ii: Coming-of-Age in Children’s Fantasy Literature and the Moral Threat of Good and Evil
The coming-of-age subgenre largely describes works which follow the growth of child characters, sometimes physically but more often morally, from childhood to adulthood. This does not necessarily denote that readers follow characters as they age, but rather as they experience the world and learn lessons which shift them mentally and physically from their positions at the start of the novel to more “adult” positions by the end of the book. In the following novels, these shifts from child to adult occur both physically as is the case of C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and also morally, and these shifts are highlighted by the use of the fantastic. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Charlotte’s Web, Bridge to Terabithia, and Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, the main characters, through their experiences in fantastic realms, are prompted to grow morally, a growth which translates to the real world at the end of each novel. In all four novels this also includes, to some extent, the emphasis of good and its defeat of evil. Through his/her moral conflicts and growth, each child must discover right and wrong for his or herself.
While Peter Pan introduces the concept of conflicting moral sides, good and evil, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe takes this even further with clear distinctions between good and evil in the fantastic realm of Narnia. The Pevensie children, who have been sent to a house in the English countryside to avoid the bombings in London (historically set during World War II), discover a magical cupboard that transports them to the fantastical realm of Narnia where they are told of a prophecy “that when two Sons of Adam and two Daughters of Eve sit on [the throne]…it will be the end of the White Witch’s reign” (89). Immediately, the children are immersed in a moral conflict of good and evil; one in which, by word of the prophecy, the children are innately good and the White Witch is evil. This good-evil dichotomy is further developed when Aslan, “the King of Beasts,” is introduced (86) and characterized as innately good. Aslan and the White Witch become foils for one another. Aslan, the sage yet highly secretive ruler of Narnia, embodies traits of kindness, wisdom, and courage. Conversely, the White Witch’s selfish desire to take over Narnia for the sake of power and her cruelty towards all creatures makes her “bad all through” and separates her from the ability to achieve moral goodness (88).
In much the same way, the Pevensie children act as foils for one another as well; however this changes as they progress morally throughout the novel. At the start of the novel Edmund is selfish and unkind, particularly to his sister Lucy when he “decide[s] all at once to do the meanest and most spiteful thing he [can] think of. He decide[s] to let Lucy down lying to his siblings about his initial visit to Narnia and his meeting with the White Witch,” (48). His behavior is immediately characterized as being cruel, implying that the White Witch morally corrupts Edmund and that he has her capacity for cruelty. Just as Captain Hook in Peter Pan is undoubtedly the villain, Edmund with his cruel behavior exhibits characteristics of the villain. This behavior is juxtaposed to that of his siblings, particularly Lucy and Peter, whose actions are innately good. Lucy is described as a “very truthful girl” whose selflessness initially appears when she demands that she and her siblings “simply must try to rescue [Mr. Tumnus]” after the faun was kidnapped by the White Witch (27, 65). Likewise, Peter is characterized in his own valiance when he takes charge of Aslan’s army in their war against the White Witch’s attempted takeover of Narnia, and though he “did not feel very brave…that made no difference to what he had to do” (144). Even under the threat of evil, both Lucy and Peter display traits of moral strength and goodness.
This dynamic of good and bad within the Pevensie siblings does not remain static throughout the novel; however, when Edmund comes to realize his mistakes in adhering to the evilness of the Witch and discovers that “deep down inside him he really knew that the White Witch was bad and cruel” (97). He then apologizes to both Aslan and his siblings, earning their forgiveness and embodying moral growth. This then leads to a physical growth toward the end of the novel once Aslan’s warriors defeat the White Witch in their war and goodness has won over evil in Narnia. The children take their places on the throne as prophesized, literally growing into adults while ruling Narnia as King Peter the Magnificent, Queen Susan the Gentle, King Edmund the Just, and Queen Lucy the Valiant. As the four children grow, the moral goodness which they are taught in Narnia stays with them and they “[make] good laws and [keep] the peace” in Narnia (200). This continues even when they return to the real world in which they are once again children, the same as they had been prior to climbing through the wardrobe into Narnia. Once again, the secondary fantastic realm allows the four children to experience growth, morally and physically, while in its borders, but does not result in any negative consequences in the real world of the novel. While Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy maintain their moral growth through their experiences and lessons learned while in Narnia, they are not adults when they cross back into reality. Instead, they are children who come of age by moving toward adulthood in their understanding of right and wrong, good and evil.
