- The Blank Mirror of Death:Protest as Self-Creation in Contemporary Fantasy
Attention to language usually shapes any discussion of fantasy as a literary genre. The parallel worlds and impossible creatures always carry new names; the animals talk in order to signal a transformation of reality; labels combine to produce new categories: a Cucumber King, a Moominmamma somehow bizarre and yet familiar. Recent understandings of language are reflected in contemporary fantasy, particularly in fantasy written in post-war Europe, where the study and writing of children's books have often reflected self-consciously a philosophical and pedagogical climate in which issues of freedom and control are debated. In Sweden, for instance, prominent critics of children's literature such as Sonja Svensson, director of the Swedish Institute for Children's Books, and Vivi Edström, professor of children's literature at the University of Stockholm, commonly incorporate social criteria into their evaluation of children's books,1 while in the Federal Republic of Germany, the Institute for Children's Literature Research at the University of Frankfurt encourages political analyses of children's literature (Fetz 41).
The idea of language as a potentially freeing power that can be stifled in a society that does not allow real human community provides a thematic and structural focus for describing four disparate yet contemporaneous writers—Tove Jansson, Astrid Lindgren, Christine Nöstlinger, and Michael Ende. While all four writers clearly reflect twentieth-century concerns, their visions derive from the ancient fantasy tradition involving the dream of an ordered world and meaningful life. All four exploit fantasy both as escapism and as a vehicle for social messages by developing individualistic word play that is rooted in a social identity. Escapism becomes the means to erase false distinctions between the self and others; the retreat into private worlds by means of unique language actually ends in placing emphasis on the world of human relatedness and the desirability and possibility of its transformation.
These four writers are linked by their achievements as authors of contemporary fantasy for children who recognize that language can be tautological and that that is ultimately unacceptable to socially conscious human beings. Together they span the past-war years, Jansson and Lindgren as relatively acclaimed Swedish-language writers and Nöstlinger and Ende as more recent popular authors who do not always satisfy literary [End Page 28] critics' aesthetic or political criteria in Germany. While in some ways they comprise a group partly because they are available in English translation, their very diversity illustrates the point that contemporary fantasy is participating in a quest for meaning occasioned by postmodern tolerance of ambiguity and contradiction. As Kathryn Hume remarks about such writers, "They work with full awareness of the void, and do not fall back on old answers or faith" (49). In so doing, these writers offer children the multiple perspectives needed for development. Each writer's canon centers on issues of freedom: Lindgren wrote the Pippi Longstocking books, for example, in a pedagogical context advocating children's liberation, Jansson examines the threat to both freedom and stability posed by forces out of our control, Nöstlinger responds to memories of the Hitler era, and Ende's stories involve the need for creative play as a basis for human community. Thus, it is clear that they deal with philosophical themes and historical events which define personhood in our century. Such writers pose interesting problems for Anglo-American critics, since our critical discourse (e.g., the work of Northrop Frye often applied to children's books) helps to support the notion that the world is orderly and unthreatening to the thinking individual.
"That the structure of the psyche is historical . . . is as difficult for us to grasp as that the senses are not themselves natural organs but rather the results of a long process of differentiation within human history" (Jameson 62). Literary theory, including Marxism, feminism, and structuralism, drives home the point that the self is a social construct. As much as we might struggle to separate "the self" from others, and to emphasize its uniqueness, we must confront the fact that our very perceptions of reality are affected by our history, our...