What is the use of stories that aren’t even true?

What IS the use of stories that aren’t even true?


The oft-asked question in Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories is, “What is the use of stories that aren’t even true?”

While Rushdie’s book is described as an example of a more comical and light subdivision of the fantasy genre, each form of fantasy contains within it a variety of aspects that resonate within additional fantastical categories. Rushdie’s question can be applied to and answered through any genre of fantasy.

There is truth in every fictional story, and the uses of fictional stories, while dependent to some extent upon author intent and reader response, are, in fact, infinite.

If fictional stories had no use, why would anyone write fiction or fantasy? 

Storytellers may not be aware of their subtexts, attitudes, or perspectives about the purpose or benefit of their words and stories, but that does not mean they are not present.  While ideas about use may vary and differ, each author must believe that their storytelling will be put to some use or another.  These uses are often subjective, multifaceted, and numerous.  Just as an author may communicate many different ideas, meanings, and uses, readers may also interpret or superimpose many different ideas, meanings, and uses.  C.S. Lewis communicated tenants of Christian theology through many of his works, but he also reiterated the use of fantasy as a way for readers to address real-life issues, through a fantasy world to explore “emotional dilemmas (they) feel faced by in their everyday lives” (Rustin, 1987, p. 40).  The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is clearly representative of the important use of fantasy as a tool to address cultural, societal, emotional, and psychological needs, understanding, and development – a prevalent perspective about fantasy’s value and use.

The primary, overarching importance of the use of children’s fantasy literature is the idea that the genre addresses and fulfills vital “psychological, cultural and aesthetic needs which are disregarded by most other forms of contemporary literature” (Oziewicz, 2008, p. 66). 

Fantasy allows the fears and worries of society to be addressed and explored, as well as providing a great deal of “potential as an emotional survival strategy” (Bharat, 2015, p. 305).  In addition, “stories can be a cohesive force in constructing a community” (Mukherjee, 1998, p. 175), a force that allows communities to overcome obstacles and experience positive growth and development.  Lloyd Alexander’s “The Grammar of Story” emphasizes this importance by detailing the ways in which words and storytelling can work magic.  Rushdie’s narrative in Haroun and the Sea of Stories provides valuable political and cultural implications about the intrinsic value and power of words and stories. This is just one narrative that articulates the importance of stories and storytelling and the ways in which they can be applied to resisting terror and oppression by conquering fears through living life instead of through grand, cosmic acts of courage.

Through the creation of a fantasy narrative such as this, an author can invent their own logic and use and incorporated it into each aspect of the story, so it has a sturdy base: “We don’t dig the foundation after the house is built” (Alexander, 1981, p. 10), and the fantasy world must have “identifiable and workable laws underpinning it” (Yolen, 1996, p. 173).  While each work of fantasy is unique, they are all bonded by their structure and interconnected in their capacity to encourage imaginative exploration and address very real concepts, dilemmas, and threats, such as the “tyranny of fear” (Bharat, 2015, p. 304).  New fears are constantly arising, and all types of fantasy literature can help to confront and explore these fears through large societal battles of terrorism and oppression as well as smaller, but no less important, battles of personal conflict, growth, and development.

Conflict is the dynamic element of any story, and the fate of the world can be affected by cosmic, mythopoeic quest and conflict as well as by the conflict-response behavior of a single person, as revealed through interactions with themselves, others, and the world around them.

While each fantasy story may be categorized according to a general consensus of its overall purpose, use, or tone, each fantasy story is an amalgam of diverse components that draw on a variety of ideas about the truth of untrue stories.  “What is the use of stories that aren’t even true?”  The use of Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories is to answer this very question, and in many ways, this is the use of every work of fantasy literature.  Storytellers create illusions, and the truth in that illusion is “how thoroughly it convinces us of its reality; how strongly it resonates in our emotions; how deeply it moves us to new feelings and new insights.” (Alexander, 1981, p. 4).

Truth is not always convincing, and a fantasy story can help a reader to recognize and understand the truth in the world around them.

‘Untrue’ fantasy stories are incredibly valuable in an infinite number of ways.  Each fantasy genre, and each fantasy story, has unique and distinctive qualities.  In mythopoeic fantasy, adventure has momentous scale and consequences. However, while lighter fantasy genres may seem to lack cosmic battles of good versus evil, the adventures and battles still have consequences that are momentous to the characters experiencing them.

