Michael Levy and Farah Mendlesohn, Children’s Fantasy Literature: An Introduction

9781107610293 In their new book Michael Levy and Farah Mendlesohn have provided a crucial road map to the rapidly expanding territory of children’s fantasy fiction from the nineteenth century to the present. It’s easy to underestimate the importance of an ‘introduction’ like this, in part because of its accessible prose – the book addresses itself to knowledgeable fans as much as to scholars – and in part because, as a survey, it cannot offer close analyses of texts, and the authors can’t allow their material to be constrained by some single overarching thesis. An overview of this material has not been available before, and part of the authors’ self-imposed remit is to ensure good coverage within the limits of a reasonable book length. Even in its own terms there may be difficulties: every reader will notice what to them seem significant omissions from the survey, and some will be inclined as a result to miss the value of the historical patterns being traced in each chapter, failing to notice how seamlessly absent texts can be woven into the story. It’s perhaps only on re-reading that one becomes aware of the book’s extraordinary usefulness, and only by asking some of the questions it doesn’t claim to answer that one begins to see how essential it will be to offering something like a full, coherent and rigorous response.

51Dd2evi4CL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_The book is important for three reasons. First, it divides the evolution of children’s fiction into a series of carefully considered thematic and chronological units, giving future commentators a template against which to measure the historical and formal position of texts that interest them. As with Mendlesohn’s essential Rhetorics of Fantasy, that template isn’t meant to ‘account for’ the whole of the field – it’s a starting point for discussion – but now that we have it our engagement with the topic will have a shape and polemical thrust it didn’t have before.

Secondly, the book demonstrates how the parameters and function of children’s literature have changed since the inception of a substantial body of dedicated children’s fiction in the mid nineteenth century, and the role played by fantasy in shaping and responding to these changes. Simply put, Levy and Mendlesohn argue that the age range of the implied readership for children’s literature has gradually increased over the decades to embrace a substantial portion of what was previously classified as early adulthood. By the end of the 1990s Young Adult fiction had emerged as a distinct category within the genre, addressing a mostly middle-class readership which could expect to remain in some form of education or training – that is, subject to ‘an extended delay of full adulthood’, as the authors neatly put it – into its early twenties and beyond. The invention of Young Adult fiction is perhaps the most striking development in the genre in recent decades, and the reasons for its emergence are cogently addressed here. We’ll be arguing over them for years to come, but this book gives us a firm basis for our future arguments.

Thirdly, the book is the most inclusive I know of in terms of its coverage. It concerns itself with English language fiction, and with so-called ‘chapter books’ rather than picture books; but within these constraints it is more global in its reach than anything that’s come out previously, since it deals not only with the largest markets – the American and the British – but with the Antipodean and Canadian markets too, which have never before been so comprehensively embraced in a survey of the field. It also explains why readers in Chicago, Manchester, Wellington and Ottawa are unlikely to have read the same children’s fiction until very recently, and how changes in international trade rules have contributed to changes in our reading habits, including the opportunity to get access to some of the most significant titles from places previously under-represented in our local sales outlets. This particular change has not yet gone very far, despite the massive rise in online purchasing, and kids in Glasgow are still unlikely to read exactly the same texts as their counterparts in Detroit or Brisbane – for many good reasons; hence the value of a book like this, which awakens our awareness of the major texts we’ve missed.

