In May 2019, I attended the Newington College Festival of Literature. It was a thrilling and, at times, overwhelming experience. Over the course of three packed days, I ran 10 one-hour workshops with hundreds of inspired and inspiring students.
With Years 7-9 I explored the relationship between fantasy literature, fairy tale and myth. First up, a show of hands … who loves fantasy? Each time, around 80 percent of hands soared high. And yet, rather than ask the lovers of the genre for their reasons why, I wanted to interrogate the skeptics. What held them back? For most, it was a sense that fantasy bore no relationship to reality that drove wide the gap between the reader and the tale. And yet, intriguingly, for those who loved the genre, it was a strongly perceived sense of reality that drew them into fantasy, whether through powerful world building, character, or a sense of moral meaning. Each time I threw down a challenge to the skeptics: I would change their minds by workshop’s end, or at least persuade them to take another look at the genre they maligned.
After a brief tour of myth and fantasy from antiquity to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the students were introduced to G.K. Chesterton’s famous dictum that, “Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had a imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.” Via Neil Gaiman, this idea is now most familiar to many readers rendered, “Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” The students were asked to consider which dragons of the human heart the beasts that haunt our dreams (and novels) represent.
We then explored J.R.R. Tolkien’s concept of “sub-creation”, and looked at the role of creation myths in fantasy (sub-sub-creation!), comparing the genesis tales of Middle-earth, Narnia, Earthsea and my own world of Salila in Empire of the Waves. Delving into the Ainulindalë from Tolkien’s The Silmarillion and the birth of Narnia in The Magician’s Nephew, we looked at the Biblical influences on these two great modern myths, and then compared the Taoist influence upon The Earthsea Cycle of Ursula Le Guin. We considered ways that the philosophical and metaphysical perspective of an author shapes their world building. Taoist influence in Le Guin, for instance, led to a radically different vision of the dragons in The Earthsea Cycle to those of Catholic Tolkien. Whereas dragons in Middle-earth were the creations of a satanic Melkor in enmity with godlike Eru Ilúvatar’s humans and elves, the dragons in The Earthsea Cycle are revealed to have common ancestry with humanity, forming two parts of a whole. I read to the students from the creation myths in Empire of the Waves and asked them to consider points of similarity and difference between my own writing and its antecedents.
The students were intrigued to learn that both Tolkien and C.S. Lewis were veterans of the Somme and had witnessed the worst of humanity at war. For them, fantasy was no mere flight of fancy. As Professor Tolkien argued in his 1939 Andrew Lang Lecture at the University of St. Andrews, later published as Tree and Leaf: “Why should a man be scorned, if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than gaolers and prison-walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it … [Critics of fantasy] are confusing, not always by sincere error, the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter.” I asked the students to consider the difference between the Escape of the Prisoner and the Flight of the Deserter, and they launched into a spirited discussion about their favourite fantasy tales, noting how J.K. Rowling, Rick Riordan, Jessica Townsend, John Flanagan, Philip Pullman and others engaged with the deepest questions about human experience. The “flight of the deserter”, as one suggested, would be a flight into addiction, for example, rather than a trip to Narnia, Hogwarts or Middle-earth.
Comparing the systematic sub-creative approach to world building of J.R.R. Tolkien and Ursula Le Guin with the more eclectic and disorderly approach to world building in the works of C.S. Lewis, the students discovered two radically different, yet equally effective, ways to approach their own fantasy creations. By the end, even the hardned skeptics in the room had conceded that, even if the genre was not always to their taste, it was far from desertion from reality!
Over three days, librarians Ann Jagger and Sabine Tanase ran a festival that would be the envy of any great city. Tristan Bancks delivered a rousing opening address and a host of authors captivated thousands of students across three campuses. On the second evening there was even a light show from the creators of Vivid. It is not every day an author sees their name and creations up in lights! With Michael Parker as Headmaster – an English teacher and published YA author himself – there are few schools so steeped in books.
For me, three highlights stood out from so many: I had the pleasure of working with two groups that were studying my novel as a class text (a surreal dream-come-true moment for any author). And, beyond my originally scheduled nine, I also had the opportunity to deliver one additional workshop, to Year Twelve Legal Studies and History students about North Korea and my PhD research.
I was honoured that the great Australian author Susanne Gervay went out of her way to attend that talk. Finally, I was thankful for my student volunteer Lachlan Griffiths, an exceptional guide and colleague for my three days at the festival and the first Year 9 student I have yet to meet who shares my love of Soviet science fiction cinema.
Thank you to all for a tremendous festival!
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