Fairy Tale and Fantasy:
From Archaic to Postmodern
The concepts and terms used in the discussion of the many types of "nonrealistic" narratives are often imprecise and ambiguous. In different studies and reference sources, the concepts overlap and are used interchangeably without further argument, creating confusion. Fantasy has been treated as a genre, a style, a mode, or a narrative technique (see e.g., Hume; Jackson; Rabkin), and it is sometimes regarded as purely formulaic fiction. Within the context of children's literature, the concepts of fairy tales and fantasy are often used indiscriminately to denote anything that is not straight realistic prose (e.g., Sale). The least adequate distinction is that fairy tales are short texts while fantasy takes the form of full-length novels.
Although drawing clear-cut borders between myth, folktale, fairy tale, literary fairy tale, high or heroic fantasy, science fantasy, and so on, is impossible and not always necessary, some basic generic distinction is desirable for theoretical consideration. There are several ways of distinguishing between fairy tales and fantasy, of which three seem to be most fruitful: ontological, structural, and epistemological.
While fairy tales and fantasy are undoubtedly generically related, and it may even be argued that fantasy grows out of the fairy tale, their origins are quite different. Fairy tales have their roots in archaic society and archaic thought, thus immediately succeeding myths. Myths have close connection to their bearers and folktales are "displaced" in time and space, while literary fairy tales and fantasy are definitely products of modern times. Although [End Page 138] we may view certain ancient authors in terms of fantasy (Homer, Ovid, Apuleus), and although some important features of fantasy can clearly be traced back to Jonathan Swift, fantasy literature owes its origins mostly to Romanticism with its interest in folk tradition, its rejection of the previous, rational-age view of the world, and its idealization of the child.
Traditional fairy tales generally strive to preserve the story as close to its original version as possible, even though individual storytellers may convey a personal touch, and each version reflects its own time and society (see Zipes). Fantasy literature is a conscious creation, where authors choose the form that suits them best for their particular purposes. The purposes may be instructive, religious, philosophical, social, satirical, parodical, or entertaining; however, fantasy has distinctly lost the initial sacral purpose of traditional fairy tales. Fantasy is an eclectic genre, since it borrows traits not just from fairy tales, but from myth, romance, the novel of chivalry, the picaresque, the gothic novel, mysteries, science fiction, and other genres, blending seemingly incompatible elements within one and the same narrative, for instance pagan and Christian images, magic wands and laser guns. The relation between fairy tales and fantasy is similar to that between epic and novel in Mikhail Bakhtin's theory: the fairy tale is a fully evolved and accomplished genre; fantasy an eclectic genre under evolution (Bakhtin, "Epic").
Different sources give different information about "the very first fantasy novel" ever published, and it is also primarily a matter of definition whether a text should be classified as fairy tale or fantasy. Although most scholars agree that The Nutcracker (1816) by E. T. A. Hoffmann matches most definitions of fantasy and is therefore acknowledged as a pioneering work, it can be questioned whether The Nutcracker really is a pioneering work, not least in the context of Hoffmann's other works. Fantasy became a strong tradition in Britain in the second half of the nineteenth century because of the work of such writers as Lewis Carroll, Charles Kingsley, and George MacDonald. Of the three, MacDonald stands closest to fairy tales proper (see Prickett). At the turn of the twentieth century, Edith Nesbit, finding impulses from many predecessors, renewed and transformed the fantasy tradition, focusing on the clash between the magical and the ordinary, on the unexpected consequences of magic when introduced into everyday realistic life. Unlike the fairy tale, fantasy is closely connected with the notion of modernity; for instance, Edith Nesbit's first time-shift fantasies are evidently influenced by contemporary ideas in the natural sciences, as well as by the science-fiction genre, particularly the work of H. G. Wells.
The Golden Age of the English-language fantasy arrived in the 1950s and '60s, with names like C. S. Lewis, Philippa Pearce, Lucy M. Boston, Mary Norton, and Alan Garner. All these authors are obviously indebted to [End Page 139] Nesbit, but their fantasy ascends to a higher level of sophistication. Again, this tradition was affected by the tremendous changes that the modern world had undergone. The development of science and technology, the theory of relativity and quantum physics, experiments with atomic energy and the first atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, achievements in space explorations, investigations of artificial intelligence, alternative theories in mathematics and geometry, new hypotheses about the origins of the universe—all this changed the very attitude toward natural laws. From a limited, positivistic view of the world humankind has turned to a wider, more open view of life. We have thus become sufficiently mature to accept the possibility of the range of phenomena that fantasy deals with: alternative worlds, nonlinear time, extrasensory perception, and in general all kinds of supernatural events that so far cannot be explained in terms of science, but that we are not willing to ascribe to the traditional fairy-tale magic. Therefore, since the basic narrative patterns of contemporary fantasy, such as the multitude of material worlds or nonlinear time, are dependent on the ideas developed within quantum physics, fantasy must be regarded as a twentieth-century phenomenon. Further, if fairy tales, displaced as they are, reflect archaic thought, fantasy seems to reflect the postmodern human being's split and ambivalent picture of the universe.
