Despite the long standing association between children’s literature and fantasy, most critical discussions on the genre have focused—especially from an educational perspective—on whether or not fantasy is attractive, engaging, and, most important of all, appropriate for young readers. Though recent years have seen an increased interest on the genre from a more text- or content-oriented perspective, there are still relatively few studies focused on the narrative and rhetorical strategies of fantasy, how the fantastic elements of the story are presented, and the way the reader is invited to negotiate and ultimately reflect on the relation between reality and fantasy.
The main purpose of this dissertation is to explore how the protagonists’ transit between worlds, characteristic of what Farah Mendlesohn calls the portal-quest fantasy, and featured in many children’s books, defines both the overall design of the text and the reader’s experience with the fantastic. Contrary to Mendlesohn herself, who finds the rhetoric of the form inherently problematic, emphasizing the way the fantasy world is presented, for both the characters and, on a different level, the reader, imposes an authoritative interpretation of the world, reducing the possibility of alternate or contradictory interpretations; I specifically seek to show how the transit between worlds itself serves as an effective rhetorical strategy to invite the reader into the world of the story, and increase our sense of estrangement and wonder, while proposing a serious ethical and metafictional reflection on the fantastic.
In order to accomplish this, my study proposes an alternative approach to the form, using some of the key concepts or principles of rhetorical narrative theory developed in various works by James Phelan and Peter J. Rabinowitz, in particular the notion of narrative progression. As I argue in the first part of my study, by expanding the traditional notion of plot to include the interaction between author, narrator and the different audiences involved, as well as the ongoing and cumulative responses of the reader, it becomes easier to see how the distinctive plot dynamics characteristic of the portal-quest fantasy in general respond to a clear authorial intention and affect the way we approach, experience, and ultimately interpret the fantastic, suggesting a more complex reading and evaluation of the form.
While I use several examples to illustrate my ideas, the second part of my study focuses exclusively on the case of Peter and Wendy—a novel that despite being widely considered a classic of children's literature, has rarely been studied as a fantastic text proper. As my analysis seeks to show, while Neverland is presented early on as this ambiguous imaginary space, and we are constantly reminded that what we are reading is just a story, the island becomes increasingly real as the story progresses, leading to the climactic moment where the characters have to decide between staying in Neverland for good or going back home to the real world—a decision that, as the novel makes abundantly clear, is far from simple, emphasizing how Barrie’s book resists fixed interpretations.