Fairy tales are a treasure trove of the human imagination, enriching each generation that turns to them. Contemporary writers have always borrowed here and there from this great power-house. This can mean re-writing fairy tales in a modern day setting, but another technique is to make use of key fairytale imagery and happenings. One of the very best children’s authors doing this now is Margaret Mahy.
Many of her stories for older children employ magic, ghosts, spells and time-shifts. But this is no tired wheeling out of traditional story-book fantasy. Instead she shows how everyday childhood is always full of near-fairytale happenings. The result is a fusion of life as readers know it to be and as they sometimes imagine it to be. She writes about ordinary, lively children who quarrel, back-chat and go to school like everyone else. She also shows that behind every ordinary family there’s a wealth of fantasy normally only known to the individuals involved.
Take the ghosts and spirits of fairyland. In most fantasy stories, these show themselves only on rare moments. Yet in real life many of us converse daily with the familiar and often highly articulate spirits living in our own consciousness. Most parents, for example, remain aware of the ghosts of themselves when young, or the ghosts of their adolescent children when they were infants. When people we love die, we think and dream about them for the rest of our lives. Sometimes we find we are actually talking to them in the privacy of our own minds. Adolescents in particular often carry around a large ‘invisible audience’ in their heads, cheering them on when they’ve done something good or jeering at the moments of perceived social failure.
Novelists writing for adults usually represent such ‘ghosts’ in terms of a character’s general introspection. But younger readers want more than imaginative abstractions in their stories, and it’s here that Mahy is so skilful. She describes what children think about and feel while also sometimes giving these thoughts and feelings an imaginative existence of their own. The ghosts and spirits in her novels have a psychological reality and an actual existence at the same time. The time-shifts she describes correspond to the way we can all, on occasions, feel that we are also experiencing life at some moment in the past or during the future according to where memory or the imagination is taking us at that minute.
There are other parallels between imaginative experience and fictional realisation in Mahy’s stories. In The Haunting, young Barney is harassed by the spirit of a missing great uncle, who begins to take over Barney’s body and look out through his eyes. When Barney gazes into the mirror, it’s not always himself he sees in return. His great-grandmother behaves like a witch, and occasionally Barney catches vivid glimpses of a land elsewhere that he has never seen before. His older sister, Troy, is revealed as a magician, capable of transforming herself into ‘A flowering tree, a flying bird, a burning girl, a creature made of stars’.
Now think of the equivalent imaginative situations in young readers’ own lives. As another great-uncle points out, ‘“Barney is changing, like a caterpillar in its chrysalis. I think he’s becoming a different sort of boy.”’ Looking in the mirror and seeing someone else is not just a feature of ghost stories; it also relates to adolescents’ occasional surprise about the rapidity of the changes in their physical appearance. Sometimes adolescents develop a strong resemblance to older members of the family at the same age; thus the impression of someone familiar but not quite you looking back from the mirror. The imaginary countries Barney visits are reminiscent of those fantasy lands that children dream about. The magic that big sister Troy creates is a realisation of the enormous imaginary power children possess inside their own heads. The great-grandmother as witch stands for those old people who in real life sometimes appear to cast a malignant spell over others for whatever reason.
The theme of adolescent development is also found in The Changeover. In order to save her young brother’s life, 14-year-old Laura agrees to go through a ‘changeover’ from ordinary child to witch. The images involved in this process symbolise the changes within puberty all girls must face. Thus Laura sheds blood before going through the gate from which there is no return. As a new woman, she feels unexpected power while also becoming aware for the first time of the sexual interest she attracts from others and which she now sometimes feels for others herself.
In Dangerous Spaces, 11-year-old Anthea has yet to arrive at adolescence. She encounters the ghost of a boy who becomes her companion. In this way a day-dream is externalised in the shape of a child both living and dead, with all the attractions and occasional dangers of a real boy friend at a time when most young readers will only be experimenting in their imaginations with such notions. More disturbingly, 17-year-old Harry (a girl) in The Tricksters wonders whether she’s going mad when the characters she invents in her romantic novel seem actually to exist in her own life. Living too much inside one’s own head has its perils at any age, and this novel explores some of the dangers that arise when fantasy threatens to become more vivid than reality. Habitual solitary readers may already know something about this situation from their own experiences with books.
In Mahy’s latest novel, The Other Side of Silence, life imitates fairy tale rather than the other way round. 12-year-old Hero is an elective mute who knows that ‘Real life is what you are supposed to watch out for, but an invented life, lived truly, can be just as dangerous’. Her invented life includes walking through the branches of the trees around her house, pretending to be a child of the wild woods fostered and fed by birds. One day she falls into the garden of Miss Credence, a solitary older lady who immediately christens her Jorinda. But Hero forgets that the Grimms’ story of ‘Jorinda and Joringel’ is a sinister one, and soon finds herself kidnapped by Mrs Credence now behaving like a wicked witch. Hero is locked up alongside another Jorinda, Miss Credence’s previously unknown and silent ‘closet child’ who is perpetually chained to her bed. Both are finally rescued by a young male visitor. Hero and the closet child find their voices, with Miss Credence now taking on the silent Jorinda role after a bungled suicide attempt.
Hero states that ‘Real is what everyone agrees about. True is what you somehow know inside yourself.’ Mahy’s novels fuse the real and the true. A fairy tale warns Hero against dangers in reality, but at other times her imagination transforms reality into its own fairy tale. Mahy herself writes stories where at some moment the magical becomes real while at others the real seems magical. She and her readers know that human fantasy can always create the extraordinary from the ordinary. Her skill is to merge one with the other so artfully that readers flick from reality to fantasy and then back to reality as effortlessly as they do in their own heads during everyday life. The stories she tells are also excellent in their own right: what a writer!
Details of the books mentioned:
The Haunting, Puffin, 0 14 036325 4, £3.50 pbk
The Changeover, Dent, 0 460 06097 X, £9.99; Puffin, 0 14 037295 4, £4.50 pbk
Dangerous Spaces, Hamish Hamilton, 0 241 13066 2, £8.99; Puffin, 0 14 034571 X, £3.50 pbk
The Tricksters, Dent, 0 460 06203 4, £8.99; Puffin, 0 14 037316 0, £4.99 pbk
The Other Side of Silence, Hamish Hamilton, 0 241 13551 6, £10.99