Fantasy is nearly infinitely scalable. The concept of fantasy stretches between the morality story of Peter Rabbit who lost his clothes frolicking in the garden to the gothic erotic adventures of Anita Blake. There is a place for both ends of the spectrum and everything in between. I argue though, that most of our fantasies are darker than we give them credit for, especially the ones to which we assign the status of “children stories”.
Fantasy stories for children consistently contain difficult and dark elements, including sexual ones. Little Mermaid must convince the Prince to marry her, which at the time would have meant proven copulation. Meanwhile, she looses her voice to the evil sorceress and her father offers himself in her place. There are many levels on which to take that. Harry Potter is so dark that is has spanned millions of words of fan fiction written by fans who repeatedly explore just how dark Harry’s story actually was, starting in book one. Beginning with child abuse or at least neglect in the first few chapters, we quickly reach risk of dismemberment and psychological dangers like that shows your hearts desire. Eventually, even the lightest characters have been changed by the war to the point that they are willing to use the three forbidden curses and are focused victory at all cost, including their own lives. There is nothing childish in the scene where Dumbledore asks Snape to end his life and bare the blame for his murder. Not only does the scene bring up the concept of assisted suicide or dignified end of life arguments, it also struggles with ideas of guilt and blurs the concept of victim. Who was the victim, Snape? Dumbledore? Both?
There is always danger in fantasy. In Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, a children’s story of a sentient car, the heroes travel to a kingdom where children are banned. The children of the land spend their time in darkness, hiding in a grotto below the city. If you rewrote the story to say that all people of a certain gender, racial ancestry or sexual orientation were banned we would definitely have a very adult tale. Again the most fantastic element in the story is not the sentient car but the fact that after one story telling session on the beach Truly Scrumptious agrees to marry the inventor Mr. Potts.
I am in favor of modern fantasies that depict the finding and keeping of affection as difficult and challenging as it actually is. Anita Blake’s complicated relationships with the various men in her life is much easier for me to believe than Sleeping Beauty waking up suddenly in love with the Prince who kissed her while she was asleep.
Think back to the Sleeping Beauty tale you heard as a child. A young woman grows up cursed from birth because of a grudge between her parents and a sorceress. Her parents deny her a childhood at their sides and send her away, to be raised by three other sorceress for her own protection. She’s ostracized for her safety from society, other children and is raised alone in a forest. Meanwhile, the kingdom loses ground technologically by destroying all their spindles in the hopes of saving her from her fate. There’s a morality lesson there, I’m sure. As the girl is entering some of the most trying years of a young person’s life, she is suddenly thrown back into court life, introduced to two people she does not know as her parents and expected to play the role of their future queen to be married off to a man she has never met. Beauty then falls victim to the curse. To save the kingdom from the pain of grief, the three sorceresses who raised Beauty trap the rest of the kingdom in sleep. Then they watch for one hundred years, waiting for a man who is willing to come rescue a woman he never met or barely met, depending on the version of the story. And to simply reach her, he must break into a kingdom of sleep surrounded by darkness and the hideous protections of the evil sorceress. Finally, to wake her he will have to take liberties with her body to which she has never consented. Frankly, her own family and protecters have her up for grabs to the strongest bidder. This story assigns power only to unmarried women who exercise the powers of the arcane, both good and evil.
Dark enough yet for you? This is a children’s story. I mean seriously, if you passed out drunk at a party and woke up to some guy you met kissing you, you’d probably be calling for the cops, not thanking him for saving your life. In the Disney version of this story though, I believe there are glittering stars on the screen and Beauty slowly opens her eyes with a smile.
That is the unbelievable part, not the evil spells, hundred year sleep, or rapidly changing dress color right before her birthday ball. Last month my husband and I married, after an eight year friendship, some major challenges and a lot of heart to heart conversations. I hope Beauty enjoyed growing up in the forest, because she has her work cut out for her for the next thirty some odd years or hopefully more.
Fortunately for Disney and many other producers of children entertainment, children either miss most of the dark parts of the story or can handle a lot more than most of their parents think they can. As someone who nearly made her father crash the family car when I explained to him at nine years old the mechanics of human copulation after reading veterinarian stories by James Herriot, I’m leaning towards giving children more credit than many parents seem to. Kids are not stupid. They only act like it because it gets things done. But that’s a topic for an entirely different blog.
For now, I’m simply grateful that my parents didn’t think about how dark many of the stories I was consuming as a kid and young teenager actually were. In many ways, the dark dangers of fantasy display the actual dangers of life in ways so unreal that we can bare to grapple with them. Children’s stories with these dark elements are children’s stories because they are so fantastic that we can’t believe them. It creates a safe space to explore the issues and struggle with the human experience without the fear of the situations becoming cold harsh reality.
Who wants to be the pilot who dropped the bomb on Hiroshima or a lieutenant who led a scout team in one of the many wars of the last century?Only a very few of us would actually want that kind of pain, but we happily dress up as a Ranger from Middle Earth or a Jedi from Star Wars.
Because it’s fantasy. It’s far enough away. It’s just fantastic enough we can play.
We need the distance, even if we are drawn to the darkness.
And that is a function of fantasy.