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55 Miles To The Gas Pump by Annie Proulx

“55 Miles To The Gas Pump” by Annie Proulx is a concise retelling of “Bluebeard in a remote, rural American setting.

Angela Carter also wrote a feminist re-visioning of Bluebeard in “The Bloody Chamber“. Proulx’s re-visioning is not feminist but grimly humorous.

55 Miles To The Gas Pump

The opening paragraph describes Rancher Croom in one long sentence, repeating his name as if this is an epic poem. Because this is just two paragraphs and one short one to finish, Proulx can get away with sentence fragments and present tense.

In “55 Miles To The Gas Pump”, on Mrs Croom’s reviling discovery in the attic of her husband’s “paramours,” whose corpses she recognizes “from their photographs in the paper. MISSING WOMAN,” the narrator dryly concludes: “When you live a long way out you make your own fun.” Since Annie Proulx herself live[d] on a rather secluded ranch in deep Wyoming, this grotesque and cynical intrusion from the narrator may be read as a metadiegetic comment from the implied author, ironically referring to the playful quality of her writing and to her art of recycling via the short story form.

— Thy Truth Then Be Thy Dowry: Questions of Inheritance in American Women’s Literatureedited by Stéphanie Durrans

STORY STRUCTURE OF 55 MILES TO THE GAS PUMP

According to author and senior lecturer of creative writing at Kingston University James Miller, “a short story is almost always a distillation of the elements we find in a novel: it intensifies character, location and event; it compresses time and narrative arc.”

Blarb

This is more vignette than story. A vignette with a punch line. At least, that’s how it feels at first glance. But brief as it is, does this ‘vignette’ actually have a full story structure? Sure enough, it does.

WEAKNESS/NEED

This is a story about Mrs Croom. Her weakness is that she has a husband who is up to things she knows nothing about. Presumably she is able to turn a blind eye, somewhat. Annie Proulx doesn’t go into any of this — Mrs Croom’s weaknesses are assumed. We can only imagine what sort of life a woman must lead if she sort of kind of knows her husband is the local mass murderer.

DESIRE

After her husband flings himself to his death over a cliff and into the surf below, Mrs Croom ‘whets to her desire’ to know what’s behind the padlocked doors in her own house.

OPPONENT

Mr Croom, her husband, the mass murderer

PLAN

She will cut a hole in the attic with a saw, because she can’t get through the padlocks. When this doesn’t do the job she changes to a chisel and hammer.

BATTLE

Rather than a battle this story gives us the aftermath of a battle, with enough detail for us to fill in the gaps.

SELF-REVELATION

Sure enough, Mrs Croom has been exactly right about her husband all along. The detail of one of the women with remnants of blue paint on her — the same blue paint used on the shutters years ago — highlights just how close to home and domesticity these gruesome acts are. Mrs Croom has lived here, in this house, with those blue shutters, and now she cannot extricate herself from the crimes.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

Rather than outrage, fainting or paralysing fear, Mrs Croom shows herself to be complicit, telling herself that her husband’s crimes are somewhat understandable given where they live and how there’s nothing much to do anyway. This explains the title of the story — the distance to the nearest gas station is indicative of how remote they are from civilisation (and also from civilised behaviour).

Proulx’s Bunchgrass Edge Of The World

Farm Scene American Artist (1851–1899) perhaps built in a similar era to the farmhouse in Proulx's short story

Farm Scene American Artist (1851–1899), perhaps built in a similar era to the farmhouse in Proulx’s short story

This modern retelling of The Frog Prince by Annie Proulx was published in the November edition of The New Yorker in 1998 and included in her Close Range collection of short stories.

PROULX’S STORY STRUCTURE

If I hadn’t had it pointed out I probably wouldn’t have picked up, on first reading anyway, that this is a re-visioning of the fairytale The Frog Prince. But this is an Angela Carter kind of subversive re-visioning in which the woman comes up trumps, though not in the patriarchal ideal of ‘happily’ married and subdued, but having chosen her own man and inheriting a property which ordinarily would have passed down the male line. (This is called patrimony.)

