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Death Immortality And Fantasy English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 4083 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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This quotation from Peter Pan stayed with me long after my reading of the timeless childhood classic ended; flirting with me on the boundaries of my imagination. When I first read it, it made little sense to me, because whether or not I realised it, I have never truly acknowledged the passage of time, nor the inescapable reality of my own mortality. J.K. Rowling rewrote Peter Pan’s famous declaration to, “to a well-organised mind, death is but the next great adventure” (Rowling: 215). These narratives from my childhood impressed themselves upon me, perhaps all the more for my inability to understand Peter Pan’s simultaneously impending yet escapable death. Literature affords the opportunity to create new worlds in sharp contrast to our own, and to discuss views which are at odds with mainstream thinking.

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This essay will examine how the concept of death has been constructed in children’s literature, looking in particular at ‘The Book Thief’ by Markus Zusak and ‘Tuck Everlasting’ by Natalie Babbitt; books that children truly enjoy, and which are also serious attempts to come to terms with our mortality and distinctive humanness. I will then focus on the way that C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman have used their fantasy worlds for a commentary on religious philosophy and the afterlife, which I believe must surely communicate to children. It is senseless to imagine that children have not grown sceptical of “they all lived happily ever after” and already formed their own ideas about death – some realistic, some fantastic.

Children’s Literature: An Introduction

Literary works for children make up a body of literature which is both diverse and extensive. Inevitably, the most common question asked regarding children’s literature is of its appropriateness and suitability for the child reader. Children’s literature forms a one-way relationship between the experienced adult and the inexperienced child and this connection constitutes a powerful and significant bond. In addition to this, children’s literature is important in the same way that any type of literature is important; it “mirrors our society, reflecting its complexities, its joys, and its sorrows” (Gibson & Zaidman: 232), the significance of which must not be overlooked or underestimated.

Classifying children’s literature can be confusing. Are we simply referring to books which were written with a child audience in mind or books which children themselves read, whether they were intended for children or not? ‘The Wind in the Willows’ by Kenneth Grahame is generally classified as a children’s book, yet it is perhaps more commonly read by an adult audience.

Philip Pullman’s ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy is another work which unquestionably has a dual-audience; the books are widely read by both children and adults, just as J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books and Lemony Snicket’s ‘A Series of Unfortunate Events’ are – the only difference being the cover art. Daniel Defoe’s ‘Robinson Crusoe’ and Jonathan Swift’s ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ certainly did not anticipate a child audience but nonetheless are invariably popular with children, based on adapted and abridged versions making them more accessible for children.

The literature which emerged in the eighteenth century was seen primarily as a didactic and moralistic instrument; reflecting the ideologies of the time in which it was written. Furthermore, children’s books were seen by many as a way to encourage self-improvement, educate and instruct. As an influential and powerful literature, what is said in children’s literature is of consequence. Its audience is widespread and its influence in our society is profound.

Death in Children’s Literature

The representation of death in children’s fiction is analysed in detail in ‘Representations of Childhood Death’ (2000) edited by Gillian Avery and Kimberley Reynolds. The essays in the book provide a historical outline of child death depicted in literature, starting with the oral tradition of folk tales, ballads and monuments; superstitions about malign child ghosts; Victorian and Edwardian fantasy books for children; and horror fiction. The way in which different genres depict and interpret death depends largely on cultural traditions. In the early eighteenth century, children’s death is almost limited to grieving mothers’ diaries and there is almost no evidence of a child perspective on death. For Victorian literature, probably the most well-known depiction of death and dying is that of Dickensian children; inducing social, moral and sentimental – “the capacity for moral reflection” (Schlicke: 512) – effects on the reader. ‘Representations of Childhood Death’ aptly opens its introduction with a quote from ‘The Old Curiosity Shop’: “When death strikes down the innocent and young, for every fragile form from which he lets the panting spirit free, a hundred virtues rise, in shapes of mercy, charity and love, to walk the world and bless it” (Dickens: 334?).

Writers of the past centuries mirrored in their literature the high rates of infant mortality. Further, they reflected that children were not shielded from death as they are today, “In centuries past, when high infant mortality rates were common, death’s dark shadow often cast gloom in children’s books. As children and adults began to live longer, death as a subject in books for the young became taboo” (Gibson & Zaidman: 232). Cautionary tales of the late nineteenth century sentimentalised death scenes like that of Beth March in Louisa May Alcott’s ‘Little Women’, Tiny Tim in ‘A Christmas Carol’ and Little Nell in ‘The Old Curiosity Shop’, leading to the first examinations of death in Margaret Wise Brown’s picture book ‘The Dead Bird’ (1938) and E.B. White’s ‘Charlotte’s Web’ (1952). The fictional treatment of death may have been over-sentimental in centuries gone by, but it did exist.

