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Kimba the White Lion

7 Jul

With the pending release of the ‘live-action’ remake of Disney’s animated classic The Lion King, now is perhaps the perfect time to look at one of the strangest controversies ever to follow a Disney cartoon. At the time of its release, The Lion King was a unique production from Disney. It was the first animated film from the studio to feature an original story created by its team of writers. Over the years, however, this claim has faced several credible challenges from the Japanese anime, Kimba, The White Lion, made in 1965. That cartoon, about African wildlife, was based on a Manga comic called Jungle Emperor Leo by animator Osamu Tezuka. Whether Disney was inspired by Kimba isn’t the problem here; rather, it’s that Disney has long asserted that The Lion King was its first original animated film, and that it’s never heard of Jungle Emperor Leo or Tezuka. When you see the side-by-side glimpses afforded by YouTube it’s pretty impossible not to see the similarities, whether it be in the characters themselves, the design flourishes, or even specific shots. Yes, Kimba’s dad dies by drowning rather than wildebeest stampede, but his clamber up the rock wall and denial of saving by the story’s nefarious antagonist still looks familiar. Obviously, this isn’t a cry to disavow The Lion King or any such thing; it’s still a great film. But this may be one controversy that merits a closer look – after all, it was even once parodied, famously, in an episode of The Simpsons (you remember: the one where Mufasa appears in the clouds, bidding Lisa to “avenge my death, Kimba—I mean, Simba”)!

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Fantasy Masterworks: The Last Unicorn

17 Feb

The Last Unicorn is a 1968 fantasy novel by American author Peter S. Beagle, which follows the tale of a unicorn who believes she is the last of her kind in the world and undertakes a quest to discover what has happened to the others. The Last Unicorn is also an elegy for a world that has lost its magic, lost its sense of wonder, and whose people are desperate to get it back but so passive in their acceptance of the mundanity of their lives that they can’t even see the magic and the beauty that’s there in the world around them if only they’d look. All that makes the book sound like dour and dismal stuff indeed, but it hasn’t become one of fantasy’s most beloved and enduring classics — in print consistently for fifty years and counting — for nothing. Peter S. Beagle frames his story as a fractured fairy tale, rich in self-aware humour. The Last Unicorn was meta before meta was cool. A beloved classic, it has sold more than five million copies worldwide since its original publication, been translated into at least twenty languages, spawned sequels and spin-offs and been adapted for the big and small screen numerous times. Locus magazine once ranked The Last Unicorn number five among the “All-Time Best Fantasy Novels”, based on a poll of subscribers. In the end, this is the simple message of The Last Unicorn: that the magic hasn’t gone away, that it’s all around you in your life right now, and the only thing preventing you from recognizing it and being dazzled by it is you.

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Legend of the Avatar

10 Jun

Avatar: The Last Airbender is set in an Asiatic-like world in which some people can manipulate the classical elements with psychokinetic variants of the Chinese martial arts known as “bending”. The series combines anime with American cartoons, and relies on the imagery of East Asian, Inuit, South Asian and New World societies. For the uninitiated, the series takes place in a world defined by water, earth, fire and air. Only the Avatar, master of all four elements, can stop the evil Fire Lord from enslaving the rest of the nations. As it happens, the current Avatar is the last of the Air Nomads, a young boy named Aang, who must learn the ways of waterbending, earthbending and firebending if he hopes to save the world. If you haven’t already seen it, Avatar is seriously a must-watch. In my opinion, it’s one of the greatest animated series of all time. The series was commercially successful and was universally acclaimed by audiences and critics, with praise for its art direction, humor, cultural references, characters, and themes. It was nominated for, and won, Annie Awards, Genesis Awards, a Primetime Emmy Award and a Peabody Award. The series inspired a critically panned but financially successful live-action film, The Last Airbender, directed by M. Night Shyamalan; action figures; a trading card game; three video games; and a sequel series, The Legend of Korra, aired from 2012 to 2014, which perhaps rose to even greater heights.

