The Symbolism of Trains In Literature

The Train To Timbuctoo

Why are trains so useful to storytellers? Well, first of all they get your characters from one place to another. But there’s more to it than that. Trains are found in literature more than trains are ridden in real life.

First up, trains are an example of a heterotopia.  For more on that see this post.

French philosopher Michael Foucault had a bit to say about trains:

A train is an extraordinary bundle of relations because it is something through which one goes, it is also something by means of which one can go from one point to another, and then it is also something that goes by.

Foucault

When it comes to writers and picking things to function as symbolic, that which is multi-layered is ripe for the picking. Take any word which means two different things at once; or a tree, which can be covered in leaves or bare; or a sea, which has a surface and also great depth; blackberries, which are delicious but also a pest; the colour yellow, which means happiness but also decay… You get the picture. As Foucault mentions above, trains are great, symbolically, because the audience has not only two but THREE different relationships with trains.

TRAINS IN CHILDREN’S LITERATURE

Trains have been hugely important in children’s literature in particular.

Train journeys occur at initiatory or climactic moments of large numbers of classic children’s utopian fantasies; in these journeys, the railway functions as a protean, paradoxical space, not merely instrumental but instead active. Long after it vanished from the landscapes of the real world as a functional means of transport, the steam train in particular continues to feature in works of fantasy aimed at children, operating by laws often unlike those of the realms through which it passes, and providing a space for the dramatization of spriritual and emotional adventure. […] Railway journeys serve an important role within the metaphoriacal as well as the narrative economy of utopian texts; this role is sometimes a subversive one, and ultimately calls into question the relationship of reader to text.

Railway trains in utopian fantasy literature operate like alternative worlds, allowing space and time within the narrative for establishment, subversion, and clashing of the logics and values of the other realms of the text. In this way they can be described in terms of Foucault’s well-known formulation of “heterotopia“. […]

Utopian and Dystopian Writing for Children and Young Adults, edited by Carrie Hintz, Elaine Ostry

The train station as a place of beginnings and endings is seen in many stories. One especially memorable train station for me is that depicted in Anne of Green Gables.

For a younger generation of readers, it is of course the train of Harry Potter which resonates.

The train station platform functions identically to the bus station platform.

You can probably think of many resonant scenes set in train and bus stations.

Another, for an adult audience (inaccessible to young viewers because of its uniquely adult emotion — regret), is the train station scene in Remains of the Day.

Other memorable bus station scenes for me happen in Mr Holland’s Opus and in Hud, where there is also the strong feeling of regret at what could have been in another parallel life.

That sense of the ‘parallel’, imagined life that could have been is perhaps why trains (and express service buses, which travel along their own invisible, pre-laid tracks) lend themselves to well to stories in which we’re encouraged to consider fate, and our own hand in it.

TRAINS AND JAPAN

Trains are a huge part of Japanese life and are also a huge part of Japanese storytelling, perhaps especially in manga culture. Trains afford Japanese children a freedom Western children rarely have — the train network is so reliable, so crowded and easily navigated that children are often trusted to ride trains without adult caregivers in a way I wouldn’t see here in Australia.

In Japanese towns and suburbs, trains travel regularly across your path, and you must stop at the gate and the lights. The threat of death is near. All you’d need to do is disobey the signs.

This low-level fear is utilised in The Girl Who Leapt Through Time. The way a train hurtles unstoppably forward is at symbolic odds with the fact that, should you stand in front of it, your life comes to an immediate halt. Symbolically, you’ve now got this juxtaposition between how an individual’s life ends suddenly but the world continues on.

Even Miyazaki’s fantasy world of Spirited Away includes a train.

The trailer of  5 Centimeters Per Second shows us that almost the entire film (comprising 5 interconnected short stories) takes place in trains and train stations.

TRAINS IN KATHERINE MANSFIELD

In her paper on Katherine Mansfield’s short story “The Escape”, Masami Sato has this to say about train symbolism, in which every aspect of the train is ripe for close-reading, including the doors (open or closed?), the rails on the balcony, and the carriage shared with others:

Using trains symbolically is a technique found frequently in literary history. It has been used as a place where people accidently meet, separate, take time to think, work on something, and even as a place of rest and relaxation. We can see some of this symbolism in the last paragraph of “The Escape”.