In “The Bunchgrass Edge of the World” the frog prince gets substituted by a monstrous, talking tractor. Ironically, the broken down, hybrid tractor shows misogynous prejudice, as it forbids Ottaline to repair it, claiming that “‘It’s men that fixes tractors, not no woman.'”

Thy Truth Then Be Thy Dowry: Questions of Inheritance in American Women’s Literature, edited by Stéphanie Durrans

In common with “The Frog Prince” she’s outside the house, though unable to go very far. Something unexpected starts talking to her ‘at the bottom of the garden’. Both the tractor and the frog are pretty awful characters and you’d never want anything to do with them even if they did transmogrify into handsome princes, though I feel the original readers of Frog Prince fairytales weren’t meant to think so.

There are other fairytale elements to this story. The story starts two generations before the ‘princess’ gets her story. Modern retellers of fairytales don’t do this, but Charles Perrault did. In Perrault’s version of Rapunzel we hear all about her parents and how the mother craved some kind of parsley and sent the father off to steal it from the witch’s garden. This practice of establishing heritage helps to give a story a sense of history, even though short. It also contributes to that ‘deterministic’ feel — a word often used to describe the work of Annie Proulx and fairytales alike. The father is called Aladdin. There is a crop of almost magical wheat — seeded from Aladdin’s pants cuffs when he somersaulted off the porch, exuberant and playful before his new wife.

Even the storyworld seems alive to Ottaline:

The calfskin rug on the floor seemed to move, to hunch and crawl a fraction of an inch at a time. The dark frame of the mirror sank into the wall, a rectangular trench. From her bed she saw the moon-bleached grain elevator and behind it immeasurable range flecked with cows like small black seeds.

This is not quite magical realism, but through Ottaline’s eyes we get a sense of what it’s like to view a grimly realistic world in a magical way. Mirrors, moons and rugs which seem alive — these are all reminiscent of fairytale.

WEAKNESS/NEED/PROBLEM

Continue reading

The Pied Piper of Hamelin: Legend Or Fairytale?

First up, The Pied Piper is not technically a fairytale. It is a legend. Hamelin was a real place, and it is believed that once, in this German town of Hamelin, all of the children really did disappear one day.

June 26, 1284, is when 130 children left Hamelin a town in Lower Saxony, Germany. This information comes from a stained glass window created for the church of Hamelin, which dates to around 1300 AD. The window no longer exists — it was destroyed in 1660. It’s been written down in chronicles (in Latin language) that June 26 is when the children ‘left’. (Left, not ‘died’ or ‘were taken’.) Nothing else was written down — was it too painful to write more? Even today no one is quite sure why the children of Hamelin disappeared. There are several theories.

The story itself suggests that the children were ‘taken’ away by the black death or similar, personified in the tale by a man in a pied (colourful) suit. The problem with this theory is that if the children were taken away by the Black Death or similar, surely it would have been recorded somewhere. Mass deaths due to Black Death were recorded elsewhere. People who were able to write generally wrote to other towns nearby to let them know what was happening and what they might expect.

A version of The Pied Piper cover by Monico Chavez

A version of The Pied Piper cover by Monico Chavez

 

Another popular theory is that they were taken away for The Children’s Crusades. This is a very dark story dating from The Middle Ages. Young charismatic cult leaders convinced children to take Holy vows with the aim of ridding the land of Muslims. They needed kids to do it because they had ‘not yet sinned’. There’s no evidence of any children ever reaching the Holy Land. We don’t know how much of this legend is true. They were almost certainly much smaller than we’ve been lead to believe. There’s no evidence that Nicholas the Crusader ever came to Hamelin to recruit. It is possible the children of Hamelin became part of a Pagan cult. Germanic Paganism was in its death throes in 1284, so they may have become victim to some cult leaders who were desperate to revive the pagan way of thinking. The summer solstice is celebrated around that time of year, though a bit earlier these days (around June 20-22).

Others have suggested it was a ‘dancing plague’. For more on that look up Choreomania.  There are plenty of stories of dancing mania in Germany at this time. One group of people even managed to break a bridge after too many were dancing on it at the same time. There were injuries. Holland and France also has reports of choreomania.

