Thursday, 14 October 2010

Childhood Disclosure – The longings, ideals and possibilities of magic in youth and children’s literature

Children seem to know about consciousness, regardless of how we as adults come to define that mysterious process. Children seem to know about magic, too. Is it a stretch to say that all perception in youth is inherently magical? Perhaps it is not that children or the adults who write stories for them long to be ensconced in the impossible or ideal – a magical world disclosed to them in which they can revel eternally – but that they might have a way into magic and back again; or, more suitably, an open path between them.

This article posits that many children already sense a certain truth about life, that it has powerful magical/mystical aspects to it – and that such children often turn to stories for full disclosure of that fact. This writer would also add that the adults writing or reading such stories are doing this too.

In Peter Pan by J. M. Barrie, Wendy and the other Darling children are awed by the imaginal power of Neverland, but eventually come to miss the real world and their parents. In The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett it is clear that the protagonist Mary Lennox does not wish to live in the magical garden, rather she wishes to have free passage between the nurturing garden and the world outside. This potent desire for a two-way relationship between materiality and spirituality, or real and magical, is perhaps a facet of all human experience, children and adults alike.

There is a duality imagined today between the ‘real world’ and the otherworld of faeries, ghosts and dreams. However, it must be pointed out that the two are not natural oppositions and that they seem to co-create each other on an unconscious or ‘magical’ level. Rationality and irrationality combine through interpretation to produce human experience.

In Peter Pan there is a longing by the Darling children for the impossibility of Neverland. It is a place that is born from fantasies and desires; stories the children have read or been told – all of which are stories authored by adults, interestingly. Barrie figures this impossibility as a realm that exists beyond a veil on the edges of our perception. It is the apparent repository of the children’s unconscious sexual, physical and psychic impulses. The writer Peter Hunt quotes critic Margery Fisher in his work, and she notes the story’s ‘curiously twisted, self-conscious, indulgent humour’. Perhaps Neverland is Barrie’s repository also, or, moreover, the repository where the adult fantasy of childhood disclosure of magic is stored. The language that Barrie uses suggests an authenticity to the place, a parallel dimension of fantasy that exists alongside the world of the real. It is an idea especially evident in Mrs Darling’s dream:

"While she slept she had a dream. She dreamt that the Neverland had come too near and that a strange boy had broken through from it. [...] But in her dream he had rent the film that obscures the Neverland, and she saw Wendy and John and Michael peeping through the gap. "

It is this concept of the fairytale having a reality all its own that is so powerful. The faerie-realm can be figured as an actual place, traversable through imagined fractures or gaps, and if an elemental being like Peter Pan, or Dickon from Burnett’s novel, is sufficiently powerful he can perhaps ‘rent the film’ that divides this world from his. I would suggest that children (and intuitive adults) want disclosure of this mysterious realm, for it to be acknowledged and discussed openly. If they cannot find it in the hardened world-view of the adults around them then they will recreate it in play, imagination, movies and books. Above all I would suggest this longing for disclosure of the magical world is not just about acknowledgment or playful debate – it is about access.

In The Secret Garden, Mary Lennox finds a key and literally breaks into an enclosed space where she is not supposed to go. It can be read as a pseudo-sexual act, fostered by her insolence and a desire for mystery. It is not a truly magical garden until she acquires the nurturing help of Dickon, a Yorkshire boy with a preternatural connection to nature and its creatures. In a sense he is a cipher more than a character, representing an erotic communion between human and nature. Peter Pan may have stitched his clothes from leaves and is affiliated with faeries, but one can easily see the elemental similarities between him and Dickon. Both characters can play the pipes, but while Dickon is more of a happy nature sprite, Pan is a denizen of a darker psychological underworld.

However, in both cases it is the transgression of reality into fantasy, or vice versa, that is so tantalising – the twilight where both worlds can be imagined to co-exist. Imagination seems to be the key here, something that is at once universal and disturbingly personal – always in a state of transformative instability. As Jacqueline Rose has observed when discussing Freud’s ideas about the unconscious, ‘For Freud, neither childhood nor meaning can be pinned down – they shift, and our own identity with them.’ Perhaps a more comprehensive understanding of this paradox is akin to the space between the real and ideal (between materiality and magic); the two-way path between worlds that Mary Lennox so desperately desires in Burnett’s novel. Again, the driving force seems to be about access to such potency.

