Caroline Jones, editor

The Treatment of Mythology in Children's Fantasy

by Dave Berry

David Berry finished his Master of Library and Information Studies degree at the University of British Columbia in May of 2005. This paper was written in Spring 2004 for Judith Saltman's "Contemporary Canadian Children's Literature" course.
The course surveyed the development of children's publishing in Canada, with an eye toward the practical concerns of helping children find books for their taste and reading level. The final assignment was an essay on some aspect of current Canadian children's literature or the historical development of that literature.

One of our challenges was the transition from a very specific audience (Canadian librarians) who clearly had a strong background in his subject to a general audience who could be expected to know only little on the topic. The inital draft was almost a survey or contemporary Canadian children's authors correlated with the source material from which they drew for their novels. I asked him to narrow his focus, thus highlighting the stronger portions of his discussion, giving more background and context for the uniquely Canadian stories based on a wide variety of myth traditions. —Ed.

Fantasy stories trace their roots back to far older tales: the myths and legends of various cultures, which grew from oral storytelling in the days when myths were the only explanation for the mysterious workings of the real world. To a fantasy author mythology is both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, the themes and characters of myth have enthralled audiences for hundreds or even thousands of years, and they are likely to retain their appeal for many generations to come. On the other hand lurks the problem of creativity: how can a writer come up with new variations on stories that already exist in hundreds of different versions?

In the present day, when readers place great emphasis upon originality, fantasy stories distinguish themselves by the degree to which the author employs or abandons the conventions of mythology. Writers like C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien closely adhered to the tradition of European myths. Catherine Anthony Clark followed the myths of another culture, that of native North America. Welwyn Wilton Katz set off in another direction altogether: turning the Arthurian legends upside down, rewriting the stories instead of building on them. All these approaches create fantasy from the same ingredients, but according to different recipes. The resulting variety of flavors keeps readers coming back for more.

A fantasy author's first decision is also the most important. What rules govern the work? Should the fantasy world be a charming, lighthearted place like Neverland or Oz? Should it be grimly realistic and touched with tragedy, like Middle Earth or Prydain? Should it intrude upon the real world or remain separate from it? Fantasy runs by its own internal laws, established by the author. Tolkien and Lewis largely allowed tradition to set the rules for them. Tolkien followed the guidelines of ancient Norse and Anglo-Saxon mythology, mingled with a bit of provincial English folklore (for the hobbits) and Christian doctrine (for Sauron, the great destroyer). Lewis used the medieval English and French romances—Narnia itself springs almost directly out of Chretien de Troyes or Marie de France—with a strong twist of Christian symbolism. This English literary tradition rises with Beowulf and continues to the present day. Other, more modern writers sought out mythology from other sources: Ireland (O. R. Melling), Wales (Lloyd Alexander and Susan Cooper), and North America (Catherine Anthony Clark), to name a few.

Sticking to tradition offers certain benefits. Most fantasy readers are well-versed in European mythology or at least familiar with its outlines, reducing the need for exposition in the text. For example, the beginning of The Horse and His Boy establishes a mythic tone with the first sentence: "This is the story of an adventure that happened in Narnia and Calormen and the lands between, in the Golden Age when Peter was High King in Narnia and his brother and his two sisters were King and Queens under him" (Lewis 11). Lewis need say little more; the phrase "Golden Age" instantly connotes a distant place and time, with far grander people and events than in the modern world. Readers of medieval romance recognize "Narnia and Calormen and the lands between" as, respectively, England, the Holy Land and various parts of southern Europe. Even readers who lack a historical or literary background know stories from The Arabian Nights and the legends of King Arthur. Lewis works with the same rules that governed medieval authors such as Wolfram von Eschenbach or Geoffery of Monmouth: the fantasy world bears such similarity to the real one as to seem indistinguishable to a casual eye, but just below the surface lie the subtle differences that set the fantasy apart. Magical items abound, but most of the characters (with the exception of the talking animals) are not themselves magic. Sorcery is more a matter for gods than for mortals; characters like Aslan or the White Witch are otherworldly even by the standards of the other world, separate from the more common characters who make up the bulk of the cast. Like Parzifal or Tristram, the characters possess extraordinary skills but not extraordinary powers. To complete their great tasks they require assistance from semi-divine (in the medieval stories, fully divine) allies.

