This Christmas hols, as that word suggests, I’ve been rereading mid-century children’s classics. Ones in which the characters go to another world.
Actually, I’ve been listening to them. Neither of my kids are the kind of reader I was—too well-adjusted I hope, certainly too busy outdoors whilst we were weather-bound inside on the other side of the world. By the time they read like I did, if they do, they may well be too old for the stories that formed writer-me. So I’ve turned to audiobooks, and that nothingless stretch of freeway on the long drive from town to the beach already seems like the perfect backdrop.
‘Once there were four children . . . ’
They’re British, generally, these stories I went on to spend the next decade revisiting for the particular pleasure of returning to key scenes that I knew so well it was like they were my own dreams: when Wendy takes Peter’s hand, Alice tumbles into Wonderland, and Lucy falls through the wardrobe door. I have always been drawn to that moment, when the fabric of reality finally tears. (Finally, because it is inevitable in these tales, and anticipated with a mix of longing and dread by the children within—and outside—their pages.) The place where the membrane between worlds, between the possible and the impossible, is ripped.
Maybe it’s because I was born in the UK that these were the books I grew up with, but they also dominated my early Australian childhood, introducing me to places that would become as familiar and fantastic as this hot Downunder land we’d stumbled onto: Neverland, Narnia, The Enchanted Wood; the Cornwall of Susan Cooper, Wales of Alan Garner and Fens of Ruth M Arthur.
The Faraway Tree was where I began my summer reading, with a beautiful hardback edition illustrated by Quentin Blake. Despite being for younger readers it was immediately clear to me how much I’d always enjoyed the way this book’s constant promise of a new land was always accompanied by the threat of getting stuck there—Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland read more like pure dreams in comparison. I felt the tension, recognised how boldly Jo tempts fate when he says: ‘I expect I shall find it rather dull here after living in London.’ But now it seemed to me he and his sisters didn’t share my fear that the country they visited might be bad, and, indeed, with Dame Slap-a-Lot becoming Dame Snap-a-Lot—who no longer inflicts punishment indiscriminately—my kids certainly didn’t share my childhood feelings.
The adventures of Jo, Bessie and Franny (Fanny’s name too having been revised for an American market) aren’t just episodic—the children are always home in time for tea—they contain none of the symbolic, imaginative experience offered by the best of these books that cross over from one world to another. The path to the faraway lands is firmly fixed, literally rooted by their backdoor.
Next up was the unabridged, full-cast recording of Narnia. This series held its own better, speaking to me in ways that transcended the ultra-obvious Christian message: ‘Once a King or Queen of Narnia, always a King or Queen of Narnia,’ had me tearing up on the Eastlink as I tried to explain it—or at least what it meant to me—to my children: that where we had been (even if only in books) was real, and really changed us.
The difference between the individual titles, the various characters and diverse times, offers many doorways into C S Lewis’s world, but the image, the idea, that had stayed with me the most over all this time was the wood between the worlds. It was still there, waiting: the quiet; the sense of infinite possibilities—as well as that primal fear of being lost and unable to return home. ‘Have you forgotten the Deeper Magic?’ Aslan asks, but it is not the Emperor over the Sea that I took from these tales but the original idea of a pool as a portal, which has reappeared—unconsciously—in my new novel.
(CS Lewis was said to have been much-inspired by E Nesbit, whose books I also have: another set of beloved paperbacks I’ve saved from my own childhood, whose cheap bindings are only good for one rereading before the pages come unstuck and drift lose through the house. As with Enid Blyton though, I find Nesbit’s countryside so unconvincing, so outside of my own—not to mention my children’s—experience that I cannot read them as real-world settings. Any magical objects or experiences seem practically predictable since everything is fantastic. We may as well be reading Lord of the Rings.
Indeed, it was a recent visit to Hobbiton that starting me thinking about how straight fantasy can be far less challenging, less scary, than these crossover stories that I so loved as a child. Tales that allowed me to practice a fundamental fear and potent hope: that the world we know is not all there is, and may not even be real at all.)
