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The Great Escape!

Escapism in Children’s Literature

Children’s literature can take many forms, from sweeping sci-fi and fantasy epics to riveting who-done-it mysteries. One of the most popular ideas presented in these various forms is that of escapism, which authors use as a way for their main characters to break away from the banalities of daily life and into magical, mystical worlds beyond their wildest dreams. Different worlds range from the imagined Terabithia, to the quirky, maddening Wonderland, to the carefully constructed society of Hogwarts and the Wizarding community.

When children stumble upon these new, exciting worlds, it’s because more often-than-not they are lost. Whether dealing with death and tragedy, loneliness and negligence, mistrust and familial obstacles, or even boredom, they are led to new realms to escape their former lives. It is there that the stepping stones for self-discovery are formed; the characters are ultimately able to realize that despite the turmoil surrounding their real lives, they must learn to overcome and appreciate what they had in order to truly live and move forward. Different authors utilize the idea of a correlation between dreary woes and realities of the real world and change that comes with experiencing enticing new worlds. Through the use of characterization, setting, conflict and metaphor, the theme of escapism and the fantasy world as safe haven become prevalent.

Works such as Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson, Coraline by Neil Gaiman, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis, and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling show how different authors carefully construct different worlds and characters, yet all explore the theme of escapism. Some become temporary safe havens, a way for characters to learn and grow and discover meaning behind their former lives. Some masquerade as safe havens and allow for realizations that what they had was what they wanted all along. Some even take the place of the children’s former lives, and define their futures.

Building the Bridge: The Need to Escape

The need to escape from reality is something all children desire. In Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson, Jesse Aarons lives a completely unfulfilled life. In his family, Jesse is “the only boy smashed between four sisters, and the older two had despised you ever since you stopped letting them dress you up and wheel you around in their rusty old doll carriage, and the littlest one cried if you looked at her cross-eyed” (Paterson, 2). Jesse feels unappreciated; he is only used as a plaything for his older sisters and his youngest sister often gets him in trouble if he looks at her the wrong way; he’s used by his sisters: “These girls could get out of work faster than grasshoppers could slip through your fingers” (Paterson, 8), which household chores means Jesse received the brunt of the work. “‘All right, Jesse. Get your lazy self off that bench…He gave his poor deadweight of a head one minute more on the tabletop” (Paterson, 9). His mother and father force him to do all the chores around the house, and he his only escape was being able to run, which meant that by the time chores came around he was too tired.

Jesse’s world is mundane, monotonous, filled with the same happenings day after day. His dreary worlds’ only bright spots are running – where he trains himself every morning before chores in order to be the fastest runner at Lark Creek Elementary – and his art. “Jess drew the way some people drink whiskey. The peace would start at the top of his muddled brain and seep down through his tired and tensed-up body. Lord, he loved to draw” (Paterson, 12-14). Of course, he would never attempt to show his drawings to his father because when he was younger, he expressed interest in the arts to his father, who quickly dismissed it, asking what it was he was learning in the school. “‘What are they teaching in that damn school?’ he had asked. ‘Bunch of old ladies turning my only son into some kind of a –’ He had stopped on the word, but Jess had gotten the message. It was one you didn’t forget, even after four years” (Paterson, 14). He is constantly plagued with this need to please his family, never going against them, yet they never indulge his own dreams. He has to sneak out of the house in the morning in order to run. He has to hide his art supplies and his drawings from his father, and make sure the coast is clear before he unearths his secret doodle stash. Even at Christmastime, when his father buys him a race car set that doesn’t work, and he tries to make the best of it, telling his father that he really loves it and just hasn’t gotten the hang of it, his father doesn’t seem to care, only commenting on how he was swindled. It’s only when he meets Leslie Burke that he can wring the grey from his life, and starts to explore new territory, including within himself.

