Do myths and folklore damage children’s brains?

Surely not — but in their introduction to Children’s Fantasy Literature, Michael Levy and Farah Mendlesohn remind us that expertly crafted fantasy is unnervingly hard to resist

4 June 2016

9:00 AM

4 June 2016

9:00 AM

Children’s Fantasy Literature: An Introduction Michael Levy and Farah Mendlesohn

CUP, pp.274, £16.99, ISBN: 9781107610293

First Light: A Celebration of Alan Garner edited by Erica Wagner

Unbound, pp.302, £20, ISBN: 9781783522521

Children’s fantasy literature has never been just one thing. Animal fables, folk and fairy tales were not originally intended for a child audience, while the relatively recent phenomenon that is entertaining (rather than principally didactic) children’s literature has many origins that are not fantastic at all. Michael Levy and Farah Mendlesohn draw a line — well, many lines — from these assorted beginnings to today’s world, in which fantasy specifically aimed at young readers is a large and noisy part of the publishing market, but still very far from a single coherent one.

Much of the category’s mutation over the centuries can be explained contextually: political pressures, economic changes, advances in gender politics and shifts in attitudes towards religion all play a role. These include loss of an empire, the aftermath of a brutal war, the anxieties of a nation seeking to define itself (think of L. Frank Baum’s America, or T.H. White’s Britain) and crucially, unsurprisingly, how we think of children, and what we expect from them. Levy and Mendlesohn give a convincing explanation for a distinctively post-second-world-war literature where children are unprotected, where they have agency and responsibility, where they face true and terrible evil. As time goes on, the stakes continue to rise. Compare Nesbit’s world to Narnia — do our young protagonists have a small, limited quest to complete, or do we expect them to save the world?

Meanwhile children’s literature in general has stretched through adolescence, over roughly the same period that saw the requirement for young people to remain in full-time education extended. As the role of the teenager in society changed, young adult books took form as a significant category, with fantasy playing an increasingly dominant and sophisticated role within it.

The forces driving the genre’s development are often external ones, then. But there are also key texts that changed it from within, pushing it in new directions: Lord of the Rings (European, medievalist and with high stakes), which redefined fantasy for a new American generation; and Pullman and Rowling, who demonstrated to a nervous publishing industry that there was a market for such ill-favoured things. Baum’s Oz marks a sea-change in fantasy for turn-of-the-century America; The Hobbit does the same in late interwar England. The various loosely defined categories of fantasy writing — destinarian quest narratives, portal narratives, the mythopoeic, the heroic — often meet most originally in these seminal works.

Then there’s E.B. White (with fantasy that follows some of the rules of realism) and Washington Irving (whose ‘fantasy’ element proves a hoax); and David Almond, Diana Wynne Jones and dozens more. Which books are chosen for scrutiny and which aren’t inevitably determines how clear and meaningful the threads running through this history seem. No work of this kind can be comprehensive, and however impressive the evident scope of the authors’ knowledge and its critical underpinning, such a book must always marshal its examples for the clearest case. Generalisations will seem more brittle or tendentious the closer we come to the present (overarching clarity is elusive without sufficient distance) but in this multi-strand subject the authors have managed to convey a satisfying sense of — albeit partly illusory — coherence to this broad and fascinating story.

Naturally, space permitting, it might have been broader still. Everyone will have favourites they’ll wish had been included (I’d love to know where the authors would position Norton Juster’s  The Phantom Tollbooth, or Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls). There are adjacent fields left unexplored that could prove fertile: how, for instance, are our encounters with these novels informed by younger books? (Do most children not encounter the feeling of a fantasy world through, say, Where the Wild Things Are?) There’s a whole other book to be written about the reader’s experience.

First Light, meanwhile, is all about the reader. Forty-three of them, to be precise, who have come together to mark the 80th birthday of the great Alan Garner. Garner’s own writing (fantasy and not) is incomparable, rich in history, folklore, myth and language, deep-rooted in a distinctive landscape with irresistible numinous power. Under Erica Wagner’s editorship, First Light’s distinguished contributors share what reading Garner has given them; their responses, as various as you could wish for, are personal, challenging, generous and insightful, as good reading is, and infused with the personalities and preoccupations of the readers.

Most of these readers are themselves writers, and Garner’s potency is revealed in how profoundly he has helped to shape the imaginations that came after him, from John Burnside to Helen Macdonald, Neil Gaiman to Ali Smith. In a now notorious blogpost, a private school head teacher recently argued that children shouldn’t read fantasy, lest these ‘addictive’ and ‘sensational’ books damage their ‘sensitive subconscious brains’. It’s a silly argument, mostly, but judging by the contributions to this rich and rewarding volume, he may have a point. The effects of expertly crafted fantasy, both these books remind us, are unnervingly hard to resist.

