- Games of Dark:Psychofantasy in Children's Literature
As theoreticians and practitioners of fantasy for children and adults, Tolkien and C. S. Lewis were careful to distinguish (and indeed were insistent upon distinguishing) fantasy in a clinical sense—as a form of escape or even psychological therapy—from the literary fantasy they loved to read and write.1 Several recent books for children, however, although advertised as literary fantasies, have managed to blur the line betwen literary and "clinical" fantasy to produce a sub-genre for children here dubbed "psychofantasy." The psychofantasy is not a work of fantasy per se but uses fantasy as a device within the realistic problem novel.
Although there are other contemporary novels that approach psychofantasy, two books, one American, the other, British, epitomize it. These are Georgess McHargue's Stoneflight, for pre-adolescents, and William Mayne's A Game of Dark for young adults.2
Stoneflight is the story of pre-adolescent Janie Harris who, increasingly disturbed by her parents' marital problems, during a lonely summer, becomes obsessed with the stone carvings on the New York buildings. She fantasizes bringing them to life; at the same time, she toys with the idea of becoming stonelike herself in her denial of what is happening to her family. By day, she wanders through the city sketching carvings; by night she imagines a relationship with a stone griffin on her rooftop who takes her first soaring on his back over the city and then to a midnight gathering of stone creatures in Central Park. When her involvement in the fantasy becomes so intense that the creatures threaten to overpower her, she decides, in terror, that she must give them up.
Donald Jackson, the adolescent boy in A Game of Dark, is driven into a frightening hallucinatory world by his family's non-conformist religious beliefs, their grief for a dead older sister, combined with the crippled father's worsening illness. Donald's fantasy land is a medieval-like world devastated by an enormous stinking Worm (a medieval word for both serpent [End Page 17] and dragon) who devours humans and cattle, leaving a trail of icy slime over the landscape. In his fantasy, Donald plays the part of Jackson, the page and squire, in an inglorious version of dragon killing that a series of knights in this blighted world must undertake. He can only release himself from the fantasy by killing the Worm dishonorably and leaving behind the girl he rescues.
Both books are well-written and complex, with well-developed realistic and fantasy worlds. McHargue's use of the stone carvings and Mayne's combination of medieval and Freudian symbolism make these books interesting to examine in themselves. Nevertheless, there is something about their structure or total form that is disturbing; that "something" seems to be a combination of shared characteristics that make the subgenre, psychofantasy, a mis "use of enchantment," one that ultimately does disservice to fantasy both as a literary device and as a therapeutic technique.
In particular, four shared aspects of these books, each of which alone might not be problematic, seem in combination to make the psychofantasy a dubious literary form however much the combination of problem novel and fantasy may appeal to publishers.3 I am concerned especially about 1) the heavy emphasis on realistic problems in these books; in both books they occupy at least half of the story, 2) the completely psychological nature of the fantasy combined with the high degree of psychological disturbance in the main character, 3) the inability of the main character ever to share his or her fantasy experience with anyone in the real world, 4) the necessity for the main character to reject the fantasy—which becomes more and more unpleasant or frightening—at the end of the book. Although these aspects appear in some of the best known and most beloved of children's fantasies, sometimes singly, occasionally doubly, they never all appear together.
Of the classic fantasies for children, I can think of only one in which the real world framework is as massive or well-developed as it is in these modern psychofantasies. This is George MacDonald's...