Once upon a time a nightingale landed on the window-sill of Princess Serima’s bedroom in Baghdad and told her to beware of the wicked vizier, Khanid . . . . Now just a moment! Nightingales can’t talk! If we tell young children such a story we will give them false beliefs about reality. Most people, though, consider this kind of fantasy harmless; even if young children might initially believe that certain birds can talk, they will learn soon enough that birds can’t talk in reality;only in stories. But other confusions created by fantasy stories, more subtle ones, are perhaps less easily sorted out, and remain to distort our understanding throughout life. Such stories may set in place stereotypes, not just of bent old women being witch-like, but more subtly of why people sometimes rob banks or sacrifice their leisure to help a handicapped acquaintance; supposing the cause of such behaviors as due to inherent evil or goodness. The range of distorted beliefs people hold may not all derive from fantasy stories, of course, but some of the greatest educational thinkers, such as Plato, Rousseau, Montessori, and others, have been implacable foes of fantasy for children because they concluded that it certainly contributes to falsehood and confusion in profound ways.

Our normal reaction to such a claim today is to dismiss it. That’s the trouble with these refined theorists, we are inclined to think, their theories lead them away from simple common-sense. How can reading stories about Baba-Yaga or Peter Rabbit or following the progress of Richard Scary’s Lowly Worm driving a sports car have these pernicious effects? To-day’s common-sense, it is well to remember, is simply yesterday’s theory accepted without question. So we might sensibly begin considering the values or dangers of fantasy by looking briefly at the competing theories, and see whether they can help us decide whether or not the stories we tell children should include fantasy.

But even before that we should ask what is fantasy anyway, and why is it so appealing? There are complex theories here too, of course, notably Freud’s and Jung’s, both of which seem to me not without a touch of fantasy of their own. I will suggest a rather simpler and perhaps surprising explanation that will offer some guidance to our choice of stories.

It does not require refined theories to recognize that telling children certain kinds of fantasy stories can induce fear; from the not-really-believed monsters under the bed who might grab your bare ankles with their cold, bony fingers to seriously disabling phobias that bring night-terrors and years of insomnia. On the other hand, in some stories we are offered a fantasy world that is ubiquitously cute and saccharined, a world of “happy-fantasy” from which the inconveniences of pain, death, disease, cruelty, and so on, are completely absent. How should we deal with fantasy stories that induce fear and those that present a world free of pain?

If we wish to tell a story that involves characters moving from one place to another, what difference does it make to have them travel by bus or by magic carpet? This question helps to focus the topic of this chapter. Is the latter mode of transport a lie that at best creates false hopes and feeds an illusory longing for an unattainable world, or is it a liberation of the mind, a stimulus to the imagination, that enables us to think about our real world more effectively? Or, turning from these serious social and psychological concerns, is it just harmless fun, justified on simple aesthetic grounds?

Harmless fun?! Fantasy has been located as the source of catastrophic psychic and social damage and also as vitally important for children’s psychological well-being and social adjustment! Let us begin with the heavies and see if there is any room left for fun.

Fantasy: Pro & Con

Plato argues that the beginning of children’s education must come in the form of stories, and so “our first business will be to supervise the making of fables and legends, rejecting all which are unsatisfactory; and we will ask nurses and mothers to tell their children only those which we have approved, and to think more of molding children’s souls with these stories than they now do of rubbing their limbs to make them strong and shapely” (Republic, II, 377). Plato believed that the stories children hear early in their lives will have a profound influence on them, and so he wanted to get rid of any that created, to put it in his terms, a false view of reality in children’s souls. And he wanted less effort expended on therapeutic massage of the body than on stories’ therapeutic massage of the mind. Looking at the role of stories with such serious intent, it was no wonder he concludes: “Most of the stories now in use must be discarded” (Republic, II, 377).

We must recognize, he says, that a “child cannot distinguish the allegorical sense [of a story] from the literal sense” (Republic, II, 377). So, he insists, mothers and nurses are not to “scare children with mischievous stories of spirits that go about by night in all sorts of outlandish shapes. They would only be blaspheming the gods and at the same time making cowards of their children” (Republic, II, 380). His negative caution is that we must avoid those stories that can create “the presence of falsehood in the soul concerning reality. To be deceived about the truth of things and so to be in ignorance and error and to harbour untruth in the soul is a thing no-one would consent to” (Republic, II, 381). The positive use of stories is to stimulate courage, to teach that death is not to be feared, to inculcate nobility of heart and adherence to truth. Ignorance or error about reality is among the worst disasters that can befall us, according to Plato, and from these so many other pains and disasters follow; and fantasy is a contributor to that worst disaster.

