Tamara MacNeil’s Thoughts on Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Also discussed: Domestic violence, cheese and tomato sandwiches, and Tolkien

Tamara MacNeil had a lot of thoughts about The Ocean at the End of the Lane, way more than could fit on twitter but no blog of her own. I’ve never had a guest blogger, and I really wanted to hear what she had to say. The result is this amazing post. 

TW: Domestic violence, child abuse


When I was small, there was a thing inside my dad. It was the same thing that made Pippin look into the Palantir, the thing that  turned Grima into Wormtongue and corrupted Saruman the White. It frightened even Gandalf, who could name the thing, and understood it. And if the man who fought the Balrog was afraid of it, then it was OK if I was too.

More important, there were ways I could fight the monster even though I was afraid. I could protect Frodo and the Ring. I was Aragon. I was Gandalf. I was all of Gondor. I knew that battle would mean my complete destruction and that the only thing I had on my side was time. I knew that eventually the clock would strike 18 and I would be able to get out, but until then I had to be cautious, to ride out and face the Mouth of Sauron, to keep my troops ready to fight even while I danced and dissembled and wasted the Enemy’s time.

“When adults fight children, adults always win”, says a line in Neil Gaiman‘s new book,The Ocean at the End of the Lane. It’s true, one of the myriad small, true things that lie embedded in the text and left me shaking when I read them. I supposed I ought to talk about this book exclusively, since it is what I said I’d do, but I want to talk a little bit about fantasy as whole too because in my experience these things are linked. I hope you’ll excuse me.

I would have liked a book like this when I was growing up. I would have liked a book that understood without preamble how hard it is to reconcile a world that says, You are safe when you’re with your parents with the family I actually had. I would have liked a hero who could look at his terrifying father, red-faced and bellowing, and ask him if it made him feel big to yell at little boys, because that was more or less the question I always wanted to ask and knew I never could. Those things would have mattered quite a lot to me.

I don’t know if Neil Gaiman meant to write a book that explored familial violence, but he did. Oh, sure, you can read it as the sort of story that fits on the shelf alongside the Narnia books and those books about Alice, and read like that I’m sure it’s great, but because of my experience I didn’t want to read it like that. I wanted to read it the other way. So I did.

I sometimes hear people refer to fantasy as “escapism” as if that is some kind of pejorative, as if wanting to not be in this exact place and time is some sort of moral failing. I don’t know about the experience of others, but I started reading fantasy because it made sense to me. You could find all sorts of people in fantasy, including good people who did bad things. Fantasy was the crooked mirror through which I could face my reality and create strategies to manage it. I escaped many battles merely by being bookish and simply not being around. I usually went to bed quietly and without fuss and turned out my lights on command, then read by the light of my clock-radio (after midnight it got harder with one fewer illuminted digit, but The Lord of the RingsThe Horse and His Boy, and most of all To Green Angel Tower were totally worth it).  And I learned a lot about human nature and how to live in this exact place and time.

I was aware even as a kid that I was reading fantasy for two reasons, to be out of my own world and to understand it at the same time. I think that’s why I was never interested in mainstream YA fiction as a kid. I didn’t care about other kids who were having problems with math and didn’t make friends easily, I cared about what adults were thinking and why I felt different from everybody else. Obviously, I was a princess in hiding. Had a magical secret. Was being prepared for greater but world-saving hardship. And, while I was enjoying those thoughts, I studied adult motivation and behaviour. While I was trying to find a way to understand what was happening in my world, I learned that sometimes adults are scared and out of their depth, like Dave when he landed, friendless, in Fionivar, and sometimes they’re bullied, like Sparhawk had been before he got tough, and sometimes they’re weak like King Elias when he took the Dragonbone Chair. I learned that adults can be unhappy and struggling and broken, that they could be bad people and still cry at the door of their daughter’s bedroom and mean it when they say, “I love you” to the daughter they’ve confined.

And I learned something else, which came back when I was reading Ocean the way that memories came back for the boy who is a man who is narrating the story. I learned that at some point in your life, you will realize that you are different, and someone somewhere is different too, and they’d like to be friends.

Nobody starts out with a Fellowship. You start out with people you know, and then, somehow, a Fellowship happens. And it might not be the one you want, or the one you think you ought to have. It might be dwarves who are terrible houseguests but turn out to be great guys who do things their own way. It might be a relative you didn’t know you had. It might be an old woman who lives down the lane, who sometimes seems so wonderfully youthful that you think she’s 11, or so wise that she’s a million years old, or somewhere in between.

