What have ‘A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court’ the 1889 novel by American humorist and writer Mark Twain, ‘The Wizard of Oz’, a memorable film but originally a turn of the century novel by another American Frank L Baum, and the recent BBC One drama series ‘Life On Mars’ got in common? Well apart from being great stories they are all in my opinion prime examples of a genre of fantasy writing I’d personally term ‘mental displacement’. In other words they’re not taking place in real time, or real place, but in some specific fantasy world created sub-consciously in the protagonist’s mind.
The first two are undoubted time-proven classics, the last may well become likewise. My first novel, ‘Jacey’s Kingdom’, treads a similar path between reality and dream world, its coma-stricken subject ‘here, but really there’ just like the heroes of the above mentioned works. But what does the timeless popularity of such tales tell us about ourselves and our relationship with our own psyche? What, if any, is the actual point of such mind-bending drama?
The plots of all three have a similar arc; each begins with our subject being suddenly and forcibly removed from the comfortably mundane world they know to another harsher and more uncertain environment by means of a blow to the head (‘Yankee’), car accident (‘Mars’) and even cyclone (‘Oz’); all events outside of the subject’s control visited upon them by cruel fate. In each case they quickly realise and come to terms with their predicament; that their new world is a little less than ‘real’ but a little more than just a trick of their imagination, and determine to get back to ‘reality’ by whatever means their new surroundings allow. This usually involves a ‘quest’ or project of some sort; in ‘Yankee’ a determination to modernise and exert control over Arthur’s kingdom, in ‘Oz’ a dangerous journey to the Emerald City to ask the Wizard for help and in ‘Mars’ an attempt to awaken from the coma by influencing the outcome of events from inside the actual dream itself.
These ‘imaginary’ worlds are bizarrely different from those our protagonists are used to, and at first each struggle to cope with their new surroundings. In ‘Yankees’ case this is the world of knights and chivalry at the Court of King Arthur in early medieval England where our hero Hank Morgan, an American engineer from nineteenth century Connecticut, has first to fight Sir Lancelot then convince Merlin he’s not some mad wizard after his job. This is the first strand of such stories; peril and difficulty; in at the deep end straightaway with little time to adapt.
The second strand is what gives these stories their bite and makes them so fascinating to the reader. About to be burnt at the stake, Hank remembers that an eclipse is due to occur at that precise moment and pretends to orchestrate the event to cries of wonder from the populace and instant celebrity status. In other words, he brings his knowledge of events in the ‘real’ world into the make-believe one to give him an advantage. Sam Tyler pulls the same trick in ‘Mars’, using his mastery of advanced policing methods to crack crimes in 1973 that the backward plods are baffled by (not to mention some modern politically correct attitudes to gender, race and police brutality that leave his seventies’ colleagues scratching their heads). The point is that both Hank and Sam are aware of both of their simultaneous ‘existences’ and have the wit to use the resources of one to gain an advantage in the other; a basic theme in all such ‘mental displacement’ stories. In Dorothy’s case it’s a little different; not so much technical knowledge from her own world that she brings to the problems of Oz as her own good old Kansas common sense, mid-west American values of freedom and decency that were seen as eventually capable of solving any problem whether in an escapist dream or the harsh economic realities of the Great Depression.
The third strand is the beneficial influence the dreamer brings to bear on the ‘lives’ of their dream characters. In Baum’s case Dorothy helps her strange collection of friends attain the one thing they lack to be fulfilled personalities; a heart, courage and a brain, in Twain’s the king’s subjects are given the will to stand up for themselves, and in the writers of ‘Mars’ the seventy’s police men and women are shown an enlightened path towards modern racial and sexual tolerance (and eventually in its sequel their soul’s release from purgatory into heaven). So the protagonist ends up paying back the dream for the bolt-hole it has provided for their consciousness to exist in while the fate of their physical self is determined.
So what is the actual point of such ‘mental displacement’ stories? They must fulfil a need in our imagination because similar works have been written time and again from C S Lewis’ ‘Narnia’ series to ‘The Phantom Tollbooth’ and ‘The Never Ending Story’. Even ‘Alice in Wonderland’ could be said to be the first of the genre; a nightmarish trip into a young girl’s psyche full of visions of the ‘real’ adult world glimpsed through the distorting prism of dream. According to Sigmund Freud dreams are ‘a representation of unconscious desires, thoughts and motivations’ and ‘aggressive and sexual instincts that are repressed from conscious awareness’. Perhaps the subjects of these tales are using the various alternative worlds their damaged minds have constructed to confront such desires and instincts, symbolized by the quests and adventures they are forced to undertake. Only by finally understanding and conquering these can they (and by definition the reader) find a path back to reality.
Or maybe such bizarre and unlikely scenarios are just an excuse for a cracking good fantasy.
Dorothy is told at the end of ‘Wizard’ that she had the power to return to Kansas and reality all along, she just didn’t know it. But I think that subconsciously she did. Like Hank Morgan, Sam Rider and countless others trapped in their own personal dreamscapes she realized that she just had to work through a few issues first. And what better and more entertaining place to do it than the magical world of Oz, or the legendary court of King Arthur, or even an early nineteen seventies police station?