Most fantasy novels have many similarities to fairy tales. They have inherited the fairy-tale system of characters, set up by Vladimir Propp and his followers: hero/subject, princess/object, helper, giver, antagonist (Propp; Greimas). The essential difference between the fairy-tale hero and the fantasy protagonist is that the latter often lacks heroic features, can be scared and even reluctant to perform the task, and can sometimes fail. Fantasy rarely ends in marriage and enthronement; in contemporary philosophical and ethical fantasy it is usually a matter of spiritual maturation. Fantasy also allows much freedom and experimentation with gender transgression.
Further, fantasy has inherited many superficial attributes of fairy tales: wizards, witches, genies, dragons, talking animals, flying horses and flying carpets, invisibility mantles, magic wands, swords, lanterns, magic food and drink. However, the writers' imagination allows them to transform and modernize these elements: a genie may live in a beer can rather than a bottle; flying carpets give way to flying rocking chairs, and supernatural characters without fairy-tale origins are introduced—for instance animated toys (for a good overview of fantasy themes see Swinfen). Nevertheless, their function in the story is essentially the same.
Fantasy has also inherited the basic plot of fairy tales: the hero leaves home, meets helpers and opponents, goes through trials, performs a task, and returns home having gained some form of wealth. It has inherited some [End Page 140] fundamental conflicts and patterns, such as the quest or combat between good and evil. However, just as fairy tales are not a homogeneous genre category, featuring magical tales as well as animal and trickster tales and so on, so fantasy is a generic heading for a variety of different types of narratives, some taking place in a fairy-tale realm, some depicting travel between different worlds, some bringing magic into the everyday (see Nikolajeva, The Magic Code). There is, nevertheless, a principal difference in the way fairy tales and fantasy construct their spatiotemporal relations. According to Mikhail Bakhtin, the particular construction of space and time in a literary text, a feature he calls chronotope (an interdependent unity of space and time), is genre specific, that is, each genre has its own unique chronotope ("Forms of Time"). With this structural approach, we may define fairy tales and fantasy by the way time and space is organized in them.
One element that we immediately recognize as characteristic of the fantasy chronotope is the presence of magic, or any other form of the supernatural, in an otherwise realistic, recognizable world. This presence may be manifest in the form of magical beings, objects, or events; it may be unfolded into a whole universe or reduced to just one tiny magical bit. This element in itself is not different from fairy tales, but the anchoring in reality is.
The spatiotemporal condition, or chronotope, of fairy tales may be summarized in the initial formulas such as "once upon a time, not your time, and not my time," ("Es war einmal . . . ," "Il était une fois . . ."), "in a certain kingdom," "East of the sun, West of the moon," "beyond three mountains, beyond three oceans," and so on. It can occasionally be more concrete, but still mythical rather than realistic: "In the reign of King Arthur . . ." (or in Russian, "in the reign of Czar Green-Pea"). Thus fairy tales take place in one magical world, detached from our own both in space and in time. Myths, too, take place in the eternal nonlinear time, kairos (see Eliade; Heindricks; Nikolajeva, From Mythic). However, while the bearers of myth are positioned within its time/space, the reader or listener of a fairy tale is detached from its space and time, which may again be emphasized by rhetoric formulas, for instance "once upon a time in the week of seven Sundays." For the listener, this time is beyond reach. In fantasy literature, the characters are temporarily displaced from modern, linear time—chronos—into mythical, archaic cyclical time—kairos—and return to linearity at the end of the novel. The eternity of the fairy-tale time, expressed in the final formula "lived happily ever after," is alien to fantasy. Thus, the protagonists of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe live a long life in the archaic timespace of Narnia, but are brought back and become children again.
In myth and fairy tale, the hero appears and acts within the magical chronotope. In fantasy, the main premise is the protagonist's transition [End Page 141] between chronotopes. The initial setting of fantasy literature is reality: a riverbank in Oxford (Alice in Wonderland), a farm in Kansas (The Wonderful Wizard of Oz), a country house in central England during the Second World War (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe), or a park in Stockholm (Mio, My Son). From this realistic setting, the characters are transported into some magical realm, and most often, although not always, brought safely back. Alternatively, the magical realm itself may intervene into reality, in the form of magical beings (the Psammead, Peter Pan, Mary Poppins), magical transformations, or magical objects. Naturally, in fairy tales, too, the hero is transferred to another realm (Propp's function number fifteen), but as he starts from "a certain kingdom beyond thrice three mountains," the transportation is not as dramatic as for fantasy protagonists, who find themselves whisked away from Oxford to Wonderland, from Kansas to Oz, from London to Neverland, or from Stockholm to Farawayland. Similarly, when the fairy-tale hero brings back magical objects or helpers from his travels, they fit much better into the "certain kingdom" than in our own time and reality. In fact, many fantasy plots are built around the impossibility of bringing anything back from the magical travels. This anchoring in recognizable reality is the most essential difference in the construction of the universe in fairy tales and in fantasy.
