Why Fantasy Is Worth Reading

As a young woman I became absorbed in romantic literature for a time; and by literature I mean Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters, whose writing I found delightful – full of passion and manners I hoped one day to emulate. I read Catherine Gaskin, and adored the historical detail and plots in which the heroine always found her partner in unexpected men, who rarely appeared at first to be the sort who could love. I tried to read more popular works, by Nicholas Sparks or Diana Gabaldon, but they lacked something for me; perhaps it was detail or uncertainty or passion in some way, but they never found a place in my reading world.

From a young age I also enjoyed books of fantasy and magic. I probably began with C. S. Lewis. The Narnia series were a delight to be read and reread, with the characters forming a place in heart and mind which offered hope of bravery, courage and companionship. I found Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea books and fell into that world too; and from it to her science fiction, a trail I have continued to follow ever since. My reading has ranged widely over the years, and my shelves groan under the weight of my varied decisions. I have developed an affection for non-fiction as an adult my younger self would be surprised by, autobiography and memoir feature, but my preference is for science, and the history of discovery. In that world I have found so much which has delighted and expanded my understanding of the world. The Map That Changed The World and The Disappearing Spoon are standouts, which have each served to deepen my knowledge and thinking about the world and its history. Nonetheless, when I require reading to relax with or escape with or deny the world with, I turn to fantasy.

For many years I regarded this preference as a guilty pleasure. I felt that in loving fantasy I was displaying my childishness or a weakness of some kind. In some company admitting a love of fantasy seemed like a laughing matter – ‘How could you?’ kind of thing. In feeling this way I bought into the belief that fantasy is escapist, simplistic, a kind of denial of reality. I have been asked why I like this genre, in tones which support the view that in reading it I reveal an aspect of my personality which opens itself to criticism or mockery. Like sneaking chocolate after a long week, I continued to read fantasy whenever I could spare the time for long series [as they often are] which would absorb me for days, or even weeks at a time. Because of this, they often became my holidays reads of choice – a kind of reward for the hard, real work of life. I now have one room which houses bookshelves of fantasy and science fiction only. Brushing my eyes across the spines refreshes me, reminding me of the hours of pleasure I have found lost in other worlds. Lately I have been giving thought to my long standing acceptance of the ‘escapist’ view, and finally I have come to realise that this is not why I prefer fantasy to romance. My affection runs much deeper.

Now in my middle years I have turned away from romantic fiction almost entirely; I will read young adult romance, but primarily so I can offer reading advice to students. I had thought that perhaps I had become too cynical for romance; long married, I wondered if I no longer found the notion of discovering ‘true’ love worth bothering about. However, I have at last understood that it is my very lack of cynicism which leads me away. It is not that love is not a worthy subject, or that finding love is not one of the most human of needs, what bothers me about romance is the selfishness of it. As a genre it depends on its audiences obsession with the idea that love is about destiny, or fate. That happiness can be found in the arms of another, and it focuses on an individuals search or discovery of this ‘truth’. Now I will often pick up Georgette Heyer for a quick read which satisfies the need to escape for a while; I love her attention to historical detail and can be swept up in the predictability of her plots, however this reading does not nourish me the way fantasy does and for a long time I have wondered why this is so. Today, as I finish Terry Brooks Heritage of Shannara series I believe I have come to an understanding.

It is true that fantasy removes the reader from the ‘real’ world, to one frequently inhabited by mythical creatures, magic and identifiable evil. These worlds are underpinned by a connection to a life force which can be manipulated for good, or evil, and in which these forces fight for control. Fantasy writers refer to worlds in which ‘technology’ does not exist, where swords and hunting and horses and more primitive living conditions dominate. Even the cities described seem to have emerged from the middle ages, where people cook over fires and water must be heated and poured into baths. Implements and weapons are forged by hand, people make do and work together – it is into this concept that my thoughts have delved. What I have come to understand is that my love of fantasy is rooted in this collegial, collaborativeness which lies at the heart of all fantasy I have read. I am a person who believes in the collective. I trust people to find ways through troubles and find solutions; I have spent my life as a teacher trying to demonstrate the importance of such collaboration. So, in spite of the settings in imagined worlds, in spite of the prevalence of magic [which often turns out to be using inner strength and attributes, or a representative metaphor of this power], in spite of fantastical creatures or ‘primitive’ worlds, what fantasy offers is an inherent faith in humanities capacity to overcome hardship, the machinations of ‘evil’ and the uncertainty which assails us all to achieve positive outcomes. The difference in fantasy is that this is never the role of a single individual. Only by working together, by accepting compromise, by making hard choices, by defeating the doubts about ability, capacity or strength can darkness be defeated.

