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The need for a fantasy world

Jai Arjun Singh | May 10, 2006

Novels and stories that present the world as seen through a child's perspective often have these elements in common: a heightened sense of how frightening (and, in the case of overly sensitive children, lonely) the world can be for a young child; the callousness of classmates; the hegemony of adults, who hold all the aces; the need for a fantasy world where all the limitations of the real one don't exist.

David Mitchell's much-anticipated new novel, Black Swan Green, presents a year in the life of young Jason Taylor as he deals with the many terrors of adolescence -- a nasty stammering problem, a group of bullies at school, news of the Falklands War between England and Argentina, the dark clouds that are gathering over his parents' marriage.

Here are some other examples of stories that deal with the disconnection felt by precocious children or adolescents:

Calvin & Hobbes: Bill Watterson's great series is, of course, first and foremost a very entertaining comic strip, treasured by millions of newspaper readers all over the world. But the subtexts in Calvin & Hobbes run much deeper than surface appearances suggest. This is the story of an extremely smart kid who sees the world very differently from the way most others (including adults) around him do, and who responds by building fantasy worlds that are much more immediate and compelling than the real one.

Two short stories: Saki's haunting Sredni Vashtar, about a terminally ill child named Conradin, his tyrannical guardian who is determined to deny him every little pleasure, and the polecat-ferret Conradin keeps at the back of the garden; and Roald Dahl's The Wish, an incredibly compelling tale about a little boy inventing a game to be played on a colourful carpet in his house: he has to cross over to the other side by avoiding the reds (which represent fiery coals that will 'burn him up completely' if he touches them) and the blacks (which are poisonous serpents). Dahl's great achievement here is to make it completely irrelevant that this is just make-believe; by the end of the story, the dangers of the carpet are as real to the reader as they are to the child.

J D Salinger's iconic The Catcher In The Rye has been over-analysed to the point of exhaustion. But its simplicity shines through no matter how many times you read it: Holden Caulfield's disillusionment with the phoniness of the world is something all of us have, at some point or other, related to.

L P Hartley's The Go-Between, about a young boy who becomes a messenger (and a pawn) in the clandestine love affair between a brusque farmer and young noblewoman. He has a strong emotional connection with both people, but they are preoccupied with their own feelings and dismissive of his; he's only a child, after all.

Among Charles Dickens' novels, Oliver Twist might seem to be the classic example, but read the opening passages of Great Expectations with young Pip meeting the escaped convict in the graveyard: "My first most vivid and broad impression of the identity of things seems to me to have been gained on a memorable raw afternoon towards evening. At such a time I found out for certain that this bleak place overgrown with nettles was the churchyard´┐Ż" Though Pip grows to adulthood soon enough, the tone set in these early chapters haunts the rest of the book.

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