Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Twisted Winter

I’m not afraid of the dark. It’s streetlights I don’t like, especially those glaring orange sodium lights. Have you noticed how strange they make people look, on the street at night? How their faces go pale and bloodless, and their clothes turn a dark, dirty grey, no matter what colour they really are?  Have you noticed how hard it is even to see people properly – because the streetlights make them the same no-colour as everything else - as if they aren’t really there at all, just moving shadows? 
            There’s no such thing as colour. All those bright reds and blues and greens we see in daytime are only wavelengths.  What shows up under the orange streetlights is just as real as what you see in daylight.
           Maybe more real.

So begins my story "DARK", in this new anthology well-received by Amanda Craig in the Times last Saturday as 'a haunting, well-written collection of spooky short stories edited by Catherine Butler'. As you're reading this, I'm heading down to Brighton for the World Fantasy Convention. In the meantime, if you feel like some Hallowe'en tales, here's a look at the contents page.

My favourite may just be Frances Hardinge's beautifully creepy take on the Snow Queen - but then there's Susan Cooper's terrifying costume party, and Frances Thomas's eerie water spirit, and Liz Williams' poignant mix of Egyptian myth and dank English countryside - and Cathy Butler's very odd dog story, and Rhiannon's retelling of the Persephone myth - and - well, see for yourselves.

Happy Hallowe'en!

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Other Worlds (3)

My first of these three posts discussed the three classic fantasy worlds I grew up reading and loving: Narnia, Middle Earth and Earthsea.  In my second, last week, I talked about a variety of more recent fictional worlds.  In this post I want to ask the simple question: why?  What’s it all about?  Why bother to invent a world, anyway? And are all fantasies equal, or are some more equal than others?
For aren’t fantasy worlds merely the fictional equivalent of theme parks?  Places where you can go to see the dragons?  Easy options on the writers?  All you need is a few mountains – let’s call them the Eversnow Range; a deep and dark forest – Dimhurst, perhaps, or Tanglewood; a city on a hill – Goldthrone, or Valiance – oh, and a river to join them all together – and you’re away.  You people the place with a pseudo-medieval society operating on feudal principals, with peasants, thieves, soldiers, lords and a king – shake in supernatural creatures of your choice, and stir.  

Unfair?  Yes, terribly; and no, not at all.  This is the generic world Diana Wynne Jones christened Fantasyland.  And if any of you have missed out on her brilliantly witty and razor-sharp book mapping out the many, many clichés of fantasy – why, for example, the place is infested with leathery-winged avians, why visits to taverns nearly always involve brawls, and why so much stew is consumed – you need to read it.  It’s called ‘The Tough Guide to Fantasyland’: strap on your sword, pull on your boots and don that cloak: your quest is to go out and find it – now.  (At the very least, if you are a writer, it will encourage you to provide your characters with a more varied diet.) 

I’m thinking aloud here.  A fantasy world can have some or all of these components and be brilliant – or it may be really stale and clichéd.  These things by themselves are not what fantasy is really all about.  They are only the trappings of fantasy, and often pretty threadbare too.

Why should most fantasies describe medieval-style worlds?  I'm not saying they shouldn't: but why? Is it some kind of nostalgia? Why should swords be considered more picturesque than guns, when both are designed for killing people?  If ‘picturesque’ is really all we are aiming for, we have no business writing fantasy at all. The medievalism of most modern fantasy worlds is due to the influence of Lewis and Tolkien – both medieval scholars, both steeped in the worlds of Malory’s Morte D’Arthur, Spenser’s Faerie Queene, and the Norse mythologies – heavily filtered through  late Victorian romanticism. (Of course they could both read the Eddas in the original, but we know of  Lewis in particular that he first encountered the Norse legends as a boy, probably in a book looking something like the one pictured above - wonderful, isn't it?) And the Morte D’Arthur and the Faerie Queene are themselves exercises in nostalgia and romantic yearning for a golden age of chivalry that never was.  Malory was writing at a time of fierce civil war in England – the Wars of the Roses – and there’s a picturesque name for a nasty conflict. Arthur unifies Britain, then things fall apart: treachery overtakes the Round Table: Arthur dies.

Yet some men say in many parts of England that King Arthur is not dead, but had by the will of our Lord Jesu into another place; and men say that he will come again, and he shall win the holy cross.  I will not say that it shall be so, but rather I will say, here in this world he changed his life.  But many men say that there is written upon his tomb this verse: HIC IACET ARTHURUS, REX QUONDAM REXQUE FUTURUS.

