The reality—fiction opposition in children’s literature

"Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland", "Through the Looking-Glass", "Die Unendliche Geschichte" and "The Book of Lost Things"

Bachelor Thesis, 2010

74 Pages, Grade: 1


1 Introduction

Children’s literature as a genre is often seen to consist of ‘simple texts for simple minds’. However, approximately since the 1970s, scholarly interest in this genre has grown, and numerous studies looking into the complexity and thematic and structural depth of children’s literature have been published. Simultaneously, the notion of metareferentiality has sparked interest among scholars from various disciplines. Metareferentiality, though it is not unique to the twentieth and the twenty-first centuries, is said to be one of the key cultural phenomena of our time.[1]

And yet, these two fields of interest, namely children’s literature and metareferentiality, have only very rarely been studied in the same context.[2] This might be due to the assumption that children’s literature is solely targeted at children, who are yet inexperienced readers unable to grasp meta-notions. Another argument brought forth by Werner Wolf (cf. 1987: 426f ) is that metareferential elements in children’s books might also be seen as phenomena of dream worlds. Thus, they would allow a traditional, non-critical reading in which the metareferential elements do not necessarily trigger medial awareness in the readers but can be explained logically and within the framework of the represented story worlds. Consequently, the epistemological status of reality would not be threatened by these texts. However, as I will point out, such a reading (for instance) of the Alice -stories, Die Unendliche Geschichte and The Book of Lost Things, although undeniably possible, falls short of the true scope of the texts.

At least three of the four works investigated in this paper may be counted among the classics of children’s literature.[3] And yet, they contain much more than ‘mere’ stories written for children. In fact, both the Alice -stories and Die Unendliche Geschichte are most often read and enjoyed by adult readers. The Book of Lost Things is even more ambivalent since its discourse level seems to be targeted at child readers, yet the content of the story level is rather suitable for teenagers and adults. As will be shown, all four books address the question of the status of fiction with reference to its opposition to reality, albeit in different ways. In their treatment of the subject, they are clearly metafictional texts with epistemological and ontological concerns that require experienced readers to fully grasp their messages. Nevertheless, they are still publicly perceived as children’s literature and are enjoyed by children and adults alike.

After some general remarks on the genre of children’s literature and on metareferentiality, I will focus on a particular form of metareferentiality, namly the representation and treatment of the reality—fiction opposition in the selected works of Lewis Carroll, Michael Ende and John Connolly, highlighting similarities and differences and describing their means and tools. I will analyse and compare these novels in several aspects of the reality—fiction opposition, namely: the structural depiction and framing of these two realms; how transgressions of the borders take place and which problems arise from this; how language comes into play to highlight or blur the reality—fiction opposition; and how this is connected to truth and lies, and ‘true’ identity and ‘false’ illusion, respectively. To allow brevity of citation, references to the primary texts are given as ‘AW’ for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, ‘LG’ for Through the Looking-Glass, ‘UG’ for Die Unendliche Geschichte and ‘BLT’ for The Book of Lost Things.

1 General remarks on children’s literature and metareferentiality

The ability to create fiction is believed to be a capacity unique to humans. As far as we know, animals may dream or frame their actions as games,[4] but only human children learn to develop fiction consciously and how to distinguish it from reality. Being able to differentiate between these two poles is a skill we need for our daily lives.[5] In his book on the importance of the imaginary, Wolfgang Iser has called the reality—fiction opposition a basic element of our ‘silent knowledge’, which is self-evident and taken for granted. Iser then breaks up this opposition for the sake of a triad: the real, the fictional and the imaginary (cf. 1990: 18); but his distinctions and categorisations have been critically questioned.[6] Therefore, I will rather treat the fictional and the real as oppositions and as two different worlds, as is done in the texts I am going to look at.[7] But before plunging into the matter, some background information as to the tools and theses of this paper shall be given. I will therefore shortly elaborate on the characteristics of children’s literature and metareferentiality as far as pertinent to my topic.

1.1 The elusive nature of children’s literature

Just as literature itself, the genre of children’s literature seems to resist clear definition. Peter Hunt has repeatedly argued against the common belief that children’s literature consists of books read by children, since many classics of children’s literature are actually read by adults rather than children, nowadays (cf. Hunt 1991: 46, Windhager 2002: 6). Instead, Hunt introduces the notion that

the children’s book can be defined in terms of the implied reader. It will be clear, from a careful reading, who a book is designed for: whether the book is on the side of the child totally, whether it is for the developing child, or whether it is aiming somewhere over the child’s head. (1991: 64)

Thus, there is a difference between the implied and the real reader. The narrator of a book may tell the story as if speaking to a child, while the actual readership may comprise of a considerable amount of grown-ups. For Hunt, the Alice -stories fall in the category of “books designed for childhood” (1991: 64); nevertheless, there are quite a few instances in the books where adult, or rather experienced, readers are necessary to decode the full meaning of the text. This ambivalent status of metafictional children’s literature will be addressed in a later section of the paper.

