In the first few months of this year I read in rapid succession 15 books that fall into the YA Fantasy slot. I got a great deal of pleasure out of doing so, but eventually my pleasure turned a little guilty and I deemed it time to take up more serious reading once again. I switched to Chomsky and Howard Zinn (EVER so serious…) but I also picked up a non-fic book by Diana Wynne Jones which turned out to more or less justify my appreciation for fantasy novels.
In her words, here’s one reason that I will continue to read them:
‘It does seem that a fantasy, working out in its own terms, stretching you beyond the normal concerns of your own life, gains you a peculiar charge of energy which inexplicably enriches you.’ – The Children In the Wood, 1981
It’s no shocker that DWJ would make a compelling case for reading fantasy stories, given that she spent four decades writing them. Reflections: On the Magic of Writing collects articles, lectures, talks, literary criticism, and autobiographical antidotes from throughout her career and offers an interesting peak into her thoughts and ideas. It’s an excellent book.
What follows are my own reflections on some of the things Jones talked about.
Something that emerges from the whole collection with particular fierceness is the intention behind Jones’ writing, the sense of responsibility she felt toward her audience, especially her young readers. Having once been one of those young readers, I feel extremely grateful that she never wrote a “goodie” book, that she never tried to mislead me about the realities of life, that she felt I could handle the rough stuff like pain and death and betrayal and kids using lighters, and that she recognized that I was a wonderful mix of nastiness and happiness.
Reading DWJ’s books and others like them at a young age impacted the way I view the world and my place in it, and continues to do so to this day. I have a hard time feeling hopeless. I won’t accept that ‘the only reality is dull and unpleasant‘ or that ‘being adult is very dreary because the world never gives you half of what you aim for.’ (A Whirlwind Tour of Australia, Lecture Two: Negatives and Positives in Children’s Literature, 1993)
In answer to the question “Why do you write for children?” Jones said:
‘There is one good reason. I would hope to encourage some part of one generation at least to use their minds as minds are supposed to be used. A book for children, like the myths and folktales that tend to slide into it, is really a blueprint for dealing with life. For that reason, it might have a happy ending, because nobody ever solved a problem while believing it was hopeless. It might put the aims and the solutions unrealistically high…but this is because it is better to aim for the moon and get halfway there than just to aim for the roof and get halfway upstairs. The blueprint should, I think, be an experience in all the meanings of the world...’ – Answers to Some Questions, 1997
Jones didn’t agree that adults aren’t really supposed to exercise their imaginations, or that ‘after the age of fourteen at the most, you have to close down one very large area of your brain.’ And even though most adults if pressed would probably say, “Well of course you shouldn’t!” it seems to me that there is a terrible lack of imagination in our current society.
People tend to not aim for the moon. They don’t imagine a different future. They achieve little, because ‘people’s achievements in life depend quite startlingly much on what they expect to achieve.’ You won’t get much if you don’t expect to get much, and so the vast majority of people in this country are stuck in jobs they hate, paying for college educations that cost them far too much, or not getting that education at all due to its price tag, allowing corporations to dictate what they consume, and standing by as obscene amounts of money are spent killing kids in far off countries.
Jones pointed out that her mother’s generation, who were drilled in reality and trained to despise anything that stunk of fantasy, somehow found Hitler and two World Wars to be credible. I’d say, even though Harry Potter has made it socially acceptable to at least read fantasy again, we’re not much better off these days. Most people still don’t bother to imagine that things don’t have to be the way they are.
WHY IS THIS? My brain slams into this wall again and again – because fantasizing and daydreaming come naturally to people. They’re ‘a very important part of the way your mind works.‘ Everyone can agree that humans are tool-making animals, and that a person has to imagine a tool before they can come up with one.
‘...the same sort of half-incredulous “What if?” applies to the most abstruse piece of engineering, except that here the laughter will be subsumed into a sort of keen enjoyment of the chase: “Nobody has done this before, but I’m going to do it all the same. What if I…?” Man, before anything, is a problem solver. We have evolved practically requiring to enjoy solving problems, and foremost among our means of doing so is the half-joking “What if?” of fantasy. … And of course it is fun, solving something. Look at Archimedes, rushing outside dripping and shouting. Naturally we enjoy fantasy.’
‘We also enjoy daydreaming… In some daydreams, our problems are simply miraculously solved. Here, we recognized the problem and lowered the level of pain from it. Nobody ever solved anything while worried and hurting. That is one part of fantasizing. The other part is the actual practicing of situations in our heads. … Both prepare you for a version of the situation in actuality. Without either, you really do not find it easy to distinguish the credible from the unbelievable, the obscene from the silly joke.‘
– Answers to Some Questions, 1997
That kid daydreaming in the classroom, not paying attention, attention deficient perhaps, imagining too much, asking too many “What if?”s, disrupting the classroom, annoying the teacher, annoying their parents – gets diagnosed, gets medicated, and there’s part of the answer to my WHY IS THIS? question.
Such a kid might still read Harry Potter, but will be told that such things lie firmly in the world of fantasy and have no relation to actual life – ‘that what a person has in his or her head does not exist in everyday life.’ Harry Potter actually contributes to this line of thought in a terrible way, by drawing an outrageously thick line between the world of the Muggles and the world of the Magical.
