WHEN I WAS A CHILD, I built Egyptian temples in the woods behind my house. This was due to the fact that I read The Egypt Game by Zilpha Keatley Snyder over and over until my copy was close to falling apart. That book does not contain a true fantasy world, which is perhaps what appealed to me. Instead, it is an escape fuelled by Egyptian mythology and imagination. It seemed more accessible, likely because I was unable to find any rabbit holes in my backyard to see where they might lead (though I did spot rabbits, they were always brown and too quick to chase). I transported myself into other worlds with books and imagination and forays into boxes of costume clothing, flouncing around in fancy dresses – a habit I have yet to break.
I did, of course, still ache to find that passageway to somewhere else, a gateway to the fantastic or even just a hidden door to a secret garden. I was an escapist child, running off into books, which I’d read perched on large boulders in the woods or curled up in the back of my closet in inclement weather (growing up in Massachusetts there was plenty of that). Even as I got older, I favoured fantastical escapes. Labyrinth was one of my favorite films, with its Escher-flavoured mazes and David Bowie in questionable trousers. I spent my senior year of college adapting the Alice books for the stage. It was predictable that I would enjoy the magical escape in my own writing.
There is something inherently delightful about places that are other, where impossibility pervades everything from architecture to inhabitants. Traditionally these other worlds are stumbled upon by children, and while I think it is possible to embrace such things after one has grown up, I understand why it is more common for children to be the visitors. Perhaps children find it easier to believe such places are possible. In a magical world, a child isn’t relegated to merely speaking when spoken to, passively doing as they’re told. Really, isn’t it better and more rewarding to not do as one is told in such places? To take risks, to open forbidden doors and face whatever lies beyond? To learn, to grow, to test one’s bravery?
Such a world is not only about the possibilities in the place itself but also the potential in the child. Fantasy worlds overflow with possibilities. They change the rules, sometimes even down to the most basic – defying gravity is necessary to get to Neverland, along with celestial navigation. Worlds without boundaries still have rules. Magic systems in various worlds are complex things. Evil cannot simply be overcome, outweighed by goodness. It must be fought. The triumph must come properly, it must be earned. Light and dark must have rules, even if those rules can be bent or broken. The Hogwarts school rules may have been broken countless times, but defeating Voldemort came down to rules of magic, of horcruxes and love and wand ownership logistics.
There is freedom in a magical world, free from parents and school, from rules and expectations. Freedom for a child to make their own decisions, to test their own boundaries as well as those of the world around them. The Night Circus complicates this freedom, not being a properly removed fantasy land. Its gate is wrought iron, not a rabbit hole or a looking glass. The real world, with its rules and responsibilities continues to impinge, which doesn’t take away the freedom, but makes decisions more difficult. It appears in the ordinary world, but the circus itself is magical. A multitude of black-and-white striped tents containing gardens of ice, bottles filled with stories, living paper creatures and fantastical feats that may or may not be illusions. It is a place fuelled by imagination.
The Alice to this Wonderland, the Charlie to this Chocolate Factory, is a farm boy named Bailey. He first visits the circus at the age of ten, but his true discovery occurs years later, when he is not quite 16. At home, decisions about his future are being made for him, with little heed paid to his own wishes or opinions. In the world of the circus, he discovers not only what he wants, but how far he is willing to go for it. In the circus he encounters two other children, raised within its confines. These twins are named Penelope and Winston but more often called Poppet and Widget.
Poppet and Widget are gifted with magical talents, side effects of being born on Opening Night. Poppet sees the future, while Widget can read the past. But how they master and use these talents is left to them: their choices are not dictated, nor the roles they will play in the multitude of stories that the circus contains. Poppet tells Bailey, even before he begins to understand the scope of the circus’s magic, that nothing is impossible. The statement recurs in the world of the book, though its validity is sometimes tested. But there is freedom to be found in believing it, and even if impossible things remain, once the statement is made, more possibilities can be found.
A magical world may not be a world without limits: a limitless world would be boring, there would be no challenges, no tests. If everything is easy, where’s the fun in that? There are rules, and quite often there is responsibility. One might tumble through a wardrobe and find oneself ruler of Narnia. I’m certain that crown weighs heavily at times. For Bailey, it comes down to a choice. Any child who follows a white rabbit or finds a golden ticket hidden beneath a candy wrapper has a chance to make choices, to reap rewards or suffer consequences: the freedom to choose their destiny is theirs alone.
With destiny there is, of course, the notion of being the chosen one, of being special even if the non-magical world can’t recognise it. I’m not sureif Bailey has forgiven me for stating clearly and definitively he is neither special nor chosen, but I think it adds something to his character that he embraces the extraordinary for himself despite his own ordinariness. An extraordinary environment offers extraordinary opportunities – a world in which a child can make a difference, even a critical difference, something many of them can’t manage in their normal surroundings. But if they return to their ordinary world, they see the world and themselves differently. The mirror shows someone capable and brave, and the mundane world doesn’t seem so mundane.
And if it happens that the ordinary world is left behind in favor of the magical one… well, then the possibilities are endless.
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern is out now, published by Harvill Secker.