On playing pretend

There is one thing I cannot abide in children’ books (or any books) – the dream ending. The  ‘but then he woke up’ ending. I think it is the biggest cheat in the world – you don’t have to tie up any loose ends, or make the story wrap itself up into a wonderful finish – you can just say ‘but it was all a dream’ and it doesn’t matter what happened in the story before – it wasn’t real. About a year ago I read John Masefield’s ‘The Box of Delights’, which was a story of magic, adventure, intrigue, suspense, boys being turned into rats…. and then the main character woke up on the train, where the story had started. The whole story had been a dream. I almost threw the book in disgust.

I think that is why I hate that ending so much – because it wasn’t real. I need the story to be real. I don’t want to escape into someone else’s ‘playing-pretend’ world – I want to escape into someone else’s reality. Even if it is a highly fantastical reality – or rather, especially if it is highly fantastical. So, to me, the thing that closely follows the dream ending is the ‘it was all made up in the little children’s imagination’ plot. The one where the amazing magical enchanting world that the main characters were exploring… was all in their minds. I think it is insulting to children readers – who are not stupid, they know the difference between playing pretend and a real-life adventure. It is so patronising, I believe. Who wants to read about someone pretending to have an adventure? I can play pretend myself. I read to experience what the worlds that I create in my mind are really like in reality.

This little rant was brought on by Alan Garner’s Elidor. I must write that I jumped to conclusions and got myself all worked up over nothing, but there was one point in the storyline that got my mind boiling, as I thought that Alan Garner had decided that the children hadn’t really gone to Elidor, but just played pretend. The four main characters, three brothers and a sister, venture into a post- WWII abandoned church that is about to be knocked down, only to find that it is a doorway to the world of Elidor. They discover the four treasures of Elidor, a spear, a sword, a stone and a chalice, but when they come back into their own world, bringing their treasures with them to protect them from the evil forces in Elidor, the treasures ‘turned’ into ordinary objects that one might find in an abandoned church. There was also mention that the monsters that were chasing them were in fact replicas of monsters they had seen in pictures at school, which made me think that perhaps they had imagined the whole adventure. This made be furious. Why would your ruin a good story by making it unreal? It’s a book – why couldn’t they have really travelled to Elidor?

I may have over reacted, as there are now indications that magic is at hand in the ‘real world’ – a washing machine that keeps whirring around even though its electricity plug was pulled out of the socket hours ago, a blender that has no power blending itself to burn out – and I hope that the magic of Elidor turns out to be true. I’m sure that there would be some moral buried in the fact that they made everything up, but no one reads for the morals. They read for the excitement of following someone on their adventures. And if these adventures turn out to be nothing but playing pretend… I probably will throw the book across the room.



  1. I shall not spoil anything for you, but I sincerely hope you get around to The Weirdstone of Brasingamen, that blows this one out of the water. So however this one ends please don’t be put off by this Garner book

  2. I hate it, too. It’s such stupid, and really common twist that shows the Authors lack of imagination (really, if you want to twist a story, come up with something new!). The only book I have ever read where the pretend thing worked is The Bridge of Terabithia – but we know from the beginning that everything is pretend and the powers of imagination are part of the story.

    • I’ve always been a bit cautious of reading The Bridge to Terabithia because of the imaginary factor, but I’ve heard lots of good things so I’m really interested in reading it now, and seeing how it works!

  3. I agree that Elidor is not Garner’s best book, though as an Arthurian I do have a soft spot for it. While Weirdstone and its sequel The Moon of Gomrath are better, one title I’ve been promising myself I’ll re-read is The Owl Service. Better than all those other young adult fantasies he wrote in the 60s, he put a lot of himself into it, as he confessed in a talk at a Sci-Fi convention at the time. I think you’ll fine it the most rewarding of them all.

  4. Pingback: On where the list of 1001 Children’s Books I Must Read Before I Grow Up (Too Much) comes from | 1001 Children's Books

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