Two thousand years later Jean-Jacques Rousseau took up the same theme. He used the example of a fantasy story commonly told to children in the eighteenth-century: La Fontaine’s “The fox and the crow.” You will no doubt know a version of it. The crow sits on a branch with a fine chunk of cheese in its beak. The fox sees it and begins to flatter the crow, saying that the crow is so wonderful in every way that it must also have a most beautiful singing voice. The foolish crow is so delighted with the flattery that it opens its mouth to sing. The cheese falls. The fox grabs the cheese and lopes off. Rousseau analyses the story in detail, showing how confusing it is for young children unfamiliar with all the conventions which it assumes. But his main criticism is that the moral lesson it conveys to children is entirely unlike what is intended. Children do not take the role of the crow and learn that they should not be deceived by flattery. Rather they associate with the witty fox and learn to take advantage of the shortcomings of others. The fable exposes a world in which people flatter and lie for profit, and does so in a manner that invites the child to admire the vices the story describes. His brief analyses of other La Fontaine stories similarly show that they hold up deceit, injustice, immoderation, cruelty, acquisitiveness, and a range of other vices, to the child’s admiration. Much the same could be said of many of the Grimm fairly tales which are so widely available for children today.

These are not stupid arguments, even though they run against the grain of current common-sense;a common-sense informed in particular by the psychoanalytic theories about the nature and uses of fantasy from the early twentieth century. We are, after all, surrounded by deceit, injustice, cruelty, acquisitiveness;surrounded and invaded;and while it would seem outrageous to lay the whole blame for these vices at the door of fantasy stories, it is not so obvious they are entirely innocent of all blame. As we look around at our fellow-citizens, and within ourselves if we have the courage, we see much untruth about reality in our souls. How do we construct our varied and discordant beliefs, and do the fantasies of childhood contribute to them as Plato and Rousseau suggest?

Rousseau concluded that fantasy was all right for adults, but children should deal only with reality. In light of this, it is worth remembering, as J.R.R. Tolkien (1947) pointed out, that what we consider classic children’s fantasy stories, such as La Fontaine’s and the Grimms’ collection, were not originally written for children. He likened their descent to the nursery when they went out of fashion among adults as like the descent, among his class and time, of old-fashioned furniture from the adults’ living room to the children’s play room.

One of the better known, and more assertive, arguments for the value of fantasy stories has been made by Bruno Bettelheim (1976). As mentioned in the previous chapter, he drew heavily on Freud in arguing that fantasy stories are vitally important for young children’s psychological health. Real-life stories, in his view, are much more likely to cause psychological problems, or create falsehood about reality in the soul, than are fantasies. Real-life heroes can be oppressive to young children’s developing sense of themselves, emphasizing the child’s insignificance in contrast to the confidence, goodness, or power of the hero. How can one be as good as Mother Teresa or Nelson Mandela? One value of fantasy characters is that children do not see them in comparison to themselves; and so they do not feel oppressed by Superman or Snow White a result. Also stories which stay close to the child’s everyday real world, Bettelheim argues against Plato and Rousseau, are more likely to confuse the child as to what is real and what is not, because children lack the experience to sort what may be real but unusual from what is false but plausible–say, monks from star-warriors or telephone hygenists from vampires. The value of fantasy is that children recognize very early that it is different from their everyday world.

C. S. Lewis, author of the Narnia books, makes a similar observation: “I think what profess to be realistic stories for children are far more likely to deceive them [than are fantasy stories]. I never expected the real world to be like the fairy tales. I think that I did expect school to be like school stories. The fantasies did not deceive me: the school stories did” (1982, pp. 63/64).

A further value of fantasy stories, according to Bettelheim, is that they allow the child to play with ideas. They can provide comfort and consolation with regard to pressing real-life problems: “Like all great art, fairy tales both delight and instruct; their special genius is that they do so in terms which speak directly to children” (Bettelheim, 1976, p. 53). In dealing with life’s problems, fantasy stories have the additional value that they are richly suggestive of solutions: “Fairy tales leave the [children] fantasizing whether and how to apply to [themselves] what the story reveals about life and human nature” (p. 45). So “whatever the content of the fairy tale, it is but fanciful elaborations and exaggerations of the tasks [children have] to meet, and of [their] hopes and fears” (p. 40.).

William Kilpatrick and Gregory and Suzanne M. Wolfe (1994) similarly emphasize the value of fantasy over real-life stories. They suggest that a child whose parents are going through a divorce does not necessarily get help from reading stories about children with divorcing parents. They quote the mother of a ten-year-old describing her son’s struggle with cancer: “At first he was very upbeat, but after several painful treatments his optimism faded. We were afraid that he was ready to give up. We were really afraid for his life. Then he came upon the story of the labors of Hercules in a book of myths, and he read it and re-read it, and it seemed to give him back his spirit” (p. 44). The authors go on to observe: “The story about Hercules allowed the boy to transcend his fears and to cast his personal struggle on a mythic level. He was probably fortunate that some well-meaning adult didn’t hand him a book about a boy with cancer. That sort of thing often serves only to increase the depression” (p. 44). They make an important point, though we might want to be cautious in interpreting the boy’s increasing spirit as due entirely to the story. We might also bear in mind C.S. Lewis’s often-repeated point, that young children’s taste and interest in stories is no less varied than adults’, and that a sensitive story about a boy with cancer might have had a similar beneficial effect with another child as Hercules seems to have had with this child.

