Magical Reality in Children’s Fiction

by | Nov 6, 2018 | IBBYLink Summer 2018

Penny Thomas

As Maria Merryweather arrives at her estranged uncle’s west-country mansion of Moonacre Manor she thinks for a fleeting moment that she sees a little white horse at the far end of a glade in the moonlit woods. But her startled guardian assures her that no such creature exists on the estate.

We don’t need Sir Benjamin’s reaction, or even the title, A Little White Horse, to tell us that this ‘fleeting moment’ is to be the heart of the book. The story proceeds in a more or less rational manner for many pages, with not a spell or a wand in sight – but this 1946 classic is assuredly a magical book, hiding its magic at first glance, in a cloak of reality.

I recently chaired a seminar at the London Book Fair on ‘The new Welsh magical realism in children’s publishing’. Thanks to some kind fairy godmother the event went well, but I admit I’m still struggling with comprehending magical realism in relation to children’s books.

A quick Google gives many, often defensive, definitions of magical realism. It is most usually described as the appearance of an impossible or magical event in an otherwise entirely serious and realistic adult novel, most notably in the novels of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, such as the shattering moment when the blood of a murdered son flows around corners and up steps to end at the feet of his mother. A truth expressed in fictional terms where fiction allows the impossible to happen, maybe. We are admonished that this is quite different from that fantasy stuff, which is mere escapism, whereas it is the duty of adult fiction to engage with the real world and try to order or reorder the experiences it retells.

But in this article I’d like to step away from the tautological world of ‘entirely serious and realistic adult fiction’ and give the slip, at least for a while, to the question of escapism (who is against escapism anyway apart from a jailer, it has been said). Instead I’m setting sail for the more enticing islands of magical reality in children’s fiction, where there are mercifully fewer attempts to kill the magic stone dead before it can be officially allowed to exist.

Where, in children’s fiction, does the real world end and magic begin? And should we even try to disentangle them, let alone back one over the other? Does it matter if ‘reality’ and ‘magic’ blend organically in and out of the stories when they are written for an audience which may not yet have seen the need to divide them into two separate entities anyway. When, during a bedtime story, granny emerges smiling from the wolf’s belly or Peter Pan flies straight on till morning, you might think that ‘why’ would be the obviously right question at the right time. Instead I wouldn’t be surprised to find the story has grabbed the attention of the listener, who will absorb the increasingly unlikely action with much more delight than confusion. They may well have been more concerned about why they should go to bed in the first place, than how a magic carpet can be flying to faraway lands, or a superhero landing nearby. We don’t need to explain magic to readers, just let them wonder at it, and enjoy it. And the resulting boost to the imagination, taking the reader or listener out of themselves and engaging them with the thrilling characters and action, can in my opinion only have opened up possibilities and grown the imagination and empathy by the time the carpet lands safely home again.

Perhaps the widespread early exposure to the flickering lights of fairy stories is part of the reason why young readers may not be unduly troubled by trips back and fore into magical worlds, or magic turning up unexpectedly in their own. Indeed magic must be one of the most popular ingredients of children’s fiction.

I mean, if a pumpkin can turn into a golden carriage, and back again at midnight, what can’t happen? By and large, though, fairy stories fit their own internal reality, and the grooves of the much-told tales. For other stories of magical reality, there needs to be a way in: a door to knock.

Delving back into twentieth-century British fiction to explore this further, I find myself immediately in that little-used room in the old house with the wardrobe. Open the door, peep through it, push between the mothballed fur coats (I’ve never smelt mothballs but mention them and I’m in that wardrobe) and you might just see a lamppost, and a glitter of snow on branches. It’s that longed-for doorway into another world: scary, possibly dangerous, but compelling.

A few decades further on and we are lining up with our parents and trolley to hurtle onto platform nine and three quarters at King’s Cross. When you’re on the other side of this magical door, anything can happen and generally does. We’ve already had letters dropped by owls down the chimney and so on, but all is explained by that other world that overlaps with ours whether we can see it or not. And in Harry Potter the boundaries and unlikely crossover points between the ‘real’ and ‘magical’ worlds (Port keys, Diagon Alley, Mrs Arabella Figg, …) can become rich areas of plotting.

