Guest Post: The Treatment of Mythology in Children’s Fantasy

The Treatment of Mythology in Children’s Fantasy


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By Dave Berry

The Looking Glass : New Perspectives on Children’s Literature, Vol 9, No 3 (2005)

Introduction: Fantasy stories trace their roots back to far older tales: the myths and legends of various cultures, which grew from oral storytelling in the days when myths were the only explanation for the mysterious workings of the real world. To a fantasy author mythology is both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, the themes and characters of myth have enthralled audiences for hundreds or even thousands of years, and they are likely to retain their appeal for many generations to come. On the other hand lurks the problem of creativity: how can a writer come up with new variations on stories that already exist in hundreds of different versions?

In the present day, when readers place great emphasis upon originality, fantasy stories distinguish themselves by the degree to which the author employs or abandons the conventions of mythology. Writers like C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien closely adhered to the tradition of European myths. Catherine Anthony Clark followed the myths of another culture, that of native North America. Welwyn Wilton Katz set off in another direction altogether: turning the Arthurian legends upside down, rewriting the stories instead of building on them. All these approaches create fantasy from the same ingredients, but according to different recipes. The resulting variety of flavors keeps readers coming back for more.

A fantasy author’s first decision is also the most important. What rules govern the work? Should the fantasy world be a charming, lighthearted place like Neverland or Oz? Should it be grimly realistic and touched with tragedy, like Middle Earth or Prydain? Should it intrude upon the real world or remain separate from it? Fantasy runs by its own internal laws, established by the author. Tolkien and Lewis largely allowed tradition to set the rules for them. Tolkien followed the guidelines of ancient Norse and Anglo-Saxon mythology, mingled with a bit of provincial English folklore (for the hobbits) and Christian doctrine (for Sauron, the great destroyer). Lewis used the medieval English and French romances—Narnia itself springs almost directly out of Chretien de Troyes or Marie de France—with a strong twist of Christian symbolism. This English literary tradition rises with Beowulf and continues to the present day. Other, more modern writers sought out mythology from other sources: Ireland (O. R. Melling), Wales (Lloyd Alexander and Susan Cooper), and North America (Catherine Anthony Clark), to name a few.

Click here to read this article from La Trobe University

We Are Not the Heroes of Our Story

P1000827It was nearly four years ago that I had the astounding experience of whitewater rafting on the Nile River in Jinja, Uganda. It was an exhausting 6-hour journey that took our group over 12 Class 4 & 5 rapids. I fell out or the raft flipped over 4 of those 12 rapids. Whether it was paddling through an intense rapid or floating on my back in the middle of the river, the whole experience continues to be surreal to me. Yet, even though I can’t fully express my adventure that day with words, I did learn a very valuable lesson that I doubt will ever forget: I am not in control.

The story goes like this. When I climbed into that raft with my wife and her family, my wife expressed anxiety about the trip. Now, she is a fantastic swimmer, and she is no stranger to adventure, but the prospect of being thrown from the raft over and over again made her nervous. Of course, being an understanding husband I gathered all my eloquent wisdom and responded by saying, “You don’t need to worry–everything will be okay.” Hard to believe, but her nervousness wasn’t exactly squelched by my little pep talk. Seeing that she was still unsure, I pulled the husband card by saying, “It’s going to be okay. If something happens, I will be sitting right behind you, and I will take care of you. I will protect you.” This worked only slightly better than the first comment, but like the brave-spirit that she is, she focused on having a good time.

Now, I was sincere in what I said to her. I really did want her to feel safe by knowing that I would look out for her, and I really was prepared to do whatever I could to make sure she was safe. Unfortunately, I greatly overestimated myself.

