Children’s fantasy literature, which is believed to have stemmed from the literary tradition of the folktale, has frequently been the platform on which to illustrate dynamic transitions in cultural beliefs and practices. As this genre is fantasy specifically addressed to children, it often provides an idealistic “second world” that allows child characters and readers alike to explore themselves independently from the real world. The realm of the fantastic provides an outlet for characters and readers that is separate from, and thus not a threat to, the societal norms of a civilization. Children’s fantasy literature further explores the moral conflicts and integrity of a character in the safety of a setting that does not exist. The fantastic is an exploration of the imagination, facilitating the wonders of the fantastic so that readers can explore themselves and their beliefs amidst a world that is irregular. Fantastic characters exist in a world “in which chaos is ultimately dispelled and virtue rewarded” (Zipes 552). Although the fantastic exists in a world that is make-believe, the themes and morals which these texts explore highlight many elements of humanity.
However, from their origins, the children’s literature and fantasy genres did not necessarily blend smoothly. The beginning of children’s literature was made up largely of instructional works or conduct books: books and stories meant to teach children about the roles they played (and would one day play) in society. Elements of the fantastic, which had little or nothing to do with the “real world,” were often seen as the enemy to instructional texts. Thus, “the earliest fantasies for young readers attempted to marry whimsy with moral purpose” (Zipes 553). These texts taught lessons about proper behavior and manners that were expected of children through the use of fantastic elements: magical creatures, other worlds, etc. This was followed by a “deep interest in children and childhood” (553) which permeated the early Victorian era in British literature, and near the end of the Victorian era, a growth in the agency of the child as an individual. Meanwhile, early children’s fantasy literature in America was met with even more hesitation due to the strictness of Puritan beliefs which permeated many colonial societies. Folktales (and, thus, the fantastic) were viewed as unnecessary for young readers, and to some readers they were even considered a distraction from the present, and less favored than realist literature. In the end, though, the fantastic in America, just like in England, began to attract readers as the imagined began to blend with the real.
This thesis explores seven texts from the children’s fantasy literature genre from the mid-Victorian period with Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) to the end of the 20th century with J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (1997). In between are works by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1849-1924), J.M. Barrie (1860-1937), C.S. Lewis (1898-1963), E.B. White (1899-1985), and Katherine Paterson (1932-present). All of these demonstrate some variety of a fictional “other world” in which the main character(s) are forced to face conflicts and the development of their own morality. Evolving from the emphasis on etiquette and proper social conduct that exists in both Victorian and Edwardian literature (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, A Little Princess, Peter Pan), characters in later eras must face moral dilemmas of good the importance of its defeat of evil. Authors C.S. Lewis and J.K. Rowling portray characters who the reader understands to be innately good, and who must address and/or defeat evil in some form in order to survive. Additionally, these characters, as well as characters in the novels by White and Paterson can be considered protagonists of coming-of-age stories. These characters face moral dilemmas that aid in defining them as individuals and help shape them toward adulthood. This exploration of morality often emulates but is not reserved to the “proper” morality at the time of the novels’ publications.
These seven novels were selected primarily because they portray characters who both follow and defy social norms through their actions and discoveries in the realm of the fantastic. Carroll, Burnett, Barrie, Lewis, White, Paterson, and Rowling all create worlds that are separate from those which are known to their main characters as “reality,” and within which their characters explore moral complexities through behavior that is both acceptable and unacceptable. All seven novels are also ones of which I had had prior knowledge as influential works of literary children’s fiction before developing this thesis. The gap of time between the novels Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and A Little Princess (1905) is largely due to the fact that in many of the texts which I considered, there did not appear to be a significant enough distinction in the main character’s moral change or separation from the societal norm. Simultaneously, the work would have needed to belong to the children’s fantasy literature genre, not simply be a fairy tale or work of children’s literature, and I had difficulty finding texts that fit these specific parameters.
Additionally, my selection of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess (1905) rather than her other well-known classic The Secret Garden (1911), allows my essay to examine elements of imagination and fantasy which occur to a greater extent in A Little Princess. Sara actively fantasizes much of her life after being left without money or family. Rather than live in the world of reality, one in which she is poor and treated as a servant at Miss Minchin’s boarding school, Sara chooses to live in a fantastic world of her own creation where she adopts powerful, fictional other-selves like those of a princess and Marie Antoinette. Sara, too, much like the majority of the characters in the texts listed above, is nearly wholly self-reliant due to the fact that many of the adults that surround her are useless or biased against her.
This thesis will explore the types of moral changes that have occurred to independent child characters over the course of seven novels: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, A Little Princess, Peter Pan, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Charlotte’s Web, Bridge to Terabithia, and Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone; all of which establish a secondary world where the rules and societal beliefs of the novels’ real-world setting do not apply. This thesis will also analyze themes of morality, defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as the “branch of knowledge concerned with right and wrong conduct, duty, responsibility, etc.” (OED), in each of the seven texts as well as how these works come together as a whole. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, A Little Princess, and Peter Pan all demonstrate ideologies and traits of either the Victorian or Edwardian periods of literature with a pressing emphasis on the propriety of behavior. However, in these novels—like the works analyzed in this thesis which come after them—the main characters are often independent of these traits, and while they appear to adhere to the societal beliefs of the time, their actions often contradict this. The remaining four novels are linked in their common traits of coming-of-age novels which become more popular later in the 20th century, in which moral conflict and growth aid in the transition of child to adult. Likewise, they share the emphasis of good versus evil; particularly in the works The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. These two novels, although published nearly fifty years apart, feature themes of the importance of good overcoming evil and characters’ moral growth while in the realm of the fantastic, which translate to characters’ growth in the real world of the novel.