Sunday, June 3, 2012

The Essence of Fantasy

"You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children."

That is a famous quote by Madeleine L'Engle, author of one of the most renowned science fiction books to date: “A Wrinkle in Time”. It is also one of my favorite writing quotes ever, and I will explain why in a moment.  First, however, I would like to talk about something I did just the other night.

The other night I watched one of my favorite movies of all time: Peter Pan, produced by Universal Studios. I first discovered this movie several years ago when my dad brought it home from the movie rental. At the time he’d just thought that it’d be an interesting one to watch, and something the whole family could enjoy together… But he had no idea what he’d sparked.

Of course I knew the story of Peter Pan. I hadn’t read the actual book yet (still haven’t, actually), but what person (little or otherwise) didn’t know it? Peter pan was the boy who ran away to Kensington Gardens when he was just a baby. There he was saved by the fairy Tinkerbell and was later taken to Neverland and learned to fly. He was the leader of a band of misfits known as the Lost Boys, and Peter’s arch nemesis was the evilest pirate to ever sail the seven seas, or any other sea real or imagined… the notorious Captain James Hook. Peter and Hook had many battles and adventures but, of course, Peter always came out on top.

I love that story simply to love it. Even though I hadn’t (and still haven’t yet) read the original book, I’d read other books about Peter and his amazing adventures: unofficial sequels and prequels to the original. And of course, I still knew the original story too… maybe not as well as one might hope, but I knew it. To me, it is an amazing tale of adventure and fantasy blended in perfect balance.  A tale of childhood fancy and the beauty that such creates. A splendid rendition of imagination and the power that such can hold.

However, it is Universal’s particular version of the story of Peter Pan that will now, always, and forever be held in my heart as a favorite. Not Disney’s version, and not any other version, though I may watch and enjoy them… it is the Universal version that I truly love. And yes, I now own my own copy of the movie – I had to own it, I decided, after I saw it the first time. I plan to keep the DVD for always, and one day bring it out for my children to enjoy. And hopefully (if they are anything like me) I will have the extreme pleasure of watching their faces light up as I hold them in my lap and fall back into the remarkable world and characters created by the master story-teller, J.M. Barrie.

But now think about that for a moment. Mr. Barrie wrote the story of the amazing, conceited, flying boy who vowed never to grow up, Peter Pan, over a hundred years ago, and even then, the story was originally a script meant to be staged in the theater. How is it, then, that Mr. Barrie’s story, “Peter Pan”, has managed to last so long and touch the hearts of so many, being handed down from generation to generation and quite literally becoming a household name? What did Mr. Barrie do that made his story so memorable? So memorable, in fact, that other people would make different renditions of his story to last for years to come, and that even a girl like me who has yet to finish reading the original story at all, would know and understand the wonder, adventure, and excitement behind the tale?

Well now, you remember that quote at the beginning of this post? The one that says if the story is too difficult for grown-ups, then one should write if for children?  Well, this is where it comes in again.

As I was watching that movie the other night, I was catching all sorts of interesting themes subtly woven into the action and adventure. Oh, I know that the film-makers most likely took many liberties when it came to adapting the masterpiece for the movie screen, but the main story line is still there, strong as ever: no one can say that it isn’t. And these themes… they are obviously from the story itself. Themes like the power of love, and the longing for something greater, and the adventure of an ordinary life, and the strength of imagination, etc… These themes were all over the place!!!

But the movie… ah, the movie. And the story itself. What genius. What sheer brilliance in a written work!

There’s no way that children are going to pick up on such themes right away, of course. They will watch the movie or read the book for the enjoyment and the adventure, but they won’t understand how the themes are strung along so subtly throughout the entire tale.

I mean, honestly, what child is going to be able to connect the power of Wendy’s kiss on the Pirate Ship, with the strength of Peter’s own imagination, with Peter’s longing that is shown (at least in the movie) for something more than what he has, and the fear he shows at the unknown adventure of growing up… he doesn’t know what it’d be like to grow up, but it doesn’t take much thinking for an adult to suddenly understand that he’s scared of it. It’s made evident throughout the tale, like when tries to confirm with Wendy that her being a mother and him being a father is only just pretend, and like him being upset with her for wanting to grow up at all.

And yet, we also get the sense that he longs for what he fears. He says he just want to always be a little boy and have fun, but towards the end of the movie we watch him look in on the Darling family with longing eyes and say (one of my favorite quotes of the whole film), “To live would be an awfully big adventure.”

Life, in and of itself, is a great adventure… but we, as adults, must learn not to lose sight of the wonderment that life presents us as children.

And what does this have to do with the quote I posted earlier?

Well, it’s quite simple really. I believe that J.M. Barrie wrote a children’s fairy tale because the adults either couldn’t or didn’t want to accept such themes for what they truly are and mean. Peter Pan is the very essence of boyhood, childishness, and fancy – something that grown-ups all too often lose touch with as the responsibilities and dull knowledge that come with maturity start to crowd in. It’s all too easy for us to forget what it is like to be children. We often see our childhood years as silly and petty in comparison to what we now consider important and valuable and influential in today’s society.

I think Mr. Barrie probably realized this about adults, but had an idea (at least subconsciously) that such thinking wasn’t altogether right. And children are easily susceptible to subliminal messages… they are more open to ideas, and less likely to judge outright.

