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An important observation made by the critic Felicity Hughes

regarding childrens literature is that it is mostly based on fantasy
and is hence non-serious. On the basis of your reading of Through
the Looking Glass, would you agree with such criticism? Substantiate
your argument with textual evidence.

English childrens fantasies, penned down by authors like Lewis

Carroll (Alices Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking
Glass), Edward Lear (Nonsense Songs, Stories, Botany and
Alphabets), George MacDonald (The Princess and the Goblin), etc.
were the first kind of fantasies produced in 19th century England.
Earlier, the genre was distrusted: it was commonly believed that with
exposure to tales of witchcraft and the supernatural, children would
become liars, and start questioning the reality forced on them by
authoritative adults. Many critics have postulated that fantasy is the
very core of childrens literature, and therefore, an understanding of
fantasy is crucial to the understanding of the phenomenon of
popular childrens literature itself.

Fantasies, by definition, do not mean or imply escapist literature.

In his seminal book, Childrens Literature, M.O. Grenby provides a
useful definition of fantasy: Fantasy literature depicts things
contrary to prevailing ideas of reality, rather than which are
incontestably supernatural or impossible. In other words, critic
Catherine Hume refers to fantasy as any departure from consensus
reality. Fantasies, however, can be realistic in the way that they
engage with aspects of reality and borrow from them. In Through the
Looking Glass, the world beyond the looking glass is seen as an
inversion of the reality Alice, its main protagonist, is accustomed to.
This particular fantasy world is dominated by the central theme of
a chess game which all its inhabitants must necessarily participate in.
In this way, reality seems to be turned on its head with the leisure
associated with a game of chess being the primary occupation in the
new world Alice has entered. However, while chess is a game, it is
also a game based on certain rules which are irrefutable. Thus, even
something that takes away from rule-bound reality has certain rules
of its own, which have been socially agreed upon. To a person not
yet socialized in that particular world, where they have their own
value, the rules may appear to be arbitrary and abnormal. If one
agrees with this school of thinking, even the rules we fetishize in our
reality seem to have diminished authority by value of their
arbitrariness. Therefore, despite her quick thinking and adaptation
skills, it is no surprise that the rules of both her real and fantasy
world are perceived as being illogical and bizarre by Alice.

In the text, Alice is introduced as someone whose relationship with

reality is already tenuous. She is given to flights of fancy, most
prominently through her game of Lets pretend. Here, Carroll
draws the readers attention to the vulnerability of the Victorian
child and the importance of Alices imagination in the context of the
world she lives in, full of neglect, tyranny and despotism. For Alice,
fantasy is a means of escape from all of this, where she can have an
entire world at her disposal. This is a subtle critique of the hierarchy
which suppresses the child under the often violent and always
didactic power of the adult authority figure. M.O. Grenby observes in
his book that most fantasy writing is not completely anarchic, as
critics of the genre seem to think, but that it presents carefully
structured alternative realities which are usually controlled by strict
rules. In Through the Looking Glass, Alices escape from the
dogmatic adult power is not entirely successful. , even though she
confronts the new authoritarians with a more self-possessed
manner. Figures like the Rose in the flower garden, the Red Queen,
Humpty Dumpty, Tweedledum and Tweedledee constantly lay down
rules for Alice to follow, negating her autonomy for their own
convenient display of power. She is often ignored, and unfairly
dismissed in what seems like an almost brutally oppressive manner.
As Doris Benardette points out: What you get in the looking glass
world is a clear and startling depiction of the world as a child finds it
around her- a world in which the inhabitants are mostly rude,
officious and pedagogic. This is also true of other famous fantasy
fiction for children like CS Lewis Chronicles of Narnia series, and
more recently, JK Rowlings Harry Potter series, where the child
protagonists escape into a seemingly happier world, but on a
closer reading, one finds that they are still confronting the dilemmas
they left behind in the real world. As Rosemary Jackson has
written, Fantasy recombines and inverts the real, but it does not
completely escape it: it exists in a parasitical or symbiotic relation to
the real. The fantastic cant exist independently of the real world
which it seems to find so frustratingly finite.

Earlier, the theme of the looking glass had been employed in didactic
literature (Looking Glass for the Mind in 1792 and Looking Glass for
Youth and Age Set Forth in a Dialogue Between a Godly Gentleman
and His Daughter in 1800). Carroll, however, completely subverts
and twists this instructive theme by creating an apparently
nonsensical world inside the looking glass, instead of using the motif
to create the image of the model child. Fantasy is also a very
important device while considering the questions about identity,
since it allows for the loss of a fixed identity. This is also one of the
major reasons why fantasy is such an enabling genre for the child
reader. By decontextualizing the reality which the child is familiar
with, the author ensures a removal from the hierarchical social
structures that locate and bind the protagonists to a particular role
and social setting. When the children return to reality, it is with a
stronger sense and knowledge of their own self. Inside the looking
glass world, Alice is enabled as an adult mediator when she meets
Tweedledum and Tweedledee, the White Queen,and the White
Knight. It is fantasy which frees her to inhabit different roles
successfully, and not just that of the genteel Victorian child. Alice
proves herself to be an emboldened and non-submissive character,
practically transgressing the prevalent Victorian notions about the
innocence and purity of childhood in her dealing with curiouser and
curiouser creatures and situations. To quote Perry Nodelman,
Childrens literature is frequently about coming to terms with a
world that does not understand- the world as defined and governed
by grownups and not totally familiar or comprehensible to children.

To conclude, Felicity Hughes dismissal of all childrens literature as

non-serious by virtue of its element of fantasy, does not really
make much sense, when seen in the light of such literature exposing
the cruel hypocrisy of the adult authority when dealing with the
child. By breaking away from the conventions of realist novels,
fantasy writings show the real world in a much plainer, and often
harsher light, where the unknowing child is subjected to unnecessary
tyranny and conflicts. Such novels also show the protagonists rising
above the various injustices faced by them, and in effect become
important enabling tools for the child reader in coming to terms with
their own identity. To label fantasy fiction as non-serious would
result in labelling the crises of childhood as non-serious as well, a
problematic and grossly unfair generalization symptomatic of the
power structure in the which the adult must always be physically,
economically and intellectually superior to the child, giving him
power to literally and figuratively beat the child into submission.