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Sunday, 20 October 2013

Wardrobes and warriors

 One of the key themes in my YA book is the idea of alternate worlds, namely worlds that exist in parallel to our own. For a writer this is a perfect device, as it is remarkably versatile in the way it covers all magnitude of possibilities. For me, at least in the first book, it is alternate history and the hint of a world where mythical creatures and magic exist (as biological and physics variants).

The use of alternate worlds is so rife in literature, film and television that it has become overly familiar to us as readers. My son, who I am hot-housing into a comic-loving, fantasy-reading, wargame-playing geek (like his dad) glibly speaks of other dimensions and parallel universes, not least because of the innumerable reboots of superhero franchises.

I loved the idea of alternate worlds as a kid, and it was Dr Who and Star Trek that really introduced them to me. But the idea really grew in my brain through the fantasy books I loved as a child, and the idea of normal folk entering a magical world that existed ‘alongside our own.’

If I had to pick a few that have stayed with me the first would have to be Alan Garner’s book, Elidor. Garner grew up not far from where I live now, and set many of his tales in the Manchester and Cheshire areas. Elidor tells the tale of four teenagers from Manchester who pass through a portal in a ruined church and into the fantasy land of Elidor. There they acquire three magical items – a cauldron, a stone and a sword- for the besieged king. They then take these back to our world, where they become mundane items. The evil forces from Elidor pursue them across the portal and into our world.

It was a superb example of fantasy read by kids, but of the quality and maturity that you expect from adult fantasy fiction. The tension of the work was superb, built by the curious effect of the magical items on electrical technology in our world. I loved the concept of a magical world, accessible from our own, and so it was no surprise that I moved onto CS Lewis from there.

Lewis’s books never really grabbed me as a kid. It may be that I was changing and was after something that felt less dated, or more mature, but the fifties style just didn’t hold my interest. Nonetheless the iconic nature of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe is unquestionable, and I can’t have been the only kid rooting around amongst my parent’s cupboards looking for a psychotic dwarf and some Turkish delight.

The parallel fantasy world is replete in children’s literature—Peter Pan’s Neverland, Alice’s Wonderland are famous classic examples—and the idea continues to pop up all over the place. Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series develops the idea in The Subtle Knife, as one of the main characters literally cuts his way between worlds; Neil Gaiman’s awesome Coraline has the heroine crawling through a rather creepy tunnel into a sinister ‘mirror’ world, full of button eyes.

As my tastes matured into more adult work, I found the theme still popular in ‘grown up’ fantasy. I finally got around to reading Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant last year (tried when younger and just got bored), which is the most notable example of modern man in fantasy world, and similarly Poul Anderson’s Three Hearts and Three Lions which again has a modern protagonist thrown into an Arthurian fantasy world. Even my last huge-read, Zelazney’s Amber decology, uses the idea at least in part, although the main characters are residents of Amber living within our world.
The popularity of the modern man/teen/child thrown into an imaginary world continues. It’s an appealing concept—how any of us would employ our modern knowledge and concepts in a land of magic and mysticism. In almost every example of the books the fantasy world acts to show the main characters that knowledge will only take them so far, and that the virtues of courage and bravery are the ones that are required to win the day.

And with the modern world the way it is at the moment, who wouldn’t want a parallel fantasy world to go and visit?