Tripping the Light Fantastic

Photo: my feral cat, Roo, at the age of four months. Roisin

When I was eight years old, my father brought home a library book: The Abandoned, by Paul Gallico.

It’s the story of Peter, a lonely boy in London, whose parents are never home. Though he longs for a cat, his nanny won’t allow it. One day, entranced by the sight of a kitten across the road, he runs towards it and is hit by a truck. When he wakes up, he has turned into a cat—but he needs the help of an alley cat named Jennie to learn how to become a true feline.

As a cat-loving child who’d also not been allowed to have one, I got lost in the story at once. I’d never read a fantasy novel before, and it ruined me for the bland books recommended for children of my age.

I didn’t want to read about children or teenagers who lived in the same kind of dull suburbia that I did. I searched for books that took me to worlds—whether on this planet or others—where magic could happen. Assisted by the town librarians who graciously accommodated my passion for reading and by parents who didn’t believe in censorship, I discovered Jonathan Swift, Tolkien, Robinson Crusoe, Treasure Island, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Greek, Roman, and Celtic myths.

I thank Paul Gallico and The Abandoned for setting me on the path to that gave me a special appreciation for fantasy.

The Importance of Fantasy

Some might say that childhood exposure to any form of literature can fire up the reading habit, and I would encourage children to read widely in many genres. Yet I think fantasy has a special ability to stimulate the imagination.

Part of the magic of fantasy is that it gives us tickets to travel to worlds very different from our own. I believe that this has never been more necessary. We live in a world that has grown increasingly more homogenized and in many ways predictable.

The news we read is geared to the lowest common denominator. People are far more likely to turn on the television than to open a book. Many U.S. politicians adopt the rhetoric of idealizing the 1950s, the era thought by many to have ushered in the ideal of conformity.

With fantasy, we explore not only other physical dimensions but also other ways of thinking and being. Some of the most notable fantasy writers use that distant perspective to cast new light on issues in our world.

From Cats to Dragons

The inspiration of visionary authors helped me choose to write fantasy. My first journey began when I wondered what might happen in a society—somewhat like our own—where emotional intelligence and intuition were sacrificed at the altar of reason and logic.

What fate would befall strongly intuitive people? How would people regard animals and the world of nature? And what might result if beneath all that logic and reason lurked a consuming fear of a dragon who lived not far from civilization, a dragon that no one actually knew anything about?

In the first book, The Dragon Who Didn’t Fly, all that can save a nation of clueless humans is taking a few steps towards recognizing animals, especially the dragon they fear and loathe, as fellow citizens of their world. In following books, four main characters (a dragon, a cat, and two humans) chase drug dealers, kidnappers, and dragons who give new meaning to the word, “underground.” Their journeys follow inner as well as outer paths, and most of the monsters they uncover live inside them.

Entertainment and Enlightenment

Having no desire to present thinly disguised political manifestos, I write fantasy for entertainment purposes (my own and that of my readers). However, in fantasy entertainment and enlightenment, if not twins, are often related.

As well as entertaining me, The Abandoned made me keenly aware of the plight of feral cats, an issue that continues to concern me, and an important element of The Dragon Who Didn’t Fly and Book 2, Dance with Clouds. It also made me realize both that we humans aren’t the only species on this planet with rights and that animals and humans can learn to understand each other.

Fantasy, by transporting us beyond the mental routines that limit our imagination, has the power to influence an open mind. That’s the best reason I know for children—and adults—to read it.

This article appeared in The Dragon’s Guide Newsletter. To subscribe, please go here.