Imaginary Kingdoms: On the Power of Literature That Speaks to Children and Adults Alike

Stephen Prickett Considers J.R.R. Tolkien, Lewis Carroll, and the Power of Blending Fantasy with Reality

“Platform Nine and Three-Quarters (Platform 9 ¾) is a platform at King’s Cross Station in London. Magically concealed behind the barrier between Muggle Platforms Nine and Ten, this Platform is where Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry students board the Hogwarts Express on 1 September, in order to attend school. In order for someone to get onto Platform Nine and Three-Quarters, they must walk directly at the apparently solid metal ticket box dividing Platforms Nine and Ten. There is a guard stationed just outside the entrance, in order to regulate entries and exits from the platform.”

So reads the internet entry on “Platform Nine and Three-Quarters.” By now most readers, even those who have not actually read J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, will recognize the reference. Another internet entry, this time by the genuine station management at King’s Cross, reads:

Look out for a luggage trolley embedded in the wall, and you can pretend you are off to start your magical school journey. The trolley is accessible at all hours, and you don’t have to pay to take your own photographs. You can have a professional photograph taken with a scarf in your house colours, which is then available for you to view and purchase inside the Harry Potter shop next door. The professional photographer is on hand between 9 AM and 9 PM daily. Queues for the trolley can get busy during school holidays and festive periods—visit early to make sure you’re one of the first in line!

There is, of course, a back-story here. The station management had become so tired of children trying to crash trolleys into the brick pillars between the genuine platforms 9 and 10, not to mention dealing with numerous damaged trolleys, that they turned a destructive fiction into a commercially profitable reality with this rather ingenious embedded trolley in the open concourse—well away from the actual platforms concerned. Next door is a licensed shop dealing in all manner of Harry Potter memorabilia and complete with (presumably) a rota of professional photographers. Also worth noting is the fact that of over 160 pictures of people pretending to push this trolley through the wall, only three are children. The rest are variegated adults—presumably pretending to be children.

One is of two Catholic priests. There is also a disproportionate number of visitors from China, where apparently the Harry Potter series is wildly popular. Such is the worldwide power of fiction . . . Turning an inoffensive (if now somewhat battered) brick wall into a vast imaginary space—complete with shops, and a steam express train heading somewhere North (it is not clear whether Hogwarts is in England or Scotland, or is simply in a further extension of the imaginary space so entered at King’s Cross)—is one of the most extraordinary achievements of J.K. Rowling: perhaps even unparalleled. But, of course, imaginary worlds for children are by no means unique to her.

Indeed all children’s worlds are an inextricable mixture of fantasy and reality. We all have our own personal memories of our childhood—not to mention stories about the imagined worlds of other childhoods. One child I know of (not mine) when, about two-and-a-half, disappeared under the table at a motorway café and reappeared to announce that he and his imaginary friend Dees (making his first appearance on this occasion) had been parking their yaks. During the ensuing year it turned out that Dees had relatives with further yaks, so that whenever he did not want to do something (such as going to the dentist) he would explain that he had 93 yaks to park before he could enter. This, naturally, might take some time . . . Another child—a girl confined to her bed for two years from the age of 12 and told by her doctors that she might never walk normally again—composed dramatic short stories, plays and even operas (an art-form which she had never encountered).

Our problem is that by their very nature all but a tiny fraction of such imagined worlds vanishes with childhood itself. We are left with the few—the very few—records of those who in some way or another have tried to write down descriptions of their worlds—and of these, by definition, the vast majority have become books written by adults for children, even fewer of which have gone on to be recognized as great literature. Such literary worlds tend to have a logic and lasting power far greater than most actual children’s worlds—yaks or no yaks.

To this there is one glaring exception: the Brontë children: Charlotte (1816–55), Emily (1814–48) and Anne (1820–49), together with their brother, Branwell (1817–48), collectively and perhaps uniquely wrote down in detail the childhood stories they composed about an imaginary world. Indeed, given their laborious attempts to reproduce print format, it is clear that they always saw their stories in terms of “publications.” The stories of Lorraine, the Islanders, and the more famous Angria and Gondal seem to have been written by the children from 1826 onwards for much of the following decade. Their sources include a box of toy soldiers, given to the 11-year-old Branwell by his father in 1827, Aesop’s Fables, the Arabian Nights, articles in Blackwood’s Magazine, a copy of Scott’s The Tales of a Grandfather (given by an aunt at New Year in 1828) and Thomas Bewick’s profusely illustrated History of British Birds—with its famously ironic “tail-pieces.” The earliest surviving story, written down by Branwell, describes imaginary intrigues and battles in “Lorraine.”