In J. M. Barrie’s tale Pan himself is depicted as something between real and ideal, between the possible and impossible. It is because of this quality that he is so desirable to the reader and to Barrie himself; desirable in the sense that he is a character in which we can deeply invest an adult fantasy of childhood enchantment. It is suggested that Pan once had a physical birth, a mother and father, but he has long since become legend; more an elemental faerie than a physical child. He is an attractive boundary figure. He can fly, he has superhuman agility, he can be incredibly charming, but he is also forgetful, emotionally fragile, and is capable of being quite brutal. In this sense Pan is a hybrid being, a mediator between earth and heaven, or more succinctly, between the possible reality and the impossible ideal. Is this why Wendy Darling, her siblings, and Barrie himself, are so attracted to him?

The same can be said of Dickon in The Secret Garden; an idyllic figure that acts as a mediator between Mother Earth and the world of Man. Mary Lennox is powerfully attracted to him, drawn to his ‘wick’ or life-force because he has a flavour of the impossible about him. Here we see the eroticism of their relationship quite clearly:

"They put their eager young noses close to the earth sniffed its warmed springtime breathing; they dug and pulled and laughed low with rapture until Mistress Mary’s hair was as tumbled as Dickon’s and her cheeks were almost as poppy red as his."

Mary’s erotic but virginal love of Dickon must in some oblique way be tied to Burnett’s symbolic love of him, as she is ostensibly the author of Mary’s desires. As Jacqueline Rose argues in the introduction to her seminal book:

"The child is rendered innocent of all the contradictions which flaw our interactions with the world. [...] Children’s fiction emerges, therefore, out of a conception of both the child and the world as knowable in a direct and immediate way"

Perhaps this helps to explain what Karin Lesnik-Oberstein calls the ‘Psychopathology Of Everyday Children’s Literature Criticism’; a pseudo-conscious longing by adults, to create, or perceive, or possess an ideal child, a child that is somehow transcendent because it is sealed off from imagined discursive abuses. Is there a parallel here to our longing for direct engagement with the world of magic? Do mediator-characters like Pan and Dickon help make the world of magic feel more real to us? There is another layer of significance to this question of the desire for magic and a disclosure of such realities. In Peter Pan Wendy desires a kiss from Pan, but it is an erotic attraction that does not contain a normative sexuality. Wendy is at times both flirtatious and maternal towards Pan. Thus, in a sense Pan is both Wendy’s potential lover and her beautiful son, making her somewhat analogous to the mythical goddesses of the ancient world – such as Isis – who often gave birth to the sun god and then took him as a lover, thereby creating him in the union that resulted.

Although Mary Lennox is figured in Burnett’s novel as the Virgin in a wild Eden, we can see quite starkly Wendy’s similarity to a goddess in 'The Little House' chapter of Barrie’s tale. Pan and the boys build a construct around the sleeping Wendy after an arrow has pierced her breast, in order to bring her back, reborn anew. This passage has the quality of a religious ritual, the interment of some holy icon:

‘No, no,’ Peter said, ‘you must not touch her. It would not be sufficiently respectful.’
‘That,’ said Slightly, ‘is what I was thinking.’
‘But if she lies there,’ Tootles said, ‘she will die.’
‘Aye, she will die,’ Slightly admitted, ‘but there is no way out.’
‘Yes there is,’ cried Peter. ‘Let us build a little house around her.’

If Wendy is figured as a kind of goddess, a virgin queen of heaven, then Pan is certainly her king. In simple patriarchal terms J. M. Barrie is the author and father of the tale, and therefore Pan is the symbolic son; an imagined aspect of the author that is eternally a faerie-child. But perhaps Pan and Wendy are Barrie’s parents also; mytho-poetic impulses living in his imagination and nurturing or distorting his creative vision.

