In 1983 a new craze spread through Britain’s children (mostly the boys). It was a range of books called Fighting Fantasy by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone. Based loosely on the role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons that had taken the US by storm, the books differed in that they were for just one player/reader and they covered a much wider range of adventures and settings than the role-playing games did. The idea was simple. It was a book where you started reading and after a few pages you were given a choice. Did you want to go north or south? Ask the wizard for advice or not? Fight the monster or run away? Each choice would be accompanied by a page number which you would then turn to and continue reading. So you read the book by constantly moving from one page to another in a non-linear way. The aim was usually to survive long enough to solve the mystery. The adventures, whether set in a magical land, the past or the future where always very exciting and vividly described. The prose was always written in the present tense and from your perspective, ‘The door opens and you see stone steps leading down into darkness. Do you enter (turn page 262) or turn back (turn to page 48)’.
Then the backlash began. The books came to be perceived as a problem by many who misunderstood what was really going on. Some criticised the magical elements, feeling it encouraged interest in black magic (the same issue raised its head more recently with Harry Potter). Had these people not read Grimm’s Fairy Tales or Lord of the Rings?
There was also the old chestnut that turns up every time something is popular for children that they weren’t reading ‘proper’ books. English teachers frowned at the style of prose and bemoaned the lack of variety in children’s reading. (They also ignored the fact that the books were award winning and sold millions worldwide.)
What they all failed to realise was that these books got children reading. We read them over and over again. We devoured them. And when we’d been through the thirty or so books in the series we moved onto other books such as Tolkien, C.S Lewis, Terry Pratchet and Douglas Adams and devoured them too. As Philip Pullman has said numerous times, ‘It doesn’t matter what children read, just as long as they read’. Pullman spent his childhood reading Superman comics, another genre traditionally criticised and yet as valid a storytelling medium as any other.
There were other positive side effects of our Fighting Fantasy books too (again viewed by teachers and parents as bad): we started writing our own inventive fantasy fiction. Initially it took the form of writing your own adventure books for your friends. It was easy to do. You plotted out your story, the characters, events, mysteries and twists and then numbered blank pages of an exersise book from 1 to 100 and then got writing, inventing numerous traps and tricks for the reader on the way. I created a large number of these.
One English lesson homework was to write a story based upon the themes of a book we were reading at school about the troubles in Northern Ireland called Across the Barricades by Joan Lingard. My response was to write a story as a ‘choose your own adventure book’, a non-linear story where the reader made choices, just like my Fighting Fantasy books. Effectively what I’d done was explore the themes of the story and the task with a number of outcomes, writing a large pemutation of multiple stories. To do this I would have had to have had a greater level of understanding and comprehension of the source material and characters than just a surface level reading required for a standard piece of homework. And yet it promoted my English teacher to write a letter home to my parents saying ‘We need to stop this indulgence in fantasy’.
Slowly and inevitably we all grew up and no longer had the patience to play the book adventures anymore, wanting instead the passive reassurance of a linear novel. But the concept of the Fighting Fantasy books unlocked a unique form of creativity and imaginative invention in those young minds that should not be underestimated.
We must not fight our children’s fantasy. We need to let them explore it and express it in any way they choose.
(The Fighting Fantasy range have recently been re-published. Click here.)
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