Words on Words: Fantasy and freedom
Finnikin of the Rock, by Melina Marchetta
9780763643614, Candlewick Press
Reasons for reading Fantasy novels are intrinsically bound to the actions they depict, escape from tyranny, the restoration of good through effort, the comfort of obscure fatalism, the transmutation of the ordinary to the profound. To succeed Fantasy novels must provide the reader what their characters lack, and that is freedom. As J.R.R. Tolkien observed so well, "But I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse 'applicability' with 'allegory'; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author." For this cause Fantasy novels necessarily afford us a source of either escape or irony.
There are two primary sources of freedom in a work of Fantasy. Tolkien's observation establishes the first. The second involves the solidity of the fantasy world itself. The ability of the reader to suspend disbelief is in direct proportion to the strength of the imagined world. If we become critical observers, rather than fellow travelers, our freedom to enjoy and explore the book is greatly restricted.
Finnikin of the Rock represents the first Fantasy Novel by acclaimed Young Adult author Melina Marchetta. The world of Finnikin is essentially an island continent unto itself, called Skuldenore, containing 12 Kingdoms. The action follows the exiles of a small Kingdom, Lumatere, whose Royal family was assassinated from without, and who turned in on itself in the aftermath, resulting in a curse which has sealed it off from the outside world. Many Lumaterans fled in the days following "the unspeakable," and the story picks up ten yeas afterward. It follows the efforts of a group of exiles to reenter and reclaim Lumatere.
Acclaimed for her depth of characterization in realistic fiction, one might have expected that Marchetta would have excelled at providing the first of our freedoms, and struggled with the second, however I came to feel, ever more steadily, that the reverse was true. Skuldenore is well realized, the distinct characters of its principalities are convincing, and the author has followed wisdom in taking a simple construct and strengthening it. No attempt has been made to provide a sense of history beyond what the characters had need for and were likely to be mindful of. The fantasy is ably established through interaction rather than foolishly undercut by dubious references to ancient epic poems, and 2,000 year old battles that people still obsess about.
As the story progressed, however I came to feel that Marchetta's strength was becoming the story's weakness. Allegory is not the only manner in which ''the domination of the author" can be conveyed into the text. The emotional reality of the lead characters increasingly becomes the center of the narrative, the direct object of dialogue, the fulcrum of its action and the motive force of events. Increasingly the reader's ability to impute and apply feelings to the characters is stripped away until the reader is wholly subject to them. Speaking critically of William Hazlitt, Virginia Woolf observed that "He tells us exactly what he thinks, and he tells us - the confidence is less seductive - exactly what he feels." This is the root of the problem. To be truly moved and engaged with a character, and with her story, the reader must stand at a slight remove from her, must have the freedom to interpret and apply one's own experiences. The emotions of Finnikin of the Rock's lead characters are not only too explicit, but they take the form of overt value judgments which the reader is compelled to agree with. I personally felt that the values they represented were good, but that is not the point. Anita Bryant may have wanted a glass of orange juice every morning, but the Fantasy reader cannot do without " varied applicability to their thought and experience."