Both Charlotte’s Web and Bridge to Terabithia portray another shift in morality when it comes to character growth in the coming-of-age genre. Also shifting is the emphasis placed on good versus evil. Unlike both Peter Pan and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Charlotte’s Web is less obvious in its portrayal of morality in terms of individual characters who are themselves good or evil, but rather suggests that good and bad are matters of perception, and that an individual makes an active choice to be one or the other. Although the novel mainly centers around the pig Wilbur and his spider friend Charlotte who saves his life, the human child Fern is the one who experiences the true coming-of-age in the novel, and who first experiences a moral conflict at the start of the novel when she stops her father from killing Wilbur, claiming that “it’s unfair…[he] couldn’t help being born small” (White 3). White portrays this act as an act of goodness as Fern is able to save Wilbur from death; an act which is rewarded by its deliverance of Fern to the fantastic other-world of her uncle’s barn. Here, Wilbur lives for most of his life and the barn serves as the setting in which the Fern is able to understand and converse with the animals who live there. Unlike in the world outside of the barn in which Wilbur is merely a pig, inside the barn he becomes both a character and a friend to Fern.
Conversely, the concept of evil—although there is not a single character who is solidly evil, with the exception of Templeton who possesses several bad traits—stems from a lack of personal morality or moral traits. Evilness itself is something that is perceived. Rather than being a physical trait, it is something that people can choose. From the very start of Charlotte’s Web, bad or improper behavior—what is considered immoral due to its negative impact on others—is often referred to with some sort of disdain or scolding. After waking to find Templeton attempting to eat from the grain bin, Wilbur thinks, “why does he have to stay up all night…destroying people’s property? Why can’t he go to sleep like any decent animal?” (32). Soon afterwards, Wilbur’s loudness in his excitement about meeting a new friend is scolded by the sheep who says “stop your nonsense, Wilbur…you are probably disturbing [your friend’s] rest” (35). In both of these instances, the action that is being taken in the moment is reproached for its impropriety. Unlike in the previous texts examined by this thesis, in Charlotte’s Web it is not the main characters who demonstrate the proper behaviors, but rather those characters who are enacting poor behaviors and are then taught a lessons in manners. Thus White in 1952 deliberately shifts away from the Victorian displays of perfect, well-behaved children in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and A Little Princess. Instead, the characters are more imperfect and must grow from these imperfections as they learn.
As previously stated, Templeton most clearly possesses traits of evil or villainy. “The rat had no morals, no conscience, no scruples, no consideration, no decency,” and yet he helped save Wilbur in at the end of the novel by providing some of the words which Charlotte scripted into her web (46). While he acts primarily out of his own selfish greed, he cannot be considered solely evil, although it is his lack of morality rather than his active choices that leave the reader with an impression of his bad character. Still, unlike the White Witch from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe whose cruelty and selfishness leads to the death of Aslan, Templeton helps to save Wilbur’s life. White creates characters that confuse good and evil, complicating the reader’s understandings of what these are and what it means to be right and wrong. It is clear through the narrator’s frequent admonitions of Templeton’s behavior, that many (if not most) of his actions are bad and/or wrong, but he is not exclusively bad, but rather a mixed character.
