Pamela Dean’s The Secret Country and Authorial Creation (Continued)

by Eve Sweetser

(Art by Alan Lee)

Imaginative Creation is also never creation from nothing. It always starts out with the materials at hand, which may be many and rich. Children’s play games draw on all the stories they hear, as well as the events around them. Tolkien made full use of Northern European mythological traditions, of folklore and medieval literature at large, and of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries’ novel traditions (just for a start). Everyone else writing fantasy has been making use of Tolkien ever since.An Author has, and has not, "created" her (allow me a generic feminine here) artistic work. Every author has, I am sure, had the experience of suddenly realizing exactly where in her experience is the origin of some "invented" fictional episode or character. Audience–directed adult authorial creation involves realizing that much (most) of the author’s own and the audience’s experience of a new narrative will come not just from the text, but from preceding experiences and preceding narratives.This is not to argue that innovation and creativity are pretenses, but merely that innovation depends inevitably on tradition, and creativity on extant material. Authorial "ownership" is never total, just as authorial control is never absolute. Dean’s protagonists learn (as mentioned above) that the Secret Country is permeated by literary influence from our world, from the whole history of our literature, not just from their own "game." Indeed, they seem to have "made up" certain things partly because those things were true in the actual Secret Country;but the Secret Country is the way it is partly because of literary creation in our world. New creation draws on, and in turn influences, tradition.

Imaginative creation is not merely full of wonder and joy; it is hard, painful, and messy. It cannot be kept entirely separate from life, but inevitably has a disruptive impact on the creator’s interactions in the real world. It is not "convenient." Its demands are not fully explicable to people who aren’t themselves engaged in the creative struggle. Inevitably, it takes plenty of time away from everyday demands and pursuits. And yet Authors can’t stop doing it; nor can a sane Author stop living a real life. No surprise then, to find that unlike most fictional children visiting Other Worlds,the Carrolls experience an intense struggle to live in both worlds. Having read Narnia, they have initial hopes that their Secret Country time will be zero time at home; but time flow turns out to be parallel: they lose as much time from our world as they spend in the Other. So the cousins creep back and forth between the two worlds at inconvenient times of day (three of them are living in Australia, two of them are in Illinois on Central Daylight Time, and the Secret Country appears to be on Eastern Daylight Time). They get reprimanded by adults in both worlds for playing truant, for wearing bizarre clothing(the Secret Country wears medieval clothing), or for turning up dirty and wet after a misadventure in the other universe. They are sometimes exhausted and frustrated, but they go to great lengths to keep up daily life in both places, while they deal with their otherworldly adventure. And they feel too responsible to give up the adventure (a feeling that other authors will recognize). They do eventually get magical means to "bend" time, which improves matters. But they maintain a difficult dual existence, like so many authors before and since.

Imaginative creation carries the creator away — it can take over consciousness and make the writer unaware of the surrounding real world. (Of course, consumption can do this too — readers are "carried away" as well.) This seems to confirm the immense power of the imaginative mind — sometimes it feels as if huge shifts between worlds can be made at the opening of a notebook. Again, magic is a wonderful metaphor for this; we are "spellbound" by our own and others’ creations. And yet the literary or artistic "spell" does not remove relevant reality constraints from either the writer’s external world or the story world.

Imaginative creation is always made of ourselves, most of all. We can, in a sense, never tell any story but the one we are living — though we may tell that story in apparently distant and roundabout ways. And yet, in telling the story, it becomes not just ours; we never fully tell ourselves, but rather the story of some depicted and created self. Just so, Dean’s children arrive in the story–country to fill extant slots for five royal children who bear their names. But it turns out that there are indeed five missing royal children native to the Secret Country, though similar to themselves — the young "authors"are not in fact identical to the fictional–world princes and princesses. Or they are, and are not. The incomplete match leads to some problems. Princess Laura of the Secret Country, for example, is a superb rider, while the Laura of our world is not, and therefore has problems filling Princess Laura’s shoes. Lady Ruth has apparently been engaging in flirtations and plots which make life in the Secret Country complicated for the more scrupulous and straightforward Ruth Carroll.

