Reviews 2015

Fantasy and the Real World in British Children’s Literature: The Power of Story

Fantasy and the Real World in British Children’s Literature: The Power of Story. Caroline Webb. New York and London: Routledge, 2015. 163 pages. $140.00 (hardback).

Caroline Webb’s Fantasy and the Read World in British Children’s Literature is part of Routledge’s extensive Children’s Literature and Culture series, edited by Philip Nel. Webb’s text fits admirably within this series’ mandate to promote "the study of [English-language] children’s literature and culture from a national and international perspective" (web). Webb’s work promises to alleviate the surprising dearth of critical analysis of specifically British fantasy. While a few texts have been published this millennium addressing fantasy literature as a whole, a more significant focus is on the works of individual authors or the emergent plethora of science fiction or paranormal novels, and largely works from America. Perhaps the most significant critical work paralleling Webb’s investigation is Colin Manlove’s From Alice to Harry Potter: Children's Fantasy in England (2003).

Webb pays homage to Manlove for "examin[ing] the ways in which English children’s fantasy...share[s] certain preoccupations from phase to phase" (3), an agenda that her own title suggests but does not deliver, despite her insightful close readings of a number of novels. Webb’s intent, instead, is explicitly to "examine the work of three prominent English writers of children’s fantasy—J. K. Rowling, Diana Wynne Jones, and Terry Pratchett" (3), illuminating how "these three authors...share a common interest in the power of story" (3), "drawing on conventions in existing genres, only to subvert those expectations" (4).

The fantasy genre topics Webb explores are folk and fairy tale motifs; heroic fantasy; wainscot societies; representation of witches; and "destinarianism," a political term co-opted into the literary criticism lexicon, for which she provides her own expanded definition (117-19). Webb does not, as expected, approach each topic as a comparison of the three authors in question; instead, she pairs the authors and considers a selection—but not the corpus—of each author’s work. So in chapter one, she reveals Rowling’s "superficially uncritical deployment of the 'Cinderella' plot" (45) in casting Harry Potter as a "Cinderlad" (Alison Lurie, qtd. in Webb 24) which contrasts with Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching, who is well aware of the potential of her role as a fairy-tale heroine and consciously subverts her society’s (and readers’) expectations. While it is true that these two authors both "locate their protagonists as heroes within fairy tales" (24), perhaps a more fruitful discussion would include Jones’s Sophie from Howl’s Moving Castle (1986), who is similarly explicitly aware of her role within fairy-tale tropes, as Webb mentions in her chapter on witches (101).

The chapter on witches itself excludes sufficiently critical consideration of the Harry Potter series, likely because Rowling’s work decries Webb’s assertion that "the witch persists in contemporary cultural mythology specifically in her crone form" (97). In considering "contemporary cultural mythology," too, Webb turns to Howl’s Moving Castle, published almost 30 years ago, as carrying on images of the witch-as-crone in the works of two American authors: Witch of Blackbird Pond (1958) by Elizabeth George Speare, and Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth (1967) by E. L. Konigsburg. Only in a footnote does Webb acknowledge, in reference to Jones’s Sophie and her sisters, that "[b]eing a witch need not mean being a crone" (118).

Other chapters are similarly fraught. While works by both Pratchett and Jones "variously but consistently reject[ing] many aspects of the traditional operation" of fantasy and quest narratives (50), in her chapter on heroic fantasy Webb positions Jones against Rowling, whom she sees rightly as "engaging with heroic fantasy, which she cleverly merges with the conventions of the school story" (49). Again, consideration of all three authors’ works would be valuable. In her discussion of destinarianism, Webb presents Harry Potter alongside Christopher Chant from Jones’s Chrestomanci series. No mention is made of Pratchett’s Rincewind, who can certainly be seen as a subversion of destinarianism as exhibited by Harry. Here, as in her discussion of heroic fantasy, Webb has recourse to the "school story" trope, which both Rowling and Jones employ in these series; perhaps Pratchett’s omission is because Rincewind’s character does not fit within this particular paradigm. One element necessary in any discussion of Harry Potter and destiny is the resurrection trope, which Webb elides completely from her comparison. This failure seems odd, especially given the careful reading Webb presents of the actual workings of each story.

It is here that Webb’s work actually fulfils a critical need: her discussion of what is going on narratively in the individual stories is carefully constructed and concisely delivered. Readers not familiar with the primary sources will nonetheless have no difficulty in understanding Webb’s arguments. Her incorporation of critical analysis (such as it is) with narrative explication is highly effective and renders her investigation very readable. This is especially true in her chapter on "wainscot societies."

"Wainscot society" fantasy, Webb informs her readers, lies "[a]t the opposite end of the spectrum from the heroic" (76); they include the "many tales...of societies of animals...or little people such as brownies or leprechauns, living unknown to us within the real world" (76). Webb brings Mary Norton’s Borrowers series (1952-1982)—the obvious example—into her comparison of Pratchett’s Nome trilogy and Jones’s Power of Three (1976). Including Norton’s work necessitates for many readers a careful blending of critical analysis and plot summary. It is easy to see in this chapter the narrative similarities resting on top of the ontological differences between Pratchett and Norton’s works; Jones’s novel is dealt with separately. While Norton’s series does actually have ontological issues at its basis—Do the Borrowers exist within the fictional world frame? If so, what is their relation to the fictional human world? What does this mean for the reader?—Pratchett’s Nome trilogy "pays comparatively little attention to the human perspective" (Webb 83) although fictional human society surrounds them. Wainscot fantasy is undoubtedly an interesting subgenre of fantasy fiction, but more interesting than merely seeing how these authors employ the tropes would be to look at the boundaries between wainscot and intrusion fantasy—even within the limited scope of only three authors’ works.

More broadly, a more interesting and I believe fruitful investigation would have been to look at the web of interactions between the various fantasy elements Webb detects in each of these authors’ works not as individual representations of specific tropes, but as reflections of each author’s own specific engagement with fantasy. Webb’s voice is most strong when she is explicating individual authors’ works, but overall, she fails to expose sufficiently the "interesting implications" (78) that she claims to have found.

Karyn Huenemann
Simon Fraser University, Canada