“We are all pack animals!”

an interview with Cornelia Funke

Heroes (Issue II/2018)


Ms. Funke, you live in California. Donald Trump once said that he has no heroes or role models at all ...

Of course, Trump talks a lot! However, I also said for a long time that I have no heroes because the concept of the hero has uncannily negative connotations: Someone you admire blindly, follow blindly. But I live in a country where you absolutely believe in heroes, which is something that many Europeans can't relate to. Many heroes, especially in the American comic landscape, are very conservative and have a traditional world view. It's mostly about solving problems with physical violence. Of course you have to question that. It's also naive: just because someone is super strong doesn't mean they can save the world! In Europe, this belief is not widespread in the same way, perhaps because two world wars have destroyed it forever.

In your books you created heroes for an entire generation of children. Do children have a greater need for heroes than adults?

I believe that we all need heroes. We as adults repeatedly make the mistake of separating children from adults. We forget that we ourselves were children once. We belong to the same species. Adults yearn for heroes at least as much because they are in the middle of life, seeking guidance and role models. Children are often much more playful.

How playful?

Children try out different roles in life. They have not yet defined who they are. You can have a flying super dog as a hero. Or a grasshopper. They can view their father as a role model or their grandmother. They are also very aware that they are part of a larger system. They don't feel so isolated from plants, animals, and the world in general. This is a very strong feeling that can sometimes be scary. Adults, on the other hand, often make the mistake of wanting to be sure that they are unlike others by clinging to the illusion: I know exactly who I am! This is what I do, this is who I am. That's why adults often have a more limited range of heroes than children. They choose heroes for a specific function, to serve as a role model for a particular aspect of their lives. But the more we define ourselves, the more limited our idea of a hero is.

Do you still remember your own childhood heroes?

I think they were Winnetou and Old Shatterhand. Back then I obsessively read Karl May, then later Astrid Lindgren. At some point there were insurgent Indians or other genuine freedom fighters like Rosa Luxemburg, who I saw as heroes. People who resisted oppression, who fought for freedom or defended others. Basically, they were the rebels. I have never been on the side of heroes who seek to preserve the existing order, although such heroes do exist.

What is important to you when you create the heroes for your books?

For me it is very important that my characters are never alone. I do not believe in the lone fighter who goes out into the world and saves it on their own. I believe in friendship. And that is to be found in all my books. A figure that solves everything alone is unbelievable. I've always felt like that: The most amazing thing is to make a difference with others. On my own, it is all very boring and there is the danger that you will become autocratic and self-reliant. This can happen very easily to people who are repeatedly told that they are heroes: They end up thinking that they are somehow better than the rest.

What do you view as heroic qualities?

Fearlessness, or, even better, the courage to defeat your own fear. And selflessness: The willingness to sacrifice something for the common good. The acceptance of sacrifices in your own life to make others, or the world, a little better off. For me, heroes are people who put their own interests after those of their community.

So someone who wants to do good, above all else?

I think the problem is that a hero can be fundamentally good, but this can abruptly change. The power that comes with influence is sometimes abused. This brings us to another point: A hero needs charisma.

Can charisma also be dangerous?

It can be a very dangerous trait. Because we often don't understand why charismatic people are so magnetic they can seduce us into doing things that turn out to be anything but good. It also becomes dangerous when someone only has one hero. Especially when they are no longer able to playfully discover themselves and find out what they want, if instead, their hero takes away their capacity to think independently. This can become critical in the teen years, when search for idols and venture out into the adult world. That was exploited by the fascists. Youthful enthusiasm can easily be abused. On the other hand, right here in the US, we have a fantastic example of how teenagers emerged as heroes in their fight to tighten arms laws. That's heroic behaviour for me. These adolescents did not look for other heroes, they realized that you cannot leave things to others, but that you yourself have to become active.

So is the point to have attitude and take matters into your own hands?

Yes, and to tell yourself that perhaps you are the hero of your life. That you can change the world to how you want it or how it should be. The teens in the US are saying just that: We've waited long enough for you adults to change something. We are disappointed by your generation! What are you doing out of the world? I remember having similar feelings when I was young.