Later adventures in these imaginary kingdoms include a round of political rivalries, battles, rebellions and sieges. They reveal, among other things, the degree to which the children had effectively absorbed and imagined the ever changing and increasing global knowledge of the 1820s. Their imaginary geography spans the world and reflects the wars, politics and love affairs that the children had read about in the books mentioned above, and in magazines; or had heard of from their elders. The Great Glass Town—later re-named Verdopolis—arises (magically) in the Niger delta of West Africa. The Glass Town Federation is later joined by a new kingdom, that of Angria to the east, in part to defend Glass Town from encroaching Ashanti tribes, aided by Arab allies—and (of course) the dastardly French.

Gondal, on the other hand, is an island on the other side of the globe, somewhere in the North Pacific, which is large enough to contain no fewer than four kingdoms ruled by rival families, not to mention the newly discovered South Pacific island of Gaaldine. This world was occupied by a strange mixture of real and imagined figures, who in some sense represented their creators. Thus Charlotte adopted the persona of the Duke of Wellington; Branwell first tries Napoleon, and later someone called “Sneaky”; while Emily and Anne choose the arctic explorers Parry and Ross respectively as their favored alter egos.

All children’s worlds are an inextricable mixture of fantasy and reality. We all have our own personal memories of our childhood—not to mention stories about the imagined worlds of other childhoods.

The stories, poems and plays of these vast imaginary spaces are always described as “juvenilia”—childhood writings—and so, of course, they are. But these are on a scale quite different from, say, those of the children’s near contemporary Jane Austen (1775–1817), who has also left us quite a collection of works from her childhood. There, however, the concentration is on social and emotional satire rather than geographical space, and the overall volume is somewhat smaller. In contrast, by the time Charlotte Brontë was 24, in 1840, her own manuscripts about this imaginary world were longer than all her later published novels put together.

Even stranger, perhaps, is the one known attempt to write an adult social novel by a Victorian child: The Young Visiters (sic) by Daisy Ashcroft (1881–1972). The story of Mr Salteena, who is “not quite a gentleman” but wishes to become one, was written in 1890 by Ashcroft at the age of nine. Each (fairly short) chapter consists of a single paragraph and is full of spelling mistakes. In 1917, when Ashcroft was 36, she rediscovered her story in an old exercise book, and lent it to a friend recovering from illness. Passed around among other friends, it eventually reached the hands of a now-forgotten novelist, Frank Swinnerton (1884–1982), who was also a reader for the publishers Chatto and Windus. He persuaded them to publish it—which they did with a preface by J.M. Barrie. It was an instant success—reprinted 18 times in 1919, the year of its publication. It was turned into a play in 1920 (running first in London and then in New York), a musical in 1968, a full-length film in 1984, and a TV version in 2003.

The plot can easily be summarized. While the 17-year-old Ethel Monticue is staying with Alfred Salteena, “an elderly man of 42,” they are invited to visit a wealthy friend, Bernard Clark, who quickly falls for Ethel. Alfred consults his friend about how to become a gentleman. Though suitably doubtful if this can be achieved, Bernard nevertheless agrees to provide an introduction to the Earl of Clincham—who, like many aristocrats, lives in a “compartment” in the Crystal Palace. While there, Salteena is introduced by Clincham as “Lord Hyssops” to the Prince of Wales. Discovering that in his absence Bernard and Ethel have become engaged and married, Alfred is devastated and marries a maid at Buckingham Palace on the rebound. Clincham also marries—but, alas, not happily.

That children’s books should be written for children (usually specific children) rather than by children is hardly surprising. But it does suggest that the further question of the boundary sometimes erected between writing “for children” and for the rest of us is an entirely false one (the term “adult literature” seems to have acquired a rather different meaning!). As I have argued elsewhere, the word “literature” acquired its current principal meaning of writing with intrinsic value over and above its ostensible meaning only as late as the end of the eighteenth century. It is, in that sense, a Romantic concept. It is also a definition that does not take well to sub-categories. Great literature is oddly audience-blind. To debate whether Alice in Wonderland is a book for children or adults is a complete waste of time. The original, Alice’s Adventures Underground, was composed impromptu and told on a particular summer afternoon on the river at Oxford to the Liddell children. The reconstructed and published version has subsequently been read, loved, studied, translated, argued over and quoted all across the world by children, teenagers, adults, astronomers, mathematicians, particle physicists and almost anyone else you care to think of. Similarly Gulliver’s Travels, originally, as we have seen, a biting political satire, is neither a children’s book nor an adult’s.

Both are well established works of literature. Period. Nevertheless to qualify as “literature” a work usually has to pass two essential tests. The first is that it has proved popular over several changes of fashion—which means, in effect, that it has stayed in print for more than two or three generations. By this test, Alice in Wonderland passes with flying colors; but we have not got, and will not have for some time, any evidence for the lasting power of Rowling’s Harry Potter books. Who knows if giggling teenagers, not to mention Catholic priests, will be being photographed by Platform Nine and Three-Quarters at King’s Cross in 50 years’ time? But equally, who now remembers Mary Fairclough’s Miskoo the Lucky, a beautifully illustrated book published to great critical acclaim in 1947? On the other hand, Kathleen Hale’s Orlando books, published a decade earlier, from 1938 onwards, are still in print. As we have seen, Carroll’s Alice books (though not the two-volume Sylvie and Bruno) and Rudyard Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill have received the critical attention they deserve, while George MacDonald’s or E. Nesbit’s fairy stories have also remained in print over the same period, though flying under the academic radar with much less critical comment.