But there may be another reason an entire generation of children disappeared at once — the town may have been ransacked, with the children taken away as indentured slaves or married off elsewhere. This is not unheard of in history, and the Chibok schoolgirls were kidnapped in Nigeria overnight in April 2014. The Pied Piper could be a based on a news story similar to that.

This snippet turned into a proper tale (similar to the fairytales we read to our children today) in the next few hundred years. It was even said that someone in particular (named) saw it with his own eyes. At first there is no mention of rats. (In the 1400s version.) Continue reading

Rumpelstiltskin

The tale of Rumpelstiltskin asks a moral question: Who is the worst of the three men? The lying father who gives away his own daughter, the greedy King who threatens death, or the proto-men’s rights activist dwarf?

rumpelstiltskin dancing around a fire

This is my all-time favorite fairy tale because it’s so twisted. It’s got everything: greed, abandonment, deceit, royalty. If you ask anyone who the monster of this story is, they’d most likely say Rumpelstiltskin, the little man who bargains with the desperate young woman for her firstborn child. But here’s the real story: The young woman’s father wants to impress the king, so he brags that his daughter can spin straw into gold. The king imprisons her over the course of a series of nights and demands that she perform this trick (which she does, thanks to Rumpelstiltskin). The last time, the king tells her that if she doesn’t succeed he’ll kill her, and if she does succeed, he’ll marry her. So of course she does succeed, and then she gets to marry the king who threatened to kill her. Happy ending?

That last story gets me every time. Who’s the real monster? Is it actually the little guy who fulfills his promise? Or is it the father who sells out his daughter to impress the king? Or is it the greedy king who is already rich but threatens the life of a powerless young woman in order to get even richer…and then forces her into marriage? I don’t know about you, but there are a couple of pairs of red-hot iron shoes I’d happily give to those guys.

Riveted

Or perhaps we are to pass judgement on the miller’s daughter, who promises her first born under duress and then ‘fails’ to follow through, by handing the baby over to the gold-spinning dwarf? We are certainly invited to pass judgement on The Frog Queen, who promises to marry a frog if he retrieves her golden ball, and then promptly changes her mind once the frog has given it back. The idea that women have free will is a much newer concept than this tale. The morality of the miller’s daughter is interesting because she is both trapped in a prison, but also an honored guest. Scholars of feminism will realise that this gilded cage has resonance for many women even today.

This is a rags-to-riches tale of sorts — we don’t hear about the miller after he gives his daughter to the King, but we can assume he lived in comfort, at least for a good while. Continue reading

Storytelling Notes On A Series Of Unfortunate Events (2017)

Daniel Handler wrote the teleplay (as well as the books) to the Netflix adaptation of A Series Of Unfortunate Events. The author’s voice and politics come through loud and clear. Handler loves wordplay, and is not shy of delivering a ‘moral lesson’ on the difference between ‘literally’ and ‘figuratively’. Words and their meanings are consistently explained, but because Klaus, at least, already knows what the words mean, the young viewer does not feel condescended to. The joke is almost always on Count Olaf. Handler also has a keen handle on the most common storytelling tropes in children’s literature, and makes fun of them whenever he can. Lemony Snicket is on the side of the child.

a series of unfortunate events movie poster

The 2017 TV adaptation is a newly darkened version, similar to how Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was darkened with the 2005 film. Count Olaf is the Willy Wonka, of course, surrounded by quirky unpleasant characters plus the odd angelic child and sweet helper adults.

 

In the books the storyteller is hidden from view, but for the television series Lemony Snicket is portrayed in the form of Patrick Warburton, whose formal dress juxtaposes with the humorous positions he is placed in: sitting on a lifesaver’s chair, coming out of a sewerage hole in the middle of the street and so on. See: The Role Of Storytellers In Fiction.

This is the fist scene in which Lemony Snicket tells us to look away. We are put in mind of film noir (which is not a genre by the way, more a stylistic descriptor invented by critics).

The storyteller addresses the camera directly while, quite often, funny things happen in the background. While the characters cannot see him, sort of like a ghost, he is also in mortal danger, narrowly escaping death for instance.