While mythopoeic fantasy suggests big answers to big questions, small answers to small questions are just as substantially cosmic to those affected by them.

A child can have an adult adventure that articulates hope for all humanity by the simple act of articulating the hope of one human. 

One human is a part of humanity, and the truth is that one child can change the world.


References

Alexander, Lloyd. (1981). The grammar of story. In Betsy Hearne and Marilyn Kaye (Eds), Celebrating children’s books: Essays on children’s literature in honor of Zena Sutherland. (pp. 3-13). New York: Lothrop, Lee, and Shepard Books.

Bharat, Meenakshi. (2015). Creative fear in Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and Luka: The ‘safe house’ of children’s literature. In Marvels & tales. (pp. 304-323).

Lewis, C.S. (1950). The lion, the witch, and the wardrobe. New York: Harper Collins.

Mukherjee, Meenakshi. (1998). Politics and children’s literature: a Reading of Haroun and the Sea of Stories. In Ariel: a Review of international English literature. (pp. 163-177).

Oziewicz, Marek. (2008). One earth, one people: The Mythopoeic fantasy series of Ursula K. Le Guin, Lloyd Alexander, Madeline L’Engle, and Orson Scott Card. New York: Simon Pulse.

Rowling, J.K. (1999). Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. New York: Scholastic.

Rushdie, Salman. (1990). Haroun and the sea of stories. New York: Penguin.

Rustin, Margaret and Michael. (1987). Narnia: an Imaginary land as container for moral and emotional adventure. In Narratives of love and loss: Studies in modern children’s fiction. (pp. 40-58). New York: Verso.

Strimel, Courtney B. (2004). The politics of terror: Rereading Harry Potter,” In Children’s literature in education. (pp. 35-52).

Yolen, Jane. (1996). Turtles all the way down. In Sheila Egoff et al. (Eds) Only connect: Readings on children’s literature. (pp. 164-174). New York: Oxford University Press.

Identity, Assumptions, and Hope – OH MY!

Identity, Assumptions, and Hope – OH MY!


One of the papers for my fantasy literature class detailing the ways fantasy can offer new perspectives, help people cope with trauma and problems, and encourage critical thinking.


A common thread found in fantasy literature is the transposition of societal issues into fantastical forms to use perspective to better comprehend and process these issues. This transposition distances the reader from reality and abstracts the issues, allowing them to be more easily explained and understood through metaphorical connections.  Contentious and significant issues such as racism, classism, terrorism, power, identity, discrimination and stereotypes can often be explored through fantasy literature parallels and reflections.  Critical thinking concepts and overarching values of humanity can also be presented and investigated to great effect though fantasy. There is no end to the range of societal issues fantasy literature can introduce and examine to reach beneficial comprehension and valuable meaning.

Fantasy is so valuable because it “invokes the possibility of living under different terms and conditions” (Whitley, 2000, p. 175), and “can engage seriously with key issues within contemporary culture” (Whitley, 2000, p. 182).  J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and Nancy Farmer’s the House of the Scorpion are both excellent examples of demonstrating engagement with key contemporary cultural issues through living under different conditions.  Each book presents a narrative that challenges basic assumptions about identity, ambiguity, and power dynamics as well as encourages that the reader think more critically about and observe more carefully the interactions and interpretations around them.

Mistaken assumptions or interpretations and engrained stereotypes are present in each of these fantasy books.  In the Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry is told that Sirius Black is evil and wants him dead, and he believes it is the truth.  He hears this well-established interpretation from people he trusts and people in power, and they are all wrong.  Assumptions were made and cemented, which led to a flawed communal perception. This radical example of the promotion of misinformation encourages the reader to ask questions and think more critically. An information source may purposefully and knowingly promote a false perception, but a source may just be ignorant of the truth.  Even if a source is trusted, the truth may be vastly different from society’s common perception.

Society’s common perception in Nancy Farmer’s book is one that clones are unintelligent beasts.  Certain viewpoints are taught about clones and identity that are false.  Matt proves many assumptions wrong when he meets people who hold the entrenched negative opinions regarding clones.  His characteristics are inconsistent with their pre-conceived assumptions.  Those in power actively choose to spread these assumptions about clones to take advantage of them.  In Rowling’s book, there are also people in power who knowingly endorse fictitious or deceptive explanations to their own benefit.