White echoes this in Charlotte’s own character as she is originally thought to be evil by Wilbur when he witnesses her eating another insect. When witnessing her eating, Wilbur “was particularly glad that she always put her victim to sleep before eating it” (48). Here, Charlotte is portrayed as both vicious and merciful. The fact that the other insect is referred to as her “victim” suggests some form of the spider’s cruelty. However, the fact that Wilbur is glad that she puts her victim to sleep produces a sense of admiration on the part of Wilbur for Charlotte’s own kindness. This largely confuses her character and whether or not she is good or evil. Wilbur’s own opinion of Charlotte changes greatly by the end of the novel when he says, “‘Oh, Charlotte…to think that when I first met you I thought you were cruel and bloodthirsty!’” (164). Wilbur comes to realize that Charlotte is “doing what comes naturally” to her, rather than something that is bad (Misheff 132). In the end, Charlotte is a good character who is the primary force in saving Wilbur’s life by writing words of admiration in her web. Like Templeton, she possesses traits that are both good and bad, however, her selflessness and love for Wilbur result in her coming across as a good character—the hero of the story.
The ending of Charlotte’s Web also distinguishes itself from the other novels previously analyzed in this thesis when it brings about a change in Fern that most embodies the coming-of-age genre. Mrs. Arable, Fern’s mother, is concerned about her daughter’s well-being because “it [doesn’t] seem natural for a little girl to be so interested in animals” and seeks advice from Doctor Dorian (107). He tells her that “spiders and pigs [are] fully as interesting as Henry Fussy,” a boy that Fern has shown interest in, and that “the day will come when even Henry will drop some chance remark that catches Fern’s attention” (111). In the end this prediction comes true when Fern leaves Wilbur at the state fair in order to ride the Ferris Wheel with Henry. The fair is a place where there are “no parents to guard [the children] and guide them, and where [Fern] could be happy and free and do as [she] pleased” (131). Fern’s observations of the goodness that Charlotte shows toward Wilbur and the lessons that Wilbur learns about good and bad, all of which take place in her uncle’s barn, prepare her for an escape into adulthood, where she departs from the parents to find her own, independent self. In this way, the character’s moral growth in the fantasy world moves her closer toward adulthood in her “real” world.
In Bridge to Terabithia, as is true in Charlotte’s Web, moral behavior in terms of right and wrong is displayed more naturally through the thoughts and actions of the characters. In this way, it is harder to distinguish exactly what behaviors the characters and Paterson, the author, deem to be morally good or correct, and the ambiguity of the situations in which Jess finds himself allow for him to make decisions and deal with the consequences of those decisions authentically on his own. The book dramatizes real-life situations and their outcomes, allowing the reader to assess the characters’ behaviors as proper and improper. The interactions of Jess Aarons and his friend Leslie Burke spawn the creation of Terabithia, the novel’s fantastic second world, which culminates in Jess’ eventual shift in moral identity and growth toward adulthood at the end of the novel.
Leslie’s character is a force that makes Jess confront what he knows to be his own morality and understanding of what is right and wrong. Upon creating their secret, imagined world of Terabithia, Jess says that he “[knows Leslie is] a proper queen,” yet, “he [can] hardly manage English, much less the poetic language of a king” (Paterson 51). Leslie’s own confidence and ability to imagine and create a world that is fully fictitious causes Jess to question his own abilities; confusing what he knows as real to him. If Leslie makes a proper queen, then it is left implied that Jess, himself, is improper as a ruling figure; a form of Jess’ self-admonishment. Jess senses his own weakness when it comes to openness of thought and imagination, and thus considers himself lesser when comparing himself to Leslie’s ability to create new worlds. This occurs again when Leslie refers to her parents by their first names, something which “bother[s] Jess more than he want[s] it to…but he just [can’t] get used to it” (57). Leslie is suggesting a “maturation [in] the individual life” when referring to her parents in a way that an adult might (Misheff 140). Jess cannot comprehend this, and thus views it as something improper, though it is not necessarily so. In fact, Paterson seems to implicitly approve Leslie’s actions as Leslie is not punished for them. Instead, Leslie demonstrates personal growth into adulthood, while Jess’ understanding of the proper shifts. Essentially, Leslie is farther along on her maturation into adulthood and so her interactions with Jess force him to reconsider his own moral reality and, in the end, result in his own personal change and growth. This is especially transparent at the end of the novel when Jess thinks, “it was Leslie who had taken him from the cow pasture into Terabithia and turned him into a king” (160), and then again in his speech welcoming his sister to Terabithia, when he says “you just have to stand up to your fear and not let it squeeze you white” (161). Jess is able to release the fear that has constantly plagued his mind when he realizes the positive influence Leslie has had on him.
