School Stories and Modern Children’s Fantasy: Two Points On a Continuum
The school story, which typically focused on the adventures and mischief-making of a small group of boys at a private boarding school, laid heavy emphasis on values of generosity, honesty, loyalty and courage. The genre is often considered to have begun with the 1857 novel Tom Brown’s Schooldays, and reached its pinnacle with the books of Talbot Baines Reed, including The Fifth Form at St. Dominic’s (1881) and The Willoughby Captains (1883). Once wildly popular, it languished for the second half of the twentieth century until the arrival of Harry Potter revived it again in 1997. The American academic David Steege has already pointed out how faithfully J. K. Rowling reproduces the essential features of the genre: including sports-mania, the house system, and a wise and kindly headmaster (Steege, 2003). Other critics point out that the idea of a school for wizards is not new either, appearing for example in American author Ursula K. LeGuin’s A Wizard of Earthsea (1968). So what is it about the school story, which critics have often dismissed as formulaic, that lends itself so well to fantasy? I think that this transition is so easy because the boarding schools portrayed by Reed and others are already imagined worlds that authors, characters and readers all take a hand in making.
In this genre, the boarding school is “created” on two levels. The first is rather shallow and obvious: neither of the most successful writers of school stories, Reed and Rowling, ever went to boarding school themselves. In this sense, they stand in the same relation to the genre as Georgette Heyer does to the Regency romance: despite Heyer’s meticulous research, she depicts a world whose resemblance to the lived experience of the early nineteenth century is scant at best (in 2012-2013 a large science fiction and fantasy publisher, Tor.com, found space on its website for a review of Heyer’s work on the grounds that it is an example of “world-building”). School stories are probably less removed from reality than Regency romance —many people who went to boarding school report that they recognise their experiences in these books. However, in this genre there is a second, deeper level at which boarding schools are created worlds, that is, in the contributions that the pupils themselves make to them.
To begin with, there are specialised language and rituals. In Reed’s novels we find the mysterious societies of junior pupils, the ‘Guinea-Pigs’ and ‘Tadpoles,’ and a number of other slang- and school-terms that are amusingly explained by a pupil to his visiting parent in the opening chapter of The Captains of Willoughby—the parent is described as a naval captain who “has been at sea so long that he is really not up to all the modern phrases.” In the Harry Potter books there are names for magical animals, objects, and spells. Of course, these magic words have some intended concrete effect (such as the use of accio to summon an object) but I would argue that, like the slang of Reed’s boarding schools, their principal role is to create boundaries around a world: Harry’s efforts to surmount the barrier caused by his embarrassing ignorance of the wizarding world is a major plot point early in the series. In a similar way, nineteenth century advocates of a Latin and Greek curriculum—to the exclusion of “useful” subjects such as maths, science, or history—claimed that they were a distinctive marker of upper class tastes. This casts some instructive light on the perennial question of how Hogwarts students seem to get along without any maths after the age of eleven: the classical boarding school priority is language. Informally in slang, or formally in the curriculum, the language of education is intended simultaneously to identify insiders and baffle outsiders.
These very necessary outsiders are another element of boarding school life which lends itself very well to fantasy. In Reed’s works the town and its inhabitants are a source of corruption, typified by Mr. Cripps, the villainous inn-keeper in The Fifth Form at St. Dominic’s who first traps pupils with minor debts and then, once they are in his power, pushes them into more serious vices like drinking and gambling. It is but a small step from such characters to the unpleasant ‘Muggles’ of the Harry Potter books.
Both school stories and fantasy share an obsession with a parallel system of governance, sometimes humorously depicted, as in the description of the pupils’ parliament in Reed’s The Captains of Willoughby. Less humorous is the boys’ decision in The Fifth Form at St. Dominic’s to shun a pupil suspected of cheating on an exam, a decision that is made with almost legal solemnity and, as it happens, without troubling to obtain necessary information from the school’s more official authorities. The boys’ self-governance is embedded in a larger system that was itself self-governing: the extent to which Parliament could interfere in the management of public schools was hotly contested throughout the nineteenth century, and for most of that time the question was not decided in Parliament’s favour (Mack, 1938). In the historical independence of public schools and the influence which they nevertheless exerted on the government of the U.K., it is easy to see parallels to Rowling’s Wizengamot and Ministry of Magic.
