Why do we need stories? In one of her most quoted remarks Joan Aiken explains:
Jan Pienkowski, who died this week explained that his pictures helped him transform images of horror in his mind into stories he could control. He lived through invasion and terror as a child in the 1940’s in his native Poland, but re-created and conquered the fearful situations in his storytelling and illustrations, making the uncontrollable situations manageable for a child – the hideous Baba Yaga becomes Meg the silly witch, or in the version he illustrated for Joan Aiken, in The Kingdom Under The Sea, she becomes a selfish fool, easily outwitted by her own child. The idea of the witch might be scary, but it becomes manageable when viewed through a story, and as a picture in a book read in the safety of home.
Another of the great creators of alternate worlds was Ursula Le Guin, whose recent death brought not only a celebration of her writing, but a recognition of the importance of fantasy, and speculative fiction as it has come to be known. Both Le Guin and Joan Aiken resisted the label ‘Science Fiction’ for their fantasy writing – in an interview for The Paris Review LeGuin talks about the importance of ‘trying on’ other ideas::
“I don’t think science fiction is a very good name for it, but it’s the name that we’ve got. It is different from other kinds of writing, I suppose, so it deserves a name of its own.
I’m not a quester or a searcher for the truth. I don’t really think there is one answer, so I never went looking for it. My impulse is less questing and more playful. I like trying on ideas and ways of life and religious approaches.
That could be part of what led me to write more about possible worlds than about the actual one. And, in a deeper sense, what led me to write fiction, maybe. A novelist is always “trying on” other people.”
Joan Aiken acknowledged that “writing a full length fantasy novel made out of pure invention is the very hardest kind of children’s book to write successfully…Ursula Le Guin has done it in her Earthsea books…it can be done, but it is a considerable challenge.”
Through reading and writing about other worlds we can confront and deal with the faults in our own. Joan Aiken only attempted a full scale dystopian novel once, in her novel The Cockatrice Boys, addressing the ‘sleep of reason’ which has threatened our own world with climate change and devastation – through stories, Aiken wrote, you can help children deal with the unanswerable question ‘Why?’
You can read more about what she and others called The Sleep of Reason,
or the failure of the imagination, here.
Generally she preferred to base her kind of fantasy on folk tales, an age old form of storytelling which could be adapted, often humorously, to comment on our own world. The illustrations by Jan Pienkowski above come from their collection of stories based on traditional European tales which he knew as a child – re-told for him by Joan Aiken – The Kingdom Under the Sea.
In this story three boys set out to make their fortunes, but despite the good advice of the Sun God, about caring for those who have loved and cared for them, they become distracted by the voices of darkness and become so lost to the world around them that they have to be rescued by their wiser grandfather:
Somebody sat on the steps of the castle weeping, with his face hidden in his hands.The old man called, across the white cloud and the pink cloud.
“What is the trouble, my child?”
The weeper lifted his head, and they saw that it was Yanek.
“The sun-god won’t let me into his palace,Grandfather,” he answered, “because I did wrong to leave you.”
Tears ran down the old man’s cheeks when he heard that. He turned to Martin and Mihal and said to them, “Go back to the forest, my children, live rightly, and never let the sacred fire go out. I am going to help Yanek.”
We must teach our children that we depend utterly on our imaginations, we need to cross over into fantasy, into the unknown, and make the attempt to imagine what if…?
We ignore this opportunity at our own risk. What we fail to imagine has a dangerous habit of coming true.
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Find more about the Joan Aiken Jan Pienkowski stories here
Read another fascinating Blog on Joan Aiken and some more Alternate Worlds here
And find the incredibly useful Internet Speculative Fiction Database here