The door of the carriage seems to refer to the threshold, or border, between the wife’s world and the husband’s heavenly (maybe, by implication, his ideal) world. The door is open, which denotes that he is still connected with his wife’s world, even though he does not want to be completely submerged in it. However, since he is holding on tightly to the brass rail with both hands, this could possibly signify his effort in trying to cling to his sense of happiness, having escaped, if only momentarily, the space which is dominated by his turbulent relationship with his wife.

The train carriage, for the wife, could be seen as a place to relax: as mentioned before, the wife is talking contentedly with the other passengers, while the husband is absorbed in his solitary emotions of happiness, apart from her, in the corridor. Their juxtaposition refers to two different worlds, and suggests that from a gender point of view, the worlds of men and women do not cohere seamlessly.

The story began with the couple missing their train and ends with a scene on a train. I would suggest that Mansfield intentionally uses the symbol of the train journey at the beginning of the narrative to demonstrate the emotional gulf between the husband and wife, a state which is shown to be highlighted if they spend time in too close proximity to each other. In the story’s ending, Mansfield suggests, by their positions in the separate (yet adjoining spaces) of the train compartment and the corridor, that perhaps, in a marriage, a certain amount of distance between individuals is more comfortable for both of them.

Katherine Mansfield’s Portrayal of Marriage In “The Escape”

TRAINS IN ALICE MUNRO

Alice Munro has also written short stories which take place on trains, my favourite being “Chance”.

 

 

 

Outrage News Is Powerful Storytelling

outrage cat

Recently I played a form of mixed doubles tennis in which the final point is served from female to female, or male to male. At our small club, when it comes to tennis skills there’s no clear division along gender lines. A number of the women can outplay the men.

So I mentioned maybe we could ignore that rule, depending on who’s playing. I’m also mindful of being gender inclusive. The distinction between male and female has been shown — across different disciplines — to be nowhere near as binary as previously decided by culture. Our club may, in the distant future, seem sufficiently liberal that a gender non-conforming player joins in for the occasional hit. That’s my goal.

But my politically conservative tennis partner, who vociferously voted against marriage equality in Australia last year, chortled at my suggestion and said, “Don’t you know there’s 33 different genders now?” (Subtext reading: Once we get started down that line, where do we stop? How are we meant to play a fun game of mixed doubles with 33 different genders!) Continue reading “Outrage News Is Powerful Storytelling”

I Know Your True Name Trope

Rumpelstiltskin Monro S. Orr

There’s a really old storytelling trope: A trickster girl — and it is usually a girl — overcomes an Opponent with word play rather than physical tousle. Oftentimes the ‘word play’ is simply guessing the opponent’s real name.

Contains Breaking Bad spoilers. But hopefully you’ve already seen that if you wanted to. Continue reading “I Know Your True Name Trope”

Burlesque Witches In Storytelling

Witches have a long history in storytelling, but they aren’t always scary. They aren’t always Baba Yaga types, sometimes murderous, sometimes helpful. There’s another variety of crone who is a ribald storyteller. She’s related to the classic witch, but her function in stories is quite different.

She is known as the burlesque witch.

What is her name?

From eighteenth century nursery rhymes:

What does she look like?

As Marina Warner describes in From The Beast To The Blonde:

  • crone features
  • chapfallen jaw
  • toothless bight of chin and nose in profile
  • a Punch-like proboscis
  • carries a stick
  • wears a conical hat
  • apron and petticoats

Continue reading “Burlesque Witches In Storytelling”

The Sailor Dog by Margaret Wise Brown

The Sailor Dog cover

The Sailor Dog by Margaret Wise Brown is a Little Golden Book classic, first published 1953. After the success of Mister Dog, Wise Brown and Garth Williams were paired by the publisher the following year.

The Sailor Dog is basically a Robinsonnade for the preschool set. The Robinsonnade is an adventure story which takes place in a static place, like an island. For more on that, see this post. And for more about the role of islands in storytelling see this one.

