Feared Legacy, Legacy of Fear
“It is through fantasy that children achieve catharsis. It is the best means they have for taming Wild Things.”
I love fantasy. I love epics (which, as much some stuffy Classics majors might fight it, are fantasy). Sure, dragons are awesome and who wouldn’t want to be a waterbender or get their Hogwarts letter or smoke some pipeweed after a long day’s work tilling Shire earth? But that’s not why I love fantasy.
I love fantasy because, through the veil of the imaginative, good fantasy tells us the truth of our world. This may be a simple truth about the peace of agrarian life or how friendship is important. Or it may be a greater truth about the meaning of life and the human condition. The Illiad, full of gods and divine shenanigans, does not tell us what it means to be Greek; it tells us what it means to be human. And, to this day, it remains one of the most powerful treatises on war and PTSD. This is the legacy of fantasy. It lays the ills (or potential ills) of our world before us, showing us the horror of war and the resilience of those ordinary farmboys and low-income wizarding families who keep calm and carry on or rise to the challenges of their changing world. Through fantasy, whether metaphorical or straight, we are exposed to war, genocide, diaspora, power, corruption, tyranny, racism, sexism, intolerance, oppression, and all other evils our world has to contemplate. This is our legacy. And this is how our children learn.
There was big news today involving two often-banned authors, J. K. Rowling and the late Maurice Sendak. Both involve the legacy of their works and its impact. For J. K. Rowling, it was the announcement that Scholastic was unveiling new book covers in honor of the 15th anniversary of Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone‘s US release. Meanwhile, New York Public School P.S. 118 (If you grew up in the 90s and didn’t live under a rock, you’ll know why this name already pleases me) is being named in Maurice Sendak’s honor. The Maurice Sendak Community School will be the second US school named for the much-beloved author.
It got me thinking. Both of these authors have unquestionably left a legacy, beyond any book or honor. Their impact has, and will no doubt continue to, shaped our childhoods and echoed through generations to come. Yet both of these authors have faced no small amount of outrage or controversy. One writes whimsically illustrated picture books that never fail to appear in any book fair I have yet seen and adorn the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, right next door to my alma mater. One turned out tome after 870 page tome of ever-maturing Urban Fantasy, convincing publishers that, yes, children and young adults really would read books that long, as one Ms. Pierce gratefully thanked Ms. Rowling for in the back of a particularly long Tortall volume. On the surface, one may not think these authors, from different countries, genres, and upbringings, have much in common. I certainly never put them in the same classification.
However, thinking back on the many interviews of theirs I have seen or read, I realize they have one fundamental thing in common: they are not afraid to fear. In one interview many years ago, Rowling was questioned on the increasingly frightening elements of her audience-aging book series. Rowling responded that she was not writing to make anyone’s children feel safe. That was not her job or her intent.
Similarly, an interview with Sendak I read for a class on writing for or about children, explored his neuroses and how he not only didn’t avoid fear in his books but sought it out. He recalled being terrified as a small boy by a news story involving a child being kidnapped. The fact that that could happen opened his eyes to a fearful reality. He looked back on this as a much older man and did not know how children today manage to cope when the now 24 hour news gives them so much more to be afraid of. So he does not deny, ignore, or even comfort their fears. He embraces them. One can see this most clearly in the admittedly very disturbing movie adaptation of Where The Wild Things Are. Some complained that this movie was too dark. And, yes, it was dark, with a clear yet never unraveled undercurrent of abuse and anger. But that was the point. It was through the voyage to the Wild Things (whether fantastic or merely a child’s fantasy) that a young boy was able to cope with his own rage and unspecified but very much acknowledged issues.
Thus, the reason these authors are so often maligned and adored may be one in the same. They show our fear. Some people love that. Some may not find the experience wholly pleasant but appreciate it nonetheless, similar to the joy in reading a sad book. Some simply abhor it. Our reaction to Rowling and Sendak then is not merely to them but to the mirror of our reality they are holding up for us to see. It is these realities that some cannot cope with, not Harry or the Wild Things themselves.
I always wanted to teach a class on how we use fantasy and fantastic elements to acknowledge trauma, seek catharsis, process what has happened, and perhaps find some measure of peace or closure. It would feature three movies in particular: Narnia, Pan’s Labyrinth, and A Little Princess. All three feature young girls (Lucy Pevensie, Ofelia, Sara Crewe) in war-torn lands (WII-besieged London, Franco’s Spain, or the relative safety of America while avoiding WWI). The movie unfolds their conflicts along with a parallel narrative that mirrors their own political or family crises (the war in Narnia, tasks for the faun, or the events of the Rāmāyaṇa). In The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, the events in this mirror narrative are taken at face value. In A Little Princess, they exist only in the story Sara tells the other girls at school. Pan’s Labyrinth is unclear and you could easily argue either way, that the events are actually happening or that they exist only in the fanciful and perhaps somewhat unhinged mind of a little girl under a great deal of stress.
But in the end, whether these stories are given credence or reduced to clever metaphor is irrelevant. The end result it the same. These stories allow their characters and their readers to process traumatic and frightening events and concepts, not by condescending, sugar-coating, or reducing, but by giving them a vast canvas of the fantastic in which to explore our dreams and fears.
That is why Harry Potter stuck with me. Rowling gave me, a child growing up amidst social and political turmoil, a place to ponder terrorism, wrongful imprisonment, indefinite detention, domestic spying, government-sanctioned torture (er, “interrogation methods”), prejudice, racism, government overreach, and institutionalized oppression that even good people go along with (with or without realizing). These children did not speak to me because they were wizards (although, of course I wanted to go Hogwarts and learn magic). They spoke to me because they were children roughly my own age who were trying to find their place in a world of untrustworthy and complicit adults and corrupt or ill-advised government officials. It was a world where security had been dashed on the rocks of terrorism and the world was reeling to regain control, leading even good people to do great evil, whether out of fear, ignorance, misunderstanding, or malice. Through this seven volume series, these children grow into capable, confident people who somehow managed to navigate this political and social labyrinth into adulthood, coming to their own conclusions and values along the way.
It’s Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With A Thousand Faces in action. Every story, at the end of the day, is a journey, be it from innocent farmboy to heroic leader of men, from frightened child to capable adult, from innocence to experience. Stories that do not flinch from our fears allow us to explore them, embrace them, and even master them. They help us come to terms, even if those terms are uneasy, unfair, or ever evolving. That is their legacy. That is our legacy. And that is why I love fantasy, hardly the escapist genre many make it out to be. Good fantasy offers no escape pod but rather a first-hand tour of the devastation.
For more on the 15th anniversary of Harry Potter‘s US publication:
For more on the Maurice Sendak Community School: