By Le Guin, Ursula
New Statesman (1996) , Vol. 135, No. 4823-4825
Many of us have at least one book or tale that we read as a child and come back to now and then for the rest of our lives. A child or grandchild to read aloud to provides a good excuse, or we may have the courage to return, quite alone, to Peter Rabbit, for the keen pleasure of reading language in which every word is right, the syntax is a delight in itself and the narrative pacing is miraculous. Revisiting a book loved in childhood may be principally an indulgence in nostalgia; I knew a woman who read The Wizard of Oz every few years because it "made her remember being a child". But returning to The Snow Queen or Kim, you may well discover a book far less simple and unambiguous than the one you remembered. That shift and deepening of meaning can be a revelation both about the book and about yourself.
Curiously enough, most of these "lifelong" children's books are fantasies: books in which magic works, or animals speak, or the laws of physics yield to the laws of the human psyche. When there began to be such a thing as books written for children, in the mid-19th century, fiction was dominated by the realistic novel. Romance and satire were acceptable to it, but overt fantasy was not. So, for a while, fantasy found a refuge in children's books. There it flourished so brilliantly that people began to perceive imaginative fiction as being "for children".
The modernists extended this misconception by declaring fantastic narrative to be intrinsically childish. Though modernism is behind us and postmodernism may be joining it, still many critics and reviewers approach fantasy determined to keep Caliban permanently confined in the cage of Kiddie Lit. The voice of Edmund Wilson reviewing J R R Tolkien is still heard, bleating: "Oo, those awful Orcs!" There should be a word--"maturismo", like "machismo"?--for the anxious savagery of the intellectual who thinks his adulthood has been impugned.
To conflate fantasy with immaturity is a rather sizeable error. Rational yet non-intellectual, moral yet inexplicit, symbolic not allegorical, fantasy is not primitive but primary. Many of its great texts are poetry, and its prose often approaches poetry in density of implication and imagery. The fantastic, the marvellous, the impossible rode the mainstream of literature from the epics and romances of the Middle Ages through Ariosto and Tasso and their imitators, to Rabelais and Spenser and beyond. This is not to say that everybody approved of it. Conflict with religion and with realism always loomed. In the first great European novel, imagination and realism meet head-on, and their contest is the very stuff and argument of the book. Don Quixote is driven mad by chivalric fantasies--but what is he without his madness?
Shakespeare may have influenced English literature towards fantasy in a rather particular way. Spenser has Continental counterparts, but A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Tempest do not. Nowhere else in Europe did folk tale, legend, medieval romance, travellers' tales and individual genius coalesce in such works of imagination as those plays. That may be one reason why the literature I am talking about is very largely an English-language phenomenon.
It begins with, say, George MacDonald's At the Back of the North Wind and runs on through Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, The Wind in the Willows, the Just So Stories and The Jungle Book, the Pooh books, Dr Dolittle, The Hobbit, The Once and Future King, Charlotte's Web, to my first three Earthsea books and all the serious imaginative fiction that continues to be published "for children" but is often read by adults. Does any other kind of fiction cross age-lines this way?
Realism does not. Realism comes in three separate age categories, fully recognised by publishers. Didactic, explanatory, practical and reassuring, realistic fiction for young children hasn't much to offer people who've already learned about dump trucks, vaccinations and why Heather has two mommies. …