Magic quest;Children's books

5th June 1998 at 01:00
TEMMI AND THE FLYING BEARS. By Stephen Elboz. Oxford University Press. pound;5.99.

THE CASTLE OF INSIDE OUT. By David Henry Wilson. Macmillan. pound;9.99

SEAT OF STORMS. By Craig Weatherhill. Tabb House, Padstow. pound;7.95

Fantasy and magic - quests through dreamlike borderlands where the inner realities of the emotions are tested against grave and imagined perils within the safe confines of a story - are the rock upon which first experiences of reading are built. Yet in their haste to push out new titles, publishers sometimes forget why this should be so.

Ted Hughes, in a classic essay, "Myth and Education" writes: "Imagination which is both accurate and strong is so rare that when somebody appears in possession of it they are regarded as something more than human."

The essay begins with a powerful, cogent and timely reminder that Plato insisted the only proper education for citizenship rested in the telling of tales and myths.

A glimpse of the way in which we instinctively acknowledge this comes with a roll call of what we regard as the "greats" - the Grimms' folk tales, Peter Pan, The Wind In The Willows, The Water Babies, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Hobbit and The Lord of The Rings; and, more recently, the writings of Ursula K Le Guin, Susan Cooper, Alan Garner and Philip Pullman. Unfortunately, linking the fantastical to notions of what children enjoy can produce thin and pale fare.

Temmi and the Flying Bears is set in an imaginary sub-arctic region ruled by the Witch Queen from her ice palace. The village boy Temmi tries to save Cush, a flying bear cub, from the icy machinations and intrigues of the witch's court and soldiers.

While the story is lit by glorious descriptions of the various qualities of ice, it lacks the emotional reality and resonance that is the necessary quality of moving fantasy, and it makes so little of the most obvious peril - the cold - that my own eight-year-old son would have none of it, dismissing the tin-nosed general as whimsy and the winged bears as impossible.

But the truly impossible world of The Castle of Inside Out was entered with the aid of Chris Riddell's wonderful illustrations. In a fantasy that draws unashamedly on George Orwell, Franz Kafka and Lewis Carroll (or, rather, plays little melodies of homage), Lorina is led by the black rabbit to the crazy world of the castle and the tragic plight of its exiled inhabitants. There, she confronts the mad logic of the bureaurat, the superviper, the farmadillo and the Piggident himself.

Sheer verbal delight shines through in this combination of political and environmental fable and poetic parable. Wilson is also a dramatist, and this tale, with its songs and set piece scenes, is sure to form the basis for a school musical.

Seat of Storms is the second part of a trilogy with Cornish legend at its foundation. It is an old-fashioned piece of storytelling, with a hero and heroine of Blytonesque innocence. The rich Cornish myths are the author's real passion, a shame for his characters, who exist mostly as vehicles for their telling. It remains a brave attempt to acquaint children with British mythology.

Janni Howker

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