When I was doing my English degree, one of my tutors didn’t like fantasy. In her opinion, “the supernatural takes over the story”. But isn’t that the whole idea? I wrote a ghost story screenplay. She liked it, but classed it as “family entertainment” (children’s literature was a genre we weren’t meant to write in for that course, but she did me a favour and stretched the point). Perhaps she thought fantasy was childish, juvenile. That fantasy was all fairy stories. You know, living happily ever after, and all that. Unrealistic.
But what’s wrong with children reading that sort of thing? Einstein is quoted as saying “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be very intelligent, read them more fairy tales.”
I recently did an online course about the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen. He had the courage to write stories with unhappy endings. He didn’t believe that you should try to be good because it pays, but be good because evil stems from intellectual and emotional stuntedness.
Far from being a matter of happy-happy-joy-joy, fairy stories can be frightening. Neil Gaiman has said that if you are protected from dark things then you have no protection of, knowledge of, or understanding of dark things when they show up.
Children like being frightened by fairy tales. They have an inborn need to experience powerful emotions. Andersen scared children. His tales are full of supernatural beings, talking animals and objects – just the sort of character I love to write about, too. Not everyone is harmless and well-disposed. In the Andersen stories, the character who turns up most often is death.
One story we looked at was “The Little Mermaid”. Even though it’s got a sea witch in it, I’m not sure if the original would scare kids. But, unlike the Disney version, it’s not a happy story. Or is it? In the end of the original version, the mermaid (who is unnamed) does not win the love of the Prince. She can’t. She is an outsider and the sea witch has taken her voice, her greatest asset. The Prince has to marry someone of his own rank. The Little Mermaid does not have the ability to challenge this status quo because she cannot communicate with him.
However, she achieves immortality by gaining an immortal soul, which (according to Andersen) mermaids do not have. She creates it herself, by dying, turning to sea foam, joining the daughters of the air and doing good deeds for three hundred years. The very end carries a sting in the tale for the child reader, because the daughters of the air are able to get into houses unseen (which might be scary). The three hundred years that they must work is shortened by one year every time they find a child who gladdens its parents and earns their love. But if they see a naughty or wicked child they cry tears of sorrow, and each tear adds a further day to their time.
So it looks like the Little Mermaid has to carry out some sort of penance. Why? Because she dared to swim out of line? This ambiguous ending allows the reader to use their imagination to interpret events, to help bridge the gaps, and write their own ending to the story. So, perhaps I could say that I write fantasy to transport the reader to another world: the text world. As Stephen King says in On Writing, “Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.” Fantasy offers an alternative world against which we can judge the actual world.