lotr1The introduction sketches out the book’s plan with impressive clarity, and is worth revisiting when you’ve finished reading. The slow emergence of the assumption that fantasy was peculiarly suitable for children is charted in the first chapter, while the second examines the extraordinary outpouring of Victorian fairy tales and narratives of the impossible to the point where ‘the majority of that Victorian and Edwardian children’s literature that has survived is firmly in the fantastical vein’. Chapter three gives an account of the long, slow, difficult birth of fantasy fiction for children in the United States; chapter four returns to British fantasy between the wars; chapters five and six map ‘the changing landscape, social, political and literal, of post-war British and Commonwealth fantasy’; while chapter seven focuses on the work that emerged in the wake of the mass market publication of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. This and the last two chapters, which consider the impact of the Harry Potter phenomenon on children’s fiction of the 1990s (chapter eight) and the two main strands of the new Young Adult fiction – paranormal romance and the ‘fantasy of bitterness and loss’ (chapter nine) – seem to me to be the most powerful in the book, moving with deft precision across what has become a gigantic field and picking out the most significant features of the genre’s expanding geography. There’s a passion present here, too, which builds on the more muted earlier chapters; it’s clear that the authors are genuinely excited by recent fantasy for young readers, and the final words of the introduction sum up this mood with admirable succinctness: ‘we as critics believe that this subgenre [the fantasy of bitterness and loss] includes much of the finest fantasy for any age group currently being written’. The book, then, describes a crescendo, and it’s nice to be told this at the start, so that we can anticipate its revelations of the full scope and stature of the work that’s emerging today, in our own lifetimes – a golden age of the fantastic if ever there was one.

eduardo-teixeira-coelho-tom-thumb-upside-down-1957_i-g-53-5397-amojg00zFrom the beginning, of course, there are assertions here that could be challenged; that’s in the nature of any survey. The statement in the introduction that before the eighteenth century children were taught from textbooks based on mimesis (p. 2) overlooks the centrality of Aesop’s fables to the school curriculum, and chapter one, on the rise of fantasy for children through the ages, omits one of the most influential of early modern school texts, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, from consideration. It makes a good case, however, for the fact that texts like these would not have been read, by teachers at least, as what we now call fantasy. The Metamorphoses, for instance, was taught as a quasi-allegorical guide to ancient moral philosophy, science and history, a mode of reading strange tales in relation to the world which later encouraged John Bunyan to present his Christian allegorical romance The Pilgrim’s Progress as a blueprint for action, not an excursion into the fantastic. Again, the claim made in the introduction that folk tales about Robin Hood and Tom Thumb were ‘for the peasantry’ accepts at face value claims made in the texts themselves, and is belied by their ready availability both in expensive manuscript form and print, as well as by the abundant references to them in texts not directed at peasants. It’s also doubtful that they were intended solely for adults. Richard Johnson charmingly describes his The History of Tom Thumb (1621) as for all age groups, in a passage that associates the tiny hero with rural labourers who wouldn’t for the most part have had access to the printed pamphlet in which it occurs:

The ancient Tales of Tom Thumbe in the olden time, have beene the onely revivers of drouzy age at midnight; old and young have with his Tales chim’d Mattens till the Cocks crow in the morning; Batchelors and Maides with his Tales have compassed the Christmas fire-blocke, till the Curfew Bell rings candle out; the old Shepheard and the young Plow boy after their dayes labour, have carold out a Tale of Tom Thumbe to make them merry with: and who but little Tom, hath made long nights seeme short, and heavy toyles easie?

The passage, together with the many references to folk tales in works of art intended for the educated elite – from Chaucer’s The Nun’s Priest’s Tale to Peele’s play The Old Wives’ Tale to the many sophisticated satires featuring the goblin Robin Goodfellow in the early 1590s – undermines Levy and Mendlesohn’s claim that ‘the raising of tales originally intended for the peasantry into fare for the court and for adults may well be a reaction to the civil wars that raged across Europe in the seventeenth century’. But in any case chapter one tells a much more complex story about the growing association between fairy tale and childhood. The point being made here is that there was a philosophical hostility to fantasy among pedagogues from early times, and that strong residues of that hostility remain to the present. The fashionable adoption of folk tales by the French court in the late seventeenth century will clearly have lent them, for some, a certain air of respectability; but the court was also the site of scandal, and fantasy’s taintedness was never wiped off by its popularity among the aristocracy.