This must have been cathartic stuff, back in the bloodstained fifteenth century.  It still is!  And then Edmund Spenser was as much engaged in national myth building as telling a story: Queen Elizabeth I as Gloriana: Tudor England as a European power.   And Wagner’s Ring cycle was part of 19th century German nationalism...  Smaug owes so much to Fafnir. 

I really have nothing against medievalism in fantasy per se: my own first three fantasies, the 'Troll' trilogy, are set Viking Scandinavia; and the fourth, Dark Angels, is set in the late 12th century.  I loved and love Malory, Tolkien, Lewis, the Eddas, The Faerie Queene, The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia, the Narnia stories, almost anything by Robin McKinley, and so on and on.  But these are stories, these are writers, who have something to say: something they throw their hearts into, something worth listening to even if in the end we don’t agree: because it’s sincere.  Medievalism by itself is not enough.  

There are badly written, badly conceived fantasy novels – just as there bad novels in other areas of fiction – which have given the genre a reputation for puerility, superficiality, escapism.  The ingredients are the sword and sorcery clichés: blond warriors with bulging muscles and magical swords, scantily clad nubile princesses, evil dark lords, bald executioners, battles to save the universe or at least the world, yawn, yawn… together with a giveaway coarseness of imagination, a lack of subtlety and moral depth: a readiness to assume that one side is right and the other wrong regardless of how they actually behave.  Thus in some fantasies, ‘heroes’ can perform feats of sadistic violence which readers are invited to admire – so long as the victims are labelled evil.

It may seem harmless, but I find this type of fantasy with its warped values especially disturbing when aimed at children and young adults, and it seems to me that the fantasy setting is used as an excuse.  “It’s not real,” we might imagine the author and publisher arguing: “it’s just a fantasy!”  The same kind of thinking takes children to visit the London Dungeon, a tourist attraction which makes entertainment out of ancient instruments of torture.  Because it seems ‘old fashioned’ and long ago, it’s somehow not real.  The owners wouldn’t dream of lining up busloads of schoolkids to see tableaux of waterboarding or electric wires being attached to the genitals – but thumbscrews and racks are all right, apparently.  Because no one really believes. No one uses their imagination sufficiently to understand that these things aren’t quaintly historical, but instruments of appalling cruelty.  

So when shouldn’t we write about fantasy worlds?  Well, we shouldn't be writing fantasy if we think using heroes and dark lords and dragons is an easier option than coming up with living, breathing characters. We shouldn't be writing fantasy if we think it's an easier proposition than researching a genuine historical period.  (It may be harder, coming up with a coherent world, from scratch!) Fantasy shouldn't be fancy-dress. 
And when should we be writing fantasy?  When that is the way the truth shows us it wants to appear.  When, as in poetry, there is no better way of saying what needs to be said.  When a story needs a dragon, not as a tired plot device or something for the hero to slay, but as a being which incorporates beauty, terror, greed, destruction, ancient knowledge – or even, as in Chinese legend, good fortune, harmony, the Tao - when such a dragon appears in all his fiery glory, we will apprehend something about the world in a more vivid, more complete way than we ever could without him.  Symbols are not there to be reduced to their meanings, they are there to enhance meanings, to help us understand the world more fully and to see it anew.  And this, to my mind, is what fantasy is for, too.


Picture credits:

Knight fighting dragon: Frontispiece to chapter 12 of 1905 edition of J. Allen St. John's The Face in the Pool, published 1905 Wikimedia Commons

Asgard & the Gods, photo, personal possession of Katherine Langrish

St Margaret with dragon: detail:  Schaezlerpalais Predella mit Heiligen, Bartolomeus Zeitblom, Wikimedia Commons

Saturday, 19 October 2013

Other Worlds (2)

Earthsea, Narnia, Middle Earth – the three classic fantasy worlds I talked about last week – are distinctive places. Most children – most people you meet – will have a pretty clear picture of at least the last two. If you were dropped at random into one of these worlds, you would soon be able to guess which one it was.

There has been a great deal of fantasy written since these worlds were created, but not much that competes with them in iconic status and recognisability. Try thinking of names of other worlds, and “Discworld” is the one that springs most readily to my mind.  At the borders where fantasy and science fiction blur, there may be others – "Dune", maybe - but what in fact are modern writers doing with fantasy worlds? Is sub-creation, as Lewis called it, their primary concern?