Leslie is an intelligent and well-read girl with a wildly vivid wardrobe. She’s well-versed in everything from the Bible to Shakespeare to C.S. Lewis, and she seems to come into Jesse’s life when he needs her the most. Jesse doesn’t have any friends, so when Leslie enters his life, he is apprehensive but too taken with her and her stories of scuba diving and how she and her family came to live next door. The drudgery and dreariness of his home life seems to be temporarily erased, and in its place a rich world full of color and life. “He was drifting, drifting like a fat white lazy cloud back and forth across the blue. ‘Do you know what we need?’ Leslie called to him. Intoxicated as he was with the heavens, he couldn’t imagine needing anything on earth” (Paterson, 49). This quote shows the power of friendship, and the immediate effect it has on Jesse’s life. Up to this point, his life had been all about monotony and a grey life with no emotional interactions where he only dreamed that someone could relate to him, and now he couldn’t think of anything more he could need. It also shows that based on Jesse’s quality of life, he is unable to imagine much past the current moment he’s in.

Leslie suggests that they create their own secret land, a place where they can go to in order to break away from their classmates and from Jesse’s family and ‘live’ by their own rules whenever they pleased. They called it Terabithia. The use of imagination helped to create Terabithia, and what Jesse lacked, Leslie more than made up for. She instructed him to read The Chronicles of Narnia, so he would know how to act and rule like a proper King. They used a rope swing to cross a small stream, which was declared the entrance into Terabithia, and Jesse contributed what he could – he built a castle for them to rule in, and there together they were able to have amazing adventures and in turn Terabithia helped them face their everyday problems, like bullying at school. “Leslie liked to make up stores about the giants that threatened peace of Terabithia, but they both knew that the real giant in their lives was Janice Avery” (Paterson, 61). Jesse and Leslie both relied on their own strengths to get through to Janice, to break her down, then to befriend her. Together they were learning how to navigate their own lives, which were made more bearable by the thought that after chores and school and sisters and parents that they could both escape to a secret place nobody else knew about.

As the book continues, Jesse reveals that he does not think he possesses the magic to enter Terabithia, to make it a reality for himself. He attempts to enter, but fears that he would destroy everything by forcing the magic himself. He believed that he didn’t have the ability to imagine Terabithia. His reliance on Leslie is very weighted, and without her constant support he begins to waver. It’s only when she coaches him on how to get across the gushing water in the gully that he is able to make it across unscathed. Despite their wild adventures, one in particular which contributed all the recent rain to evil spirits flooding Terabithia, Jesse still has his reservations and thinks he should tell Leslie that he cannot go to Terabithia from fear of being swept away in the rushing stream. Jesse’s way of escaping was beginning to cripple him, causing him to fear not being able to cross the stream or be able to access the wonders of the world they’d both created. After opting to go to a museum in Washington with his teacher, Miss. Edmunds instead of being with Leslie, he returns to find his entire family quiet. Nobody makes him perform chores, nobody yells at him. It is then revealed that Leslie had died after trying to cross over into Terabithia alone.

Immediately he believes that Leslie is not dead, that it is all just an elaborate dream; that he is going to wake up and find Leslie waiting for him to join her as rulers of the great, wonderful world they’d created, where everything seemed to make sense, and nothing – no one – was dead. Before meeting her, Jesse had always hoped that one day, something would happen and it would be revealed that his parents weren’t really his parents, and that he’d be taken on this magical journey.

“Maybe, he thought, I was a foundling, like in the stories. Way back when the creek had water in it, I came floating down it in a wicker basket waterproofed with pitch. My dad found me and brought me here because he’d always wanted a son and just had stupid daughters. My real parents and brothers and sisters live far away – farther away than West Virginia or even Ohio. Somewhere I have a family who have rooms filled with nothing but books and who still grieve for their baby who was stolen” (Paterson, 73).

As one of the most telling passages in the book, this reveals Jesse’s anger, and his resistance to being complacent within the family. It reveals his restlessness with his situation in that nobody takes him seriously or respects him enough to not belittle his friendship with Leslie, the only person in the world who truly understands him and appreciates his talents. It also hints that the creek does in fact contain magic, or at least, the answers to his problems. Terabithia is the ultimate metaphor for escape and hope, where Jesse hopes that something better lies past a creek: a different family, a different life, Leslie.

