Down the Rabbit Hole
Or in Defence of Talking Animals
by Rebecca Davies
How long have you been interested in magical realism? I've been reading it all my life—and so, I would suggest, have you. Pick up almost any children's book, and the chances are that what you're holding in your hands is a work of magical realism.
According to Anjana Basu, "The reality of magical realism must be recognizably the world we live in with the addition of the magical element. So there should be no dragons or talking animals—this immediately separates it from fantasy. The magic of magical realism must be natural, inexplicable, and uncontrollable. This is not magic in the sense of casting spells—it's magic in the sense that it exceeds the boundaries of the purely realistic – and makes it part of a new, more heightened reality."
However, definitions of magical realism abound, many of them conflicting, some of them diametrically opposed. They range from the pithy and flippant (Gene Wolfe's "Magical realism is fantasy written in Spanish") to solemn treatises of many pages splitting hairs so fine they're invisible to the naked eye.
If we tried to come up with a definition of magical realism that satisfied all these criteria, we would end up with a list of perhaps six canonical texts (Peter Carey's Illywhacker, Angela Carter's Nights at the Circus, Milan Kundera's Immortality, Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children and Graham Swift's Waterland.) While this might be acceptable to purists, it leaves us with a magical realism so limited it is meaningless as a genre.
For the purposes of my argument, I'm going to use a fairly broad framework and suggest that magical realism is a representation of the world we live in with an added magical element that causes no, or disproportionately little, comment. It is a style of literature where elements of the mundane and the fantastic (or if you prefer the sublime and the ridiculous) co-exist without apparent conflict. According to the Oxford Companion to English Literature:
Magic realist novels and stories have, typically, a strong narrative drive, in which the recognizably realistic merges with the unexpected and the inexplicable and in which elements of dreams, fairy story, or mythology combine with the everyday, often in a mosaic or kaleidoscopic pattern of refraction and recurrence.
Talking animals, it seems to me, are a perfectly valid element of magical realism, provided that their existence is an integral part of the text's reality, unquestioned and unexplained—and if we accept this, it follows that we are introducing our children to magical realism the first time we open a storybook.
Talking bunnies pop up all over the place in children's literature—and not just in sophisticated offerings like Alice in Wonderland, with its somnambulant dormouse and pathologically tardy rabbit. Pre-school texts are full of talking animals, and this is accepted, without explanation, as part of the status quo. Peter Rabbit, one of the most popular children's characters of all time, is a talking rabbit. No explanation is ever offered; none sought. It is simply the case that in the reality that Peter (and we as readers) inhabit, rabbits can talk.
It might be an uncomfortable state of affairs for adults (Alice, after all, was banned in parts of China in 1931 because "animals should not use human language"), but children, with their amazing facility for suspension of disbelief, accept this fusion of real and fantastic elements with perfect equanimity.
It can be argued, of course, and successfully so, that anthropomorphizing animals and inanimate objects is the way a child learns to categorize and relate to people and things outside himself. That, as the child matures, he will become more adept at recognizing that his consciousness, even his type of consciousness, is not universal.
Nevertheless, by using this tendency as a literacy device, we ensure that children become familiar, at a very early age, with the idea that in literature disbelief can be suspended, the rules of the real world can be discarded. Animals can talk.
If talking animals were the only argument for considering children's books to be a foundation for magical realism, the argument might be weak, but other elements are present as well. The plot of children's book is often non-linear—typically, it is circular. Repetition, and repetition with variations, is de rigueur. The creation of mythical places is common (as in Enid Blyton's shameless plot generator The Faraway Tree), and the most popular of children's books blur the line between humour and disgust. To understand the extent of children's love-affair with the grotesque, one need only consider the phenomenal success of Roald Dahl (incidentally, another writer who combines elements of the fantastic and the mundane to great effect).
Finally, the use of myths, legends and fairytales in children's literature is extensive. This might seem self-evident until we recall that the fairytales we know today are bowdlerized version of stories (usually cautionary tales) recorded from oral tradition. In that way, children's books are absolutely saturated with elements of folklore specific to the story and its culture or locale.
It may be that early experiences of reading, along with our attempts to organize a world that can seem arbitrary in its rules, leads us to view magical realism, later in life, as a familiar if challenging sort of play.
Whether this is the case or not, magical realism is a rewarding and exciting genre to read, but can be one of the most difficult, particularly when it is unfamiliar. So: Indoctrinate your child today! Read them a fairy story. Find a book full of talking bunnies (don't forget to do the funny voices). Childhood, in my opinion, is where an appreciation for the complexities and subtleties of magical realism starts. Read to your children. Stretch their imaginations. It's not just a bedtime story – you're nurturing the readers (and writers) of tomorrow.
Story Copyright © 2007 by Rebecca Davies. All rights reserved.
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About the author
It has been alleged that Rebecca Davies is actually a talking squirrel and not a perfectly formed young lady. Either way, she knows lots about writing and editing and caching nuts and berries. She lives somewhere in the middle of England up a tree or in a warren.
Feel free to write haiku for her. She likes that, as well as zombies and dinosaurs. She went to a university in Oxford. No, not that one.