While it is true that darkness is always defeated, it is natural and human for narrative to suggest that positive outcomes are more likely than negative ones. Who wants to read stories in which darkness overwhelms light? We struggle constantly to ensure that light will shine into the darkest corners; we war over it, argue over it, debate it endlessly. Why? Because the majority seek, or at least believe, that right will overcome might. We may not always agree about who or what is right, but fantasy solves that dilemma by making the sides obvious. Still, at its heart lies the confident belief that if we work together, if we overcome the voice of doubt and criticism we all carry within, if we allow others to help us when we are down, if we trust we can win. In this message lies my love of the genre. Of course not all of it is well written, not all of it is worth the time or trouble taken to read it – but isn’t this true of all fiction? The fact remains, that in fantasy I feel nourished by the underlying value system which believes that only together can we find our way. For me this message supplies hope that we may lose our way, we may question but ultimately we can succeed. This is a voice and message I long to hear.


Elizabeth Barrett Browning – Songs from the Portugese

Reading through the poems set for study in Intertextual Perspectives, where the poetry of E. B. Browning is compared to Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby has been a delight. I have long been familiar with XLIII, or How do I love thee?, for this work has permeated far beyond her modest expectations. However, it is in examining the poems as a sequence that changes in her perspective are revealed, making a comparison with Gatsby possible.

The first [I], or Theocritus had sung, is often referred to as a reflection on death and wanting to reach new heights, however I believe it is possible to analyse the poem as an expression of her relationship with her father too. Theocritus wrote of the joy of love and of youth as a time of pleasure, while also expressing the idea that all ages have something to offer. These musings fill E.B. with tears for what she has missed, calling them the ‘melancholy years’ which ‘had flung a shadow across me’. Coming from a home ruled by a domineering father who cared little for his children’s desires, it is easy to imagine her sadness. She then describes a ‘Shadow’ which violently ‘drew me backward by the hair’; as she strives to free herself ‘a voice … in mastery’ asks her to guess who holds her, declaring itself to be ‘Love’. A literal reading of this suggests the bullying behaviour of a man used to getting his own way; and as the first in the series, it is possible to imagine how she initially reflects on the man who denies her love.

By XIII, E.B. continues an existing conversation with R.B. in which she refuses to expose herself to accusations of unladylike behaviour through committing her feelings to letter. The language is serious and temperate, but one can’t help relating to the sentiments from a modern context. It is rather like a young man asking a girl today to sext him and she refusing on the grounds that by doing so she in fact proves not only her affection, but also her good character – a timely argument. As the poems progress E.B. returns consistently to the theme of silence – wishing, then hoping that the love being expressed by the man she would ultimately marry is felt within, as well as it is vocalised. Here she returns to an early note that ‘voiceless fortitude’ bears more weight than the ‘cuckoo-song’ repeated. The sonnets progress from modesty in uncertainty to relish in the sound of love expressed. She calls for him to continue to speak his love and thanks him for loving her in spite of feeling herself to be an ‘instrument defaced’. In the penultimate work she willingly defies her first admonition that she will not commit her love to writing by declaring the many ways in which she loves.

These poems are a source of joy and delight, reminding me why poetry matters so much in the world and offering me a new composer to explore at length.

Silent Disco – Lachlan Philpott

Today I introduced my Year 11 class to this wonderful play – Silent Disco. Naturally they initially felt negative about the prospect of reading a play; their experience with plays not being great. I set the scene for the play, by describing the outline and a little about the author and my trip to the theatre to see the play. I warned them about the language, which amused them, until the first scene started with some ripe usage – then they laughed and there was a palpable relaxation in the room.

We read Act One in the lesson and, thanks to some excellent reading from one boy playing the main male character, the whole class followed and listened in such a way as to show their engagement: laughter, vocal expressions, eye intent on the text. This is a fast moving text, with a lot of realistic language and very real characters. Some confusion arose where Philpott used split reality to have the main characters on stage with another character who offers some kind of reflection or deepening perspective on the core, and again where the characters are giving voice to their thought processes. That matter aside, there was a general sense of delight in reading something ‘real’, in the language and topics at least.

I am looking forward to pursuing this text and highly recommend it for Stage 6.

Wilfred Owen

I am about to start work with my senior class on the poetry of Wilfred Owen. It is also Parent-Teacher night tonight and I happened to be talking with one of the students from that class who struggles with some of the material. I mentioned to his father that I thought he would really enjoy Owen, in part for his violent dislike for the politicians who created the war and used such nationalistic language in promoting it as an option, but also for his forthright expression and passionate descriptions of an horrific environment. His son agreed that, whilst he has not enjoyed poetry in the past, he has found Owen’s work to be very accessible.