ILLUSTRATIONS OF THE SAILOR DOG

Continue reading “The Sailor Dog by Margaret Wise Brown”

The Appeal of Milly Molly Mandy

Milly Molly Mandy setting out

Milly Molly Mandy remains one of my mother’s favourite books, but even then it was old. Milly Molly Mandy is in fact the great-grandmother of today’s child readers. I’m not sure how popular these stories are among the contemporary audience, but I can say for sure, Milly Molly Mandy entertained at least two generations of children. I never got into them myself, but I did fall in love with the endpaper hand drawn map. There is something so unbearably hygge about that little village. Even now, I open a Milly Molly Mandy book and I want to go back to that village. I may have been too old by the time I encountered my mother’s book. But the impact was clear. I was ten years old and started making maps for my own made-up stories.

My mother’s version features illustrations with coloured-pencil scribbles. The black and white line drawings do look like a colouring-in book. The Milly Molly Mandy series has been reprinted in various formats and some of those are now colour illustrations — sometimes in pastels, sometimes in the limited palette of 1950s and 60s. I still prefer the black and white.

The illustrations were done by the author herself. I believe Joyce Lankester Brisley was a better draughtswoman than she was a prose stylist, but in the end, her greatest strengths were:

  1. Storytelling (in the voice of an oral narrator). Enid Blyton possessed this exact skill.
  2. Knowing how children occupy their time

Lankester Brisley either surrounded herself with children or remembered in amazing detail the experience of being a child. The children in the Milly-Molly-Mandy stories can be found engaged in tasks such as:

  • Keeping ducks company
  • Making mud by pouring water onto dirt
  • Getting wet in the rain, then flapping and quacking like ducks
  • ‘Mending’ a puddle in the road by throwing twigs into it
  • Making their own little loaves alongside the big family loaf

Milly Molly Mandy hair brushing

Likewise, Lankester Brisley understood the psychology of children:

  • Revelations such as the insight that your strict teacher at school is a normal human being and even has her own mother.
  • The desire to do something very useful, to impress the adults in your life (like making stepping stones on a rainy day, for ladies without rubber boots).

But we know virtually nothing about the author’s life. She was born in 1896 in a small seaside town at the bottom of England called Bexhill-on-Sea. Look at historic photos of Bexhill-on-Sea and apart from the fashions, it’s not so different from taking a Google Earth tour of the town on foot. It remains a town known for its historical significance.

We know that as a young woman her parents divorced, which in those days meant automatic poverty for the woman, especially when the woman is supporting three daughters. The daughters were all trained in art, and perhaps the reason their work made it out into the world is precisely because they were forced to seek out income, having lost their father’s income as a middle-class pharmacist.

Milly Molly Mandy on stage

Joyce died at the age of 82, and 2018 marks the 40th anniversary of her death. Her natal family were big into the Christian Science church. Was Joyce a Christian scientist her whole life? It seems she was, publishing Christian texts along with the more general stories such as Milly Molly Mandy. Did she marry? (Where does the Lankester come from? Her husband’s name?) Did she have children of her own?

In my imagination Joyce was close to her sisters. She died just a few months after one of the sisters, which is either coincidence or a sign of emotional closeness, or both. I imagine Joyce was active in the church and perhaps taught Sunday school, so if she didn’t have children of her own, I imagine she saw many children regardless.

NARRATIVE VOICE OF MILLY MOLLY MANDY STORIES

The stories are written in conversational, oral storyteller style with plenty of parenthetical asides, as if the storyteller has forgotten to explain one bit, but they’re shoving it in now to clarify.

However, each story absolutely includes the seven minimum steps of a complete and satisfying story. In fact, Lankester Brisley is often very clear about these steps, whether she knew them consciously or not. Modern stories for a young reader tend to be less obvious about where the steps occur. I think this is partly because contemporary books are expected to entertain adult co-readers as well as children themselves, and adults have seen far more story. (To be fair, even today’s children have been exposed to far more stories than children of the 1920s were.)