I usually say my favourite of all these World War II–era classics, where children slip from one time, one place, to another, is Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising (the book, rather than the series, since Over Sea, Under Stone always reads like a conventional Famous Five adventure compared to Will’s more mystical and metaphoric experiences). The thrill I sought—am always seeking—is so perfectly realised on the morning of Will’s eleventh birthday when he, and we, confront the truth of Mr Dawson’s warning words: ‘Tomorrow will be beyond imagining.’
But actually it was Ruth M Arthur’s tales that affected me the most; I rarely say her name as I’ve never met anyone who has read her. Was that one reason why I felt such a personal connection? How did I find her, or how had she found me? Her stories, where a preteen girl trips into another (historic) world where a character is experiencing a similar but more extreme situation, are so convincing that I couldn’t sleep with them in my room. I never left them open—as though the doll Dido might escape from the pages the same way she’d evaded every other attempt to contain her. Inspiring, I’ve just realised, the first short story I published as a teenager, giving a new meaning to its ‘Exorcism’ title.
It isn’t only Ruth M Arthur’s characters who are generally in crisis, and frequently convalescing. Many of these child heroes and heroines are signposted early on as potentially unreliable narrators—or at least clearly considered to be so by others, sometimes simply because of their age. This device leaves readers free to decide, in the end, whether the adventures we read have ‘really’ happened. (More inspiration for The Art of Navigation.)
And, it goes without saying, the protagonists are generally unsupervised: children get to go adventuring when they are independent and agency, something which has occurred less and less with every decade since these books were published. But where is their mum? My boys ask. (It’s a mixed blessing to have to point out to your child-listeners that a grown-up may be ‘a baddie’: the antique collector in Five Go to Treasure Island, Deranian in Escape to Witch Mountain. Why is it my children don’t seem to know, don’t even think to ask? Have we succeeded so well as something I, for one, never set out to do? Their books do not have people who do nice things—such as offering Turkish Delight or introducing themselves as long-lost uncles—and yet are evil. My boys don’t seem to register the threat that I’ve always felt I was born with, but now wonder whether these books didn’t play a part in teaching it to me.)
Often the children in these stories have been sent away: not just from home, but from the city (where bookish readers are more likely to be), to the country. Again, it’s something we’re less likely to do today. Their guardians might think it’s for the best but kids—in both the Essex where I started school and the faraway Aussie suburbs where I ended up—know that any strange place is as full of negative as positive potential. Sherlock Holmes famously went further when he told Watson ‘the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.’ This new-old British landscape is an obvious way these authors call upon the wonderful Celtic mythology that informs many of these books.
‘This is a story about something that happened long ago,’ begins The Magician’s Nephew. Something that did happen once upon a time, then. Alan Garner channels it too, none better: ‘At dawn one still October day in the long ago of the world . . . ‘
All of these aspects—the child in crisis or convalescing, alone, in a strange place—that reoccur with such regularity in these beloved stories makes my favourite characters particularly vulnerable to ‘the dark’, in all its many (and yet not so varied) fictional forms.
There is a great article in The Atlantic, Why the British Tell Better Children’s Stories, which sets out how British history ‘informs fantastical myths and legends, while American tales tend to focus on moral realism’. This is the tradition that His Dark Materials and Harry Potter comes from: books that ‘appeal to the furthest reaches of [my] imagination’. Stories I carry within me still and that, I am so happy to say, stand the test of time.
Leaving behind grim industrial landscapes for a countryside that seems idyllic but offers its own challenges may have mirrored my own immigrant experience, even though I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but there is another more common journey these transitional titles echo: the experience of reading itself. That moment, when a character steps through the door from their everyday reality into another world, is more than a metaphor it is a recreation of that act of absorption—that ‘spell’, cast by words—when a child loses themselves in a book.
And when the story is done, as at the end of Elidor, we are returned to our daily lives with a bump: ‘The song faded. The children were alone with the broken windows of a slum.’ Or, in our case, the freeway hum.
But the story is not done. These stories are never done but live on in us. ‘For ever and ever, we say when we are young,’ we learn along with Will Stanton, ‘so that a thing may be for ever, a life or a love or a quest, and yet begin again and be forever just as before. And any ending that may seem to come is not truly an ending, but an illusion.’
Born in England, based in Melbourne, Rose Michael is the author of The Art of Navigation (UWA, 2017) and teaches writing, editing & publishing at RMIT.