Through Leslie, who has opened his eyes to new stories and new ways of thinking, Jesse realizes his ability to imagine, and with it, he is able to escape from his reality, if only temporarily. Though Leslie had died, Jesse was still able to access Terabithia, and he tried to use his own imagination to escape from the horrors of Leslie’s death, to mourn for her peacefully and to talk to her, like she used to talk. He recalls her and how she would have liked the words he spoke to the Spirits of the wood. But Terabithia helps him realize that she is, in fact, dead and needs a new queen. After rescuing May Belle from a similar fate as Leslie, he decides that he needs to build a bridge to Terabithia over the creek. He knows that he has to keep their safe haven alive; as long as Terabithia is alive for Jesse, than so is Leslie. “Now it occurred to him that perhaps Terabithia was like a castle where you came to be knighted. After you stayed for awhile and grew strong you had to move on” (Paterson, 160). He had to keep Terabithia alive, but he could no longer be apart of it. Just the simple act of knowing that it would live on in May Belle was enough for him. “It was up to him to pay back to the world in beauty and caring what Leslie had loaned him in vision and strength” (Paterson, 160). Jesse had discovered his purpose, and a sense of self-discovery through the wonders of Terabithia. It was a safe haven for him, and a place for him to grow, giving him the abilities he needed to face the world, and be able to move forward with his life.

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In contrast to Terabithia, Coraline by Neil Gaiman also explores the idea of the fantasy world as a safe haven, only in this world not everything as is sweet and wonderful as it seems. Coraline Jones, who had just moved to a new town, into an old, multi-family house, is the epitome of a neglected child from the perspective of an only child stricken with boredom. Her world is grey and lifeless, filled with unpacked boxes and rooms filled with old musty furniture. Her mother tells her to read a book and her father barely has enough time to look away from his computer to address her. So she reads all of her books, watches all of her videos, played with all of her toys, and was stuck inside. Comparable to Dr. Seuss’ The Cat in the Hat, Coraline was stuck inside with nothing to do while it poured rain. “It wasn’t the kind of rain you could go out in – it was the other kind, the kind that threw itself down from the sky and splashed where it landed” (Gaiman, 6). It was when she discovers the small door in the drawing room that she begins to have the adventure she craves, and is thrust into a world created entirely to her liking. Unlike Bridge to Terabithia, Coraline does not imagine the world behind the door. Rather, it was created for her by the Other Mother.

The Other Mother, who strongly resembles Coralines real mother, is the creature that created the world behind the locked door. It is suggested that she is somewhat of a shape-shifting creature, and that she has made herself resemble other children’s mothers in the past.  She is taller and skinnier than Coraline’s real mother, with long black hair that moves by itself, white skin and long, skeletal fingers. In place of her eyes are large, shiny black buttons. She cannot create, but only copy, twist and change things from the real world when she creates her other world, enhancing certain aspects in order to entice children, like Coraline who are bored and unhappy.

From the start Coraline wishes to escape her reality. When her mother ignored her at the clothing shop, Coraline wandered off, aware that her mother was purposely disregarding her feelings. When she returned, her mother asked her where she was, and Coraline responds by saying she was abducted. “‘I was kidnapped by aliens,’ said Coraline. ‘They came down from outer space with ray guns, but I fooled them by wearing a wig and laughing in a foreign accent, and I escaped.’” (Gaiman, 24). This quote shows Coralines vivid imagination and her quick-thinking ability to come up with a colorful response to a banal question from a woman who hardly cared in the first place where she was. This is a great example of characterization, showing her cunning and how even within the words of a hasty, sarcastic remark, she is able to thwart evil plans of pretend aliens. Thirdly, it’s the most personality-ridden dialogue she’s shown up until that point, and within it she uses the word ‘escape,’ which alludes to her desire to escape from the current situation with her mother, and foreshadows her subsequent escapes later on.

What Coraline finds behind a locked door is a world that looks remarkably like her own, but richer and more magical. It’s comfortable, familiar, yet peculiar. Fueled by her desire to escape from her former reality into what could potentially have been a safe haven for her she was drawn further in, coming face-to-face with her Other Parents. The food smelled wonderful, not like a ‘recipe’ (as Coraline often called the meals prepared by her real father. They were not real meals, but recipes which often did not taste very good at all). “It was the best chicken that Coraline had ever eaten. Her mother sometimes made chicken, but it was always out of packets or frozen, and was very dry, and it never tasted of anything” (Gaiman, 29). The food of Coralines former life, her real life, is implied to be bland, dull, and tasteless, while the food prepared by the Other Mother in this constructed, fantasy world is the best she’s ever had.