Milly Molly Mandy and little friend Susan

STORY STRUCTURE OF MILLY-MOLLY-MANDY GETS TO KNOW TEACHER

WEAKNESS/NEED

Milly Molly Mandy is scared of the new teacher because the teacher is strict.

DESIRE

It has been arranged that the new teacher stay with Milly Molly Mandy’s family for a few nights until she gets herself sorted with accommodation. Milly Molly Mandy does not want this.

This is an example of a desire not to have something. To cast it the other way around: Milly Molly Mandy wants the freedom to be her normal carefree house while in her own home. School is school; home is home.

OPPONENT

The teacher, because Milly Molly Mandy doesn’t want her in her home, but the teacher arrives regardless.

PLAN

Milly’s plan is to be on her best behaviour and to impress the teacher. Ultimately, the character of Milly Molly Mandy is a good little girl, serving well as a model for behaviour. But what makes her real, and what keeps the character away from didacticism, is her ‘imperfect’ psychology. Milly has doubts, fears and anxieties like every other child, but despite all that, she does her best.

BATTLE

There is no traditional Battle sequence in this cosy story, but we have the proxy conflict of the baking scene in which teacher is cast as the inverse of everything Milly Molly Mandy thought she was.

Ultimately, teacher is wearing Mother’s apron, which casts her firmly in the role of someone familiar and knowable. Moreover, by learning how to make turn-overs, the teacher is cast in the role of student — a complete and utter inversion for Milly. Billy Blunt says, “Fancy a teacher playing with dough!” The children now realise that teacher was once a child, too. She is all the human things at once — a complete person.

This battle takes place entirely in Milly’s head as she makes her own (failed) dough creations alongside.

SELF-REVELATION

Child characters more often have revelations about life in general than self-revelations.

The revelation is that Miss Edwards is a regular human.  Though this isn’t a self-revelation as such, the lesson teaches Milly Molly Mandy something about humankind, and by extension, this is about herself. Though this is not on the page, it’s clear that Miss Edwards is acting in a certain role while she is at school. This is the first time Milly Molly Mandy has realised that people play roles according to expectations. This links back to how Milly Molly Mandy has been on her best behaviour with a teacher in the house. She, too, has been playing a role.

Sometimes the revelation phase of the story simply means the main character has changed their mind about something. In this case, Milly is sad to see her teacher leave. The valence has flipped from negative to positive.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

Milly Molly Mandy needn’t be frightened of Miss Edwards at school because she knows she’s a fully-rounded human and is playing a teacherly role.

 

Why write a ghost story when you don’t believe in ghosts?

ghost

What’s the point of ghost stories?

In this post, ‘ghost’ is a proxy for anything supernatural: What’s the point of monsters, werewolves, and other magical fantasies?

I have a friend who disapproves of Harry Potter, but not for religious reasons — for scientific ones. His argument: stories about magic promote magical thinking, when the world needs more critical thinking. I can’t fault him on his main point, but do magical, ghostly, supernatural stories during childhood really contribute to lack of reason, and poor critical thinking?

For storytelling purposes it doesn’t really matter if ghosts are ‘real’ or not. The feelings definitely are.

‘I believe in whatever these feelings are.’

Meg Rosoff

PERFECTLY GOOD REASONS FOR WRITING GHOST STORIES

  1. To encourage readers to believe in ghosts. To encourage readers to consider there’s something beyond our own realities.
  2. To create a temporary storyworld in which ghosts do exist, to allow us to enjoy that frisson of temporary horripilation.
  3. To allow us insight into the way others experience fears. Supernatural stories can be allegories for mental illness or drug-induced hallucinations. The experience of non-reality as reality is indistinguishable from actual reality. If some of that fear can be provoked in us, we might achieve empathy with those people.
  4. Supernatural elements in a story can function as part of the symbol web, leading the reader towards new (non-supernatural) insight about the human experience: longing, obsession, uncertainty and disbelief. The symbol web might signify memories of things which exist no longer, or various other fears and anxieties.
  5. To allow scary experiences without leaving the audience in a downcast mood. Stories which genuinely scare me are about climate change, about missing children, about sickness and old age. This is a depressing kind of scary, and part of me would like to really enjoy a Stephen King novel, with beasts and supernatural beings which will never actually hurt me or my family. For most of us, ghosts are a pure, safe kind of terror.

