John Masefield (1878-1967) accomplished many things during his long life. He was appointed the Poet Laureate of the UK, writer of verse for the monarch on occasions of national significance. After his appointment, Masefield was awarded the Order of Merit by King George V, one of the highest civilian honours which it is possible for an Englishman to receive. He also penned the famous poem Sea-Fever, which features the immortal line “I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky, and all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by”. Say his name today, however, and it is likely that almost anyone who has ever heard of Masefield will know him primarily as the author of children’s book The Box of Delights. A wonderfully festive treat, the book tells of the adventures of a schoolboy named Kay Harker one Christmas, when he is drawn into a magical but sinister web of intrigue featuring wolves who walk as men, ancient wizards, talking animals and arcane objects. Published in 1935, The Box of Delights was adapted into a popular BBC tea-time serial which was broadcast in the lead-up to Christmas in 1984 and has since enjoyed an eternal afterlife on video and DVD. Yet the book’s fame has perhaps unfairly eclipsed the other works of a writer who led a truly remarkable life.
Since the release of the first Harry Potter novel in 1997, J K Rowling’s books about the boy wizard and his adventures have gained immense popularity, critical acclaim and commercial success worldwide. But it is also fair to say that the series has also attracted more than its fair share of criticism. There has been ire from Christian groups about the books’ ‘pagan’ content, legal disputes over stolen ideas and complaints that, in the end and despite the hype, the books just aren’t that good in the first place. It has always, in particular, interested me that so many people have complained that J K Rowling allegedly lifted chunks of the Potterverse from other sources. How true is this? I wondered, and hence thought that it might be useful some day to sort through all the alleged prototypes for Harry Potter in a post on the subject. I’ve always been put off doing this until now, however, because the Rowling-machine have been remarkably ready to stamp on any and all criticism of this sort, including going to court where necessary. Before I get started, therefore, let’s be clear here — I’m not saying that any of these accusations are true! As any fantasy readers out there will be all too aware, if anything, when people point out similarities between two fantasy books, they’re often simply pointing out that they both belong to the same genre. Nevertheless, I will of course proceed with my usual caution!
The approach of Christmas inevitably brings to mind the TV shows I watched as a child. But defining children’s fantasy television is a bit like looking for bundles of straw in a haystack. After all, which kids’ fare doesn’t contain some element of the fantastic or the impossible? Still, we generally known what we mean when we talk about children’s sci-fi and fantasy TV in Britain, even if the boundaries can generally be quite shaky: it’s drama you only find between four and six pm, or on Sundays; it’s drama in which earnest drama school types called Tom and Tizzy go off to spend their summer holidays with a great aunt or uncle in the country in a big house with a garden which holds a secret that only the ghostly apparition of a grubby Victorian street urchin can unlock; it’s drama, more often than not, with really immaculate sets, portentous music and generally cheap but earnest special effects. If there is a predominant theme to this genre, it’s of children and teenagers finding their identities and coming to terms with the often dysfunctional adult world around them. Which is where the fantasy comes in. It might be a kindly old wizard or an amorphous jellyfish with a nice line in aphorisms but, whatever their shape, their role is to provide the wise, understanding, benevolent authority figure that’s been missing from our unfortunate heroes’ lives, and set them on the road to a brighter future. Looking back at the golden age of kids’ TV isn’t purely an exercise in nostalgia however, for these were the series that, in many cases, first entranced today’s fans of sci-fi and fantasy – after all, these were the tea-time delights that fed our imaginations at the most impressionable of ages.
One of the most popular and enduring cartoons ever made, He-Man was the result of a collaboration between toy giant Mattel and animation outfit Filmation. Mattel had put out two figures in 1981 (a barbarian warrior and his skeletal blue nemesis), only to find themselves inundated with letters from children demanding to know who they were and why they were fighting. Mattel brought in TV scriptwriter Michael Halperin to write a series bible that would form the backbone for Filmation’s series. He came up with the world of Eternia, a fantastical planet where Star Wars met Conan the Barbarian. Filmation specialised in producing animation quickly and cheaply, and were one of the last US animation studios to resist outsourcing their work to the Far East – probably a contributing factor to their sad demise in 1990. The studio kept budgets low by repeatedly re-using stock footage in episodes and featuring long takes panning across backgrounds. Continuity was something of a mess as a result, although in truth it was unlikely that many younger children even noticed the repetition. Bringing on board then-unknown writers such as Paul Dini (Batman: The Animated Series), Larry DeTillo (Beast Wars) and J M Straczynski (Babylon 5), the studio churned out 130 episodes in just two years. The show proved to be an instant success – in the early eighties, it was almost impossible to spend more than 20 minutes in a children’s play area without witnessing at least one child yelling “I have the power!”.