The Other Mother constructs a world of wonders for her, twisting what Coraline already knew, like her bedroom, filled with live toys, wonderful and colorful and full of excitement, Miss Spinks and Miss Forcible and their Scottish terriers into a wonderful stage act, the crazy old man upstairs’ (Mr. Bobo) mice into a real rat circus. It was visually similar to life she left, but more exhilarating and interesting, where there was always something interesting to do.

“So,” said her other father. “Do you like it here?”

“I suppose,” said Coraline. “It’s much more interesting than at home.”

“I’m glad you like it,” said Coraline’s mother. “Because we’d like to think hat this is your home. You can stay here forever and always. If you want to” (Gaiman, 45).

This passage is interesting because in the text it does not say “said Coraline’s other mother,” rather the other mother is blatantly referred to her as her real mother, while her other father doesn’t get the same treatment. This is a reference to Coraline’s comfort level and ease in this new world, as she is being tricked. She feels like she belongs in this new world, like she’s found a place away from her former reality. Her other mother has created this safe haven specifically for Coraline. Later, on the same page:

“If you want to stay,” said her other father, “there’s only one little thing we’ll have to do, so you can stay here for ever and always.”

They went into the kitchen. On a china plate on the kitchen table was a spool of black cotton, and a long silver needle, and beside them, two large black buttons.

“I don’t think so,” said Coraline.

“Oh but we want you to,” said her other mother. “We want you to stay. And it’s just a little thing.”

Immediately Coraline feels uneasy, and her Other Mother is referred to as ‘other’ again. Coraline tried to make her way out of the other world, hoping desperately to get home, but when she arrives home, she discovers her parents have gone missing.

The contrast between the syrupy sweet love of the Other Mother, who wants to sew buttons into Coralines eyes, and what Coraline knew, was her real family was eye-opening. She begins to see the value of her real parents when the other world is revealed to be too good to be true. This world, created as a safe haven, a way to lure Coraline and trap her here, was just the opposite and leads Coraline to appreciate what she had with her real parents. When she journeys back to the other world to rescue her parents she becomes unsure of who she is. “For a moment she felt utterly dislocated. She did not know where she was; she was not entirely sure who she was. It is astonishing just how much of what we are can be tied to the beds we wake up in the morning, and it is astonishing how fragile that can be” (Gaiman, 67). Gaiman poses an interesting idea about the fantasy world here, that even though this other world was created to mimic Coralines own reality, she felt unlike herself, uneasy, waking up in a different bed, despite being a bed that resembled her real one.

Everything in this new reality was created by the Other Mother, and all of her creations were made to do her bidding: trick Coraline into staying, even if that means attacking her and forcing her to stay. All of her creations, even the other Mr. Bobo, use her dull, real life as a way to lure her to stay in this fantasy.

“‘Nothing’s changed. You’ll go home. You’ll be bored. You’ll be ignored. No one will listen to you, not really listen to you. You’re too clever and too quiet for them to understand. They don’t even get your name right. Stay here with us,’ said the voice from the figure at the end of the room. ‘We will listen to you and play with you and laugh with you. Your other mother will build whole worlds for you to explore, and tear them down every night when you are done. Every day will be better and brighter than the one before” (Gaiman, 118-119).

In this passage, the other Mr. Bobo plays on Coralines strengths, like her clever imagination and her inquisitive nature, which is often what builds up the fantasy worlds to the characters and allows them to grow. Here, Coraline must decipher between reality and lies in order to grow. The Other Mother knows Coraline wants somebody to listen to her, to explore with, to fuel her imagination and she preys on those weaknesses.

It is only when Coraline says that not every day can be magical, colorful and filled with happiness, and she can’t always get what she wants that she is able to truly escape. “‘You don’t really understand, do you?’ she said. ‘I don’t want whatever I want. Nobody does. Not really. What kind of fun would it be if I got everything I ever wanted? Just like that, and it didn’t mean anything?’” (Gaiman, 120). She uses her mind, and says out loud that he doesn’t understand because he’s just a creation, not real like her.

She longs for the structure of the real world, and the fantasy world has allowed her to see that. Being in a world that was created for her as a way to escape her dreadful life, Coraline realized that everything she ever wanted was already there; her real parents, her real life, where she was able to explore what was real, not be led by fake creations. Coralines self discovery allowed her to be able to cope with her realities. Much like Coraline, Alice from Lewis Carroll’s Adventures in Wonderland also inadvertently discovers a new, wonderful world, but like Coraline, her thirst for excitement leads her to question her very existence.

