In my last post, I talked of things that I had seen hiking, and of the confidence shown by children who had written letters to Winnie-the-Pooh or to the fairies. This post is a little more serious, since I’ve been sidetracked onto an important theme: the importance and power of fiction in real life. With the power of the Internet and social media there are fan clubs everywhere, and sometimes it is hard to draw the boundary between the fictional groups and “real life”. I’ve stuck to a couple of examples following the “letters” theme and a personal example, but it’s really just scratching the surface.
Note: There are spoilers for Harry Potter and some of Tolkien’s works here. But I’m not too concerned as I suspect most interested in them will already have read them.
1. Letters from Father Christmas
When talking about children taking stories as reality, one of the most common examples discussed is Santa Claus: Should we teach children Santa Claus is real, or will that just hurt them later when they realise it’s not true?
My parents never encouraged it, and I’m not sure I ever believed in Santa. However, I understand many children are encouraged to write letters to Santa Claus, though few get a response back. Among those who did get a response were the children of one of my favourite authors, J.R.R. Tolkien:
The letters arrived mysteriously, sometimes dusted with fresh snow, in the fireplace, with the presents, even, rarely, with the postman.
Like most of his works, these were published posthumously. Unlike most of his posthumous works, they were probably never intended for publication, and did not go through extensive revision. In fact, if he was anything like me they were probably written late on Christmas Eve. As literary works they lack the complexity of the Lord of the Rings or The Silmarillion, but they are enjoyable.
It all started with a simple letter to John Tolkien in 1920:
But that simple letter started to show what was to come: The envelope had a North Pole postmark and stamp, the letter was handwritten, and pictures were included. They weren’t just letters, they were works of art. In fact, the drawing of Father Christmas has now made its way onto the front cover of several editions of the letters. If ever children could be justified in believing in Father Christmas, the Tolkien children surely could.
The letters continued over the years with more characters added, including the North Polar Bear, Ilbereth the Elf, and a horde of goblins. They documented various humorous disasters up at the North Pole, mostly involving the polar bear, but fortunately each disaster was able to be solved before Christmas Day and Oxford was once more graced with Father Christmas’s presence. And I’m sure they were related to his more serious works. Goblins turned up in the Father Christmas letters at much the same time as they were turning up in The Hobbit. It has even been suggested Father Christmas might have been a partial inspiration for Gandalf (if so, that would be the firework loving wizard of The Hobbit, not the mighty and heavily burdened Mithrandir the White Rider).
This continued for over twenty years, until the final letter to Tolkien’s youngest daughter:
Now I shall have to say goodbye, more or less. I shall not forget you. We always keep the names of our old friends, and their letters; and later on we hope to come back when they are grown up and have house of their own, and children…
So what do we make of this work? Well, I think we can say he wrote these letters out of love and with the intention of entertaining his children. But since they were private letters, not intended for publication, we can’t say much more about what effect they had. Since we don’t know the private conversations he had with his children about them, we can’t even know whether they were taken seriously. I understand that even in households where Santa Claus is official doctrine it is often an open secret that the parents are really responsible for the presents. If the letters had been intended for publication, I’m sure he would have revised them thoroughly. But as they stand, they give us a glimpse into a pleasant family life with time for imagination. And we can admire the pictures and enjoy the simple but charming tales from a master story-teller without having to believe them true.
2. Letters from Hogwarts
I am part of the Harry Potter generation: those who grew up while the series was being written. When I first read them only three had been published, and they were beginning to ride an insane wave of popularity that has only continued to grow. For a time they were considered the books that brought a generation of children to read. Personally, I enjoyed them, but I don’t think they had the same effect on me as they did on some of my peers. I already had books and series I’d given my allegiance to (the Tolkien legendarium, for example). So I don’t think I truly appreciated the greatness of the series until I re-read them all a couple of years back.
While I (now) much prefer the later books, there’s a sense of wonder in the first book that doesn’t continue in later books. And it can’t continue: Hogwarts can’t both be a new and exciting place and the only real home Harry has ever known. But in the first book there’s so much leading up to the big reveal: disappearing glass and a talking reptile heading for Brazil. The mysterious (and persistent) letters. The increasingly evasive behaviour of Harry’s uncle. And finally the words reprised so many times: “You’re a wizard, Harry.”
