Coraline and the Other Imaginary Worlds

Coraline's discovery of a strange parallel world is part of a universe of fantastic worlds that dates back to the beginning of children's literature.

In Coraline, Henry Selick’s new 3-D stop-motion animated feature based on the classic novel by Neil Gaiman, the heroine Coraline discovers a new world by accident. Having just moved into a new house in a new neighborhood, the inquisitive 12-year old girl is hungry for adventure and friendship––neither of which her busy self-employed parents can give her. All they have time for is work, leaving Coraline free to explore her curious new home, which contains in one room a strange doorway whose entryway is bricked up. Late at night, she returns to find the brick wall gone and in its place an open portal to another world, a universe that seems almost a reflection of her own. There is the Other Mother (a button-eyed creature who has all the time in the world for Coraline) and the Other Father (also button-eyed and full of fun and adventure). It seems like she has stumbled into a wonderful alternate universe––that is until she attempts to return home.

The journey that ensues echoes one of the beloved traditions of children’s storytelling—the adventure of traveling to another world. In some ways this story is one of the oldest in literature, going back to Homer and Virgil. While The Odyssey is not exactly about the discovery of another world, Odysseus’ ten-year return, filled with the discovery of mysterious and dangerous lands along the way, is driven by his need/desire to return home, a drive that fuels nearly all stories about imaginary worlds. Virgil’s Aeneid is not about the return to one’s home, but rather quite the opposite, the founding of a new home in Rome. Aeneas, a Trojan warrior displaced by the war, discovers this destiny when he travels to the underworld and comes back to earth. Centuries later, that poem’s author, Virgil, would appear as a character guiding Dante into the afterlife (although after his trek through Hell, Purgatory and finally Paradise, Dante never returns home).

While such epic tales lay out a narrative architecture for fantasy stories, the modern version of such tales, especially ones in which everyday kids find themselves on the borders of something strange and extraordinary, didn’t start till the start of 19th century. Jane Austen’s comic gem Northanger Abbey satirizes the younger generation’s mania for creepy tales of the fantastic when the heroine Catherine Morland, who has read one too many Gothic novels, imagines all sorts of intrigue at a friend’s house.

Alice in Wonderland and the Logic of Fantasy

Perhaps the first, and best-known, novel of a fantasy world is Alice in Wonderland, as well as its sequel Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There. In 1865, the Oxford mathematician Charles Dodgson writing under the pen name Lewis Carroll published a fanciful story of a little girl and her dreams called Alice in Wonderland. The story begins in a perfectly normal Victorian home when a slightly bored little girl named Alice spots a rabbit with a pocket watch in her garden. When she follows it down a rabbit hole, she initiates one of the craziest trips in English literature. As with so many stories to come, Alice enters her fantasy world through a doorway that cannot be readily re-used. Once down the hole, returning the way she came is impossible. She must explore Wonderland, a world where the terms of physics and reality no long hold: animals talk, caterpillars smoke, and cats disappear. Like all imaginary worlds, Wonderland operates by its own logic, which in this case is a dream logic, since Alice must wake up to escape the mad world she has found herself in.

A few years later in 1971, Lewis Carroll found Alice a new world in Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There. The new story picks up exactly six months since her first trip, and rather than going through a rabbit hole, Alice slips through the surface of a mirror, finding a world that not only reflects and refracts her real one, but also the world of Wonderland. The card royalty in Alice, for example, is now red and black chess queens, and all the questions raised in the early book are now metaphorically and literally turned inside out. The metaphor of the looking glass that informs this adventure is a metaphor found in one way or another in almost all stories of imaginary worlds. In Coraline, the metaphor is almost precise as the “other” world resembles almost precisely her own. Other times, the other world is simply its complete opposite, as Neverland is to staid Edwardian London.

Return to Fantasy

Forty years later, Scottish playwright and novelist J. M. Barrie discovered the fantasy world called Never-Never-Land. Neverland’s hero Peter Pan first appeared Barrie’s 1902 collection of stories, The Little Bird. The popularity of the character lead first to a collection of stories and then a hit play in 1904 called Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up, and then to the novel Peter and Wendy in 1911. In the story, Wendy, John, and Michael Darling, children of an upper class London family, whose governess is a St. Bernard named Nana, discover Peter Pan one evening when he loses his shadow in their bedroom. High on happy thoughts and fairy dust, the children learn to fly to Peter’s enchanted home. Barrie blurs the relationship of the real world to the imaginary one by having the children fly there through the clouds and night, thus never seeing the border that separates the two worlds. In obscuring that wall, Barrie also left open the possibility of returning to that fantasy world, as he and others would do over and over again.

