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.

Ella Enchanted and Being an Ordinary Hero

One of my ultimate favorite fantasy books as a child, and still today, is the reworked fairy tale, “Ella Enchanted” by Gail Carson Levine.  It retells the classic literary fairy tale of Cinderella with some new twists: Ella is, in fact, under a fairy’s gift (curse) to always be obedient.  The tale is a familiar one, but provides more depth and detail about the protagonist and her own journey to discover herself and break the curse herself.  In addition, it answers that question that was always infuriating to me about the size of Cinderella’s feet – surely there was more than one girl in the kingdom whose feet could fit the glass slipper!  Well, in this story, Ella has fairy ancestry, and fairies have significantly smaller-than-average sized feet, so THERE!  Levine’s attention to details such as these really grounded the story and made it more believable to me – it was definitely logical and made sense within the framework she created and expanded upon. While it certainly shares many patterns and characteristics with both more traditional fairy tales as well as reworked fairy tales, this is by far my favorite retelling of Cinderella.  I like that it addresses the real-life issues of the importance of being strong by making your own decisions, standing up for what you believe in, and the worth of sacrifice in relation to love and the protection of those you love.

“Ella Enchanted” provides a universe that is similar to one children have already experienced, but includes a great deal more in the way of explanations, possibilities and self-driven opportunity.  It is a great example of a way to challenge a reader to see beyond more simplistic explanations and search for new perspectives and explanations.  A retold fairy tale is a great example of this, because the concrete universe has already been established, and by telling the same tale from a new perspective, new questions can be unearthed, alternate mindsets discovered, and previously unconsidered horizons can be expanded.  This particular retelling is also consistent with the idea of concepts carrying over from the fantastical worlds to the real ones.  In “Ella Enchanted,” Ella is a real girl with a flaw that she has to work to overcome.  This is certainly a concept that is applicable to many people.  While Ella may not fit the traditional archetype of ‘hero,’ she is still heroic.  She becomes, through her own strength of will, her own knight in shining armor – in the process, saving herself, her prince, and the entire kingdom.  If someone as seemingly average and insignificant as Ella can create such a vast and positive impact, surely this will inspire those who read about her to feel hope and optimism that they, too, can overcome significant challenges and obstacles to create a positive impact on themselves and the world around them.

Fairy tales have been around for a long time.  And with each retelling, they have continued to change and grow ever since their inception.  “Ella Enchanted” is a distinctive example of 21st century fantasy with an alternate world that is still attached to a familiar and long-standing one.  While it may lack the grandeur of Tolkien, or the epic tragedy of Rowling, it is accessible in its realism and its message – one that, while not political or catastrophic, speaks to the more personal internal battles that still must be fought and are no less important than those larger-than-life clashes between good and evil.  “Ella Enchanted” has no evil villain to be abolished or grand quest to be completed.  There are good characters and bad characters, but the main struggle is simply one between a girl and the unwarranted chance restrictions and conditions to which she finds herself bound.  Ella is ordinary, but she is strong.  And it is that kind of inner strength and conviction that is an amazing resource in struggling through such challenges as anxiety, depression, and insomnia.

Read it.  Or else.

(If you were Ella, you’d HAVE to obey me, but as it is, you have the freedom of choosing.)

I’ve had this copy for NINETEEN YEARS! I think it looks pretty good considering how many times I’ve read it!