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A Charmed Life: Diana Wynne Jones

26 Nov

Diana Wynne Jones (1934 – 2011) was a British writer, principally of fantasy novels for children and adults. Some of her better-known works are the Chrestomanci series, the Dalemark series; the novels Howl’s Moving Castle, Dark Lord of Derkholm, Fire and Hemlock and The Tough Guide To Fantasyland. Together with her near-contemporaries Susan Cooper, Alan Garner and Penelope Lively, she was one of the most successful and influential of the generation of fantasy writers who rose to prominence in the ‘second Golden Age’ of children’s literature in Britain. But is some ways Jones is a different and rather baffling case from these other authors. After Wilkins’ Tooth was published in 1973, she wrote some forty volumes of fantasy, almost all of them for children. Her books, which are characterized by humour, intelligence, unparalleled technical inventiveness, and a humane but unsentimental view of human nature, have long had a devoted following, not least among other fantasy writers. Yet for all this, she has not, at least until recently, enjoyed the same centrality in critical discussions of late twentieth-century British children’s literature as the other three authors. By 1981, for example, Jones was already the author of ten full-length children’s fantasy novels, including a winner of the Guardian Award (for Charmed Life in 1978). However, of two substantial critical books on the state of children’s literature published in that year, Sheila Egoff’s Thursday’s Child and Fred Inglis’s The Promise of Happiness, both of which give considerable space to Garner, Cooper and Lively, Egoff omits any mention of Jones at all, while Inglis names her just once, in passing. Nor are they by any means unusual in their neglect. As late as 2001, Peter Hunt’s otherwise admirable Blackwell’s Guide to Children’s Literature, though citing Lively’s work on numerous occasions and devoting whole sections to Cooper and Garner, makes no reference to Jones. It seems reasonable to enquire as to the reasons for this surprising attitude from critics towards Jones.

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The Fantasy World of Christmas

17 Dec

It’s that time of year again, and it’s hard to think about the holidays, particularly Christmas, without thinking of fantasy. It is particularly interesting to note just how many famous fantasy novels – particularly for children – are set during the festive period. The Dark is Rising, The Snow Spider and The Children of Green Knowe are all examples that come to mind immediately, but there are many others. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, whilst not set at Christmas specifically, features a suitably seasonal winter wonderland and even boasts an appearance by none other than Santa Claus himself. Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass (aka Northern Lights) also feels like a seasonal novel, even if Christmas was quite literally the last thing on the author’s mind when he was writing it. There are also a number of more adult fantasy novels that make use of festive motifs, often inverting them in new and often anarchic ways. Examples of the latter include Terry Pratchett’s Hogfather and Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book. Then there are timeless classics like Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale, which are neither entirely for adults nor completely for children, but fall into that strange twilight realm that separates the two worlds. What makes Christmas such a popular setting for children’s fantasy novels can perhaps be attributed to a number of things. The essential yuletide story of Jesus’ birth is full of fantastical elements, from the angels to the star to the three Magi. Moving to the secular (or perhaps pagan) side of things, Santa Claus is nothing but fantastical – flying reindeer, elves (which rather resemble gnomes), a fat man fitting down a chimney, and so on. Then there’s perhaps the most famous novel about Christmas, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, which is of course full of spirits. It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that Christmas continues to be explored by fantasy writers. The myths and legends of Christmas provide a rich source of inspiration for new tales, the season can be mined for its emotion and themes, and perhaps for its strange and wonderful mix of energies.

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The Piper at the Gates of Dawn

17 Jul

For almost the whole of his life, Kenneth Grahame’s first love was ‘the cool and secluded reaches of the Thames, the stripling Thames, remote and dragonfly-haunted’ – in short, that section of the river between Streatley in the west and Windsor Castle in the east, which he first came to from Edinburgh, in sadness, as a boy of nearly five. Grahame was grieving for his mother, who had just died from scarlet fever and for his father who, broken-hearted, had fled abroad to live by himself. Kenneth, his two elder siblings and his younger brother Roland were taken in by their grandmother at a large house called The Mount, situated on the banks of the Thames at Cookham Dene. Henceforth, Grahame’s happiest childhood days would be spent playing about on the river, sometimes ‘messing about in boats’ though more often on foot, so that he came to know the life of the river banks intimately. At first it was a new and unusual world to this city boy, whose knowledge of meadows and rivers was as limited as if he had spent his whole life underground. But soon came the awakening of his interest in boats, and the love that every country child has for long summer days and the woods under winter snow. Many commentators have spoken of literary creativity arising from some terrible loss in an author’s life. Whatever it was, as a result, Kenneth found the need to daydream, and many of his dreams are re-created in that bedtime idyll of a pastoral England, already disappearing in Edwardian times, The Wind in the Willows.