Storyteller as ghostly lifeguard

A Series Of Unfortunate Events is famously metafictive, in which a character called Lemony Snicket warns children that this is going to be a terrible, horrible tale and they’d best turn away. Tongue-in-cheek reverse psychology. This advice is taken to its metaphorical limit in the TV series, in which the theme song advises us to ‘look away, look away!’ Then we have all the eye imagery — the viewfinder views, Count Olaf’s gaze through the peep hole (the first the Baudelaire children see of him), his eye tattoo and so on.

The cinematography of the Netflix TV series seems influenced by the films of Wes Anderson, both in symmetry and in colour. An audience knows to expect quirky from this style, and dark humour. (It was filmed in British Colombia, Canada, and you may recognise an actor or two from Orphan Black.)

Two point perspective as a train rolls past a static camera

The reflection of the old mansion allows the viewer to see both the children’s expressions as well as what they are saying goodbye to.

I’m guessing the clouds have been digitally manufactured in this distinctively storybook scene.

The brother and sister Baudelaire children stand in for ‘The Everychild’. They do not have all that much in the way of personality, aside from being inherently good and kind and well-behaved. There are differences between them — while I read Klaus as an autist, Violet is a comically Pollyanna character, determined to make the most of the situation when she asks Klaus to come across the worst predicament he’s ever encountered in his reading, then concludes they are not so badly off. Again, this is Daniel Handler making fun of the character trope that girls and boys in popular children’s stories are expected to be ‘nice’ and ‘good’. This doesn’t matter — we have Count Olaf for the laughs. In fact, all of the surrounding characters have more quirks and personality than Violet and Klaus, who, like the child audience, are newcomers to the situation and are to be read as ‘normal’.

The baby has magic super powers — she can chew things to pieces, and even create entirely new objects simply by using her four teeth. Her baby language is treated as if it’s an entirely different language, which only her siblings and surprising other characters are able to understand to the exclusion of everyone else. The baby’s words are subtitled in a font from the silent film era.

This storyworld is an example of Magic Realism. It also has steampunk elements, not so different from the Spy Kids series, in which our child heroes are expert at building contraptions. These expertise are first shown as a means of them having fun (retrieving the perfect skimming stone from the ocean), but of course these skills come in handy later, to get themselves out of dire trouble.

“It’s only scary because of the mist,” Klaus says metafictively, as Mr Poe (surely named after the horror writer?) approaches them on the beach to deliver terrible news. See: Fog Symbolism.

“It’s only scary because of the mist.”

A lot of the humour comes from the juxtaposition between the fairytale storyworld and very modern problems. For instance, when Hook-Handed Man ruins an old-fashioned typewriter (because he has hooks for hands) he asks for IT support. When Count Olaf says Violet will be marrying him ‘in an hour’ he upends a giant hourglass which he can’t remember the name of. This is making use of the classic ‘ticking clock’ storytelling device, often used to heighten suspense, but when the timer runs out nothing happens, except for Count Olaf losing face by returning through the trapdoor of the attic to explain that, actually, he bought the thing online and he didn’t know the sand went through so quickly so the children will have to turn it over a few times.

Handler is a master of irony, and there is irony in every scene and in a large proportion of the dialogue. For example, the Baudelaire children are at first taken to Mr Poe’s family — an archetypal cosy house with both parents, full of children and a well-coiffed mother in an apron who at first appears to be the epitome of a caring 1950s housewife.

We soon learn, however, that not all is well in the suburbs and she is in fact unwelcoming, taking obvious and great pleasure in the publicity she is able to garner for her own family via this tragic event.

Later that night, her children ask the Baudelaires how they managed to kill their parents, presumably because they’re hoping to do the same. The following morning we see just how small and ‘cosy’ the Poes’ house really is. Small-minded people live in very small houses — ‘cramped’, more than ‘cosy’, as first suggested by the dining table scene.

 

“I know he’s very eager to meet you and he’s employed as an actor so you know his excitement is genuine.”