OwlpussycatThe quest for a respectable fiction for children meant that ‘as we enter the nineteenth century both children’s literature and the fantastic were becoming shaped by ideologies of confinement: both were being restricted to the domestic sphere and to a narrow moral compass’ (25-6). At the same time, chapter two – which deals with ‘the realms of Victorian and Edwardian fancy’ – shows how the notion of a ‘ narrow moral compass’ could be stretched to accommodate unexpected areas, partly in response to the constant quest for new copy on the part of printers as they sought to satisfy the needs of the newly mechanized print industry. The punishment of bad behaviour paves the way for the horror story, while Carroll’s Alice tales and Lear’s nonsense verse can be seen as ‘subversive of the social order’, despite their purportedly ‘didactic’ aspects. Indeed, the notion of didacticism hardly seems applicable to these texts. Can one reasonably use it to characterize Carroll’s desire to ‘teach […] the absurdity of modern manners or the absurdity of chess’? And is it right to describe Lear’s poem ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’ as ‘filled with the accoutrements of morality, since the titular creatures run away to get married’, instead of living in sin? The example of Austen’s Lydia and Mr Wickham suggests that elopement, even for marriage, might not always be deemed a moral act – and what in any case should we make of the fact that these two creatures (unlike Lear’s Pelicans, but much like his Duck and Kangaroo, or his Dong with a Luminous Nose) are in quest of an inter-species union? The chapter, then, successfully exposes the difficulty of the terms ‘moral’ and ‘didactic’, since what’s deemed suitably moral or instructive for a child’s consumption varies so widely between one social group and another even within a single period. The issue remains pertinent today: J K Rowling’s portrayal of witchcraft in the impeccably moral Harry Potter series (1997 ff.) aroused the wrath of evangelical Christians, while Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials (1995 ff.) found itself mired in controversy through its very moral desire to resist the outmoded conventions of Christian morality. The dystopian fantasies of the twenty-first century take the clash of moralities as their topic, pitting arbitrary state-sanctioned ‘morality’ against the difficult problem of reconciling loyalty to one’s peers and principles with the need for survival under a vicious totalitarian regime. Children’s fantasy has continued to be preoccupied with morals (even ‘deeply moral’, as Levy and Mendlesohn put it, p. 224) into the twenty-first century, though the ‘narrow compass’ of much (though by no means all) mid-Victorian children’s morality is now demonized rather than celebrated by sophisticated writers.

Coraline.DVDRip.XviD-ARROW.avi_005682766Chapter two also develops a second theme that resonates throughout the book: the tendency of British children’s fantasy, for the first period of its existence, to restrict its protagonists to the confines of the domestic environment – in contrast to the emphasis in American, Canadian and Australian fantasy on the great outdoors. The increasing Victorian and post-Victorian focus on the domestic (in contrast to the often itinerant traditional fairy tale) can be taken as driven by an authoritarian impulse to circumscribe and control the child’s intellectual, imaginative and emotional compass; but it can also be seen as an acknowledgment of the increasing centrality of the domestic space to the middle class reader’s life, as dwelling places morphed into complex machines to match the industrial engines that powered the British Empire, and as greater geographical and social mobility made the household rather than, say, the local church the focus of many children’s communities. As Levy and Mendlesohn point out, the geographical compass of British children’s fantasy expanded as the twentieth century wore on – partly in response to the greater responsibilities shouldered by children in the Second World War. But some fantasies continued to focus on the domestic, not out of social conservatism, but from a recognition that the household is invariably the starting point of both revolutions and state-sanctioned oppression. Many of the books in chapter eight, on ‘Harry Potter and children’s fantasy since the 1990s’, feature deeply unsettling domestic spaces, from the Gormenghast-like Crackpot Hall of Ysabeau Wilce’s Flora series to the unsettling houses in David Almond’s Skellig and Neil Gaiman’s Coraline. Diana Wynne Jones’s Howl’s Magic Castle (1986) is perhaps the book that best exemplifies the political dynamism of domestic space: the magical dwelling of the title has doors that open onto every significant urban and rural landscape in the land of Ingary and beyond. In this it recalls the various many-doored dwellings of George MacDonald’s high Victorian fantasies, such as ‘The Golden Key’ (1867), which (among other things) insist on the complex bonds that link the dilapidated houses of the poor to the splendid mansions of the ruling classes. The domestic, then, is by no means always a safe haven or a bastion of reactionary sentiment; in Mary Norton’s The Borrowers (1952) it’s a place full of physical danger and class warfare; in Philippa Pearce’s Tom’s Midnight Garden (1958) it accommodates history, whose conflicts and pressures are also embodied by the old people with whom children so often shared their domestic space until recent decades. By giving a geographical and historical shape to perceptions of the domestic in children’s fantasy Levy and Mendlesohn have opened up a still largely underexplored continent for further investigation.

