THE OTHER DAY I was in Barnes & Noble, and a class of local school kids—probably junior high—had evidently been turned loose in the store. Wherever I looked there were small girls clutching hefty midnight black tomes from the Twilight quartet (vampires, in case you’ve been living in a cave), and children of both genders stacking up the Eragon series (dragons) or good old Harry Potter (I couldn’t help a twinge of envy—imagine not having read them yet!).
You might well ask: What was I doing in the Young Adult section? Browsing, that’s what. Trolling for fantasy gold. Hamlet had it right (that bit about more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy—meaning the cultivation of the rational mind). Ever since I laid eyes on an Oz book or tumbled down the rabbit hole with Alice or followed the exploits of Bilbo and Frodo, I have been hooked on make-believe. It is the Great Escape, the passageway out of one world into another.
I gave up dolls, but I never gave up fantasy, and for a long time I kept this a secret. I really should be reading Tolstoy, I’d say to myself guiltily. Or Henry James. I think the Harry Potter series was the turning point—because it was clever, almost satirical; because it was huge—in making it legitimate for mature readers to like Kid Lit. I remember when I started to notice grown-ups on the subway deep in one HP or another and thinking, Aha! I am no longer alone.
Who wouldn’t want to be transported out of the grimy underground and into a whirl of transformations (princes, frogs) and anomalies (talking animals, mind-readers, flying broomsticks) that go beyond science as we know it? Although ever quicker, sleeker means of communication and transport do seem wizardly, defying time, space, and other former constraints (cf. sci-fi master and scientist Arthur C. Clarke’s third law, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”), a volcanic eruption in Iceland can still halt air traffic for days on end. Nature is a hard wall against which human inventions crash.
FANTASY CAN PASS where science can’t. In fact, it tends to replace the unbearable everyday contingency of life (you could be hit by a truck/lose your job/get left by your spouse) with a sense of glorious possibility. Just beyond the next intersection could be a door to a fairy world; a miniature family of talking badgers could lurk in the hedge you walk past; a storm could whisk you across The Deadly Desert to Oz. So reality is not just reality; beyond the appearances is life on another planet, in a mythical kingdom, in the past or future. It is a way to broaden your experience without going anywhere, except to amazon.com. “It’s like having a vacation from life,” one friend said.
Although plot is paramount in Young Adult fantasy (kids, bless them, are not going to sit still for a lot of boring exposition), this rich fictional world-building is not simply in the service of a brisk narrative. I sense the familiar presence of our old friend Denial. I remember thinking, when I first became conversant with the concept of death, that by the time I was at risk surely through some sorcery “they” (science? the wizards-in-chief?) would have found the secret of immortality.
On this level fantasy clearly has a lot in common with religion (in C.S. Lewis, the Christian symbolism is so obvious that it doesn’t even qualify as subtext). Since I was brought up an atheist, probably it has in some respects functioned for me as a secular alternative: if not an afterlife, an alternative life that I could (almost) trust to exist (somewhere over the rainbow). It’s not the same as believing in God or sin or following some prescribed ritual or orthodoxy, but it does lighten the burdens of reality.
YOU ESCAPE YOUR BODY in another way: These fantasies are largely presexual (Twilight being the exception that proves the rule, and in any case vamps are innately more visceral—the blood, you know—than elves, say, or fairy princesses), and so they sidestep the disturbances of desire; it is not accidental that many fantasy protagonists are either boys or boyish girls. They return you to a time of shy crushes or intense friendships or vaguely limned romance (as between Aragorn and Arwen in The Return of the King), more comforting than passionate.
Although fantastical stories, like religion, are fire-and-brimstone frightening at times—they have to be, for the sake of a cracking good story—they are also a balm, replacing the ambiguous and unresolved with happy endings. Too, while in real life people can be emotionally volatile, veering off in unpredictable, unpleasant directions, fantasy characters (except in the darkest and most sophisticated fairy tales) are more likely to be consistent: Innocent adventurers (Dorothy, Frodo, Harry) guided by wise, parental-type figures (Gandalf, Aslan, Mary Poppins) confront malign creatures (the White Witch, the Wicked Witch of the West, Voldemort) and eventually vanquish them. In an age of few genuine heroines and heroes—or ones who turn out to have feet of clay—here are protagonists worth rooting for.