Notably, the land of Calormen provides a bridge to the fantasy environment of Narnia, with some commentary and perspective. The Tisroc of Calormen holds a low opinion of Narnia, but he makes revealing remarks about the country:

I will never believe that so great an alteration [in Narnia's climate], and the killing of the old enchantress, were effected without the aid of strong magic. And such things are to be expected in that land, which is chiefly inhabited by demons in the shape of beasts that talk like men, and monsters that are half man and half beast. It is commonly reported that the High King of Narnia (whom may the gods utterly reject) is supported by a demon of hideous aspect and irresistible maleficence who appears in the shape of a Lion.

Calormen represents the land of non-believers, where miracles exist but go unnoticed or unappreciated. It is not quite the modern world, which laughs at suggestions of witchcraft or "demons in the shape of beasts." The modern world puts no faith in legends, regarding them as stories and nothing more. Calormen, by contrast, believes in the legends but rejects them with a sort of nineteenth-century scientific rationality.

Having established his setting and his characters, Lewis next turns to plots, where the influence of legend shows even more clearly. All of The Narnian Chronicles follow the familiar quest story. In The Horse and His Boy, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and The Silver Chair the quests have a geographic objective—to reach some point or some place and do something there. In The Magician's Nephew, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Prince Caspian, and The Last Battle the quest carries a more political tone—while the protagonists cover some ground, their primary aim is to effect political change by toppling or restoring a regime. This dry assessment sounds more like a party tract than a children's novel, but remember that the King Arthur legends trace their roots back to monarchical politics, as do epic poems like The Iliad. Furthermore, readers recognize the politics in question as identifiably earthly—Narnia wavers between hereditary monarchies and dictatorships supported by force, and changes in the system come by violence more often than by diplomacy. Narnia's most otherworldly element is the sense that everything always comes right in the end—that Aslan, the Hand of God, will intervene and ensure that right and justice prevails. The Chronicles of Narnia make for far kinder and tidier stories than the real world ever produces.

J. R. R. Tolkien, Lewis's friend, created a fantasy world with a radically different tone and different origins. The two men shared storytelling ideas and editorial suggestions, but where Lewis turned to the medieval romances for his inspiration, Tolkien looked to the older, darker tradition of myths from northern Europe. There is no Aslan, no great savior, in The Lord of the Rings. Indeed, the books convey the sense of an evil consistently more powerful than good. Though the heroes succeed in defeating Sauron, the triumph inevitably fades and evil rises again. Here Gandalf describes Sauron and his forces:

The rumors that you have heard are true: he has indeed arisen again and left his hold in Mirkwood and returned to his ancient fastness in the Dark Tower of Mordor. That name even you hobbits have heard of, like a shadow on the borders of old stories. Always after a defeat and a respite, the Shadow takes another shape and grows again.

The mythology of northern Europe leans heavily towards tragedy, with hints of future defeat marring even the greatest victories. Compare the quotation above to one of the great speeches in Beowulf, when Wiglaf's messenger announces the death of the hero. The messenger voices dark expectations of a future without Beowulf:

"...Many a spear
dawn-cold to the touch will be taken down
and waved on high; the swept harp
won't waken warriors, but the raven winging
darkly over the doomed will have news,
tidings for the eagle of how he hoked and ate,
how the wolf and he made short work of the dead."
Such was the drift of the dire report
that gallant man delivered. He got little wrong
in what he told and predicted.

In a way, Tolkien's universe is at once more realistic and more fantastic than Lewis's. Tolkien's characters are more genuinely human: they experience jealously and hatred as well as love, and the books describe their sufferings in as much detail as their joys. Middle Earth offers far less comfort than Narnia, and correspondingly appears more credible. In The Narnian Chronicles young readers encounter a world divided between good and evil, but with the sides clearly marked; The Lord of the Rings appeals to older readers, who value psychological depth over emotional reassurance. At the same time the books give personality to forces we take for granted—storms, illness, and destruction result from malevolence, not chance. The hand of Sauron lies behind every setback the heroes encounter, and evil twists minds as well as bodies. Middle Earth is a world in which the laws of physics not only think but ally themselves with or against the protagonists. In this conception of the universe, Tolkien captures a particular viewpoint, one common to his distant ancestors. The poet of Beowulf and his listeners easily perceived malicious intent at the back of their sufferings, and created characters around that intent.

Unlike Narnia, some residents of Middle Earth possess sufficient power to contest with the forces of nature. These individuals face the same personal trials that all the other characters deal with, but on a larger scale. Tolkien portrays the wizards of Middle Earth as human—preternaturally wise but also subject to great temptation, and as likely to break in the face of adversity as any other, lesser being. In other words, Tolkien's treatment of magic follows his rules for treating all the other elements of the fantasy world; sorcery is a tool in the hands of flawed people, not a blessing in the hands of a god.

