In their novels The Scarecrows and Dangerous Spaces Westall and Mahy wish to persuade us that ‘fantasy’ is a very real dimension of our actual world. J R R Tolkien defines ‘fantasy’ as that:
which combines with its … use as an equivalent of Imagina-
tion the derived notions of ‘unreality’…, of freedom from the
domination of observed ‘fact’ … with … things that are not
only ‘not actually present’, but which are indeed not to be
found in our primary world at all, or are generally believed
not to be found there. (Tolkien, 1990, p. 156)
To succeed in persuading readers that ‘fantasy’ is a very real dimension of our actual world, authors must convince them to ‘willingly suspend their disbelief’ (a Tolkienism) in the narrative as a contrived text and become involved with it as ‘true’. The ‘fantasy’ dimension can encompass the supernatural, the surreal, the occult, the extra-terrestrial, in fact anything that is incredible, ‘unexplainable’. As the reality of the inner self, ‘fantasy’, via the imagination, can also be a great instrument of moral good.
Narrative ‘fantasy’ has various forms: High Fantasy – J R R Tolkien’s completely self-contained secondary world, Middle Earth, and its resident creatures; Sci Fi Fantasy – set on alien planets in space:- Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed; set on Earth with alien invasions:- Julian May’s Intervention; and a humorous combination:- Douglas Adams five part trilogy The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy; and Realistic Fantasy – using temporal and spatial alterations in the same ‘real’ location, usually on Earth, incorporating ghosts, psychic phenomena, and dreams: Daphne du Maurier’s The House on the Strand. The Scarecrows and Dangerous Spaces fall into the last category.
In The Scarecrows Robert Westall used a combination of ghosts and intense emotions to create a blend of realism and ‘fantasy’. Simon’s devils that he released “like a fire-breathing dragon” (Westall, 1995, p. 11) in the first chapter, introduced into an apparently realistic story of his seemingly safe ordered life, the ‘fantasy’ element that steadily grew in dimension, intrusion and reality as his struggle with the devils progressed.
Whether the scarecrows at Mill House were the ghosts of the miller, Henshaw, his wife, Josie Cragg, and employee, Ray Starkey, come to life, or the personification, objectification placed outside of himself of Simon’s hate, jealousy, and desire to be rid of his stepfather, and to have his mother to himself again, was left to interpretation. Voluble, easy-going Joe not only rivalled Simon’s cold uptight father, but also inarticulate Simon himself. Simon felt alone, “how Father must have felt … Father hadn’t really been lonely. He’d simply been alone.” (ibid , p. 155)
A means of frightening away real predators, the scarecrows were nevertheless phoney; imitations of real people, attired with real, people’s clothes – those of Henshaw, Cragg, and Starkey, who embodied jealousy taken to extreme. As phoney embodiments of his hate, the scarecrows exorcised Simon’s emotions, which he confronted when he faced them. “Head straight for what you’re scared of, Simon. It’ll usually run away, if you do. If not, you’re no worse off …” (ibid, p. 155) Doing so, Simon defused his devils.
During the monster game that seemed to get out of hand, the reader was led to believe that the scarecrows/ghosts of Henshaw, Cragg, and Starkey had invaded the house. Even as: “a deep voice shouted, “I will be maister in my own house!” A deep voice, like Joe’s. But not Joe’s [Simon admitted that he] disliked having any strange man in the house near his mother.” (ibid, p. 153) Immediately, confusion as to the identity of the ‘strange man’ was created. Was it really the miller in the house, or just Simon’s paranoia about his stepfather, Joe?
Simon, the controller of his devils – the emotions of rage, envy, parental dislike – had to encounter, overcome and learn to live with them. Westall believed that everyone needs ‘tracks’ based on security to keep the chaos out of their lives. “The child’s track [was] … represented by a triangle … [of home], school and the neighbourhood gang”. (Westall, 1978, p. 7) Simon’s old tracks, those of his idolized father (alive and with his mother), the old family car and house, had been obliterated. He desperately needed to forge new tracks in order to keep out the chaos that manifested itself as his jealousy of Joe, as his violent devils that were almost beyond his control.