Chapter three is particularly interesting for its account of the resistance to fantasy in the United States, and for its identification of the specific themes of American fantasy: independent, itinerant youngsters, like Dorothy or Stuart Little; the rejection of any sense of a ‘hereditary right to succeed’; a fascination with sensational narratives of the kind popularized by the British penny dreadfuls and American dime novels. L Frank Baum, Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E Howard rightly get pride of place in the pre-war period, and the centrality of Burroughs and Howard alongside Twain’s Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889) helps to point up the presence of what we’d now called Young Adult fantasy from an early point in history (in Britain, too: Burroughs and Howard were partly influenced by British adventure story writers such as Rider Haggard). Welcome space is afforded in the chapter to the great James Thurber, though no mention is made of his astonishing prose style, which so clearly inspired later comic fantasy writers like Peter Beagle, William Goldman and Terry Pratchett. Style, in fact, is a topic that hasn’t yet been given enough attention in fantasy criticism and theory, and I can imagine a book on the changing stylistic features of children’s fantasy literature as providing the ideal supplement to this survey.[1]

Chapter four, on the interwar years, brings into sharp focus the sheer adventurousness and experimentalism of the period. The 20s and 30s sparked off one of the most dazzlingly inventive arrays of British children’s fantasy: among others, Hugh Lofting’s Dr Dolittle books, P. L. Travers’s Mary Poppins sequence (Travers was Australian rather than British, but published in Britain), John Masefield’s The Midnight Folk and The Box of Delights, Enid Blyton’s The Wishing Chair and The Magic Faraway Tree, the story collections of Eleanor Farjeon and Walter de la Mare, T. H. White’s The Sword in the Stone, Tolkien’s The Hobbit. This diversity presents, as Levy and Mendlesohn point out, ‘distinct problems’ for literary historians, since the writers of these texts share no ‘coherent sense of what fantasy should be’ – partly because there is very little critical-theoretical discussion of it at the time, apart from a couple of ‘very general’ essays by Lewis and Tolkien, both published in the 1940s. The aftermath of the Great War, in other words, saw fantasy for children, like fantasy for adults, respond to the breakdown of the old grand narratives that governed pre-war imperial culture by playing with a range of narrative techniques which bore abundant fruit in the second half of the twentieth century. It’s a hotbed of invention, an explosion of the imagination to match the explosive global catastrophes that framed it, and coherence under such conditions is the last thing we should expect or wish for from it. Naturally, Levy and Mendlesohn don’t consider all these experiments to have been equally successful. Masefield’s The Midnight Folk (1927), for instance, is for them ‘typical’ of the period’s attitude to animals, in that it makes them seem more like toys than believable beasts, treating them as exotic but faithful servants to the young protagonist, Kay Harker, as he embarks on a succession of ‘rambling’ adventures which end in the inevitable restoration of the old pre-war class system. White’s 1939 version of The Sword in the Stone is again, for them, rambling; not a fully-fledged novel but a set of loosely linked stories, which doesn’t engage deeply with fantasy because it’s too much preoccupied with the turbulence of contemporary politics (White’s later Mistress Masham’s Repose (1946) gets a more sympathetic reading, despite its equally obvious political applications). Both these views are entirely reasonable, but seem to me to undervalue both books out of frustration with their intransigent refusal to assume the shape of a conventional novel.

Hobbit_coverThis said, there’s a superb analysis of The Hobbit (1937) at the end of the chapter, which expertly pins down its originality in the field by placing it in context. Levy and Mendlesohn note as major innovations its invention of ‘a world that seems to have been going on before we stumbled into it’, as C S Lewis put it; the respect with which it treats its child readers by asking them to engage with ancient Nordic culture and mythology; its refusal to allow the protagonist’s paternalistic guide to accompany him throughout his adventures. The fact that Bilbo Baggins is an adult, despite his diminutive size, could be seen as summing up Tolkien’s respect for his young audience. His limitations, obsessions and fears are an adult’s, yet Tolkien assumes that children will understand them as well as – or better than – Bilbo himself does. One wonders if this breakdown of the earlier sharp distinction between child and adult – a crossing of boundaries which was further compounded by the fact that this novel, like The Sword in the Stone, became the first volume in an adult epic – could have been directly responsible for the emergence of a dedicated Young Adult market after the mass success of The Lord of the Rings in the 1970s.