The most common denomination for the various representations of magic in fantasy literature is the concept of the Secondary world, originating from J. R. R. Tolkien's essay "On Fairy Stories." Thus, fantasy may be roughly defined as a narrative combining the presence of the Primary and the Secondary world, that is, our own real world and at least one more magical or fantastic imagined world. Although fairy tales often include transportation to some other realm by means of a magical agent, they take place in one imaginary world, which does not have any connection with reality, at least not the reader/listener's reality. Patterns of introducing magic into the everyday in fantasy literature, of combining the Primary and the Secondary world, can vary from a complete magical universe with its own geography, history and natural laws to a little magical pill that enables a character in an otherwise realistic story to fly, to grow and shrink, or to understand the language of animals.
There is one specific motif in fantasy literature that has caused some scholars to view the texts where this motif occurs as a special subcategory of fantasy: the motif of time distortion. It presumably appears first in Nesbit's The Story of the Amulet and, more than any other fantasy motif, is influenced by contemporary scientific thought, especially the theory of relativity. The scope of problems fantasy authors meet when they venture on the exploration of time patterns—the questions of predestination and free [End Page 142] will, of the multitude of possible parallel times, of time going at different paces or even in different directions in separate worlds, the mechanisms of time displacement, and the various time paradoxes—is irrelevant in fairy tales (see Aers). Some scholars maintain that time-shift fantasy is the most intellectually demanding of all types of modern fantasy, for both writers and readers. Indeed, time-shift fantasy allows the author more freedom to elaborate in sophisticated patterns while it allows the readers to see them more clearly (see Cameron). However, complicated time relations are present in all fantasy texts, independent of the dominant type or theme.
The relation between real and magic time in fantasy is exactly the reverse of that in fairy tale. A common folktale motif is the land (or island) of immortality where the hero spends what to him may seem a day, or three days, or a week. When he returns to his own world, it appears that many thousand years have elapsed. Here magical, mythical time becomes compressed and insignificant (see Bak). By contrast, in fantasy, the characters may easily live a whole life in the imaginary world while no time will pass in their own reality.
Most scholars make a clear distinction between what they assume are the two principal motifs: Secondary worlds (Alice in Wonderland, The Narnia Chronicles, Mio, My Son, The Neverending Story) and time traveling or time displacement (The House of Arden, A Traveller in Time, Tom's Midnight Garden, Playing Beatie Bow). There is undoubtedly more obsession with time as such in time-shift fantasy: the very notion of time, its philosophical implications, and its metaphysical character. But as to the construction of a magical universe and, as a direct consequence, the build-up of the narrative, there are surely more similarities than differences in novels involving time shift or Secondary worlds as the dominating pattern. The principal feature of time fantasy, time distortion, is also present in the Secondary world fantasy. At the same time, what is believed to be the principal pattern of the Secondary world fantasy, the passage between the worlds, is most tangible in time fantasy. The passage is often connected with patterns such as the door, the magic object, and the magic helper (messenger), all of which are also manifest in Secondary world fantasy. All these patterns have their origins in fairy tales.
Postmodern fantasy takes all the spatiotemporal conditions one step further. Heterotopia is the most exciting example. Heterotopia, or a multitude of discordant universes, denotes the ambivalent and unstable spatial and temporal conditions in fiction. It can be argued that a multitude of worlds is not precisely a new idea; we may, for instance, recall the Copper, the Silver, and the Golden realms, with all the variants, in fairy tales. These, however, are merely duplications of similar space. The "hetero" of the term [End Page 143] "heterotopia" emphasizes dissimilarity, dissonance, and ambiguity of the worlds. In Philip Pullman's Northern Lights, the multitude of worlds is implied only at the end and does not evolve in its full view until the sequels. The novel, which specifies its initial setting as Oxford, very soon appears to be taking place in a world similar to our own, but not identical with it, which, among other things, allows the author to play with language, geography, and history. In this alternative world, the Reformation has never happened, the Inquisition still exists in the twentieth century, the pope has his seat in Geneva, the Tartars ravage in Muscovy, the far north is inhabited by witches and intelligent polar bears; quantum physics is called "experimental theology," electricity is "anbaric light," America is "New Denmark," and the fastest transportation is by zeppelin. All this invites reflections over the random nature of Fate. Our own world is described in the sequel, The Subtle Knife, through the young protagonist Lyra's eyes by means of defamiliarization, that is, presenting familiar things as if they were unfamiliar. A third world into which the characters escape is substantially more alien. In the final book, The Amber Spyglass, there are still more strange worlds to keep track of (see Hunt and Lenz 122-69).
Heterotopia is also the trademark of Diana Wynne Jones's novels (see Nikolajeva, "Heterotopia"). Like Pullman, Jones frequently starts in Otherworlds, depicting our own world as strange—defamiliarization again. This gives her an opportunity to view our own world through an outsider's eyes, observing its unexpected and peculiar aspects and thus questioning the values and attitudes we take for granted. In The Power of Three, for instance, radios, cars, and dishwashers are perceived by the inhabitants of Otherworld as magic, while their own magical qualities, such as seeing into the future or finding hidden things, are thought of as natural.
