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Truly Advocating Escape

november 19, 2010

Malice and Havoc by Chris Wooding

Why didn’t she feel crushed by the idea of getting up at the same time every morning, going to the same school or the same job, day after day? Here in Malice, you didn’t have to worry about getting good grades so you could get a good job. Malice was a world stuffed with wonder and excitement and danger. There wasn’t much of those left back home.

Fantasy has often been accused, in various ways, of being an escape. Tolkien tried to explain that it was the escape of the prisoner, not the flight of the deserter [1], but basically agreed that fantasy was preferable to what was left behind. Other critics have referred to fantasy in terms of desire or consolation. Regardless of the exact term or twist of meaning, I have always felt that although there is certainly an element of moving away from the world we live in, that movement can be used for different reasons. We can travel abroad to find ourselves a sunny beach where we can get tanned on a towel, or a snowly slope where we only have to think about the thrill of speed. We can also travel to learn, however; to understand other cultures, to slog through rainforest, or see something different. Or we can do both.

When I read fantasy, I do both. I enjoy the adventure, the new places, the imagination of the author. I also learn from patterns I find in the text: political or religious views woven into the story, discussions about good and evil, moral dilemmas confronting the characters … What I don’t do, is planning never to return. It’s always There and Back Again.

I enjoyed reading Chris Wooding’s Malice and Havoc a great deal – in fact, I found the second book hard to put down and spent a day reading it when I could have been much more, well, productive or something. The series (well, one story in two volumes) is for young adult readers – the cover says 11+ – and the basic story is familiar: kids from our world discover that only they can stop a group of evildoers. That these bad-guys partly come from a different world (Malice) and that they kidnap children and bring them into that world still makes it seem a fairly run-of-the-mill type tale.

What makes Wooding’s books different is the way comics are used. Malice is an underrgound comic book, where the ”adventures” (always full of horror, often deadly) of kidnapped children can be read. In fact, part of the books are in comic book rather than text form. And the world of Malice is a cruel, horrible place, a world of nightmares.

Yet, this terrrible world seems preferable to at least some of the protagonists. The quote at the beginning of this post comes from Seth, whose parents are dull but in no way unpleasant or abusive. He is no Harry Potter, locked up or given constant grief. Still, Seth prefers Malice.

His sentiments are perfectly clear: our world has nothing to offer in terms of adventure or challenges; nothing, even, to alliviate boredom. Wooding offers not only a holiday trip to Malice, he advocates the fantasy world as a way out. There is no question of returning with any knowledge gleaned from the fantastic, nor even come back relaxed and ready to get on with life. Malice, it is made perfectly clear (the above is not Seth’s only statement to this effect), is better than our world.

Since I rather believe in the real world, and find it full of challenges and adventures (even without having to resort to clinging at the back of trams or climbing on scaffolding), this disturbs me somewhat. It makes me wish that I didn’t like the books quite so much as I did. It also makes me glad to realise that I apparently have not come across many fantasy works that so blatantly advocate escape – and that maybe there is something to learn from Seth’s partiality to Malice.

These books celebrate human imagination and the power of belief; they come down firmly in favour of fantasy. No matter how much I try, I cannot dislike that.


[1] Tolkien, J. R. R. ”On Fairy-stories” in The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays, p. 148. Tillbaka

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