Fantasy, then, allows us to create an imaginary world in which children can rehearse and begin to deal with many of the most fundamental psychological problems that come with the territory of being human. “In all the forms of fantasy, whether dreams, daydreams, private musings or make-believe play, we give expression to perfectly real preoccupations, fears and desires, however bizarre or impossible the imagined events embodying them” (Harding, 1977, pp. 61, 62). Jealousy, fear, hate, cruelty, selfishness, as well as love, compassion, courage, security, patience are variously present in fantasy. To provide children with stories that show only the latter set, with the expectation that they will then internalize these, is to leave them with the guilty suspicion that they are the only ones who harbor wicked impulses. This suspicion leads to shame, secretiveness, deception, and profound psychological insecurity. That, anyway is the claim of modern psychoanalytic writers about the value of fantasy.

Fantasy can also provide a psychological resource for children whose reality offers them very little. Consider the role it played for Tamara Pierce:

Fantasy is also important for a group that I deeply hope is small: those whose lives are so grim that they cling to everything that takes them completely away for any length of time. I speak of readers like I was, from families that are now called dysfunctional. While the act of reading transported me out of reality for the time it took me to read, nothing carried over into my thoughts and dreams until I discovered fantasy. I visited Tolkien’s Mordor often for years, not because I liked what went on there, but because on that dead horizon, and then throughout the sky overhead, I could see the interplay and the lasting power of light and hope. It got me through” (1993, p. 51).

So what are we to conclude? That fantasy stories do subtle but profound harm by confusing our minds about reality or that they are vital to our psychological health? Or both? Or neither? Or perhaps both are partially true? Some kinds of fantasy stories might do harm and some good and the same story might do harm or good to different children in different circumstances? Well, that all helps to confuse us even further.

But I think we can answer one part of the general question about whether we should encourage or suppress fantasy by making a common observation. That is that fantasy is a cultural universal;it is energetically active in all cultures;and it seems irrepressible. Consider one attempt to dispense with fantasy described by K. Chukovsky in his fascinating book From Two to Five (1963). Chukovsky describes how the dogma of social realism was applied to the instruction of some children during the early decades of the Soviet Union. He illustrates one effect through a diary kept by E. I. Stanchinskaia, a scientist and mother, of the development of her son to age seven. She wrote that it was her purpose “to replace the unrealistic folk tales and fantasies with simple realistic stories taken from the world of reality and from nature.” She strictly ensured that her son learned about nothing except what could be empirically verified. And the result? Well, as she reports faithfully in her diary, her son generated his own fantasies from morning to night;he declared that a red elephant came to live in his room, that he had an imaginary friend, that his mother must be careful not to sit on that chair because she ought to be able to see the bear sitting there, that the rug he sat on was a ship, that he was a reindeer when it snowed, that he had just bought his mother a baby tiger, and so on and on. He behaved as one might expect any imaginative child to behave, generating a fantasy world even though no hint of fantasy had been allowed to infect him.

This particular case could be multiplied in various forms a thousand times, to support the observation that fantasy just comes along with language. Once we can generate words, we discover with greater or lesser delight that we can use words to describe things as they are not. We can lie, we can generate fictions, we can build fantasy worlds. It is no good to argue that children pick up the habit of fantasy only because adults tell them fantasy stories. Fantasy is a part of the human inheritance. So it seems reasonable to conclude that the strong anti-fantasy line isn’t an option for us. We need not fear that we might be infecting children with unreality in the soul. We do still have to worry about the particular influences of the fantasy stories we choose, of course, but not that fantasy itself is bad. The problems now are to work out what fantasy is, and how we can best use it.

What is fantasy?

The main explanations of fantasy have come from the psychoanalytic theories of Freud and Jung. For Freud, fantasy is a primary process activity which operates, and generates its peculiar images, according to the rules of substitution, displacement, and so on. For Jung, it is a result of spontaneous eruptions from the unconscious, perhaps liberating archetypes which become the subject for active imaginative shaping. For these explanations to be convincing, or even to make sense, one has to accept the main claims of these psychoanalytic schools. If one has difficulty accepting them, or even if one doesn’t, where might one turn for an alternative explanation of fantasy;one that might be a bit more straightforward?

I suggested above that fantasy just comes along with language. That is, fantasy is primarily a product of the languaged mind, and so we might look at early language development for clues as to where fantasy originates. Anyway, here’s another theory in brief.