But of course it didn’t start with the wardrobe door. The fairy door has been around a very long time; the magical entrance to Annwn, the otherworld as the Welsh have it, has opened or closed at will (generally the faery will) to trap the unwary and release them again after fruitless enchantment, typically lasting a year and a day – and that’s if they are one of the lucky ones. Time of course is different in faery lands, and it’s wise not to eat or drink a drop if you ever want to escape.

In forthcoming middle-grade adventure The Clockwork Crow (2018) by Catherine Fisher the doorway to the deceptive world of the Tylwyth Teg (faeryland) is in the cellar of the great house where unwitting protagonist Seren Rees has come to live. At certain times, the high ring of a bell in the depths of the night alerts the hearer – and a wide set of shimmering golden steps appears, leading down from the lowest cellar to who knows where. The door is open. But the next day the cellar is just bare stone and damp earth again. Other wonderful variations on the theme appear in Howl’s Moving Castle (1986) by Diana Wynne Jones, where the castle, itself about as magic as can be, has several different doors leading to different, more or less ordinary or magical landscapes.

To go back to C.S. Lewis, the device becomes ever more involved. In The Magician’s Nephew (1955), prequel to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950), he creates the ‘wood between the worlds’, where wearers of certain magical bracelets can choose which world they enter by jumping in different pools with the wood, a sort of quiet place with a hum….

Examples of stepping across the threshold into the world of magic abound in children’s fiction and the more inventive, credible or incredible the magical line, the more enjoyable the story, I would contend, and the greater the effect on the imagination. But you have to get it right! Where the internal logic of the world or worlds is not clear and persuasive, readers will not follow. Personal favourite overlaps of magic and non- magic worlds for me also include Malkin’s wicked magic doll, Marta, in The Three Toymakers (1945) (Ursula Moray Williams), the magic seeds in Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach (1961), or, to come closer to home, Harri’s drawing of a dragon which was placed inside a magical egg to hatch a real fire-breathing baby dragon named Tan in Shoo Rayner’s Dragon Gold (2014).

Just as important of course, is sustaining the magical reality so carefully created. To step back through the wardrobe door one last time, through time, into a small Oxford pub, Tolkien was reportedly outraged when his fellow Inkling C.S. Lewis allowed Father Christmas to blunder his way into the magic of Narnia, and even more bizarrely, furnish the children with weapons as Christmas presents.

‘It simply will not do,’ he warned. And he had a point.

Tolkien’s magical reality was quite different. Although drawn in part from his study of language, such as medieval English or Norse, and their myths, he needed no door into another, magical reality; his entire story is set in a world with which he replaced our own, or which is our own as it might have been with a sprinkling of stardust. Much the same goes for Pullman, which explains for me why these two writers are often classed as fantasy rather than magical realists. At the other end of the ‘magical scale’ I would argue, the natural world becomes so intense that it brings with it its own magic, or the boundaries are stretched so thin as to be almost porous. Books such as Horatio Claire’s Aubrey and the Terrible Yoot (2016) explicitly pinpoint the moment when realism gives way to the magical – in this case when an owl speaks to the child protagonist Aubrey (by thought transference) – and the author draws attention to it with the line:

At this point our whole story hangs in the balance. Aubrey even takes hold of the curtains; he is about to shut them on this unlikely but demanding bird.

But, as Clare explains in rather brilliant footnotes, the talking owls are to him an extension of the natural world, rather than a move away from it:

Oh-ho, you may be thinking, a story with talking animals in it. How anthropomorphic. … However as you will see, the philosophy of this story is closer to animism. … Animism says humans are not the centre of the universe because everything in nature has a soul or a spirit, and that plants and rivers and owls have their own existences in the same way you do. (This is why you sometimes overhear people like Suzanne [Aubrey’s mother] say, ‘Hello, woodpigeon’.)