In recent years, the spectrum of books written for children has expanded immensely and the literature available has started to discuss a variety of challenging, and until recently, taboo topics. There is no doubt that the trend is rooted in loosening the boundaries of what is suitable for children and what is not. The trend is noticeable in books such as Peter Dickinson’s ‘AK’ (1990), David Almond’s ‘The Fire-Eaters’ (2003), Michael Morpurgo’s ‘Private Peaceful’ (2003) and John Boyne’s ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’ (2006), which present sensitive and political issues such as war, social unrests and discrimination, not least the constant presence of death.

The Book Thief – The Story Told by Death

“It kills me sometimes, how people die” (Zusak: 470).

Markus Zusak’s ‘The Book Thief’ (2005) is set in Nazi Germany during World War II, and depicts the danger, disorder and the ever-present fear and terror of the conflict. The book thief is Liesel Meminger, nine at the start of the story, brought up by foster parents Hans and Rosa Hubermanns in Munich. Liesel begins here career as the book thief at her brother’s graveside, pocketing ‘The Grave-Digger’s Handbook’, fallen from a young grave digger’s coat. Liesel, unable to read at first, steals books under different circumstances throughout this story; at the bottom of a conflagration of unacceptable books the townspeople are burning, from the library of the mayor’s wife. The title of ‘The Book Thief’ is meta-textual. It is also the title of Liesel’s book that she writes hiding in the basement; a story of her life.

Liesel’s all-embracing love for life is a direct contrast with the war-destroyed, cold and immoral Nazi regime. The explicit presence of Death raises questions of its suitability for the child reader. Avery and Reynolds note that, “Death today can only be understood as ‘good’ when it comes painlessly at the end of a long life of achievement – all elements which effectively preclude child death. This situation makes representing child death both peculiarly powerful and peculiarly problematic in contemporary art forms” (Avery & Reynolds: 8). ‘The Book Thief’ is full of ‘bad deaths’ of children and adults alike, since dying is the consequence of war.

There are two main concepts of death in the story. First, Death has the function of an omniscient narrator and a character; and second, the physical deaths of characters. Death as a narrator/ character in ‘The Book Thief’ is a spiritual entity invisible to a man but having the physical and psychical attributes of a person. He breaks and detaches himself from the traditional depiction of death as could be found in art and mythologies: “I do not carry a sickle or scythe. I only wear a hooded black robe when it’s cold. And I don’t have those skull-like facial features you seem to enjoy pinning on me from a distance. You want to know what I truly look like? I’ll help you out. Find yourself a mirror while I continue” (Zusak: 317).

To mark the position of Death as the negative opposing force would be too oversimplifying, as another stereotyped view about death is broken by the narrator: “To me, war is like the new boss who expects the impossible. He stands over your shoulder repeating one thing, incessantly. ‘Get it done, get it done.’ So you work harder. You get the job done. The boss, however, does not thank you. He asks for more” (Zusak: 319).

Death in the novel is not the one who is powerful, taking life when he wishes. Death is rather a positive character, responsible only for ‘good deaths’. Probably the greatest irony and power of the story lies in the realisation of human culpability for the deaths of millions, an act which even Death is terrified of and cannot understand. He says: “That’s the sort of thing I’ll never know, or comprehend – what humans are capable of” (Zusak: 33).

The roles of Death and a man are thus reversed in the story; a man is made responsible for suffering and has to bear the burden of guilt. It is interesting that though the story is told by Death, there is nothing said about the afterlife, God, resurrection or redemption. Omitting God’s voice, heaven and hell has a specific purpose in the narrative because it stresses the thematic concept of man’s responsibility for the war.

Max Vandenburg, a Jew hiding at the Hubermanns, has a strong will to live and succeeds in the pretended fight with Hitler and also with Death. “I kneeled…then there was resurgence – an immense struggle against my weight. I withdrew, and with so much work ahead of me, it was nice to be fought off in that dark little room. I even managed a short, close-eyed pause of serenity before I made my way out” (Zusak: 326). Thus, we come again to Death as a human-like character. He lets people fight him and some people are strong enough to succeed in the fight. There is a strong contrast between Death as a character in ‘The Book Thief’, and the conventional depiction of Death. The contrast is instigated by the war setting, where dying children (with whom Death himself feels pity) stand in opposition to the cruelty of mankind.