You cheer them on not just because they are brave and smart, but because they are virtuous. There is an ethical/moral aspect to these narratives, a weight given to meaning and judgment. Contemporary adult fiction usually runs screaming from anything didactic or preachy (as a result, it sometimes has more style than substance); fantasy can get away with messages. I love a book that doesn’t wimp out when it comes to right and wrong.
I ALSO LOVE A BOOK THAT’S AMBITIOUS. “The plots quite often deal with big questions—of good and evil, responsibility and growth, change and stability—but not in a heavy-handed way,” another friend points out. Not that teenagers are looking for moral lessons. Writing of the current crop of dystopian Young Adult novels, (“Fresh Hell,” The New Yorker, June 14 & 21, 2010), Laura Miller is probably right that their popularity derives mainly from the way they evoke the humiliation and powerlessness of adolescence, not from some higher purpose.
Adults, however, may read fantasy fiction on a different level—for inspiration, consolation, and ideas as well as sheer “storyness.” Katniss, the indomitable heroine of Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games, is a tough cookie who sacrifices herself for her little sister, Prim. In The Wind in the Willows, Rat, Mole, and Badger plan what we’d now call an “intervention” to cure Toad of his reckless, self-destructive ways. Frodo suffers the weight of the ring (and the struggle not to become corrupted by it) to cleanse the world of evil. There is depth here, a certain soulfulness.
QUIETUS! (As Harry P. would say when trying to turn down the volume.) I’m making these books sound more like sermons than diversions. Perhaps it’s my age: At 65, I feel that I must defend my penchant for fantasy with all seriousness lest people think I’m merely lapsing into a second childhood. (I’ve never understood why a repeat shot at youth is considered a bad thing, but never mind.)
Actually, reading imaginative literature is a bit like time travel because you do it with a double lens: that of an adult hungry for transcendence and a child yearning for mystery and adventure. When I encounter a book I loved as a child, I also encounter an earlier self. Maybe fantasy books are a way to rediscover who you were before the grown-up world butted in and took over.
I was an outsider: a plump, city-born girl plopped down in the country. When I wasn’t playing King Arthur’s knights in the woods and fields with my brother, I was reading. I assuaged my loneliness with Oz books and chocolate cake, often ingested at the same time: The yellow brick road led away from the schoolyard and its torments. In this other place, I imagined, I could be free.
Somewhere inside me that spellbound, fantasy-loving kid lives on. (And she is bossy enough to insist on not being left behind.)
A MAGICAL BOOK LIST
Caveats: A few of these weren’t expressly written for young adults. Although I polled like-minded friends for ideas, I am not including any title I haven’t read myself. Feel free to argue and propose.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll
The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis
The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander
The Earthsea Cycle by Ursula LeGuin
Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone and its sequels by J.K. Rowling
His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman
The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien
Mary Poppins series by P.L. Travers
The Once and Future King by T.H. White
The Time Quartet by Madeline l’Engle
Watership Down by Richard Adams
The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
The Wizard of Oz and its sequels by L. Frank Baum and Ruth Plumly Thompson
VERGING ON CLASSICS
The Artemis Fowl The books by Eoin Colfer
The Blue Sword and The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley (plus: her many excellent retellings of fairy tales)
City of Ember by Jeanne DePrau
The Dark Is Rising series by Susan Cooper
Dune by Frank Herbert (not the follow-ups, which are less good)
The Forgotten Beasts of Eld by Patricia McKillip
The Giver, Gathering Blue, and The Messenger by Lois Lowry
The Mists of Avalon and the Darkover books by Marion Zimmer Bradley
The Temeraire books by Naomi Novik
The Twilight Saga by Stephenie Meyer
RECENT BOOKS I HAVE LIKED
The Abhorsen Trilogy by Garth Nix
Angelology by Daniela Trussardi
The Hunger Games trilogy (third volume out this fall) by Suzanne Collins
Inheritance series by Christopher Paolini
The Magicians by Lev Grossman
The Merlin Conspiracy by Diana Wynne Jones
The Mortal Instruments series by Cassandra Clare