Owen writes with compassion about the men who fought so bravely, but is unable to hide his disdain for the ‘old men’ who failed to find solutions and allowed the destruction of so many. His emotional engagement is clear in his descriptions of dying soldiers, or those returned with debilitating injuries, but he defies the contextual trend to celebrate war, preferring to remind his audience of the pointless waste and damage.

I look forward to this unit of work; intending to begin with asking my class to put themselves in Owen’s shoes and try writing something about the experiences of war. When we read the poems we will consider the audience and context for his chosen form of free verse poetry, before we examine what he is trying to convey, why he would want to and how he does it. Exciting!

William Wordsworth – Ode

This 11 stanza poem is replete with Romantic imagery and, although it clearly expresses Wordsworth’s concerns with the pastoral, the backward looking content reminds the reader that, while he may have longed for a return to a period less effected by industrialisation, he was essentially a middle class man who sought solace in memories of a childhood presumably spent roaming the Lake district where he was born.

His central theme here is that youth is more closely connected to God and the wonders of the world than any other time in life. He opens by bemoaning the losses – ‘The things which I have seen I now can see no more’ because ‘there hath pass’d away a glory from the earth’. At first it seems he writes of someone he has lost, however this is dispelled by his later references to childhood. In making this connection Wordsworth appears to offer the view that, even though there is still much to admire, the world is not as it once was. He extrapolates from this initial concern to reflect that what he has lost is himself and the period of life when it was possible to ‘give [ones]self up to jollity’. The sadness of his language: ‘grief of mine’, ‘something that is gone’, ‘shades of the prison house’, is substantially undercut by his referrals to ‘the heart of May’ and ‘blessed creatures’.

By the fifth stanza he is reflecting on the transient nature of life which begins with such promise but in which one travels ‘daily farther from the east’ – or the light of life, sun and God. He suggests we are distracted by the temptations of the world and in this way our connection to God ‘fade into the light of common day’. As is typical of his work, Wordsworth has a tendency to lecture; offering the view that we should value more highly what has been lost, as the forefront of technology enlarged cities and removed people from the land. However, he also subtitled his work ‘Intimations of Immortality…’ and uses it to progress his view that only through our intimacy with the Creator, in his view by retaining our childlike qualities, are we able to be closer to ‘God, who is our home’. As expected Wordsworth proposes that this is best done through a reflection on God’s greatest work – the ‘splendour in the grass… glory in the flower’. He theorises that children are closer to God through having been but recently in his ‘immortal house’, thus they retain the access to understanding, as ‘Mighty Prophet[s]’ and ‘Seers’.

While the sentiments are forthright and strong in this poem, it can be said that Wordsworth knew little of the harsh reality of reliance on the land and, that being true, he inclines to romanticise the natural world. The loss of innocence ruminated over in Ode is more universal than that expressed in other works however the sentimental quality of his perspective remains true to his body of work. Naturally all composition is affected by the context, personal, social and historical, and so it is important to read Wordsworth with an eye to his times and the particular views he held. Whatever his thinking, it is clear in Ode that he lamented the passing of time and changes wrought upon us all by the cynicism required to function in the world. It is worth considering to what extent he was personally affected by the need to function as an adult; or whether he was able to retain that connection to childhood, and so to God, he so commends.

What a Day!!

Why are some days so complicated and full of ‘stuff’: questions, interruptions, tears, doubts, bad tempers, phone calls, fears, hurts?

Why do some days start so well: up early, gym, breakfast… only to disintegrate when one arrives at work? It’s like when siblings used to ask what was wrong:

‘What’s wrong? You seem sad.’

‘No, I’m fine.’

‘Really? You don’t seem very cheerful.

‘No, really, I’m fine.’

‘Are you sure? You seem a little mad.’

‘No, just wishing you would stop asking me these questions.’

‘I knew you were in a bad mood!’

‘No, I’m not! I was fine before you came along!’

