Towards Reclaiming the Colonised Mind: The Liberating Fantasies of Duiker and Ihimaera

By Brown, Molly | Papers: Explorations into Children's Literature, December 2008 | Go to article overview

Towards Reclaiming the Colonised Mind: The Liberating Fantasies of Duiker and Ihimaera


Brown, Molly, Papers: Explorations into Children's Literature


Ursula le Guin once observed that 'the story - from Rumpehtiltskin to War and peace - is one of the basic tools invented by the human mind, for the purpose of gaining understanding' and that while 'there have been great societies that did not use the wheel ... there have been no societies that did not tell stories' (1989, p.27). By comparing the story to the wheel, she gently reminds the technology-obsessed reader that verbal structures have as much, if not more, to offer our world than mechanical ones and that while one tells or listens to stories one is not merely taking part in an idle entertainment but performing an action with vital and potentially transformative functions.

Within the range of stories available to children, fantasy has, of course, a unique position in that, as Bruno Bettelheim observes:

  Through most of man's [sic] history, a child's intellectual life,
  apart from immediate experiences within the family, depended
  on mythical and religious stories and on fairy tales. This
  traditional literature fed the child's imagination and stimulated
  his fantasizing. Simultaneously, since these stories answered the
  child's most important questions, they were a major agent of his
  socialization. (1976, p.24)

We live in an increasingly secular world in which the dominant myths of many societies can no longer answer the questions of the young with the untroubled authority imagined by Bettelheim. This is perhaps especially true in countries in which processes of colonisation have marginalised and devalued indigenous mythologies. The rapid cultural change forced on such societies militates against the preservation of cultural identity and may lead both parents and therefore children to see their own language and stories as unnecessary encumbrances, embarrassing relics of a way of life at odds with global criteria for success.

Deprived of their narrative birthright, children in colonial and postcolonial societies are then forced to look for the answers they need in stories uneasily transplanted from very distant and different environments. However, such attempts are rarely fully satisfying since, as Neil Gaiman wryly demonstrates in his satirical fantasy American Gods (2005), mythical beings do not usually take kindly to being uprooted and tend to become faded or distorted versions of themselves when forced to migrate with their worshippers to new and spiritually uncongenial surroundings.

Cultural dissonances of this kind are perhaps less problematic in works of fantasy aimed at younger readers. Lutz Rohrich claims that 'the fact that folk narratives appear among so many peoples in such similar forms and ways shows that they have a common meaning which transcends language barriers' (In McGlathery 1988, p. 12) and this view seems to be supported by both Propp's syntagmatic readings of Russian folklore, which led him to claim that 'the number of functions known to the fairy tale is limited' (1979, p.21), and Luthi's theory that the defining characteristic of folk tales is their abstract style. In contrast to myths, legends and sagas, Luthi argues that the folk tale does not attempt to create settings reflective of the real world. Instead, he suggests that such a tale 'transforms the world; it puts a spell on its elements and gives them a different form, and thus it creates a world with a distinct character of its own' (1986, p.24).

Fantasy for older children, however, is rarely quite as self sufficient. Since the end of the nineteenth century it has tended rather to weave magic into the tapestry of everyday experience so that a Psammead may be found in an abandoned gravel pit (Nesbit 1979, p.20) and subtle knives can be used to cut doorways from contemporary Oxford into a dazzling variety of alternative universes (Pullman 1998). Tweens and teens are vigorously engaged with their environment and look to fantasy not for simple escapism but for creative reworkings of inherited folklore, ways to make connections between the cultural archetypes transmitted by myth and folk tale and the daily anxieties and choices of adolescence. …

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