First of all there are the fantasy worlds which offer a slightly different version of our own. One example is Joan Aiken’s wonderful alternative Georgian England – not Georgian at all, of course, because the Stuart kings are still in power, and instead of Bonnie Prince Charlie, we have ‘Bonnie Prince Georgie’ and a whole series of wonderfully bizarre Hanoverian plots to bump off the reigning monarch and put him on the throne. We know we are not going to get historical accuracy, so we play a happy game of follow-my-leader through the wildest places. Pink whales (“Night Birds on Nantucket”), a sinister overweight fairy queen in a South American Welsh colony (“The Stolen Lake”), a plot to roll St Paul’s Cathedral into the Thames in the midst of a royal coronation (“The Cuckoo Tree”), foiled by tent-pegging it down from the back of a galloping elephant… That one initial twist, parting her fantasy world from history, gave Aiken permission to let her imagination loose. And her imagination was powerful, joyous, puckish. Her books are always full of energy, but they can also be eerie, sad. It’s a long walk in the dark/on the blind side of the moon, a character sings in one of her short stories; and it’s a long day without water/when the river’s gone…

Diana Wynne Jones followed Aiken’s lead: many of her books are set in alternative universes that closely parallel our own except for one crucial difference: the existence of magic. She goes so far as to suggest that the absence of magic in this world is something of an aberration. Each world diverges from the next in its series because of a different outcome to some historical event – Napoleon winning the Battle of Waterloo, for example. ( I suspect that Susanna Clarke, of "Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell", read Joan Aiken as a child: her marvellously convincing magical Regency England does seem to owe something, in the best possible sense, to Aiken's lively tales.) And the ‘In-Between Place’ in  Diana Wynne Jones's "The Lives of Christopher Chant" owes something in concept, though not in presentation, to CS Lewis’s ‘Wood Between the Worlds’ in 'The Magician’s Nephew': a neutral space, a jumping-off ground between universes.

Fascinating, fun, and sometimes thought-provoking, these books are not high fantasy in the classical sense. They don't offer self-contained Secondary Worlds like Middle Earth, or Narnia. But they share a purpose with the next one I’m coming to: Terry Pratchett’s ‘Discworld’.

Discworld has grown enormously over the series. It began – in “The Colour of Magic” as a spoof, a comic take on popular sword-and-sorcery novels. With characters like the incompetent wizard Rincewind and the warrior Cohen the Barbarian, it was brilliant comedy, spot on the mark. But Pratchett was too good a writer to remain content with such an easy target. The books rapidly became more serious of purpose (though still extremely entertaining). Discworld fits all the criteria for an instantly recognisable, self-contained imaginary world. It is carried through space by four elephants standing on the back of a giant turtle. It has a consistent geography, with its central mountain range at the Hub, the Ramtops, the city of Ankh-Morpork, the cabbage fields of Sto Lat; its directions (hubwards and rimwards rather than north and south ). There is nowhere quite like it... except that nearly everything in it is a deliberate borrowing from our own Earth, viewed through a distorting fantasy lens that paradoxically allows us to see it rather more clearly. I don’t know of a more passionate advocate than Pratchett for racial and sexual equality. We might be reading about dwarves and trolls, but we’re not fooled. When Commander Vimes employs trolls, werewolves, dwarves, zombies and vampires in the City Watch, it’s not because they all live together in Ankh Morpork like one big happy family. Read "Feet of Clay", read "Equal Rites". Discworld, like the worlds of Aiken and Wynne Jones, sets Pratchett free to say exactly what he wants in a way quite different but not less seriously intended than so-called ‘realistic’ fiction.

And so we move on to wholly self-contained invented worlds. (I’m still excluding Elfland, which seems to me a different kettle of fish, and I’ll explain why some other time.) Some have been created for the sheer delight of experiencing something fantastical and other: but in the best fantasy that is never the be-all and end-all. They still have something to say. Katherine Roberts’ Echorium Sequence is a good example:  it reminds me of the Earthsea books. In the first volume, "Song Quest":

The day everything changed, Singer Graia took Rialle’s class down the Five Thousand Steps to the west beach. They followed her eagerly enough. A Mainlander ship had broken up on the reef in the recent storms, and the Final Years were being allowed out of the Echorium to search for pieces of the wreck.

Already the reader has picked up hints of reservations about the culture which treats a shipwreck as an excuse for a class outing. The task of the Singers on the Island of Echoes is to spread healing and harmony; they are the diplomats of their world, and are able to talk with the Half-Creatures, such as the Merlee who live in the sea and are trawled for by sailors who sell their eggs as delicacies. The boy, Kherron running away and picked up by fishermen, is told:

“You wait right over there with your bucket. When we draw them in, there’ll be lots of wailing and shrieking. Don’t you take no notice. Soon as we toss you one of the fish people, you get right in there with your knife. No need to wait for ‘em to die first. They ain’t got no feelings like we humans do. Got that?”