‘See, you are mad…’

‘Now I am…’

Reach Out

I was listening to a member of the Muslim Somali community talking on the radio, about the isolation experienced by Somali’s, in response to the loss of two young people to Syria. He mentioned how marginalised Somali’s feel, both from Australians, who frequently demonise or slur them, especially in the current climate, and from other Muslims, who look down on them as beneath notice. Parents have travelled to Turkey in attempts to retrieve their children, but been unsuccessful so far. Meanwhile, ASIO have taken away the passports of another three; all of whom are now angry, isolated, frustrated and radicalised. He expressed a deep concern for their welfare, but also a despair at who they could talk to and whether anyone would listen. The report went on to discuss the lack of communication felt by many Muslim youth from the mosques. Young people are persuaded to leave Australia and go to fight, but the Imam’s are not providing leadership on the issue: they don’t use Facebook or any social media, they are not speaking the language or responding to the feelings of disassociation.

As I drove, feeling my own sense of despair at the reactionary responses of politicians, who seek to point fingers and use slogans rather than develop programs to support youth employment and develop dialogues, it occurred to me that schools have a possible role in creating formats for such discussions to take place. I imagined a program I have titled Reach Out, in which multi-denominational students meet to discuss important issues of faith, future, expectations and stereotyping through a Socratic system. It seems to me that, rather than waiting until tragedy strikes, we should encourage conversations between young people, of all faiths, and walks of life, backgrounds and ethnicities so that noone need feel alone or misunderstood. To accomplish that we must remove the stigma from those who are considering ISIL [or whatever it is currently calling itself (The Death Cult perhaps?)] and listen to their reasoning. Until we are prepared to hear, rather than react, we will not be either safe, democratic or modern.

Tough Talking

It can be a demoralising experience trying to persuade young people of the benefits of learning essay writing in English. Firstly, there is often an inherent fear of the form itself; with many students believing it to be a mystery past reckoning. The form of literary criticism seems to the majority of students I work with to be an obscure and irrelevant method of communication, but more importantly it is so challenging as to be wrapped in mental blocks further driving inability to come to terms with what is required.

The form is not complicated to those of us who deal with it daily. Effectively, we are asking for a ‘position’ on what is being communicated and evidence which supports that position [what is being said (in your view) and what makes you say that?]. This process is no different in effect to what happens in businesses world-wide as strategies are discussed; it is little different to any discussion in which one party attempts to persuade another party to their point of view – without violence. Yet having to write this, admittedly one-sided, discussion sends our students into paroxysms of doubt, self-criticism and uncertainty. Apart from the basics of arguing a position with evidence, the ordering of evidence and explaining its significance also prove difficult. When fewer conversations are occurring in families, when they often do not sit down to dinner together and when Facebook, Twitter and Instagram all favour the quick one-liner, our young people are rarely hearing extended argument. This limits their capacity to appreciate the wonder of persuasive conversation.

Then we have the matter of students not necessarily following meaning in text. Many of our school are not readers, and not a few are reluctant to watch the HBO series which are inculcating so many into the extended narratives of my youth. They often find the complex story lines and multiple points of view confusing, returning to time honoured favourites with simple structures and stereotyped plots, like CSI.

I have chosen to present to my students are rather predictable structure which will achieve an HSC Band 4 is followed. It is not exciting but does provide certainty, as each paragraph shares the same basic form. Even so, this requires tough talking to force many to attempt what is a relatively simple piece of writing.

Introduction = What is the meaning of the subject / topic / idea? How is the subject / topic / idea seen in the wide world? Where is it seen? What evidence will you use to demonstrate why you think this?

Paragraphs = What is the connection between the evidence you offer in this paragraph and the subject / topic / idea? What do you mean by that? Where can this be seen in the text? How does this evidence show what you say it does?

Conclusion = What have we learned by reading your response?

Easy… then why is it not???


Travelled up to Avoca today for the monthly markets. It is the third time in 6 months we have gone and this evening my husband asked me what was so special about Avoca. An interesting question.

I guess first of all I should say that I do love a market – food, craft, local, art; the combination of individuals, most of whom have grown or made their products, makes such a lovely change from sterilised shopping centres and anonymous salespeople. At markets stall holders talk to you: about what they are selling, where it is from, how it was made, what of, when, what to do with it, etcetc. I learn so much from all the people I meet. The best heat at which to cook buffalo [I wish they would come back], how to make the best Thai curry, what can be included in black pudding to improve the flavour. I am a regular at Blackheath, where excellent local producers sell such a wide range of food. Favourites include the gluten free cake lady and the French sausage and cheese man. There is always room for Trunkey ham and bacon and my cupboard is well stocked with curry pastes too.

So Avoca rates primarily as an artisan market and today I was entranced by House of Bec, a young woman stamping old silver cutlery, as well as making her own jewellery by casting from baby succulents and twigs. Simple but lovely. Had to find a present for friends having a 40th wedding anniversary. I choose an old bone handled knife with ‘Butter Me Up’ on it, a butter knife with ‘Spread the Love’ and a pair of teaspoons reading ‘For Ever’ and ‘And Always’. I was chuffed. Never seen anything like them before and I knew our friends would be touched.