The most conspicuous difference between our world and the worlds Jones's protagonists come from is the absence of magic. For the universal traveler Christopher Chant, our world is one of the bleakest and dullest, and the only exciting thing worth bringing from it is girls' boarding-school novels. In Otherworlds (named by the naive child protagonist of The Lives of Christopher Chant as Anywheres), magic is a natural part of the everyday, and magical power is a skill to be developed in a child, just like language, math, or athletic achievements.
Our own, sober world devoid of magic is always somewhere in the periphery in Jones's novels. In Howl's Moving Castle one of the four doors in the castle opens into what is eventually recognized as Wales, from where Howl the wizard originally comes. In the sequel, Castle in the Air, it turns out that most of the characters in this Oriental-flavored story come from our own world, but have been transformed and trapped in a variety of [End Page 144] bizarre forms: an old soldier, two cats, a bottled genie, and a flying carpet. In the Dalemark quartet, where the three first parts take place wholly in a mythical, magical real, the last volume, The Crown of Dalemark, suddenly brings in a connection with present-day Britain. Describing our own world from Otherworld's perspective enables Diana Wynne Jones to discuss existential questions, such as: What is reality? Is there more than one ultimate truth?—questions pertinent to postmodern thinking. The multitude of worlds is thus not merely a backdrop for adventures, but a reflection of the young protagonists' split and distorted picture of the reality in which they are living. This is perhaps presented best in The Homeward Bounders, where the protagonist is forever lost in an infinite multitude of worlds. Such chaos is hardly possible in the ordered world of fairy tales.
The world structure in Deep Secret is the most explicit and consistent of all Jones's works. It is described by the magnificent neologism Multiverse, which has the form of the sign of infinity, (infinity), or Möbius strip, this fascinating three-dimensional paradox in which two sides of a twisted band suddenly become one. In Multiverse, worlds are placed along the endless continuum and multiplying incessantly. The infinity and instability of the worlds make this structure particularly disturbing. One half of the infinity figure contains worlds that are "negative magically, or Naywards, and the other half is positive, or Ayewards" (1). This does not, however, merely signify good or evil magic, but primarily the acceptance of and attitude toward magic in the respective world. In good worlds, magic is a natural part of everyday life, while in the evil, rational worlds, to which our own Earth belongs, magic is despised and persecuted. Earth is situated Naywards, in the negative loop of the spiral. This is in no way a coincidence. Childhood and adolescence are not safe and stable places, contrary to the Romantic, idealizing view of the innocent child. By exposing the young characters (and thus the young readers) to a variety of other, more harmonious and solid, worlds, the author suggests that harmony can be achieved, perhaps at some later stage in life.
In the course of the novel, as happens in several other works by Jones as well as in Pullman's trilogy, the very existence of Multiverse is threatened. It is, however, not explicit that by saving Multiverse the protagonist is serving the purpose of good. Good and evil change places easily, and every concept, every belief, is relative. This is of course totally impossible in fairy tales with their clear-cut and unequivocal ethical categories. Fairy tale knows no nuances; its characters are either thoroughly good or thoroughly evil; they are not allowed any doubts or hesitation, or in general any ethical choices. Early literary fairy tale and fantasy follow this principle. The Nutcracker is noble, the Mouse King vile. The noble must inevitably win [End Page 145] over the evil. One of the first cautious interrogations of this rigid pattern occurs in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, where Edmund, one of the four child characters of the story, takes sides with evil—in Propp's terms, he is the false hero, the one who fails the task. However, unlike the fairy-tale false hero, Edmund is not evil as defined by his function in the narrative. He is given some essential psychological traits. The narrator even defends his disgraceful behavior, stating that he had gone to the wrong kind of school. Further, Edmund is enchanted by the food he accepts from the Witch, and he knows from the start that he is doing wrong. Fairy-tale villains and betrayers do not possess such qualities. Edmund is given a chance to evolve and repent; indeed, in the sequels, he becomes a rightful hero.
Postmodern fantasy goes considerably further in its ambiguity. Lyra, the single protagonist in Northern Lights, is the focalizer of the narrative, which encourages the reader to adopt her subjectivity and therefore perceive her as essentially good. Not unexpectedly, Lyra is given a special role: she is the only one who can read and interpret the signs of the alethiometer, the magical truth machine. The firm Romantic belief that the child is good by nature and therefore more suitable to struggle against evil is central in all fantasy novels. However, Pullman's heroine is more subtly portrayed. She has in fact caused the death of her best friend, Roger. Morally, she is not as pure and innocent as traditional fantasy prescribes. In the final novel, she suddenly feels remorse over her betrayal and decides to seek Roger in the Realm of Death and bring him back.
The ultimate battle of good and evil in The Amber Spyglass concerns Lyra, the chosen child who will decide the fates of all the parallel worlds. The problem is that it is not self-evident which choice is the right one. As readers, we are given to understand that Lyra, like Eve of the Bible, will be subject to a temptation. It is, however, far from clear whether she is supposed to fall or to withstand, and in the first place what consequences either of these actions will have. This dilemma engages the reader much more than the simple tasks in fairy tales, such as killing a dragon, winning over an antagonist, or finding a treasure.