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Fantasy Masterworks: the founders of fantasy

6 Dec

The birth of fantasy literature (as distinct from myths and fairy tales, which have on some level always been with us) has often proved somewhat difficult to pin down. Whilst the general public may regard the genre as having originated with the publication of The Lord of the Rings in the 1950’s, fantasy literature has in many ways existed for perhaps hundreds of years before this. It is in the 17th century that we can find the first critical awareness of the separate existence of a genre of ‘fantasy’, so here I am not talking about earlier fictions about the fantastical, such as The Odyssey, Beowulf or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Before the reading public was introduced to the alternate world of Middle Earth, Clark Ashton Smith and Robert E Howard used the secondary world settings of Hyperborea, Poseidonis, Averoigne and Zothique for their heroic fantasy tales. Before them, fantastical creatures and other worlds appeared in the writings of William Hope Hodgson, most memorably The House on the Borderland (1908). Going back even earlier, the Victorian writer Lord Dunsany, who began his authorial career in the 1890s, was responsible for two major works – The Book of Wonders and The King of Elfland’s Daughter – that were an important influence on Tolkien and many of those who came after him. But can the birth of fantasy as a literary genre be traced back even earlier than this? Who were the founders of fantasy literature?

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The Problem of Susan

12 Apr

Anyone who has read and loved C S Lewis’ Narnia books may have encountered what is usually referred to in literary circles today as ‘the problem of Susan’. Susan was the only one of the four Pevensie siblings who survived the train wreck (because she was not on the train or at the station) on Earth which sent the others to Narnia after The Last Battle. In that final book of the series, Susan is conspicuous by her absence. Why? Because, as Peter says, she is “no longer a friend of Narnia” and she is described, perhaps rather uncharitably, by Jill Pole as “interested in nothing now-a-days except nylons and lipstick and invitations”. Several people who are otherwise fans of the Narnia books have a big problem with Susan’s fate. Notably, Harry Potter author J K Rowling once commented: “There comes a point where Susan, who was the older girl, is lost to Narnia because she becomes interested in lipstick. She’s become irreligious basically because she found sex. I have a big problem with that”. In his Companion to Narnia, Paul F Ford writes at the end of the entry for Susan Pevensie that “Susan’s is one of the most important Unfinished Tales of The Chronicles of Narnia”. In his short story The Problem of Susan, Neil Gaiman creates a fix that attempts to highlight the issue of Susan’s exile within the world of The Chronicles and within the ‘real world’. Since the publication of Gaiman’s story, ‘the problem of Susan’ has become used more widely as a catchphrase for the literary and feminist investigation into Susan’s treatment.

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Enter the Dragon

11 Jan

The dragon Smaug is in many ways the centrepiece of both The Hobbit book and film series – no other character more often dominates covers, calendars and promotional art related to the story. It is no accident that a dragon plays such a prominent role in one of J R R Tolkien’s very first works of fiction – he did, after all, once famously say: “I desired dragons with a profound desire”. For Tolkien’s taste, however, there were too few dragons in ancient literature, indeed by his count only three – the Miðgarðsorm or ‘Worm of Middle-earth’ which was to destroy the god Thor at Ragnarök, the Norse apocalypse; the dragon which the Anglo-Saxon hero Beowulf fights and kills at the cost of his own life; and Fafnir, who is killed by the Norse hero Sigurd. There are elements of all three of these mythological dragons in Smaug, as well as some entirely of Tolkien’s own making, such as the dragon’s name. Tolkien once noted that Smaug bore as a name the past tense of the primitive Germanic verb smúgan (to squeeze through a hole) – “a low philological jest”, as Tolkien himself put it, from an Oxford professor of Anglo-Saxon and Norse.

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Puck of Pook’s Hill

22 Nov

Puck, the mischievous imp of English folklore, also known as Robin Goodfellow, was immortalized in William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The origins of this merry trickster figure are, however, far older and darker. The Old English puca – from which the name Puck is derived – is a kind of half-tamed woodland spirit, leading folk astray with echoes and lights in night-time woodlands. The Welsh called him Pwca, which is pronounced the same as his Irish incarnation Phouka, Pooka or Puca but these are far from his only names. Parallel words exist in many ancient languages – Puki in Old Norse, Pukis in the Baltic region and Bucca in Cornish – mostly with the original meaning of a demon, devil or evil and malignant spirit. Indeed, Pouk was a typical medieval term for the devil and the Phouka was sometimes pictured as a frightening creature with the head of an ass. Even the jolly-sounding moniker of Robin Goodfellow alludes to this creature’s more sinister side – Robin itself was a medieval nickname for the devil. How then did such a demonic spirit evolve into the merry sprite of Shakespeare’s most famous comedy?

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