This ironic tone pairs very nicely — like a great pair of serif/sans serif fonts — with the fact that much of the dialogue is in fact ‘on the nose’. The plot itself is signposted. While we are busy enjoying the storyworld and humour, we are not expected to work too hard to understand what is going on.

“Chop chop, Baudelaires. Now that I’ve found you a suitable guardian I’m going to take you to your new home before banking hours begin.”

Daniel Handler is firmly on the side of the child audience.

Mr Poe: “I know you must be nervous about living with a guardian. I know how I was when I was your age.”
Klaus: “We’re all different ages.”

The joke is repeated again later when another clueless adult — Count Olaf — talks about how much he loved cupcakes when he was ‘their age’. Again, Klaus repeats, “But we’re all different ages.” As is the child audience. More proof that in Daniel Handler’s writer’s mind, the Baudelaire children stand for The Audience In General. Also, we are not to believe adults who use the annoying phrase, “When I was your age”.

When Klaus expresses dismay at Count Olaf’s having a tattoo of an eye on his ankle (not to mention all the obvious eyeball paraphernalia about the house), the very reasonable and politically correct Violet advises her brother, as well as the audience, that tattoos are simply a decorative pigmentation of the skin and do not mean the person wearing them is bad. This stands in stark contrast with much characterisation from The First Golden Age Of Children’s Literature in particular, in which we were actively encouraged to judge baddies based on what they look like.

A mystery is introduced when the children find a strange object hidden in the rubble of their family home.

Cinderella is the ur-tale behind A Series Of Unfortunate Events. We have poor orphans who have lost their caring and excellent real parents and who are sent to live in a big house which is emotionally bereft. They are forced to endure terrible hardships, though not of the realworld kind — that would be too cruel and not at all for children — cleaning and scrubbing and cooking and always failing to win approval. Basically an exaggerated form of how generally-cared-for children feel when they’re feeling a bit sorry for themselves.

The parents are not actually dead. We are reassured of this at the end of the first episode.

Why is it not more tragic that the parents (apparently) die in a terrible fire right at the beginning of the story? Because we don’t know the parents. The history of children’s literature (particularly American children’s literature) is chock full of orphans. If we don’t get to know them, their deaths are not sad per se, rather the plight of the children is the sad thing. See: Why So Many Orphans In Children’s Literature?

The dark, empty mansion belonging to Count Olaf is contrasted with the inverse living right across the road — Justice Strauss who is not the slightest bit evil, has a garden full of blossoms, a beautiful big library and is a very caring person. Extreme evil against extreme nice. Comic characters are often 2D and that’s just fine. These are dream houses, to use the terminology of Gaston Bachelard, so of course they have stairs, basements and attics. See: Symbolism Of The Dream House.

This is all we see of the Baudelaire children’s house before it is razed to the ground — a wonderful, warm library (and no parents in sight).

When the camera pans from Justice Strauss’s house to Count Olaf’s gothic mansion the camera follows a blue bird flying happily. Unfortunately, in the middle of the street, a raven swoops down and kills it. A raven in storytelling probably puts you in mind of Edgar Allan Poe’s poem, among many others. The raven is a metaphor for death, understood by young audiences and jaded ones alike.

Blue bird, and blue sky on the sunny side of the street.

Raven swoops in front of Count Olaf’s mansion

Count Olaf himself is birdlike, watching the children from his bird’s eye view in the belfry.

Count Olaf ‘welcomes’ the children to his home.

It’s such a shame the Baudelaire children can’t live with Justice Strauss, and we are made to feel it keenly. This regret is underscored by her declaration that she’s just bought a new food processor, but who does she think she’s kidding because “I have no mechanical skills whatsoever”. Since we already know the children are expert mechanics, they would obviously be a great fit. Moreover, she has no way of cutting up the baguette, which the baby is excellent at doing with her teeth.

meeting Justice Strauss

RELATED

Performative Metafiction: Lemony Snicket, Daniel Handler and The End of A Series of Unfortunate Events

Garth Pig And The Ice Cream Lady By Mary Rayner

Garth Pig and the Ice Cream Lady is a British picture book written and illustrated by Mary Rayner in 1977. The story is part fairytale, part 1977 modernity.

garth pig runs after ice cream van

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mary Rayner was born in 1933 in Mandalay, Burma of British parents. She was 8 years old when Japanese troops invaded Burma. Her mother and two siblings walked over the mountains into India. Her father had joined the army and was killed.

