For much of the nineteenth century the development of children's fantasy beyond the European fairy tale was a British concern. Although Nathaniel Hawthorne's A Wonder-Book for Girls and Boys was published in 1852, it was to be the end of the century before American writers became extensively involved in the development of children's fantasy, and while fairy tales continued to develop in continental Europe, the more fantastical tales which departed from fairy were increasingly likely to be British.
Why the British should have developed the fantasy mode is unclear. Selma Lanes argues for an ‘often unacknowledged longing on the part of adults for celestial fare for young children’, but this still leaves the question of Why Britain? One factor may be that for much of the late eighteenth century the British were both cut off from the rest of Europe, thanks to the Napoleonic wars, and expanding into the Far East. The appeal of the exotic, from continental Europe and elsewhere, clearly fed a desire for something else, which can be seen in the art of the period: from the Boydell Shakespeare painting project (predominantly of A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Tempest) begun in 1786 as part of an attempt to foster a school of British historical art, to the much later paintings of the Pre-Raphaelites and the visionary artists like Richard Doyle, Richard Dadd and John Anster Fitzgerald, images of fairies and their cruelties have shaped many modern fantasies.
Victorian fantasy and fairy developed in Britain almost precisely alongside the great cultural shift which took place at the start of the nineteenth century, from a Britain which envied the civilization of others (from the French chef to the Chinese rooms in the Brighton Pavilion) to one which came to regard the cultural as well as material riches of the world as somehow British by right of innate superiority. Omnivorous collection of source material is one of the early hallmarks of the British children's fantasy in a period of intense cultural appropriation.
In Chapter 4 we argued that in the inter-war period myth, folk tale and fairy tale were mostly kept separate from fantasy: even in Patricia Lynch's The Turf-Cutter's Donkey (1934) which used all three, the result was three distinct sections with their own flavours. In the post-war period fantasy writers began to plunder the legendary archaeology of Britain. A new paganism, which we can see threaded through the fantasy writing of the 1970s, focused on a range of things: although Celtic lore was to recede into the background (taken up far more by US and Canadian writers who often continued to struggle with what Baum believed was a lack of indigenous material), English traditions were brought into focus. Englishness became, for the first time, a distinct trope in UK fantasy, and at the same time indigenous traditions were brought into the new fantasy of Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
Peter Bramwell has observed that despite the retellings from Lancelyn Green and others, the figure of Pan, and the classical tradition more generally, declined in children's literature in the post-war period. Pan seems to have retained only a small place in children's fiction up to the 1970s, reduced to appearing as a magical statue in Panchit's Secret by Vivienne Wayman (1975). Only later, as we shall see, did a revived interest in classicism reposition Pan in his homeland.
In the place of Pan arose an animism with its roots in a variety of factors, among them the emphasis on nature and the natural in the youth movements of Scouts and Guides, the rise of rambling as a leisure activity in Britain, and the deepening historical sensibility towards and encouragement of Englishness that we see in children's historical novels. Rosemary Sutcliff, one of the best children's historical writers of the period, allows both Tansy of the non-fantastical The Armourer's House (1951) and Jenny of The Roundabout Horse (1986) to be influenced by the magic of Midsummer's Eve. In The Queen Elizabeth Story (1952) Perdita is able to see the Pharisees because she was born on Midsummer's Eve.
Throughout this book we have seen a slow, progressive extension of the age groups for which children's fantasy was being written. By the 1980s it was clear that there was a developing teen market; as we entered the 1990s the sense that there was a distinction between children's fantasy and fantasy for teens became stronger, with clear markers separating the teen market from the children's market, to the degree that it no longer made sense for publishers and authors to conflate the two age groups and their literature. We need to emphasize, however, that there has never been a time when teens and adults did not continue to read fantasy written for children. As it is not possible to say that the age of a protagonist is an absolute indicator of the target market, in essence the division that emerged was between fiction which recognizes puberty and adolescence, and that which does not. This chapter is concerned entirely with that which does not.
Social realism in fantasy
In the late 1980s and early 1990s children's fantasy appeared to be in decline, overtaken by the demand for social realism. This change in the market was one of the contributing factors in the growing division between children's and teen or Young Adult fiction. Although books for both groups could include material that was quite threatening (particularly to parents), the influence of social realism made it likely that books for older children would tend to be more grim or violent. Books for children, however, tended towards younger protagonists, lighter endings, cartoon violence and no sex. Books for teens headed in the opposite direction. It became increasingly untenable to market traditional fantasy to older teens. This division between children's and Young Adult fiction can be disputed but it is the one we will use here.