Consider how young children begin to gain a languaged grasp over the world. The toddler is sitting in a high-chair and touches a cup of milk directly from the refrigerator. Fingers are withdrawn with a frown. “Cold,” says the mother. Attracted by an open fire, the toddler walks towards it until the father puts out a protective arm. “Hot,” says the father. Children first notice, necessarily, temperatures that are hotter and colder than their bodies, and typically begin their languaged grasp over temperature with words like “hot” and “cold.” The child can then learn a word like “warm”;that comfortable temperature about the same as the body’s own. Putting a cautious toe or finger towards the bath water, the child can announce “hot!” if it is too hot or “cold!” if it is too cold, and the parent can encourage the child with assurances that it is just beautifully “warm.” Further temperature terms, such as “cool’ or “pretty hot” can be learned to fit along the continuum from hot to cold.

This way of learning to grasp the world in language and concepts is clearly very common. Young children first learn opposites based on their bodies;”hot” is hotter than the body, “cold” is colder; “big” is bigger than their body, “little” is smaller; “hard” is harder than the body, “soft” is softer; and so on. Young children learn a great deal about the world using this procedure&endash;wet/dry, rough/smooth, fast/slow, and so on. Children’s perceptions of their own bodies provide their first yardstick for making sense of the world around them, and gaining a conceptual grasp over it by means of language. Once they have formed an opposition, they can learn other terms along the continuum between such opposites.

While they are very young, most children learn that some things are alive, like us and the cat and birds, and other things are dead: perhaps it might be the death of a pet, or a dead bird brought into the house by a cat, or perhaps the idea of death might be learned through a story or by the experience of their own or a friends’ grandparent or great grandparent dying. Most of us learned the opposition life/death long before we can remember.

What do you get when you apply to those opposites the same procedure that has been so successful in gaining a conceptual grasp over the physical world? What fits between “life” and “death,” as “warm” fits between “hot” and “cold”? Well, ghosts, for example. Ghosts are to life and death as warm is to hot and cold. A ghost is a mediation between life and death; ghosts are in some sense alive and in some sense dead.

When children are three or four years old, they might tell their cat or pet rabbit all their secrets. But, unlike Alice’s White Rabbit or Peter Rabbit, the animal will not tell you its secrets back. Or, at least, it will not tell them in the language the child uses. Some cultures would put this differently, of course. Some cultures do claim that animals communicate with humans. But all cultures recognize a fundamental distinction between human and animal. Human/animal, like life/death, are opposites that do not have a mediating category; they are not ends of a continuum, but discrete concepts. So what do we get if we try to mediate between them, if we treat them as though they are not discrete and are ends of a continuum? Well, we get creatures like mermaids, Yetis, Sasquatches;those half-human, half-animal creatures that are so familiar to the Western imagination and that are common in the mythologies of all oral cultures.

A two-year-old may stub a toe against a chair and, in pain, hit the chair, only to be in more pain. It becomes clear very early that chairs don’t have intentions or feelings like the child’s. If we take a toddler for a stroll in the woods, the child comes to recognize that a tree that has fallen over and has saplings growing out of it is a natural object, unlike the tree that has had a bench carved into it so that weary toddlers and their grandparents can sit and rest for a few minutes. The latter has been transformed for human purposes. Before we can remember, we distinguish at a profound level between nature and culture. Typical three-year-olds will not use terms like “nature” and “culture,” of course, but “made” or “real” or some other terms will reflect their recognition of the distinction. So what do you get when you mediate between this further discrete opposition, nature/culture? Well, for one thing, you get Peter Rabbit. That is, you get all those talking, dressed, middle-class animals of children’s fantasy stories;natural animals mixed with the archetypical cultural capacity of language-use. Peter Rabbit is to nature and culture as a ghost is to life and death or warm is to hot and cold.

If we listen to toddlers’ stunningly rapid language development;from eighteen months to adolescence the average child learns a new word every two hours;we may notice a common, powerful, and very successful procedure in use for elaborating a conceptual grasp over the world around them. Oppositions are created from continua of size, speed, temperature, texture, and also, of course, of morality;so we get good/bad, love/hate, fear/security, and so on. The world is inconvenient in facing us with such discrete categories as life/death, human/animal, nature/culture, and, in the modern world, human/machine. What one finds in the invented mediations between these categories are the stuff of all the fantasy stories and myths of the world, from zombies to werewolves to talking ravens to Mr. Data of Star Treck.

Is that all there is to it? Fantasy is simply a product of misapplying one of the procedures by which we learn about the physical world? Well, it does have the virtues of simplicity and economy as an explanation. But obviously this is not all that needs to be said about fantasy, and no doubt the theories of Freud and Jung may help to elaborate other dimensions of it. The explanation given here, however, is certainly plausible and accounts for the common forms of fantasy in a surprising and convincing way. (I stole it in part from Claude Lévi-Strauss [1966]).