18421378There is no chapter in the book on the fantasy of the Second World War. Instead the interwar period gets extended into the 1940s, embracing such texts as BB’s The Little Grey Men (1942), Eric Linklater’s The Wind on the Moon (1944), Mary Norton’s Bedknob and Broomstick books (1943 and 1945) and T H White’s Mistress Masham’s Repose (1946). The war, however, casts its long shadow over the three chapters that follow, as fantasy took an awareness of ‘being a child in the world rather than a child at home’ as its subject, in response no doubt to the intensified awareness among children of politics, economics and the mechanisms of social action that war imposes. Levy and Mendlesohn also stress the important fact that the relative paucity of fantasy for adults in the period meant that ‘children’s fantasy drove innovation’. Chapter five includes a brilliant analysis of how C S Lewis’s Narnian chronicles can be taken to embody ‘what children’s fantasy was’ in the postwar period – above all in the high stakes that the adventures are played for. In these books for the first time the fate of nations and even worlds are placed in the hand of the child protagonists – and we are succinctly and convincingly shown how this development can be linked to the wartime roles with which children had become familiar: soldiers, nurses, spies, partisans, fifth columnists, the Home Guard – the list could easily be expanded. The destinarian slant in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950) is evident in a range of the great fantasy sequences that followed the Narnia books, as is Lewis’s insistence in his books that there comes a moment when children must abandon magic for the very different technological and social operations of the modern world. Levy and Mendlesohn also point out how the trajectory of many post-Narnia sequences – including Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising (1965-77) and Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain (1964-68) – deprives the child protagonists of their older companion and guide at a crucial moment in their adventures. Lewis again showed the way to this moment of deprivation, as did Tolkien in The Hobbit, and the pattern is repeated in the most influential fantasies of the 1990s, Pullman’s His Dark Materials and Rowling’s Harry Potter books. The ‘bitter’ Young Adult fiction of the twenty-first century goes a step further and deprives many of its young protagonists of any responsible adult companion at all – while also abandoning the theme of destinarianism once and for all, in many cases. If Lewis’s child protagonists grow up, like Harry and Lyra, then the best fantastic narratives have also grown up over the last recent decades, moving beyond the tropes established by Lewis and subjecting children, perhaps for the first time, to the experience of genuinely not knowing whether or not the central character will survive – and if so, in what condition (think of the traumatised Catniss at the end of the Hunger Games trilogy).

The book is refreshingly clear about the continuing experimental diversity of fiction in the postwar years and into the present. Its coverage is astonishing; and it is also delightfully open about the fact that it cannot possibly cover everything: ‘wherever you are, wherever you are from, you will discover that a number of your favourite children’s fantasies are not discussed or done justice to in this volume, as there is simply too much to cover’ (p. 5). For myself I noted the absence of some important and influential fantasies, and can’t resist indulging the desire to mention some of them. What matters, however, is how easy it is to fit the missing books into Levy and Mendlesohn’s narrative. Here are some choice examples.