One might even go a step further analytically here, and say that authors are always (uncomfortably, excitingly and problematically) navigating the balance between identity and non–identity between themselves and their characters. You can never write yourself exactly or completely, with the same vision and candor another might have; but you are always limited in other ways by writing anyone else, since you’ll never have the same knowledge of others you have of yourself. And the author has in a sense to "be" each of the characters she identifies with – an experience which can surely be uncomfortable, if an author is good enough to write characters who are dislikable or whomanifest less acceptable aspects of her own psyche. The more an author is able to identify, the more uncomfortable it can become. The Carrolls experience this most strongly when they actually merge with their Secret Country counterparts; aspects of the missing royal children’s spirits ultimately take up residence in the Carrolls, giving each Carroll an added secondary memory and personality. Ruth, in particular, is discomfited and upset by living with a deceitful, flirtatious Lady Ruth in her head. At other times, the experience of identifying with a character can be liberating and revelatory to the author; and the Carrolls experience that as well.Lady Ruth is a trained sorceress, so Ruth can do real magic in the Secret Country; Ted can channel Prince Edward and make use of his sword–fighting training. Laura (willy–nilly) has Princess Laura’s prophetic visions, which prove to be both extremely useful and very upsetting. Appropriately, it is the artistic Carrolls (the ones who ultimately stay in the Secret Country) who are most connected to their Secret Country counterparts; Patrick and Ellen are not as strongly "inhabited" by Prince Patrick and Princess Ellen.

Once imaginative creation has matured in the mind of an author and been shared with an audience, it has a stability which whimsical individual momentary imaginative creations do not. Sure, even publicly shared stories do change in the retelling — change radically even. But it’s also the case that listeners or readers or viewers say, "No, that’s wrong, Roland didn’t survive Roncesvalles; we know he died," or, "Aragorn never renounced Arwen; what does the film version mean by saying that?" Once you’ve killed off a character in front of an audience, you have to explain how she gets back into the imagined world if you want to resuscitate her.Literary narrative becomes irrevocable, like real life events. Dean’s characters learn this as well, in figuring out what makes "their" Other World dynamically consistent. It’s a big shock to them, initially, to realize that "their" characters can be killed, unalterably — they can’t go back and play it another way, if they change their minds.

And finally, as imaginative creation matures, or as a reader becomes more familiar with mature creation, it becomes less of a whimsical novelty, and more of a "different" kind of everyday existence. It becomes more fully fleshed out; languages, cultures, geographies, and sciences are often developed to complete fictional worlds. It gains familiarity; authors (and eventually readers) feel they "know" the people in the narrative, for example, and say things like, "the real Faramir couldn’t have done that." And authors feel responsible for the fates of characters they have become attached to.This is a salient aspect of Dean’s characters’ relationship to the Secret Country. Ruth, the oldest girl, falls in love with a resident of the Secret Country. The others also gradually develop real personal relationships with people in that Other World; readers do so as well. (Dean loves Fence and Randolph, and readers are likely to develop considerable affection for them too – not to mention respect for Agatha and Celia.). All the children fill major gaps in their original "knowledge" of the Secret Country’s history, science, etc. Most of all, the Carrolls can’t let go, even as serious dangers threaten them, because they feel responsible for helpingthe Secret Country through the dangers it is subject to. And it’s clear that the author thinks they are good people for fulfilling their responsibilities to the Secret Country.