Continue reading “Why write a ghost story when you don’t believe in ghosts?”

Halloweensie 2018: Delight Night

No Tricks, No Treats.

Felina Nightbone used jagged teeth to rip sticky tape. She affixed the cardboard sign to her letterbox.

“Right. I’m off to bed.”

She shut the iron gate. Inside she snuffed candles.

Still they came, giggling in ridiculous dress-up. They thought she’d carved the pumpkins for them. They thought this house had been decorated.

Felina peeked through tattered curtains from her attic window. “Why do they come?”

The cat swished its tail.

But the house knew why they’d come. The cauldron howled, floorboards creaked. Walls shivered.

Costumed children ran screaming, happy, toward the iron gate.

 

(If you’d like to participate in Halloween flash fiction for junior readers, here’s the details.)

And here’s my Halloweensie entry from 2017.

Transmogrification In Storytelling

transmogrification Spirited Away

Transmogrification in storytelling has a long history. Today it can be seen across different types of story in many permutations.

WHAT IS TRANSMOGRIFICATION AND WHAT IS ITS USE IN STORYTELLING?

Transmogrification is the act of transforming into something else. The technique may be used by storytellers for the following reasons:

  • Humorous effect
  • Grotesque effect
  • Humorous and grotesque at once
  • In myth, transmogrification provides an explanation for natural things. It restores order by rationalising phenomena, inventing origin stories. We see it used in modern stories to explain a system of magic within a fantasy storyworld.
  • Christianity includes commitment to an embodied self. Even after we die, we keep the integrity of the self, and this self will be perfected in Heaven. A lot of stories are built on Judeo-Christian thought. The transmogrification story can help a character have a revelation about who they really are — who is the integral self? I was a bear for a while, now I can embrace my wilder self. In other words, transmogrification is often a part of the self-revelation phase. In fairy tales, this redemption arc commonly changes foul to fair, ugly to lovely.
  • The idea of shapeshifting is alluring as a wish-fulfilment fantasy: What if I was somebody else? When shapeshifting into an animal, it allows us an escape from humanity.
  • Storytellers are able to explore what it might be like to be a dog, a cat, a bird.
  • Metamorphosis is perhaps the most rewarding way of evading fear. It can symbolise the evasion of threat.
  • Inventing faces for terrors or redrawing their features in a changed shape represents a way of coping with them — making them familiar. What if you were to transmogrify into a monster for a while? Would you still be scared of monsters?

Because transmogrification is not a thing that happens in the real world, there obviously needs to be a system of magic within the world of the story. But there are also realist stories which borrow from the ancient tropes and put a realist spin on it, for example:

  • Makeover stories, in which a character wears make-up and new clothes and takes off her glasses to discover she’s beautiful both inside and out.
  • Fish out of water stories
  • Mistaken identity stories
  • Crime/Mystery stories in which a character must put on a disguise in order to solve a problem
  • Coming-of-age stories in which a young character is thrown into a grown-up world just before they are ready, hastening maturity.

All of these plots are about the fantasy of becoming somebody else for a while — of seeing what you’re really capable of, testing your mettle. This is the fundamental reason for any story, so it’s no surprise to find the transmogrification trope used far and wide, across cultures, across time, across different types of story.

IDEOLOGY OF TRANSMOGRIFICATION

I have written before about some ideological problems associated with posing as somebody else — the literary equivalent of black face. Because transformation is so strongly associated with not only humour but also the grotesque, it can be highly problematic to dress male characters up as female characters. Yet this is a standard gag in contemporary children’s films.

Perhaps for these reasons, many writers cross species to achieve the humorous/grotesque effect.

Animals inherently contain a sense of mystery, and so I think it makes sense that we would use literal transformations into animals in stories to talk about parts of ourselves and our relationships that are difficult—or impossible—to explain.