Down the Rabbit Hole: Accidental Discovery

Whether it’s the monotony of sitting by a river bank and having nothing to do, or happening upon a wardrobe during a game of hide and seek, characters are brought to new realms of discovery and possibilities, challenging the way they think, and ultimately, leaving a lasting impression that will translate to their real lives.

In Lewis Carroll’s Adventures in Wonderland, when a white rabbit with long pink ears hops by a lonely, bored Alice, her curiosity leads her down a long, almost unending rabbit hole into a strange place – Wonderland. Immediately, Alice begins facing problems and encounters all these zany ways in which to solve them. At first she is too large to go through the small door leading into the enticingly beautiful garden, so she finds a small bottle labeled “DRINK ME,” which shrinks her to the appropriate size, only to discover that she is too small to reach the door to the door on the glass table from which she found the bottle.

The idea of growing and shrinking is a common thread throughout Adventures in Wonderland, and it’s an interesting one when talking about children. Children often view themselves as too small to perform certain tasks, yet when they grow up, their confined into these new roles, which stifle their former selves. Alice’s constant changing is an allegory of that idea, and in order to enter Wonderland she must first shrink to size, yet still maintain her wherewithal (using the key, navigating herself around using logic, etc.). Everyone she encounters in Wonderland tests her logic, challenging her idea of herself. A memorable encounter with the Caterpillar poses an interesting question:

“‘Who are you?’ said the Caterpillar.

This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation. Alice replied, rather shyly, ‘I – I hardly know, sir, just at present – at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.’

‘What do you mean by that?’ said the Caterpillar sternly. ‘Explain yourself!’

‘I can’t explain myself, I’m afraid, sir,’ said Alice, ‘because I’m not myself’” (Carroll, 60).

This interaction shows Alice’s reluctance to embrace Wonderland. She knew who she was this morning, when she was sitting by the river bank with her sister, yet she was bored and longed for something, and her curiosity led her to this place, talking the Caterpillar. She is unsure of who she is because of how much she has changed being in Wonderland, both mentally as well as physically. This metaphor of growing and shrinking and never quite fitting is befitting for a child, but on a much more elaborate scale for Alice. When Alice says that the Caterpillar doesn’t understand but would when he turns into a chrysalis and become a butterfly, the Caterpillar counters, implying that he would not find it unusual or uncomfortable as Alice is finding her changes. It is implied that this is so because the Caterpillar has logically prepared himself for such changes and knows what it is to come, where as Alice did not know what to expect when she stumbled down the rabbit hole. The Caterpillar acts as a sort of guide, a teacher to her, cautioning her to “mind her temper,” and of all the interactions she’s had up to this point, it is here that Alice – and the reader – are actually shown some insight into the growing pains and the mixed up notions of childhood and adulthood.

As Alice encounters more strange creatures, like the March Hare, the Mad Hatter, the Cheshire Cat and the Queen of Hearts, she begins to wonder if anything would ever be normal again. There is a glimmer of her longing for her former life, and her acknowledgement that she was a completely different person yesterday. When she recounts her adventures to the Gryphon and the Mock Turtle, she says “‘I could tell you my adventures – beginning from this morning,’ said Alice a little timidly: ‘but it’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.’” (Carroll, 155). Wonderland changed Alice, and allowed her to experience the general ups and downs of growing up and living in a place where everyone seems to be mad. She wanted desperately to follow the white rabbit and enter the magnificent garden she had seen earlier through the key hole, which represents childlike curiosities, but when she actually attains her goal, she realizes that she would like nothing more than to return home. Of course it is important to acknowledge that Alice had learned a great deal, noting herself that she was changed, and that there was no point in talking about yesterday, which is quite a powerful message in children’s literature.