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  • What is missing from these titles is “Ifflepinn Island” a new fantasy in the classic Moomin-Hobbit-Narnia genre. Check it out on Facebook. A book for opening children’s hearts and imaginations.

  • CRSM

    And everyone forgets Joy Chant’s “Red Moon, Black Mountain”, which is nowhere near as derivative as its critics claim.

    • farah3

      We didn’t 🙂

      • CRSM

        Ah good! I shall see if the book is available from Amazon UK.

  • In my part of the world, south Wales’ Aber valley, we have the legend of Bwnsi, the banshee of Mynnydd Meio, who assumes the form of a pathetic old lady begging for help, or as a voluptuous maiden summoning you to ungodly delights, close to the ford of the stream in which she washes the heads of her victims.

    There’s also the gwrach (a witch) of Caerphilly Castle, whose ghost is to be seen occasionally wandering the castle grounds wailing, “Fy mhlentyn … Fy mhlentyn!” (“my child… my child!”). Scary stuff, especially for a youngster.

    Welsh folklore is alive with such stories of ghouls, witches, fairies and the generally awful. I see no need to shield my children from these folklores, as long as it’s made clear that these things don’t actually exist. They are Welsh, and it’s a part of their culture, as Robin Hood is part of England’s culture. At worst, slightly scary experiences help develop their concept of hazard and risk. At best, it provides a riveting story for sleep overs. When they grow up, they’ll understand a bit better the wondrous beauty of these mountains and villages.

    • Ray Spring

      How do you know they do not actually exist? I have lots of little folk at the bottom of my garden, or swimming in The Avon. In fact, they may exist more truly than those who do exist. Since those who do exist now cease to do so later, but the little folk continue forever.

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    “Do myths and folklore damage children’s brains?”
    How about violent supersition? Then how about banning organised religion, which after all is about lying to children.

  • Mr Marginalia

    Perhaps, but a child without neuroses is hardly human.

  • Al_de_Baran

    The words “explain” or “explanation” appear several times in this very brief review. Note to reviewer: The more you assert, without evidence, that this “explains” that, the less I trust your assertions, and the more I suspect you may be a little insecure about them, as well.

  • Randal

    Interesting that Alan Garner apparently dismissed Weirdstone as “a fairly bad book” (according to a book about his work referenced in the Wikipedia article about him). I remember it as a great book, and one I recall reading to my children, most of whom I think remember it fondly, if vaguely, to this day.
    Not interesting enough, admittedly, to prompt me to buy a book entirely about the work of Alan Garner in order to find out more, mind.

    • CRSM

      Garner was embarrassed about his two early books, though “Weirdstone” and “Gomrath” remain his best loved among ordinary readers. Though it is true that these are obviously books from an author at the start of his career, with a rather odd mix of mythologies used to provide the characters, they retain a narrative drive that his later, more ‘sophisticated’ work lost.
      I wonder how much Garner’s mental problems as he matured has affected his view of his early work?

      • Randal

        After posting the comment above, I looked at the long delayed third book in the Weirdstone trilogy (as it turned out to be, supposedly). The comments about it on Amazon strongly suggested to me that Garner was embarrassed that they lacked “adult” content and moral complexities (they were what is now known as “young adult”, I suppose), and sought to rectify this with the third book, Boneland.

        I’ve no interest in the latter based upon the reviews. It doesn’t worry me in the slightest that, as one reviewer put it, Garner “made the Morrigan a stock ‘Wicked Witch’ and her Crow helpers evil”, nor do I think it a likely improvement that he “now sees her as a necessary and eternal part of the triple goddess and she gets a feisty rehabilitation”. Nor do I need any psychotherapy and “growing up” issues.

        I suspect Garner disliked some of the very things that made Weirdstone and Gomrath so good. Personally I found his later works pretty unattractive, sadly, which is probably why I never followed up on Boneland until this article prompted me to do so.

  • Perseus Slade

    Michael Levy and Farah Mendlesohn fail to mention the dragon in the room: religion.

  • DollarPound

    Children are susceptible to all sorts of lies.
    That’s why feminists are so keen to dominate the teaching profession.

  • davidofkent

    The development of the brain is an interesting topic. I have often thought that the more stimulus the brain gets as a child is growing, the brighter the child will be later. I suspect, though I am willing to be thought a fool, that the reason for so much dimness amongst people under fifty is that they have had insufficient stimulus during their school years, thanks to the educational establishment. I doubt that it has anything at all to do with reading about myths, or fables.