Masters Review

OTHER TERMINOLOGY RELATED TO THE CHANGING OF FORM AND TYPE

  • Shapeshifting  a person or being with the ability to change their physical form at will.
  • Metamorphosis — a general term for any kind of change in physical form, structure or substance. In literature there may be a system of magic or supernatural intervention, but this word is also used in the natural sciences to describe something like a caterpillar’s change into a butterfly.
  • Anthropomorphism — Imagery in which a non-human creature is afforded human features. The creature is not thought to be literally a person within the world of the story.
  • Personification — Imagery in which something inanimate is afforded human features. The object is not thought to be literally a person within the world of the story.
  • Polytropos — literally “many forms”. In literary use, “many personalities”.
  • Body Swap — a different take on shapeshifting, in stories which usually achieve a double reversal.
  • Changeling — in this case it feels like a child’s body has been swapped for something evil.
  • Metempsychosis — the supposed transmigration at death of the soul of a human being or animal into a new body of the same or a different species. You find this in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. According to pagan magic, natural phenomena was constantly changing from one thing into another. This is the belief system that governs the realm of fairytale. ‘Fairy tale logic’ is Pagan logic. You probably know Pythagoras from your high school maths textbook, but Pythagoras more widely was known back then for his wide dissemination of a set of principles to do with mysticism, not just mathematics. He was just as interested in both. He wrote far more about mysticism than about maths, but still added a lot to our understanding of the world.
  • Transmigration — unless you’re talking about the Ancient Greek belief system, transmigration is the word to use. it’s basically another word for the process of reincarnation, which means ‘entering the flesh again’. Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism are pretty well-known for their belief in reincarnation. But the Norse, many Native American nations, lots of Catholics and Muslims also belief in some form of reincarnation, not to mention Scientology, Wicca and a bunch of other religions/cults I’ve never heard of. People seem to love this idea. I see it as one way of coping with knowledge of impending death.

TRANSMOGRIFICATION AND CHRISTIANITY

When my daughter was about five or six she was already a fan of Hayao Miyazaki. Miyazaki animations are full of transmogrification, in line with Japanese folklore. I remember a brief developmental period where she really did believe that people and animals could transmogrify into other things. To her, this wasn’t against the law of physics. But belief in transmogrification isn’t limited to young kids who’ve watched a lot of anime.

In 1381, there was a massive revolt in England, lead by an academic by the name of John Wyclif. What was his problem with the church? Corruption and hypocrisy, mostly. Plenty agreed with him and this led to an uprising. The church lay at the heart of the economy and of politics and to them him this wasn’t right. It even lead to the beheading of the Archbishop of Canterbury.

So what did the Church of England do? They didn’t want to give up their power, their property and political influence.

Wyclif had criticised the Eucharist — the part of Mass where bread and wine are blessed. They are believed to become the body and blood of Christ. Since 1215, the idea had been that a miracle takes place and after the blessing there is no bread and wine left — they become flesh and blood.

But the Church of England had never made much of this point and their people were left to interpret the miracle as they liked, regarding it as ritual if they preferred. Wyclif proposed that the bread and wine become the body of Christ in a spiritual or symbolic sense. Normally this wouldn’t have been a massively out-there thing to say, except after all that had happened, the church doubled down on it. After the incidents of 1381, the bishops — headed by William Courtenay, archbishop of Canterbury — decided this is where they’d draw the line, sort the believers from the enemies. From 1401, archbishops were able to hand over anyone who dared suggest that the bread and wine were not literally the body and blood of Christ. The doubting Thomas would be burnt at the stake. This was a very effective way of retaining the status quo.

The feast of Corpus Christi has not declined today, as have other great medieval feasts, such as Pentecost, but still provides the occasion for remarkable processions, imagery and performances that have become acts of communion beyond the ecclesiastic authorities’ reach. It continues to celebrate the miracle of transubstantiation which lies at the centre of the Catholic belief system. This central doctrine has enhanced, far beyond the write of the Catholic faithful, a contemporary sacramental relationship among bodies, images and their meanings. It informs the theme of ogres and bogeymen more vividly than might at first appear, because its religious meaning attempts to purify cannibalism, to turn the pollution of anthropophagy into a means of salvation. The feast of Corpus Christi celebrates the central sacrificial meal of Christianity, the holy mystery of the true presence of the body and blood of Christ in the consecrated bread and wine of the Mass.

