Realism in children’s literature deals with the literal truth. The settings, storylines and characters will often seem to be realistic and recognisable. Although recognizable one should resist the temptation to describe realism as real life but rather that realism attempts to ‘reproduce something of the complexity of life itself’ (Hunt, P 1994). The use of the fantastic in children’s literature is commonly used and many children’s books explore possibilities through using fantasy rather than actualities. Use of the fantastic allows an author to be limitless in their approach to a story. That being said realism and fantasy is often interwoven throughout a story and the line between the two devices is often a thin one. This is apparent in the classic children’s tales Swallows and Amazons and Tom’s Midnight Garden and also in the modern tale, Northern Lights.
Swallows and Amazons is seen as a ‘typical example of realism for children’ (EA300 Block 4) with its detailed descriptions of ordinary children and their sailing and camping activities in the Lake District. The reader is instantly grounded in the real by the author’s note at the beginning of the story where one is alerted to fact that this story is based on real childhood experiences and the setting is a real place. The story being so real that the author claims ‘it almost wrote itself’ (Swallows and Amazons authors note). From the front cover to the simple illustrations the reader feels a certain familiarity with the subject matter of the novel.
The map used in Swallows and Amazons contributes to the realism of the story. The map which is reproduced for the reader at the beginning of the book depicts an actual place in the Lake District. However, what is also apparent in this map is the childish imaginations of the children in the story. Real places sit alongside the imagined. What is interesting to note is how the imagined places tend to have dangerous and adventurous connotations such as ‘shark bay’ or the ‘unexplored Arctic’ sitting next to those places that offer the children familiarity and safety such as ‘Holly Howe’ and ‘Dixon’s Farm’. Although this device offers the reader an insight into fantasy through the imagined places it also confirms the reality of the novel with the author recognizing that children need comfort and security during adventurous play.
The fusing of adventure and security is apparent in the chapter XVIII ‘Robinson Crusoe and Man Friday’ where the characters John, Susan and Roger have gone off to capture the Amazon leaving Titty alone on Wild Cat Island. The events that take place in this chapter are told through the omniscient narrator, through actual speech and through the author’s use of free indirect speech. The reader gets a real sense of Titty’s uneasiness of being left alone on the Island and the real fear she was feeling. The description of how Titty was feeling can be seen throughout the first paragraph on page 214. The author uses short, simple sentences which are significant as they seem to demonstrate perfectly a child’s sense of feeling. Titty was aware that ‘nobody was clattering tins’ and ‘Roger was not there to be looked after’ and perhaps most significant of all was that ‘Susan was not there to be looking after both of them’. (Swallows and Amazons p.214) The reality of how Titty was feeling is perhaps one most readers are able to relate to either during childhood or even as an adult. Titty’s sense of feeling like ‘the only person in the world’ (Swallows and Amazons p.214) is interrupted by the arrival of her mother or ‘Man Friday’ (Swallows and Amazons p.218). The story then changes from the reality of Titty’s fear to the fantasy of her imagination as both Titty and her mother are referred to as ‘Robinson Crusoe’ and ‘Man Friday’ with Titty’s fear diminishing with the arrival of someone familiar.
The character of John Walker, the eldest child in the family and protagonist in the story, takes the step from boy to man learning valuable lessons about himself and his capabilities. The reader meets John in the first chapter where, once the expedition to the Island had been decided, John elects himself as ships Master and decides on the position of his brother and sisters. The reality of the voyage however does cause John to consider his sailing ability as he wonders whether he ‘really remembered all that he had learnt last year’ (Swallows and Amazons p.8) whilst the younger siblings were thinking about’ treasure and footprints in the sand’. This use of free indirect speech once again gives a sense of reality to the story. The reader can appreciate John’s position within the sibling group as being the leader but at the same time appreciate the reality of his character through John’s admission of self doubt. John’s character develops throughout the novel as he finds himself in situations where he has to keep both himself and his siblings safe. John has to learn more sailing skills, he has to confront Captain Flint even though he admits that ‘he did not like going’ (Swallows and Amazons p.181) and he demonstrates bravery as he defends his and his groups position to Captain Flint despite his obvious apprehension.
There is much evidence of reality in Swallows and Amazons and one would be fair to generally conclude that if it had to be decided whether the novel sits in either camp then reality would be the obvious choice. However, it is also perhaps fair to say that realism could be considered a personal concept. What is real to one person is perhaps fantasy to another. Reality should also be considered in the context of time. For example, to many children today the chance of being able to sail alone to an island and live unsupervised in a tent would be nothing but fantasy. Social attitudes have changed and continue to do so and as a result books such as Swallows and Amazons may appear old fashioned. However, what Swallows and Amazons does do successfully is bring reality and fantasy together. Today, children can marvel at the real adventures of the Walker children and imagine the freedom but at the same time it allows adult readers to yearn for the freedom that adult life usually denies.
Using fantasy in literature and particularly in children’s literature gives an author boundless scope for a fantastic storyline and imagined characters with little limitation. This is apparent in the classic children’s tale by Philippa Pearce, Tom’s Midnight Garden. Although fantasy writing has no limitations it is important that the author makes the storylines and character appear real and ‘persuade readers to suspend disbelief and accept that, within the terms of the constructed world, characters and events are believable’ (EA300 Block 4 p.170). This is achieved in Tom’s Midnight Garden through using Tom as the focaliser for the story. The reader gets to know Tom’s inner thoughts and feelings and as such he becomes a believable character and therefore the events he describes also become real.
