Engaging with fantasy
For Dr Caroline Webb, fantasy literature provides a breathing space for the imagination in our world of information overload.
The deeper functions of fantasy are Webb's research speciality. Senior Lecturer in English and Deputy Head of the School of Humanities and Social Science, Webb looks at the complex relationship between fantasy and everyday life.
"Good fantasy writing reflects our culture and what it is to be fully human. It explores our emotional capacity to react in extraordinary ways," Webb said.
"There is currently a huge appetite for fantasy in both children and adults. We are bombarded by images in a way that would have been unthinkable even half a century ago. We need the space fantasy gives us to develop a sense of identity and meaning. We desire something that is not known and explained and rational and boring."
In her studies, Webb bridges the gap between high culture and popular culture, moving smoothly between highly literary writers such as A.S. Byatt and Angela Carter, and popular writers such as J.K. Rowling of Harry Potter fame.
Her paper Abandoned Boys and Pampered Princes: Fantasy as the Journey to Reality in the Harry Potter Sequence, has attracted considerable interest around the literary world. It was published in the December 2008 issue of the journal Papers: Explorations into Children's Literature.
In this paper, she looked at the seven Harry Potter novels. Webb showed how they steadily evolved from the cosy world of the British school story in the first three editions to the last book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, a "bloodbath... with over 20 deaths of named characters."
She argues that the series requires the maturing reader to journey from the ‘happy-ending' world of childhood, to adolescence and the readiness for a moral and intellectual encounter with reality. "The Harry Potter sequence has lured a generation of children to take a journey from the consolatory fantasy of the orphan boy rewarded by becoming the hero of a magic school to the reality of the human condition," she wrote.
Webb's major research project at present is a book she is writing called From Wonderland to the Discworld: Postmodernism and the British Fantasy Tradition. This will trace the trajectory of British fantasy literature, bringing in a huge range of works from Alice in Wonderland, Lord of the Rings and the Narnia series, through to the popular fantasy of Terry Pratchett.