In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Archetypal Images of Otherworlds in Singer's "Menaseh's Dream" and Tolkien's "Leaf by Niggle"
  • Millicent Lenz (bio)

Realistic fiction for today's children treats death candidly, with no "junk about God needing angels" (Smith 54). Such candor is laudable, yet it does not answer the need for imaginative speculation on immortality, a topic on which realistic children's literature is, by and large, silent; there exists a certain neglect by omission, as though the very thought of a possible life after death were somehow improper. Yet speculation on what lies beyond death, if anything, is one of the oldest themes in literature: it is central to Gilgamesh and the Book of Job, to cite just two examples.

Writers of fantasy, happily, are granted more freedom to explore the realms of "otherwhere," including a possible heaven or hell. Without stories providing images of life in other dimensions, a child's imagination is unduly impoverished; how dreary a world devoid of faerie, of elves, angels, leprechauns, Santa Claus, and imaginary beings. Moreover, stories presenting images of possible futures beyond death can help readers to structure imaginatively the fears, hopes, and dreams surrounding mortality and the longing for immortality. Literature can reassure us of the inevitability of life's eternal renewal in a way experience cannot; as Northrop Frye remarks in his discussion of the theme of ascent in romance: "The feeling that death is inevitable comes to us from ordinary experience; the feeling that new life is inevitable comes to us from myth and fable. The latter is therefore both more true and more important" (132).

Myth, fable, and fantasy, exploring as they do the archetypal depths of human imagination, offer readers speculative stories of the afterlife. Narratives portraying the afterlife or the journey to the "otherworld" have a long and honored tradition in literature; many epic adventures incorporate a visit to the underworld: Homer's Odyssey or Dante's Divine Comedy, for instance. Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, a significant influence upon children's literature, traces the pilgrim's journey through this world and into the next. Nineteenth-century literature offers a number of examples of visits to the otherworld in narratives read to or by children, such as Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol, in which Scrooge is redeemed by visions of the afterlife. Death and the future life are at the heart of another late nineteenth-century fantasy, George MacDonald's At the Back of the North Wind, an important contribution to literature addressing young readers' concerns about death, survival, and the perpetuation of individual identity. As North Wind tells Diamond, the country which lies at her back is not what it superficially seems to be: it is misconstrued as "Bad Fortune," "Evil Chance," or "Ruin" (she refuses to utter the word "Death" to him), for as Robert Lee Wolff observes, North Wind is associated with "the good, the welcome death" which MacDonald also portrays in Phantastes and The Golden Key. This death is actually "a reunion with the cosmos and mother earth," a death "not to be feared but sought" (155-56).

Madeleine L'Engle's A Ring of Endless Light is notable for its expression of an intuitive belief in an afterlife in the passage where Adam speaks to Vicki of "archaic understanding," the "deepest, mythic sense" which knows the immortality of the soul. Adam declares such understanding to be inherent in all children, but then "school comes along, and the pragmatic Cartesian world" takes intellectual control, denying this deep knowledge (231). In fantasy literature, there are numerous other examples of novels reflecting a belief in otherworlds (the novels of C. S. Lewis, still widely read by youngsters, spring to mind), and there exists a considerable number of other books with supernatural events, such as Richard Peck's Blossom Culp series and his Unfinished Portrait of Jessica (Delacorte 1991). The popularity of such books indicates that readers enjoy speculation about immortality and otherworlds.1

Contemporary literary criticism, oddly, rarely probes the theme of immortality in books for youngsters, despite evidence from the studies of children's concepts of death and their expressed beliefs about life after death that they need to discuss these topics with...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1553-1201
Print ISSN
0885-0429
Pages
pp. 3-7
Launched on MUSE
2009-01-01
Open Access
No
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