High and Wild Magic, the Moral Universe, and the Electronic Superhighway: Reflections of Change in Susan Cooper's Fantasy Literature

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Author: Carole Scott
Editor: Dana Ferguson
From: Children's Literature Review(Vol. 161. )
Publisher: Gale, a Cengage Company
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 3,127 words

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[(essay date 1997) In the following essay, Scott explores Cooper's expressions of magic throughout her books, describing her evolving view of magic as indicative of the changing rules of the fantasy genre itself.]

Susan Cooper's book The Boggart, published in 1993, offers a wonderful tongue-in-cheek commentary upon her own earlier work. This lighthearted modern fantasy once again invokes the Celtic tradition and the powerful Wild Magic that she used to such effect in her serious and demanding five-work series, The Dark Is Rising (1965-1978). But in a postmodernist, metafictive vein she reframes her material so that the solemnity of the earlier epic fantasies becomes a humorous romp. Whereas her earlier works evoke an "atmosphere [that] resonates with mythic themes and symbols"1 and accord the deepest respect to magic, The Boggart approaches the legendary past and supernatural phenomena with an attitude of ironic familiarity. The striking changes in Cooper's work--which include the breaking of traditional boundaries, the redefinition of accepted modes of perception, and the stimulation of new insights into the nature and significance of magical power--provide a revealing window into the evolution of fantasy during the past few decades, a period that has involved rapidly accelerating innovation in so many fields.

Maria Nikolajeva, in The Magic Code, suggests that "the history of fantasy for children is the history of innovations and transformations, of creative reconstruction of old variables." She notes especially the increasing metaphorical sophistication in relationships between the ordinary and fantasy worlds, including temporal, spatial, and human dimensions; she also points out the increasing ambivalence of otherworlds no "longer ... described exclusively in terms of good and evil, light and dark."2 Sheila Egoff, in Worlds Within, similarly identifies fantasy's altered concept, asserting that, particularly since the 1960s, fantasy has attracted writers "who explore new territory or who discover new vistas in old territory," and that they are "experimenting with fantasy's inner core, breaking many of its conventions and so changing its purpose and values."3

The year 1945 marked the end of the Second World War, a war whose advanced technology redefined the borders of the battleground, first with the bombers and the V-2s that carried destruction to the civilian population, and later with the atomic bomb, whose devastation reached out to impact not only those well outside its target but also, through genetic spoliation, future generations. Technological sophistication also permitted the efficient extermination of "undersirable" citizens by their own countries, extending the focus of warfare to the enemy within. This real and conceptual shifting of boundaries, the intrustion of terror into the ordinary world, and the impact of unimagined powers are recurrent themes in Cooper's work; they are her legacy of a wartime childhood truncated by the premature awareness of human evil and of hovering menace expressed so graphically in her early, realistic, and somewhat autobiographical book, Dawn of Fear.

The development of Cooper's fantasy works clearly exemplifies the patterns that critics identify; those patterns accelerate as her oeuvre evolves. In her first fantasy sequence, The...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420104790