Category Archives: fantasy

Neil Gaiman’s "The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Safety & Conjuring a Fairy Ring

{Harper Collins}

When I was little my imagination ran wild–I have memories of playing pretend for hours: sometimes it was in the school I created in my family’s unfinished basement, sometimes it was playing Boxcar Children in the woods across the street, sometimes it was creating a sky-high circus in the tree in my best friend’s front yard.  In the daylight, the heroes and protagonists of these imaginary stories always won as if the sunlight could trump anything.  Of course, then, this imagination stretched past my bedtime, when my parents were gone and I was alone in my room, with only my books, blanket, and stuffed animals for protection from the bad guys who lurked in the periphery of my daytime musings.

For these, I made rules I could follow in order to remain safe.  I have no idea if this came out of my tendency to be a rule follower, albeit an adventurous one, as a child or if every child created boundaries of some kind.  My rule, though, that I reminded myself of every night was that the bad guys could only get me if my covers were on exactly half of me.  Exactly.  I knew about symmetry by then.  I knew there was very little chance my covers would ever line up vertically; I made my bed horizontally every morning and clutched my blankets way past my stomach when I curled up at night.  So whether it was pirates or ghosts that were drifting in and out of my pre-slumber worrying, I reminded myself that they couldn’t get me and fell asleep confidently.  I remember relying on this more when we had babysitters or when my dad was working nights.

I hadn’t thought of this in a while until I was reading Neil Gaiman’s newest book The Ocean at the End  last week.  (As a sidenote, I devoured it.  I read it while walking on the sidewalk.  I can’t wait to discuss it with my Southwest Ohio Ex Pat book club.  In other words: go buy and get lost in it!) The book is about a middle aged man who returns to his hometown and remembers when he was young and his family car was stolen and a man committed suicide inside of it down the street on a neighboring farm.  The nameless protagonist meets the wise-beyond-her-11-years Lettie who lives there and is pulled into a fantastical, terrifying adventure with her as a result.  There is a moment later in the story when Lettie has to go face one of the fantastical creatures and she leaves him at what she calls a fairy ring around a tree and tells him not to leave for anything: “You’re safe in the ring…whatever you see, whatever you hear, don’t leave it…nothing that wants to hurt you can cross it.”

The most fascinating part about this for me as a reader was that the protagonist believed her and as a variety of creatures and beings who look and sound like his family come up to try to coerce him out of the ring, he refuses to do it.  With each one, he pronounces to them the truth he believes: that Lettie told him to stay, that he trusts her, and that he wasn’t going anywhere.  And it works. The moment feels so childish, and like I said, reminded me of the logic I had as a small girl.  But maybe that is what it takes.

I started thinking about the different voices I hear in my mind sometimes, asking me to doubt myself and to doubt what I know to be true.  It’s amazing how much traction those voices can gain and how easy it is to believe them–and how they can lead me dangerously astray from the person I want to be.  So.  Today I am going to try to create my own fairy ring, my adult version of horizontal sheets.  I want to cast around me the truths I have come to believe and in moments of doubt dispel them–and then stand amazed and thankful when they slink back into the darkness and I can live wholeheartedly again.

For those who have been wrecked that they weren’t called to Hogwarts or let into Narnia. Or, for existential nerds.

