“Before there were books, there were stories. At first the stories weren’t written down. Sometimes they were even sung. Children were born, and before they could speak, their parents sang them songs, a song about an egg that fell off a wall, perhaps, or about a boy and a girl who went up a hill and fell down it. As the children grew older, they asked for stories almost as often as they asked for food.
The children fell in love with these stories and wanted to hear them over and over again. Then they grew older and found those stories in books. And other stories that they had never heard before, about a girl who fell down a rabbit hole, or a silly old bear and an easily scared piglet and a gloomy donkey, or a phantom tollbooth, or a place where wild things were. The act of falling in love with stories awakened something in the children that would nourish them all their lives: their imagination.
The children made up play stories every day, they stormed castles and conquered nations and sailed the oceans blue, and at night their dreams were full of dragons. But they went on growing up and slowly the stories fell away from them, the stories were packed away in boxes in the attic, and it became harder for the former children to tell and receive stories, harder for them, sadly, to fall in love.
I believe that the books and stories we fall in love with make us who we are, or, not to claim too much, the beloved tale becomes a part of the way in which we understand things and make judgments and choices in our daily lives. A book may cease to speak to us as we grow older, and our feeling for it will fade. Or we may suddenly, as our lives shape and hopefully increase our understanding, be able to appreciate a book we dismissed earlier; we may suddenly be able to hear its music, to be enraptured by its song.
When, as a college student, I first read Günter Grass’s great novel “The Tin Drum,” I was unable to finish it. It languished on a shelf for fully 10 years before I gave it a second chance, whereupon it became one of my favorite novels of all time: one of the books I would say that I love. It is an interesting question to ask oneself: Which are the books that you truly love? Try it. The answer will tell you a lot about who you presently are.
I grew up in Bombay, India, a city that is no longer, today, at all like the city it once was and has even changed its name to the much less euphonious Mumbai, in a time so unlike the present that it feels impossibly remote, even fantastic. In that far-off Bombay, the stories and books that reached me from the West seemed like true tales of wonder.
Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen,” with its splinters of magic mirror that entered people’s bloodstreams and turned their hearts to ice, was even more terrifying to a boy from the tropics, where the only ice was in the refrigerator. “The Emperor’s New Clothes” felt especially enjoyable to a boy growing up in the immediate aftermath of the British Empire.
Perhaps tales of elsewhere always feel like fairy tales. But for me, the real wonder tales were closer to home, and I have always thought it my great good fortune as a writer to have grown up steeped in them. . . .”
” . . . The fantastic is neither innocent nor escapist. The wonderland is not a place of refuge, not even necessarily an attractive or likable place. It can be — in fact, it usually is — a place of slaughter, exploitation, cruelty and fear. Captain Hook wants to kill Peter Pan. The witch in the Black Forest wants to cook Hansel and Gretel. The wolf actually eats Red Riding Hood’s grandmother. Albus Dumbledore is murdered, and the Lord of the Rings plans the enslavement of the whole of Middle-earth.
We know, when we hear these tales, that even though they are “unreal,” because carpets do not fly and witches in gingerbread houses do not exist, they are also “real,” because they are about real things: love, hatred, fear, power, bravery, cowardice, death. They simply arrive at the real by a different route. They are so, even though we know that they are not so. The truth is not arrived at by purely mimetic means. An image can be captured by a camera or by a paintbrush. A painting of a starry night is no less truthful than a photograph of one; arguably, if the painter is Van Gogh, it’s far more truthful, even though far less “realistic.”
The literature of the fantastic — the wonder tale, the fable, the folk tale, the magic-realist novel — has always embodied profound truths about human beings, their finest attributes and their deepest prejudices too. The wonder tale tells us truths about ourselves that are often unpalatable; it exposes bigotry, explores the libido, brings our deepest fears to light. Such stories are by no means intended simply for the amusement of children, and many of them were not originally intended for children at all. Sinbad the Sailor and Aladdin were not Disney characters when they started out on their journeys.
It is, however, a rich age in literature for children and young-hearted adults. From Maurice Sendak’s place “Where the Wild Things Are” to Philip Pullman’s post-religious otherworlds, from Narnia, which we reach through a wardrobe, to the strange worlds arrived at through a phantom tollbooth, from Hogwarts to Middle-earth, wonderland is alive and well. And in many of these adventures, it is children who grow into heroes, often to rescue the adult world; the children we were, the children who are still within us, the children who understand wonderland, who know the truth about stories, save the adults, who have forgotten those truths.” -30-