When I first read Pamela Dean's Secret Country trilogy, I was struck by her creativity in using familiar themes in radically unfamiliar ways. I was amused and interested as her protagonists gradually figured out the complex relationship between their world and the Secret Country, a world they thought they had "made up" in a game (the actual Secret Country is also sometimes ritually called the Hidden Land). But then — after many a plot twist! — Dean came round and hit me a double whammy at the end, arranging for half of her protagonist families' members to emigrate permanently to the Secret Country, while the other half stay behind in our world. Ruth, Ted, and Laura Carroll, with Ted and Laura's parents, choose the Secret Country; Patrick and Ellen Carroll (along with the parents of Ruth, Patrick and Ellen) stay here. And everyone copes with this decision.
There's a major surface anomaly here. Heroes get stranded, sure, when the way to other worlds turns out to be one–way streets. But normally when a hero chooses to remain in the Other World, it's a lone decision, and we have good reason to know that his or her ties to our world are weak. Andre Norton's Witch World starts with Simon Tregarth knowingly making an irrevocable decision to enter another world; but he has nothing left on Earth. Gordon Dickson's graduate student couple in The Dragon and the George is prepared to jump ship from our world by a parodoxically exaggerated form of graduate–humanist starvation syndrome, combined with an apparent lack of family ties. And so on through a long list. Children in particular seem to visit marvelous Other Worlds with a comforting certainty of returning home at the end. We know Aslan would never keep the Pevenseys in Narnia through real time on Earth. Alice couldn't really stay in Wonderland, or Milo in the Kingdom of Wisdom. Joyce Ballou Gregorian's Sibby turns out in fact to be a change–child, who came from the Other World she ultimately stays in; and in any case her connections to our world are neither strong nor positive. Even Dorothy, whose return to Kansas at the end of her first visit to Oz follows the classic pattern for childhood Other Worlds, ultimately brought Uncle Henry and Aunt Em to Oz to join her when she later decided to remain there permanently, thus keeping the family unit together.
So I was puzzled. What could this family–dividing mean? Obviously something else was going on, beyond the exciting and engaging adventure tale about a group of children in a magical world. And beyond the standard plot lines which are so often set in children's encounters with other worlds. Yes, these children do some growing up in the course of the story; and yes, that solves some of their life problems (at least the youngest girl, Laura, deals with her shyness better). But that doesn't seem to be the core of what happens to them — and it certainly doesn't explain the splitting of the attached and loving Carroll family. On the contrary, coming home is an obligatory end to growing–up stories, and especially to stories where you solve your problems in the Other World and come home to apply the solutions (one of the basic plots of Andre Norton's children's books, for example). But Laura doesn't come home.
On consideration, my view is that the underlying plot of the Secret Country trilogy is not just about growing up or problem–solving in general, but specifically about growing up into a literary creator, an Author. And however whimsical the events of Secret Country magic and politics may be, the storyline of the children's reactions is effective and emotionally realistic.
This doesn't mean that I want to forget about all the other things the Secret Country shares with various kinds of Other Worlds. But it is not Faerie (its inhabitants are mostly mortal humans), though it does contain magic and magical and immortal beings. It's not really a parallel universe; it has no utopic or dystopic lessons for our world, and our world's fate is not directly dependent on it. But it's not just an independent universe, either; not only can people get back and forth between it and our world, but we gradually learn that the same creative thought patterns which result in fiction and poetry in our world, result in magic which changes reality in the Secret Country's world. And although the Secret Country is discovered by children from our world, it is not specifically a Childhood Other World. The Carrolls are too old for the standard Childhood Other World (Ruth is sixteen by the end of the trilogy); and as mentioned above, it eventually turns out that parents can emigrate to this world as well.
So the Secret Country is all about creativity — but not specifically about childhood creativity. This is no Peter Pan or Mary Poppins story, about children who will lose their connection to exciting Other Worlds as they grow up and their imaginations are trammeled by the inhibitions of maturity. (And it certainly won't die like Puff the Magic Dragon or Tinker Bell, if forgotten.) But it does seem to be a place specifically for imaginative people; the set of parents who "emigrate" there in the end are the literary ones. Indeed, its ontology is basically literary, in a way that our world's is not, because of the way that creativity has direct magical effects on reality, rather than just being fiction. It's a Creative Other World, and a fictional one (well, inside fictional narratives, the imagined events are "facts," right?).