As to the implied world view of children’s literature, Windhager (2002: 16) points out that up to the 19th century, it was “the adult world that was reflected in children’s books. […] From the time when pleasure has become an important element in writing literature for children the reader’s, namely the child’s, response to the book had to be taken into consideration.” Ang (2000: 99) highlights the important role of Alice ’s Adventures in Wonderland in this context. With the publication of this particular book, the fantastic mode entered children’s literature, which had before been dominated by moral-didactic realism (cf. Shavit 1980: 81). At that time, it was even feared that children might be unable to distinguish between reality and fiction, and that too much imaginativeness would be detrimental to their personalities (cf. Ang 2000: 101; Nickel-Bacon 2007: 2).

While these fears have been disproved, there is still something potentially dangerous about children’s literature. The argument brought forth by Ang is that “[f]antasy […] deconstructs the world of stable meanings” (2000: 100). In the case of the precursor of fantastic children’s literature, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, “the text subverts the claims of the real world. Though apparently framed by that ‘real’ world, the boundaries between both realms are fluid: Alice moves within the space of one sentence between wakefulness and dream, the real and the imaginary” (2000: 108). Thus, within the genre of children’s literature, the Alice -stories lend themselves to a study of the reality—fiction opposition. In German children’s literature, Die Unendliche Geschichte is similarly famous and also an ambivalent, heavily metareferential text in which the boundaries between reality and fiction are blurred; the same is true for the newest book under analysis: The Book of Lost Things (2007). How the blurring of reality and fiction actually takes place in all four novels will be addressed in the next sub-chapter.

1.2 Literary metareference and the reality—fiction opposition

When it comes to the study of metareferentiality in the arts, especially in literature, the work of Werner Wolf offers a very useful framework. He defines metareferentiality as follows:

It is a special, transmedial form of non-accidental self-reference produced by signs or sign configurations located on a logically higher level, a 'metalevel', within an artefact or performance; this self-reference, which can extend from this artefact to the entire system of the media, forms or implies a statement about an object-level, namely on (aspects of) the medium/system referred to. Where metareference is properly understood, an at least minimal corresponding 'meta-awareness' is elicited in the recipient, who thus becomes conscious of both the medial (or 'fictional' in the sense of artificial and, sometimes in addition, 'invented') status of the work under discussion and the fact that media-related phenomena are at issue, rather than (hetero-) references to the world outside the media. (Wolf 2009: 30 [italics in the original]).

In his definition, Wolf also briefly mentions his distinction between two forms of ’the fictional’. These are termed fictio and fictum, the former representing something that is made or constructed but representative of reality, the latter something that is made up and therefore unreal (cf. Wolf 2007: 35). With regard to the title of this paper, my interest mainly falls on the fictum -quality of fiction. Fictio and fictum, however, are not

to be seen as oppositions but rather as complimentary; i.e. fictum alone is impossible

without fictio. Wolf further distinguishes between critical vs. non-critical, implicit vs. explicit, and self- vs. hetero-referential metareference (cf. Wolf 2007: 40). These variants may be combined and are used for several different ends, also in the texts under discussion.

It has to be stressed that metareferentiality and the discussion of the reality—fiction opposition are indeed linked but not identical. Not every element that triggers metafictional awareness in the reader will also make him or her aware of the (blurring of the) difference between reality and fiction, and vice-versa. Two devices that often entail meta-awareness are especially vital for the study of the reality—fiction opposition: mise en abyme and metalepsis. Mise en abyme[8] is a means of mirroring an element or a sequence of elements of a hierarchically higher level onto a lower one – or, thinking the other way round, the lower level ‘mirrors’ (elements of) the upper level. Thus, mise en abyme implies both similarity (or contrast) and a hierarchical difference, for example between a frame tale and its imbedded story. The mere mirroring of reality in literature is not necessarily a mise en abyme; only if the fictional and the


[1] For a brief history of metareferentiality in literature, see Kartous 2007: 11-13.

[2] For example by Wolf (1987) and Nelson (2006).

[3] Die Unendliche Geschichte, of course, is only a classic on the German speaking market. Time will tell whether The Book of Lost Things becomes a classic as well.

[4] For example dogs wag their tails and crouch down on their forepaws.

[5] Or else we would, for example, be outraged to witness a murder as part of a detective story on television screen.

[6] For example by Zipfel 2001: 16.

[7] Of course, this dichotomous world view is questionable as well but a useful starting point for the following analysis, since the texts under inspection are based on a clear separation of these realms, whose borders are then blurred. For a profound philosophical treatment of the nature of reality and fiction, see, for example, Zipfel 2001: 69-76, and Watzlawick, Paul, ed. (1981). Die erfundene Wirklichkeit: Wie wissen wir, was wir zu wissen glauben? Beiträge zum Konstruktivismus. München / Zürich: Piper.

[8] Literally: ‘placing into the abyss’.

Excerpt out of 74 pages


The reality—fiction opposition in children’s literature
"Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland", "Through the Looking-Glass", "Die Unendliche Geschichte" and "The Book of Lost Things"
University of Graz
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Alice’s, Adventures, Wonderland, Through, Looking-Glass, Unendliche, Geschichte, Book, Lost, Things
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Adrian Zagler (Author), 2010, The reality—fiction opposition in children’s literature, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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