Sunday, 20 June 2010

Other Worlds

This will be the first of two posts about other worlds in children’s and YA fiction – about fantasy worlds; the sort of magical countries many children invent for themselves as refuges and playgrounds for the imagination. In this post I want to discuss the three classic fantasy worlds I entered as a child: in the next, I’d like to take a wander around some of the more recent ones.  (There's no way I can fit them all into one piece.) 

And I’m not talking about Elfland - which is a place no one invented, a place which in spite of its various glamours is always itself and always the same.  I’m talking about complete, self-contained worlds like Middle Earth which seem – in their own terms – solidly real. 
Of course the first such world to come my way was Narnia, a place which shares one characteristic with Elfland, in that it’s possible to get there from here.  I certainly wasn’t the only child to half-believe Narnia might really exist.  I don’t think I peered into wardrobes (though we had several that might have modelled for the one in the picture), but at the age of nine or ten my best friend and I longed terribly to get into Narnia ourselves – to wander through the woods talking to dryads, to sail those magical seas... 
...when they returned aft to the cabin and supper, and saw the whole western sky lit up with an immense crimson sunset, and thought of unknown lands on the Eastern rim of the world, Lucy felt that she was almost too happy to speak.
Lewis believed such longing was a common human experience; for him it suggested the existence of God, and I think he believed at least one of the purposes of art was to create a yearning for something above and beyond this world.   Whether he was right or not, I do know that he was enough of an artist to create a powerful yearning in many of his own readers.  I longed for Narnia at least as much as I longed for a pony of my own; and both desires, at the age of ten, could compare in strength of feeling and emotional highs and lows, with being in love. 