Some children's writers whose careers continued felt it was possible to write both social realism and the fantastic. In the introduction to her 1971 collection West of Widdershins, Barbara Sleigh wrote: ‘Why should we feel that it [magic] should always be in period dress? Surely, if we look for it, it can be found in the class-room, the public parks, in anyone's back garden, even in supermarkets.’ She had already demonstrated how this might be done in her own Carbonel (1955), which we discussed in Chapter 5.
At the end of the 1980s some of the biggest hitters among teens were texts intended for adults but appropriated by children, such as the work of Stephen King, Anne Rice, David Eddings, V. C. Andrews and Terry Brooks, whose power was such that they sold across the market barriers which have shaped this narrative. However, the teen market itself was changing. By the late 1980s not only were most teens still in school, but middle-class US teens were expecting to spend another four years in college. By the end of the 1990s, there was an increasing chance that another two years would be added on to that. Although we have no figures, it is a fair guess that the more likely a teen was to be a reader, the more chance they would be facing this extended delay of full adulthood. Meanwhile, other aspects of adolescent life were changing. The teens who were the targets of the Young Adult movement in the 1970s lived in what to many contemporary Americans would now seem to be a startlingly liberal world: those teens could legally both drink and smoke. By the 1990s, almost every US state had drinking laws which ensured young adults could not drink legally and smoking was gradually becoming socially unacceptable in middle-class circles. While the UK did not experience this particular social change, by 2014 all UK children had to stay in full-time education until they were eighteen.
Growing to adulthood
In most of the fantasies written for children prior to the 1960s, young people were hardly ever shown growing to adulthood. Even during the 1970s this was uncommon; Lloyd Alexander's work is a rarity, and while Diana Wynne Jones's children sometimes grew up, as in Fire and Hemlock or The Time of the Ghost (both of which are actually flashback novels), their stories ended, as in Margaret Mahy's The Changeover, on the cusp of adolescence. The new teen market demanded that fantasy novels consider growing up as part of the development of character, and increasingly editors and librarians were arguing that readers should be able to find themselves inside the books they read.
The aim of this book is to bring together two traditions of criticism, that of the literature of the fantastic, and that of children's literature. In addition, this book aims to situate children's fantasy in the context of changing ideas of childhood across three centuries; and perhaps most crucially, to consider the effect which the extension of childhood has had upon the writing and publishing of children's fiction. It is a story of separate but overlapping traditions, that of the British Empire and later the Commonwealth, and that of the United States and eventually North America, and of European traditions that have influenced both.
The study of the literature of the fantastic is relatively recent, and in some ways still underdeveloped: the crucial critical texts in the field still number less than ten, and until recently focused primarily on defending and defining fantasy. That fantasy has needed defending stems from the division between high and low in our literary culture, in which belief in mimesis, the idea that a writer or artist can accurately describe reality, took centre stage. Kathryn Hume, in her landmark 1984 study Fantasy and Mimesis: Responses to Reality in Western Literature, wrote, ‘It is an astonishing tribute to the eloquence and rigour of Plato and Aristotle as originators of western critical theory that most subsequent critics have assumed mimetic representations to be the essential relationship between text and the real world’, but it is in some ways not astonishing at all. Christianity is a hybrid of Greek and Judaic ideas of the world: the first saw literature as primarily moral, the second as primarily historical. The Greek gods and their fantastical adventures were not moral, and to Christians were positively immoral; it was easiest to dismiss the unreality that they represented. Kathryn Hume constructs a critical thread through Tasso, Hobbes and David Hume, who, she reminds us, actually ‘disparages literary fantasy as a threat to sanity’. John Bunyan, author of one of the great taproot texts of the quest fantasy, explicitly denied that The Pilgrim's Progress was fantasy. During the Renaissance, perpetrators of such ‘lies’, from Boccaccio to Sir Philip Sidney, complained about those who criticized their work on these grounds.
Historians of children's literature begin their narratives in a variety of time periods, and with a specific range of texts, but these choices are not value neutral: each choice, for period or genre, tells the reader something about the historian's or critic's understanding of what childhood is, or what children's literature is. Children's fantasy has far stronger roots in tales of the fantastic than it does in tales for children: the history of children's fantasy is essentially one of appropriation, both children appropriating texts, and those who have written for children in the last three centuries appropriating and adapting their material for children. The close relationship between these processes may be one factor in the disproportionate representation of fantasy among those children's book titles which retain their popularity – beyond nostalgia – into the reading lives of adults.