The Secret Country people they initially deceived (pretending to be the actual royal children) gradually forgive them and understand that they are trying to help. Ted combines "bright imagination" with obvious decency and responsibility from the start; he’s an excellent older brother, sometimes impatient with his younger sister but always standing by her when it counts. And he gradually grows into his originally borrowed role as Prince, then King of the Secret Country; its fate, and his responsibility for events in it, first worry him deeply and then motivate him to genuinely heroic action. He actually offers at one point to return to the Land of the Dead in exchange for the return of the real Prince Edward to life.(With less selflessness, but laudable natural concern for her brother, Laura won’t let him.) Though they have ordinary faults and fears, all the children are basically good people; they’re honest, and generally kindly. As they come to realize that the Secret Country is not only a game, and that they themselves aren’t in fact the royal children, they’re not happy about having deceived people with their initial masquerade as their counterparts. Patrick (the least obviously likable — though as an academic I can empathize with him) can be coldly intellectual, or stubborn and arrogant, but he is truthful and never shows any signs of intentionally hurting people. They are all aware, the last time they go back to the Secret Country together,that they’re taking a real risk of never seeing their homes and parents again. Patrick seems to take this risk mostly in the interest of Science ("finding out what’s really going on"), while the others are taking it in the interest of saving the Secret Country and the people they know there. Whatever the problems of authorship are, it’s a good thing to see them through and care about the results.

To top this all off, the villain of the series (Claudia) is precisely an arch–exemplar of the wrong–headed theory of authorial invention that the children are learning not to espouse. It turns out that she murdered their young royal counterparts in the Secret Country, and brought the Carrolls across the boundaries between the worlds, because she thought she could control them like characters in a book, and through them control events in the Secret Country. She intended to do this selfishly, without concern for the people of the Secret Country; although originally motivated by a long–past grudge against an ancestor of the royal children, her central motivation during the book’s events is clearly Control, which she constantly fears is slipping away from her.They might have trouble bringing her to justice at the end, too, if it were not for the fact that her magical manipulations never satisfy her. Immortal (in fact, ever–young) and powerful, but disconnected from human relationships or real interaction with the world, she is deeply world–weary and eventually chooses death. At least one possible metaphorical lesson is that dictatorial authorship is an empty pursuit compared to responsible authorship.

For most of the books, Claudia makes a dupe of a character named Andrew, whose sister she impersonates; Andrew is so deeply rational that he does not believe in magic at all. As a result, he’s not only wrong about events in the magical world he lives in, but also an easy victim of Claudia’s magical toils. This makes a certain amount of sense, if Dean’s message is that folks with no sophisticated understanding of meaningful fiction may be "snared" by less responsible and genuinely deceptive fictions. Or perhaps we should only note that someone who deeply denies emotion and subjectivity, along with Art, is an easy target for someone else who understands emotion and art and subjectivity well, and uses them unscrupulously.

Another nice touch is the contrast between the huge, lovely and wonderful Crystal of Earth, which represents the Secret Country (breaking it destroys the Secret Country), and the smaller, less brilliant globe which represents the Carroll children’s imaginative creation. Patrick, the scientist among the children, smashes the game–globe, signifying both the end of their enclosed and controlled game (replaced by a bigger and more complex fictional endeavor) and a rationalist’s eagerness to destroy the apparent dangers of fantasy and literature (he thinks at the time that he will destroy the Secret Country entirely). Although Claudia hates the Secret Country, she is unable to bring herself to smash the Crystal of Earth, though she could have done so,because destroying the Secret Country would have ended her chance of gaining autocratic power over it. (No wonder she is going crazy by the end; she wants to own a bigger, multilaterally negotiated fictional world, which by its nature can’t be owned.)

So Dean’s young game–players are moving, in the course of the books, from private imaginative play to an adult authorship relation with their fantasy world. And I think that brings us back to why the two families get divided in the end. It is clear that the family members who stay in the Secret Country are those who want to commit to a deep, close, long–term relationship with literary and artistic creations — to making that relationship a major part of their lives, not just a game. And the ones who stay in our world are the ones who go other ways — opt for science and rationality rather than art or letters, for example. The choice may be forced by the nature of the two worlds, but it’s also forced at another level by the modern dichotomybetween Sciences and Humanities. Patrick, for example, is the most scientific of the protagonists, constantly trying to work out the temporal relationship between the two worlds, calculating properties of physical and magical objects, but not as much interested in the Secret Country dwellers as people, or in the Country itself as a culture, a whole world. He is clearly going to become a scientist in our world. As he says (WD, 321), "I find I prefer the Second Law of Thermodynamics" [to magic]. He is creative, but not with the kind of creativity which produces artistic narrative worlds.