To backtrack a little, the talking owl arrives just after the young hero, Aubrey, has drawn inspiration from the tale of Perseus and the Medusa in his book of Greek Gods, Myths and Monsters. He takes Perseus for a role model to help him fight the invisible enemy of depression (the terrible Yoot of the title) which he believes is attacking his dad. We are told right away that this is a battle he can’t win, but the story, the use of myth and magical understanding of the natural world, gives the young Aubrey, and by implication the young reader, a way in to understanding what may be affecting their parents’ lives or those of the grown-ups around them. A difficult, and rarely tackled subject for any age, is made accessible and understandable by consciously moving it into a mythical, magical but still natural world through which it can be contained, interrogated and understood.

Clare, a nature writer at heart, also references his debt to B.B., author of the 1942 Carnegie medal-winning The Little Grey Men (1942). Set in the English countryside, this ‘story for the young at heart’ features the adventures of four gnomes who may be the last of their race as they set out up the bright stream in a toy boat lost by its owner, to search for their missing brother Cloudberry. Magic turns to folklore turns to reality with scarcely a port key in sight in this gentle, wonderful tale.

There are of course so many more examples and exceptions that prove the wavering rules. Frances Hodgson Burnett’s characters speak repeatedly of ‘the magic’ in A Little Princess(1905) or The Secret Garden (1911) but are perhaps almost always referencing actual (if Edwardian) human kindness when they do so, with maybe a touch of divine intervention behind it. My own particular favourite was referenced at the start. A Little White Horse (1946) by Elizabeth Goudge is, I believe, credited by no lesser person than J.K. Rowling as the book which re vealed to her how magic and reality could exist harmoniously in a single story.

What searching out these many and varied magical doorways and pathways through our children’s stories confirms is that magic is embedded and entwined with storytelling and mythmaking from our earliest encounters with language. As such it can help children to recognise, name and comprehend the everyday world around them as well as at times escape it; perhaps in a way that didacticism or facts alone cannot transmit. Magical reality is a way of thinking that goes to the core of our imagination and the stories we tell about ourselves. Yes, we can write, or children can read, entirely ‘realistic’ fiction, the events that happen to the protagonists could really happen (though you might hope not all at once). But if magic-less reality is all that we have to offer our children we would be losing whole dimensions in which they can have fun, wonder and delight at the mysteries and possibilities of the world, and perhaps by making such imaginative leaps, uncover a few more for themselves.

Works cited

Goudge, Elizabeth (illus. C. Walter Hodges) (1946) A Little White Horse. University of London Press.

Fisher, Catherine (2018) The Clockwork Crow. Cardiff: Firefly Press.

Wynne Jones, Diana (1986) Howl’s Moving Castle. London: Methuen.

Lewis, C.S. (1955) The Magician’s Nephew. London: Bodley Head.

–– (illus. Pauline Baynes) (1950) The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. London: Geoffrey Bles.

Moray Williams, Ursula (1945) The Three Toymakers. London: G.G. Harrap & Co.

Dahl, Roald (illus. Nancy Ekholm Burkert) (1961) James and the Giant Peach. London: Puffin.

Rayner, Shoo (2014) Dragon Gold. Cardiff: Dragonfly.

Claire, Horatio (2016) Aubrey and the Terrible Yoot. Cardiff: Firefly Press.

B.B. (illus. Denys Watkins-Pitchford–the author) (1942) The Little Grey Men. London: Eyre & Spottiswoode.

Hodgson Burnett, Frances (illus. Ethel Franklin Betts) (1905) A Little Princess. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

–– (illus. Charles Robinson) (1911) The Secret Garden. London: Heinemann.

Penny Thomas is the publisher and co-founder of Firefly Press, based in Wales. She had a misspent youth in Harpenden library, where there was a whole shelf of fairy stories from around the world, before taking a BA in English Language and Literature at Keble College, Oxford, and then training as a journalist. After 15 years in regional journalism she became fiction editor with Seren literary publishers in Bridgend and freelance edited for many others, including Chicken House, the University of Wales Press, Parthian and Honno Welsh Women’s Press. In 2013 she and cofounder Janet Thomas (no relation) set up Firefly Press to publish quality fiction for five to nineteen year olds and have had several prize-nominated or winning titles to date including the Branford Boase award for a first children’s novel author and editor for Aubrey and the Terrible Yoot (2015) by Horatio Clare.

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