Kherron does – but soon:

Soon he was surrounded by flapping rainbow tails, coils of silver hair tangled in seaweed, gaping mouths and gills, reaching hands, wet pleading eyes – and those terrible, terrible songs.
“Help us,” they seemed to say.
He shook his head. “I can’t help you,” he whispered... [He] watched his hand fumble in a pool of green slime and closed on the dagger. He began to hum softly. Challa, shh, Challa makes you dream...
The creatures’ struggles grew less violent. One by one their arms and tails flopped to the deck, and their luminous eyes closed. Kherron opened their guts as swiftly as her could and scooped out handfuls of their unborn children. It helped if he didn’t look at their faces. That way he could pretend they were just fish.

This is strong stuff, and Roberts is clearly interested in the differences between a superficial adherence to peace and harmony – the soothing songs of the Singers, the diplomatic missions – and the blood and guts reality that it may not be possible even literally to keep your hands clean. Colourful adventures in imaginary places don’t have to be anodyne: even heroes and heroines may do some very bad things. But in YA fiction, the learning process is usually what counts, and hope is never forgotten.

John Dickinson’s fantasy trilogy – beginning with ‘The Cup of the World’ (2004) – is a more downbeat series. You could almost call it a teenage 'Game of Thrones' - plenty of Machiavellian politics, less sex and violence. It’s set in a claustrophobic medieval-style kingdom, in a world pictured as held in a vast cup and circled by a snake or cosmic serpent. All of the characters are flawed: civil war is rife, and the main characters are themselves descendants of invaders from over the sea. Long ago, their ancestor Wulfram led his sons against the indigenous hill-people, whose goddess Beyah still weeps for the death of her son. It’s an intricate story which no brief summary can do justice: but the narrative is dark and fatalistic, with a gloom bordering at times on pessimism. This trilogy is a great corrective to the notion that fantasy is all about crude oppositions of good and bad, white and black. The main characters’ best intentions can lead to disaster, and often their intentions are selfish anyway. The descriptions of the world are lovingly detailed and rich, the writing is beautiful, and these are books I greatly admire.

Last, and more recent, Patrick Ness’s trilogy “Chaos Walking” is set on another planet. The border between sci-fi and fantasy is fuzzy at best. Is this a fantasy trilogy? Why not? There is no reason other than convention why a fantasy world has to be medieval. The books ask: is there ever an excuse for violence? And there isn’t a clear answer: Todd, the adolescent main character, has a good heart and wants to do the right thing. But how do you know what the right thing is? Can you trust your own judgement? Are people what they seem? Can even first love – the most intense of experiences – sometimes be a selfish excuse for doing harm to others? Like Katherine Roberts’ Kherron, Todd learns that you can’t always keep your hands clean.

I enjoyed “Chaos Walking” immensely, but began to feel towards the end that I could have done with just a little less non-stop, breathless action, and a little more world-building. This is a trilogy which takes the moral choice to the level of a sixty-a-day habit. I loved the first book the best, maybe because there was more leisure to examine Todd and Viola’s (and Manchee’s) surroundings:

The main bunch of apple trees are a little ways into the swamp, down a few paths and over a fallen log that Manchee always needs help to get over… 

The leap over the log is where the dark of the swamp really starts and the first thing you see are the old Spackle buildings, leaning out towards you from shadow, looking like melting blobs of tan-coloured ice cream except hut-sized. No one knows or can remember what they were ever s’posed to be…

… I start walking all slow-like up to the biggest of the melty ice-cream scoops. I stay outta the way of anything that might be looking out the little bendy triangle doorway… and look inside.

What will we see?

The accusation that fantasy is escapism has always seemed strange to me. Far from being away with the fairies, what fantasy writers do is to take that little step sideways out of this dimension so that they can turn around and take a really good look at this one. At its best, fantasy offers perspective, the chance to run thought experiments, the chance to alter history and see what might have happened. A chance to look at serious issues with the heat off: Terry Pratchett can tell stories about dwarfs and golems and trolls and really he's talking all the time, quite clearly, about race relations. And nobody accuses him of writing allegory, or preaching, either.  And it's all fabulously entertaining.

Next week I want to ask: Why do we do it? And what are the pitfalls? When shouldn’t you be writing fantasy?

What’s it all for?

Saturday, 12 October 2013

Other Worlds

This is the first of three 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 more recent ones.  (There's no way I can fit them all into one piece.)

And I’m not talking about Elfland, for that 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 which does share one characteristic with Elfland: 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, 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.  

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.