The Gift of Fantasy - Why fantasy is important in children's literature
Once upon a time, a doting mother asked Albert Einstein what she should read to her son to help him grow up as brilliant and intelligent as the famous scientist.
"Fairy-tales," he said, wisely nodding his cloud of wild white hair.
"Then what?" the mother asked, pencil poised to write down a list of obscure and abstruse treatises.
"More fairy-tales," Einstein replied.
Why? Why would Albert Einstein – the Nobel Award winning physicist, the man who came up with E=mc² - recommend reading fairy-tales? Was he joking? All the evidence suggests he was deadly serious. We all know he believed "imagination is more important than knowledge" – I and many other people have T-shirts that tell us so.
He also said, "When I examine myself and my methods of thought, I come to the conclusion that the gift of fantasy has meant more to me than any talent for abstract, positive thinking."
Fairy-stories and other tales of fantasy often get a bad rap. Many centuries ago St Jerome called such tales of wonder "the food of demons". Nowadays, fantasy tends to be dismissed as frivolous and rather foolish. This is despite the wonder tale's essential power being celebrated by writers and thinkers as diverse as Carl Jung, Bruno Bettelheim, Joseph Campbell, Oscar Wilde, and J.R.R Tolkien.
Tolkien, who was a professor at Oxford most of his working life, once gave a very long and passionate speech on fairy-stories. It was a term he found far too narrow. "Fairy-stories are not stories about fairies … but rather about Faërie, the realm in which fairies have their being." This realm, he said, "is wide and deep and high and filled with many things: all manner of beasts and birds are found there; shoreless seas and stars uncounted; beauty that is an enchantment and an ever-present peril; both joy and sorrow as sharp as swords."
Tolkien decided the term 'fantasy' was a far better word to describe such stories, for the word contained connotations of both 'fantasising' i.e. dreaming, imagining, freeing oneself from the bounds of fact; and of the fantastic, what Tolkien called "a quality of strangeness and wonder". He went on to say that "fantasy (in this sense) is, I think, not a lower but a higher form of Art, indeed the most nearly pure form, and … the most potent."
History has proved Tolkien right. The Lord Of The Rings has been voted as the best book ever written in countless reader surveys, and in the half a century since it was first published, has influenced more people's lives than Shakespeare's plays or the Bible. Fantasy is now the top selling fiction genre in the world, thanks to Tolkien and J.K. Rowling; and Phillip Pullman, a children's fantasy writer, was recently short-listed for the Booker Prize, the world's most snobbish literary prize. All of the above would have been unimaginable before 1954, when The Lord Of The Rings was published.
So how did a story about a simple young hobbit who became a hero and saved the world from a terrible evil become the most popular and influential book ever written? Why has fantasy fiction struck such a chord with modern readers?
It is partly because fantasy has deep roots in the stories of the past – in myth, history and folklore – so that it resonates with stories that have been told from the very beginning of human civilisation. It is partly because fantasy is filled with ideals of courage, loyalty and honour, values which sometimes seem lost in a world racked by war, treachery and opportunism. It is partly because fantasy fiction opens up a world where anything may be possible – a world where a pig-boy may be a prince, or a hobbit a hero, where a wardrobe might open to another world, or rubbing an old, tarnished lantern may conjure a genie.
Mostly, though, it is because fantasy fiction holds out the hope of happiness. "And they lived happily ever after" is the final chord in a tale that always magically begins with "once upon a time, in a land far, far away".
Fantasy fiction does not deny or diminish the existence of sorrow and pain, as so many people seem to think. The possibility of failure is absolutely necessary for the "piercing sense of joy" one feels when victory is finally and with difficulty won. Like a candle-flame, fantasy casts a shadow at the same time that it illuminates. Yet it is the illumination that is important. Fairy-tales all offer the hope that a happy ending is possible – and we need to believe this. Fantasy denies ultimate despair. It holds out the hope for a better world, and signposts the way.
For the very best fantasy enlightens as well as beguiles, passing on the accumulated wisdom of our ancestors, mapping the boundaries of behaviour, and challenging our preconceptions of what is right and true.
Ursula le Guin wrote, 'we all have the same dragons in our psyche, just as we all have the same kind of hearts and lungs in our body.' At some time in our life we've all feared the big bad wolf, we've all wished on a star, we've all dreamt of winning the hand of a prince or princess with our courage, our wit, our skill. In the realm of faërie, abandoned babies can be lost princes. Ugly ducklings can grow into swans. Billygoats can outwit trolls.
All the trappings of fantasy – the giant-killers, the frog-prince, the princess clothed in rags, the boy who refuses to grow up, the babes in the wood – these are all metaphors, a way of camouflaging very real terrors and aspirations in order to illuminate them.
By giving shape to formless fears, we can defeat them. By naming secret desires, we can make them come true. By believing in the impossible, we can stretch the boundaries of the known. Imagination is more important than knowledge, because it is by imagining other worlds and other lives that we come to understand them - and our own.
And fantasy fiction is the richest food for the imagination. It is filled with poetry and music and pageantry - singing harps, poisoned apples, vengeful kings, fairy godmothers, seven league boots, secret names, cryptic riddles, thorn-tangled castles, rose-hung bowers, men disguised as beasts and beasts disguised as grandmothers. Brightness and darkness, beauty and terror. What could be more real?
Within the sweet golden flesh of fantasy, a kernel of truth is always hidden. "Stories, we are made up of stories. And even the ones that seem most like lies can be our deepest hidden truths,' Jane Yolen wrote.
So if fantasy fiction is truly the purest and most potent form of Art, if it illuminates our world, pushes out the boundaries of the known, shakes up our idea of the impossible, enriches the imagination, and reveals hidden truths, why is it so often maligned and misunderstood?
For some peculiar reason, many people have come to believe that dreaming and imagining and wishing somehow makes you less capable of coping with reality. The truth is that any imaginative experience makes you wiser. It is through imagination that we learn compassion and empathy with others. It is through imagination that we experience life beyond our own narrow furrow. It is through imagination that great leaps of understanding are possible, whether it is in discovering the theory of relativity or simply coming to understand yourself.