It's still unlike other Creative Other Worlds, though. It's not a magical source of inspiration, like those in Norse mythology (the Norse spirit of poetry was given to humans in the mead stolen by Odin from giants, and made from the blood of the divine bard Kvasir) or Celtic poetry (where poetic visions are journeys, even "raids," to the Other World for inspiration). And it's not an encyclopedic Literary Other World, like Myers Myers' Commonwealth of Letters in Silverlock; or a world of thought at large, like Norton Juster's Kingdom of Wisdom. It's a bit more like DeCamp and Pratt's The Compleat Enchanter, where poetry is literally spells, and things said in verse come true. But although poetic creation and magic are closely interlinked in the Secret Country, it's not the case that all poetry is spells.
But the big point about the Secret Country is that it seems at first glance to be an owned and authored Childhood Creative Other World (like the Kingdom of Kevin Malone, and other such examples), but turns out not to be. At the beginning, the children believe the Secret Country is just their own imaginative creation. Even as they are worried by differences between it and their game, the major features that they "recognize" are still initially best explained by the hypothesis that this is the world they made up (well, for most of the children; Patrick for some time holds by a scientific theory that they're having a group hallucination). At the beginning, some of them are trying to treat the Secret Country as if they can be dictatorial creators: as the Carrolls make plans to escape their tutors and return to our world after their first interaction with Secret Country people, they say things like, "well, Benjamin could get drunk, and then we'd be able to get into the stable and get the horses." But things don't work the way they did in the games; sober people don't get drunk because the children want them to. And yet this is clearly "their" Secret Country.
My claim is that the contrasts between the Secret Country game and the actual Secret Country (aka the Hidden Land) represent the difference between private (individual or group) imaginative play and adult authorial creation for an audience. If you and your few fellow–players agree that a normally sober character will get drunk, in order to get the plot of your game to work out, then OK, he'll get drunk. The imaginative play world — especially for children — really does happen exactly as you make it happen. There is an immense, magical power to this: we can't shape everyday life this way, and we can shape our personal fictions completely. We say "make it so" and it is so. What could be more of a power–trip? Magic and spells are a great metaphor for this aspect of authorship. However, adult authorial creation for an audience is constrained by all kinds of external issues, but most of all by what you can get an audience to go along with. Overly inconsistent characters, or random plot developments just to get the result that you want, simply won't work for most audiences. Authors who torture characters because "it's more interesting" (as one of Dean's children summarizes the motives of the original Secret Country game [WD.159]) will limit their appeal to audiences who also find that motivation sufficient. The children are learning that real, mature (dare I say, "responsible"?) Authors are not actually Gods whose random whims are law; they have to work with, rather than against, their audience's expectations, cognitive processes, and empathetic capacities. That means working within the constraints set by their characters and settings.
Obviously, this is not to say that Authors need to keep to facts or to everyday plausible events. Rather, they have to create consistent and believable mental spaces for their narratives, possible or impossible. And in fact, in writing narratives, authors seem regularly to have the experience of finding that some particular character "refuses" to behave as they had intended to make him, or "insists" on doing or saying something counter to what the author had consciously planned — the characters take on a life of their own, based on the constraints of systematicity and plausibility. As Aristotle said, a probable impossible is better than an improbable possible; this often gives unexpected autonomy to authorial creations, if creators will only respect it. In watching the recent film of The Two Towers, I was annoyingly distracted by the dozens of Rohirrim women who wore their long hair unbound and unbraided through desperate flight and even battle — for no apparent reason other than displaying lots of long hair. I was already happy to believe in the One Ring, the struggle against Sauron and Saruman, and all the rest; I could even imagine that an immortal and supernatural character like Galadriel never has a bad hair day, or that her hair never gets in her way. But I've had long hair most of my life. My mind flatly refused to accept the notion that any long–haired human woman — let alone a whole nation of them — would be willing to tangle herself uncomfortably and dangerously in wet muddy waves of her own hair while fleeing from an enemy army or rallying a group of evacuees under siege by Orcs, as these women were shown doing. That's the kind of thing that Tolkien knew, and that Dean's young authors learn; evidently middle–aged film–makers sometimes forget it, nonetheless.