Seth Lerer, in Children's Literature: A Reader's History, from Aesop to Harry Potter (2008), begins with the ancients and identifies children's literature less as a body of texts – which was generally shared with adults – than as a mode of delivery: the children of educated classical Greeks and Romans would have been introduced to the Iliad and the Aeneid, but would have been taught in excerpts, with an emphasis on memory, recitation and quotation, so that the well-rounded citizen could draw on a common culture of citizenry. This tradition lasted well into the twentieth century in the great British public schools and is well portrayed in that classic of children's literature, Tom Brown's Schooldays (1857) by Thomas Hughes. In this model of children's fiction, fiction is a thing for children, but not of them. It is a route out of childhood and into the adult world which does not treasure the child or childhood as something precious, and in which children's reading is contiguous with that of adults: it is primarily moralistic and therefore, as with Greek and Roman education, primarily civic.
This approach is valuable to the student of children's fantasy literature because much of what has become the matter (the themes or substance) of children's fantasy, particularly in the British tradition, is drawn from a core of texts never intended for children. One such text is the beast fable.
In the years between 1950 and 1990, the landscape of children's fantasy in the UK and the Commonwealth changed in both literal and metaphorical ways. The physically constrained fantasies of the previous fifty years fell away as children explored other lands; the depiction of childhood changed; and children gained access to a far greater moral space within the fantastic. As children's fictional playgrounds expanded, so too did their sense of self. The awareness of being a child in the world rather than a child at home became an important element of post-war fantasy, and children's adventures became less localized, instead becoming rooted in an awareness of landscape, whether that was in the country, in the city, in the present or across time.
The period was so prolific, and so important to the development of children's fantasy, that we have chosen to split it into three sections. This chapter is concerned with the influence of the war, and the intervention of C. S. Lewis in the shape of children's fantasy. Chapter 6 will explore the growing influence of folklore in the development of urban fantasy. Of the two chapters, Chapter 5 is overwhelmingly concerned with the development of a new British tradition, while Chapter 6 explores the development of new urban folklores and fantasies across the Commonwealth. Chapter 7 returns to many of the authors considered in Chapters 5 and 6, exploring the ways in which they shifted the rhetoric and import of fantasy for children, the effect of this on the development of fantasy for teens, and the closing of the gap between fantasy for children and fantasy for adults.
The quest story
The thirty years after the war would prove to be a golden age of children's fantasy, fixing some of the dominant forms of the genre long before they became common in fantasy for adults. In this period, with so little fantasy published in the adult market (the influential American Ballantine Adult Fantasy line did not begin until 1969), and with the gradual disappearance of the family reading market which had been the main outlet for much adventure fiction, both fantastical and mimetic, children's fantasy drove innovation.
Most of the great American children's classics of the nineteenth century, of course, are based in the realist tradition. Nineteenth-century American readers, writers and critics generally felt a very real antipathy to the fantastic. Maria Edgeworth (1767–1849), an Irish writer who was enormously popular in the United States, emphasized the current and the practical in her fiction, and had no truck with fairy lore. In his Preface to her Moral Tales, her father, the educational reformer Richard Lovell Edgeworth, praised her for showing how her protagonist's ‘romantic eccentricities’ get her in trouble and cause her to be ‘ashamed to acknowledge her former friends’. In 1839 the American educator Jacob Abbott, best remembered today for his realist and didactic children's books in the Rollo Holiday series, wrote with great feeling about the worthlessness of the shortcuts to happiness provided by such magical objects as Aladdin's lamp, indicating that he had not entirely understood the message of the story, which also taught the reader not to squander good fortune. Some years later, Samuel Griswold Goodrich (1793–1860), who, as Peter Parley, was the bestselling children's writer in America during the nineteenth century, declared that he despised fairy tales, Mother Goose and all things fantastic in children's literature, going so far as to argue that ‘much of the vice and crime in the world are to be imputed to these atrocious books put into the hands of children, and bringing them down, with more or less efficiency, to their own debased moral standard’. And yet, the United States was not devoid of fancy, nor did all writers and readers regard fancy as the road to dissolution; for some, as we shall see in this chapter, fancy and fantasy were part of the essential heritage of the American child.
Distrust of the fantastic
The folklore of the Europeans who settled in the New World was rich. Stories of fairies who moved to America along with the immigrants they had lived with and bedevilled in the Old Country are quite common. The descendants of immigrants from the Scottish Highlands were particularly likely to hold on to such stories and, in those areas most isolated from the homogenizing tendencies of US development, they thrived. Appalachia was particularly fertile soil for such tales.