(Note: This post quotes heavily from the book.  It was the only way I could process through it. And it’s rather long. I have some opinions about the narrative being so inner-thought heavy that the reader doesn’t have to infer, but those are neither here nor there for the purposes of this post.)
Fillory had yet to give Quentin the surcease from unhappiness he was counting on, and he was damned if he was leaving before he got what he wanted.  Relief was out there, he knew it, he just needed to get deeper in…He had to jump the tracks, get out of his Earth-story, which wasn’t going so well, and into the Fillory-story, where the upside was infinitely higher (304).
The Magicians by Lev Grossman is a coming of age story that begins when Quentin Coldwater, brilliant and bored, is a senior in high school in Brooklyn.  He has never left behind his Fillory books–a series Grossman made up, very similar to Narnia, and deeply believes without irony that if only he could find his way into a land like Fillory that life would make sense.  “He’d spent too long being disappointed by the world–he’d spent so many years pining for something like this, some proof that the real world wasn’t the only world, and coping with the evidence that it in fact was, ” (37).  His existence is defined by his longing for Fillory and all that it represents: wholeness, beauty, peace, fulfillment, adventure.  One day, though, Quentin unexpectedly finds himself walking through a garden and onto the campus of Brakebills, a college in the Hudson River Valley for magical training, and not visible to the non magical eye.  
When Quentin arrives at this school that does indeed exist on Earth and not in Fillory, a professor tells him: “Most people are blind to magic.  They move through a blank and empty world.  They’re bored with their lives, and there’s nothing they can do about it.  They’re eaten alive by longing, and they’re dead before they’re alive (88).  For Quentin, this makes sense, because they haven’t been able to step through to the magic.  The twist of expectation here, though, is that Quentin’s experiences with the magical realm are disappointing, and he finds himself struggling with the same kinds of things: “This was the kind of disaster Quentin thought he’d left behind the day he walked into that garden in Brooklyn.  Things like this didn’t happen in Fillory: there was conflict, and even violence, but it was always heroic and ennobling, and anybody really good and important who bought it along way came back to life at the end of the book.  Now there was a rip in the corner of his perfect world, and fear and sadness were pouring in like freezing filthy water through a busted dam,” (148).
As it would turn out, one of his magical friends finds that not only does Fillory actually exist (even among the magicians, they see Fillory as a children’s story), but he’s found a way to get in.  Quentin remained convinced that life would finally become ok: “He was in Fillory. There was no question about it now.  And now that he was here it would finally be all right,” (288). And I suppose that this is how it goes for most adventures: the initial thrill and newness of a move, a new job, a new relationship can make one think that life will be different.  And, of course in the book there is a feeling of true adventure for a while, but ultimately Quentin has to face the same existentialism that has plagued him all along: “Why now, when it was actually happening, did the seductions of Fillory feel so crude and unwanted? He thought he left this feeling behind long ago in Brooklyn, or at least at Brakebills.  How far did he have to run? If Fillory failed him he would have nothing left! A wave of frustration and panic surged through him,” (311).  
The Magicians could be described as a grown up’s Narnia or Harry Potter–it turned the magical into the ordinary and made the concept of fighting evil much more postmodern, and in turn, depressing.  The characters at the end just settle for a different brand of discontent.  There is not one clear foe or one clean answer in which to rest and find peace.  
I don’t want to be so jaded or realistic that there isn’t room for magic–or at least hope.  Reading Quentin’s story, I was surprised how much I related to parts of his mental journey.  At this point in the story, one would think that something would happen to re-instill Quentin’s hope in magic, but it takes a turn for pretty stark realism: He should have stayed in Brooklyn, in the real world.  He should have nursed his depression and his grudge against the world from the relative safety of mundane reality…Sure you can live out your dreams, but it’ll only turn you into a monster.  Better to stay home and do card tricks in your bedroom instead…The trick was just not wanting anything. That was power.  That was courage: the courage not to live anyone or hope for anything. The funny thing was how easy everything got, when nothing mattered (382-383). 
One of the professors at Brakebills seemed to be describe coming of age: “Magical thinking: that’s what Freud called it.  Once we learn otherwise we cease to be children.  The separation of word and thing is the essential fact on which our adult lives are founded,” (216).
And yet, C.S. Lewis, author of the Narnia series, pressed into the longing: “The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing–to reach the Mountain, to find the place where all the beauty came from…Do you think it all meant nothing, all the longing? The longing for home? For indeed it now feels not like going, but like going back.” Readers and thinkers have to wonder if there is a space in the world for magic–and could the longing point to something real? Lewis, in his non-fiction writings on his Christian faith, explained that the longing was for Heaven and that life once again became magical for him when he realized that the longing was not in vain, but that it as was made him alive.  Grossman’s book seems to be a critique of the Narnia-like longings.  I can’t decide if Grossman himself would find Quentin a pathetic character in the hopes he had for magical lands. The bleakness of who Quentin becomes at the near-end of the story suggests that intellectual, passionless realism is the best way to cope with the disappointments of the world.  
And yet. There are some universal truths woven into the story: love, sacrifice, human fallenness and the pain of longing.  
So.