One implication of this explanation is that fantasy is inevitable, given the way language grapples with the complexity of the world. This explanation also supports those who claim that fantasy is not simply idle confusion. Fantasy may represent a kind of confusion, but it involves also a meditation on some of the basic questions that face us: Why and how are we unlike other animals? Why do we die, and what is death? Why and how does our culture separate us from the natural world? And while one might reasonably doubt about Bettelheim’s Freudian readings of the Grimm fairy tales and his claims for their psychotherapeutic necessity, this explanation supports his sense that they involve important intellectual engagements with problematic features of the world and human experience.

In our choice of stories for children, then, we will want to include talking animals and the other mediating categories;ghosts, monsters, living technology, and so on. The meditations begun in such stories stay with us throughout our lives, and in adult stories we find characters similarly poised in the non-existent realm between discrete oppositions. Indeed, current prime-time T.V. series seem to have little else;from immortals, to Mr. Data, to X-Files, etc. These mediating categories for children commonly involve the beginnings of what will later become philosophical problems; or, if this puts it too grandly, they are stimulants to reflection about the nature of the world and of ourselves. Socrates suggested, perhaps a bit snobbishly, that the unexamined life is not worth living; if so, fantasy stories are important stimuli to examining life.

Fantasy and fear

Some of the opposition to fantasy from the earliest times, reflected in Plato’s complaint about nurses telling frightening stories about wicked monsters, is that such stories will cause haunting fears in children. And certainly many children suffer from phobias that keep them awake at night, and these phobias are sometimes expressed in terms of images, characters, or events they have encountered in fantasy stories. These experiences properly cause distress to parents, and children’s fears commonly yield only a little and over time to whatever therapies have been devised. If fantasy stories can cause such disabling fears, even in a minority of children, perhaps we should abolish them? And perhaps they do much more undetected harm in inducing less acute anxieties in the great majority of children. Certainly, nearly all of us carry from childhood smaller or greater anxieties and they are sometimes consciously associated with frightening images generated by fantasy stories. Perhaps, as Plato suggested, fantasy stories undermine courage. They present to the child’s mind a world in which undefined but fearsome threats loom behind the facade of the everyday world. Our discouraging anxieties may start with monsters under the bed but the anxieties remain with us, less precisely focused, to interfere with our work and our relationships and to suck pleasure from our lives.

Some people argue, on the contrary, that fear-inducing elements in fantasy stories;battles, eyes being torn out with briars, the death of admired characters, powerful and destructive emotions, irrational hatred;are a valuable preparation for the real world; they induce precisely the kind of insecurity and expectation of danger that sanity in our world requires. As A.E. Housman put it:

The thoughts of others

Were light and fleeting,

Of lovers’ meeting

Or luck or fame.

Mine were of trouble,

And mine were steady,

So I was ready

When trouble came.

(1956, p. 166)

That is, fantasy stories’ disturbing features are a healthy preparation for a life that is unlikely to lack disturbances.

In dealing with this issue, it is useful to recognize some distinctions among the kinds of fear fantasy stories can induce. First, we can distinguish those monster-under-the-bed shivers, which we allow to exist for a thrilling moment, then put aside and go off to sleep contentedly. Second, there are persistent and disabling phobias that can keep children awake all night, and call for therapy of some kind. Third, are those that result from discovering that we are the inheritors of a world and human condition in which death, sex, violence, and other people rootedly hostile to our hopes, are inescapable parts.

The first and third kinds of fear are, it seems to me, generally beneficial. We have already seen strong arguments for fantasy providing an arena in which problematic elements of reality can be first encountered in a protected fashion. Fear within stories is one of the gifts of fiction; it allows us to expand our experience vicariously. Even if fantasy leaves us with anxieties, these can be part of a realistic preparation for life and need not be disabling.

The second kind of fear;the phobias;is more difficult. Some children do experience seriously disabling night-terrors, and day-terrors, associated with images generated from hearing fantasy stories. It may be the Cheshire cat’s persisting grin or the prince scaling Rapunzel’s hair or the icy White Queen of Narnia or long, blood-red finger-nails, or almost anything.

That “almost anything” is a clue we need to bear in mind. But the extent of some childrens’ distress apparently caused by fantasy demands that we consider whether we should not suppress it to spare them. C.S. Lewis describes how he suffered such phobias as a child, and adds his voice to those who make clear that the phobias are no “childish” matter. He also makes two points that may help us towards an answer to our question. First, such phobias are not “normal,” in the sense that they are an extreme response to elements of fantasy that cause a thrilling-fear delight for most children. The phobia has a psychological origin and the fantasy images, events, or characters provide a feared object on which to focus. That is, the phobic reaction is not so much caused as focused by the fantasy. The fact that “almost anything” can be the object for such phobic reactions, and that some children respond this way to seemingly random objects in their environment;a chair, yellow paper, blue flowers;suggests that fantasy’s role is to provide rich objects for phobias rather than actually to cause phobia in otherwise psychologically normal children. Having made this defensive argument on behalf of fantasy, however, I should concede that the vivid imaginative depths stirred by some fantastic images or events might extend a phobic reaction further than might have been the case if it had fixed on some simple physical object.