Some of Diana Wynne Jones's novels go so far as to make the child protagonist explicitly evil, a representative of the Other—a taboo seldom broken in children's fiction. The young character of Archer's Goon realizes to his dismay and horror that he is himself one of the evil wizards he has been hunting. The story is told from Howard's point of view, and up to the last pages of the novel the reader has no clue to the identity of the evil power. A similar dilemma is skillfully explored in The Lives of Christopher Chant, where the protagonist successively—and quite reluctantly—discovers his magical powers. Unlike Edmund, who succumbs to the White Witch's [End Page 146] charms only to be redeemed and reformed, Christopher repeatedly serves the abominable purposes of his greedy and evil uncle, bringing profitable loot from the many parallel worlds he visits, including mermaid flesh and dragon blood. As readers, we see Christopher's horrible errors as well as his naive blindness and false loyalties. In order to do so, we have to free ourselves from the protagonist's subject position—a demand never put on the recipient of a fairy tale.
Rupert in Deep Secret is a Magid, one of the many lower-rank magicians who conscientiously serve a higher authority to govern a multitude of related worlds. Ostensibly, they are working for the benefit of all, keeping the balance of good and evil in the Multiverse. Most often this involves manipulating people to do the right things at the right moments. Seemingly, Rupert does a good job: "I had only the day before returned from America, where I had, almost single-handed, managed to push the right people into sorting out some kind of peace in the former Yugoslavia and Northern Ireland" (2). However, the very idea of some higher power "sorting out" world affairs is disturbing enough. As a magician, Rupert is superior to mortals on Earth, and his primary task is to serve the higher authority. However, he does not find this mysterious authority, called the Upper Room, particularly good or just. On the contrary, as in other novels by Jones, notably A Tale of Time City, The Homeward Bounders, and Hexwood, the authority is playing its own games of power, treating the inhabitants of the Multiverse as insignificant and worthless, mere pawns in their own games, whether they live in good or bad worlds. Even Rupert himself feels manipulated, or, in the special language of the magicians, "Intended." At the same time, Rupert does not hesitate about manipulating the fates of people when he finds it useful.
The Homeward Bounders and Deep Secret are narrated in the first person. First-person perspective is traditionally uncommon in fairy tales. John Stephens goes so far as to claim that it is impossible in nonmimetic narratives (251). I can add as a side comment that, contrary to Stephens's statement, first-person narration was used in fantasy in works as early as Alison Uttley's A Traveller in Time or Astrid Lindgren's two fantasies, Mio My Son and The Brothers Lionheart. It is, however, true that personal narration is an uncommon and more demanding form in fantasy, since both writers and readers lack the immediate experience of the characters. First-person perspective in some contemporary fantasy novels adds to the overall shift from the action-oriented toward the character-oriented nature of the stories.
Not only protagonists, but also supporting characters in postmodern fantasy have lost the clear-cut distinction between good and evil. Since such characters often perform the roles of parental substitutes, their ambiguity [End Page 147] undermines the sense of security that young protagonists normally receive from such figures. In fairy tales, the roles of supporting characters are clearly determined: they are either helpers or opponents; there is either the benevolent (often dead) mother or the evil stepmother. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the White Witch represents—in concordance with the author's Christian views—absolute evil. There is no doubt that her plans are malicious, and in the prequel, The Magician's Nephew, we witness her previous destruction of yet another world by means of a powerful Deplorable Word. The child characters' struggle against the White Witch is therefore the only rightful thing for them to do.
In Alan Garner's Elidor, the unnamed enemy of Otherworld is only recognized through Malebron, the sly and unscrupulous magician who lures the four siblings into Elidor in pursuit of his own designs. Based on our previous experience of fantasy, we assume that Malebron is "a good guy"; however, his obsessive behavior does not speak in his favor, and his name suggests malevolence. On closer look, we cannot be sure that the destruction of Elidor is not desirable. In supporting Malebron, the children may in fact be running evil's errands, and at least one of them pays a high price for this involvement.
In Pullman's trilogy, the ambiguity of good and evil adults is driven to the extreme. Lyra's mother, Mrs. Coulter, is from the beginning presented in a less favorable light, and since she is the primary opponent of Lyra's father, Lord Asriel, we assume that he represents the good forces. However, in the end of the first volume, Asriel sacrifices the life of Lyra's friend, Roger, to pursue his own goals. His moral image is strongly questioned, and together with Lyra we do not trust him anymore. When Mrs. Coulter in the third book kidnaps Lyra and keeps her asleep with a magic potion, we immediately classify this behavior as evil, although it finally appears that Mrs. Coulter has been acting out of the best intentions. It is hard to understand her motivation, and her ultimate reformation, ostensibly driven by her sudden maternal instincts, is psychologically implausible. However, witnessing her martyr's death for Lyra's sake, most readers will be convinced. Human nature is enigmatic and inconsistent, and the character of Mrs. Coulter is a good illustration. A fairy-tale character cannot possibly go through a similar transformation; an evil stepmother cannot be reformed. Further, the portraits of Mrs. Coulter and Lord Asriel reflect a typical young person's contradictory feelings toward her parents. In fairy tales, the biological parents' primary function is to be absent (Propp's function number one).
