The First Fantasy Novel

by syaffolee

Out of my entire time in elementary, middle, and high school, I only had three (Ed. now that I think about it, probably seven or eight–but three of them come to mind immediately) male teachers. The first male teacher was one of my second grade teachers. He was tall with dark hair, wire-rimmed glasses, and piercing eyes. He played the piano and the tambourine. And he looked just like Stephen King. For some reason, he scared the hell out of me. He told my parents I was too quiet in class. Well, fear makes one not want to make any noise at all.

The high school geometry teacher, by contrast, was a really likable nerdy guy. Bald, mustached, in perpetual khakis and button down shirts. I thought his enthusiasm for the subject was infectious. And, of course, it helped that I managed to ace all his tests without much trouble (or any studying).

In hindsight, though, I think it was probably my fourth grade teacher who made the most impact on my life. He’s the one who introduced me to the fantasy genre and planted the seed that has now grown into my full blown writing hobby. The writing madness all began with an assignment where he encouraged the whole class to write their own story and create their own book. I, of course, went the whole hog with the assignment. I couldn’t write about kid life like everyone else in class. No. I had to craft some noir pulp about a jaded detective, a femme fatale, and over the top villains (flanked by henchmen). Do normal fourth graders do that kind of stuff? Probably not.

My introduction to traditional fantasy fiction was not just a recommended, “Hey, here’s a book I think you’ll like.” My fourth grade teacher was the grandfatherly type, with the white-gray hair, the spectacles, and the patience. I don’t recall him losing his temper with anyone (or perhaps the class I was in was particularly well behaved and it was one of the few times that I remember that everyone just got along). It was during the end of the second half of the year that he would have a storytelling hour.

Storytelling hour was nap time for some of the other students, but for me, it was magical. It was the first time I really experienced the transportive power of good fiction. The lights would be turned off, but the afternoon sunlight would still be streaming in from the windows on one side of the classroom, hitting dust motes and making the air strangely sparkle. My fourth grade teacher would be leaning back in his chair, behind his desk, his spectacles clinging to the end of his nose. He’d crack open a book and start reading. And suddenly, I wasn’t in a classroom any more. But in Narnia.

He managed to finish The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by the end of the year and by that time, I was hooked and had to read everything else in the series. I suppose it was obvious I was the only student who loved the books and not just using it as an excuse to zonk out because he ended up gifting me a copy of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

Around that time, the BBC adaptations for The Chronicles of Narnia were fairly recent. I really enjoyed watching those even though my parents were puzzled as to why I would want to borrow the tapes from the library and my sister was still too young yet to appreciate it with me. My favorite books in the series were actually the later books, The Silver Chair and The Magician’s Nephew. The first three books still held nostalgia, because of the way they were introduced to me, but I think the others stuck out more because I was reading them out of my own initiative. The Silver Chair is notable because my favorite character of the series is in it–the cynical and pessimistic Puddleglum. The Magician’s Nephew, on the other hand, stood out because of its world building and its concept of the multiverse. Around the same time, I was getting into science fiction and physics so it really matched my then current interests.

Unfortunately, things fizzled for me after I read the first two or three chapters of The Last Battle. It was then that it finally clicked for me what C.S. Lewis was doing with the series and that I noticed the religious overtones of the stories. It was no longer just about fantastic adventures but the author’s philosophy. But still, even once I was finished with C.S. Lewis, I was hooked on the fantasy genre. I just moved on to other writers.

I wonder, though, how much of my fuzzy feelings of nostalgia for that particular series was influenced by the way that it had been introduced to me. At that time, before I understood the larger significance of the series and simply looked at them as adventures, would I have glommed onto a different series if my fourth grade teacher had chosen to read something else? Would I have had the same reaction if he had read Harry Potter or The Hunger Games? Or even Goosebumps or Sweet Valley High?

The answer is probably both yes and no. If I had not read so many older fantasy books about wizarding schools before, I’d probably be a big fan of Harry Potter instead of being rather neutral about it now. The same could be said of The Hunger Games or Goosebumps. My prior reading experiences shape how I view books I come across later. On the other hand, I don’t think I would have been interested in the Sweet Valley High books no matter how I got introduced to them. As a nerdy, minority outsider, I had no interest in reading about the social lives of privileged and popular blonde girls unless they were fighting dragons or getting abducted by aliens.