My daughter was able to return a cake stand she got for Christmas, replacing it with one more to her liking. We ate gluten free doughnuts! Lovely!! Found beautifully marbled steak from a nearby farm and a bright scarf from Thailand. Also bought a second hand velvet skirt and road tested some organic make-up. There is just something wonderful about the community spirit, children playing, music offerings and, of course, gozlem… Actually I can’t eat gozlem any more, but on this I will agree with my daughter – market food is special.

All worth the two hour drive!!

Peter Skrzynecki – Immigrant Chronicle

Skrzynecki is no longer on the HSC reading list, after years of patronage; however his work remains popular with teachers because of its accessibility. For many years I had harboured an unusual disdain for Skrzynecki, thinking his writing overrated, but increasingly I have found favour with a number of his poems – most particularly Feliks Skrzynecki.

Peter’s free verse lends itself nicely to a paean for a working man, used to dirty hands. PS opens with the descriptive line, ‘My gentle father’ – an expression forceful in its lack of masculinity. When juxtaposed with later descriptions of ‘slaughtering’ and ‘sods he broke’ and ‘fingers with cracks’ the use of ‘gentle’ seems more meaningful. He was a working man who ‘never once’ complained, yet the first thought his son has of him is of his gentleness.

Feliks was self-sufficient, in more than simply the modern use of this term. It is clear he did this too as PS mentions raiding the garden on those afternoons when he reached home before his parents in 10 Mary St. Feliks ‘kept pace only with the Joneses of his own minds making’; setting his own standards and refusing to allow them to slip. He spent hours in the garden ‘from sunrise to sleep’ and enjoyed ‘watching stars and street lights come on’ as he sits on the the ‘back steps’ ‘with his dog, smoking’. Through these reminiscences we recognise that Feliks was comfortable with his own company, requiring little from the country he had adopted.

With friends he spent time talking about farming ‘corn and wheat, horses they bred, pigs they were skilled in slaughtering’. Not for these migrants concerns about work or children or politics, they were more interested in the past, in what they had lost during ‘five years of forced labour in Germany’. The yearning expressed through such reflections reminds us of all these men had given up to find a new life across the world. PS writes in a degree of awe for a man he admired, as he ‘wondered how he existed on five or six hours sleep each night’ and ‘why his arms didn’t fall off’ and how he has so little to say ‘when twice they dug cancer out of his foot’. PS’s use of litotes denotes all that is unsaid in his memories of this man who ‘watched [him] pegging his tents further and further south’. The symbolism of ‘Hadrian’s Wall’ serves the audience well and enables us to recognise how different PS and his father are. Peter has grown up in Australia, attended school here and adopted a set of values rather different to his fathers. Yet his father is ‘like a dumb prophet’ watching his son absorb this new life. The simile implies all that Feliks had to share and offer Peter, but which is left unsaid. This echoes the implied criticism of ‘loved his garden like an only child’, a simile with room for interpretation. Either Feliks loved his garden as much as his only child, Peter, or, as is commonly presumed, he loved it in preference to Peter. However this reading ignores so much else in the poem which suggests a great affection between the two from the sharing of language to the deep admiration Peter demonstrates in the second and fourth stanzas, as well as Peter’s reflection of his father’s acceptance of Peter’s close association with Australia in the closing stanza.

St Patrick’s College represents Peter’s experience within Australian culture and illustrates again the essential differences between parents and son. Unlike his father, his mother is ‘impressed by uniforms’ but Peter fails to adopt the focused attitudes and values of his father. He ‘saw equations he never understood’, ‘was never too bright at science’ and ‘for eight years’ felt ‘like a foreign tourist’. Not for him the stoicism of the labourer, farmer and prisoner; Peter ‘prayed the Mother would someday be pleased’; the very use of the future tense allowing that she was unlikely to be in the present. PS appears to have spent his time at school rather meaninglessly ‘playing chasings’, ‘learn[ing]…conjugations’ and being able to say ‘The Lord’s Prayer in Latin, all in one breath’ while remaining, like ‘Our Lady…unchanged by eight years’. While his father is expressed as a man of light and hope, PS is concerned about ‘the darkness around me’. This speaks volumes for his inability to create a sense of self or connection within the society of which he was a part. While Feliks happily creates his own space and enjoys the company of friends, Peter remains a metaphoric Briton attempting to join the Romans in the new world – ever an outsider.