Peter Pan, the boy who never grew up, became known to the world in the play of the same name by Sir James Barrie, which was first acted in 1904 and has since been put on in London virtually every year, excluding wartime, at Christmas. One of Barrie’s friends had five small sons, and the story of Peter Pan’s adventures grew out of the long series of make-believe games that the author and the boys played together. There is a well-known statue in Kensington Gardens in London of Peter Pan playing a pipe, standing on a pedestal around which are carved figures of children and animals. Barrie himself arranged for this to be put up and gave the profits from all performances of the play, and from the book made of it, to the Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital. Barrie’s own life was touched by tragedy as well as genius, while the figure of Peter Pan has been endlessly reinterpreted through drama, film and fiction. There is the popular image of Disney’s laughing, jovial character from the animated film, the ‘grown-up’ Peter from the live action Hook, and the ‘re-imagining’ of the character in the more recent Neverland TV mini-series. What these modern conceptions of the character seem to miss, however, is that the original Peter Pan was a far darker, more ambiguous character than his more recent portrayals would seem to suggest – as perhaps befits his tragic origins.
Ursula K Le Guin is, quite simply, one of the greatest fantasists of our age, as well as a distinguished writer of science fiction, realist fiction, non-fiction and poetry. Among her many honours are a National Book Award, the World Fantasy Award, five Hugo Awards, five Nebula Awards, the Kafka Award, a Pushcart Prize and the Harold D Vursell Memorial Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Although she has published over eighty short stories, two collections of essays, ten books for children, several volumes of poetry and sixteen novels, what she remains most famous for are her tales of the world of Earthsea. A fictional realm originally created by Le Guin for her short story The Word of Unbinding, published in 1964, Earthsea became the setting for a further six books, beginning with A Wizard of Earthsea, first published in 1968, and continuing with The Tombs of Atuan, The Farthest Shore, Tehanu, Tales from Earthsea and The Other Wind. Iconic, original and deeply moving, the Earthsea novels have enthralled generations of fans – many of whom, it is worth saying, would not normally have been drawn to fantasy in the first place. Le Guin’s world also inspired two TV films, one of which is perhaps best forgotten while the other is a little known animated gem. The woman and the story behind one of the best loved worlds in fantasy are both almost as interesting as anything which occurred in the Earthsea novels.
…in a Ship of Her Own Making is a book that might be of interest to anyone who enjoyed my recent post about Children’s Fantasy. What I’m particularly impressed about is the fact that the author, Catherynne M Valente, originally self-published the novel. Click here to find out more!
While today you can go into any good bookshop (or perhaps more likely go online) to find plenty of children’s books of all kinds to choose from, this was not always the case. In fact, there was a time in the not too distant past when it was not easy at all for younger readers to find fiction written specifically for them – until about 150 years ago, children’s books were thought of only as lesson books, full of instructions about good behaviour. Only relatively recently have authors written books to be interesting, amusing and exciting for younger readers, instead of merely to teach them something. The development of the sub-genre of children’s fantasy is an even more recent phenomenon. From its misty beginnings in the fairy tales and fables of the nineteenth century to its first real expression in the form of classics like The Borrowers and The Chronicles of Narnia, children’s fantasy has progressed in leaps and bounds to become, today, an extremely lucrative literary form in its own right. It was perhaps the runaway success of series such as His Dark Materials and Harry Potter which first highlighted just how popular and successful fantasy for children (as opposed to its more grown-up counterpart as exemplified by Tolkien and others) could be. This was no mere flash in the pan, however, and books like the Twilight and Hunger Games series have continued to dominate the bestseller lists, as well as the box office, well into the 21st century.
One of my favourite authors from childhood is Alan Garner and in his saga of ‘Wild Magic’ he achieves powerful effects of beauty and terror that hold a reader well beyond the close. The Wild Magic books are officially The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and its direct sequel The Moon of Gomrath, but Elidor and The Owl Service are usually included in this description because, though unrelated plot-wise, they share many thematic similarities. In Garner’s own words, this quartet of books all concern characters drawn into the world of magic that lies as near and unknown to us as the back of a shadow – a world of mists and forests, ancient enchantments, mythical beings, ageless wizards… and restless evil. Garner is at his best writing of night and dark water – his stories are ferocious and deeply felt, briskly adventurous yet brimming over with wonder, excitement and imagination. As a reader – even a child reader – you are never patronised by Garner or presented with endless, boring explanations or descriptions. His books move along at a breakneck pace, almost like a film shot with a handheld camera, and the reader is continually thrust right into the midst of it all. A native of Cheshire, England, most of Garner’s books centre on Alderly Edge, a place as personal and as full of mythic potential to him as the West Midlands were to J R R Tolkien.
It’s been a while since I read an entire book in a weekend but that was the case with the advance copy I recently got my hands on of James Treadwell’s debut novel Advent, partly because I’ve been waiting for someone to write a book like this for what feels like a very long time! Regular readers of this blog will be aware of the high esteem in which I hold The Dark is Rising and that is perhaps the best comparison to make at the outset – reading Advent is like re-visiting an older, darker, more mature version of Susan Cooper’s famous novel. Treadwell’s book is brimming over with all of the elements that fans of everything from Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell to The Weirdstone of Brisingamen will know and love – ancient magic, a struggle between good and evil, burgeoning wisdom and a young man’s coming of age. What I particularly like about Advent, though, is that the novel isn’t merely derivative and that its author mines less familiar areas of fantasy and mythology such as alchemy, necromancy and the Faust legend.