Lewis’s second point is that even if fantasy stories were responsible for creating the phobias or for making them worse than they might have been, they also bring an enriching enlargement of the imagination that he would not have traded for a more peaceful, less fearful childhood. It may be that fantasy allows the child imaginative resources to deal with the phobia that would not come into play were the phobia focused on some element of the everyday environment. We may not all agree with Lewis, but undoubtedly the aesthetic and other benefits of fantasy stories must be weighed against the fears they can stimulate.

Some parents are troubled by Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are; concerned that those weird and sharp-toothed monsters might evoke fears in children, invade their dreams and make them nightmares. The story of Max sailing off to where the wild things are is itself dream-like. Parents are often surprised by even very young children’s fascination with those monsters. Why are children fascinated, and will the book not give them nightmares? Who are these monsters to whom children respond so enthusiastically? Sendak describes his early childhood Sundays when he and his brother and sister were dressed up and had to sit in the living room with their adult relatives. Earlier I mentioned that children’s sense of taste is typically so much keener than adults’. The same is true of their eyesight. What the children saw, as they looked up to these looming adults, was “the most gruesome things, such as moles on noses and extra-long hairs coming out of noses . . . the bloodshot eyes, and . . . the very bad teeth” (1993, p15). We forget, again, the cruel clarity of childhood perception. Sendak also describes how, during the time before lunch on those tortured Sundays, when the food smells were coming in from the kitchen, the visiting relatives would pinch cheeks and observe “You look so good we could eat you up.” Plato talked about the difference between the literal and allegorical sense of such a sentence being unclear to children. It wouldn’t be taken literally by any normal child, of course. But the degrees of allegorical to literal meaning in understanding would likely differ from child to child. Enough confusion would remain in most children to make such endearments tinged with some ambiguity.

Whether Sendak is right in suspecting his relatives as the source of his Wild Things, it is clear that many children see identifiable adults in his drawings. The monstrousness is somehow less evident to them as their evident likeness to adults they know. He describes the entirely serious letters children send him, in which they ask “‘Do you know my aunt Martha?’ or worse, ‘Do you know my mother?'” (1993, p.14). What he does through the book is help the child domesticate the fears caused by these ugly looming adults. They aren’t so bad really; they can be controlled; you can get a sense of your power over them by staring them out–as Max brings his monsters under his control. Still, it is unflattering to think that we serve as templates for children’s images of monsters, but those blemishes we try to disguise in our appearance are monstrously clear to children’s eyes.

So while I think we need to be sensitive to the kind and degree of fear fantasy stories cause to particular children, I do not think that the phobic reactions of some children is adequate grounds to deprive all children of fantasy or even to keep fantasy from those children who respond with extreme fear. As for the depraved junk-fantasy so liberally available on T.V., parental control is called for. As Plato suggested, more attention should be given to the selection of the stories young children hear than to care of their bodies.


It is hard not to feel some sympathy for the argument that the disturbances and anxieties of everyday life will become clear to children soon enough. Their childhood stories need not rub their noses in the unavoidable distresses of life. Let their early fantasy stories project, if only for a few years, an untroubled world that highlights what is joyful about life. Such a view gave us much of the fantasy world of Disney;which was projected even in its “realistic” movies;in which all the animals are cute, all the people are exemplary or unmotivatedly wicked, and the dangers are never a real threat. Of course it isn’t real, it’s proponents know; but reality comes soon enough with its dirty boots into our lives.

“Happy-fantasy,” its critics assert, truly creates falsehood in children’s souls about reality. It paints a systematically false picture of both the natural and human worlds;a picture that highlights a superficial happiness and ignores all those features of the world and of the human condition that are inconvenient to its saccharined view. Such fantasy sets children up for brutal encounters with reality, without the preparation that more honest fantasy stories provide. A further dishonesty of this “happy-fantasy” is that it ignores the fact that, in most cases, young children’s minds are flexible and resiliently ready to accommodate to whatever are the conditions of reality; we are evolutionarily prepared to accommodate to whatever real-world conditions face us in early years. The dishonesty implicit in ignoring this fact is tied up in adults claiming that they are protecting young children from the distress of a world that includes disease and death, sex and jealousy, injustice and competition for limited resources, abusive exercise of power, poverty and deprivation, when they are really just “pretending to protect children from what adults are afraid to think about” (Grumet, in Silin, 1995, p. ).

One can easily take a tough-minded position against proponents of “happy-fantasy”, and crunch Disney under strong arguments like the above. In Disney’s favor, one might say its typical products try to recapture a kind of paradisal quality, suggesting nostalgia for the world before the Fall, providing a sense of the Garden of Eden. It tries to assure children that, whatever comes, the world and life are basically O.K.