‘The Book Thief’ is a story of permanent loss which provokes strong emotional reactions in the reader. It is not only because of the permanent loss and the sad and hopeless atmosphere of the story. The reader feels powerless and frustrated mainly because specific traditional conventions of the novel are broken. It is not very often that the reader learns about the death of the character(s) before it really happens. Usually, death comes by surprise and its unpredictability emphasises its effect. In ‘The Book Thief’ it is just the opposite. Death as an omniscient narrator knows who will die and when, and he mercilessly informs us about several deaths before they occur in the story. Of Hans Hubermann, Death says: “We’ll give him seven months. Then we come for him. And, oh, how we come” (Zusak: 135).

In the state of permanent loss of characters we expect Liesel’s death as well. Even more when Death predicts again: “Yes, it was a great night to be Liesel Meminger, and the calm, the warm and the soft would remain for approximately three more months. But her story lasts for six” (Zusak: 498). What a cathartic relief when the reader finds her dying a good death as an old lady in Australia.

Tuck Everlasting – The Wheel of Life

Tuck Everlasting (1975), by Natalie Babbitt, is an animated, stirring and philosophical interpretation of a young girl confronting and acknowledging her own mortality. This is a simple story, dealing eloquently with a complex theme by intertwining fairy tale and mythology. The mythical journey is an apt metaphor for Winnie Foster’s growing understanding of the forces of life and death that the Tucks, and the author, are trying to communicate.

Winnie Foster is ten years old, and lives in a cottage by the edge of a wood. One day, following a toad, who “bounced itself clumsily off towards the wood” – she enters a forest, where she encounters one of the guardians of a magical spring. Winnie challenges the guardian by asking to drink from the spring. Instead, the guardians, called Tucks, kidnap her and entrust here with the secret of the spring of immortality. The Tucks explain to Winnie that they all – father, mother, and two sons – drank from that spring eighty-seven years ago. The result is that they are trapped in their immortality.

Out in a rowboat on a summer’s evening, Angus Tuck, tries to explain: “It’s a wheel, Winnie. Everything’s a wheel, turning and turning, never stopping. The frogs is part of it, and the bugs, and the ¬sh, and the wood thrush, too. And people. But never the same ones. Always coming in new, always growing and changing, and always moving on. That’s the way it is” (Babbitt: 56).

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When the boat is caught the branches of a partially submerged fallen tree, Tuck tries to convince Winnie that death is vastly preferable to an everlasting life, “That’s what we Tucks are, Winnie. Stuck so’s we can’t move on. We ain’t part of the wheel no more. Dropped off, Winnie. Left behind. And everywhere around us, things is moving and growing and changing” (Babbitt: 56).

Winnie, confused and frightened by the sudden awareness of her own mortality “raged against it, helpless and insulted, and blurted at last, ‘I don’t want to die’ (Babbitt: 57). Tuck patiently puts it into perspective, teaching her of the relationship between life and death and her own position on the wheel of life. In response to her confession, Tuck says, “If I knowed how to climb back on the wheel, I’d do it in a minute. You can’t have living without dying. So you can’t call it living, what we got. We just are, we just be, like rocks beside the road” (Babbitt: 57). Forever is forever; it is infinite, endless space.

At the end of the book Winnie has developed a new relationship with her world; she has been changed by this encounter. She knows what death is; she has seen it. Given the choice between an arrested childhood and a life of the normal sort, Winnie chooses mortality. The young heroine comes to understand that life has a beginning, a middle, and an end and that with life, comes death.

The reader, whether nine or ninety-nine, is likely to approve of Winnie’s choice, or, if not actually approve it, at least understand it. And, in the end, that is all any of us can do.

‘Tuck Everlasting’ is an adventurous and unusual down-to-earth tale. Undoubtedly many adults, particularly those who have not been able to confront the inevitable approach of death, shudder at the suggestion that a book for children should experiment with such a complex theme. They are wrong, of course. Profound truths and questions about the meaning of life and death lurk in the pages of this remarkable story. It is for this very reason we need fantasy and fairy tales: “to show the whys and wherefores that words cannot make clear to us; to give us a feeling for the mysteries we cannot conceive” (Aippersback: 96).

The Power of Fantasy: Considering the Afterlife

The period from the 1860s to the early twentieth century saw an explosion of creative and imaginary writing for children. Tolkien, who published The Hobbit (written for children) in 1973, triggered what was to become another crucial development in children’s literature; the beginning of a trend which continues today of pairing fantasy with theology in children’s books. This is evident in many major works which are clearly influenced by Tolkien. His close friend C.S. Lewis for example combined Christian theology with fantasy in ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’.

At its most basic level, fantasy literature can be seen as one of escapism, however, fantasy is actually a literature of great relevance to the real world which it most often strives to make comment on

Both C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman create alternative worlds in their children’s literature, escaping the immediate socio-political and economic settings of the real world while also forcing us “to confront the ‘truths’ – truths that are often awesome and bitter” (Egoff: 81). Fantasy, far from being an escape, is a more complete means of understanding the world.