Flying Through The Golden Compass


Outside of my obsession with Harry Potter and love affair with Middle Earth, I’ve never been much of a fantasy reader. But there is something in those stories that pulls me in a way other genres cannot. So, I signed up for a course at Teacher’s College this semester where we are exploring how fantasy can help students grow as readers and writers. One of the challenges was to start a fantasy book club with students. I have some really high level readers in my classes this year, so I decided on “The Golden Compass” by Philip Pullman.

Admittedly, I was drawn by the controversy surrounding the book. We just finished a unit on “banned books” in my classroom, so it seemed fitting. My reading experience can be described by two things: underlining and page turning. One of the aspects of fantasy that we have been discussing is its ability to create worlds in which our rules don’t apply and in turn asking what that says about our world. I was incredibly anxious to talk with my students about the themes and issues that were raised in this story…but the mere mention of “themes and issues” sounds like nerdy, boring English teacher talk. But the reader doesn’t have to search for these things: they are innately a part of the story and the reader just automatically asks questions while flying through.

“It’s no surprise that themes like love, death, and the fate of the soul should be the province of young-adult literature. Passionate readers are most captivated by reading in their early teens. It’s at that age that literature can take, can seem the most important thing in life. In some ways, it might seem that writers of young-adult fiction have an advantage: Their audience is primed for intense literary experience.” This, this is why I am an English teacher. My students are so bright and are at the sweet (yes, really) age of 13 when a few of them will be able to make the jump that reading can be so much more than just the story while simultaneously realizing just how wonderful it is to find truth in story.

“This is what Pullman’s work is about: a longing that nothing can satisfy but whose intensity is its own difficult and ambivalent pleasure. Like the Yale literary critic Harold Bloom, Pullman equates this longing with the ancient heresy of Gnosticism: the idea that our souls are defined by a spark of transcendence by which we aspire beyond the pious moralisms of human order and society, and seek something the authorities that govern the world cannot or will not give.” But this doesn’t just fit into Gnosticism. I think it is a fact of life that the soul is complex and is constantly yearning for meaning and fulfillment. I agree that such transcendene cannot come from authorities that goven the world. I do believe this longing will be fulfilled…but not on earth and not by men.

Recently I have been taken by the fact that life itself is incredibly complex: take the intricacies of my own mind and heart and multiply that by the mind and heart of everyone who has ever lived. And although I don’t believe that everything is relativeI have been frustrated by attempts to claim that there is one right way to live, work, vote, think. This is where I read Pullman’s work a bit differently than the Christians who criticize it: his characters aren’t black and white and the story can’t be oversimplified. Questions and complexity lurk on every page, and to my current state of thinking, it comes as a bit of a relief. Though many may disagree with me, I do think that questioning the motives that the church has historically held is important. Sometimes the structures that people put up take away from the richness that is life and the beauity that is the complex reality of our individual hearts. Our souls have a depth that the law and moralism and black/white line drawing cannot satiate: it is more and it is deeper. So my overall thought is that though I don’t share the same theology as Philip Pullman at the end of the day, he makes me think. His books are so imaginative and exciting and fantastical that they draw kids into these questions. That is why I love literature.

***Many thanks to Julie and Eric Mecca for talking through this book with me! And to this article that I quoted and that added to my thinking of reading and teaching this book:
http://www.boston.com/news/globe/ideas/articles/2004/06/13/childish_things/