This separation between what you imagine and the real world is dangerous. It allows people to think that what is accomplished in the worlds of these stories isn’t possible in the real world. People are worried that kids (and many adults too) will get so caught up in role-playing games and fantasy novels that they will cease to be able to distinguish these worlds from the real one. Too many people then compartmentalize certain types of behavior, unable to see that there is a place for, and indeed an absolute need, for Frodo and Sam, for Gandalf, for Aragorn in the real world. There are dragons to fight, quests to go on, Dark Lords to destroy aplenty in the real world.
Fantasy isn’t an escape. Fantasy is a blueprint, as Jones puts it.
‘Imagination doesn’t just mean making things up. It means thinking things through, solving them, or hoping to do so, and being just distant enough to be able to laugh at things that are normally painful.’ – A Whirlwind Tour of Australia, Lecture Three: Why Don’t You Write Real Books? 1987
‘A further beauty is that in such stories you find all the troubles and problems of this modern age…becoming timeless and distanced, so that you can walk round them and examine them without feeling helpless. This is where fantasy performs the same function as joking, but on a deeper level, and solves your problems while keeping you sane. It is no accident that the majority of folktales at least have a happy ending. Most of them are very deep-level blueprints of how to aim for the moon. The happy ending does not only give you gratification as you read it, but it also gives you hope that, just maybe, a fortunate outcome could be possible.’ – A Whirlwind Tour of Australia, Lecture Two: Negatives and Positives in Children’s Literature, 1993
All of this is pounding through my head as I continue to read A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn. Over and over again in this book, he tells the story of a little group of people who dreamed of something better and went after it. And failed, to greater or lesser extent, repeatedly. Aiming for the moon and making it halfway there – so much better than aiming for the roof and making it halfway upstairs! And eventually these people got the things they had dared to imagine – the slaves became free; women got the vote; unions organized and got better pay and shorter hours for the workers. These little people, these Frodos and Sams and Merrys and Pippins went up against the Saurons of the real world, and it was mostly horrible and hard and dangerous and people died, but occasionally they won and got what you could call a happy ending.
Zinn’s book casts a glaring light on the fact that it’s always a false ending though – there’s always the next thing, the next injustice, the next quest. The patterns repeat, and some days I feel like nothing has changed or been accomplished. That’s entirely untrue though, as history – both Zinn’s version and that of others – can attest to.
The current state of affairs in this country makes me nervous though. It frustrates me. Sometimes it sends me spinning hair-raisingly close to feeling hopeless. Our medicated, overworked, stressed out, TV-drenched population is restless and discontent, but also comfortable and lazy, and mostly unable to imagine something different it seems. We often can’t even see the damn moon through the smog, so how can we hope to aim for it?
People want to go on quests and fight dragons, as evidenced by the popularity of role-playing online games, video games, and TV shows full of adventure. We’re in the habit of living vicariously through others though – watching other people play sports, travel the world eating weird food, and do strange and dangerous jobs like catch crabs or go logging. Our brains tap into the things we’re watching and allow us to experience them to a degree that seems to satisfy most people.
I am absolutely guilty of this myself at times. I’ve caught myself contentedly watching hour after hour of Doctor Who only to realize that he would never spend even one hour sitting on his bum watching TV. He’d be too busy fighting injustice and saving the world and interacting with people and generally carrying on and having adventures. This realization has caused me to dash out of the house in search of an encounter with a real, complicated person or situation. I don’t want to necessarily demonize television, but it is certainly another part of the answer to my WHY IS THIS? question from before.
My life these days is an adventure in imagining a different world – one where education doesn’t cost so much money, and people live in proper homes, and communities help each other out, and kids don’t have the imaginations medicated out of them, and no one has to eat shitty food. In order to help create this world, I set off on a quest last year and I’m still tramping along. Comparatively it’s been a comfy quest. I have mostly been well fed and warm, haven’t been chased by any monsters or gotten waylaid by highwaymen. I haven’t accidentally wandered into an enchantment. I’ve meet mysterious strangers along the way, gotten hung up in certain small villages for longer than I anticipated, fallen off the wagon once or twice. It’s been hard at times, even the tiniest bit dangerous. I’ve been challenged in ways I never anticipated. My way hasn’t always been clear, but I continue to follow my feet and the road does go ever on and on. I’ve met others who are on their own quests, and we’ve swapped stories and traveled together for awhile. I have hopefully inspired one or two people along the way to daydream about a different world too, and perhaps even to set off and head there and back again.
Thanks to Diana Wynne Jones, Tolkien, the brothers Grimm, Celtic folklore, and the Greek myths, I have a blueprint, a road map for this journey. When you catch me reading a YA Fantasy novel, I’m doing research! The real world is a rough place full of disheartening situations and plenty of dark forces to go up against, with nowhere near enough people willing to do so. Regardless, I have an unreasonable sense of hope and I’m convinced that the hobbits and the flower shop girls will get their small victories. Call me foolishly optimistic all you want, but I think I’ll encounter a happy ending or two in my lifetime – in fact I already have. And I’ve ridden away into the sunset – and into many sunsets after that, and many more to come.