Utopias, Edens, and the Absolute Elsewhere
Robert Silvey was the head of Audience Research at the BBC from 1932 to 1968. After he retired, he wrote an essay describing how, when he was young, he created an imaginary world he called the “New Hentian States.” For several years during his childhood, this bordered on an obsession. Silvey filled notebooks on the history of this make-believe country, wrote detailed accounts of its geology and constitution, drew maps of the place and its towns, penned newspaper reports of current events (e.g., “Flood Strikes Capitol,” “Government in Crisis”), and more.
When Silvey published this essay about his youthful passion, readers wrote him about the imaginary worlds they had created in their own childhoods. This prompted Silvey to place notices in several British magazines and newspapers, soliciting from others accounts of their make-believe worlds as well as information about their lives. He received some sixty submissions before his death. These were subsequently collected and analyzed by scholars David Cohen and Stephen A. MacKeith in their book The Development of Imagination: The private worlds of childhood.
What we are talking about are complete imaginary realms or alternate worlds manufactured by children over many months and years. They may be whole countries or islands, they may be populated with talking animals or talking toys, they may be pastoral or futuristic with whiz-bang technologies–whatever the case, these imaginary lands were such compelling inventions that their young inventors spent hours and hours imagining their country’s history, creating stamps and passports and currency, generating family trees and legends and maps, inventing languages and alphabets and customs, and engaging in countless other endeavors to flesh out their Other Place.
Here are some examples from Cohen and MacKeith’s book:
When he was young, “Douglas” imagined a pastoral place called “Rull” where there were no automobiles but, instead, massive gardens and Victorian houses, many trees and bicycles, no nuclear weapons and no killing–and, interestingly, a ban on anyone named David.
“Simone,” on the other hand, created “Toyland”: a land full of suburban houses painted yellow and pink and blue, where the only flowers were rhododendrons, and where the toy inhabitants enjoyed an exclusive diet of lemonade and peanuts.
On her part, “Beryl” created an island where she had a companion wolf and many Indian friends, and where she could visit regions populated by unicorns and satyrs. Of course, I am only sketching in a few words these make-believe lands. One of the most conspicuous features about these imaginary geographies is their incredibly detailed completeness, when a child has imagined every jot and title, from the costumes of its citizens to the geology of its mountains.
Considering these sixty or so alternate universes as well as their creators, scholars Cohen and MacKeith make a number of observations.
- First, the manufacture of these other worlds is a phenomenon of childhood; generally, it begins between the ages of eight and ten and ends with adolescence or between the ages of twelve and fourteen.
- Next, contrary to what one might expect, the invention of these lands is not a preoccupation of lonely introverts; just as many are generated by youngsters who are socially gregarious and who (while often keeping their inventions secret from adults) enlist playmates or brothers and sisters in their play.
- Finally, despite the belief of some psychologists that fantasy-making is compensation prompted by problems, Cohen and MacKeith discovered that these imaginary worlds were generated by happy youngsters motivated more by “fun” than any need for consolation.
All these Shangri-La’s share certain features. First of all, the imagined world adjoins but is out of touch with our world. As Simone said about her pastel-colored Toyland, “It’s all like everyday life, but it’s strange too because it’s not like our everyday life.” Or as “Allan” observed about his planet of “Weltonia”: “[It’s as if] God had decided to have a contest. He created exactly the same conditions on two widely separated planets and then, as it were, sat back to await the results. Weltonia turned out to be the superior world.”
Another feature of these worlds is that they are game-like and based on arbitrary rules: for example, a world where birds are always striped and people have to design their own cars. But as fanciful as they might be, within these realms and their odd rules, everything has to fit and be consistent.
These worlds are also cumulative and encyclopedic. When a child becomes interested in heraldry, family insignia are drawn up for the inhabitants of that other place. When a child takes up sports, fantasy soccer leagues are formed. Speaking about the great value of his imagined island state of “Dobid,” “Geoffrey” observed: “[It has] been a means of uniting my every craze and hobby into one great nation.”
For Cohen and MacKeith, this world-making exhibits a child’s desire for control. But as Robert Silvey himself said, “A much deeper satisfaction came from the feeling of creating order out of chaos.” Indeed, if there is a higher purpose to such world-building, we might say that within the miscellaneousness of life, some children create order by inventing a coherent and parallel fantasy-world; they write software, as it were, for the No-Place Like Home. And having done so in a satisfying way, that software can now be used in that more ordinary world where they live with us.
Of course, such parallel universes abound in Children’s Literature. That might lead us to wonder whether certain children’s authors–think of James Barrie and his Neverland or C.S. Lewis and his Narnia–never outgrew that particular phase of childhood. Or it may be the opposite: that because they write about such imaginative geographies (Frank Baum about Oz, for example, or J.R.R. Tolkein about Middle Earth) these authors are especially appealing to youngsters between the ages of eight and fourteen, when a passion for cosmos-building is most acute.
Certainly in Children’s Literature you will find the same systematic urge to collect everything into an encyclopedic whole. For example, much of the pleasure of the picture book Fungus the Bogeyman by Raymond Briggs is its imagining everything that would be a part of a culture run by Bogeys: from the names of the colognes they would use (Old Mice, Toilet Water, etc.) to titles of the books in their libraries (“Stinks I Have Made,” “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Bogeyman,” and dozens more). Likewise, as Alison Lurie has suggested, the Moomintroll books by Tove Jannson are a complete catalog of personality types: shy Snorks, vapid Hattenfatters, fussy Fillyjonks, bohemian Snufkins, and so forth.
But the imaginary realms of children’s books also share another feature with those fantasylands imagined by children themselves and that is their proximity to this world. After all, the children of C. S. Lewis need only pass through a wardrobe door to enter Narnia, the Borrowers of Mary Norton live beneath our floorboards, and in the Harry Potter books of J.K. Rowling the world of sorcerers is next-door to ours: all one need do is catch the train at Platform Nine and Three-Quarters.
Originally appeared in Parents’ Choice (June 2007).
If you liked this, click the💚 below so other people will see this here on Medium.