Having gobbled up the last of the Narnia books, I began writing my own.  (It was the next best thing to getting there.)  “Tales of Narnia”, I called it, and filled an old hardbacked exercise book with stories and pictures based on hints Lewis had left in the Seven Chronicles: “The Story of King Gale”, “Queen Camillo”, “The Seven Brothers of Shuddering Wood”, “The Lapsed Bear of Stormness”.  (You can see more of it here.) And I copied out Pauline Baynes’ map of Narnia in loving detail.  There it all was, as if looking down from an eagle’s eyrie:  the indented east coast with Glasswater Creek and Cair Paravel; Archenland to the south; Dancing Lawn and Aslan’s Howe and Lantern Waste in the centre of the map; Harfang and Ettinsmoor to the north.  Looked at in realistic terms, I suppose the map is really pretty sparse, but it didn’t matter.  Narnia isn’t the sort of fantasy world in which one worries about economics, transport, coinage, or supply and demand.  In fact, as soon as any of the characters start thinking in those terms themselves (Miraz, for example, or the governor of the Lone Islands) they get into trouble.  (“We call it ‘going bad’ in Narnia,” as Caspian magnificently remarks.)  Narnia self-corrects in that respect: it will allow the existence of a Witch Queen who rules over a century of winter, but it will not permit the existence of taxation and compulsory schooling.  This can hardly be because Lewis disapproved of taxation and compulsory schooling.   It’s because Narnia is a child’s world, and no ideal world for children is going to include anything so dull.
People talk a lot nowadays about the Narnia stories as religious allegories.  They really aren’t.  There is Christian symbolism in the books, but that is not at all the same thing. And it went clean over my head as a child.  Indeed, talking to some teenage Muslim girls lately, I got surprised looks when I mentioned the Christianity in the Narnia stories.  They hadn’t noticed it either; I had to explain why, how Aslan is a parallel to Christ.  I think Lewis, who only came to Christianity through stories, actually minded more about the story than the allegory.  It’s perfectly possible for a child to read “The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe” under the impression that Aslan is no more and no less than the literal account makes him: a wonderful, golden-maned, heroic Animal. I know, because that’s the way I read it, and that is why I loved him – the Platonic Form of the Lion, if you like, though I couldn’t have put it in those terms.  “The Last Battle”, in which the Christian parallels become more explicit, is far less popular with children, because everything goes wrong, and Narnia ceases to be, and Aslan turns into Someone Else: “And as He spoke, He no longer seemed to them like a lion...”  What?  What?  I didn’t want the new heaven and the new earth and the new, improved Narnia, thank you very much.  I wanted the old one, and Aslan the Lion, and things to go on as they always had. 
After Narnia, then where?  Luckily for us all, there was Middle Earth waiting to be explored.  Aged about nine, I’d paid a brief visit via “The Hobbit” and hadn’t liked the place at all.  I was sensitive to tone, and detected a certain flippancy and condescension in Tolkien’s writing.  Those elves at Rivendell, singing silly songs in the trees: “Oh tra-la-la-lally, come back to the valley,” indeed!  And the grumbling, cowardly, squabbling dwarves weren’t at all the sort of people I liked to be fictionally associated with. (Needless to say, this was a personal reaction, no more.  One of my daughters adored “The Hobbit”, and reading it aloud to her as an adult, I found it more tolerable than I’d remembered…)
I might never have picked up “The Lord of the Rings” if it hadn’t been recommended to me by my maths teacher Miss Parker who found me drawing dragons in the back of my exercise book.  I admired her (she was young, with short curly hair and a cheerful smile), so dutifully sought out “The Fellowship of the Ring” in the school library, and was swept away forever.  Gone was the semi-detached air of facetious patronage I’d disliked in “The Hobbit”:  here was a self-consistent written world that took itself entirely seriously. 
There was no way of getting there from here, no view from the outside.  If Middle Earth is connected with ours at all, it’s far away in the depths of time.  It’s a bigger, more grown-up place than Narnia, and an advantage of the quest theme is that we get to travel through it, solving one of the big problems with fantasy and sci-fi worlds:  Worlds are huge places, and one spot cannot be representative of all.  The length of the book ensures the sense of scale, too: travelling on foot, or at best by boat or on horseback, it takes the characters a realistically long time to get anywhere.  The detail of the journey is part of the pleasure: fantasies in which deserts, ice-caps, jungles and seas flash by at bewildering speed give me motion sickness.
Instead Tolkien loiters and lingers through the woods of the Shire: 
...after a time the trees began to close in again... then deep folds in the ground were discovered unexpectedly, like the ruts of great giant-wheels or wide moats and sunken roads long disused and choked with brambles.  These lay usually right across their line of march, and could only be crossed by scrambling down and out again, which was troublesome and difficult with the ponies. Each time they climbed down they found the hollow filled with thick bushes and matted undergrowth...
This richness of visual, almost tactile detail is what makes the world of “The Lord of The Rings” so particularly actual and real.  You feel you could dig a hole in the ground.  And note how Tolkien uses description to make us feel uneasy: those “sunken roads long disused”, who made them?  When, and for what purpose?  Though we never find out, I’m willing to bet that Tolkien knew, and it is such small touches that build up the sense of Middle Earth as a place with a deep and often unsettling past. 
Is it odd that the things which make a fantasy seem most real are the things borrowed from our own world?  Narnia often seems like a glorified Britain: those sunny woodlands with their ranks of blossoming cherries, those bright coves with their sea-splashed rocks, those dour rocky highlands patched with snow.  Middle Earth is a sort of ur-Europe, with its mountain ranges and plains and forests, all in the temperate zone.  (For some thoughts about Mordor, see my post here.) We hear vaguely of hot southern lands in both fantasies, and neither Lewis nor Tolkien treats the south fairly.  Calormen is an ‘Arabian Nights’ fantasyland, and Lewis avowedly hated the Arabian Nights.   (It’s probably unwise to try writing about something you hate, and no amount of special pleading can quite let him off the hook.  If you doubt this, imagine trying to explain to someone from Turkey or Iran, why this place whose entire idiom and setting is clearly based on an imaginary Baghdad, also includes the worship of Tash and a character like the Tisroc?)  Tolkien’s dark-skinned southerners (“swarthy men in red” with “black plaits of hair” and “brown hands”) from Far Harad are in league with Sauron.  In either case, the south is viewed as a place of delusion and error, of false opinions and false gods.  Though I noticed this as a child, I did not recognise it as prejudice.  Children accept things in books at face value.  This is why it is important to think about what they are being offered.   I certainly noticed – again without any sense of being taught a lesson – that the people in the next fantasy world I visited were all dark-skinned – except for the outlandish and savage Kargs. 
The island of Gont, a single mountain that lifts its peak a mile above the storm-racked North-east Sea, is a land famous for wizards.
So begins Ursula K LeGuin’s “A Wizard of Earthsea”, the third in the triumvirate of imaginary worlds I discovered as a child.  The Earthsea books aren’t a polemic.  They are not satire: white readers are not supposed to see themselves in the Kargs, like the Yahoos in Gulliver’s Travels.  LeGuin simply upends convention and supposes that for once, the ‘savages’ have white skin and blue eyes.  Here is a strength of fantasy, the chance to see and do things differently: how often is it taken advantage of?  I think writers often discover their own fantasy lands a bit at a time.  LeGuin began the Earthsea books by asking questions about wizards: must they always be old, like Gandalf and Merlin, with long white beards?  Why are they never young?  Gradually these questions led to others.  Why are wizards always male, anyway?  What is it about wisdom, that we always picture it in this male form?  Where do women come into it all?  When, eventually, Ged relinquishes his wizard’s power, he grows in wisdom and humanity. 
Once again there was a map, this time of islands like jigsaw pieces scattered across the sea. The Archipelago, with Havnor in the middle, the East Reach and the Kargad Lands; the West Reach, Pendor, and the Dragon’s Run.  Perhaps even more than in Middle Earth, there was a sense of space: you could take a boat like Lookfar, and sail and sail until you sailed right out of the Archipelago into the Open Sea, and find the colonies of the Raftmen who never come to land; and beyond that, what? 
And beyond that, what?  Because in many ways, the boundary of Earthsea isn’t a physical one at all.  We don’t know whether there are other islands beyond the rim of the horizon, or where the dragons come from.  The true limit of Earthsea is the wall of tumble-down stones that separates us from the land of the dead.  Here is Ged, trying to save a dying child:
Summoning his power all at once and with no thought for himself, he sent his spirit out after the child’s spirit, to bring it back home.  He called the child’s name, “Ioeth!”  ...Then he saw the little boy running fast and far ahead of him down a dark slope, the side of some vast hill.  There was no sound.  The stars above the hill were no stars his eyes had ever seen.  Yet he knew the constellations by name: the Sheaf, the Door, the One Who Turns, the Tree.  They were those stars that do not set, that are not paled by the coming of any day.  He had followed the dying child too far.
C.S. Lewis wrote of:  “That unnameable something, desire for which pierces us like a rapier at the smell of a bonfire, the sound of wild ducks flying overhead, the title of The Well at the World’s End, the opening lines of “Kubla Khan”, the morning cobwebs in late summer...”
Is it longing?  Or is it more simply a pang of mingled delight and pain: sic transit gloria mundi?  You can cram all things into a book.  There’s a fairytale (which A.S. Byatt retold in “Possession”) about someone who goes underground and discovers a miniaturised enchanted castle under a glass dome.  Fantasy worlds are a bit like that: little bottled universes that we can hold up to the light and use to examine huge questions about life and death and loss and the beauties and cruelties of the world.


