- Fantasy and the Real World in British Children’s Literature: The Power of Story by Caroline Webb
Fantasy stories for children have a long and rich history in Great Britain. In this book, Caroline Webb explores the works of three prominent British authors—J. K. Rowling, Terry Pratchett, and Diana Wynne Jones— to “demonstrate how [they] deploy fantasy neither as mere escapism nor as a mask for didactic moralising, but instead make manifest the ethical power of fantasy and the imagination itself” (3). Through careful readings, comparisons, and explorations of the authors’ works, Webb makes a strong case for fantasy as a means to show the reader that fantastical worlds are only a reflection of the societies in which we already live.
Webb’s detailed introduction to the book provides a thorough map to the five chapters that follow. Although they all explore various tropes of fantasy, the most persuasive aspects of Webb’s argument appear in the opening two: “Harry Potter and Tiffany Aching” and “The Case of Heroic Fantasy.” The remaining three chapters are compelling, if not quite as riveting or groundbreaking. They explore the societies of miniature peoples (“Ontology of the Wainscot”); [End Page 206] the stereotype of the witch (“Representing the Witch”); and the impact of destiny or prophecy in fantasy (“Resisting ‘Destinarianism’”).
In the first chapter, Webb compares Rowling’s and Pratchett’s use of traditional fairy tale structure both to draw readers into the fantasy worlds they are creating and to subvert the reader’s expectations of what such worlds entail. Both authors “locate their protagonists as heroes within fairy tales” (24) as a means of accessing their readers, but sooner or later both Rowling and Pratchett leave the realm of the fairy tale and take the captured reader into a story that uses traditional fantastic elements, but in a way that causes him or her to question their meaning. Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching, especially, does this very early on, becoming a critic of fantasy stereotypes and showing herself to be an intelligent and capable heroine. As Webb points out, when “Tiffany rejects the crude stereotypes established in The Goode Childe’s Booke of Faerie Tales, it is clear that her rejection relates to its simplistic reduction of human complexity rather than to its status as a merely literary object” (31). Tiffany refuses to believe that brown-haired girls cannot be heroines or that a witch must be wicked, directly confronting the standard “rules” of the world in which she is written. Rowling is more subtle, building complexity of story and language over the course of the entire Harry Potter sequence rather than overturning reader expectations from the beginning. As Webb notes, “Rowling’s narration manipulates readers not only to induce sympathy for Harry but to develop a positive attitude to the unusual and the imaginative” (43). Only once readers are firmly sympathetic to Harry’s story does Rowling begin to show that his eventual agency and self-sufficiency will be important to the overall plot of the sequence.
This subversion is further discussed in chapter 2, in which Webb shows that both Rowling and Jones use the trope of the heroic fantasy story to play upon the reader’s previous knowledge of the genre and instead place the characters in firmly real-world experiences. For instance, in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Harry and company stage a daring rescue of Sirius Black that goes horribly wrong because in the real world such a mission would be completely unrealistic. Similarly, Jones “demythologizes the heroic” by showing that heroic actions and values, such as bravery and daring rescues, are actually “problematic in practice” (61). Webb demonstrates that “All three writers deploy the tropes and imaginative possibilities of fantasy to disturb, challenge, and enlarge the world of their readers” (147). Because these authors understand the inherent rules of their genre, they are able to control and overturn them to create the desired effect on their readers.
Webb stays on task with her argument throughout the book...