The first house I remember clearly is the second I lived in, from when I was not yet three till shortly before my seventh birthday. It occupied the upper right-hand quarter of a council house that stood at one end of a pair of keyhole-shaped cul-de-sacs that faced one another across a main street. To the right, this street ran past the local shops and on into town; it led to the school where my brothers went and my father was headmaster (my sister was already away at university) and to the church where we went to mass. To the left it ran on some way till it was blocked by a church that I knew was ‘not ours’.
We never had occasion to go that way and I can still recall the sense of looking into foreign territory that came over me when I pedalled my red tricycle as far as the left-hand corner (the express limit of my going – I fell off there once and skinned my knee; a lady came to my assistance). There was no line to mark it, no border post, but I knew that what lay beyond was another place, beyond the limits of my known world. Anything might happen there.
I imagine many children have felt something similar. Our world when we are small is a very limited space, but intensely experienced. Even the home itself, our centre of operations, is not wholly known – there are places where we are not allowed without permission; doors that are closed against us; places – like the space underneath the bed- that acquire, at certain hours of day, a threatening aspect.
Our childhood world is like that of the mediaeval cartographers: so little of it is actually known, so much peopled from our private imaginings. We are constantly engaged in trying to map our world, sometimes from what we are told, as often from what we have worked out ourselves, often with hilarious results. (If you want to test this, try completing the sentence ‘I used to think that…’ I, for instance, used to think that moustaches were an extension of nostril-hair, a notion my drawings faithfully reflected, till a kindly brother set me right.)
Now, where similar structures exist, so does the potential for metaphor. (By structures I mean parts in a particular relation or arrangement) It should be no surprise to find that a great many children’s stories reflect the image of the child’s world that I have given above, with its small known territory bordering on a strange, unknown world that intrigues and daunts us equally. And the substance of these stories is what happens when that border is crossed, which as children we long and fear to do. (Because although that wider world is unknown to us, we know some who go there – it is the realm of those mysterious and powerful beings, Grown-ups.)
Thus Hansel and Gretel and Little Red Riding Hood venture into the Big Dark Wood; Mole in the Wind in the Willows abandons Rat’s cosy fireside to investigate the Wild Wood; Bilbo leaves the safe confines of the Shire in search of dragon’s gold; the children in Elidor pass through the ruined church to another world beyond; Colin and Susan find another world under Alderley Edge, in The Weirdstone of Brisingamen; Will Stanton is initiated into the realm of the Old Ones in The Dark is Rising.
Fantasy literature is often misunderstood, generally by earnest people who have forgotten what it is like to be a child. We need to remind ourselves that the reality of a child’s world is that the greater part of it is unknown and mysterious, a place where anything might happen; and we need to remind ourselves also that a child’s expectations of what life is all about are not as jaded as ours may have become. We need to see that the general qualities of fantasy reflect exactly the child’s expectations of life, of the grown-up world where (as they are repeatedly told) ‘you’ll be able to do what you like’ – both are wonderful, amazing, terrifying, filled with marvels and magic, limitless in their possibilities. The fantasy element in fantasy literature is the embodiment of the child’s expectations of the grown-up world.
(However, on reflection, I do not think this is quite right – for more, see here)