Long after Barrie’s death, Neverland (and Pan) returned in a series of novels and films. In Stephen Spielberg’s 1991 feature Hook, Peter does grow up and his children are kidnapped by the iron-handed pirate. In the 2002 animated film Return to Neverland, Wendy grows up and her daughter is kidnapped by Hook. In the 2004 film Finding Neverland, the real-life source of the stories is explored, that being J.M. Barrie’s odd relationship to the children of Arthur Llewelyn Davies. While many of these imaginary lands provide a one-time adventure, Neverland, like Oz and Narnia, was a revolving door of adventure.

Girls Lead the Way in Fantasy

Even though Barrie’s Neverland is gendered for the most part male (Peter Pan, Captain Hook, the lost boys), girls are nevertheless the most likely explorers of fantasy worlds, Examples are Alice, Wendy, Coraline, Lucy in The Chronicles of Narnia and, of course, Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. Indeed at nearly the same time that Wendy was flying to Neverland, Dorothy was being transported to Oz by a tornado. L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was first published in 1900, then dramatized for the stage in 1902 and adapted for the screen in 1939 in MGM’s magnificent Wizard of Oz. As in many fantasy novels, once Dorothy enters the land of Oz, there is no way for her to get back to Kansas. Indeed the story’s journey is really a story of return and reaffirmation––geographically, emotionally, spiritually. Although Baum would go on to write 14 Oz novels in all, the first one in which Dorothy finds Oz remains the most beloved.

Fantasy and the Real World

In 1949, C.S. Lewis, a professor of Medieval Studies at Oxford University, started the first of what would be a series of seven fantasy novels known collectively as The Chronicles of Narnia. While the later story expands the world of Narnia in unexpected ways, the first book, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe defines the relationship between our world and Narnia. During World War II, four children (Lucy, Edmund, Susan and Peter Pevensie) are moved from London to the safety of a country house owned by Professor Digory Kirke. The ever curious Lucy, hiding in a big wardrobe, discovers that the back of the closet opens up into the snow-clad land of Narnia. The two worlds––wartime Britain and fantasy Narnia––seem to have little to do with each other. One is grim and desperate, and the other filled with mythical creatures and epic struggles. Even time operates differently. The children may spend years, even centuries in Narnia, but when they return through the wardrobe to England hardly any time has transpired at all. This strange division between the painful violence of adult wars and the heroic battles of fantasy creatures was picked up again in Guillermo del Toro’s moving Pan Labyrinth.

While many children read the Narnia saga as one grand adventure, scholars are quick to diagram the complex Christian allegory being played out through the book, an allegory Lewis readily acknowledged. But other possible allegories lie just beneath the surface of many novels of fantasy worlds. In his study Children’s Literature, Peter Hunt points out, “It should be clear that, far from inhabiting some unworldly, unfallen plane, children’s literature is not only necessarily infused with and part of the ideological structure of our world, but it is more prone to manipulation than most.” Mathematicians have seen in Alice in Wonderland the whimsical embodiment of complex logical and philosophical problems. Economic historians have mapped onto the Oz landscape a multi-partied drama dealing with turn-of-the-century confrontations over the Gold Standard. But sometimes, as with Coraline, the allegory is more personal and closer to home as the parallel world reflects back tensions concerning the family and home. So too are many of the fantasy issues facing Harry Potter in our own time.

A Map of the Imagination

But such fantasy worlds also speak to the power of the imagination, especially in children. More than a few novels began with an emphasis on a child being bored. In Clive Barker’s 1992 The Thief of Always, a bored 10-year-old is lured to a mythic neighborhood home called the Holiday House only to discover that once past the foggy wall that surrounds it, there is no easy way out. And, in a reverse of the time scheme of Narnia, every day spent in the Holiday House is a year gone from life in the outside world. While boredom pushes many protagonists into fantasy worlds, only their wit and courage can see them home.

But, above all, imagination is called for in these fantasy worlds. In Edith Nesbit’s classic The Enchanted Castle, the real world, the world of make believe and a fantasy world all collide. Three children who must stay behind during a school holiday decide to explore the neighboring country. For them, everything is possible, and indeed they soon find an enchanted castle and fairy-tale princess, only to have their dreams shattered when their magical world turns out to be a hoax. But unbeknownst to students and the people perpetuating the ruse, one item, a small ring, really is magical, and its presence turns their imaginary world inside out in ways they could never have imagined. The book’s genius lies in the way it willfully confuses all these worlds to explore the power of imagination. Early in the book, Nesbit writes, “When you are young so many things are difficult to believe, and yet the dullest people will tell you that they are true––such things, for instance, as that the earth goes round the sun, and that it is not flat but round. But the things that seem really likely, like fairy-tales and magic, are, so say the grownups, not true at all.”