story and the chance to look into that bottomless, magic well; the profoundly deep places of the human imagination.
Other great fantasy writers – in no particular order:
Patricia Mc Killup
© EithneMassey October 2011
Eithne Massey is the author of The Secret of Kells and The Silver Stag of Bunratty and for younger children, Best-Loved Irish Legends and The Dreaming Tree. Her latest book is Where the Stones Sing, a historical fantasy set in Dublin during he time of the Black Death. Eithne will give a free reading from the book at 2.30 on the 1st November, in the atmospheric surroundings of the crypt of Christ Church Cathedral. All are welcome!