But, of course, the point of the Eden story is disobedience and expulsion. “Happy-fantasy” most commonly does not admit much beyond a saccharined cuteness, inadequately motivated cheerfulness, absence of discord, sentimentality in place of genuine emotion, and power and authority as invariably, reliably, and invulnerably good. So, should we pass over such stories in our selection for children? While an occasional “meal” of junk-food seems to do little harm, except perhaps in utterly corrupting the child’s taste for good food, so “happy-fantasy” might occasionally do similar “little harm.” Except, one might sensibly be concerned with that corruption of their taste for real emotions by cheap and glittering substitutes. Gresham’s Law;debased coinage drives out good coinage;applies to children’s fantasy no less than to economics.

Well, perhaps that’s going over the top a little. I want to suggest that some of this genre might be fine, but am driven to recognize that it is false at the core. This does not mean that we should not have happiness in children’s fantasy stories, or happy endings, but that we need to distinguish between the happy-ending that is an invariable result of the happy world returning to its proper form–which is false– and the satisfactory closure that stories provide to chaos. But adults should read children’s stories with their literary judgement overt;don’t assume that quite different rules apply to children’s stories than to adult stories. C.S. Lewis suggested that only children’s stories that engage the adult are worthwhile for children. The key is to recognize genuine emotion and genuine human interactions (even among animal characters). If they are lacking, look elsewhere. The “happy-fantasy” genre, in my reading, generally comes up short on this criterion.

Will you take the bus or the magic carpet today?

The second half of the twentieth century has seen many books and articles extolling the benefits of fantasy stories for children (cf.. Lynn, 1989). A persistent theme of the discussions of fantasy is frustration that fantasy as a genre is not taken adequately seriously by established critics, and this frustration goes hand in hand with strong assertions of its great value to children in particular. Much of this writing looks like propaganda on behalf of fantasy;the claims are commonly unequivocal: fantasy is the most valuable attribute of the human mind; it enriches children’s spiritual development; it is the most important tool for orienting ourselves to reality; it is essential for psychological health, etc.

The note of propaganda is probably a result of past denunciations of “fantasy” or “phantasy” as a psychological disease. Or, if not a disease, a damaging dislocation from reality. We still commonly use this sense, as in “Oh, ignore that; its just a fantasy,” or “He’s living in a fantasy world.” This sense encouraged many parents to see some kind of connection between fantasy stories and psychological illness. Some parents, for instance, worry when their children invent imaginary friends, fearing a symptom of something wrong. The fantasy creatures and events in stories have been seen as encouraging children’s minds in the direction of unreality, dreaminess, impracticality, and a disenchantment with the real world in which a bus is a dreary let-down after one has heard about magic carpets.

In response, the pro-fantasy writers argue that this connection between fantasy and mental illness is not only wrong but actually quite the opposite of the truth; fantasy doesn’t distort reality but rather enriches our appreciation of it. C. S. Lewis brusquely claims that children “do not despise real woods because [they have] read of enchanted woods: the reading makes all real woods a little enchanted” (1982, p. 65).

I think one can take this argument further, and suggest that appreciation of fantasy is a prerequisite to the development of a range of intellectual skills. For example, the other main mode by which the mind gains a way of dealing with reality by engaging with unreality is what we call science. The central procedure of scientific thinking is the ability to abstract from the particularity of the empirical world and to generate theories about that particularity. Theories are most commonly about conditions that never actually exist;like bodies falling in perfect vacuums. By articulating a theory that describes ideal and non-existent conditions, however, one can make inferences and adjustments that make the theory applicable to the real world.

It may be too bold to claim that appreciation of fantasy is an essential prerequisite for flexible scientific understanding, but it is not a stupid or even implausible claim. Certainly that path from fantasy to science is the one followed in our cultural history (Cornford, 1912; Egan, 1997). It is less bold and even more plausible to claim that early recognition of the stark difference between fantasy and the everyday world is prerequisite to the “suspension of disbelief” that is necessary for an appreciation of fictional literature of any kind.

Lewis’s point about fantasy stories enchanting reality can lead us to another claim about its contribution to children’s intellectual development. Fantasy creates the sensthat there is something beyond or behind the surface of the everyday world. The sense of that mysterious something beyond or behind everyday reality can stimulate wonder and inquiry (Why? What? When? How? Why? Why? Why?–words with which any parent of a three year old becomes quickly over-familiar .) The ancient Greek word for inquiry was historia, and our sense of history involves a recognition that the world around us, and the world within us that comes along with language, is haunted by the actions, the hopes and fears, of endless generations before us. As I look out over the garden, I can see fruit trees, shrubs, vegetables, and flowers that are not native to this place. Their existence here is not “natural”; this everyday world I walk through is the surface product of an incomprehensibly complex history; my garden is full of ghosts. To see our world in this way, as a part of an historical process, utilizes the intellectual skill generated by the kind of fantasy Lewis refers to.

