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  • Fantasy as Adventure:Nineteenth Century Children's Fiction
  • Roderick McGillis

I wish to extend Paul Zweig's comparison between the shaman and the storyteller to nineteenth century romance, especially in works for children.

In The Adventurer, Zweig suggests that in the nineteenth century, adventure, like the quest romance, became internalized; he also suggests that a "resemblance exists between the adventurer exploring the countries of the marvelous and the "absent" one: each finds his way to the "other" world and returns to tell the story."1 The "absent one" is the shaman who, through illness or some other means, transports to a mysterious world of hidden realities. As Zweig argues:

The shaman's vocation as an ecstatic traveler resembles that of the archaic adventurer. Both forge an immunity to the perils of the demonic world by mastering them. Both return from their journey bearing stories which sustain the humanity of those who are destined to exist within the circle of domestic realities. The story itself is a way of naming the unnameable, extending the net of language into the obscure seas which defy human foresight. Telling his tale of struggles and triumphs in the demon countries, the shaman pushes back the essential ignorance in which men live, by exposing a further reach of darkness to the clarity of words

(pp. 90-91).

Although fear of the shaman—or what he represents—runs through much popular Victorian children's literature, we can also recognize something of this character in the best works of the period. What makes George MacDonald's At the Back of the North Wind (1871) such a strong and effective book, and Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865) such a troublesome and complex book, is their acceptance of what the shaman in his trance-like state stands for: the disruption of social reality, the overturning of easy certainties.

Most Victorian fantasies are uneasy with their notions of adventure, whether it be adventure in this world or in some [End Page 18] "other" world. In Mrs. Ewing's A Great Emergency (1874), the narrator, nine-year-old Charlie, thinks that "to begin a life of adventure is to run away."2 He and a friend hide on board a barge and float along a canal to London, where they intend to stow away on a ship bound for exotic shores. While on his "adventure," Charlie misses the great emergency of the title, which takes place back at his home; at the story's end he reflects: "in my vain, jealous wild-goose chase after adventures I missed the chance of distinguishing myself in the only Great Emergency which has yet occurred in our family" (p. 148). As Gillian Avery remarks, "The story turns on this, that adventures are as likely to happen on one's own doorstep as over the other side of the fence," but more importantly she notes the "further moral," that the dullness of life is in fact "preferable to disaster."3 In short, for Mrs. Ewing adventure is less than respectable. Charlie, an adult at the end of A Great Emergency, chides himself for being "still but too apt to dream!" (p. 147). Indeed, for a great number of Victorian writers for children, dreams are the stuff of childhood, acceptable if poorly moral, but to be set aside when one matures.

Attitudes to fantasy in the Victorian period may have been set by a work written before the turn of the nineteenth century, Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner.4 Responding to Mrs. Barbauld's complaint that the poem lacked a moral, Coleridge asserted that it had too much moral. The pat "He prayeth best, who loveth best/All things both great and small" appeared, in retrospect, too moral to Coleridge, as if he realized that a story like the Mariner's was too rich, too haunting, too mysterious, to be captured in such aphoristic pointedness. Clearly, the wedding guest who listens to, who cannot choose but hear, the story perceives something other, something darker, which the moral conclusion the Mariner tags onto his story will not explain. The wedding guest departs a sadder and wiser man; he turns from the wedding...


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