Children's/Coming-of-Age, Fantasy/Sci-Fi, Modern Detour

Review of The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making

FairylandbyCatherynneValente.jpgWhat was it about?

While washing dishes one day, twelve-year-old September is suddenly whisked away from her home in Omaha, Nebraska to Fairyland by the Green Wind and the Leopard of Little Breezes. She befriends a wyvern named A-Through-L, saves a marid named Saturday, and goes on a mission to retrieve a sword for the Marquess, who is the dictator of Fairyland. September struggles to understand Fairyland, remember the Green Wind’s rules, and escape from the traps set by the Marquess. The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente is the first book of the Fairyland series, which ended this year. It is an adventure in the tradition of Alice in WonderlandThe Neverending Story, and The Wizard of Oz. September goes on a quest to save her friends from the Marquess even though she’d rather return home to her mother.

What did I think of it?

This is a strange book. The creatures are odd and the rules of Fairyland are so unlike those of our world. I found it hard at times to follow the action and remember the prohibitions. The Green Wind gives September a list of prohibitions at the beginning of the adventure, but I must admit that I forgot them immediately after they were named. Still, the story was straightforward enough that a middle-schooler could reasonably follow it. I liked how it was hard for September to categorize the creatures she met. A-Through-L looks like a dragon, but he believes he is half-library (!). Saturday looks like a fairy, but he only grants wishes if he is forced into submission. We, like September, have to learn about Fairyland mostly from scratch. Our expectations are constantly called into question. The characters are multi-dimensional; nothing is black or white. It looks like the Fairyland series will break common fairy-tale tropes. I do worry though about the direction the story is taking. I was not fully satisfied with the twist at the end of the first book. The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making is not the first fairy-tale adventure ever written. I have read plenty. Some I’ve loved (such as The Neverending StoryThe Little Prince, and Gulliver’s Travels) and some I’ve not liked as much (such as The Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland). Late medieval religious and secular literature has also exposed me to quite a lot of allegory, so if an author employs allegory it better be good. I have very high expectations. I was not disappointed by the first book in the Fairyland series, but it didn’t wow me. It is simply too soon for me to tell whether I will love the series or not. I may need to reread the first book before continuing because (as I indicated) I forgot a lot of details.

Favorite Quote

“That’s what happens to friends, eventually. They leave you. It’s practically what they’re for.”

Literary Miscellanea

Literary Miscellanea: On Fairy Stories by J.R.R. Tolkien

TolkienI learned about this essay by J.R.R. Tolkien from M. Landers, a blogger whose blog you should check out because it is excellent. M. Landers is also a cartoonist.

At 27 PDF pages, On Fairy Stories is a very long essay. Although I am generally not a slow reader, it took me 3 hours to read it! I will include a link to this essay at the end of the post so that you can read it in part or in its entirety if you wish. I don’t, however, want to burden you with a long essay on a Saturday. Instead of merely leaving a link to the essay, I will share my personal reflections with you, underlining the salient points.

A Summary + My Thoughts

J.R.R. Tolkien begins his essay by describing what fairy stories are not. Fairy stories are distinct from beast-fables (ex. Peter Rabbit), dreams (ex. Alice in Wonderland), and travelers tales (ex. Gulliver’s Travels). To Tolkien, fairy stories must not take place in a faraway region of the Primary World; that is, the world in which we exist. Rather, fairy stories should take place in a Secondary World created by the storyteller. There are many reasons why a fairy story may be written. Some of these include the desire “to survey the depths of space and time. Another is (as will be seen) to hold communion with other living things” (p. 5 of  the PDF). In short, fairy stories are written for “the satisfaction of certain primordial human desires” (Ibid). 

Instead of exploring the origins of fairy stories like anthropologists tend to do, Tolkien maintains that all fairy stories emerge from a primordial storytelling soup. This soup (more like a witch’s cauldron) contains the symbols and themes that embody all true fairy stories. King Arthur may have been an insignificant king in his lifetime but when King Arthur is thrown into the “soup”, he becomes a legendary hero. While I agree that heroes embody the values of the people who venerate them, it seems to me that as society changes, the storytelling soup can also change- even drastically. Does the soup from which Medieval epic poems emerged  resemble the soup from which Ancient Egyptian heroic stories emerged? Do the symbols mean the same things in both stories? These are some of the questions I asked myself while reading this section of the essay.

According to Tolkien, there are three facets to fairy stories: “the Mystical towards the Supernatural; the Magical toward Nature; and the Mirror of scorn and pity toward Man” (p.9). This essayist is not a fan of modern technology. He decries the ugliness of human inventions. Fairy stories (and fantasy stories in general) are valuable because they explore human desires and challenge the bad aspects of a society that tend to be taken for granted. As such, fantasy is very much like science fiction in intent. The difference between the two genres is that science fiction envisions a world that is extremely technologically-advanced while fantasy embraces the natural elements.

To me, the most valuable part of the essay is the section under the heading “Children”. Like Lewis, Tolkien has much to say to critics of fantasy stories. While these critics think fairy stories are only suitable for young children, Tolkien maintains that fantasy is the highest literary art form. Much of the criticism is based on a false understanding of the purpose behind fantasy (hence the reason why the first half of the essay deals with the origins of fairy stories) and of children. Children don’t hear fairy stories and think that ogres and dragons could live next door. Many adults think that children love fairy stories because they are naive enough to think that they are true. Tolkien admits that he came to love and appreciate fairy stories more as an adult. If children read and enjoy fairy stories it is because they are people (like adults) who have an innate desire for beauty and truth. “A real taste for fairy-stories was wakened by philology on the threshold of manhood, and quickened to full life by war” (p.14).

Fantasy stories are written because the creators are not satisfied with the so-called “real world” that critics so insist on praising. Certain scientists (I’m thinking of Richard Dawkins) cannot see humans as anything more than beasts. Critics blame fairy stories for blurring the line between humans and beasts, but are not scientists doing that now? While I accept the theory of evolution by natural selection (and hope to one day be a scientist) I could never conclude that humans are nothing more than flesh and bones. Without literature and religion I would go mad. Fantasy is escapist, and Tolkien thinks that is the genre’s greatest strength. How can railroads, bombs, and televisions be more real than the wind, sea, and sky? All technologies become obsolete. The “real world” is not as consistent or as real as critics claim. Good fantasy seeks to recover what is true and beautiful in history. It is not content with the way things are. There are ideals.

So many people think that the greatest fantasy stories have already been written, but Tolkien doesn’t agree. New and interesting fantasy can always be written, but he cautions against using more violence and darkness to spice up a story. Here is what he recommends instead:

“But the true road of escape from such weariness is not to be found in the wilfully awkward, clumsy, or misshapen, not making all things dark or unremittingly violent; nor in the mixing of colours on through subtlety to drabness, and the fantastical complication of shapes to the point of silliness and on towards delirium. Before we reach such states we need recovery. We should look at green again, and be startled anew (but not blinded) by blue and yellow and red. We should meet the centaur and the dragon, and then perhaps suddenly behold, like the ancient shepherds, sheep, and dogs, and horses – and wolves. This recovery fairy-stories help us to make. In that sense only a taste for them may make us, or keep us, childish” (p.19).  

Here is the essay in its entirety.