Fantasy in 20th Century Children’s Literature

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Most critics agree that children’s literature is a diverse paradoxical area of study combining different literary genres. Like the concept of childhood, children’s literature is a social and cultural concept that evolves over time. Since the fourteenth century, children’s literature has gone through different literary periods each defined by its own divisions and genres.

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Many children’s novels, such as J. M. Barrie’s Peter and Wendy, and C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe were published in the twentieth century and became classics. These books were marked with an increased diversity of literary genres such as mystery and fantasy literature. Fantasy literature has been a dominant literary genre in twentieth century children’s literature, particularly in Barrie’s and Lewis’s novels. In general, as a genre, fantasy literature integrates imaginative elements that shift away from reality into a secondary world.

Fantasy literature in the twentieth century, namely in Barrie’s Peter and Wendy and Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wadrobe serves to help children develop vast imagination, and through imagination it allows children to understand and resolve real-world social issues. Doubtless, most people would be able to name some of the features of fantasy literature. Richard Mathews in his book Fantasy: The Liberation of Imagination describes fantasy as a distinct literary genre that may be best thought of as a “fiction that elicits wonder through elements of the supernatural or impossible” (Matthews 2).

Fantasy literature assumes the existence of supernatural elements within the framework of a certain text. These supernatural elements can exist in many locations throughout the text: they may be buried in, or leak into the apparent real world setting, the case of the boy character Peter Pan and his fairy Tinker Bell in Barrie’s Peter and Wendy. Supernatural elements may also appear in a secondary world where characters are drawn into a world with such fantastical elements. Narnia in Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is an example of such setting.

The fictional realm of Narnia contains various mythical creatures, and magical occurrences. Narnian inhabitants such as Tumnus and the White Witch are themselves supernatural creatures with unusual traits often seen in European mythology and preceding British fairy tales. Fantasy literature can be categorized into two main sub-genres; high fantasy, which consists of a distinct entirely fictional secondary world, and low fantasy, characterized by being set in the real or primary world with the inclusion of supernatural elements. In almost all cases, supernatural elements shift events away from reality.

The secondary world operates according to its own rules and altered laws of reality, different in many ways from those in the primary world. Fantasy and supernatural occurrences in the secondary world are depicted as being “natural” within its boundaries. This feature is important in keeping the secondary world internally consistent. To maintain this inner uniformity, fantasy in this modified world must be realistic. Improbable fantastical events must appear probable within the framework of rules and laws in the secondary world.

As Aristotle puts it, “you can have a text that is improbable with reality as long as it is consistent. As long as the improbable is consistent, then fantasy is realistic”. Probable fantasy in the imaginative world is hence an essential prerequisite for Fantasy literature. The secondary imaginative world and the fantastical events that contain within play an important role in shaping the way Fantasy literature elicits a child reader response. Perhaps one of the most recognized characteristics of Fantasy literature is its appeal to imagination.

Fantasy stretches the imagination, enforces creative thinking and encourages dreams. Through the use of the supernatural elements in the secondary world, children travel on a journey fueled by imagination and inventive creation. The way Fantasy literature is received by children audience has a direct effect on the ideas and responses it elicits on them. The act of reading fantasy requires the use of the imagination. In this sense, a great deal of interplay between the writer and reader is present. Because the role of imagination is so important, children readers have much to contribute as they read fantasy.

In general, the writer provides the setting, characters, plot and other elements, but the children readers add their imagination to whatever the text allows. It is when children enter this secondary world, engaging with its characters and events that they become part of the story. They feel a sense of pride when characters rise to goodness and a sense of disappointment when the characters fail. Their sense of self and identity is fully shared with the characters as they live the experiences of the fantasy story. Take Barrie’s Neverland for example, a world without esponsibilities, filled with unlimited possibilities – seemingly all wishes of children come true. Neverland is a space where restrictive parents are absent, school is unheard of, and playtime is only interrupted by self-imagined meals (Barrie 113). At first glance, the ideal place to be as a child. Children readily associate with Neverland, this utopian world where everything is made possible stimulates their imagination. They imagine how seawaters are inhabited with mermaids, the endless fights with pirates, and the magic of fairy filling up woods (Barrie 116). Children create their own Neverland using their own imagination.

An interesting point to note is that even the story characters themselves in Peter and Wendy imagined their own Neverland. For Michael and John, Neverland was a dream, the extraordinary world they dreamed about when they were asleep and the place where they desired to live in real life. John’s Neverland for instance, “had a lagoon with flamingos flying over it at which John was shooting, while Michael, who was very small, had a flamingo with lagoons flying over it” (Barrie 74). Barrie’s story itself reflects a prime example of uncorrupted imagination through the child’s interactions with the text.