And once you have your fellowship, you can tell your story. You can talk about how daddy held you down under the water (a scene that hit me like floodwater and left me breathing hard and shaking). You can talk about how someone has replaced your real mother and now this other mother wants to sew buttons on your eyes. You can speak your truth and in spite of everything the world says about children and safety and families, you will actually be believed.

This book is the right book for me, now, an adult still sometimes staggered by a memory, who is still astonished by a fellowship that holds me up when I’m too tired to stand and will never let me go. It is a story in the style of the tales you heard at family parties when you went and sat with the old folks, and the fairy stories you heard, and the stories you probably made up on endless summer afternoons. It is also a book about survival, about a world that just accepts that battles must be fought and monsters conquered, and sometimes the monsters will literally wear your parent’s face.

I still read piles of fantasy. These days I read it for the pleasure of the story more than as a survival manual, but I also I read it to remind myself of the things that I have now told you. I read fantasy because when you grow up in a family that rotates around a hub of alcohol and violence there is a thing that lives inside of daddy, the same thing that made a very good and brave hobbit look into the Palantir, and corrupted the greatest of the great Wizards; and because sometimes the mother in the kitchen is the Real Mother and sometimes she’s the one who wants to sew buttons on your eyes. Sometimes there is a monster you have to fight, but that’s OK, because you are Aragorn. You are Gandalf. And you are all of Gondor and the Shire. You can fight it and you can win. And you don’t have to do it alone.

And when it is done, you can sit at the water’s edge, like the man who is still a boy who tells the story in The Ocean at the End of the Lane, and you can eat a cheese and tomato sandwich and just be a normal person for a change. Which is really nice, actually.

I’m honored to be a part of Tam’s fellowship and grateful we met at Viable Paradise last year.

5 thoughts on “Tamara MacNeil’s Thoughts on Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Also discussed: Domestic violence, cheese and tomato sandwiches, and Tolkien

  1. Stuart in Austin says:

    At ArmadilloCon one year there was a panel where the topic of Ender’s Game was raised. Walter Jon Williams commented that the subtext of Ender’s Game is child abuse, but, he said, the subtext of most Science Fiction is child abuse. My jaw fell into my lap as I realized that he had described the dynamics of a major portion of my life.

  2. NicoleL says:

    @Stuart in Austin thanks for commenting. Can you expand on the “subtext of most SF is child abuse”? It’s such a broad statement I’m not sure I understand what it means.

    • BigHank53 says:

      A protagonist is thrust into an unfamiliar situation. Bad things happen, over which they have no control. Some good things happen, but they have no control over that either. Eventually, they figure out the rules.

      Sound like a familiar plot?

  3. khavrinen says:

    “I sometimes hear people refer to fantasy as “escapism” as if that is some kind of pejorative, as if wanting to not be in this exact place and time is some sort of moral failing. ”

    I wish I could remember the exact quote, but I read somewhere that Tolkien’s response to someone who accused him of writing “escapism” was something to the effect of “The people who are most concerned about escapism are jailers.” ( Sorry, that should probably be “gaolers”. )
    They don’t want you to escape, because then you won’t be under their thumb.

  4. Clifton says:

    IMHO a great deal of Neil Gaiman’s writing, and certainly most of the very best, is implicitly or openly concerned with the dynamics of child abuse, and memory, and “could that really have happened the way I remember it?” You’ve already mentioned Coraline, but I highly recommend to you ‘Mr. Punch’, the comic he did with Dave McKean. I was going through a phase when a lot of unpleasant or simply inexplicable stuff had been coming back to me, and that book hit me hard.

    Khavrinen: It’s in Tolkein’s essay ‘On Fairy Stories’, and it gets a good deal stronger than I remembered it: “I have claimed that Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories, and since I do not disapprove of them, it is plain that I do not accept the tone of scorn or pity with which “Escape” is now so often used […] In what the misusers are fond of calling Real Life, Escape is evidently very practical, and may even be heroic. […] Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he can not do so, he thinks and talks of other topics than jailers and prison walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner can not see it. In using Escape in this way, the critics have chosen the wrong word, and what is more, they are confusing, not always in sincere error, the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter. Just so a Party-spokesman might have labelled departure from the misery of the […] Reich or even criticism of it as treachery.” … and Godwin’s rule, so I’ll leave off there.

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