After the war, the Rayner family returned to the UK from India.

The sense of a family pulling together in dire circumstances is conveyed, though comically, in this story.

The illustrations are very much of England.

That’s because after a degree in English in England, Mary Rayner joined the publishing industry. Her first book was The Witch-Finder in 1976. This one came the year after, along with Mr and Mrs Pig’s Evening Out. She wrote and illustrated the pig books for her own three children, though by the time she’d finished them they’d themselves grown too old for them.

All of her children grew up to be writers themselves.

STORYWORLD OF GARTH PIG AND THE ICE CREAM LADY

Fairytale Land

This is very much a fairytale world, borrowing elements from:

The depiction of the village is very much a fairytale one, and decidedly English.

storybook-village_1000x1295

Whoosh Ice Creams

I wonder if English readers will know what a Whoosh ice cream is? I certainly can’t find out from my Internet research, though I thought it might be an abbreviation of the Whoosh! Cecil flavour. Apparently that is chocolate ice cream with salted caramel and cashews, but I doubt that’s what’s intended here because when the pigs finally get their whooshes they’re holding a rainbow coloured ice block type of thing.

(I believe the Whoosh! Cecil is American anyway, but even in 1977, English children were very much influenced by American culture. We see that in the second scene in fact, where all the brothers and sisters are playing cowboys and Indians.)

eating-whooshes-mother-sleeping

Apparent Utopia of Garth Pig and the Ice Cream Lady

This is an apparent utopia, in which everything looks homely and safe but in fact a child can be abducted by a stranger at any time. Fairytale worlds have always had the function of scaring children about strangers, and neglecting the cover the more sobering fact that adults most likely to hurt you are those you love and trust.

In any fairytale land you need a forest right next to the village/town. We have one here, and that’s where the wolf drives off to. It doesn’t matter for the purposes of a fairytale that there have been no forests in England since 1086 at the latest.

See also: Symbolism Of The Forest In Storytelling

Technology In Garth Pig and the Ice Cream Lady

It’s fitting that the wolf drives a Volkswagen Kombi because those things were always breaking down.

broken-down-kombi

STORY STRUCTURE OF GARTH PIG AND THE ICE CREAM LADY

WEAKNESS/NEED

It’s interesting that Garth Pig and the Ice Cream Lady opens with the mother pig scrubbing the floor because she is not the main character. We see her overleaf very much not coping with her ten children — she has her head buried in her hands. Most mothers in picture books are coping very nicely, in their aprons and clean, middle class homes, so it’s interesting to see this variation of motherhood. I wonder why the author decided to open with the mother — perhaps she’s saying that while the mother is busy with housework the children will get up to mischief.

mother-pig-scrubbing-floor_1000x1306

DESIRE

The main character of Garth Pig and the Ice Cream Lady is Garth. He wants an ice cream. Not only does he want an ice cream, he wants an upgraded ice cream. While all the siblings are happy with whooshes, Garth hopes there will be enough change to buy himself a double cone with flakes coming out of it. This is obviously the luxury choice of the storyworld. At first it looks as if Garth is punished for being so greedy. But he gets his upgraded cone in the end, because the mother feels sorry for him after his ordeal. It is therefore left to the young reader to decide if being greedy was all worth it.

There is a problem with the plot in my opinion: It is decided that Garth, alone, will go to the ice-cream truck and get 10 ice creams for his brothers and sisters. But there is no way in hell a person with hands let alone a pig with hoofs could carry back the ice creams alone. Haha. This is what Hitchcock would have called a refrigerator moment.

While a good measure of suspended disbelief is necessary to enjoy picture books, this is one step too far. In real life I’m guessing children will be familiar with the difficulties of carrying multiple ice creams without help, and there is no good reason why several of the little pigs wouldn’t go along to help Garth. It’s necessary for the plot, however; Garth is vulnerable precisely because he is alone.

