We are living in a world in which we are constantly being reminded of the dangers that surround us. According to Graeme Whiting, head teacher of the private educational establishment The Acorn School, Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings and Terry Pratchett should be added to the list of modern threats. Apparently today’s “dark, demonic literature” heralded “the age of the mentally ill child”. The blog-post is clearly unsubstantiated, hypocritical and at times verges on the ridiculous. It also shows how important it is to defend the role of imagination and fantasy. Rather than setting aside the magical, fantastical and imaginary, we should embrace it as a crucial tool for future generations. After all, we are living in a “dark, demonic” world and must learn how to negotiate it.
The blog post is riddled with unproven claims and blatant contradictions. Indeed, it is unclear whether Mr. Whiting actually likes children, although he is the principal of a British private school. Maintaining that we must protect the highly sensitive minds of children, he nonetheless argues that they “contrive, they can lie and they can get their own way”. Clearly, this begs the question why minds that he has described as so skillfully manipulative need protecting. Indeed, it also undermines his claim that children don’t have “thinking brains” until they are at least fourteen years of age. How could they possibly manipulate their surroundings when they can, according to Mr. Whiting, not truly think yet. And how can children be “innocent and pure” whilst simultaneously engaging in sinister plots and contrivances. It seems that his perception of children is almost as confused as his concept of classical literature.
Kristian Wilson has even implied that Mr. Whiting may not have read the classical literature he proposes as an alternative. His proposition that “old-fashioned values of traditional literature, classical poetry, Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley, Dickens, Shakespeare” are more suited to the vulnerable minds of the young seems ludicrous. Dystopian novelist Samantha Shannon draws on the example of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, in which Lavinia is brutally raped, tortured and murdered, to point out that Mr.Whiting’s substitutes could in fact be more violent and have more enduring negative effects on the sense of security he argues is threatened by children reading modern fantasies. Even if one looks at other authors he has named and Shakespeare’s less violent plays, like A Midsummer Night’s Dream or The Tempest, it becomes blatantly clear that elements of magic and fantasy are, in the words of Shannon, “as inescapable in the classics as they are today”. By arguing for the value of classics, Mr. Whiting is inadvertently acknowledging the centrality of imagination and its indelible connection to the intangible.
It is also hard to imagine how children could possibly be enticed to read the daunting and in many cases difficult literature proposed. This draws our attention to yet another contradiction: Mr. Whiting aims to encourage reading in children, yet attempts to undermine fantasy by calling it “addictive”. Once again he misses his aim and instead outlines how modern fantasy can be the key to encouraging young readers and enabling their imagination to grow in a free, unforced and uninhibited spirit. In fact, children would be learning essential skills without even noticing it and by their own will. What on earth could make this seem like a negative argument?
Imagination is a quality whose merits, it seems to me, need never have to be explained they are so obvious. There are countless examples every day in which imagination proves itself. It could range from just a really great question, an actually interesting small talk or a doodle you watch emerge on someone’s notes during a lecture. If small acts of imagination don’t seem profound enough, think about the way problems are solved, in any field of study: usually, the solution stems from somebody thinking outside of the box and taking a new approach. In today’s world, we are encountering new problems daily that require imaginative thinkers to solve. If the idea of global warming or the migration crisis doesn’t convince you of the importance of fostering imagination, I don’t know what will.
But fantasy novels do much more than foster imagination. They imbue ideas of empowerment and liberation that are required to support new approaches. Consider the narrative trope of fantasy novels, especially those targeting youths: an unlikely hero discovers a unique ability and learns to use it to their advantage to overcome adversity. This undoubtedly plants the seed in young reader’s minds that difference can be used to good effect. Not only can this help throughout the discovery of one’s own identity in the notoriously challenging pubescent years, but it teaches how imagination can be channeled to overcome challenges.
I would not go as far as Kristian Wilson in calling Mr. Whiting “Voldemort in disguise”. It is important to have a space in which everybody can voice and defend their opinions. Otherwise we cannot engage in a fair debate and show how such opinions are perhaps flawed. Due to his viral post, Mr. Whiting has been forced to admit he made “sweeping claims” and apologizes for his “lack of eloquence”. Whilst the widespread negative response has not been able to change Mr. Whiting’s mind, I sincerely hope that I have been able to tempt you to plunge into a new world and discover your imagination.