- Extensions of Nature:The Fantasies of Natalie Babbitt
In an essay first published in The New York Times in 1970, Natalie Babbitt wrote that what characteristically distinguishes the children's story from adult literature is the happy ending. What she means by that is not that all ends are tied up, all problems solved, or everyone firmly placed on the path to the good life, but simply that there is a final sense of promise and possibility, "something which turns a story ultimately toward hope rather than resignation,"1 something respectful of the child's right to think with optimism about the future, despite the facts of life that any adult can pessimistically point out. There is poignancy in her statement, however, for it springs from the awareness that for most adults the point is reached when we say, "alas we have arrived and we are not unique after all." Nevertheless, we continue to hope for our children.
When we envy our children, we envy them this first of all: "Oh," we say, "they have their whole lives ahead of them," and we believe with them and for them what we no longer believe for ourselves—that anything is possible. . . . We believe that they may grow up happy, fulfilled beyond pain.2
Babbitt's own works are faithful to this dual awareness. They maintain a tension between the vulnerable and hopeful world of childhood and the more easily compromised world of adults. So there are few slick solutions, few absolutely well-solved problems. She asks of the children in her novels that they face the realities of evil, failure, and misfortune in the world they are entering and embrace it anyway, since for each child it is a fresh start and, despite the odds, "anything is possible." This tenacious belief in new beginnings allows her to encourage involvement, with all its difficult recognitions, rather than retreat. It is an existential perspective: despite their circumstances, her characters can and must accept responsibility for their lives. And it is this acceptance that underlies her [End Page 47] "happy" endings.
The folk tale-like settings of her first four novels3—the recently-released fifth will be discussed last—allow her to clear away contemporary debris, so to speak, details and trappings that might qualify her stories more than she cares to. All four take place in small villages, set in indefinite times, inhabited by ordinary people who travel on horseback or in wagons, eat good food, farm, gossip, bicker, and show in their fierce allegiances, how necessary are the rituals and structures of their lives. They're not poor people necessarily—there are big houses and prime ministers scattered through—and if they seem provincial, their limits are merely exaggerated versions of the boundaries we all tend to draw around ourselves—when we're not being asked, by an extraordinary event, to transcend our normal limitations. Her characters do live in closer contact with nature than most of us do these days, and her bias is clearly in that direction. But basically she is saying, as the folk tales do: in its broad outlines, this is life.
In three of the four novels, she opens with a preliminary sweep of the landscape and descriptions of relevant history and myth, the lines between them deliberately blurred, before she begins her tale proper. She also pauses often at the beginnings of chapters to generalize and reflect on conditions that arise in her stories. The technique frames character and plot, providing distance and perspective, a "world view" the characters lack. It also, by its stance of rationality, urges us to accept whatever fantasy or magic the books contain, as the natural and foolishly forgotten extensions of an earthbound, homely reality. Thus, in the prologue to The Search for Delicious, she writes:
And in the meantime, in the land below, towns were built and burned and built again and kings and their people lived and died and enjoyed their troubles for years and years and years. Ardis and the dwarfs and the woldwellers were largely forgotten except in stories and songs. Nobody believed they were real anymore except for an occasional child or...