As much as I love magic and mythology, I also love delving into a character’s psyche. We have stories like Harry Potter, Final Fantasy, the entirety of the Marvel and DC Universes, among many others, where magic is an actual force of nature that the characters react with and use. But we also have plenty of stories where magic results from a child’s imagination. These are stories like Bridge to Terabithia or My Neighbor Totoro.
Within those universes, we are able to explore how children respond to tragedy or conflict through the imaginary world they create.
the latter stories, the fantastical elements are not real; they are figments of the characters’ imaginations and are extensions of those characters’ thoughts and feelings. In these particular cases, the magical elements do not start as coping methods. They are simply there because the children in question have wild imaginations, and inventing a magical land where they can be kings and queens or where they can go flying around the forest at night on a large furry creature is something the children can enjoy. But that is not to say that those fantastical elements cannot be used as a coping method.
In Totoro, for instance, when Mei gets lost, her sister Satsuki only finds her after going to Totoro and asking him for help. Once reunited, they travel to the hospital where their mother is staying to drop off some corn that Mei believes has magical healing properties before making the long journey back home. Satsuki is only able to accomplish this with the help of Totoro’s friend Catbus. Before enlisting his help, she had been running around the countryside searching for her sister in vain, while dealing with her emotional distress over the situation. And it’s only after getting magical help that her fears are relieved and she finds Mei. In the end, when both girls are back home safely and there’s no longer any danger to worry about, Catbus disappears.
We can also really see this in Bridge to Terabithia. I’ve only watched the movie, and I have no plans to read the book. What I can tell you is that the movie is not something to write home about, but it does use this same idea. Terabithia is not real. It’s a make-believe land that both children in question invent around a dirty old treehouse in the woods. In order to get to this treehouse, they have to cross a river using a rope. One of our protagonists, Leslie, invents the land of Terabithia. Leslie doesn’t have that many emotional problems; she has loving parents, gets good grades, etc. She just has a wild imagination. This is not the case for our other protagonist, her friend Jesse. He doesn’t have a wild imagination and doesn’t really care about Terabithia, but he eventually gives in and starts believing with her. This is more than likely due to his problems at home and school. His parents are both too busy for him, his older siblings ignore him, and he gets picked on at school. Going to Terabithia helps him cope with his problems. It’s a perfect example of how inventing a magical land can be a healthy outlet.
Sadly, after a heavy rain, while Leslie is heading to the treehouse, the rope swing breaks and she drowns. Jesse ends up having to deal with the fallout of his only friend’s death, and this is quite possibly the best part of the movie. He uses Terabithia to avoid dealing with his loss, until his dad—whom he envisions as an evil invading monster—drags him back to reality. It’s only then that he starts to recover emotionally. What this goes to show is that while the magical land in question can be a healthy coping method, it should only help a child when dealing with trauma, not cover that trauma up. Jesse does keep going back to Terabithia, but he also learns that he cannot use it to erase all his problems. Eventually, he builds a bridge over the river, and invites his younger sister, whom he used to ignore, to come and play with him.
Unfortunately, sometimes this kind of imagination can have disastrous consequences. While Bridge to Terabithia ultimately had an uplifting ending, the same cannot be said of something like Pan’s Labyrinth. In Pan’s Labyrinth, Ofelia creates a scenario in her head wherein she is a faerie princess who needs to face three trials in order to get back to her kingdom. She uses this to deal with her mother’s illness, her dislike of her mother’s new husband, an abusive military man with whom she doesn’t get along
, and the war that’s raging on around her. At one point, when her mother tries to address Ofelia’s reluctance to deal with reality by throwing a “magical” root into the fireplace in front of her, Ofelia’s reaction is negative and obstinate. She doesn’t want to deal with reality at all. She wants to be the faerie princess, to the extent that she actually believes all the magical elements around her to be real. In the end, after her mother’s death, Ofelia is left in the care of her abusive stepfather. The resistance, which was filled with people who would have helped her and taken care of her, finally overruns the outpost she’s staying at. Instead of talking to these people, Ofelia kidnaps her baby brother and runs into a labyrinth to talk to a faun named Pan. Unfortunately for Ofelia, her stepfather follows her into the labyrinth. By going here, she ended up separating herself from the people who would have helped her, and this gave her stepfather all the opportunity he needed to shoot her.
As Ofelia lies bleeding out, she imagines herself standing in the faerie court and being welcomed back home. Though this is an uplifting happy ending from Ofelia’s point of view, it’s not for the people who cared for her, and she ends up dying.
There are of course plenty of other stories that follow along with this same idea, both good and bad. What’s fun about these stories, especially ones like Totoro and Pan’s Labyrinth, is that whether or not the magic is actually real can be up to interpretation. This isn’t true of all of them. Bridge to Terabithia is rather clear on the matter. But though I would disagree, there are plenty of people who watch movies like Totoro and Pan’s Labyrinth and interpret that magic as being real. With Totoro in particular, there is yet another theory that Totoro is a god of death and both girls actually die in the end. I disagree with that theory mostly because it ruins my childhood, not because it doesn’t sound legit. Because it does.
Though I will concede that both those films hint at the magical elements being real, they are also told from the perspective of the children in question who believe them to be real. This leads me to interpret the magic as being nothing more than a figment of their imaginations. What we can learn from them—and what makes both these movies such powerful stories—is how they handle their characters’ internal conflicts, and how we as an audience can relate to them. Even as adults, we also tend to lose ourselves in fantastical make-believe lands through the media we consume, and we can use them to help us cope with our real world issues. It’s awesome to engage in another world that’s not our own, even if it’s just for a few hours. Furthermore, it’s just plain cool to see a child’s imagination come to life, whether it’s figuratively or literally, in these stories.