As we discussed in Chapter 5, the influence of C. S. Lewis changed the shape of British children's fantasy, pushing it towards portals, myth-magic and destinarianism, and perhaps most important, towards what Marek Oziewicz has argued is the dominance of the mythopoeic; that is, the making of myths. As children's and teen fantasy developed in the 1960s, this element came sufficiently to the fore that it began to dominate the public perception of what fantasy was. In his book One Earth, One People (2008), Oziewicz writes of almost all the authors we will be discussing in this chapter that they have ‘strong convictions about fantasy as fulfilling vital human needs, as concerned with human values, and spiritual yearnings, and as grounded in archetypal patterns and poetic mode[s] of expression’. They also have an intense sense of seriousness, suggesting that the fantasy matters in a way that was absent from pre-1950s fantasy.
This sense of scaling up, of fantasy as containing universals, became in the 1960s and 1970s one of the dominant ways of critiquing the genre: it is no longer enough for the fantastic to disrupt the lives of children, for them to learn to negotiate the world around them; it is no longer enough for fantasy to intrude. Fantasy after fantasy has world-shattering consequences. The effect of this change can, perhaps, be best seen in the difference between the first three Enid Blytonesque Harry Potter books, and the following four, which moved us from the amusement of Hogwarts into the cataclysmic consequences of Lord Voldemort's war.
The changes that took place in fantasy in this period are several: first, the decisive move towards full secondary worlds totally separate from our own, like Middle Earth (although some, like Narnia, remain accessible through a portal); second, the increasing integration of myth and legend drawn by the British from their native traditions and those of Scandinavia, and by Americans, Canadians and Australians from much the same pool, until well into the 1990s; and third, the increasing role of the quest structure. This last narrative trajectory caught on substantially in the United States long before it became a strong trope in British and Commonwealth literature.
‘Inter-war’ is a politically coherent period in Europe: not a term usually used by American critics, it has a very specific cultural meaning. European history of these years feels bracketed by the two world wars. The period between 1918 and 1939 begins with depression, emerges into frivolity and optimism, crashes into the Depression, and ends with the sense from 1936 on that another European war is inevitable. It feels not like a period of peace, but a lull in which, for some, old certainties were to be clung to, while for others they were to be examined and rejected. The period saw the beginning of the end for Britain's Empire. By 1922 most of Ireland was independent of Britain, and became a full republic in 1948. In 1947 India would declare independence. But in the world of children's books this period remained predominantly an export-driven culture in which British books were sent to the colonies.
For a colonial author to be published in the UK in this period required them to be part of the UK community, as was the Australian P. L. Travers. Although a small number of books did travel from Canada and Australia to Britain, American books were yet to arrive in either Britain or the Empire, and for much of the twentieth century a child in New Zealand or Hong Kong was more likely to have read a British author than was an American child. Until very late in the period, the contained feeling of many of the fantasies discussed in this chapter reflects the period's unease, and so too does the sense conveyed in many of the texts that ‘out there’ is a dangerous place. But some of the crucial issues of the war years also appear: nationality, identities and origins, class antagonism, even the servant shortage that left many middle-class children to roam free relatively unsupervised. Yet, by the end of the nineteenth century a Canadian tradition and hints of an Irish tradition were emerging separately from the British tradition – traditions that were distinctly more rural, less contained and more engaged with the landscape than was the fantasy of Great Britain in the inter-war years.
The inter-war period is discrete in publishing terms: between 1910 and 1917 there is but one title in our bibliography.
Fantasy is not so much a mansion as a row of terraced houses, such as the one that entranced us in C. S. Lewis's The Magician's Nephew with its connecting attics, each with a door that leads into another world. There are shared walls, and a certain level of consensus around the basic bricks, but the internal décor can differ wildly, and the lives lived in these terraced houses are discrete yet overheard.
Fantasy literature has proven tremendously difficult to pin down. The major theorists in the field – Tzvetan Todorov, Rosemary Jackson, Kathryn Hume, W. R. Irwin and Colin Manlove – all agree that fantasy is about the construction of the impossible whereas science fiction may be about the unlikely, but is grounded in the scientifically possible. But from there these critics quickly depart, each to generate definitions of fantasy which include the texts that they value and exclude most of what general readers think of as fantasy. Most of them consider primarily texts of the nineteenth and early twentieth century. If we turn to twentieth-century fantasy, and in particular the commercially successful fantasy of the second half of the twentieth century, then, after Tolkien's classic essay, ‘On Fairy Stories’, the most valuable theoretical text for taking a definition of fantasy beyond preference and intuition is Brian Attebery's Strategies of Fantasy (1992). Building on his earlier book, The American Fantasy Tradition (1980), Attebery proposed that we view fantasy as a group of texts that share, to a greater degree or other, a cluster of common tropes which may be objects but which may also be narrative techniques.
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