Such conscious misinformation emphasizes the inherent ambiguity within the nature of humanity, which becomes tangled and complex in both books.  The characters are often ambiguous and contradictory within both their true and their perceived identities.  The identity can be a fragile thing.  It can be shaped by, or discovered by observing negative assumptions and prejudices.  Matt’s identity was shaped by the negative limited perspectives to which he had access.  Because of the marginalization he experiences, his perspectives are impacted. Being a clone in his world is to be inferior and unclean.  In Harry Potter’s world, some believe that being a muggle, or muggle-born is to be inferior and unclean.  However, appearances can be deceiving, and appearance doesn’t always mean physical appearance, it can also mean identity or perceived identity. Hermione is harassed for her muggle-born status, Hagrid is discriminated against for being a half-giant with a (wrongful) criminal record, and Remus Lupin is treated with unfair prejudice and disgust for being a werewolf.  Humanity is not always simple, nor is it always reflective of outward appearance or commonly-held beliefs about identities.  Rowling’s books force children “to consider characterizations of goodness and badness” (Strimel, 2004, p. 45), and the consequences and implications of these characterizations.  The ambiguity inherent in the characterizations presents another opportunity to think critically about people and events, both real, and imaginary.

In each of these books, the impact of the fantastical transposition is amplified due to solid foundations in real issues. Fantasy literature needs to have substantiality to be most effective in exploring society’s problems and possibilities.  The wish-fulfilment that fantasy literature offers “needs to be grounded in something substantial if it is to become fully satisfying” (Whitley, 2000, p. 175). Farmer bases her story on circumstances and prejudices that already exist between differing peoples, and scientific advances that are already happening.  Science fiction such as this presents a unique opportunity to explore the ramifications of future societal issues and problems.  By looking to the hypothetical potential good and bad of the future, it is helpful to “open our minds to all possibilities” (Greenfield, 2003, p. 9).  Rowling also presents a wide range of hypothetical situations and possibilities, as well as utilizes widespread prejudice in which to base her world. In addition, her fantasy is grounded in reality through common mythological, religious, and cultural viewpoints and archetypes that are relatable and familiar.

From terrorism to depression, from identity to religion, fantasy is constantly offering new perspectives and the hope to overcome the perpetration of harmful perspectives, opinions, and stereotypes.  Both Rowling’s and Farmer’s fantasy books emphasize the misleading potential of a limited viewpoint.  Hope exists, and with a little knowledge, creativity, and guidance, perhaps fantasy literature can help lead society into tolerance, acceptance, and open-mindedness.


References

Cohen, Signe. (2016). A postmodern wizard: The religious bricolage of the Harry Potter series In Journal of religion and popular culture.  (pp. 54-66).

Crew, Hilary S. (2004). Not so brave a world: The representation of human cloning in science fiction for young adults, In The lion and the unicorn. (pp. 203-221.)

Farmer, Nancy. (2004). The house of the scorpion. New York: Simon Pulse.

Greenfield, Susan. (2003). The future: What is the problem? In Tomorrow’s people: How 21st century technology is changing the way we think and feel. (pp. 1-9). London: Allen Lane.

Rowling, J.K. (1999). Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. New York: Scholastic.

Strimel, Courtney B. (2004). The politics of terror: Rereading Harry Potter,” In Children’s literature in education. (pp. 35-52).

Whitley, D. (2000). Fantasy narratives and growing up. In Eve Bearne and Victor Watson (Eds), Where texts and children meet. (pp. 172-182.) New York: Routledge Press.

Yolen, Jane. (1996). Turtles all the way down.” In Sheila Egoff et al. (Eds) Only connect: Readings on children’s literature. (pp. 164-174). New York: Oxford University Press.

More About Dragons

Edith Nesbit is one of the authors whose works testify to the eternal flexibility of light fantasy. It was just recently that I became familiar with her work and her influence on children’s literature. I came across the story “The Dragon Tamers” through a sleep and meditation app on my phone, called “Calm.”  The app provides a variety of stories, fiction and non-fiction, read in soothing voices to help people fall asleep.  I listened to the reading of “The Dragon Tamers,” and stayed awake for the whole story, and I’m glad I did, as it quickly became a favorite.  This story is a perfect example of creative light fantasy.