Such utter ambiguity of character is based on the postmodern concept of indeterminacy, of the relativity of good and evil. By intuition, we decide that the forces who wish to kill Lyra are evil, while those who seek to hide [End Page 148] and protect her are good. However, the motivation of both sides is equally dubious. We also learn that the subtle knife, one of the major attributes of the trilogy, featured in the title of the second novel, is of a double nature. The magical knife or sword in fairy tales is necessarily used for the purpose of good. Pullman's subtle knife is used to open passages between the different worlds, and as such seems to serve a good cause. Later, however, the characters learn that the passages they create are the very source of the threat to the universe they are trying to save. Nothing and nobody are what they seem to be in Pullman's trilogy, and the reader is not given any clues.
The two sequels to Northern Lights also pose the question of intersubjectivity. Unlike the collective actant of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and many other similar fantasy novels, Lyra and Will are not merely two interchangeable figures introduced to keep the gender balance. The postmodern concept of intersubjectivity presupposes the absence of a single, fixed subject in a literary text, instead suggesting that the complex "subject" of a narrative has to be assembled by the reader from several individual consciousnesses. This phenomenon may also be described through Mikhail Bakhtin's concept of polyphony, or heteroglossia, an interplay of different voices and perspectives within a narrative (Bakhtin, Problems). The principal difference between the collective and the intersubjective character lies in the absence, in the latter case, of an omniscient perspective in which the narrator has simultaneous access to several characters' minds. While a collective character is a simple sum of its constituents, an intersubjective character is constructed through an intricate interplay of subject positions in the text.
Lyra is the sole protagonist and focalizer in Northern Lights. In The Subtle Knife she is joined by a male companion, Will, who like Lyra possesses supernatural powers, even though he comes from our own, magicless world. But Will is not merely the female heroine's faithful squire. He is on a quest of his own, and the two characters' consciousnesses are presented to the reader as enhancing and complementing each other. In The Amber Spyglass, several more minds are added to this interplay of thoughts, beliefs, and opinions, without any narrative authority interfering with our interpretation. We are allowed to enter both Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter's minds, as well as those of several other characters from both sides. A key person, whose role we do not realize until very near the end, is a female researcher from our own world who goes astray in one of the many parallel worlds. Since we are primarily interested in Lyra, these satellite plots may seem distracting, but we know of course that they will be brought together, and that everything must have an impact on Lyra's fate. We are thus manipulated to add up other people's perspectives to illuminate the protagonist. [End Page 149]
The concept of intersubjectivity can also be illustrated by Susan Cooper's novel Seaward, in which we follow one of the two characters while the mind of the other remains opaque, according to the complementarity principle. Seaward takes place in a complicated mindscape of the two adolescents who have both gone through losses and psychological traumas. The dreamlike narrative prompts us to read it as a description of internal rather than external reality. However, such an approach usually demands that we decide who is dreaming.
Westerly is introduced first, in the first sentence of the first chapter: "Westerly came down the path at a long lope, sliding over the short moorland grass" (7). In this chapter, nothing suggests that the story is other than realistic or that the setting is other than perceptible reality. We do not know where the boy is going or why, but there is nothing to lead our genre expectations toward the extraordinary. In the next chapter, Westerly is abandoned, and we meet Cally in a similar in medias res manner: "Cally sat in the apple tree" (10). In contrast to the Westerly chapter, here we are immediately initiated into Cally's dilemma: her father is dying. The woman who has come to take him, ostensibly, to a hospital, may be seen as the symbolic figure of death. She says to Cally: "We've met before . . . but only at a distance. We shall meet again soon" (11). Apparently, Cally has seen death before, "at a distance," perhaps when a distant relative died; the mysterious woman will soon come to collect Cally's mother, and Cally will presently meet Death itself, Lady Taranis, in the dark landscape of her mind. At the same time, Taranis can also be viewed as the darker side of Cally's mother, which Cally has to recognize and accept: "Cally had a sudden nightmare image of her mother hostile to her, of a malevolence aimed at her which somehow was retribution for everything she had ever failed to do, or done wrong. In place of the loving forgiveness she had always known, in her mind she saw her mother's face twisted with ill- wishing [ . . .]" (17). After Cally has escaped from her dismal reality through a mirror—a straightforward Jungian symbol representing the darker side of the ego, the Shadow—the narrative switches back to Westerly, and several more chapters are written in this antiphonic manner (chapters 3 and 4 for Westerly, chapters 5 and 6 for Cally), until the two characters finally meet. From this point on, they must cooperate, trust, and help each other in order to succeed. They are focalized alternately, yet the two points of view almost coincide. The characters merge in their actantial roles, but continue to complement each other psychologically: Cally has intuition, Westerly is rational and resolute. Their actions have immediate impact on one another; they must learn to be sensitive and considerate. In Jungian terms, Cally is Westerly's Anima, and he is her Animus. These positive, creative sides of their respective psyches [End Page 150] must counterbalance their dark sides, the Shadows, Lugan and Taranis. Although Lugan seems to be benevolent, while Taranis is evil, both are ambiguous in their messages, and in the end both are equally treacherous and supportive.
