“Most of us, I suppose, have a secret country.”
— C.S. Lewis
“The Secret Garden was what Mary called it when she was thinking of it. She liked the name, and she liked still more the feeling that when its beautiful old walls shut her in, no one knew where she was. It seemed almost like being shut out of the world in some fairy place.”
— The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett
When I was about six or seven years old, I wrote a story called Skelly the Skeleton. It followed the story of a prince who had been turned into a living skeleton by a witch called Calcolm. Skelly was condemned to live in an enchanted forest awaiting, as the fairytale cliché dictates, true love’s first kiss to turn him human again.
I used to narrate episodes to myself in the playground, endlessly adding and taking bits out. It first materialised on several folded A4 pages stapled together with each half counting as a chapter, haphazardly cutting handwritten sentences apart with artless determination. An extended version eventually graduated to Microsoft Word 2002, making for a hilariously trippy (if poorly punctuated) read when I discovered it on my hard drive years later. I never finished writing the story in the end and, much to my dismay, I can’t remember exactly how it played out.
I’ve always had a fascination with the idea of the existence of other worlds in all their layers of detail. From creating characters and a language for a world I rather tellingly called ‘Strictly Private’, to writing weather reports and the history of my own undiscovered island in tropical seas, the idea of someplace faraway yet tangible — and even a bit magical — has fuelled my love of fantasy.
I often wondered how other people created and experienced imaginary worlds and how meticulously constructed their private universes were. A little research introduced me to the world of paracosms or ‘worldplay’: the invention of an imaginary world in childhood as a kind of self-generated make-believe.
As a relatively new area of scientific study, researcher Michele Root-Bernstein differentiates worldplay from the creative play that virtually all children engage in. All children live in a fantasy world of some sort whether they explicitly invent one or not. However, worldplay has several key characteristics that set it apart.
It usually appears as a solitary or intimately shared activity and is highly constructive in nature, often incorporating real life knowledge to imitate geography and infrastructure, as well as borrowed story lines. Paracosmists engage in a very complex form of play, often involving the accumulation of notebooks’ worth of drawings, language, law and government of their imaginary universe. Elaborations are carefully integrated into the structure of the new world in a way that makes sense, through dictionaries, maps and lists. Most importantly, worldplay seems to be a seminal experience for its participants recalled throughout their lifetime, with the paracosm holding special meaning for both child and adult. Each paracosmist’s universe is different. For some, it was their defining obsession as a child; for others, their paracosm was a private fantasy not shared with anyone but carried on and treasured in adult life.
Children have an innate curiosity for the world around them and they explore what is real and what is not with increasing sophistication. Some more than others have an inclination towards organising their daydreams. As children, the Brontë siblings detailed their fantasy realms of Glass Town, Angria and Gondal. Similarly, C. S. Lewis and his brother Warren created the fictional world of Boxen which laid the groundwork for Narnia.
With my tendency towards the paracosmic, it comes as no surprise then that two of my favourite novels — C.S. Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew and The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett — marry these themes of childhood curiosity and secret worlds.
Written by a devoted paracosmist, Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew contains some of the most magical and captivating passages of his Narnia series. ‘The Wood Between the Worlds’ is a chapter I always come back to.
As a result of mean Uncle Andrew’s meddling with magic rings, two young children, Polly and Digory, find themselves in an impossibly silent forest. A powerful sunlight penetrates the thick canopy of leaves which cover the sky and the ground is dotted with small pools as far as the eye can see. The wood is described as “rich as plumcake” and “very much alive”; the children can feel the trees growing and are overcome with a dreamy contentedness. It transpires that each pond leads to a different world in the universe, from Earth to the dying world of Charn and, of course, Narnia.
The description of Narnia’s creation is beautifully rousing; Aslan the lion sings this new world into existence from darkness. The sound was “deep enough to be the voice of the earth herself” yet “the most beautiful noise […] ever heard”. The children think the stars themselves are singing and the newborn sun “laughed for joy as it came up”. The pacing lion’s song pulled the grass, flowers and trees up from beneath the earth and carved the valleys as he approached. I’ve re-read this passage countless times and this creation story always stirs excitement in me. What image could be more gorgeous than a world created through song?
The children travel to a gated garden over the mountains in Archenland to fetch the fruit from a tree there which protects against evil and cures illness. I have an old, ornately illustrated copy of the book and as a child I followed their journey on the map which adorned the inside cover, tracing my finger from the Wild Lands of the North to the Calormen Desert and Great Eastern Ocean. Whilst the language is unpretentious and written for children, it remains vivid and rich as a reader in my twenties.
Equally nostalgic for me and in a similar vein of magical sanctuaries is The Secret Garden. Agnieszka Holland’s film transformed Hodgson Burnett’s creation for the screen in the nineties, but hidden details of the author’s secret paradise await those willing to delve into the classic novel.
When her parents die in India, the disagreeable young Mary Lennox is sent to rural Yorkshire to live in an old manor belonging to her rich uncle who is always travelling. Left to her own devices, a curious little robin leads her to the entrance of a secret garden which has been shut away for years. With the help of a boy she meets on the moors and her cousin Colin, Mary brings the garden back to life and her own spirits grow as the garden does.
Like in Narnia, nature and imagination nourish Mary like food and “set her inactive brain to work”. Hidden in her secret kingdom, she feels “as if there was no one left in the world but herself”. Whilst the magic of the Wood Between the Worlds is plain to see, its presence is more implicit in The Secret Garden. Plants grow “as if fairies had tended them” and “Magicians were passing through it drawing loveliness out of the earth”. The children “melt[…] into a doze” in their idyllic surroundings. Even entering the garden is like being in a dream, recalling the ethereal feeling of Lewis’ Wood. Mary and Colin are certain that even if there isn’t real magic in the garden, there is something good which makes them grow stronger each day. This curative power of nature and magic permeates both stories. The Secret Garden is the children’s paracosm made manifest; an intricately designed, intimately shared and overwhelmingly special place.
With age, worldplay is not so much given up as internalised. Paracosms cultivate adult creativity and become incorporated into more acceptable activities across various disciplines, not necessarily literary in nature. Historians reinvent the past; politicians and activists imagine a better world; scientists hypothesise as a kind of worldplay tied to the real.
For me, nothing encapsulates curiosity quite like The Magician’s Nephew and The Secret Garden. Childhood innocence and fascination, coupled with secrecy, friendship and the restorative magic of nature is the perfect recipe for worldplay. It is rich, it is dreamy, it is Romance with a capital R. When you look at my love of these two stories about exploring new worlds and fairytale gardens, it’s no wonder I tried to write my own version about that poor skeleton lost in an enchanted forest (in that slightly nonsensical and never-ending way children like to tell stories). I wonder what my younger self had planned for him to face in that magical forest? Either way, it’s comforting to know that other worlds are accessible through the turning of a page or an elaborate daydream.