Friday, 5 October 2012

“Grown Up and Done For”: The Problem of Adulthood in Children’s Fantasy Literature by Sarah Reese


“All children, except one, grow up,” writes J. M. Barrie at the beginning of the infamous Peter Pan. It should not be surprising, therefore, that many of the fantasy novels written for children also take ‘growing up’ as one of their major themes. Fantasy itself is perhaps peculiarly suited to articulating the tensions between childhood and adulthood, allowing as it does for the extended exploration of ideas and symbols in the guise of the fantastic world. What is surprising is that, in so many novels, adulthood is constructed as a comparatively negative state, the inverse or loss of childhood – loss of innocence, loss of freedom, and perhaps most fundamentally, loss of the imaginary world. The overwhelming message of such texts seems to be that becoming an adult means leaving fantasy behind; an idea which the very existence of such novels undermines. Such an apparent paradox suggests that there is more to this portrayal of adulthood than meets the eye.

I. Fantasy and Growing Up

That the theme of growing up is deeply embedded in fantasy as a genre seems inescapable. David Whitley argues that fantasy itself can be broken down into two types: the more youthful, light-hearted narrative (fantasies of the first age) and the more grounded, ‘adult’ one (“wisdom” fantasies or fantasies of the second age). The former he describes as “conceived in a spirit of optimism…For all the ups and downs of the narrative, there is an underlying confidence that things will sort themselves out in a satisfying way, which leaves the spirit of joy intact” (Whitley 2000, 173). Wisdom fantasies, on the other hand, “tend to focus centrally on the theme of death…the exuberant and expressive delight of fantasies of the first age is countered by more sober forces of containment: a measured, weighty sense of the cost of experience and loss” (173). Neither category is mutually exclusive, however, since while stories for very young children are more likely to engage in pure first-age fantasy, those written for older readers operate on a kind of continuum between the two. The older the audience and the more developed the narrative, the more the freedom of play which characterises first-age fantasy is set against conditions which oppress, and the more justification is required for events that run counter to our ordinary experience: “the issue of what checks the flow of ‘energy as delight’ becomes increasingly critical” (175).

Whitley’s paradigm is useful insofar as it allows us to identify two major forces shaping the heroic journey: the spirit of joy and the spirit of wisdom, respectively. It is not hard to imagine that stories written for school-aged children might occupy a kind of liminal space between first- and second-age fantasy forms, employing both yet in a manner which is distinct from that of adult fantasy and fantasy for younger children. However, while he is aware that his two ‘types’ are less distinct categories of story than they are ‘contraries’ that complement each other (174), Whitley’s analysis seems to stop at pointing out whether certain elements of the text are first-age or second-age characteristics, and does not offer any explanation for the ways in which the two interact.

II. Constructing Adulthood

To a certain extent, the ‘forms’ which Whitley ascribes to either first- or second-age fantasy coexist primarily in conflict. The process of growing up, particularly as represented in children’s fantasy literature, is most frequently depicted as a prolonged struggle between the spirit of joy (manifested variously as innocence, freedom or the fantasy world itself) and the spirit of wisdom (experience, responsibility, reality). J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan and Wendy is perhaps a prototypical example. In it, we are presented with a character who is the very definition of Youth itself: adventurous, headstrong, utterly convinced of his own indomitability and careless of the well-being of others. Peter Pan, the text tells us, is the one exception to the rule that all children must grow up. What is perhaps more telling is that, from the moment he climbed out of his pram to avoid becoming the man his parents expected him to be, Peter has been running away from his own adult self, and it is by examining the things he fears the most that we begin to get a sense of what adulthood entails in children’s fantasy literature.

To begin with, then, Peter appears to be opposed to (or more accurately, almost entirely ignorant of) both sexuality and mortality. Consider his exchange with Wendy after she has re-attached his shadow:

“I think it’s perfectly sweet of you,” she declared... She also said she would give him a kiss if he liked, but Peter did not know what she meant, and he held out his hand expectantly.
“Surely you know what a kiss is?” she asked, aghast.
“I shall know when you give it to me,” he replied stiffly… (Barrie 2004 [1904], 41-42).