For Westerly, too, Lady Taranis is the symbolic maternal figure. His real mother had somehow managed to send him over to the Otherworld just before she was brutally murdered in an unnamed totalitarian country, far away from Cally's peaceful British countryside. Westerly feels guilty about her death. He is searching for his father, and Lugan, the male parental substitute, plays the natural role of guide: "I am your . . . watchman. As a hawk hangs watching in the sky. I see those things that happen to you—but only when they are happening, not before. Sometimes I may intervene. Not always. There are perils in this country, but there are also laws [ . . .]" (30). Interpreting the Otherworld as Westerly's mindscape, full of fear and anxiety, the novel presents his inner journey toward acceptance of his parents' death, thus paralleling Cally's quest. The description of the journey is illogical, almost incoherent; it evokes the unmistakable sense of a nightmare. The world where Cally and Westerly wander is unstable, unpredictable, undeterminable. During the journey, both come to the understanding that their parents are neither perfect nor totally reliable. They recognize the time has come to liberate themselves from parental protection and continue on their own.
The goal of Cally's and Westerly's quest is the sea. The sea in Jungian psychology represents the unconscious, and it is a very transparent symbol in this novel. It is introduced in the second chapter: "Cally had never heard the sea, or seen it" (10). Characteristically, as it turns out, Cally is a descendant of selkies, the mythical seal-people. However, the sea is also a symbol of death. Cally's mother tells her, in the beginning of the novel: "Your father's going away for a little while. . . He's going to a special hospital by the sea" (10). The mother soon follows him, supposedly to visit. Eventually, Cally has to accept that her parents are not coming back. Similarly, Westerly has been told by his mother to travel seaward in search of his father. Taranis, death incarnated, tries to tempt Westerly into following her: "Come with me, Westerly. I will take you to the sea, and there shall be no more pursuing and no more peril. Come with me, and I will send you over the ocean, to the land of Tir n'An Og, the ever young, where there is neither loss nor age nor pain. You will find your father there" (32). Taranis promises Westerly eternal youth, but she entices him to follow her into the realm of death—on the mimetic level, to commit suicide. She then says the same to Cally: "'Come with me, Cally. I will take you to the sea, to your mother and your father, and you will be safe again. All together' " (49). The duplication of the temptation emphasizes the identical roles of the two characters in the story. [End Page 151]
The intersubjective reading of the characters enables us, just as in Pullman's trilogy, to reconcile the two separate narratives, the two separate inner journeys, viewing them as two sides of the same quest for self, in which the two concrete figures are interconnected, not least because their gender complementarity makes their story more universal. They learn to understand and trust each other just as an individual would explore his or her own psyche in an extreme situation. They share their fears, nightmares, and visions; they virtually become one. Just as their parental figures are the two sides of one inseparable whole: day and night, Life and Death, impossible without one another, so Cally and Westerly are ultimately two sides of the same mind and soul. Once again, it is quite obvious that fairy-tale heroes never reach such complexity.
I have in this last analysis interpreted the fantasy realm as a mindscape, an externalization of the protagonist's inner world. Naturally, fairy tales have also been interpreted this way, in the first place by the Jungian-inspired critics (see, e.g., von Franz; J. C. Cooper) However, the presence of the real, perceptible world in fantasy novels supports the view of the fantastic world as a symbolic representation of the character's mind in a manner more immediate than in fairy tales. The protagonist of Russell Hoban's The Trokeville Way enters his own mindscape through a picture puzzle he has bought from a street musician with the anagrammatic name of Moe Nagic. The motif of going inside a picture has its origins in folklore, the most prominent example being the myth of Wu Lao Tsu, a painter who disappears into his own painting. The myth ends with his disappearance and shows no further interest in his experience. In Mary Poppins, where there are several episodes depicting characters entering pictures, the experience does not go beyond adventure and the very thrill of passing a magical threshold. For Nick, in The Trokeville Way, the picture, showing a bridge with two people on it, is merely a gate into the dark, frightening, and complex world of his own mind. Nick is on the verge of becoming a teenager, and crossing the bridge he finds himself in a nightmare, involving his parents, his bullying classmate, the girl he is interested in, and other figures of his past and present. There are, however, no dragons for Nick to fight beyond the bridge, and no treasures to find. His journey is a pure quest of self-discovery, and the solidity of the old stone bridge is just as illusory as Moe Nagic's disappearance tricks. Nothing ever turns out as it seems to be, and the whole story has a disturbing sense of uncertainty and indetermination.