Unlike the prior novels, too, evil in Bridge to Terabithia is more of a concept than a character trait. There is no one character that possesses villainous qualities or performs immoral acts. However, evil itself is a concept that at times permeates the realm of Terabithia; something that Leslie instructs Jess to pray to the gods remove. In response to poor weather, Leslie says, “Methinks some evil being has put a curse on our beloved kingdom,” and that the evilness itself is an “unknown force” (Paterson 116, 118). Rather than a person or thing which causes evil, evil itself is a power; something which can upset the regular and ordinary in negative ways. It is, in fact, this storm—the evil force—which causes the creek to flood; a prime factor leading to Leslie’s death. In this way, the evilness that Leslie and Jess pray against is the cause of tragedy, but it is one that could not be prevented; a tragic accident not brought about by any one person, but by the unknown force. In a way, this can be read as fate. The storm, though it is not something which can be held accountable, is responsible for Leslie’s death, and so it is considered a force of evil. Evil pushes Jess closer to a moral change and is closely associated with the fantastic realm of Terabithia.
When an unknown force (the storm) which threatens to enter and cause harm to Terabithia, Leslie dies in her attempt to reach Terabithia, where she “went swinging on that rope just to show [Jess] that she was no coward” (145). After her death, Jess blames Leslie for her involvement in his growth; for making “him leave his old self behind and come into her world” (145). Jess’ new self that emerges from entering Leslie’s world begins to transfer to the “real” world at the end of the novel when he comes to realize that “before Leslie came, he had been a nothing” (160). Jess’s introduction of his younger sister to Terabithia also demonstrates his changed image of himself when he tells her “everybody gets scared sometimes, May Belle. You don’t have to be ashamed” (156). Until this point in the novel, Jess is actively ashamed of his own fears. Leslie’s imaginative influence and her ability to make him a king in Terabithia gives Jess the confidence to tell his sister not to be embarrassed of her fears. This realization occurs as Jess is guiding his sister into Terabithia, the place where he himself overcame his fears, and so it draws a parallel between the strength Leslie was able to provide for him, and the moral support he will implicitly supply for his sister.
Rejecting the moral ambiguities of Charlotte’s Web and Bridge to Terabithia, J.K. Rowling turns to a more explicit conflict of good and evil in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, dramatizing this conflict through the fight between Harry and his two nemeses Draco Malfoy and Lord Voldemort. While there are certain qualities pertaining to Harry—primarily his knack for breaking the rules—that do not make him a pure, faultless hero, Rowling provides no room for reader’s doubt about who is good and who is not in the novel. Even examples of Harry’s rejection of authority in several instances throughout the novel come across as justified. Harry’s aversion to Snape and his trek to the roof of the school in order to free Norbert the dragon (although it is against school rules) are considered necessary actions by both Harry and the reader due to the negative consequences that could arise from them. Failure to send Norbert with Ron’s brother Charlie would mean the sacrifice of Hagrid’s job, and Snape’s active dislike of Harry often results in Harry’s punishment, so Harry is suspicious of Snape and his motivations. Therefore, it is considered acceptable when Hermione sets Snape’s cloak on fire during the Gryffindor-Slytherin quidditch match when Harry’s broom is being jinxed. Similarly, Harry delivers the Norbert to the roof of the school in order to save Hagrid from being fired; though he breaks the rules, it is for a selfless reason. Literary scholar Lana Whited writes “if a world is fundamentally fair and rational, subversion is politically unnecessary” (Whited 160). Because of the consequences the conflict between good and evil threaten to have on Harry’s world, and as in A Little Princess and Peter Pan where adults are either unreliable or untrustworthy, Harry makes ethical choices to undermine or at times ignore authority in order to enact good.