By looking closely at Lewis’ world of Narnia and Pullman’s other-worlds in His Dark Materials it can be seen that not only are their fantasy works not escapist but that they actually comment on, confront and challenge contemporary issues. “Fantasists wrestle with the great complexities of existence – life, death, time, space, good and evil – and a child’s struggle to find its place within these awesome concepts” (Egoff: 80).

Lewis’ creation of the world of Narnia is a direct response to his immediate world. Taken chronologically the seven books follow the biblical story of the world from creation, through the Fall of humankind, to the final judgement. The Chronicles of Narnia contain several passages which can quite easily be read, and indeed frequently are, as allegorical of biblical episodes. Most obviously the beginning of Narnia in The Magician’s Nephew allegorises the beginning of the world in Genesis; Aslan’s murder in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe allegorises Christ’s passion; and the final scenes in The Last Battle are allegorical of Judgement Day. In creating a new and perfect world for his fantasy to take place in, and his child characters to delight in, Lewis also allegorises the Christian version of the world whilst providing simple and understandable explanations for the existence of evil.

The build-up of the final judgement is the most explicitly critical commentary on our world in The Chronicles of Narnia. In The Last Battle, Asian’s appearances have become sparse. Narnians are beginning to question his existence. This representation of the modern world emphasises the dangers of a world without faith in Christ. This doubt in Asian’s existence has spread though Narnia and is shown as the cause of corruption. Lewis’ vision of a corrupt world is one without faith or structure.

In both Lewis’ and Pullman’s fantasy works, a particular view of the afterlife is expressed. Lewis’ notion of the afterlife is essentially a Christian one; at the final judgement Aslan separates the good and the evil, casting the evil in a dark shadow whilst good characters travel through a door of light on his other side.

In the Last Battle as the children stand before Asian looking afraid, their concern is that he will send them home again, as he has so many times. When Asian reveals the truth to them, that they have died and will not return home, this is much cause for celebration. Of course, a fearless and accepting view of death as natural is not an undesirable one for children; however, the view expressed here is that death and the afterlife are actually preferable to life and the real world.

In strong contrast to Lewis’ rejection of this world, Pullman’s trilogy constructs a positive view of the world and earthly life. In His Dark Materials, ideas of heaven and eternal, blissful, spiritual afterlife are seen as ones which detract from the pleasures of this life. For Pullman, a self-professed atheist, this is not surprising, but Pullman goes to great lengths to not only deconstruct a Christian idea of heaven, but to construct a positive view of this world and the physical, material pleasures it offers.

Drawing on and inverting images of heaven and hell, Pullman strives to express a profoundly world-loving view in the books. His underworld of souls who are caught in perpetual, spiritual existence is a powerful image set to contrast the Christian view of the afterlife as eternal bliss. The ghosts in the world of the dead are weak and desperate ‘they could only whisper’ (AS, 311). Balthamos tells Will that the world of the dead, “is a prison camp,” (AS, 35) and Baruch says, “Everything about it is a secret. Even the churches don’t know; they tell their believers that they’ll live in Heaven, but that’s a lie.” (AS, 35).

The notion of heaven is an important and dominant one in all mono-theistic religions, and is one which has penetrated many societies. The ideas of reward for good behaviour and of interconnectedness – that what we do has a deeper significance – are central to the human need for an afterlife. Pullman takes this idea and works it into his eschatology, showing this world to be more valuable that the speculated next.

Pullman’s series of imperfect worlds are not created to suggest that there is a better version of reality elsewhere but to signify this necessity to embrace your own reality. Pullman reinforces the idea this life, this physical, earthly life should be cherished and that the Christian eschatology denies and depletes that pleasure. Pullman’s trilogy shows the material world and physical life as sacred and beautiful, but above all to be treasured and enjoyed. In turn the afterlife, or spirit life, is shown as inferior to that of physical existence.

For Pullman there really is no afterlife, but everything that human beings do in their actual life makes the world a better place. Pullman shows ghosts longing to rejoin the world of the dead, and in doing so, undoes the very basis of the notion that the afterlife is eternal bliss. Instead the state of un-bodily spiritual life is portrayed as a torturous semi-existence. The Christian idea of the afterlife places emphasis on the necessity to act well in the earthly life because it will be rewarded in the afterlife. Pullman places emphasis on acting well in this life, because it will make this life itself better.

Where Pullman’s emphasis on human existence is clearly this life, Lewis’ belief in the afterlife determines his view that true joy and glory lie in the next life. There is a constant impression throughout the Chronicles that the ultimate goal has not yet been achieved. The final words of The Last Battle clarify this as the case as Asian declares, “The term is over: the holidays have begun.” (LB, 171).



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