Blaming Tolkien, Kate de Goldi

I’ve been reading children’s fantasy for 40 years. There are some gaps in my reading, and it’s true that if forced to choose between an unrelieved diet of fantasy or social realism, I’d go for the latter. It’s also true I have a stubborn dislike of The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) – book and films. But there is much fantasy that I love, though it’s the kind that fashions its story from an interplay between the supernatural and the real.

I like fantasy that rises out of a known landscape, a landscape evoked then transformed by magic, that becomes then more subtly understood by the reader – the geographies and imaginative worlds of William Mayne, say, of Alan Garner and Lucy Boston. Or fantasy that tweaks a recognisable domestic situation by way of magical intervention and shows the reader a super-charged “reality” and, simultaneously, the negotiations of family and community relationships – the fictions of Nesbit, Rumer Godden, Sylvia Waugh, and Lesley Howarth. Or fantasy that plays with time and history and so points up human weakness and generous gesture, their unfailing rondo through time – the fantasy of Penelope Farmer, Peter Dickinson, Susan Price, Joan Aiken. Or fantasy that inhabits and extends linguistic possibilities, that takes language to its outer reaches and so reminds the reader of the supernatural power of the word – the work of Geraldine McCaughrean, Jan Mark, Jill Paton Walsh, Lesley Howarth and William Mayne, again.

Above all, I like fantasy that investigates character and its shadowy facets, that reminds the reader of the complexity of human psychology – the fantasy of Catherine Storr, Robert Westall, Nancy Farmer, Jan Mark again, and always and always, William Mayne.

I see writing and reading as preoccupations principally with language: language at its fullest stretch – multi-faceted and playful, slippery and plastic; language that specifies and names and is simple, but language that is wide-open, too. Naturally story is important; story and language are as enmeshed and interdependent as rhythm and melody. But story disappoints when it is merely an inevitable progression of and then and then and then. Story – plot – is most persuasive when the writer has concentrated on the exploration of character, the interplay of one character with another or with the character of community – and this is no less the case in children’s literature, or in fantasy. The reason I’ve found much recent children’s fantasy so unsatisfactory is precisely its lack of exploration of character and language.

The structure and history of the genre are, I think, largely responsible. Take the Quest In Another World variation. With an archetypal adventure at its heart it is, by its nature, a narrative where plot is in the driver’s seat, and character – archetypal, and thus a stranger to nuance – is relegated to the boot of the car. I blame Tolkien. Frodo and his mates are stock characters – ciphers representing race and personality; the hunt for the ring is thus not about the progress and regress of complex and shifting character, rather it’s a seemingly perpetual series of set battle pieces.

The near-eternal journey punctuated by monotonous battle scenes is now a familiar formula in children’s fantasy. Much attention is lavished – à la Tolkien – on the creation of new species, battle co-ordinates, magical intervention, weaponry, power struggles and new languages; (sadly, linguistic adventure narrows to the creation of new vocabularies). Despite the plethora of new worlds, there’s rarely a sense of landscape or place, a feeling of the quotidian as it nudges characters’ more profound concerns. My frequent feeling at the end of much fantasy is something like C S Lewis’ inimitable words to JRR after a (doubtless) interminable dose of LOTR at one of the regular Inklings meetings: “Too many fucking elves, Tolkien.”

The tyranny of action bedevils most variants of the form. Harry Potter, Charlie Moon and their clones in the many portal, time-slip, wizard-world offerings are one-dimensional characters dropped into an action grid. And because the action – the good-vanquishes-evil imperative – is the writer’s pre-eminent concern the writing is verb driven – a genre and formula fiction hazard. The rhythmic and cadence variation, the linguistic texturing that comes with writing exploring interior processes or quiet character moments simply don’t occur. Nor are the fruitful byways of discursive dialogue taken – possibly because dialogue is the pre-eminent way to reveal character, and character simply isn’t the point. Dialogue in much fantasy is lamentable – stiff, inauthentic, unpersuasive, and hopelessly yoked to action.

Lesley Howarth shows how it can be done.  Her teenage character Maphead converses poignantly and wittily with the companions of his story. Maphead is a visitor to earth from the Subtle World, a teenage alien whose only mission is to discover what it is to be human.  This mostly involves hanging around in English
suburbia, talking and thinking. Things do happen, but always as a result of Maphead’s internal and complicated argument with himself. Maphead’s a superb fantasy – but one concerned with plumbing the mystery of human nature and interaction. No rings, no grails, no dragons, no Voldemorts, no wicked uncle Blah Blah, no fucking elves.