Peter Hunt quotes a highly interesting observation made by Christine Wilkie, a critic of Burnett’s novel, who says, ‘We might be forgiven for overlooking indicators of erotic Dionysianism in The Secret Garden because they have been shrouded in Christian Mysticism.’ For those made anxious by this indeterminacy of meaning, it is important to note that the ideal child found in such material is often figured as either the Virgin Mother or the Son of God – Christianised versions of the apollonian sun gods and goddesses – presenting us images that we perhaps foolishly perceive as universal, pure and unproblematic. But as Julia Kristeva and many other critics have implied, rationality was not always figured in masculine patriarchal terms; the Sun was once androgynous, and the underworld of the psyche was not always a supposedly feminine, irrational and horrifying place. Dionysian creativity, older than the Christian light that came later, did not imagine such strict oppositions. Its rites glorified the idea that it was innovative and could not be easily contained. Like the darker aspects of Barrie’s Pan, Dionysus was wild, frenetic, paradoxical and dangerous.

The rise of monotheism, and the scorn subsequently attached to pantheistic thinking, has theoretically placed the centre of meaning-production outside of individual and social lives – ideas concerning life and language placed largely in the hands of an imagined Judaeo-Christian God, like the sun gods of old. This God is no longer part of an interdependent pantheon; rather he is patriarchal, singular, real and identifiable, much like the comforting mythical child that Karin Lesnik-Oberstein discusses. If both are real and unproblematic then both can be served adequately, without anxiety. If both ideas are accepted as absolute truths, then anything different becomes something unreal – a fallacy or a horror.

To this writer at least, such tensions are at the heart of our views about enchantment, magic and the disclosure/access of such realms.

However, fantastical literature has always contained the potential of politicising the inner world, creating a reform or at least a deeper appreciation of the faerie-land realm of psychological archetypes and multiple impulses. None of these archetype-impulses are fixed or stable but are dependent upon changeable interrelationships of perception for their symbolic meanings.

Perhaps what we sense here is akin to Dionysus, a wild pagan divinity that revelled in fragmentation, mutation and rebirth, always pushing against the limits of its form; something older than our unproblematic image of a clean Christian spirituality. If this is the case then J. M. Barrie’s Pan contains Dionysus within him, as does Burnett’s Dickon to an extent. Perhaps children’s literature contains such longing for the disclosure of magic because we all have irrepressible Dionysian paradox within us, adults and children alike. Are we all acutely intimate with the myriad impossible – whether we dare recognise this or not?


Aries, Philippe, Centuries of Childhood, trans. R. Baldrick (London: Jonathan Cape,

Barrie, J.M., Peter Pan (1911; London: Puffin, 2002)

Bettelheim, B., The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales
(London: Thames and Hudson, 1976)

Burnett, Frances Hodgson, The Secret Garden (1911; London: Puffin, 1994)

Hillman, James, The Dream and the Underworld (New York: Harper Perennial, 1979)

Hunt, Peter, An Introduction to Children’s Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press,

Hunt, Peter, Children’s Literature (London: Blackwell, 2001)

Kristeva, Julia, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection (New York: Columbia
University Press, 1982)

Lesnik-Oberstein, Karin, ‘The Psychopathology Of Everyday Children’s Literature
Criticism’, Cultural Critique, 45, Spring 2000, (2000), 222-42.

Lundin, Anne, Constructing the cannon of children’s literature (New York: Routledge,

Reynolds, Kimberley, Children’s Literature in the 1890s and the 1990s (Plymouth:
Northcote House, 1994)

Reynolds, Kimberley, Radical Children’s Literature: Future Visions and Aesthetic
Transformations in Juvenile Fiction (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007)

Rose, Jacqueline, The Case of ‘Peter Pan’; or, The Impossibility of Children’s Fiction
(London: Macmillan, 1984)

ed. Rowe, Donnelle, Culturing the Child 1690-1914: Essays in memory of Mitzi Myers
(Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 2005)

1 comment:

  1. Excellent. I always love a good analysis. Especially when it's about a subject dear to my heart. Not just the idea of imagination realm vs. reality, but Peter Pan.

    I'm a scholar of Sir J.M. Barrie and the author of Peter Pan's NeverWorld, a novel based upon his notes to continue the story of Pan. I really enjoyed reading your insights. You have a great grasp of not only the lovely side of childhood thought but also the vicious and unforgiving side as well - not to mention being well-versed in mythology. Thanks for delving into this subject and expounding on it for us. The light you shed on Wendy is particularly salient.

    Would you mind if I posted a link to your article on my blog? I for sure am going to share it with Andrea Jones, author of Hook & Jill who also tackles the deeper psychological and mythos-parallels in Barrie in her creative venture.

    Thanks again.