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Teaching and Fantasy Literature: When All Stories Were Fantasy Stories

Thursday, January 31st, 2013 | Posted by Sarah Avery

Kids under age six are not lying to you, not exactly. When they want something to be true, they genuinely cannot tell that it isn’t. When they fear something might be true, no amount of reassurance is enough, because whatever they project onto the world is indistinguishable from the world itself. My five-year-old really believes his classmate told him it was okay to cut her hair with craft scissors, and he is not trying to manipulate me when he says the monster will emerge from behind his dresser if I turn off his bedroom light. His imagination is as real to him as anything he can touch.

Of course, adults are not always able to distinguish between the world and their mental projections upon the world. We all slip sometimes, a few of us slip a lot, and a very few cultivate slippage deliberately. We like imagining that we could shuck this dreadful adult ability, or avoid developing it at all, as the protagonist of  Michel Gondry’s gorgeous film The Science of Sleep does. The thing is, for all of us, there was a long time in childhood when any boundary between reality and fantasy always seemed more like an arbitrary exercise of power on the part of the adults in our lives than like an externally real fact we had to cope with. Why must my son hold my hand when we cross a parking lot in the dark? He believes he is impervious to cars, and can say so using the word “impervious,” so clearly the hand-holding rule must just be Mommy’s power trip.

It doesn’t help that the real world is weird, and so complicated that grown-up attempts to explain it at a child’s level only pump up the weirdness.

People turning into trees? Sure, why not?

Consider my husband’s attempt to explain evolution:

First, something strange and mysterious happened in the oceans, and the first life began. There were one-celled creatures, and some of them became fish. Some of the fish climbed onto land and became reptiles and dinosaurs. Some of the reptiles turned into mammals, and all the dinosaurs that survived the asteroid collision turned into birds. Some of the mammals turned into monkeys, and some of the monkeys turned into us.

My five-year-old later attempted to explain evolution to my two-year-old. These were his exact words:

First there were fish. Then some of the fish turned into gods. One of the gods ate a fish and turned into a bird, so all the gods turned into birds. And they all lived happily ever after, the end.

Okay, it ain’t exactly Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The point is, to my sons, that story is no weirder than the best available science, and none of the reasons it couldn’t be literally true can stand up to the developmental limitations of early childhood. Or at least, not for long. Gareth can ask whether the magic land of Equestria, the setting of My Little Pony, is a real place, and he can seem satisfied with my answer, but a week later, here comes the same question again. Equestria was imaginary last week; maybe this week it’s real.

I both long for and dread the flip of the developmental switch that will come soon. I am so weary of resorting to because I said so when all explanations of physics, law, empathy, and epidemiology inevitably fail to stick. Veteran parents tell me life will improve dramatically once my kid can grasp that there is an external reality that persists no matter what anyone says. Influenza germs, for instance, cannot be persuaded to be nice to us if we are nice to them. Germs do what germs do.

On the other hand, I will miss his blithe mythologizing, and I will miss seeing him try to extend his vast kindness even to viruses.


Sarah Avery’s short story “The War of the Wheat Berry Year” appeared in the last print issue of Black Gate. A related novella, “The Imlen Bastard,” is slated to appear in BG‘s new online incarnation. Her contemporary fantasy novella collection, Tales from Rugosa Coven, follows the adventures of some very modern Pagans in a supernatural version of New Jersey even weirder than the one you think you know. You can keep up with her at her website, sarahavery.com, and follow her on Twitter.

6 Comments »

  1. Would it be impolite of me to make inquiries here regarding the goblin king? :)

    Comment by Gruud - January 31, 2013 7:40 am

  2. Gruud, ask anything you like about the goblin king.

    (Something about the word “inquiries” feels very job-application-y to me. My first thought was to wonder whether you were calling for references because you were considering hiring a goblin king, or inquiring whether I had any job openings for goblin kings.)

    Comment by Sarah Avery - February 1, 2013 11:04 pm

  3. Actually, I was trying to make a bit of an “in” joke without being too obvious about it.

    But I have always wondered about something, since my friends did a very similar thing. Only they began with a “J” instead.

    Would we need a script to know which was “correct”, or are there other sources? If I had to guess, I’d guess they spelled it “wrong”, not everyone else. ;-)

    Either way, they were very surprised when I knew the source.

    Comment by Gruud - February 2, 2013 9:42 am

  4. You’re not the first person to see Gareth and think Jareth. Actually my son is named after my favorite Arthurian knight. While I was pregnant with him, I was working on Malory’s Le Mort d’Arthur with a couple of my students–two brothers whose native language was Mandarin, but who wanted to understand the Arthurian revisions in Garth Nix’s short story collection. It was pretty slow going, even though we used a rendering in modern English. After a few hundred pages of knights behaving badly, the only one of those characters I would have wanted to hang out with at a neighborhood barbecue was Sir Gareth, the ultimate good stand-up guy. Apparently it’s a common name in Canada and the UK, especially in Wales. All the other Gareths I’ve met have been Canadians.

    The internet thinks Jareth is the correct spelling for the goblin king, so your friends seem to have hit their target just right.

    Comment by Sarah Avery - February 2, 2013 5:05 pm

  5. Thanks for clearing that up for me, and permanantly too! :)

    BTW, I had a co-worker who recently named his son Garion … from NWN1 I believe …

    And hiw wife was okay with the name and the source.

    Comment by Gruud - February 3, 2013 9:51 am

  6. So great. As usual. I can go for weeks without reading this blog, but if I see on LJ you’ve written something, here I dash!

    Comment by C.S.E. Cooney - February 3, 2013 10:45 am


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