During the second rapid, our raft jettisoned everyone into the river. Although I had been sitting directly behind my wife in the raft, she was nowhere to be seen when I surfaced. I desperately looked around for her while I started to swim for the raft. Very strong men in little one man kayaks skimmed across the water to collect the people who were now bobbing up and down in the river like wine corks. It wasn’t until I was back in the raft that I saw my wife being pulled in by one of these helpers. As we pulled her into the raft, she handed me her paddle–which had been broken into two pieces. Once everyone was safely back in the boat, a devastating realization overcame me. There was no way that I could possibly begin to protect her from the river that so easily dragged us around like helpless children. My courage and good intentions were no match for the force of the Nile. It is hard to convey the utter fragility that I felt at that moment–the realization that I was of no use to my wife (and later on to find out that I was of almost no use to save myself) was heartbreaking. No personal willpower, collective positive thinking, or inspirational speeches could change the fact that I was at the mercy of the river. I was not in control.

This frightened me.

I could no longer assure my wife that it was “going to be okay” because I really wasn’t sure it was going to be okay.

Then, like a escaping balloon that is snatched from the air by the string and drug back down to earth, I realized something: The large Ugandan man who was steering out raft was yelling at me. “Paddle hard!” he shouted.

I broke out of my self-indulgent stupor just in time to see the next rapid in front us. Of course, this event continued to reinforce the fact that I was not in control…even to the point that I had to stop thinking about how I wasn’t in control so I could paddle and attempt to keep from being thrown in the river again. It was at this point that I decided to hang navel gazing and actually enjoy the ride.

This isn’t Nihilism–this is simply giving in to the fact that I didn’t hold the power in the situation.

Years later, as I reflect on my rafting journey on the Nile, I am reminded of Gandalf’s words to Bilbo at the end of The Hobbit.

“Then the prophecies of the old songs have turned out to be true, after a fashion!” said Bilbo.

“Of course!” said Gandalf. “And why should not they prove true? Surely you don’t disbelieve the prophecies, because you had a hand in bringing them about yourself? You don’t really suppose, do you, that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck, just for your sole benefit? You are a very fine person, Mr. Baggins, and I am very fond of you; but you are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all!”

“Thank goodness!” said Bilbo laughing, and handed him the tobacco-jar.

After all of the adventures that Bilbo endured, Gandalf reminds Bilbo that while he is the hero of his journey that he is in fact not the hero of The Journey. Interestingly enough, Bilbo plays a small and insignificant role in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. And while Bilbo’s adventures are remembered and his heroism rewarded, Tolkien reminds his readers that the hero of one day is not the hero of a lifetime.

In affect, Gandalf is reminding Bilbo that he is not the centre of the story. “You are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all,” Gandalf reminds Bilbo. Even at the end of a story in which Bilbo is legitimately the hero, Bilbo is reminded that his story isn’t the The Story.

Throughout The Hobbit, Tolkien writes of Bilbo’s heroic journey–not heroic because Bilbo overcomes trolls, or spiders, or orcs, or even Smaug–heroic because Bilbo overcomes his fear of being out of control. Bilbo begins by hating adventures–“nasty things, make you late for dinner”–to accepting them.

My experience on the Nile River was so memorable to me because I learned something about my identity. I learned that despite my best efforts and intentions, I was not in control. Sure, I could assist in guiding the boat to the right or left in order to avoid rocks or other dangers, but there was no way I could defy the current on my own. Positive thought and pure will could not have kept me from being swept down the river. But that proved to be okay. In fact, that proved to be fantastic!

For some people, the story ends here: accept fate and enjoy life. Once again, I am not preaching Nihilism. I am not promoting a gospel of hopelessness or helplessness. I am speaking of having abundant life.

My experience on the river is one that is too familiar to me. I have far too often found myself trying to take control of my life in a way where I arrange the events and situations of my life to be conducive to staying in control (then I had kids, and blew that whole experiment up). I sometimes limit my experiences based on whether I can control the outcome, and if I’m not careful, I turn away the adventures that come knocking on my door because they might cause discomfort. Yes, adventures are nasty things that make you late for dinner. They cause disorder. They sometimes even create disdain within friends and family, but if we are not careful, our fear of discomfort will actually become our identity. We seek to keep our identities safe, but we in fact lose them. We seek to have an ordered and controlled life, but we are in fact destroying life.

This dichotomy rings the most true for me when I think about my own identity in Christ, and no more true than when I read the words of Jesus in Matthew and Luke.

Matthew 10:39 records Jesus saying,Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”

Luke 17:33 echoes the same words when it says, Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will keep it.”

Like Bilbo, I am often so concerned for my own reputation and identity that I hold it closely, not realizing that all the while I am actually losing that thing I hold so dear. I jockey for position at my work, church, and even home while Christ beckons me to be called up from the slavery of my sin and become a child of God.

I am not the hero of my life; in fact, sometimes I’m the villain. I thrash and grasp for control and worth from things that are either temporary or unobtainable, all the while I am rejecting a position much higher position than my own. I may not be the hero, but when my identity is rooted in Christ’s ability instead of my own, then I find an abundance of joy in the great adventure of the Christian faith.

I am indeed just a little fellow in a wide world.

 

 

Why We Still Need “Happily Ever After” (2 of 2)

I tell a lot of stories to my classes–it is one of the ways that I feel like I connect with my students. They write me their stories, I tell them my stories, and by the end of the year we know each other pretty well. One of the stories I enjoy telling is about a time that I was coaching a junior high basketball team when I was still teaching in Seattle.

The story goes that my team and I were away at a basketball game one afternoon. The final few minutes of the end of the game were a back and forth battle with the other team. They would go up by one and then they would go up by one. Up by two. Down by one. Tied. Back and forth for a solid five minutes–an ulcer the size of a grapefruit growing in my stomach the entire time.

With 9 seconds left, we were down by one and our team had the ball on the opposite end of the court. 9 seconds is a lifetime in basketball. Peace treaties have been signed and government handbooks have been rewritten in those 9 seconds. Unfortunately as a coach, 9 seconds doesn’t seem nearly long enough when you are down by one point.

We inbounded the ball, passed the ball up to half court on the right side, and then proceeded to pass it back and forth looking for an open shot. Finally, right before the buzzer rang and my heart burst open, one of the players “chucked” up a three point shot…and it went it!

The crowd went wild, the players celebrated, and I downed two Zantac.

When we got back to the school everyone was still excited. I made sure all the players were picked up by their parents, and then I went to park the 15 passenger van. As I walked back to the school, I realized that I had left my car keys (and subsequently, my school keys) in my classroom. It was February…it was cold…and I was hungry. After a full hour of banging on the windows and doors to get the janitors attention–who happened to be listening to AC/DC–I got my keys and was headed home. Needless to say, I was no longer excited about the win. My mountaintop experience had been drowned out by an Angus Young riff from Hell’s Bells–except my temperature wasn’t so hot.

This story is the opposite of “Happily Ever After,” but their are some similarities. Instead of ending well, my story started well and ended hungry…I mean poorly.

As I mentioned in my previous blog, some people don’t like the fairy tale ending. Whether for overuse or abstractness, they just don’t like it. Now, far be it from me to infringe upon individual tastes. I can’t give you a reason why I don’t like brussel sprouts, but I still don’t like them. I do know that they are the devil’s vegetable, so I’m assuming that’s reason enough. Possibly disliking “happily ever after” doesn’t need an explanation…possibly.

The reason that I write about this though is far beyond personal taste. I do believe that to dislike “happily every after,” and probably disliking fairy tales as a whole, leads to cynicism and a stout case of narcism. Now, I’m not saying that every Cinderella-loving child will grow up to be a compassionate philanthropist because of the ending, but I do believe that by accepting this style of ending in a fairy tale ultimately shows a person more open to transcendence than not. In fact, liking “happily ever after” has less to do with the genre of fairy tales and more to do with understanding that the world is greater than we are. Let me explain.