So what difference does it make to have a character travel by bus or by magic carpet? The image of traveling by magic carpet involves a sense of liberation. We don’t stop to think about wind-resistance and rainfall; if we take on the suspension of physics to the point of accepting a magic carpet, why balk at other laws? We do not, after all, ask where the Fairy Godmother resides when she isn’t helping Cinderella, nor what means of locomotion she uses. Lewis says that the acceptance of fantasy creates “a special kind of longing” (1982, p. 65). It is not a longing that the real world should be different, but a longing to be able to go through the mirror or the back of the wardrobe to worlds that enlarge and enrich our imaginative experience. Our bodies have pragmatic experiences, our minds have imaginative experiences; both are educationally important.

These fantasy worlds also have the significant emotional and spiritual value that they focus the mind away from the self. While children might make some casual association with Cinderella or Aladdin, they do not typically confuse their own circumstances and possibilities with those of the fairy tale characters. Rather than collapsing these characters to the child’s sense of self, an aesthetic delight carries the child to expand outward in the direction of Cinderella or Aladdin. This expansion away from the self is one of the values claimed by an early promoter of the educational, moral, and spiritual value of stimulating children’s imaginations with fantasy stories:

Oh! give us once again the wishing-cup

Of Fortunatus, and the invisible coat

Of Jack the Giant-Killer, Robin Hood,

And Sabra in the forest with St. George!

The child, whose love is here, at least, doth reap

One precious gain, that he forgets himself.

(Wordsworth, The Prelude, Bk. V, 340-5)

Magic carpets and invisible coats draw the imagination to others’ adventures. But that way of putting it is too simple, of course. The “longing” Lewis refers to is also a kind that creates templates for our future wishes within reality. The love of stories set in exotic lands may turn into a delight in travel and experiencing other cultures, and provide the courage to get up and go. While we may value fantasy for its various kinds of removal from everyday reality, it is useful to remember that our everyday real world is its arena of influence.


I think it fair to conclude that the accusation that fantasy stories confuse children’s minds is not in general true. The counter-argument that fantasy is a prerequisite both for a range of intellectual skills and for an imaginative and flexible engagement with reality is better warranted. Clearly there are cases where fantasy can combine with psychological problems and perhaps even make them worse. Even in the worst cases, where the mind “escapes from reality,” it may well be that fantasy provides some coping resources. The fantasy, in such cases, is only a symptom, perhaps a catalyst, of something darker, and the fantasy may be the child’s one beneficial tool.

The current interest in children’s minds and particularly topics like children’s fantasy seems connected to the post-Second World War boom in psychoanalyis in North America. As Maurice Sendac puts it “Most of us [those who were involved particularly in “reinventing” children’s books] were baptized into adulthood by psychoanalyis–you just didn’t make it in the 1950’s unless you went through therapy” (in Hearne, 1993, p.2). Whether the projection back onto childhood of an interest stimulated by, usually, Freudian analysis is a sure guide to children’s stories is open to question. But to suggest that fantasy is simply a category of fiction foisted onto the young is clearly wrong. Apart from the fact that it is universal, we can rely on the testimony of children. When asked what kinds of stories they like best, typical groups of first-graders name a wide variety of stories. But the top preferences, recorded in a wide survey of some time ago, were for “an animal who could talk,” “a prince and a princess,” and “a magic ring.” Least favorite were real-life stories about “what an astronaut does,” “a person on T.V.,” and “building a bridge” (Favat, 1977).

Lloyd Alexander, author of the wonderful Prydain Chronicles, says that we need to hold some clear distinction between the real and the imaginary: “I wouldn’t, for example, feel comfortable in an airplane if the pilot decided to hand over the controls to the Easter Bunny” (1993, p. 32). In the imaginary world, he distinguishes further between “illusions” and “delusions.” A delusion is a belief about reality, held despite unquestionable evidence to the contrary: “People whose delusions overstep a certain boundary usually go for treatment in mental hospitals; in extreme cases, they go into politics” (p. 34). Delusions are always more or less destructive, and they do not help understanding nor contribute to the abundance of life. Illusions, on the other hand, only seem to be real, but aren’t. Yet illusions can seem more real than reality, and “show facets of truth we never saw before” (p. 35). Illusion can lead towards enhancing life, and is, of course, the foundation of art. We can tie ourselves into endless philosophical knots investigating the odd and potent art that is spun with illusions, with such stuff as dreams are made on. It can affect us as much as or even more than the real-world events of our lives, and yet we do well to come back to the realisation that “it has the value of simply giving pleasure” (p. 42).

Fantasy comes along with language; it is the fulfillment of a genetic potential, and like any fulfillment of our genetic potentials, like satisfaction of hunger, relaxation after hard work, sexual ecstasy, so the exercise of our potential for fantasy first and last delivers pleasure.

Kieran Egan