Yes, children would be the ones to present these ideas and themes to, subtle though they were, for it was likely that, though while young the child would not fully understand the message being delivered, yet as they grew the thoughts and ideas would become more clear to them. And it was likely that by the time that the child realized this, the idea would already be strongly planted in his head and heart.

It’s relatively easy to follow a similar pattern throughout the world’s histories. After all, how to you supposed such strong religious beliefs and superstitions, and even fairy tales have survived so many ages? As each generation grows old, they pass down the legends, myths, and fairy tales to their children, who grow up thinking that the stories are either real, or that the moral of the story is real. It all eventually leads up to the same thing.

The beliefs instilled in a child are ultimately proven to outlast those presented to people in adulthood.

Now, I’m not (of course) saying that an adult can’t have a change of heart or of mind and come to believe in something so strongly as an adult that the result is nearly the same (if not stronger) as it might have been had the idea been instilled in them as a child. But if you think about it, children are the very makings of the next generation of adults. If a child can grow up believing in something – even if that belief is more subconscious than otherwise – that belief is likely to stick with the child through most of, if not all of, his or her life.

And so it comes to this: If the idea proves too difficult for grownups, write it for children.

Because children may not fully understand the idea, but they will be more likely to accept it. And in accepting it, they will be more likely to grow with it. And in growing with it, they will be more likely to carry it on with them into adult hood and beyond.

Yet, with that said, I would like to add one last thing, perhaps just as important as the quote above. If the idea proves too difficult for grownups, then write it for children, absolutely… but be careful of what you are trying to write for the children. Be considerate of their openness, their willingness to be accepting upon first glance and judge later. When you write for them, do not write of things that will darken their minds, poison their hearts, or blacken their countenances, for young children are a representation of purity and beauty in a world of bitterness and tainted dreams. Much like the saying, “You are what you eat”, children become what they are fed… mentally and spiritually fed, that is. So we, the writers who would spread our ideas far and wide and make a difference in the world with our words, should be mindful to feed their imaginations only with good, wholesome ideas and themes for them to grow on.

And yet, we must also not leave out the truth of what evil is, and what reality has become: after all, Captain Hook was every bit the evil villain in the story of Peter Pan – the very representation of evil and all things dark and sinister – but Peter, who was the essence of childhood, the very grip of imagination, and the light and joy of Neverland (conceited and short tempered though was), ultimately triumphed over Hook. And along the journey, we learned of Peter’s strengths and weaknesses, and read (though we may not have realized it at the time) themes of love, and longing, and strength, and passion. That, my friends, is what makes up a good tale: that is the very Essence of Fantasy – a lesson well learned through a tale of wonder and enchantment.

It’s not in how well the tale is made up, or how beautifully the world is created, or how thoroughly the characters are fleshed out. Oh no. But it is in what the true message of the story actually is, and in how it is presented that makes the story great. Fairy tales and the fantastic are a writer’s tools to open the minds and hearts of young readers everywhere… it is our chance to actually make a difference in the world for generations to come, much like Lewis Carrol, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and yes… J.M. Barrie.

For who here among us has not, at least, heard of the story of that amazing flying boy, Peter Pan? And look at what a difference that one story has made in the literary world of today.


Galadriel said...

Some things about Peter Pan remind me of the Doctor in a way, how he loves the freedom but can't bear to be alone.

Philip Nelson said...

What I distinctly remember about childhood is that everything was new. Trains, toys, books, the outdoors-- everything was new.

But as I grew older, I found everything growing older with me. That I don't like. It's entropy at work: the arrow of time in our world (which has been compared to the Tick Tock Croc :).

So, it's not the growing up I don't like: it's the growing old.

But God promises to make all things new, really new, that can't ever grow old. I've seen him beginning that work in me, and I'm happy. I have that which will grow up forever, but will never grow old. :)

And I think there's no coincidence that the kingdom of heaven is open only to those who will humble themselves as a little child. :)

Writer4Christ said...

(by the way, the kiss isn't in the book. I've read it. You would like it)
This was a good post. It makes me think. I think my books will be for tweens and teens, and maybe a short story or two for children. But it makes all the more difference what you write when you write for children. If you show them the evil of some things, they will think about those things and "learn from fictional mistakes", as I was going to put on my status on Facebook. Many books have influenced me when I was a tween just getting into books. I really did learn from fictional mistakes. Sometimes I didn't understand the behaviors of a teenager, but it made me understand it all the better when I did become a teenager.

Anonymous said...

Phillip Nelson said, 'it's not the growing up I don't like; it's the growing old. That makes me ask why? Why is it bad to be 'old'. Answer- because 'old = unacceptable'. That is the underlying foundational attitude. So, next question: is that a biblically correct attitude to have? Is it even inferrable based upon scripture? No? No, it is not. Do your research if you will prove it IS inferred that old is ok( Ruth and Boaz) IF it is God's will.

Philip Nelson said...

Corruption makes things old: it's entropy in action. Our bodies are subject to entropy; that's why the Bible calls them vile. It's also why the Bible says the stars aren't clean in God's sight; they also are subject to entropy, to corruption.

That's why the Bible says we're groaning, that is, longing or yearning, for our incorruptible body which is from heaven. That body won't get old. :)

More importantly, that's why the old nature is called old. Human nature is subject to entropy: it will inevitably wear out.

But God gave us his nature to be our own, and that nature is always new.

So, while the world around us will inevitably become boring and dull and empty and old to the old nature, the new nature never gets bored. It can always see the glory of God, and there's always something new to see.

That's what I meant by growing old, and God fixing it.