This brings me to the final question of this essay, the epistemology of fairy tales and fantasy, the matter of belief and the "suspension of disbelief." The most profound difference between fantasy and fairy tales is in fact the position of the reader/listener toward what is narrated. In traditional fairy [End Page 152] tales, taking place, as we have seen, in a clearly detached timespace, readers are not supposed to believe in the story. The addressee of a fairy tale is situated outside the text; the communication is based on an agreement between the sender and the addressee. Among others, Vladimir Propp maintains that the addressee of a fairy tale knows that the story is not true. This fact accounts for the recurrent final patterns of many tales, like the famous Russian: "I have been to the feast myself, drank wine and beer, but never got drunk." The ironic assurance that the story is "true" reminds the listener of its own conventionality. This is also, as has already been pointed out, the basic difference between myth and fairy tale: for the bearer of a myth, the events described are true; myth is based on belief. The mythic hero's deeds are essential for the survival of his society. The hero's task in a fairy tale is totally impossible for an ordinary human being; it is always a symbolic or allegorical depiction. In fantasy, characters are ordinary; the writers often assure their readers that the protagonist is "just like you."
In most fantasy novels there can be at least two possible interpretations of the events. They can be accepted as "real," having actually taken place, which means that as readers we accept magic as a part of the world created by the author. But magic adventures can also be accounted for in a rational way, as the protagonist's dreams, visions, hallucinations, or imaginings caused, for instance, by fever, or by psychical or emotional disturbance. J. R. R. Tolkien was among the first to question the legitimacy of rational explanations. In his essay "On Fairy Stories," he dismisses Alice in Wonderland because in the end the heroine wakes up, and her adventures turn out to have been a dream. Tolkien's concept of fantasy literature (although he speaks of fairy stories rather than fantasy) is based on the suspension of disbelief; that is, unlike the case of fairy tales, we as readers perceive fantasy, within its own premises, as "true." For Tolkien, genuine and skillful fantasy creates Secondary Belief (unlike the Primary Belief of myth and religion), putting the reader in a temporary state of enchantment. As soon as suspension of disbelief is disturbed, the spell is broken, and, Tolkien adds, art has failed. For Tolkien, The Trokeville Way would, unlike Alice, qualify as a genuine fairy story, since Nick's dream is too much interwoven with reality, and it is impossible to separate his mindscape from the real world in which he lives. The reader is thus kept in suspension of disbelief throughout the story, even though Nick does wake up every now and then, only to discover that his dream has indeed been true.
Fairy tales, on the other hand, often subvert their own credibility,
either in initial or in final formulas: "Once upon a time, when pigs
drank wine [. . .]." The hero (and the reader/listener) of a fairy tale
does not experience wonder when confronted with magical events or beings;
they are taken for
[End Page 153]
granted. The characters of a fantasy novel, anchored in the real
world, do not normally expect a rabbit to have a watch or to wear a
waistcoat; neither do they expect to discover magical realms behind
looking glasses or inside wardrobes. The essence of fantasy literature
is the confrontation of the ordinary and the fabulous. Here, the
categories proposed by Tzvetan Todorov may prove useful. In his study
of the fantastic, Todorov draws clear distinctions among the uncanny,
the marvelous, and the fantastic, in which the last is characterized
by a strong sense of hesitation. Fairy tales will, in this typology,
chiefly fall under the category of the marvelous, while the essence
of fantasy lies in the hesitation of the protagonist (and the reader)
when confronted with the supernatural—which can be anything that
goes beyond natural laws. I have in this essay repeatedly pointed
out uncertainty, indeterminacy, and ambiguity as typical features
of postmodern fantasy on every level. Together with the fairy-tale
hero, readers/listeners do not question the existence of dragons or
witches, because they are part of the fairy-tale buildup. For the
fantasy protagonist, the encounter with the supernatural, whether
the appearance of witches or unicorns in his own reality, or being
transported into another world, presents a dilemma, which readers must
share. The events may be actually happening, causing us to accept the
existence of magic, of parallel magical worlds, and of the possibility
of travel between worlds. Alternatively, characters (and readers) may
decide that they are dreaming or hallucinating. In postmodern fantasy,
the boundaries between reality and the Otherworld become more elusive, and
the passage often subtle, so that the hesitation is amplified. Actually,
Christopher Chant initially believes his explorations of Related World
to be dreams. The worlds constructed as a Möbius strip may be the
product of a confused young mind, and the nightmarish landscape beyond
the bridge in The Trokeville Way most definitely invites being
interpreted as the character's mindscape. However, no definite answer is
to be found in the text. Alice wakes up from her nightmare and can go free
from any consequences of her actions in Wonderland. Dream and reality are
clearly delineated. For postmodern characters, there will be no awakening,
the boundaries between dream and reality are blurred, and they often
pay dearly for their involvement in Otherworlds. Further, following
the development of natural science, fantasy literature tends to view
parallel worlds as equally real, so that nothing is, positivistically,
acknowledged as the utmost reality. In quantum physics, which has inspired
postmodern authors, we meet the uncertainty principle, developed by
Werner Heisenberg. Contrary to the straightforwardness of fairy tales,
fantasy accepts more than one reality and more than one truth.
[End Page 154]
Maria Nikolajeva is professor of comparative literature at Stockholm University where she teaches children's literature and literary theory. She is the author and editor of several books, among them Children's Literature Comes of Age: Toward the New Aesthetic (1996), From Mythic to Linear: Time in Children's Literature (2000), and The Rhetoric of Character in Children's Literature (2002).
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