To push past the musty folds of coats in an old wardrobe, and walk into a whole other land fresh in new-fallen snow; to tap the dingy bricks of a London courtyard wall and see them wriggle aside to reveal a bustling, vivid universe of wizardry; to receive a priceless and seemingly inscrutable instrument and find that in your hands it yields up the secret truths of the universe and opens doors to adventure beyond your dreams…
Many lovers of children’s literature – and most lovers of fantasy – will recognize these moments as scenes from C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. Over and over again, children’s fantasy offers moments of magic when child characters discover that they can bridge an invisible gap between mundane reality and otherworlds of enchantment. Such stories are now so widespread that fantasy has become, as author Neil Gaiman writes in his blurb for Re-Enchanted, “like wallpaper, part of our world”. But how did it get to be this way? And why is so much iconic fantasy set in pseudo-medieval, roughly British worlds?
Hunting down the origins of modern children’s fantasy naturally brought me to the work of J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, who both taught at the University of Oxford in the years that they were writing their Middle-Earth and Narnia stories. But I also discovered that several other major children’s fantasy authors also studied English at Oxford as undergrads: Susan Cooper, Diana Wynne Jones, Philip Pullman, and Kevin Crossley-Holland. I had to know more. What was the relationship between all of these authors, whose children’s fantasy has so shaped popular culture in the Anglo-American world and beyond? What role did their shared education play?
Echoes of their faerie-touched English curriculum recur throughout what I call the “Oxford School of children’s fantasy literature”: there are resonances of the Old English poem Beowulf in Tolkien’s The Hobbit (including a cup-thief waking the dragon in both!); the supernatural Christmas adventures of the fourteenth-century Sir Gawain and the Green Knight turn up in new forms in Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising; Chaucer’s transformation of a desirable young woman into an outspoken old one in his Wife of Bath’s Tale’s reappears in a fairy-tale setting in Jones’s in Howl’s Moving Castle; and much more. Even Oxford School authors who push back against their forerunners, like Pullman in His Dark Materials, draw on the Oxford English syllabus: in that case, through a reading of Satan in Milton’s early modern epic Paradise Lost that C. S. Lewis would have definitely not liked. Meanwhile, all of these authors followed Tolkien and Lewis’s lead in writing their tales for children, in one of the few modern literary realms, many of them felt, where magic, heroism, adventure, and belief in the unseen were still valued.