Alice’s safe haven, which turned into a mad world filled with illogical logic and improbable probabilities, allowed for her own self-discovery and the ability to appreciate her own reality. Like Coraline and Bridge to Terabithia, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland provided Alice with an alternative to her monotonous life and allowed her to appreciate what she had, being able to recall Wonderland when she is older, and the ability to remember “her own child-life and the happy summer days” (Carroll, 192). Like Alice’s zany adventures in Wonderland, the Pevensie children had a similar experience in their time spent as the Kings and Queens of Narnia. Though their experiences were drastically different than Alice’s, they come to share the same understandings.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis begins with the four siblings, Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy Pevensie having been sent away from their home in London because of the air raids during WWII, to live with an old Professor who was “so odd-looking that Lucy (who was the youngest) was a little afraid of him” (Lewis, 3). We get a glimpse of the characterization in their first interaction with each other, Peter is the level-headed father figure, using logic yet still proclaiming that being at this old mansion will be fun because the professor would never know what they were up to, Susan acts like their mother, Edmund is mischievous and snarky, and the youngest, Lucy is the curious one. These trait distinctions are important because they let the reader know right from the start who these characters are and what role they will play. Each of the siblings represents a certain childhood idea; the idea of the older siblings caring for the younger brood because of a certain situation – in this case, war – is preventing them from the care of a real mother, the idea of a sneaky, attention-seeking little brother who acts to get the youngest in trouble, and the pure, innocence of the littlest girl. It is through Lucy, after all, that they all find Narnia.

Looking at Narnia is different than looking at Terabithia, which was a fully imagined world created by Jesse and Leslie as a way to escape their lives; the other world behind the locked door in Coraline was twisted and manipulated by the Other Mother in order to lure Coraline and Wonderland is a quirky world without any rules that Alice just happened to stumble upon which has hints of a societal class system – the King and Queen of Hearts – but no solid evidence of any real foundation. Narnia, however, is a fully realized, tangible universe, with set rules, a class system, structure, and the children have real battles that have the possibility to injure or kill them. The same moral principles apply in Narnia as in the real world. They experience seasons, emotions, and organize uprisings and alliances. In Alice, it’s debatable whether or not she actually traveled to Wonderland, but for all intents and purposes, the Pevensie children do in fact travel to another world; this is not just an allegorical journey or a solitary mission where only one child at a time can experience the self-discovery brought on by the ideas of escapism, as shown in Bridge to Terabithia and Coraline, respectively.

One of the ideas presented in Wardrobe is that of family and forgiveness, and learning to move past mistakes in order to move forward. With Edmund being captured by the White Witch and used in order to maintain control over Narnia and to kill Aslan, it became apparent to him that there was more to life than selfish gain, and when is brought back to the camp in the chapter “Deep Magic from the Dawn of Time, the reader gets the idea that Edmund has had a permanent change of heart:

“There is no need to tell you what Aslan was saying, but it was a conversation which Edmund never forgot. As the others drew nearer Aslan turned to meet them, bringing Edmund with him. ‘Here is your brother,’ he said, ‘and – there is no need to talk to him about what is past.’ Edmund shook hands with each of the others and said to each of them in return, ‘I’m sorry’” (Lewis, 139)

This is a significant moment for Edmund. He apologizes, and it is implied by the Aslans words that – from here on out – there is no need to dwell on the past, and everything should be forgiven by all parties. Later, the reader comes to learn that Edmund went to become a “graver and quieter man than peter, and great in council and judgment. He was called King Edmund the Just” (Lewis, 184).

Narnia is a metaphor for redemption, certainly for Edmund, but also for Aslan, who was able to be brought back to life in a Christ-like fashion after being killed on a stone tablet unjustly. That particular scene is a teaching tool, a way to show Lucy and Susan how to looking deeper into themselves, finding forgiveness.

“There is a magic she did not know. Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation. She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backward” (Lewis, 163).

If the White Witch had taken the time to look beyond what she knew, she could have known what was going to happen; the answers were there in front of her. Aslan implies that they must look beyond what they know in order to get to the truth and what’s just. The journey began with inquisitive Lucy playing in a wardrobe and happening across a fawn, Mr. Tumnus, whom she innocently befriends.

