The fantastical realm of Terabithia, which Jess and Leslie create and build together and then “rule” over as self-appointed king and queen, provides a necessary escape for both children. Terabithia is a place where Jess and Leslie are free to use their active imaginations away from the prying eyes of their classmates, where they can test the limits of their bravery, and where they can be the purest versions of themselves rather than feel pressured to maintain the pretenses they affect elsewhere. Throughout the novel, Paterson suggests that every child needs a Terabithia of their own—a place where they feel free, unfettered, and fully themselves.
“There in the shadowy light of the stronghold everything seemed possible. Between the two of them they owned the world and no enemy, [not even] Jess’s own fears and insufficiencies, […] could ever really defeat them.” This is how Katherine Paterson describes the way that Terabithia, the imaginary magical kingdom which Jess and Leslie create as a hideout from the rest of the world, makes the two of them feel. Terabithia is a place where Leslie and Jess feel fully liberated and invincible. Every child, Paterson suggests, deserves to feel the safety and freedom that a place—or even a state of mind—like Terabithia creates.
Jess and Leslie decide to create Terabithia as a secret world for themselves after finding it difficult to interact and play the way they want to at school. Their classmates don’t understand their friendship, and, in Jess’s case, his family doesn’t understand the more fanciful, imaginative parts of his personality. Leslie has read The Chronicles of Narnia books and longs for adventure and freedom in the countryside after years of life in the big city. Thus, she envisions Terabithia as a place where she and Jess have absolute power—but where they remain just, fair rulers and the kindest, best versions of themselves. Terabithia remains a secret that only Jess and Leslie know about—they don’t tell their families about their private realm, and though Jess’s younger sister May Belle follows them down to the creek which separates Terabithia from the “real” world one day, she doesn’t know the name of the hideout, its purpose, or its mythology. The secrecy surrounding Terabithia demonstrates that while it privately serves as a place of empowerment and happiness for Jess and Leslie, they still don’t feel fully comfortable being the people they are in Terabithia out in the real world. This underscores the importance of a place like Terabithia not just for Leslie and Jess specifically, but for all children more largely.
Terabithia allows Jess and Leslie to play with power dynamics, experiment with feelings of fear, and simulate the acts of violence they wish they could enact upon those who are cruel to them in the “real” world. Jess and Leslie fight “giants” who resemble their real-life bully, Janice Avery, supplicate themselves before the “spirits” in Terabithia’s “sacred” pine grove, and give themselves a small thrill of fear each time they use the rope swing to cross the creek into Terabithia’s bounds. In doing these things, they are able to explore and better understand their feelings of fear, anger, and submission. Paterson uses the darker aspects of Terabithia to demonstrate how children need places not just to feel safe, but to experiment with different aspects of themselves. This is a different kind of escapism—not escape from the real world’s problems, necessarily, but escape from the judgement of how they might seek to deal with those problems (and with the messier, darker feelings that accompany adolescence).
Near the end of the novel, Leslie tragically falls to her death when the rope swing she and Jess use to get to the other side of the creek (where Terabithia is) breaks. As a result, Jess chooses to build the titular bridge to Terabithia to replace the dangerous rope swing. He invites May Belle to cross the bridge and enter the kingdom as its new and long-awaited queen; he even implies that one day, they can bring Joyce Ann, their younger sister, into the fold of Terabithia. On a symbolic level, Jess’s ability to welcome someone new to Terabithia represents his ability to conquer his grief. On another, more practical level, Jess bringing May Belle across the creek shows that he realizes just how much better Terabithia has made his life, and now he wants to share it with May Belle, another child in need of attention, fantasy, and a place for freedom of self-expression.
Terabithia provides Leslie and Jess with a refuge from the storm of childhood and adolescence. In Terabithia, they are able to feel powerful, loved, and in control of their own destinies. Paterson demonstrates the need of every child to feel this way—and suggests that, particularly for children who are mistreated at home or unpopular at school, there are undeniable benefits to using fantasy and escapism to cope with the struggles of growing up.
Fantasy and Escapism ThemeTracker
Fantasy and Escapism Quotes in Bridge to Terabithia
“Do you know what we need?” Leslie called to [Jess.] […] “We need a place,” she said, “just for us. It would be so secret that we would never tell anyone in the whole world about it. […] It might be a whole secret country,” she continued, “and you and I would be the rulers of it.”
There in the shadowy light of the stronghold everything seemed possible. Between the two of them they owned the world and no enemy, Gary Fulcher, Wanda Kay Moore, Janice Avery, Jess’s own fears and insufficiencies, nor any of the foes whom Leslie imagined attacking Terabithia, could ever really defeat them.
“What are you giving your girl friend, Jess?” Brenda screwed her face up in that ugly way she had. [Jess] tried to ignore her. […]
“Don’t you know, Brenda?” Ellie joined in. “Jess ain’t got no girl friend.”
“Well, you’re right for once. Nobody with any sense would call that stick a girl.” […] Something huge and hot swelled right up inside of him. […] Lord, it hurt his guts to realize that it was Brenda who was his blood sister, and that […] he and Leslie were not related at all. Maybe, he thought, I was a foundling, like in the stories.
Jess tried going to Terabithia alone, but it was no good. It needed Leslie to make the magic. He was afraid he would destroy everything by trying to force the magic on his own, when it was plain that the magic was reluctant to come for him.
All March it poured. For the first time in many years the creek bed held water, not just a trickle either, enough so that when they swung across, it was a little scary looking down at the rushing water below. Jess took Prince Terrien across inside his jacket, but the puppy was growing so fast he might pop the zipper any time and fall into the water and drown.
For Jess the fear of the crossing rose with the height of the creek. Leslie never seemed to hesitate, so Jess could not hang back. But even though he could force his body to follow after, his mind hung back, wanting to cling to the crab apple tree the way Joyce Ann might cling to Momma’s skirt.
Entering the gallery was like stepping inside the pine grove [in Terabithia]—the huge vaulted marble, the cool splash of the fountain, and the green growing all around. Two little children had pulled away from their mothers and were running about, screaming to each other. It was all Jess could do not to grab them and tell them how to behave in so obviously a sacred place.
He ran until he was stumbling but he kept on, afraid to stop. Knowing somehow that running was the only thing that could keep Leslie from being dead. It was up to him. He had to keep going.
It occurred to him that perhaps Terabithia was like a castle where you came to be knighted. After you stayed for a while and grew strong you had to move on. For hadn’t Leslie, even in Terabithia, tried to push back the walls of his mind and make him see beyond to the shining world—huge and terrible and beautiful and very fragile? […] It was up to him to pay back to the world in beauty and caring what Leslie had loaned him in vision and strength.
When [Jess] finished, he put flowers in [May Belle’s] hair and led her across the bridge—the great bridge into Terabithia—which might look to someone with no magic in him like a few planks across a nearly dry gully.
“Shhh,” he said. “Look.”
“Can’t you see ‘um?” he whispered. “All the Terabithians standing on tiptoe to see you. […] There’s a rumor going around that the beautiful girl arriving today might be the queen they’ve been waiting for.”