[…]

Catholics who were brought up after World War 2 remember the many hours spent anxiously pondering the mystery of the consecrated host: we should not bite into it, we were instructed by the nuns but let it melt on the tongue and swallow it ewhole. I was frightened to experiment and nibble at I—in case it might turn bloody in my mouth. Any crumbs were caught in the paten that the serving boy held under our chins and open mouths, and gathered together later; then the priest mixed them up in the wine and drank them down, because Jesus was present in every fragment, infinitely divisible and ubiquitous.

— Marina Warner, No Go the Bogeyman

TRANSMOGRIFICATION AND EUROPEAN FAIRY TALES

Transmogrification can be seen across various folklores across the world, and sometimes it takes a slightly different form. For the European fairy tales as collected by Grimm, or written by Hans Christian Andersen, the hope of shapeshifting underpins many of the stories.

  • The Ugly Duckling by Hans Christian Andersen — a wish fulfilment fantasy — those of us who are ugly won’t always be so. (If not on this earth, then we’ll meet our perfect selves up in Heaven.) This tale is the ur-story of any makeover scene written today.
  • Beauty and the Beast — the wish that however ugly our betrothed, by loving him he will become attractive to us eventually.
  • The Frog Princess — another take on the Beauty and the Beast category.
  • The Water Babies by Charles Kingsley —  Tom transforms into a water baby after falling in the river.
  • Rapunzel, in one interpretation

‘Dwarfing’ is also a form of transmogrification, common in fairytales:

Dwarfing characters, ading bumps and lumps that deviate from ordinary human anatomy, has become, in the late twentieth century, a highly common form of magic charm. Crook-backs are considered lucky in some parts of the world: in Italy, until recently, rubbing thehump was commonplace. Bes, the Egyptian god of portals, who makes rude grimaces to give protection to his votaries, was depicted as a dwarf. Some of this ancient superstition still permeates the totem world of toys. The proportions of the medieval gryllus haunt characters like Tolkien’s Hobbits, the Smurfs (highly popular in the 1980s) and, the greatest charmer of them all, the benevolent E.T. of Steven Spielberg’s huge success.

— Marina Warner, No Go the Bogeyman

CONTEMPORARY EXAMPLES OF TRANSMOGRIFICATION IN STORYTELLING

There are many. I’ve analysed a few of them on this blog.

FAMILY FILMS
  • Brave
  • The Cat Returns
  • Spirited Away — Chihiro’s parents turn into pigs. Chihiro herself has her name shortened to ‘Sen’ (the Chinese reading of one of the characters in her name). By changing her name she becomes a different person for a while.
  • Wolf Children, and any other werewolf story.
ADULT SHORT STORIES
PICTURE BOOKS
  • Slinky Malinki by Lynley Dodd — basically a werewolf story but starring a mischievous pet cat
CHILDREN’S NOVELS
  • Northern Lights the animals keep changing until the child’s personality settles into their permanent one.
  • Freaky Friday, in which a mother and daughter swap bodies to learn about each other
  • The Animorphs series
  • All the transforming spells in Harry Potter
  • Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland — when Alice nibbles on a bit of mushroom; when Alice is a huge walking head on the ground. Both of the Alice books play with identity via distortions of the body. According to Marina Warner, ‘ Carroll’s creations are the most eloquent modern exponent of Circean sporting with nature and the pleasures that beasts and monsters can inspire’.
CARTOONS
  • Courage The Cowardly Dog, whenever Courage turns into a monster to try and get his message across without words. This is a gag that happens in every episode.

How can setting be a character?

When asked to write something about setting, for an essay or an exam, what exactly are we being asked to describe?

When I was in high school my English teachers advised us all against writing the exam essay on setting. So I did. But I wouldn’t advise the same thing. Setting essays provide plenty of opportunity for demonstrating knowledge and understanding of a work.

At about junior high school level, setting comprises two things: TIME and PLACE.