When she learns he was kidnapped for his treachery, she knows she must help him, and in the end, she is able to free him from his stone prison. Narnia teaches the Pevensie’s how to not only love and support and forgive each other, but also to fight for what is right, for what they believe in, and to look inside themselves for their own truths. It is with this that they are crowned Kings and Queens and fifteen years later stumble across the lamppost by the wardrobe, and it is with in learning to trust their feelings, and to trust one another enough to agree that they can no sooner hide from another adventure than leave another behind, that they stumble back out of the wardrobe to learn that mere seconds have passed in the real world. But we see from their interactions with each other before leaving Narnia that they function as a whole, as an entity, as a family. It is through the idea of escaping to another world, a world of magic and mysticism that they are brought together and taught the true value of family and forgiveness. They were able to find their places within their family in Narnia, which acted as their safe heaven haven.

Gazing into the Mirror: Finding a Role in the Fantasy Realm

Another work of children’s literature that follows similar principles as The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Both novels serve as the initial offerings of the series· and serve to introduce the main characters and their respective magical worlds. Where Coraline thought she was the epitome of a neglected child, Harry Potter actually is one. He was orphaned by his parents – compared to Coraline, whose parents were just too busy to be bothered by games – and left to live with his Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon who mistreat him, essentially using him a live-in servant. He wears hand-me-downs that barely fit and is forced to sleep in a small cupboard under the stairs.

“Perhaps it had something to do with living in a dark cupboard, but Harry had always been small and skinny for his age. He looked even smaller and skinner than he really was because all he had to wear were old clothes of Dudley’s, and Dudley was about four times bigger than he was. Harry had a thin face, knobbly knees, black hair and bright green eyes. He wore round glasses held together with a lot of Scotch tape because of all the times Dudley had punched him on the nose. The only thing Harry liked about his own appearance was a very thin scar on his forehead which was shaped like a bolt of lightning” (Rowling, 20).

When Harry first finds out he is a wizard, he is immediately thrilled at the prospect, yet infuriated with his Aunt and Uncle for not telling him about his parents, and how he came to live at the Dursley’s. Harry, as a character, is so humbled by his own experiences that the realization that he could actually leave his life in pursuit of something more seems too good to be true:

“He’d spent his life being clouted by Dudley and bullied by Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon; if he was really a wizard, why hadn’t they been turned into warty toads every time they’d tried to lock him in his cupboard? If he’d once defeated the greatest sorcerer in the world, how come Dudley had always been able to kick him around like a football?” (Rowling, 57).

His questioning reminds us of the nature of childhood, and makes him a relatable character. He does not realize how magic works yet, nor does he understand the impact of his return to the wizarding community. As such, he is a great foil to the rest of the magical world; he is not cocky, nor is he in-the-know about his celebrity. He is a good representation of innocence in the magical world. More so than Narnia and unlike any of the other fantasy realms mentioned, the Wizarding community in Harry Potter is a government-based society that exists in secret alongside the real world, protected by magic that Harry knew nothing about: there is currency, and a system of jobs and businesses and a community set up by rules and regulations. Even though this whole world existed unbeknownst to Harry, when he is thrust into this magical world he doesn’t exhibit any more fear than the above quote. His main concern is that of a child: how hasn’t he been able to fend off his bullying cousin? Hogwarts and the wizarding community have the opportunity to act as safe havens for him to learn and allow him to flex his magical muscles.

One of the most telling sections of the book is when Harry comes across the Mirror of Erised in the Room of Requirement in chapter twelve. Harry does not know this at the time, but the Mirror’s purpose is to show one’s hearts deepest desires. When Harry looks into the Mirror he sees two people staring back at him, waving: “Harry was looking at his family for the first time. The Potters smiled and waved at Harry and he stared hungrily back at them, his hands pressed flat against the glass as though he was hoping to fall right through it and reach them” (Rowling, 209). The Room of Requirement acts as a haven-within-a-haven for Harry within the grounds of Hogwarts. When he needs to hide from Snape and Filch, he is able to find this room that only appears to those who truly require its services. This is a great symbol of all fantasy world safe havens, for they truly do appear when the characters require them most. When Harry was old enough and needed an escape more than anything, he discovered that he was a wizard.

When Harry is faced with preventing Voldemorts return to power by obtaining the Sorcerer’s Stone, destroying it and stopping Professor Quirrel, he could have cracked under the pressure and betrayed Dumbledore by saying what he really saw in the Mirror of Erised. Instead, he did the right thing and forced himself not to think of himself, but to heed Dumbledore’s words of fighting off the desire to want and focusing on what you need. Dumbledore is a main part of the idea of the safe haven presented with Hogwarts and the wizarding community for Harry. He represents the wise mentor, guiding Harry through the trials and tribulations of both young adulthood and this new, magical world.