Like the other novels in this chapter, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone also belongs to the coming-of-age subgenre of children’s fantasy literature. Harry, who initially finds himself as the outsider because of his wizard parents and magical abilities in the human world, is brought into the fantastic wizard-world. The wizarding world of Hogwarts School is the novel’s secondary world separate from the muggle—or human—world that had previously been known to Harry as his reality. Harry’s first impressions of good and evil within the wizarding world occur when Hagrid, Hogwarts’ gamekeeper and the man who comes to retrieve Harry from the muggle world, tells him the truth about the death of his parents. Hagrid tells Harry “yer mum an’ dad were as good a witch an’ wizard as I ever knew…You-Know-Who killed ’em…he tried to kill you, too” (45). As in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, innately good and evil characters are separated from the start of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. There is little to no question that Harry, son of two morally great wizards, is the hero of the story, while Lord Voldemort, cruel murderer is the villain.
Harry’s conversation with Draco Malfoy prior to entering the Great Hall at the beginning of the novel results in Harry’s assertion that “I think I can tell who the wrong sort are for myself, thanks,” implying that Draco may himself be the “wrong sort” (Rowling 81). To this Draco replies, “Unless you’re a bit politer you’ll go the same way as your parents” (81). Not only is Draco referring to the murder of Harry’s parents, but he is insinuating that the same might happen to Harry should he not be submissive to Draco. This act of bullying on the part of Draco clearly establishes a line between the hero of the story, Harry, and one of its villains. Draco’s morality comes into question with the allusion to killing. Harry’s rejection of Draco’s offer of friendship is largely what distinguishes Draco as a bad character from the start of the novel. Harry as the hero, whom the reader immediately recognizes from the start of the novel as the hero due to his survival of the ill-treatment at the Dursley household and his induction into the realm of magic, denies Draco of this relationship or social tie.
Heroics, or goodness, is also demonstrated throughout the novel as a selfless act by the heroes of the novel. When Harry and Ron go in search of Hermione after the escaped troll is announced on Halloween, “It was the last thing they wanted to do, but what choice did they have?” (129). Rather than an act that stems from intentional bravery, the need/desire to come to the rescue of others is an innate characteristic of moral goodness; something of which neither Ron nor Harry are even conscious. This occurs again later in the novel when, while playing the enchanted chess game that is one of the obstacles between the three children and the Philosopher’s Stone, Ron says “‘that’s chess…You’ve got to make some sacrifices!’” (205). Acts of goodness and heroics are automatic decisions; not ones that require significant thought, and these are decisions that get rewarded; Harry and Hermione are able to move on toward the Philosopher’s Stone, and later Ron is rewarded points toward the House Cup. Heroic nature in Harry Potter is both instinctual and undeterred, something which succeeds when placed against evil as it is simply the better of the two.
Examples of evil in the novel are largely attributed to the characters of Draco Malfoy and Voldemort, as they are both portrayed as manipulative and treacherous. Voldemort, who is referred to as You-Know-Who in most parts of the novel rather than being named outright, is the ultimate villain. Not only a killer but someone who can manipulate thought, there is a realism to the evilness of his character that reflects real-world tyrants far more than any of the villains in the other six works analyzed by this thesis. Harry’s own moral conflict with Voldemort is also far more personal than that of his feud with Draco Malfoy. As the person who murdered Harry’s parents, Voldemort takes on the role of an iconic villain—someone who is surrounded by mystery, suspense, and stories of immense violence—but who does not appear until the end of the novel. Malfoy, on the other hand, takes on the role of a realistic bully. Equipped with his lackeys, Crabbe and Goyle, he preys on the weaknesses of other students with the audacity and confidence of someone who considers themselves superior. Voldemort attempts to kill Harry just as he took the lives of Harry’s parents, while Malfoy’s bullying remains relatively superficial as he does not cause any permanent physical or mental harm to Harry. Both villains are set in contrast to Harry, their acts of cruelty and/or evil compared to his acts of courage and bravery. This results in Harry’s victory over Voldemort at the end of the novel—something which results from the sheer goodness and love that surrounds Harry—and, later, Harry’s defeat of Draco when Gryffindor (instead of Slytherin) wins the House Cup. In the case of both moral conflicts, good overcomes evil, resulting in Harry’s success at the end of the novel.