Writers after Lewis and Tolkien explored mythology from non-European cultures. Catherine Anthony Clark looked to the myths of First Nations peoples in writing The Golden Pine Cone, which contains one of the few fantasy otherworlds that is decidedly not run by humans. Although the protagonists are human, there are few other human characters, and throughout the novel the forces of nature consistently appear to be wiser, better informed, and more powerful than the forces of man. The greatest power in the story, Tekontha the Queen, combines elements of both; she is human in form but not in spirit. At one point she remarks, "I have no power, it is true, over dogs that live with men" (163) but the wilds are at her command. The Golden Pine Cone turns away from the conventions of European myths; the story is not so much man-against-nature as nature-against-nature and man-against-man.

Leaving behind a familiar literary tradition creates certain difficulties for the author. On the one hand, Clark escaped the limitations of European mythology; this completely new form of literature offered an opportunity to begin from scratch. On the other hand, the absence of a conventional setting forced her to provide both the story itself and the context in which to read it. For example: The Golden Pine Cone makes clear that Tekontha rules the spirit world, despite challenges to her authority from various other characters, such as Nasookin, the Ice Witch, and Onamara. However, the novel never thoroughly explains by what right Tekontha governs, or why so many people oppose her. Readers may well find their sympathies lie with Nasookin (the purported villain) more than Tekontha (the so-called good queen), and the lack of explanation for the overall state of affairs leaves the book feeling rather flat. As a whole, the novel offers a great deal of exposition about myths and the spirit world, but it never offers quite enough to make the plot float effortlessly along. It may be that Clark regarded such details as unimportant, or thought that her young audience would not be interested, but older readers desire more background information.

The Golden Pine Cone is not really a unified story but more an introduction to various First Nations legends, strung together around a pair of central characters. It functions as a guidebook rather than a novel. The two children in the book, Lucy and Bren, are outsiders in the fantasy world, and therefore frequently request explanation or advice from the mythological creatures they encounter. Their quest—to return a magical golden pine cone to Tekontha—takes them on a grand tour of myths and legends. Despite the presence of the typical quest motif, the children pursue their mission with a notable lack of urgency, and often spend time in hearing stories or exploring the fantasy setting.

Clark uses a variety of tricks to incorporate a great deal of mythological background without shattering the illusion of a seamless reality. One such technique is to completely erase the border between the real world and the fantasy one, so that readers cannot tell when the characters have stepped across the boundary. As Sheila Egoff wrote in Worlds Within: Children's Fantasy from the Middle Ages to Today:

[The main characters] are not wrenched, as are the children in C. S. Lewis's The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, from English school holiday life to a wholly unrecognizable land. Clark's children drink sparingly from the magic potion. They are exposed to events that seem only somewhat larger than life and to a land that remains familiar to them.

One moment Bren and Lucy are in bed, in their modern Canadian house. A moment later they find themselves in a sort of mythic wonderland, yet they seem unfazed by the transition. This smooth integration of the foreigners with the natives saves the book from being a dull anthropological treatise, and the variety of sources also lightens the onslaught of information; at one time or another, Lucy and Bren receive advice or useful data from Ooshka, a muskrat, the Pearl Men, Onamara, Head Goose, Bill Buffer, the Ice Witch, a mammoth, swans, and Tekontha herself. Not all these sages deal with the mythology, but all provide exposition of one sort or another.

Perhaps because The Golden Pine Cone aims at a very young (perhaps 8-year-old) audience, the book makes use of mythology only on a basic, straightforward level. The hints of First Nations culture are not subtle. Clark rarely employs symbolism or hidden meanings—the motives of characters and the requirements of the quest are straightforward, even if they lack a larger meaning. Indeed, without its thin plot or the two foreign children, the book stands as a collection of First Nations fables retold by an English-born author.

Introducing legends from unconventional sources broadens the fantasy field in one direction. Another approach involves rewriting the conventions themselves, filtering myths and legends through a modern viewpoint. This style of fantasy reaches back centuries, as successive generations draft new interpretations and add new meanings to ancient stories. Modern authors who take this line differ from their ancestors only in the degree of authorial freedom they enjoy. Modern retellings of the Greek legends, for example, treat nothing as sacred; writers alter the plots, the characters, and sometimes even the setting, keeping only the barest outline of the original tales. The Arthurian legends are particularly amenable to such reinterpretation. From Geoffery of Monmouth in the 1130s to numerous authors today, storytellers have delighted in casting and recasting the tale of King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table.