Thus in literature and in life, the inhabitants of boarding schools participate in using language to create a world that is self-governing, that has minimal correspondence to —or indeed interaction with— the outside sphere, but is felt to be under threat by outsiders: these are already the bare bones of a fantasy world. All we need now, you might think, is some dragons or pointy hats. However, one fundamental change must take place in order to make the school story into true fantasy: the stakes must be taken seriously.
In Reed’s work, the conflicts driving the plot are factually rather minor. Bullying is unpleasant, but lacks the horror found in some other accounts of school life. The action is moved forward by sports rivalries, examinations, and minor rule-breaking. Within the characters’ moral universe these events take on a life-or-death significance, and Reed is skilful enough to make the reader care too. When reading The Fifth Form at St. Dominic’s I was thrilled and transported by Greenfield’s honourable conduct when suspected of cheating, and the anguished dilemma that it causes for his best friend Wraysford —more transported, I have to confess, than by the lavishly described rugby and cricket matches that probably occupied more pages in total. In contrast to the characters’ viewpoints, the omniscient narrator treats the boys’ obsessions with gentle irony, and adult teachers and parents (acting as the author’s voice) often express bemusement at their enthusiasms or indignations. In line with the moralistic character of the genre (notably, all of Reed’s stories were serialised by the Religious Tract Society), the reader is meant to understand that the real importance of these events is the life-long effect that they will have on the boys’ characters — beneath the appearance of irony, nothing less than souls is at stake.
When the school story becomes a fantasy, this ironic distance vanishes. The omniscient narrator gives place to a tight third-person point of view, and author and readers enter fully into the young characters’ mortal struggles. Hogwarts really is the site of a battle that will determine the fate of the whole world. The outcome of Harry’s rivalry with Draco Malfoy really will determine which of their world-views will gain primacy. The level of emotional pitch (at least in the earlier books of Rowling’s series) is not all that different from, say, the feelings that surround the boating regatta in The Captains of Willoughby —what is different is that in fantasy, we are required to take the conflict absolutely seriously. The actions of the young protagonists matter as much as those of their elders; in this way, a genre which began as a means of transmitting conformity and cohesive values to boys becomes subversive and empowering.
Fantasy was probably the only optic capable of rescuing a genre that was becoming increasingly problematic. Throughout the nineteenth century, boarding schools were already coming under fire for severe corporal punishment, bullying, and the irrelevance of their curricula (Mack, 1938). Now, as we move from the twentieth to the twenty-first century, successive abuse scandals surrounding British public schools —as well as, in Canada and Australia, the use of boarding institutions to eradicate indigenous cultures and family ties— have led us to question even more fundamental ideas about the role of education as mediator between individual and society. The exhortation of the graduating school’s captain in The Captains of Willoughby to the other boys, that they should “Think first of the school and next of themselves,” begins to sound dangerous. Is it even possible, in today’s context, to write a realistic school story that still expresses the hopeful optimism required by children’s fiction?
Transferring the school story to the realm of fantasy has not really solved these problems. At its root, fantasy focuses on what is special and different from the everyday, a domain of eccentric outsiders. Welding the genre to a mundane institution such as a school must therefore create paradox and tension, and bring with it the unresolved contradictions that still face critics and defenders of educational paradigms. The Harry Potter novels do tackle the class problem and magical ability as an identifier of social status fruitfully if (in my opinion) incompletely. They do not ultimately succeed in dismantling the dichotomy of ‘us versus them’ that they inherit from Reed and other predecessors. However, given the complexity of these problems, a completely coherent response would probably be suspect in any case.
It may be difficult now to read Reed's school novels without an uncomfortable awareness that the vivid world that he created is bound, both around and within, by barriers of class and language. But if, as readers, we treat these barriers as the arbitrary —even whimsical— constraints that govern any fantastic world, there is a lot here to enjoy in terms of engaging characters and gentle humour that quite justly made the books a popular success in their author's lifetime. It isn't hard to see how Reed's writing, with all its complicated baggage of another century's ideas, has had an effect on children's literature that continues to be felt. — Mary Thaler