He remains similarly oblivious to the interest which Wendy, Tiger Lily and even Tinker Bell show him throughout the narrative: “There is something she wants to be to me,” he says of Tiger Lily. “But she says it is not my mother” (138). He cannot immerse himself fully in Wendy’s domestic make-believe because of his fear that ‘fatherhood,’ even imaginary fatherhood, would make him “seem so old” (138), and the very idea of it makes him uneasy, though he does not seem to understand why. Likewise, he immediately “forgets” the pirates he kills (207), and on the one occasion where he is facing what seems to be certain death himself, though he is frightened for a moment, he ultimately rejects this too, proclaiming that “to die will be an awfully big adventure” (125). Neither sex nor death, then, both of which Whitley explicitly links to the wisdom narrative (Whitley 2000, 176), have any sway in Neverland.

And yet, as Barrie’s narrator notes, all other children must grow up, whether they want to or not, and it is significant that this involves both marriage (for Wendy, and for some of the Lost Boys) and death – “Mrs. Darling was now dead and forgotten” (Barrie 2004 [1904], 209). By the end of the book, Wendy and the Lost Boys are “grown up and done for” (208). They have forgotten about Neverland and all their adventures and have so lost their ability to fly, suggesting that adulthood to Barrie causes the formerly untethered child to be bound by a life of responsibility; in short, to give up their freedom. It is for this reason that Wendy is unable to return with Peter when he comes to take her back to Neverland once more:

“I can’t come,” she said apologetically, “I have forgotten how to fly.”
[…]
Then she turned up the light, and Peter saw, He gave a cry of pain; and when the tall beautiful creature stooped to lift him in her arms he drew back sharply.
“What is it?” he cried again.
She had to tell him.
“I am old, Peter. I am ever so much more than twenty. I grew up long ago.” (213-215)

If we remember what the text tells us about Neverland being, essentially, a map of the child’s mind (13), it is clear that Barrie envisions growing up as losing access to the imaginative realm associated with childhood. This is the thing Peter fears the most: the loss of freedom and with it, the loss of his child-self. Becoming a man, to Peter, is quite literally to become someone else, someone who can no longer come and go from Neverland as he pleases. This is dramatized in his transformation into Hook, as Richard Rotert’s analysis makes clear (Rotert 1990), but it is also, I think, echoed quite poignantly in his later resistance to Mrs. Darling’s offer of adoption:

“Would you send me to school?” he inquired craftily.
“Yes.”
“And then to an office?”
“I suppose so.”
“Soon I should be a man?”
“Very soon.”
[…]
“I don’t want to be a man. O Wendy’s mother, if I was to wake up and feel there was a beard!” (Barrie 2004 [1904], 204).

The narrator is at once sympathetic to and gently mocking of Peter, here: a beard! The horror! And yet, it is clear that he expects his readers to share some of Peter’s feelings about growing up, as Barrie does himself (Egan 1982).

Not all writers of children’s fantasy are quite so explicit about their opinions of adulthood, but many have adopted similar motifs. In C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, for example, the four protagonists are each progressively barred from accessing Narnia as they become too old. More poignantly, in The Last Battle it is implied that it is Susan’s desire to “grow up” – symbolised by her awakening sexuality – which prevents her from returning to Narnia for the final time with her brothers and sisters:

“My sister Susan,” answered Peter shortly and gravely, “is no longer a friend of Narnia.”
[…]
“Oh, Susan!” said Jill. “She’s interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations. She always was a jolly sight too keen on being grown up.”
“Grown-up, indeed,” said the Lady Polly. “I wish she would grow up…Her whole idea is to race on to the silliest time of one’s life as quick as she can and then stop there as long as she can.” (Lewis 2001, 741).

Susan, unlike Peter Pan, has embraced the adult world of experience, rejecting the innocence that is her passport back to Narnia. While Narnia is usually construed as Lewis’ stand-in for Heaven, rather than the realm of childhood, it nevertheless takes a similar place to Neverland in that we are meant to understand Susan’s loss of it as a negative thing. Nor is this the only loss Susan has to suffer; at the end of the book it is revealed that what brought the rest of the family back to Narnia was in fact a horrific train crash, which killed not only all of Susan’s siblings but also her parents, cousins, and friends Professor Digory and Polly (767). Whether Susan actually misses out on Heaven or in fact escapes a terrible fate is perhaps debatable, but no one can claim that her ‘being grown up’ doesn’t come at a horrifying cost.