Unlike Swallows and Amazons, Tom’s Midnight Garden concerns itself mainly with the fantastic, with real elements running in the background which all serve to make the constructed world believable. Tom’s life as a brother and son and his reasons for having to live with his Aunt and Uncle are all very real and acceptable. Tom’s feelings of rejection and his ‘tears of anger'(Tom’s Midnight Garden p.1) at having to leave home for the holidays are a real reaction. The story very quickly departs from realism when, in Chapter III, the reader is introduced to the garden. Although Tom, initially believes the garden to be a secret kept from him by his Aunt and Uncle he soon realizes that the garden is in fact something that only he can see and experience. However, it is an experience that Tom is keen to share with his brother, Peter, who he writes to regularly sharing his adventures. The letters are received by Peter with little doubt that what Tom has witnessed is real and act as a device to confirm their closeness as brothers as they both collude to keep the garden a secret from the adult world. When questioned by Mrs. Long as to what Tom is getting up to Peter says ‘I think he just likes staying in the flat’ (Tom’s Midnight Garden p.125).
Even to a younger reader it is apparent that the events that take place in Tom’s Midnight Garden could not happen in reality yet the story does not ‘trivialize’ the events as ‘mere dreams’ but rather ‘insists on their deeper truth’ (Rustin, M. 1987). Pearce achieves this in a number of ways. The two child protagonists in the story have a connection. Both Tom and Hatty have experienced some form of loss, Tom being separated from his home and Hatty with the death of her parents. This allows the writer to make distinctions about the time and place in which they both live and therefore provide ‘an imaginative entry into the past for her readers’ (Rustin, M. 1987). Although it is apparent to the reader that Hatty has experienced greater loss, by giving both characters an emotional connection it makes both of them appear human and real so giving some feeling of reality to the fantasy.
Allowing reality to enter into fantasy and the connecting of the two worlds is also apparent in Tom finding the skates that Hatty has left behind for him with a note attached saying ‘…she leaves them in a place in fulfillment of a promise once made to a little boy’ (Tom’s Midnight Garden p.179). Although the note does not mention Tom by name the reader just knows they are meant for him and only confirms the union of Tom and Hatty’s worlds. Tom also recognizes that old Mrs. Bartholomew who now lives in the flats where Tom is staying is in fact Hatty grown old. Tom and Mrs. Bartholomew reminisce about their time spent in the garden and Tom’s reality of the garden and of Hatty is confirmed again through his direct speech ‘We’re both real; Then and Now.’ (Tom’s Midnight Garden p.224).
The Tom the reader is familiar with at the end of the novel is different to the one at the beginning. Tom has matured throughout the story and the narrative points to a realistic display of the characters strengths and weaknesses. Tom is immature in his treatment of is aunt and uncle at the beginning of the novel as he sits in ‘hostile silence’ ( Tom’s Midnight Garden p.3) during the journey to their house but by the end of the novel Tom is mature enough to want to apologise to Mrs. Bartholomew for his behaviour. Through use of indirect free speech the reader is able to see Tom’s thought process in him recognizing that ‘even unpleasant things’ have to be done (Tom’s Midnight Garden p.214).
Reality and fantasy are both evident in the classic tale of realism in Swallows and Amazons and in Pearce’s fantasy tale Tom’s Midnight Garden. Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights is commonly called a classic fantasy novel and first impressions and a brief synopsis of the novel all point to fantasy. The story deals with talking armored bears, with Demons and Dust neither of which are recognizable as being obviously real in this world. However, the book as in Tom’s Midnight Garden, does deal with what the reader would recognize as real human emotion with the child protagonist, Lyra, developing throughout the story in much the same way as John Walker and Tom Long do.
The story begins in the real setting of Oxford University where the reader is introduced to the main character, Lyra. Lyra, the reader later learns, is much like Tom and Hatty in that she has experienced loss through being abandoned as a baby. Lyra, like the children in Swallows and Amazons is given the freedom to explore both the huge grounds of Oxford and the frozen lands of the Arctic. However, the fantastic elements in Northern Lights could be considered more incredible than Tom’s Midnight Garden and certainly more ambitious than Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons. Perhaps the reason for this is that the modern reader demands more of an ambitious plot and for more extravagant characters. Pullman recognizes that children have the advantage of an immense imagination and in an interview regarding this book he states that the reason he decided to make the child Demons change with the child is because of the ‘infinite potentiality of childhood’ (World Book Club online 2003).
Therefore it could be concluded that realism and fantasy work hand in hand in children’s literature and certainly there is evidence of this in the books discussed throughout this essay. In order to make the fantastic believable realism has to play a part in the narrative. The characters have to be believable and this is achieved through a number of different devices. Pullman himself claims of Northern Lights, that could be considered the most fantastic of the three, that he deals only with real human characters saying ‘if I write fantasy, it’s only because by using the mechanisms of fantasy I can say something a little more vividly.’ (Rustin and Rustin quoted in Montgomery p.255 2003). Fantasy then allows the author to say what they need or want to say in a clearer, more interesting, entertaining way but by employing elements of realism the fantasy becomes an emotional possibility.
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