Tuesday, 14 April 2009

Fantasy: Shaping the world for better or worse?

There has been much debate about the morality of fantasy novels, and whether there is a place for such works in the children’s literature canon, from claims that the Harry Potter books promote witchcraft and sin, and perpetuate school-shootings, to those that view Neil Gaiman's Coraline as rejecting family values.

However, fantasy novels consistently explore moral codes. They don’t necessarily stick with a singular idea of what that moral code should be (just as existent cultures do not always agree on the matter), but successfully explore themes of morality such as jealousy, pride and obedience. It’s true that some fantasy novels (such as Philip Pullman’s trilogy His Dark Materials, or Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies) may lead to readers being critical of a society’s traits or of moral ideas in their own right and although I believe this to be a positive factor, it is easy to see how this might threaten certain ideologies.

Others texts however, portray a cultural idea of morality in a positive light; as something worth striving for or nestling within. Take A Hat Full of Sky, for example; Terry Pratchett’s second Tiffany Aching book; the story, with 11-year-old Tiffany moving away from her family to apprentice as a witch, explores notions of becoming independent, being yourself, and taking responsibility for your actions.

Tiffany has talent, perhaps, but what she has most, is a sort of gutsy stubbornness and an insistence on doing what must be done. Traits which Granny Weatherwax (more on her in a moment) holds in high regard. Enter the Hiver. The Hiver, is an intangible organism which, always seeking power, lodges itself in a person’s mind; manipulates their actions towards power. This gives ample opportunity for the reader to discover the importance of self control, particularly where Tiffany interacts with her peers, keen to impress her fellow witches in a way that is quintessential in any transformation to adulthood. In addition to self-control, Pratchett uses the same device to explore the notion of ‘facing up to things’ when you make the wrong choice.

Granny Weatherwax portrays a very British ‘stiff-upper-lip’ attitude and pride in everything she is and does, whilst showing a deep humanity which we’d all like to think we possess. She is a character whom everyone in the Ramtops looks up to (however reluctantly). In A Hat Full of Sky, she helps Tiffany understand her responsibilities as a figure of power and demonstrates (in a way that Tiffany later emulates) that you can maintain your pride whilst serving other people. Further, Granny Weatherwax allows the reader to see that power and ego can be used for good and that it is what we choose to do (or not to do, for instance, not turning ungrateful villagers into frogs) that matters.

Granny never abuses her powers, merely bending people’s will so that they help each other and themselves. And she is never violent, allowing Tiffany and the reader to experience speech and attitude as tools far more powerful than fists and swords.

Another strong element to Granny and Tiffany’s relationship, is space. Granny is absent from the majority of the book, allowing the young witches to make their own way for better or worse, but her presence is felt throughout, gently guiding them without being forceful, and there’s never any doubt that Granny will come through for people when they really need it. Opportunities for such freedom is something which has lessened for Britain’s youth over recent years, and its inclusion in Young Adult literature is an important part of growing up. Gaiman’s work clearly acknowledges this too; in The Graveyard Book, Bod’s guardian Silas is never overbearing. Bod gets into scrapes and adventures of his own accord, safe in the knowledge that Silas will be looking out for him even when he is not there.

Harking back to Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, something Gaiman freely admits to, The Graveyard Book is as quintessentially British as its predecessor; an early example of fantasy at its best, which may have seemed as outlandish at the time as being raised by ghosts, vampires and hellhounds seems to a modern audience.

Sunday, 12 April 2009

Review of The King of the Copper Mountains, by Paul Biegel

One of the best children's books I have ever read (over and over again) is The King of the Copper Mountains, by Paul Biegel. This review would have had a rather sad ending, because it has been out of print for years. Happily, though, I've just discovered that Strident Publishing reprinted The King of the Copper Mountains last year, so many more children should be able to enjoy it.

The King of the Copper Mountains is Mansolain, who has ruled over them for well over a thousand years. Now, though, he is very old and very tired, and the Wonder Doctor tells his last servant, the faithful hare, that he will die soon unless a speeder-up is found for his heart. The Wonder Doctor sets off on a long journey to find the Golden Speedwell plant and make up a potion from it. Until he returns, the only thing that will keep Mansolain alive is a series of stories.

The book takes the form of fourteen chapters, one for each day of the doctor's journey, as each animal he meets on his way is sent to the Copper Mountains to tell the King their tale. The stories span comic turns, fantastic adventure and sad quests. The trials of the smallest creatures are given as much weight as the grander and scarier animals, including a lion and a three-headed dragon. Although each chapter can be read alone – making it perfect for bedtime stories – over the course of the book a mythology of Mansolain's realm is built up, as well as a little community within the castle at the foot of the Copper Mountains.

The King of the Copper Mountains is the first thing I would recommend to anyone looking for an entertaining book to read, or have read to them, that also contains a lot of food for thought. It is a funny, beautiful and haunting story.