It is interesting when understanding the full impact of the Mirror or Erised, that Harry was tested and it showed his moral character. But if one was to think about all Harry had encountered within that last year at Hogwarts, it is hard to imagine that the Harry at the beginning of the book would have been able to control his impulses.

“It shows us nothing more or less than the deepest, most desperate desire of our hearts. You, who have never known your family, see them standing around you. Ronald Weasley, who has always been overshadowed by his brothers, sees himself standing alone, the best of all of them. However, this mirror will give us neither knowledge nor truth. Men have wasted away before it, entranced by what they have seen, or been driven mad, not knowing if what it shows is real or even possible” (Rowling, 213).

The obsession he has with knowing and seeing his family is a great one. It’s one he struggles with throughout the series. Examining it from that perspective one can see that Hogwarts has allowed him to grow, and the people and friends he made connections with helped to further him past obstacles both figurative and literal. Even characters like Ron Weasley, who before befriending Harry was a virtual nobody who wore hand-me-down robes and got picked on by bully Draco Malfoy had been able to see the best in himself and push himself to fight alongside Harry. The same can be said for Hermione Granger, who was also an outsider, almost as much as Harry in that she lived as a muggle (non-magical human) and was born to a muggle family. She also found her place within Hogwarts.

Harry Potter is an example of a novel in which the character goes and lives in the fantasy world and is able to find a role or niche. In the wizarding world, Harry finally feels like he belongs. This is somewhat explored in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, however the Pevensie children do in fact find their way back through the wardrobe after living in Narnia. Harry knows he has to return to muggle life during the summers, but he knows he will be back, and for that he is grateful. Hogwarts gave him reason and something to look toward.

Beneath the Wardrobes and Rabbit Holes

Behind the wardrobes and locked doors, over memorial bridges and across train platforms lie rich worlds that provide escapes for children. They revel in the mysteries and the enchantment. They fight epic battles and learn to patch their wounds. They discover right from wrong and how to use their strengths to defeat the evil demons they only dreamed about in their real lives. The fantasy world is about an escape, but it’s also about that escape providing the platform for which they learn to live and more forward. Every fantasy world is different; some masquerade as safe havens — and some truly are — but in the end, they all allow the children in these novels the ability to cope with their problems and acts as catalysts for them ultimately discovering their roles in the world.

About StevenSSWrites

I'm a writer, adjunct professor of English, pop culture #junkie, human, and an avid imaginer.

7 comments on “The Great Escape!

  1. Never Thought About Escapism Before
    October 4, 2013

    Wow…this was really detailed! I never really thought much about the whole escapism thing, but after reading about this, so many books (and I read a few of the books you mentioned, like Bride to Terabithia) and movies are really about escaping and coping with things. This was a nice addition to your posts!!

    • stevensalvatores
      October 4, 2013

      I’m glad you enjoyed it!!

      I’ll have more MG/YA lit-related posts in the future. Check back soon!

  2. Pingback: Escapism in Children's Literature | Literatura ...

  3. Charlene Memphis
    October 27, 2013

    What a magical blog post full of valuable insights on escapism in these mystical books! I love the unexpectedness of these types of books, and it’s interesting to see the analysis behind them.

    • stevensalvatores
      October 27, 2013

      Thank you! I’m definitely not an expert, but I do love these books!

  4. Piper B.
    October 28, 2013

    I’m extremely impressed with your writing skills and also with your blog. Keep up the great writing, it is rare to see
    a blog like this one today that marries literature with pop culture and everything (personal) in between!

    • stevensalvatores
      October 28, 2013

      Thank you! Beautiful Chaos is an amalgamation of ALL of my crazy interests and (multiple) personalities haha

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(c) 2013 Steven Shaw. All content contained herein is solely the intellectual property of its original author and may not be reproduced without the author's consent. I mean, basically, don't steal my shit. However, I'm ALL about you sharing and linking back and tweeting and facebooking and social networking the hell out of BeautifulChaos. That would be cool. These words are my own, from my heart flown. Oh shit, I totes just plagiarized Natasha Bedingfield. Pretend you didn't see that.

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