Symbolic of these tracks was the path across the turnip field, initially hidden by the crop, then remade by Simon’s family when they went to the mill to rescue the cat and her kittens, and by the media people and vehicles. “There was a motorway of mashed turnip-pulp where the old path had been… Devastation everywhere, except where the scarecrows stood. They held their ground defiantly, unscathed.” (Westall, 1995, p. 146) To Tris they represented “the opposition” (ibid, p. 133), and the path represented “the yellow brick road” (ibid, p. 135) from The Wizard of Oz, a path to follow to “the Wizard’s Castle” (ibid, p. 135), alias the mill.
Relieving the tensions throughout the book, Tris, and later Mr Mercyfull who added necessary background information about the trio from the mill, moved from comic to vital characters for Simon’s understanding of his situation and his subsequent ability to deal with it. Unaffected by the threat of the scarecrows, and the inherent danger of the mill, Tris represented normality, there to help Simon to defuse his devils. Thus, as Simon came to terms with his emotions, via his engineered fall of the mill and destruction of the scarecrows, fantasy and realism came together.
In Dangerous Spaces Margaret Mahy used a combination of ghosts and dreams to access an alternate world, an ‘imaginative’, ‘magic’, ‘wonderful’, ‘secret’ space, temporally independent and inhabiting the same site. Initially there seemed to be clear boundaries between dream and reality, but gradually these blurred, until it was hard to discern whether there was any difference between them.
While Tolkien believed that dreams were not real ‘fantasy’ – not a secondary world – Mahy succeeded in creating ‘fantasy’ by allowing her dream-world, Viridian, based on a combination of the stereoscope cards of different scenes where: “two flat pictures fused into one deep one….filling out with a space that did not really exist”, (Mahy, 1992, p. 20) to permeate, to intrude into her real world. Viridian was there, the land all around the farm, within its boundaries and within the farmhouse walls.
[Flora] … padded out into the hall …[which] was complete-
ly dark …The familiar hall smell … was gone. She could
smell earth. She could smell wetness…. Flora put out her
hand in the darkness and immediately touched something
hard and cold and clammy. (ibid, p.45)
The card-world of Viridian, categorised by Flora as nature, ancient monuments, and war, was like a surrealist landscape through which Anthea, Griff, and finally Flora and Leo travelled. At first, while alone following the road, taking in the ‘wonderful space’ to which she could escape at night, Anthea enjoyed her exploration. “It was dangerous … but still it was something of her own in a house where there was so little space for her” (ibid, p. 79) Mahy thoroughly explored the idea of personal space – the need to belong, yet to maintain a space of one’s own, a comfort zone, a place of privacy. For Anthea this space was first to be found in Viridian.
Joined by Griff, the agenda changed – a sense of urgency came into the journey, which itself turned into a quest for the island, and the space began to become hostile, more restrictive and Griff more demanding. According to Leo, Anthea was “[i]n a dangerous space. In dangerous company.” (ibid, p. 75) Simultaneously, Anthea noticed that her real space was expanding, as life in her new home became more interesting and sympathetic – she shared laughter with Flora; helped to plant a forest; the dog, Zeppelin, had pups; and Flora showed some understanding of her situation. When Molly hugged her, her need for the ‘secret’ space grew less – Anthea said as they embraced:
‘But I can’t be the best one to you. Not really best.’
‘Right this moment you are the best one,’ Molly whispered.
‘You’re the best one now because you need to be best.’….
[Then] Anthea found there was plenty of space around
her … not the non-existent space of the stereoscope …
This space was real, and it was all her own.” (ibid, pp. 98 & 99)
The fact that Flora began to move into her cousin, Anthea’s dream world also added credulity to Viridian’s existence. She did so with the assistance of Leo, the ghost of her grandfather Lionel, but as a young lad. Like Anthea, whose assistant was the ghost of dead Henry, Griff, Flora could not enter Viridian without an ally, albeit a reluctant one. The sapling ‘forest’ they planted in a corner of the farm, intruded in dual form – saplings and old tall trees – into Griff’s coliseum landscape created from one of the stereoscope cards. Only by using the ‘magic’ of “Tiggy tiggy touchwood” and saying aloud the scientific equivalent of abracadabra, “Photosynthesis” while “fixing her eyes on Anthea and laying her hand on the living tree” (ibid, p. 78) was Flora first able to release Anthea from Griff’s clutches.
