Here's my slant on the June Travelling Table Guest Fantasy Blog.
There’s always been a strong link between children, or the idea of children, and modern fantasy: partly through the juvenilizing of fairytales – Grimm’s collection were domestic rather than fairy stories – and partly through the tacit but powerful view that fantasy is the opposite of rationality, and hence something left behind, when, as St. Paul wrote, “a man” will “put away childish things.”
This is largely a view beginning with the Enlightenment, but fantasy has still had its English defenders, beginning with Coleridge, and moving on of course, to that T-man, with the ground-breaking 1930s lecture “On Fairy Stories.” Tolkien conflates fantasy and fairy story, and valorizes both, but predictably, he has to confront the “childish challenge” before he can defend the power of faery for adults.
Children AND fantasy is thus something of a default setting: as Tolkien noted, not all children are either enchanted by or even comprehend fairytales. Even Lewis Carroll can fail notably with children, beginning with me. I only read the Alice books with appreciation once I cd. identify the wicked parodies, eg. of Wordsworth, recognize the chess game moves, and understand the nonsense. As a child, I found the whole deal not only bewildering but often outright menacing.
Children IN fantasy tends to branch out from this default connection. Being considered the rightful audience, children, it seems, are easy for adults to insert as characters IN fantasy/modern fairytales. Children are, perhaps, taken not only as the rightful audience, but thanks to their supposed readiness to accept the unreal, as fantasy’s best audience. As flow over, their presence in the text, especially as pov characters, not only offers a viewpoint child readers can readily accept, but their acceptance of the unreal events presumably makes such credence easier for children outside the text. And partly, of course, modern fantasy and fairy tale stories were once, mostly written FOR children.
Modern fantasy starts around the turn of the 19th century, almost as a descendant of imperial romance (think Rider Haggard) and ghost stories (think Sheridan LeFanu.) Andrew Lang, Lord Dunsany, and perhaps most importantly, George McDonald, whose books span both adult and child audiences, seem to be the founders of the form.
In contrast, modern children’s fantasy starts about the same time as modern children’s fiction, sometime in the middle of the 19th Century. One of the earliest and most illustrious examples is Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies, which is not a fairytale, but is most certainly fantasy, and as a child, a beautiful illustrated edition had my whole-hearted allegiance.
As I recall it, Water Babies was notably clear of the problems that beset later children’s fantasy. One such problem emerged as my mate Natasha Giardina wrote her PhD thesis, on the transmission of ideologies through children’s fantasy; this was the uncertainty of the narrative voice. Adults until after WWII still seemed unsure how to write for children. For example, does the narrator try to speak as an omnipotent pov to children? (Yes, very often, cf. the asides in The Hobbit.) Is the adualt narrator somewhat self-conscoius? (Yes, quite often, or seems so to me.) Does the quasi-adult voice work? (Not very comfortably, no.) Does the narrator try to enter the child’s view point? (Occasionally, and not all that well, in pre WWII texts like The Hobbit. The one exception I can think of is Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons books. ) Worst of all, does the author, with or without using the narrator’s voice, attempt to preach? That is, to impress on the child reader, consciously or unconsciously, the morals, and more worryingly, the ideologies of the adult world?
The answer to the latter was a resounding Yes. Hardly surprising, since none of us can completely escape our culture and world-view, but very uncomfortable for the analyst, when such world-view includes racism and sexism – evident even in the Harry Potter books – as well as religion, as in the famous case of the Narnia books. In contrast, such preaching rarely occurs in adult-aimed fantasy. It seems a lasting adult assumption that children, even when reading for pleasure, have to be taught.
So children in fantasy may represent not only the primary audience, but also the work’s target, in moral and ideological terms: that is, what happens to child characters, what they learn or fail to learn, does not “simply” provide amusement, as for an adult reader, but are a powerful socializing tool. “It’s only a story,” in a dismissive tone, with implicit rider, “and a kid’s story, what can it matter?” is one of the silliest assumptions ever made. To the child, lacking adult experience against which to test the text, it’s a manual for the world ahead, and what that manual says can be easily be swallowed whole.
In adult-directed modern fantasy, children are not central characters, for the simple reason that a child protagonist instantly shifts the story to the Children’s or YA category. Children here are, at best, appurtenances – or perhaps hindrances – to the main characters. It’s a rare female fantasy protagonist who has even born a child, let alone takes one around with her. I can think of only one novel, Pat Wrede’s Caught in Crystal, where the protagonist does actually take children on a Quest, and I can’t think of any male fantasy protagonist who does so. Some of them do have children, but usually these are shuffled off to the side, or hurriedly grown up to take a bigger part in the story.
The exception to the no-children rule of course, is the children who begin the book with magical or other extraordinary powers and grow up en route, becoming, so often, the main character of the novel or series. Perhaps the most powerful, certainly the most enchanting sections of T.H. White’s classic The Once and Future King, are those he didn’t get from Malory – the work on Wat’s adventures as a child.
But for the child who does not grow up in the course of events, most often, those with any important role in adult-aimed fantasy are those familiar characters, the youthful prince or princess who is a pawn in the power struggles of one or more kingdoms. At times such children are befriended, protected, guarded, or their causes promoted by the adult protagonist or other characters, but they themselves have little part in the action. In Patricia McKillip’s Ombria in Shadow an orphaned ducal heir fulfills this role, and the main male and female characters largely act in his interests.
Tolkien, of course, had the best of both worlds with the hobbits. Their view point is central to both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, they are no bigger than well-grown children, and they can behave like children, particularly in Pippin’s case. Yet they are in fact adults, and longer-lived than humans: thirty-three, not twenty-one, is the age for hobbit maturity. So Middle-earth remains a domain where children’s wonder and innocence in the face of the unreal are central for readers of all ages, and a domain that both child and adult readers can enter without worrying about publishers’ categories. (Though I wouldn’t introduce the Black Riders in Book One to any child under ten, myself. )