It’s that time of year again, and it’s hard to think about the holidays, particularly Christmas, without thinking of fantasy. It is particularly interesting to note just how many famous fantasy novels – particularly for children – are set during the festive period. The Dark is Rising, The Snow Spider and The Children of Green Knowe are all examples that come to mind immediately, but there are many others. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, whilst not set at Christmas specifically, features a suitably seasonal winter wonderland and even boasts an appearance by none other than Santa Claus himself. Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass (aka Northern Lights) also feels like a seasonal novel, even if Christmas was quite literally the last thing on the author’s mind when he was writing it. There are also a number of more adult fantasy novels that make use of festive motifs, often inverting them in new and often anarchic ways. Examples of the latter include Terry Pratchett’s Hogfather and Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book. Then there are timeless classics like Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale, which are neither entirely for adults nor completely for children, but fall into that strange twilight realm that separates the two worlds. What makes Christmas such a popular setting for children’s fantasy novels can perhaps be attributed to a number of things. The essential yuletide story of Jesus’ birth is full of fantastical elements, from the angels to the star to the three Magi. Moving to the secular (or perhaps pagan) side of things, Santa Claus is nothing but fantastical – flying reindeer, elves (which rather resemble gnomes), a fat man fitting down a chimney, and so on. Then there’s perhaps the most famous novel about Christmas, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, which is of course full of spirits. It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that Christmas continues to be explored by fantasy writers. The myths and legends of Christmas provide a rich source of inspiration for new tales, the season can be mined for its emotion and themes, and perhaps for its strange and wonderful mix of energies.
For almost the whole of his life, Kenneth Grahame’s first love was ‘the cool and secluded reaches of the Thames, the stripling Thames, remote and dragonfly-haunted’ – in short, that section of the river between Streatley in the west and Windsor Castle in the east, which he first came to from Edinburgh, in sadness, as a boy of nearly five. Grahame was grieving for his mother, who had just died from scarlet fever and for his father who, broken-hearted, had fled abroad to live by himself. Kenneth, his two elder siblings and his younger brother Roland were taken in by their grandmother at a large house called The Mount, situated on the banks of the Thames at Cookham Dene. Henceforth, Grahame’s happiest childhood days would be spent playing about on the river, sometimes ‘messing about in boats’ though more often on foot, so that he came to know the life of the river banks intimately. At first it was a new and unusual world to this city boy, whose knowledge of meadows and rivers was as limited as if he had spent his whole life underground. But soon came the awakening of his interest in boats, and the love that every country child has for long summer days and the woods under winter snow. Many commentators have spoken of literary creativity arising from some terrible loss in an author’s life. Whatever it was, as a result, Kenneth found the need to daydream, and many of his dreams are re-created in that bedtime idyll of a pastoral England, already disappearing in Edwardian times, The Wind in the Willows.
The birth of fantasy literature (as distinct from myths and fairy tales, which have on some level always been with us) has often proved somewhat difficult to pin down. Whilst the general public may regard the genre as having originated with the publication of The Lord of the Rings in the 1950’s, fantasy literature has in many ways existed for perhaps hundreds of years before this. It is in the 17th century that we can find the first critical awareness of the separate existence of a genre of ‘fantasy’, so here I am not talking about earlier fictions about the fantastical, such as The Odyssey, Beowulf or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Before the reading public was introduced to the alternate world of Middle Earth, Clark Ashton Smith and Robert E Howard used the secondary world settings of Hyperborea, Poseidonis, Averoigne and Zothique for their heroic fantasy tales. Before them, fantastical creatures and other worlds appeared in the writings of William Hope Hodgson, most memorably The House on the Borderland (1908). Going back even earlier, the Victorian writer Lord Dunsany, who began his authorial career in the 1890s, was responsible for two major works – The Book of Wonders and The King of Elfland’s Daughter – that were an important influence on Tolkien and many of those who came after him. But can the birth of fantasy as a literary genre be traced back even earlier than this? Who were the founders of fantasy literature?
Anyone who has read and loved C S Lewis’ Narnia books may have encountered what is usually referred to in literary circles today as ‘the problem of Susan’. Susan was the only one of the four Pevensie siblings who survived the train wreck (because she was not on the train or at the station) on Earth which sent the others to Narnia after The Last Battle. In that final book of the series, Susan is conspicuous by her absence. Why? Because, as Peter says, she is “no longer a friend of Narnia” and she is described, perhaps rather uncharitably, by Jill Pole as “interested in nothing now-a-days except nylons and lipstick and invitations”. Several people who are otherwise fans of the Narnia books have a big problem with Susan’s fate. Notably, Harry Potter author J K Rowling once commented: “There comes a point where Susan, who was the older girl, is lost to Narnia because she becomes interested in lipstick. She’s become irreligious basically because she found sex. I have a big problem with that”. In his Companion to Narnia, Paul F Ford writes at the end of the entry for Susan Pevensie that “Susan’s is one of the most important Unfinished Tales of The Chronicles of Narnia”. In his short story The Problem of Susan, Neil Gaiman creates a fix that attempts to highlight the issue of Susan’s exile within the world of The Chronicles and within the ‘real world’. Since the publication of Gaiman’s story, ‘the problem of Susan’ has become used more widely as a catchphrase for the literary and feminist investigation into Susan’s treatment.
The dragon Smaug is in many ways the centrepiece of both The Hobbit book and film series – no other character more often dominates covers, calendars and promotional art related to the story. It is no accident that a dragon plays such a prominent role in one of J R R Tolkien’s very first works of fiction – he did, after all, once famously say: “I desired dragons with a profound desire”. For Tolkien’s taste, however, there were too few dragons in ancient literature, indeed by his count only three – the Miðgarðsorm or ‘Worm of Middle-earth’ which was to destroy the god Thor at Ragnarök, the Norse apocalypse; the dragon which the Anglo-Saxon hero Beowulf fights and kills at the cost of his own life; and Fafnir, who is killed by the Norse hero Sigurd. There are elements of all three of these mythological dragons in Smaug, as well as some entirely of Tolkien’s own making, such as the dragon’s name. Tolkien once noted that Smaug bore as a name the past tense of the primitive Germanic verb smúgan (to squeeze through a hole) – “a low philological jest”, as Tolkien himself put it, from an Oxford professor of Anglo-Saxon and Norse.
Puck, the mischievous imp of English folklore, also known as Robin Goodfellow, was immortalized in William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The origins of this merry trickster figure are, however, far older and darker. The Old English puca – from which the name Puck is derived – is a kind of half-tamed woodland spirit, leading folk astray with echoes and lights in night-time woodlands. The Welsh called him Pwca, which is pronounced the same as his Irish incarnation Phouka, Pooka or Puca but these are far from his only names. Parallel words exist in many ancient languages – Puki in Old Norse, Pukis in the Baltic region and Bucca in Cornish – mostly with the original meaning of a demon, devil or evil and malignant spirit. Indeed, Pouk was a typical medieval term for the devil and the Phouka was sometimes pictured as a frightening creature with the head of an ass. Even the jolly-sounding moniker of Robin Goodfellow alludes to this creature’s more sinister side – Robin itself was a medieval nickname for the devil. How then did such a demonic spirit evolve into the merry sprite of Shakespeare’s most famous comedy?
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!”.