Barrie carefully explains that the Neverlands are located within the children’s minds, and although every Neverland is always more or less an island, each one will be uniquely individual. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Lewis creates Narnia and supernatural Narnian creatures to provoke wonder and imagination in the minds of children. Narnia offers children a separate world where they escape to allowing them to paint their own images of this far secondary world. Lewis further creates heroines, who are gifted in imagination and who readily accept Narnia, the fantasy world, as a valid reality.

One of the heroines, Lucy, goes into an enormous wardrobe and suddenly finds herself in this imaginary world, Narnia. Lucy felt a “little frightened, but she felt very inquisitive and excited as well” (Lewis 9). She later meets Mr. Tumnus, a Faun who asks her how she came to Narnia. Lucy, so puzzled, asks him: “Narnia? What’s that? ” (Lewis 11). Right from the start, Lewis engages children in this imaginative world. By showing Lucy’s vast imagination and acceptance of Narnia, children readers extend their imagination accordingly, and view this secondary world as a valid reality.

The heroines explore the new worlds of Narnia without hesitation. In Lewis’s book, the Pevensie siblings go through the Wardrobe to leave the primary world and enter into the secondary world, Narnia. The Wardrobe in the story functions as a portal between the two worlds. After reading The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, every child is left imagining the sight of wardrobes. This common and tangible object that most children had in their rooms during the time Lewis wrote his book opened a gateway of wonder, imagination and curiosity for the secondary world.

It is very interesting how Lewis takes ordinary familiar ingredients and transforms it in a certain way which fascinates children and stretches their imagination. Imagination is very important in allowing the child resolve real world issues. Fantasy literature, through the imagination elicited within its context plays a central role in promoting the idea of a capable wise child. Adults like to view children as innocent, unable to comprehend surround real life situations. Warner in Little Angels, Little Monsters refers to Kipling’s unforgettable vivid Mowgli, and J. M Barrie’s Peter Pan, the boy who would never grow. Both examples reveal the depth of adult investment in a utopian childhood image (Warner 134). Heywood, in Some Themes in the Cultural History of Childhood, refers to the ideal innocent child incapable of solving real world problems, as part of the nineteenth and twentieth century British culture (Heywood 34). Certainly, many other authors of the twentieth century including Barrie and Lewis tried to convey the image of the innocent powerless child, unable to comprehend universal situations.

This ideal image of childhood is seen in Barrie’s Peter Pan, as the boy who is “suspended in a state of perpetual childhood”, refusing to grow up (Cuthew 43). This eternal childhood is supported by Neverland, the secondary world where such attitude is cherished. Although this idea of innocent child is deeply integrated in the works of Barrie and Lewis, but without doubt, fantasy in both of Barrie’s and Lewis’s texts serves to promote a whole different role of the child. The secondary world, Narnia, provides a setting where children deal with issues universal to humankind and ones specifically associated with childhood and adolescence.

Both Lewis’s and Barrie’s child protagonists are faced with numerous epic challenges, journey and battles in the imaginary world. By using fantasy, and placing this struggle in a secondary fantasy world, children’s actions and decisions are given adult proportions and importance, whilst the safety remains in the known world to which they will return. As Zipes states, by using fantasy, the child understands universal situations in a complex, “adult-life” manner (Zipes 178). Warner believes adults see it as their task to socialize children and teach them how to work on real life issues (Warner 139).

In some cases even, children “outsmart adults (Warner 137). Warner further mentions Novalis who stresses on the importance of fantasy literature in creating an “intimate connection” between children and a wonderful, “free-floating world” of imagination (Warner 135). Novalis insists that the observable, active fantasy-life displayed by childrens books gives children access to a world of wisdom. For him, through myth and fairy tale, a child is seen as a “good deal cleverer and wiser than an adult”. Spielberg’s children characters in E. T and Back to the Future fiction films are prime examples of such children. Twentieth century fantasy literature particular to children’s authors such as Barrie and Lewis, enforces imagination to deal with universal social issues. The fantasy world contained within Barrie’s and Lewis’s texts allows children to rely on an imaginary world that will offer them order and meaning. In both Peter and Wendy and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the child protagonists, Peter Pan and the Pevensie children are sent on a fantasy adventure and they encounter various challenges.

Through their experiences, these child characters drive children to rely on their own imagination and creativity to solve problems around them. In bother novels, child protagonists are virtual role models for the child reader and so their actions and the way they deal with real life issues carry great relevance to the child reader. By allowing children make their own decisions, children are given agency and added responsibility. Children learn to use their own imagination and gain insight on how things should operate without adult rules hanging over their heads.