Why do we have this need for extraordinary figures who stand out from the crowd?

At the end of the day we are all pack animals. I'm afraid it is our deep-seated longing for a pack leader. The need for someone who knows how the world works. We have a longing for orientation, to be protected by someone who is stronger and who has a plan. Unfortunately, as Germans, we know only too well where this can lead. But there may well be life situations where it is useful to have a role model or a hero. For example, one of my heroines has always been Astrid Lindgren, and I don't think that has harmed me. On the contrary, it has given me a great deal of inspiration.

Do you want to inspire with your own books, convey a specific message?

Nobody can hide their own world view in their texts. But I find a concrete message problematic, a story always has to be much more than that. I have too much respect for my readers to preach to them. But of course you can pose questions about what sparks fear and what gives you courage ...

Is it important for you to create as many protagonists as possible in your books?

Definitely. But when I look back, I realise I have not done that enough in my previous books! When I look at "The Wild Chicks" today, I notice that it is all about five white girls! When I wrote that book it was quite realistic for Germany. Fortunately, that's just not the case today. When I published the book in English, I wrote a foreword to explain to American children why they are all white.

This can not happen with a goblin girl, a silver dragon and a human boy like in "Dragon Rider," there this diversity is a given...

I agree! That's enables children from around the world to identify with it. No African-American girl has cause to wonder why she does not turn up in the Wild Chickens. Fantastic storytelling can be incredibly helpful in helping children to empathize with other people or animals. It can encourage tolerance of the other. I believe that a child reading fantasy has no problem meeting someone of a different skin color or who grew up in another world. There are statistics that people who read fantasy are more politically active. Which, in my opinion, is completely understandable, because one must first question the world in order to change it.

Is it possible to address real political problems in fantasy novels?

I think it's even better than in realistic books. Let's take J. K. Rowling's wonderful "Harry Potter," in which she discusses torture, evil, racism, and fascism. And because she dresses it all up so well, most readers only notice when they're already hooked. If you make things look unusual, which is what happens in fantasy, you can often make the reader think about things he doesn't really want to face up to or is afraid of. Let's take "The Lord of the Rings," a classic fantasy novel. Tolkien based it on his trench experiences in the First World War and wrote it for his son, who was fighting in World War II at the time. When asked, "What is the Lord of the Rings?" he answered: It's all about death. This is how all serious fantasy works.

Apart from the "Wild Chicks" you have always written fantastically, currently you are working on other episodes of "Reckless", "Inkheart" and "Dragon Rider". What attracts you so much to fantasy?

I believe that reality is much closer to fantasy. The big questions of life: where do we come from? What happens after death? Why are we here? What is evil? What is good? All this can be much better captured and conveyed by fantasy. This world is fantastic! If you write realistically, you are trapped at a certain historical moment, in a national context. My fantasy books are read in forty or fifty countries. I think that's because fantasy can be understood everywhere.

For many people you yourself are a role model, an inspiring person. How do you deal with that?

This first became clear to me when I was put on the list of the hundred most influential people in the world by Time Magazine. Suddenly, I was sitting in New York at a huge dinner and thought how absurd it was! Of course, I'm not one of the hundred most influential people on this planet. But at that moment I decided to just pretend that were the case. Journalists say you have twenty million readers and great influence. How can you live up to that? Since then I have become even more involved, politically and socially. Especially since Trump's election. That's why this strange experience with the list was actually a good lesson for me. I said to myself: Do not be afraid that you might really have influence on children. Accept that and only then will you handle it responsibly. I try to do that by making my social commitment very clear on my website and everywhere else. My hope is that children will imitate me. For example, at the end of this year, through my website, we will award prizes to children who are committed to environmental protection. Currently, my plan is to invite at least two children to Malibu.

To be a hero means to take responsibility?

I think that's the only interesting thing about it. If you're already playing the hero it's really exciting to take the responsibility that comes with it. Then you can really make a difference. You just have to start someday and change something. That's what really matters in life. Then when you say goodbye at some point, you can at least say that you have made the world a little bit better. 

The interview was conducted by Gundula Haage
Collaboration: Dilek Güngör



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