By contrast, in Roald Dahl’s Matilda it is Matilda’s supernatural powers which are lost. Miss Honey tells her, “While you were in my class you had nothing to do, nothing to make you struggle. Your fairly enormous brain was going crazy with frustration... But now things are different. [Your] brain is for the first time having to struggle and strive and keep really busy, which is great.”(Dahl 1998, 229-230). Matilda has not explicitly aged; however, Miss Honey describes her as “so much wiser than [her] years… [her] mind and [her] powers of reasoning seem to be fully grown up” (195). At the end of the novel she has been moved into the top form where she is surrounded by children “more than twice her age” with whom she must compete, and this has normalised her to the extent that she can no longer cause objects to move with her mind (229-230). Combined with Miss Honey’s pseudo-scientific explanation this seems to hint at a subtle shifting from a world where magic is possible to a world which runs according to the ordinary laws of physics. Since Matilda theoretically takes place in the ‘real world’ this is arguably the intrusion fantasy’s equivalent of expulsion, a metaphorical egress into the rational world of the adult – a comparison that is strengthened by the fact that Matilda describes using her powers in fantastic terms (“[like] flying past the stars on silver wings,” she says (181)) and Miss Honey’s observation that it brings a “strange and distant glimmer” to her face (180).

III. Challenging the Narrative

According to U. C. Knoepflmacher, the child’s “hopefulness” (Whitley’s “spirit of joy”) and the adult’s “self-conscious awareness of time and death” coexist uneasily until the very end of the protagonist’s journey, where author and reader are forced to confront this inherent dichotomy and to come down on the side of one or the other (Knoepflmacher 1986, 48-49). Given that the journey acts as a metaphor for the relationship between the child and the external (adult) world, Knoepflmacher argues that the journey’s climax “necessarily reactivates questions about goals and directions, about the very teleology of growth” (48). In other words, what happens at the end of the book tells us how the author perceives the child and adult worlds should (or do) interact. While most children’s fantasy authors would appear to come down in favour of the child at least on the level of the text, allowing the protagonist to defeat their enemy in classic fantasy tradition, it is nevertheless the forces of ‘oppression’ which have the true victory insofar as each protagonist is in some way forced to step outside the imaginative realm in order to grow up and complete their journey. On the face of it, this seems to be fair enough: barring the invention of time travel, it is a fact of growing up that one leaves childhood behind. However, in constructing adulthood in terms of irreparable loss these authors place a barrier between adults and the imaginative world. As Perry Nodelman writes, the divorce of childhood from maturity, a relic of the Romantic movement, “separates us from our own past selves… [making childhood] somehow better than, richer than, realer than the maturity we are stuck with” (Nodelman 1979, 153).

The paradox of growing up in children’s fantasy literature, then, is that it is attempting to simultaneously characterise adulthood as part of the inevitable continuum of a child’s life, while also setting it up as a fearful Other that is hostile to all the child-hero embodies. While this image of adulthood prevails in children’s literature, the conflict between Whitley’s first-age and second-age fantasy forms would appear to be unavoidable. Yet as Whitley himself argues, children’s fantasy is a liminal space; a gateway of sorts between first- and second-age types. It has been suggested that the origin of children’s fantasy lies in the psychological concept of individuation – essentially the process of internal integration between the conscious and unconscious mind. Ravenna Helson links the child protagonist to the Archetypal Child, whose role it is to “explore or reveal the unconscious, or to find a way of integrating conscious and unconscious, as a child may bring together father and mother into family unity” (Helson 1974, 69). It follows, then, that it is possible to reject the adulthood-as-loss construct in favour of a more balanced narrative.

