When I visit schools I like to tell the kids that at their age I didn’t read books, mainly because I get a kick out of their horrified gasps, their wide say-it-ain’t so eyes. And it’s true. I grew up in a time and place where no one read much, where school was an inconvenience most people escaped from at 16 en route–if they were lucky–to jobs in factories or–if they were unlucky—to unemployment and, frequently, prison. I was very lucky indeed in that I stayed in school and was one of a very few classmates to go to university, and—apart from one uncle—was the first in my family to do so. Several factors played a part in my escape, but one of the largest was a single book.
It was called The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis, a book I’m sure most of my fellow Nerds have devoured at least once. A teacher recommended it to me and it saved my life.
That’s probably a bit over dramatic, but not as much as you might think. I was a nerdy kid in an industrial, working class town which wasn’t what you might call nerd-friendly. I was, I suspect, also lazy physically and intellectually, so it took a special book to grab me. This one took me out of my gray, hum drum world, through a wardrobe and into a beautiful, frozen kingdom with armies and talking animals and an epic struggle between good and evil. Who could resist that?
But it also gave me Edmund.
Edmund, you will remember, is the boy who mocks his sister, Lucy, for her tales about the world beyond the wardrobe, and who lies about it after he has seen that world for himself. He betrays his siblings to the White Witch in exchange for Turkish delight and the promise of power, and is finally responsible for the sacrifice of Aslan himself.
I hated Edmund. He was weak and treacherous and too slow to see the wrong he had done. He wasn’t worth the gut wrenching awfulness of what was done to Aslan, the ritual humiliation and murder of the great lion bound to the stone table…
But I also knew Edmund. Peter and Susan and the others were high minded and pious in ways which was both admirable and a tad annoying. They were the good guys, and however much I might want to be like them—noble and attractive, powerful in battle and quick to do the right thing—they weren’t people I knew in my own life. They certainly weren’t me.
Because the real reason I hated Edmund was that I knew in my heart that I was quite like him.
What the book gave me wasn’t just what people sometimes dismiss contemptuously (and stupidly) as fantasy escapism. It gave me a kind of mirror, one that showed me myself in a new context against a background of snowy woods and a solitary lamppost, one that asked me what I would do if someone powerful and beautiful promised me wealth and power if I would just do some little thing I knew I shouldn’t…
Great fantasy isn’t about leaving the real world behind. It’s about showing you a perspective on reality by immersing the reader in a different world entirely. For all the magic and otherworldliness, the characters that populate such stories (when drawn well) are just as true to life as any in more conventionally realist fiction, drawn by desires, needs, fears and so forth which feel quite familiar despite their fantastic surroundings. Such stories are sometimes called speculative fiction, a term I like because it implies an essential leap of faith:
What if magic was real?
What if there were dragons?
What if an ordinary boy learned that there was a magical world in whose mysteries he was to be schooled?
And so on.
These premises tweak reality, add a condition which emerges from whimsy, from imagination, and asks a core question: if the world we have imagined were real, how would people deal with it particular conditions and challenges? In other words, once the fantasy condition is granted (the what if?) what follows is essentially realist and grounded in character. People who think fantasy is essentially disposable, that it’s a dodge of reality rather than an engagement with it in new and vibrant terms, are guilty of a failure of the imagination
When I set out to write my Darwen Arkwright series I was, in part, driven by this idea, and—of course—by the memory of what it was like to discover not just a fictional world within a single book, but to discover books in general. The wardrobe was, for me, not merely a gateway to Narnia. It was a gateway to Tolkien, to Earthsea, to Sherlock Holmes’s foggy London, and in turn to Agatha Christie, Dickens, Shakespeare and a world of reading. Through that wardrobe was all I would discover within the books I have read since. I still feel it when I pick up a novel, that sense of pushing through the coats at the back and into the bright, crisp air of an enchanted forest.
For Darwen the wardrobe gateway is a mirror which, after sundown, turns into a door to another world, a world which is beautiful and strange, but full of monsters trying to get out, monsters which want something from human children. The books belong in a long tradition of such tales and I think—I hope—that they can stand alongside those other books because they use fantasy with all its strangeness and capacity to incite excitement and wonder, to tell what are essentially real, human stories.
A.J. Hartley (Robinson Professor of Shakespeare at UNC Charlotte) is the international bestselling author of 4 mystery/thrillers, the fantasy novels Act of Will and Will Power, the Audie nominated Macbeth, a Novel (with David Hewson), and the Darwen Arkwright adventure series which won SIBA’s young adult book of 2012. His latest novel is the final book of the trilogy, Darwen Arkwright and the School of Shadows. You can learn more about him than you could ever want to know at www.ajhartley.net