Susan Price’s Sterkam novels perform a similar service. Andrea is transported to the harsh world of 16th century English Border conflicts. There’s much action and a sensory feast for the reader, but the fantasy’s principal question is: how does a fat modern girl find love in a world so concerned with surfaces? By sending her protagonist back to an earlier century being plundered by 21st century corporations, Price is able to imaginatively confront the vexed realities of contemporary consumerism, eco- and sexual politics.

For the last couple of years I’ve facilitated a creative writing class on the young adult novel. It’s had excellent writers eager to get their teeth into the genre, interrogate it, reinvent it; writers embracing a range of forms and styles and propelled by a fascinating spread of obsessions. This is obsession as rendered by Annie Dillard, obsession as the true entry into fiction. “People love pretty much the same things best,” she has written. “A writer looking for subjects inquires not after what he loves best, but after what he alone loves at all.”

Our course has each time had a clear bifurcation of writers: social realists and fantasists. The social realists have pursued the Annie Dillard line – they’ve gnawed at an idea or character, a relationship, landscape or linguistic bone that has always preoccupied them. Their respective works show a thrilling variety of tone, subject matter, voice, vocabulary and character, relationship and story.

The fantasists, have, by contrast, consistently presented individual pieces that sound oddly similar. Their tonal range is restricted, the rhythms and beats of their sentence-making chime each with the other, their writing voices rhyme. I think this lack of variation comes about precisely because their subject matter and themes are predictable, are historically determined by the genre: there is the orphaned individual battling dark forces; there’s energetic species differentiation, which never quite moves into character exploration; there’s a new vocabulary, quaint but linguistically unlocatable; there’s internecine and interspecies power struggle, and, of course, battle and battle and battle.

Most interestingly, it’s become clear over each course that the sub-group of fantasists all perfectly understand each other. They debate vigorously the merits of differing weaponry, vocabulary, species etc; they recognise instantly the tropes of the genre they’re working in. Equally clearly, others in the class seldom know what the fantasists are talking about. The appropriateness, or not, of a crossbow, the probability of an elven character’s behaviour etc is, for the rest of the class, all discussion in a foreign tongue. They don’t recognise the co-ordinates of this fictional territory  because it has become – as the fantasy writers have become – a genre and a group increasingly talking to itself. This privileges the diamond-hard rules of fantasy over the more flexible, plumbable conventions of story-telling exploring the quiddities of character and circumstance in the real – or supernaturally tweaked – real world.

American children’s writer and critic Jane Yolen has written (somewhat fruitily) in Touch Magic (1981) about fantasy’s unrivalled gifts to the reading child. “Fantasy is a land where the tarradiddle, the fancy, the elaborated lie is king,” she observes. “And yet … the talking beasts, the ballet of birch and oak, the riders of the wind are another way of presenting the real world … the reader who learns to use eyes and ears and mind and heart in this manner can never again look at the world in a one-dimensional way.”

“A child who can love the oddities of a fantasy book cannot possibly be xenophobic as an adult,” Yolen further claims. “What is a different colour, a different culture, a different tongue, for a child who has already mastered Elvish, respected Puddleglums, or fallen under the spell of dark-skinned Ged, the greatest wizard Earthsea has ever known … ?”

Aligning herself with a bog-standard defence of fantasy that reaches back through Le Guin to Lewis and Tolkein, she insists that the form, as a “magic” story, pushes us past our initial perceptions into the world of the imagination. Lassooing Einstein for her argument, she asserts his notion of imagination having primacy over knowledge. No literature, she says, gives the template for imagination more palpably than fantasy. It creates worlds where justice and mercy go hand in hand. Where the streets are paved with gold, where a poor man and woman could become king. It tells us of the world as it should be.

My response to Yolen’s claims for fantasy in the face of current trends – published and nascent – is that a locked-up, codified genre is not saving young readers from one-dimensional perspectives, is not delivering unvarnished human truths; on the contrary, it is, by its nature, often fatally driven towards one-dimensionality and reductive platitudes. It is deeply resistant to the larger character-driven explorations of “realist” fictions, fictions that re-present the known world, its multiple and shifting “truths”, through the workings of detailed character, through the chance and colour of language’s shape-shifting. Further, fantasy, rather than privileging “imaginative adventure” is – because of its predictable shape, its tired language and themes – often fatally locking out imaginative meanderings.

And perhaps, in the end, my dislike of Yolen’s argument rests particularly in the heralding of imagination over knowledge. I greatly prefer Jan Mark’s approach to writing and reading: one should come out of a book, she suggests, knowing rather more about the workings of the world.


This Comment is an abbreviated version of a talk given in September 2004 at Victoria University of Wellington. Kate de Goldi’s most recent book Clubs is shortlisted in this year’s New Zealand Post Children’s Book Awards.


Tagged with: , ,
Posted in Comment
Search the archive
Search by category