But a more sophisticated breakdown of the concept of setting involves different aspects to include:

  1. PERIOD – a story’s place in time. This can actually be broken down further into ‘author period‘ (the time when the author originally created or published the work, and ‘narrator period‘, which is the time when the narrator of a work supposedly narrates the story. (Reader period. Counterpoint this against when the reader reads the work, if this is useful.)
  2. DURATION – a story’s length through time. Maybe it takes place over a year, cycling through each season. Maybe it takes place over 24 hours. Some people call this the temporal setting.
  3. LOCATION – a story’s place in space — On a scale: a real place, fictional but based on a real place, completely made up, otherworldly.
  4. MANMADE SPACES – towns, cities, parks. Manmade places tend to symbolise the conscious, tamed part of our minds.
  5. NATURAL SETTINGSforests (which usually border a town in fairytales) tend to represent the subconscious. Forests are especially interesting, but we also have rivers and mountains.
  6. TECHNOLOGY CRUCIAL TO THIS PARTICULAR STORY – in a fantasy it might be a system of magic in lieu of technology. In speculative fiction this will be at the forefront. Even in non-SF work, the tech of the time is relevant to setting.
  7. LEVEL OF CONFLICT – the story’s position on the hierarchy of human struggles. If ‘time and place’ refers to temporal and physical location, this refers to the social one. What’s going on in the wider world of the story, politically, socially, environmentally…? A ten dollar word to use here is ‘milieu’.

If applied to Breaking Bad:

  1. PERIOD – The first season aired 2008, and the story is set in either that year or very close to that year.
  2. DURATION – Although the series has taken 6 years to watch due to the time it takes to produce a series, the duration of the story is 2 years.
  3. LOCATIONAlbuquerque, New Mexico; Mexico; in the homes of Walt, Jesse, Hank; in factories and small local businesses
  4. MANMADE SPACES – the houses, the factories, the high school, the streets, the hotel (depending on the episode, there are many)
  5. NATURAL SETTINGS – the Albuquerque desert, which can also kill you if you’re not careful
  6. TECHNOLOGY CRUCIAL TO THIS PARTICULAR STORY – equipment to produce methamphetamine, later in its purest form
  7. LEVEL OF CONFLICT – At a time when teachers aren’t paid enough to support a family, when health care is unaffordable to those working in the caring professions, when methamphetamine use is causing criminal harm and much victimization

If applied to Courage the Cowardly Dog:

  1. PERIOD – The style of house, the dress of the characters suggest contemporary late 1990s.
  2. DURATION – Each episode seems to ‘reset’ back to the beginning as if nothing happened before and nothing was learned. As evidence, Courage is never, ever believed when he raises the alarm about intruders. If this was a story which built upon itself, you’d expect Muriel to take him seriously after a while, because he’s never wrong.
  3. LOCATION – The fiction town of ‘Nowhere’ represents any Midwest rural town in America — anywhere flat, where it’s possible to live miles from anyone else.
  4. MANMADE SPACES – the house, the retail outlets, the nearby factories and experimental labs.
  5. NATURAL SETTINGS – the Midwest plains
  6. TECHNOLOGY CRUCIAL TO THIS PARTICULAR STORY – Opponents bring their own technology to each episode and use whatever they’ve got to try and defeat Courage. Courage has only a PC at his disposal, which is anthropomorphised and talks to him. It doesn’t give Courage the information he wants. This represents an early form of search engines, and comments on to a time when people were just starting to use the Internet. The Internet was much smaller then, and results were much fewer.
  7. LEVEL OF CONFLICT – Some have hypothesised that the setting of the farmhouse in Nowhere represents a dog’s experience rather than a real place — that Courage’s experiences are those of any dog who is housebound, not taken out for regular walks, and who sees every visitor as an opponent no matter their intention. The entire series could be considered a metaphor for what goes on inside a dog’s head, presented as understandable to human viewers, using familiar human tropes.

SETTING AS CHARACTER

Then there’s the ultimate in sophisticated essays about setting. This is where you write about how setting is basically one of the characters.

setting as character

What do people mean when they talk about setting as character? Continue reading “How can setting be a character?”