Dreams and adult disbelief in modern fiction

If your friend came to you and said, “The woman next door is a witch, and her spell is the reason my brother got cancer,” you would not believe him.  Would you?  We’re all civilised nowadays.

In 1900, Frank L Baum published a story called “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz”, in which a little girl called Dorothy is carried to a bizarre land by cyclone, and eventually gets home by the use of magical silver shoes.  It was very popular, and he wrote a number of sequels also set in Oz, some of them featuring Dorothy.

But when the story was famously filmed, in 1939, the land of Oz was a dream, reflecting aspects of Dorothy’s normal life, and when the ruby slippers took her home… she woke up.

An even odder thing happened to a fictional boy called Kay Harker.  Poet and novelist John Masefield wrote “The Midnight Folk” (1927), in which Kay is an orphan bullied by his horrible governess.  He discovers that she is an evil witch and his cat can talk, and he has a series of time-travelling adventures in the course of which he clears his grandfather’s name, meets mermaids and finds lost treasure.  At the end of the book, a woman called Caroline Louisa, whom he first met in magical circumstances, arrives, tells him she is a friend of his late mother, and adopts him.

The sequel, “The Box of Delights”, opens with Kay travelling home from boarding school to Caroline Louisa by train.  He has another extraordinary adventure, involving a lot of the same villains as before… but at the end he wakes up, still on the train home.  It was all a dream.  Yet his happy home with Caroline Louisa is real.

Perhaps because of its Christmassy theme, “The Box of Delights” is more famous, and has been televised… but I prefer “The Midnight Folk”, for various reasons, one of which is that I resent fictional adventures being thus explained away.  But see below.

The adventures of Alice are plainly dreams.  More recently, “The Bridge of Terabithia” (2007) is a film about children’s fantasy lives, and the magical adventures are (I think) clearly intended to be happening in their imagination, and helping them to deal with their real-life problems.  (I haven’t read the source book.)  But Terabithia is unusual.

On the whole in the twenty-first century, magic in fiction is allowed to be real.  Boring academics say that Barney invented his caveman friend Stig in the classic story “Stig of the Dump” by Clive King (1963), but any suggestion that Hogwarts only exists in Harry Potter’s mind would be serious heresy.  We live in a world where aliens, time-travel, vampires, zombie apocalypses and magic of all kinds are the fictional norm.

This raises several issues.  Over and over again very strange things happen to people in children’s books and films, and in many comedies intended for all ages, such as “Liar Liar” or “Freaky Friday”.  No one except the protagonist will believe these things, and herein often lies the drama and the comedy.  (SF heroes have better luck, because the aliens tend to be indisputably there.)

This means that characters who approach odd stories with common sense tend to be the bad guys, or at best the stolid guys who need to lighten up.  I enjoy the stories as much as the next person, but I’m not sure that this is a healthy message.  Occasionally they eventually discover or accept the bizarre truth; but sometimes not.  In these cases the spouse/parent just has to live with the fact that someone they love has been behaving in an apparently crazy way for a day or two… and the anxiety this may cause them is not addressed.  (Amy Pond’s family did get her some counselling.)

Whereas those who will believe in anything, however weird, are held up for our admiration.

In an extreme case, family members are not told and are simply manipulated.  In the recent “romantic” film “About Time”, the males in a certain family have the ability to go back in time and change things, within certain rules.  Although they are supposed to be nice people, the two men involved have no compunction about using this power dishonestly to their romantic advantage (short of adultery), nor do they ever tell their wives what they can do.

And I do wonder sometimes… There is an Agatha Christie novel where Miss Marple says that no one these days would believe a newspaper report that a magician could turn you into a frog… but they might believe one that said a scientist could make you develop frog-like characteristics.  So a villain persuades a gullible young woman to feed his enemy poison under the belief that it is a truth drug.

Back to where we started…

If your friend came to you and said, “The woman next door is a witch, and her spell is the reason my brother got cancer,” you would not believe him.  Such stories are old hat.

If he said, “I’m not actually Tony Jones (or whoever), I’m his double from another dimension, and our bodies have been swapped against our will.  I desperately need your help so that we can both get back…” you would not believe him.

At first.  But if he kept on saying it, and failed to recognise normal people and places, and if anything else odd happened at the same time, might you begin to wonder…?

Is there a price to be paid for our love of paranormal fiction?

If something unbelievable happens… is it wisdom or foolishness to rearrange your view of reality?

It really is foolishness, in nearly all cases, but too many viewings of “The Matrix” may make us believe otherwise.

Love from the PPI Blogger


1 Comment
  • Malachi Malagowther

    12th August 2016 at 6:18 pm Reply

    Isn’t it Sherlock Holmes who is reported to have said that in the case of a mystery that once you have eliminated all the probable causes then whatever you have left, however unbelievable, must be the truth. Admittedly Sherlock was living in late Victorian London but I think many people would have sympathy with his view. Society adheres to certain dogmas about how the universe works in terms of cause and effect. However every so often an original thinker comes along, often a scientist, who discovers a phenomenon or makes a measurement that overturns conventional wisdom. As Hamlet said, “There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy” and the same is still true today. We have to be aware that society’s understanding of “truth” can change with time and that although God is unchanging because He/She/It is outside the universe and its laws of time, humans and their philosophical/religious constructs can and should be changing all the time. Admittedly in the Buddhist world view this change is occurring in a great circle but in Judeo/Christian belief there is the idea of a gradual progress towards Armageddon or the End Times or the New Jerusalem. Initially this was measured in terms of an almost unimaginable length of time ( a whole millennium which was about a quarter of the Universe’s existence since the Creation) but since then our imaginations have widened and we now think the “Big Bang/Creation” started about 9 billion years ago. This makes me think that God works on a long timescale where “a hundred years are but an eyeblink” and that the end times may not come for a couple of billion years yet. Given the rate at which humans seem to be currently evolving and the potential for genetic manipulation it is difficult to imagine what humans might be like in even one billion years time or what their beliefs might be then. It seems plausible that in a million years someone might say that the witch next door cast a spell that caused your brother to get cancer and be perfectly matter of fact about it. However I am assuming that the warlock who lives two doors down the street from you would be able to cast a counter spell that would shrink the cancer and return the tissue to a healthy state in much the same way that “Bones” could apparently do in Star Trek. In a million years English will have changed so much that we will no longer be using the terms witch or warlock but the same sort of concepts will be around.

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