Fantasy Not Just For the Young

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland; Through the Looking-Glass

By Lewis Carroll (1865, 1871)

The only good thing, I found, about having gone to Rugby School, the famous and wretched boys’ boarding school in the British Midlands, is that Lewis Carroll went there too. The two Alice books are wonderful for children, and in some ways perhaps too good for children, full of adult wisdom and trickery. The first book, “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” was initially met with dismissive notices (though John Tenniel’s illustrations were well received), but it quickly became a beloved classic. What is most admirable about the second book, “Through the Looking-Glass,” is that it is emphatically not a return to Wonderland; Carroll’s great feat is to have created two entirely discrete imagined worlds for his heroine. I have loved Alice all my life and can still recite “Jabberwocky” and “The Walrus and the Carpenter” from memory if asked to do so, or even if nobody asks.

Peter Pan

By J.M. Barrie (1911)

‘Peter Pan’ was a play first, and really the play is better than this subsequent novelization, so I’m cheating a bit here. But the tale of the boy who never grew up is an imperishable one, which not even its subsequent Disneyfication could destroy. Those misled by the 2004 movie “Finding Neverland” into thinking that J.M. Barrie was a tall, gorgeous sex god resembling the actor Johnny Depp may be surprised to learn that the author was in fact extremely short, just 5 feet 3 inches, and almost certainly remained a virgin until the end of his life. So, in more than one way, Barrie was a boy who never grew up, and “Peter Pan,” rooted in this painful reality, would become an archetype, the archetype, of our yearning for youthful anarchy, for what another writer, A.E. Housman, called the “blue remembered hills” of childhood. And there is a mystery at the heart of “Peter Pan,” which Barrie deliberately refused to solve: What was Captain Hook’s name before the crocodile bit off his hand?

The Lord of the Rings

By J.R.R. Tolkien (1954-55)

I was introduced to the Tolkien trilogy—”The Fellowship of the Ring,” “The Two Towers,” “The Return of the King”—and its prequel, “The Hobbit,” by a history teacher when I was 15, the perfect age at which to read Tolkien. I plunged into the world of Middle-earth with a will, even acquiring the rudiments of Elvish and the ability to recite the dread inscription on the Ring of Power in the dark tongue of Mordor. I believe that the secret of the trilogy’s enduring success lies in Tolkien’s infinitely detailed creation of the world it inhabits—there is so much “back story” that is only hinted at, so much to do with the history and legends and religions of dwarves, elves and men, that the world we are given becomes almost too rich with allusion to that submerged information. And then, of course, there is one genuinely immortal character, a greater creation than Gandalf the Grey or the Lord of the Rings himself: that is to say, Gollum.

The Golden Compass

By Philip Pullman (1995)

Any book that begins with the death of God is OK by me. I love Philip Pullman’s fabulist world of familiar spirits, “daemons” and magic “dust,” his journey from a notably weird Oxford to flying cowboys, Nordic witches and giant, warrior polar bears. And under all the playfulness is a vision of a secular-humanist universe that has captured the imaginations of adult readers as well as youthful ones. This is an age polluted by much spiritualist and “holy” mumbo-jumbo and easy fanaticism; “The Golden Compass” and the rest of Pullman’s “Dark Materials” trilogy are a powerful counterweight to all that claptrap and have the added benefit of really being fun to read.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time

By Mark Haddon (2003)

Books for older children or “young adults,” to use the strange formula of the marketplace, have been taking on more and more complex real-world issues—child abuse, crime, poverty, illness, death. If you have ever known anyone with Asperger’s syndrome, especially a child, you will know how tough it can be to be around. I know just such a boy as the one in this book, whom I love very much, even though, when asked to play ping-pong with me, he tends to say, “Oh, but Salman’s so old and useless, I’ll just thrash him,” and then goes on to prove that he was right. This kind of imperative truth-telling in “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” exonerates the book’s young hero from involvement in the killing of a dog; his subsequent investigation into the crime is beautifully carried off. And we would do well to remember what Sherlock Holmes said in the story “Silver Blaze” about the original “curious incident of the dog in the night-time.” Holmes was reminded, “The dog did nothing in the night-time,” and he replied: “That was the curious incident.”

Mr. Rushdie’s most recent novel, “Luka and the Fire of Life,” has just been published by Random House.

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