In Barrie’s book, the story character, Peter and Wendy go on a journey to Neverland, a world where restrictive parents are absent. Peter and Wendy face different challenges. Wendy mothers the Lost Boys; Peter has various encounters with Hook. In both cases, these two child figures are left without adult guidance. Despite the lack of parental rule, these children characters manage to face difficulties and apply their insight to solve problems that come across in Neverland. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe reflects another important example of children’s ability to comprehend certain moral and social issues without adult guidance.

In Lewis’s book, Edmund, the third oldest Pevensie child learns the importance of honesty and trust, and the severity of lying. When he is given Turkish delight the first time, he directly falls under the White Witch’s trap and agrees to bring back his siblings to her. All he wants is to “shovel down as much Turkish Delight as he could, and the more he ate the more he wanted to eat” (Lewis 38). Upon Edmunds betrayal to his siblings, Lucy notices the change of Edmund, because Edmund’s face is “flushed and strange” (Lewis 42) and he looks “awful” (Lewis 44).

This quotation indicates that a treacherous person has a different appearance. Without explicitly saying to the child, “you should not lie”, fantasy and fairy tales allow children to see the bonuses and consequences of virtues followed and disobeyed. Through fantasy, children are also allowed to come to their own consensus of the binaries of good and evil, right and wrong without having parents guide them through the entire learning process. Fantasy gives children the freedom to create their own set of morals through stories, characters and imaginative places.

Take Lewis’s treatment of the concepts of good and evil in Narnia. The Pevensie children are set on an adventure taking them into the fantasy world that is equipped with ideal tools for exploring good and evil. In this fantasy world, the children protagonists are offered many chances to use their own judgment in differentiating right from wrong. Lewis uses this secondary world to allow children see extremes of good and evil. On one hand, Lewis shows the White Witch, the evil queen of Narnia. She seems to abuse her evil powers and carries a wand that can turn creatures into stones.

On the other hand, Lewis shows Aslan, the king and God of Narnia. Aslan is a noble lion who sacrifices his life so that the Witch will spare Edmund. Not only does Lewis place his setting in a fantasy world, but he also takes advantage of fantastic creatures to stimulate the child reader’s sense of dread and imagination. These extreme Narnian characters offer two opposite extreme measures of good and evil for which children can compare to. By looking at real world issues, the child is able to deal with situations of good and evil the same way they were played out in the imaginary world.

The child is better able to understand his or her position in the world in relation to those around. Allowing the child to judge the good and evil can arguably be seen as means of socialization, a way of opening the child’s eyes to their surrounding society. Through eliciting imagination in children, twentieth century Fantasy literature has also highlighted social values of its period. Even in fantasy when authors write adventures taking place in a secondary world, it is quite difficult to escape certain institutions and values which make our society function.

Twentieth century Fantasy literature carried many adult social messages to children. As Henry Jenkins mentions in Introduction: Childhood Innocence and Other Modern Myths, children’s social learning is shaped both by “adult desires and childhood fantasies” (Jenkins 25). Warner further adds on the topic by saying that in society there is a deep involvement of adults in shaping children. As members of a functional society, how we treat children “really tests who were are and fundamentally conveys who we hope to be” (Warner, 137). British writers made comments on society and British life through children’s fantasy books.

For example, Lewis in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe mentions the Beaver family in Narnia. The Beaver family can be seen to function on the stereotypical model of a twentieth century British family. In one example, Mr. Beaver rushes out in the cold with Peter to provide food for the family, meanwhile “the girls were helping Mrs Beaver to fill the kettle and cut the bread” (Lewis 69). It can be argued that through Narnia, Lewis reflects the British life in the twentieth century where men spend long hours working away form home whereas mothers shield the home from the corruptions of the outside world (Jenkins, 7).

It is now agreed that twentieth century Fantasy literature is vital in the child’s development of imagination. Although children’s minds are less developed than adults’, their ability to imagine is far greater. Fantasy stories not only allow children to imagine other worlds, they let children create those worlds. Barrie and Lewis wrote for children in a sense that they used simpler language and fantastical settings. These authors tried to fully engage children readers with texts.

But, not for a moment did they underestimate the child’s ability to comprehend greater universal and social problems such as the arguments between siblings, the struggle to fight temptation and make the right decision, the importance of imagination in providing children with self-guidance and the ability of evaluating good and evil in society. Twentieth century British authors such as Barrie and Lewis also used Fantasy literature to comment on social issues of that period and reflect certain values of society. In twentieth century children’s literature, fantasy is not used to deceive but to enlighten.