But even after that it goes on, because we are right by Harry’s side as he explores a new world. There’s Diagon Alley. Buying a wand. Choosing a pet. New found wealth in wizard money, and a rather unusual banking system. Platform 9¾. The Hogwarts Express. The food, particularly certain chocolate frogs and jelly beans, plus more than a dash of pumpkin. The castle. The staircases that rewire themselves on a whim. Learning to fly, and the oddities of Quidditch. A rather well-known levitation spell. Even the chess has a different flavour.
In my opinion, capturing that sense of wonder is one of the best things the first film did. Particularly when first approaching the castle across the lake. And it’s not just the visuals: to me, the magnificent Hedwig’s Theme also evokes that sense of wonder.
But it’s all fiction, right? The stories are largely set in the UK, but surely no-one could imagine that the wizarding word is real? Well, when I first read the book I was probably around the age to be admitted to Hogwarts, but I didn’t think of waiting for my letter. And I don’t think that was just because I was on the other side of the world in Australia.
Online, though, I’ve seen several discussion and comment threads with comments like: “I’m waiting for / hoping to get my Hogwarts letter next week/month/year.” Obviously, I can’t tell for sure whether they are serious. But I’ve seen it enough times that I suspect it is real to some readers. And of course we Muggles aren’t meant to know about it, but these readers hope they are one of the real wizards, ready to embark on a new and exciting life.
I recently acquired a book entitled We Love Harry Potter, published all the way back in 1999. That was probably the year that I first read the books, and I was the same age as some of the children writing in the book. Among other things, it contains a number of letters to Harry Potter. All set as school assignments, so they don’t say anything about whether the child believed it was real, but even so they make interesting reading. In fact, I’m laughing out loud reading them.
It also has kids suggesting improvements to the rules of Quidditch and describing the rules for the version of Quidditch they play in the schoolyard. Whether or not they believe it to be true, it has become part of their life. Or then there’s this:
It’s true that we live in the Muggle world, but I think some people might really turn out to be wizards if they had a chance to go to wizard school. I mean, lots of people have special powers, like ESP. I’ve heard about psychics who find lost children for the police. I do stuff sometimes and don’t know how I did it, like getting a book to open at just the right page or saying the same word as someone else at the same time. So if I could go to wizard school to learn how, I might be able to do spells and potions and fly a broomstick.
I’m sure there’s a fine line between “ardent fan club” and “genuine belief”, but some cross that line. And I think that’s OK - at least in moderation.
3. Personal experience
I would like to think I had a fairly good handle on the difference between story and reality. But now I think about it, my family has some interesting stories of my early school life that I don’t choose to repeat here. More recently, I don’t think the stories I read became real places or characters in this world. Yes, I had various fantasies in which I was the hero: the great cricketer, the fearless pilot, the mighty tennis player. Some of them I still have and continue to elaborate. But, while I can remember most details of the elaboration, I was perfectly sure that they were not true and would never come to pass. Some of them physically can’t happen.
The one exception I can remember is wanting a telescope that could see through to Middle Earth. I’m not sure my family ever heard that one. I think I had it on a planet 35 light years away from Earth, which seems oddly specific. Maybe it was just a random number, or maybe there was some sub-conscious thought that if it was close enough I could theoretically get there in my life time. I don’t know.
I now realise that Tolkien’s true object was not a world in a different part of space, but an earlier version of our Earth filtered through several layers of myth and legend. And even if it were a separate world 35 light years away, the legendarium covers thousands of years. If we travelled to it, would we be in the Elder Days, watching the long defeat in Beleriand? Or watching the final decay and fall of Numenor? Or living through the bliss of the reign of the mighty King Elessar? I don’t think so. I think if we reached that world, we would find it much more like our own world. A world where most are interested in modernity and progress, in the style of Saruman or Sandyman, and only a few are interested in looking back to the dreams and legends of the past. And I think that is what Tolkien was getting at with his version of “Middle Earth”: going back to the northern legends he was expert in, and beyond them.
Anyway, I think that’s enough examples for now. I’ll be back in my next post (edit: here) with some conclusions (unless the muse pushes me towards more examples that need documenting). Feel free to add more examples in the comments.