Rainbows-EndOne of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s favourite books, Granny’s Wonderful Chair (1857) by Frances Browne, is absent from Levy and Mendlesohn’s account of the shift in the nineteenth century from ‘actual’ fairy tales to invented ones; it might have served as a kind of missing link between the work of George MacDonald (whom she may have influenced), the early history of Irish fantasy (Browne was from Donegal), and Blyton’s Wishing Chair series of the 1930s.[2] Again, Levy and Mendlesohn’s list of children’s fantasy from the second decade of the twentieth century contains only one title – A A Milne’s Once on a Time (1917)[3] – but the most significant text of the time (in Britain at least) was the outrageously nationalistic and immensely popular Where the Rainbow Ends (1912) by Clifford Mills, which originated (like Peter Pan) as a play, performed very nearly every Christmas from 1911 to 1959, and attended with much ceremony by Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret in 1937.[4] The inclusion of this text alongside Barrie’s Peter and Wendy (1911), Noel Langley’s pantomime-esque Land of Green Ginger (1936) – which helped get him hired as one of the screenwriters for the 1939 film of The Wizard of Oz – and the fairy tale novels of the playwright Nicholas Stuart Gray in the 1960s (the last of these appears fleetingly on p. 102), could have provided a fascinating sub-narrative concerning the highly productive relationship between children’s fantasy and the theatre. One of the earliest examples of the tendency of fantasy writers to ‘plunder the legendary archaeology of Britain’ in the post-war period was actually published in the war itself: it’s William Croft Dickinson’s Borrobil (1944), which clearly influenced both Alan Garner’s The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and the figure of Tom Bombadil in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.[5]

Picture-7But for me, the most spectacular omissions in the book come in the 1960s: Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth (1961) and Russell Hoban’s The Mouse and his Child (1967), two of the texts that had the biggest impact on my own early interest in both reading and fantasy. For Diana Wynne Jones, The Phantom Tollbooth was a direct descendant of that seminal American portal quest narrative The Wizard of Oz, ‘but better’. I think it has closer affinities with James Thurber’s dazzling strain of comic fantasy driven by verbal fireworks, and with the allegorical fantasies of Bunyan, Kingsley and Lewis. The Mouse and his Child updates and drastically darkens the cosy toy and animal stories of the interwar period (as is often pointed out, Hoban was a decorated war veteran). It too has affinities with the fantasy of wordplay championed by Thurber, and anticipates Philip Pullman’s great short fables such as Clockwork (1996). A third absent book of the period is J. P. Martin’s Uncle (1964) and its sequels, recently championed by Neil Gaiman and reprinted by the New York Review Children’s Collection; this makes explicit the class conflict that underpins talking animal fantasies such as The Wind in the Willows, and anticipates Michael de Larabeiti’s more violent depiction of class warfare in the Borribles series (1976-86). It’s inevitable, of course, that as a child of the 60s it should be 60s books I find missing. What’s less inevitable is that all the titles I can think of should have been so much illuminated by Levy and Mendlesohn’s narrative. Their book is a major achievement, and we’ll all be using it for years to come.



[1] Mendlesohn has made a crucial step towards examining the style or language of fantasy in an essay that deserves reading alongside Children’s Fantasy Literature: ‘Peake and the Fuzzy Set of Fantasy’, in Miracle Enough: Papers on the Works of Mervyn Peake (Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013), pp. 61-74.

[2] See Colin Manlove, ‘George MacDonald and the Fairy Tales of Francis Paget and Frances Browne,’ North Wind: A Journal of George MacDonald Studies, Vol. 18 (1999), Article 3: http://digitalcommons.snc.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1100&context=northwind.

[3] Mendlesohn mentions another text from the decade, W W Tarn’s The Treasure of the Isle of Mist, in ‘Peake and the Fuzzy Set of Fantasy’, Miracle Enough, ed. Winnington, p. 66. She gives its date as 1919.

[4] See Valerie Gail Langfield, Roger Quilter 1877-1953: his Life, Times and Music, PhD thesis, University of Birmingham 2004, p. 39 ff., http://etheses.bham.ac.uk/1354/1/Langfield04PhD.pdf

[5] See Geraldine Pinch’s fine blog post on Borrobil at https://fantasyreads.wordpress.com/tag/british-folktales/.

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2 Responses to Michael Levy and Farah Mendlesohn, Children’s Fantasy Literature: An Introduction

  1. Pingback: Inward Exile in Frances Browne’s Granny’s Wonderful Chair (1856) | The City of Lost Books

  2. Heidi says:

    I did finally get through this book, and for the most part was very pleased with what it was trying to do. However, was I the only one who noticed some of the mis-readings of about 4-5 of the texts that were discussed throughout the book? While they didn’t overshadow the remainder of the content for me, I found them bothersome and they made me question some of the choices that were made about what texts “belonged” and what texts didn’t.

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