Newington College Festival of Literature 2019: Salila, Narnia, Middle-earth & North Korea

Newington College Festival of Literature 2019: Salila, Narnia, Middle-earth & North Korea

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. 

With a class group study­ing ‘Empire of the Waves’ as a set text

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. 

New­ing­ton Head­mas­ter & author Michael Park­er dis­cuss­es the pow­er of lit­er­a­ture to shape the world
Anni Tidechild up in lights!

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. 

Dis­cussing North Korea with Year 12 Legal Stud­ies & His­to­ry Students

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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