This is a story about a dragon that the poor blacksmith John discovers in his dungeon, and over time, the dragon is actually the character who grows, changes and exhibits the most character development. John and his family’s various interactions with the dragon are what really drives the story and moves it forward. There are many unexpected twists and turns as well as fun Dr. Seuss-like word play, rhymes, and alliteration.

After becoming so interested in and taken with this story, I wanted to know more about Edith Nesbit, so I bought her biography, which says she is considered to be the first modern writer for children and to have basically invented the children’s adventure story, which is amazing.  It was so surprising to learn that this particular story had been published over 100 years ago. I would never have guessed that! This story really demonstrates the timelessness of fantasy and fantasy themes. If you want to know how to get your baby stop crying, apparently a dragon is extremely helpful, and you should be careful about what you feed your cat if you want your cat to stay a cat, and not turn into the beginning of dragons.

Read into It: The Dragon Tamers

The Dragon Tamers:

by Edith Nesbit

If you like reading fantasy, and want to know how to tame a dragon, this is the story for you! Also – cats.

I came across this children’s story in the ‘Sleep Stories’ section of my “Calm” meditation app.  If you have the “Calm” app on your phone or tablet, you can listen to a 39 minute soothing rendition read by Aurora De Blas with music by Ophylia Wispling. She does the voices and there is accompanying music – it’s very well done.

Because Edith Nesbit’s works were published over 100 years ago, they are now in public domain and you can also listen to or read the entire story online for free:

 

Here’s how it begins:

“There was once an old, old castle–it was so old that its walls and towers and turrets and gateways and arches had crumbled to ruins, and of all its old splendor there were only two little rooms left; and it was here that John the blacksmith had set up his forge.
He was too poor to live in a proper house, and no one asked any rent for the rooms in the ruin, because all the lords of the castle were dead and gone this many a year. So there John blew his bellows and hammered his iron and did all the work which came his way. This was not much, because most of the trade went to the mayor of the town, who was also a blacksmith in quite a large way of business, and had his huge forge facing the square of the town, and had twelve apprentices, all hammering like a nest of woodpeckers, and twelve journeymen to order the apprentices about, and a patent forge and a self-acting hammer and electric bellows, and all things handsome about him. So of course the townspeople, whenever they wanted a horse shod or a shaft mended, went to the mayor.
John the blacksmith struggled on as best he could, with a few odd jobs from travelers and strangers who did not know what a superior forge the mayor’s was. The two rooms were warm and weather-tight, but not very large; so the blacksmith got into the way of keeping his old iron, his odds and ends, his fagots, and his twopence worth of coal in the great dungeon down under the castle.
It was a very fine dungeon indeed, with a handsome vaulted roof and big iron rings whose staples were built into the wall, very strong and convenient for tying captives to, and at one end was a broken flight of wide steps leading down no one knew where. Even the lords of the castle in the good old times had never known where those steps led to, but every now and then they would kick a prisoner down the steps in their lighthearted, hopeful way, and sure enough, the prisoners never came back.
The blacksmith had never dared to go beyond the seventh step, and no more have I–so I know no more than he did what was at the bottom of those stairs.”

You can read the rest here:   http://www.online-literature.com/edith-nesbit/book-of-dragons/6/


Edith Nesbit is actually really interesting, and I bought her more recent out of print biography a while back … apparently she is considered to have invented the children’s adventure story and to be the first modern writer for children, as she was writing specifically for children when that wasn’t even a thing. -YAY!

Edith Nesbit’s biography is subtitled: A Woman of Passion.  Not only did she know a bunch of other literary coolios, such as George Bernard Shaw (as a luvah), and H.G. Wells, she married her first husband when she was 7 months pregnant, and I guess her husband cheated on her with her friend and then Edith adopted the baby…? whaaaaaaaaaa!?

The Railway Children, her most famous work has NEVER been out of print.  100+years. whaaaaa!!?!

More about Edith:
http://www.edithnesbit.co.uk/biography.php