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.