For an idea of what such a narrative might look like, it is worth considering Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. His heroine, Lyra, encounters death frequently: not only do many of her companions die, but she herself travels to the Land of the Dead. Unlike the protagonists of other novels, however, who are themselves altered by their encounters with death, it is Lyra who alters death, from a fearful eternity tormented by the Harpies to an almost blissful release into the natural world:

The first ghost to leave the world of the dead was Roger. He took a step forward, and turned to look back at Lyra, and laughed in surprise as he found himself turning into the night, the starlight, the air…and then he was gone, leaving behind such a vivid little burst of happiness that Will was reminded of the bubbles in a glass of champagne. (Pullman 2007, 889).

Likewise, sexuality and experience in Pullman’s world are not negatives to be avoided but positive goods, as is indicated in Pullman’s treatment of daemons: fluid and shifting when the characters are children, daemons take on a fixed shape when they are adult, at which point they attract Dust or consciousness, representing expanding awareness and experience. It is Lyra’s eventual ‘Fall’ and relationship with Will which ultimately causes the retreating Dust to return and so saves the multiverse (976). Further, although she and Will must eventually return to their respective worlds and close off the windows between them, with the sources of their power lost (Lyra’s ability to read the alethiometer) or broken (the Subtle Knife), there is still promise of further adventure ahead. Lyra intends to devote her life to regaining her skill with the alethiometer, which the angel Xaphania promises will “be even better then…[because] grace attained like that is deeper and fuller than grace that comes freely” (994), and at the very end of the book she resolves to build “the republic of heaven” on Earth – an ambitious undertaking if ever there was one (1016). Will himself decides to become a doctor, a fitting continuation of his journey thus far, so that while there is a certain sense of ‘moving forward’ for everyone, it is never at the expense of the past. The child self can be revisited, as Lyra and Will ‘visit’ with one another in absentia in the Botanic Gardens every year on Midsummer’s Day. In short, Pullman seems to have found a way of satisfactorily balancing first-age and second-age forms.

One of the overwhelming themes of children’s fantasy fiction, then, may be seen as the interplay between the first-age fantasy of youth and the wisdom-fantasy that comes with age. In many texts, the protagonist’s journey into adulthood culminates in the shutting of a door, a literal or metaphorical disjunction between the newly discovered adult world and the former ‘childish’ one. Yet such a disconnect is unnecessary and seems almost dishonest – the fact that fantasy persists, and is so popular, suggests that this sense of exclusion from the Perilous Realm is only an illusion. More satisfying is a conception which moves away from the Romantic privileging of Youth towards a hopeful and more equal affection for the adventure and imagination of Age. After all, who wants to be “grown up and done for” when they can be “grown up and free”?

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Reference List:

Barrie, J. M. (2004) [1904]. Peter Pan and Wendy, NSW, Australia: Walker Books.
Dahl, Roald. (1998) Matilda, London, UK: Random House.
Egan, Michael. (1982) “The Neverland of Id: Barrie, Peter Pan and Freud” in Children’s Literature, vol. 10, pp.37-55.
Helson, Ravenna. (1974) “The Psychological Origins of Fantasy for Children in Mid-Victorian England” in Children’s Literature, vol. 3, pp.66-76.
Knoepflmacher, U. C. (1986). “Roads Half-Taken: Travel, Fantasy and Growing Up” in Children’s Literature Association Quarterly Proceedings, pp.48-59.
Lewis, C. S. (2001) The Chronicles of Narnia, London, UK: HarperCollins Publishers.
Nodelman, Perry. (1979) “Progressive Utopia: Or, How to Grow Up Without Growing Up” in Children’s Literature Association Quarterly Proceedings, pp.146-154.
Pullman, Philip (2007). His Dark Materials Trilogy, London, UK: Scholastic.
Rotert, Richard (1990). “The Kiss in a Box” in Children’s Literature, vol. 18, pp. 114-123.
Stohler, Sarah J. (Spring 1987). “The Mythic World of Childhood” in Children’s Literature Association Quarterly, 12(1), pp. 28-32.
Whitley, David (2000). “Fantasy Narratives and Growing Up”, Eve Bearne and Victor Watson (eds.), Where Texts and Children Meet, pp.172-182, London and New York: Routledge.

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