  1. Gorgeous post! Evoked the feelings I had as a child reading Narnia, LOTR/The Hobbit and A Wizard of Earthsea for the first times.
    These posts of yours really are gifts. For writers, for readers of the children's literature genre to remind us why we love it so. Someday perhaps all of them will be made into a book.
    Thanks Kath.

  2. One reason I enjoy writing this blog so much is the feeling of having a conversation about the things I like best with other people for whom they are also important - so thanks right back for visiting and commenting.

  3. I came to these worlds a bit back-to-front - reading LOTR first, then the Hobbit, Wizard of Earthsea and Narnia books last of all when my eldest daughter read them. I have a suspicion that my parents may have frowned on 'make-believe' stories and my childhood reading was mainly of the Secret Seven type, until I was considered old enough to choose my own books from the local library.

  4. I very much enjoyed this, Kath. I too fell in love with Narnia, Earthsea, and Middle Earth, (read Lord of the Rings at least 16 times from ages 11 to, well, now!) and many other fantastical lands, which I spent many wonderful years in.
    Then much later, I made up my own, and it's just as satisfying.

  5. Another lover of this post right here! The last line, especially, is just so evocatively beautiful.

    I loved The Hobbit as a child, could take or leave the Narnia books (though I loved the 80s television series ... my brother and I got all the huge double cased video cassettes from the local library in the early 1990s) and only read Earthsea in the last year! But, whilst I completely respect Tolkien, I could not get on with the whole LOTR trilogy.

    Before the films came out, I wanted to read them all: the first I liked, the second I loved, the third I could not finish. I tried again at age 15 and couldn't get through the second book . . . next time I try I will either give up during the first or magically get through all three - needless to say, I'm going to pick my time for that attempt carefully!

  6. What a wonderful post! I love these books and the maps were so important to me in all of them. Seeing the map at the beginning always let me know that I was setting out on a great adventure (and seeing them posted here was lovely!). Looking forward to part 2!

  7. Hello, thankyou for dropping in on me.
    Yes, the Christian symbolism in Narnia went right over my head as a child too. Interestingly even some children I know who are being home-schooled because of their parents' religious convictions fail to see the Christian symbolism in the Narnia books. I do not think it is the way children see books. Looking forward to part 2 as well!

  8. Thanks for this post Katherine. I'm so loving your blog!

    You've managed to evoke all the magic of fantasy worlds and why we love them ... and why we love to write them.