Great literature is oddly audience-blind. To debate whether Alice in Wonderland is a book for children or adults is a complete waste of time.

The second test is that of influence. How much have they altered subsequent writing? As mentioned earlier, Lewis Carroll, Charles Kingsley and George MacDonald were all friends who circulated manuscripts between them for approval and comment. Alice was first tested by being read aloud to the MacDonald children who voted for publication—Greville MacDonald (1856–1954), the eldest, declared there should be “sixty thousand copies.” It was this group of fantasy writers that laid the foundations on which later writers such as Kipling and Nesbit were to build so successfully. Nor should we ignore the more satirical wit of Dickens, Lear or Thackeray who, in turn, all helped to fashion and influence the development of fantasy into the twentieth century, turning a small and eccentric form into a rich and on-going tradition which has grown in the past century and a half to be a major literary genre and source of such Hollywood blockbusters as The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, the Harry Potter series and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, to name only the most obvious.

I refer to “the genre” as if fantasy, at least, were a recognized literary category. But of course the slightest knowledge of the field immediately dissolves any clear boundaries between genres sometimes assumed by bibliographers or cataloguers. Not merely is the frontier between “fantasy” and, say, “science fiction” not an obvious one—H.G. Wells surely wrote both—but even definitions of “realism” and “fantasy” are far from being clear-cut. It is, for instance, often assumed that, except for the five “Christmas books,” Dickens was a “realist”—indeed, a writer whose descriptions of nineteenth-century England are sometimes cited as an axiomatic definition of realism—grim and sordid. Yet those who read The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, Containing a Faithful Record of the Perambulations, Perils, Travels, Adventures and Sporting Transactions of the Corresponding Members as being in any sense “realism” clearly don’t recognize comic fiction when they see it—still less are they likely to be aware that it was commissioned by the publishers, Chapman and Hall, as a light-hearted skit to accompany a series of comic prints on the lines of the then very popular Tom and Jerry by the then much better-known artist Robert Seymour (1798–1836), who died before the series was complete. He was replaced by “Phiz” (Hablot K. Browne [1815–82]) who, contrariwise, made his name as an illustrator of Dickens. With this in mind, a re-reading of The Old Curiosity Shop, or Our Mutual Friend might suggest an equal degree of unreality. Indeed, one reading of Great Expectations would see it as a clash between fantasy (Pip’s “expectations”) and the less comfortable reality of his manipulation by Miss Havisham and Estella. Yet a reality that includes Miss Havisham and Magwitch (even if, as has been claimed, actual examples of both can be found) is hardly the “realism” Dickens is sometimes acclaimed for.

To avoid such problematic questions, “fantasy” is sometimes confined to the portrayal of clearly delineated “other worlds,” but while this may work for MacDonald, and much of Nesbit, it immediately loses the whole of Lear and Thackeray and large parts of Kipling—not merely the Jungle Books, but The Bridge Builders, The Brushwood Boy and even The Gardener—all of which are set very much in this world, but none of which are by any stretch of the imagination “realistic.” Like all really important words (think “romanticism”; think “political”. . .) the reality is usually recognizable but evades all precise definitions. The best we can usually do is to say something to the effect that we can recognize it when we encounter it.

I first read The Hobbit at the age of about ten and immediately recognized how much more vivid and interesting it was than my own inventions, which paled by comparison with a world that contained dwarves, elves, goblins, shape-shifters, trolls, wizards, eagles and dragons —not to mention hobbits, whom I had (naturally) never heard of before. Though the supposedly “adult” Lord of the Rings added even more strange creatures, such as the barrowwights, slow-moving ents, whatever octopus-like creature lurked in the lake outside Moria, and Balrogs, nothing in it quite matched up to the freshness of The Hobbit. But this probably reflects my age when I first read both works: which may well tell us more about the power of children’s imaginations than it does about the books in question.

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Excerpted from Secret Selves: A History of Our Inner Space by Stephen Prickett. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Bloomsbury Publishing. Copyright © 2021 by Stephen Prickett. 

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Stephen Prickett
Stephen Prickett was an Honorary Professor of English at the University of Kent at Canterbury and Regius Professor Emeritus of English Language and Literature at the University of Glasgow, UK. He authored 10 books and edited nine volumes, including Reader in European Romanticism (Bloomsbury, 2010), which was winner of the Jean-Pierre Barricelli Prize. During a career that began in the late 60s, Professor Prickett taught in the UK, US, Australia, Denmark, Italy, Singapore and Nigeria. He was a Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities, Fellow of the English Association, former Chairman of the UK Higher Education Foundation and was a former President of the European Society for the Study of Literature and Theology.





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