Many of the oppositions that I hear are based on readers being dissatisfied because the actions of the happily ever after fairy tale don’t come to fruition in their own lives (i.e. “Prince Charming is not coming to sweep me off my feet”). Many notable authors (Tolkien, Lewis, L’Engle, Le Guin) have written about the universal truths should be followed in fantasy and fairy tales, but none of them have every advocated (as far as I know) selling your last cow to get some magic beans. It is the virtues of characters-not the actions of the characters–that should be emulated. The fantastical land of fairy tales operates on a completely different set of principles, so we simply can’t determine these stories to be true based on the principles of our world. Instead, we must insert ourselves into these stories to look around–to feel what is true and just and right. Happily ever after isn’t wrong just because it doesn’t work in the real world. Or does it?

Tolkien called the Gospel (literally the “God Spell”) of the Bible the great Eucatastrophe; in other words, the great Happily Every After. “The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history,” Tolkien writes. The “turn” at the end of a story, the happy ending of a fairy tale, if written well, is the great Christian joy according to Tolkien; a “sudden and miraculous grace.” Tolkien believed that fairy tales are able to both fully understand the “dycatastrophe of sorrow and failure,” but not be overcome with cynicism because they also embrace the “joy of deliverance.”

To believe in happily ever after means to believe that there is someone or something that will come to your rescue. That even in the darkest of nights and the bleakest of situations, not to grow bitter and hopeless, because there will be salvation. I know no better explanation of the Gospel.

I want to end with a scene from The Two Towers that I think epitomizes the concept of Eucatastrophe. Enjoy!

What is “Good” Fantasy? (3 of 3)

When the Fellowship of the Ring first came out in 2001, I grabbed my best friend at the time, and we drove down to the local theatre to watch what has now become one of Peter Jackson’s greatest movies. I had read all of the Lord of the Rings books when I was young, and I had anticipated the movie for well over a year. When the movie ended, and we left the theatre on that cold December night, something inside of me came alive–apparently, I wasn’t the only one. Driving home, Sam and I made a pact that we would see the next movie together. Indeed, the next December came, and Sam and I were once again watching Tolkien’s work come to life. And once again, I left that theatre with a strange life in my imagination. Then there was Return to the King. The glory of Aragorn, the friendship of Sam, and the devastation of Sauron. Aside from the deletion of Sharky and the scourging of the Shire, I was pleased with the movie, but I felt different that night as I left the theatre.

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Truthfully, I felt like I had ended a three year relationship! I was disappointed, and a little hopeless, but I couldn’t shake a strange yearning that was connected to the last scenes of the movie. Like Sam, Pippin, and Merry, I felt like I was watching all of the magic of the elves leave Middle Earth. Every part of me wanted the magic to stay, and every part of me wanted 

to be part of that magic. Something inside of me had come awake, and it felt like it was now leaving me. This, in my opinion, is one of the greatest manifestations of truly great fantasy. And like Tolkien, his predecessor of fantasy George MacDonald, is a master at awakening the moral imaginations of his readers. 

One of the fundamental ways that George MacDonald awakens the moral imagination of his readers is through the use of symbolism.  As the author Rolland Hein explains, MacDonald uses symbolism to create a reality that is “more ideal and more unified than that of daily life” (Harmony 57).  MacDonald believes that a person who imagines the world rightly is imagining God.  “Our imagination is made to mirror truth,” MacDonald writes in his Unspoken Sermons series, “and when we are true it will mirror nothing but truth” (Series Two 113).  Hein aptly notes that MacDonald “imaginatively created fictional worlds in which moral and spiritual realities were accentuated” (55).  MacDonald’s more virtuous characters show the benefits of a well- developed moral imagination, while his less virtuous characters portray the effects of a lack of moral imagination.  Ultimately, MacDonald’s characters direct readers to a greater understanding of the human struggle to regain harmony with a transcendent God.  Hein argues that MacDonald uses the fairy tale form to best achieve this purpose. For MacDonald, symbols portray spiritual truths, and his “images function as symbols when they convey divine meaning and grace to the sensitive reader” (Christian Mythmakers 59).  Vigen Guroian also comments on our participation with these symbols:

If a symbol is real and belongs to the ontology of being, though the mystery remains, the fact is that children belong to that ontology and are participants in the symbolical, semiotic, and sacramental universe that God has brought into existence and sustains from “moment” to “moment.”   Children are already “literate,” which is to say equipped to read out the meaning in a meaningful world. [The] [t]rouble is we neither trust in this nor attend to introducing them to the world properly. Imaginative powers are innate. But they must be exercised properly, like muscles in the body, lest they either atrophy or grow grotesquely.

MacDonald situates his characters as participants in a greater story, and allows his readers to use their innate imaginative powers to understand the symbols embedded in a microcosmic story that direct them to a macrocosmic story. Ultimately, MacDonald’s fairy tales employ the symbolic to mimic the grand creativity of Nature and of God.

Like many authors, MacDonald found the fairy tale to be the “perfect vehicle for exploring our confrontment with the unknown” (Mendelson 33).  And through the exploration of this unknown, MacDonald’s stories continue to inspire a sense of awe in his readers that allows them to participate in their own childlikeness so that they may struggle with the mystery of their own reality—and be amazed.  The rationalism of MacDonald’s day relegate the imagination to the furthest corners of acceptable means of knowing, but George MacDonald diverged from this worldview to instruct his readers to marry both reason and imagination so that the grandeur of God is fully realized.

Although this may seem very nebulous, it can be achieved by looking at a piece of fantasy with a different perspective. As an example, I want to explore the Grimm’s version of Snow White by using a moral reading.

Snow White often gets criticized for being discriminatory towards women (to be honest, I can see why a story about one woman doing chores for seven small men while evading a jealous step-mother might lead people towards this conclusion), but a closer look at the Grimm’s Snow White from outside a feminist perspective reveals a virtuous, not passive, Snow White.  If the use of the words “fairness” and “beauty” are extended beyond their physical meaning, a different Snow White is revealed.  For example, Snow White’s physical countenance is unaffected by the perceived death brought on after eating the queen’s poison apple.  Snow White’s “fresh and alive” appearance after death draws Christ-like comparisons with the Pauline references to Christ’s resurrection: “Death has been swallowed up in victory,” and, “Oh, death, where is your sting?” (1 Cor. 15:54-55).

Comparing Snow White’s awakening to Christ’s victory over death in his resurrection gives Snow White’s “passivity” a greater power than any other character in the story: power over death.  And while it is noted that Snow White never truly dies, the symbol of her fairness being upheld in her supposed death is enough to make the Christ-like comparison; for it is her fairness that prompts the dwarves to honor her with a glass coffin, and by her loveliness the prince pledges an eternal vow to “honor and cherish” the seemingly deceased princess.  Honor, love, and devotion are precipitated through Snow White’s fairness, even in death. This fairness does not suggest a passive woman; instead, it reveals a woman whose post-mortem virtue actively affects those who are in contact with her.  Ultimately, while a feminist reading of Snow White provides insight into a possible patriarchal and matriarchal imbalance, this kind of reading hinders one’s ability to interpret virtue—even possible virtues like humility and service.

This fairy tale is just one example of how looking for “good” fantasy can help sharpen our eyes to the goodness and wisdom that can be found withing fantasy.

Obviously, not all fantasy is created equal. There is no doubt that our relativistic view of truth and goodness has

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distorted what we need from a fantasy story. I believe that our modern fascination with fantasy (from Marvel to Middle Earth) is really just an echo of a greater need to belong to a world that transcends ourselves. Although we do not have the advantage of having a Gandalf or Aslan to physically guide us through our perils, we can take the truths that burst forth from these stories to better see the world the surrounds all of us.