    There's something truly magical about creating a world with places and cultures and people both unique and tantalizingly familiar. As an adult my yearning for such fantastical places is as strong as it ever was. ;)

  9. Really enjoyed this post, Kath - posted a comment yesterday, but it hasn't appeared for some reason. It said much the same as Cat's, plus that you've made me want to re-read The Wizard of Earthsea!

  10. Claire, yes - and I was delighted when I got a map in my first book, Troll Fell, as well. I always do work from a map; it helps keep the landscape real and consistent.

    Catdownunder, I agree - it's not the way children read books at all. Luckily for me, no helpful grown-up "explained the meaning". And in fact, to explain fantasy is to reduce, as in poetry. You end up with something less, and a lot less interesting.

    Pen, thanks - and how right you are. I often think ALL fiction is fantasy anyway - since none of it is 'true'. It is all creation of a world full of imaginary characters and places, so why quibble that dragons are MORE imaginary?

  11. (And Sue - oh good! Let's indulge in a little reading-fest!)

  12. Again - thank you for this Kathryn. I followed the same fantastical trajectory as you into Narnia, Middle Earth and Earthsea. I love a book with a map (I want one in my Scoresby Nab Saga) as, apparently did one Terry Pratchett on discovering LOTR.
    With the eye of my imagination, I still seek the landscapes of my bookish youth - I can't pass a standing stone or an eerie looking lake. Sad, eh?
    Looking forward to post II.

  13. Thanks for reminding me of Terry Pratchett!

  14. I had a very similar reaction to the religious, racial and political "meanings" that many see in these books. What I found in was wonder, joy and mystery, and only in hindsight can I see how else they could be interpreted. Now I find these "meanings" buzzing in my ear in an irritating way ("Did he mean that passage to be a parable for...")

    I grew up in South Africa - and so you would expect that I would be hyper aware of race - but I just accepted the racial makeup of Earthsea without the slightest surprise. I suppose that we have the precedent of "Vikings" as white barbarians, and it only occurred to me much later that there might be something unusual about this setup.

  15. Thanks, Masha - and by the way I paid a quick visit, and love your blog and drawings!

  16. I feel the need to defend C.S. Lewis here: undoubtedly he would say that there was no way one could capture the wonder he captures and ignites in the hearts of readers without a faint, even hidden, longing for the Christian God. That is, as Flannery O'Connor more or less says, any art that serves to create this longing is in the realm of Christian art. And so Narnia, A.S. Byatt, Ernest Hemingway, and probably all fairy tales, are Christian stories. Just not allegories.

  17. Wow - that's a very large assumption, Christie. And I think you're right, Lewis would very probably have agreed with you. But I think it's a position only tenable if you're already a believer, rather as Virgil was appropriated by medieval Christians as a prophet of Christ's coming - which is why he is Dante's guide in the Divine Comedy. It's a fascinating way of looking at stories, but not one I personally assent to.

  18. (By the way, that wasn't meant to sound dismissive! Thankyou very much for your comment here and on other posts on the blog! :))

  19. Katherine,

    I stumbled upon this post while looking for maps of Narnia, but took the time to read it, and found it to be quite lovely. I could relate with almost everything you wrote about. I wasn't aware of Earthsea, so I know I have something to look for!

    For those wanting to understand both Tolkien's and Lewis' view of fantasy/fairy-tales better, they each wrote wonderful essays about it. And from what I understand, had fun jabs and criticisms of each other's works, but also paid respects. If I remember correctly, I think the character Treebeard in LOTR was based largely on Lewis.

    I agree with the above comments that to the Christian reader there are certain parallels and glimpses into an underlying Christian worldview, which neither Tolkien or Lewis would deny. But I have a feeling that part of that is because a Christian reader is looking for those parallels too. Like you mentioned, Katherine, one of the beautiful parts of the these tales is that those things can go right over your head, with no loss to the story. The same can't be said for something like the Pilgrim's Progress - the whole point is to see the allegory.

    I'd be curious to hear your views on some of the other great children's series', such as that from Madeleine L'Engle, or even the Harry Potter books. They too take us to magical places, but ones with a relationship to our own world in a more concrete way - the same with Lewis' own Space Trilogy.

    Thanks again for the great read!

  20. Dear Anonymous - coming across your comment rather late, but thankyou for leaving it! I agree with your feeling that the other series you mention are connected to this world in a different and more concrete way. I could never quite get on with L'Engle's books - I wanted to like them better that I actually did - she seems a little preachy at times, but such a wonderful imagination. Mmm. I'll have to think on!