In The Third Magic Welwyn Wilton Katz dismantles and reconstructs the King Arthur legends, introducing an entire fantasy world to explain the origins of such characters as Merlin and Morgana le Fay. In this narrative, Dark Age Britain takes second place to the fantasy world of Nwm, where the twin magics of the Circle and the Line struggle for dominance. A separate plotline brings in modern England and one of the two main characters, a Canadian girl named Morgan. (The other, Arddu, lives in Nwm.) The basic premise of the novel holds that events in medieval England actually reflect a much broader plot taking place in Nwm. Arddu looks after Morgan as long as the two travel through Nwm, and Morgan returns the favor when they arrive in sixth-century England. Both of them work to ensure the Arthurian story turns out according to plan—Arthur assumes the throne, founds the knighthood of the Round Table, and inspires generations of readers even as he falls before the forces of jealousy and greed.

Katz's approach to Arthurian legend is a bit puzzling. She introduces the characters and a few props from the story, yet forgoes the benefits of exploiting the tradition, since most of the novel plays out in Nwm. The plot contains elements of a quest, yet neither of the protagonists clearly understands their mission until the very end. In fact, eliminating the legendary component altogether would have vastly simplified the story and freed up space for more setting development in Nwm. The limited length of a children's novel seems to have severely handicapped the author—Katz presumably intended to add a new dimension to the familiar Arthurian tale, but ran out of space before she was able to fully integrate that dimension with the traditional storyline. The fault is essentially organizational. With more room to develop and interweave the three storylines, The Third Magic might have made an excellent pseudo-historical fantasy.

While the explicit ingredients of the King Arthur story contribute little to the book, the world of Nwm clearly betrays the influence of Celtic mythology. Nwm revels in the same otherworldly tone that characterizes the Mabinogion or the Ulster Cycle. A sort of global Cold War divides the fantasy world between the Line, represented by fire and iron, and the Circle, which draws its power from water and living things. In between, ordinary people cower from the wrath of the opposing sides. In contrast to Tolkien's vision in The Lord of the Rings, neither the Circle nor the Line appears clearly good or clearly evil. The protagonists flee from the supernatural altogether, seeking freedom in the wilderness of the North. There they encounter magic, but only untamed and unallied magic, which helps as well as hinders them. The final resolution, in which Morgan and Arddu weld the rival factions into a unified "third" magic, represents a triumph of the ordinary over the supernatural, a modern reinterpretation of ancient literature. In Celtic mythology no such triumph ever takes place; humans serve as pawns in the great game of magicians and spirits.

Although Katz pushes events in Dark Age England off to the periphery of the novel, those events are worth studying for what they reveal about the purpose of the book. At root, the Arthurian legends concern a politician who inspires an entire nation to strive for justice and peace, only to see his life's work destroyed by petty bickering and self-interest. A halo of related stories surround the central theme. Storytellers add or remove these stories to suit the tastes of their audience, which naturally change over time; modern authors, including Katz, downplay the influence of God and focus on the individual characters. Those characters, especially the women, bear little resemblance to the people in medieval Arthurian stories. Most modern tellings lack the grandeur and larger-than-life aspects that marked the medieval versions; the current taste calls for characters who behave like ordinary people, complete with all the failings and restrictions ordinary people experience. The Third Magic is myth lite, slimmed down and with most of the glitter rubbed off.

Novels like The Third Magic blur the line between fantasy and legend. The storytellers of today differ from their ancient ancestors only in the amount of faith they place in their creations; with the dawn of the scientific revolution, myths lost their power to explain the workings of the real world, and myth-like stories became merely a form of entertainment. Nevertheless, fantasy and mythology are two games played by similar rules. The difference between them rests as much with the reader as with the author—marking the line between "real" and "fantasy" can be as much a matter of taste as a literary convention.

Works Cited

"Beowulf." Trans. Seamus Heaney. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. M.H. Abrams et al. Vol. 1. New York: W.W. Norton, 2000. 32-99.

Clark, Catherine Anthony. The Golden Pine Cone. Madeira Park, B.C.: Harbour, 1994.

Egoff, Sheila A. Worlds Within: Children's Fantasy from the Middle Ages to Today. Chicago: American Library Association, 1988.

Katz, Welwyn Wilton. The Third Magic. Toronto: Groundwood Books, 1988.

Lewis, C.S. The Horse and His Boy. London: Collins, 1990.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Fellowship of the Ring. London: HarperCollins, 1994.


Dave Berry

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