Via her preferred medium, the family in its many permutations, and the ‘fantasy’ elements, Mahy allowed the dual narratives to merge. Not only was it a story of an orphaned girl, Anthea, coming to terms with her grief and loss of her parents, and trying to fit into an alien household where there seemed to be no space for her, but also a story of ghosts who refused to move on, one for lack of company, the other from an unwillingness to desert the home he built. In other words “she is able to combine elements of fantasy with a treatment of family life which recognises the darker side of humanity that it may reveal as well as the comfort it can bestow.” (Gibbons, 1994, p. 11)
As an outsider, unable to accept her new noisy messy family, Anthea retreated from the real world into fantasy, similar to Simon’s withdrawal at his inability to accept his stepfather, Joe, and all he represented socially, authoratively, and as a marital betrayal by his mother of his ‘soldier’ father. In both novels “much of the tension revolves around family relationships, and the supernatural plays an important part in the resolution of the conflict.” (ibid, p. 18)
Both novels include sibling rivalry – between Anthea and Flora:- Anthea of Flora’s luck in being part of a unit no matter how tumultuous; and Flora of not only having to allow for her cousin’s preferential treatment, but of her being “too romantic … what with having long hair and being an orphan and sleepwalking.” (Mahy, 1992, p. 18) – and between Simon and Jane:- he felt she had betrayed him and the father she never knew – “little traitor” (Westall, 1995, p.72); and she tried to manipulate him into loving Joe. To Simon, Jane “was irrelevant. He thought of all the nasty tricks she’d ever pulled; all the tales she’d told. Little blackmailer…” (ibid, p. 131)
Simon and Jane were not siblings who were allies. However, Flora and Anthea were reluctant allies, drawn together in the real world by their shared humour and their love for the dog, Zeppelin, and her pups, the Gelerts. In the dream-world, as they tried to atone for harsh words spoken to each other in the real world, they combined forces with mutual admiration as their fight for freedom climaxed. Both girls had “very powerful fantasy [lives], and [according to Mahy in an interview with Judith Ridge] to write about that sort of character without their fantasy life would be to reduce the realism.” (Ridge, 1994, p. 21)
As a reader of both The Scarecrows and Dangerous Spaces, I found no difficulty in believing in the alternate ‘fantasy’ dimensions created by the authors in order to help convey the tensions of their narratives. Both were credible, natural elements within their realistic settings. I had no trouble suspending my disbelief in both the real and ‘fantasy’ dimensions, and sharing the protagonists’ fears, worries, terror, and final relief and acceptance of their respective new worlds
(C) Jud House 26/10/1997
Tolkien, J R R (1964) ‘On Fairy-Stories’ in Poems and Stories (1992 ed.) London: Harper Collins Publishers.
Mahy, M. (1992 ed.) Dangerous Spaces London: Puffin Books, Penguin Group.
Westall, R. (1995 ed.) The Scarecrows London: Puffin Books, Penguin Group.
Gibbons, J. (1994) ‘Family relationships in the stories of Margaret Mahy’ in Papers 5:1.
Ridge, J (1994) ‘Interview with Margaret Mahy’ in Viewpoint, Vol 2, 4.
Westall, R. (1978) ‘The chaos and the track’ in Signal Vol 28, January
Bawden, N (1980) ‘Emotional realism in books for young people’ in Horn book magazin.e 56, 1, 17-33.
Burch, R (1970) ‘The new realism’ in Horn book magazine. 47, 3, 257-264.
Edmund, M (1987) ‘Interview with Margaret Mahy’.
Hollindale, P (1994) ‘Westall’s Kingdom’ in Children’s literature in education, Vol 25 (3) 147-157.
Mahy, M (1987) ‘Joining the network’ in Signal Vol 54, September. 34-36.
Westall, R (1979) ‘How real do you want your realism’ in Signal, Vol 28, January, 3-11.
Westall, R (1981) ‘The hunt for evil’ in Signal, Vol 30, 3-13.
* * * * *