 

OPPONENT

The wolf dressed as a nice lady.

Garth Pig buys and ice cream

Perhaps the wolf really is a female wolf — she remains ungendered. But the evil wolf dressing up as ‘grandma’ obviously has its roots in Little Red Riding Hood. I believe therefore that most readers will read the wolf as male underneath. (In cases where a female is revealed to be a male, this is playing on an instinctive human fear of mistaking something for something else. This trope continues today and is damaging to the trans community. See Julia Serano’s book Whipping Girl.)

ice cream van with ice cream horns in garth pig

The ice cream decorations on the roof look almost like horns.

PLAN

Just as happens in Dr Seuss’s And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street, this story makes use of symbolic crossroads. When the ice cream trail runs out at the crossroads, the pigs are forced to change their plan from ‘following the trail’ to actively searching for Garth.

Meanwhile, in the van, Garth hears the wolf singing about chops and realises someone’s not quite right.

Even an abducted and therefore quite helpless child character must not be passive. We enjoy watching Garth try to get himself out of this difficulty of partly his own making. (If he hadn’t been so greedy about counting the money to see if he could upgrade his ice cream he might have noticed, as well all did, that the ice cream vendor was a wolf.)

Garth Pig gets himself out of difficulty

BATTLE

There is a fairly lengthy action scene in which the reader enjoys seeing the wolf try to control a bicycle built for ten as it careens downhill. This eventually ends with him being thrown into the river.

chase scene in garth pig

Next there is a shot to Garth inside the van, realising he’s in trouble. The van breaks down. Garth breaks free.

rolling down the hill in garth pig

 

downhill calamity in garth pig

wolf-falls-into-river

SELF-REVELATION

In this comic tale there is no groundbreaking soulsearching revelation. Instead, the pigs — who live in fairytale land, after all — realise that they still haven’t had their ice creams, and that they can just go up the hill and get some for themselves now that the evil wolf has been taken care of.

All is fair in this story, because the mother points out that she’s already paid for them, after all. (There’ll be no promotion of thievery in picture books, thanks very much.)

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

It’s fitting that the final image we see is of the wolf’s old straw hat, caught in the branches which hang into the river.

In stories, hats have a special significance of denoting power or otherwise. A father will give his son a baseball cap, for instance, or a king will give a prince his crown to symbolise a transfer of power. Without the hat as disguise, the wolf is now rendered completely powerless. We can extrapolate from this image that he won’t be bothering this village again.

new equilibrium in garth pig

Instead of dead bodies we sometimes see discarded items in picture books to accompany the disappearance of a baddie.

Princess Smartypants by Babette Cole

Princess Smartypants is an example of a children’s picture book which uses gender reversal to tell a story that would never really happen. What if women of high socio-economic status could choose their own marriage/non-marriage partners? The ending plays into the stereotypically MRA fear — if women were allowed autonomy they may choose not to include men at all.

Princess Smartypants has been talked about quite a bit by children’s literature critics, though I personally feel it’s not as successful as it looks at first glance. It’s still notably, however, as an early example of reversal as a way of highlighting inequality.

PRINCESS SMARTYPANTS PINK COVER

Gloria Steinem wrote in her 1994 book Moving Beyond Words that she has ‘gained a lot of faith in reversals’ as a way of highlighting structural inequalities and prejudices:

[Reversals] create empathy and are great detectors of bias, in ourselves as well as in others, for they expose injustices that seem normal and so are invisible. In fact, the deeper and less visible the bias, the more helpful it is to take some commonly accepted notion about one race, class, ethnicity, ability — whatever — and see how it sounds when transferred to another. […] To uncover the difference between what is and what could be, we may need the “Aha!” that comes from exchanging subject for object, the flash of recognition that starts with the smile, the moment of changed viewpoint that turns the world upside down.

Steinem then goes on to make a great job of turning Sigmund Freud into Phyllis Freud, with all of the misogynistic and historically dangerous ideas reversed, in a world where women hold the power instead of men; where the uterus is revered rather than the phallus.

 

STORY STRUCTURE OF PRINCESS SMARTYPANTS

Types of Archetypal Journeys

Heroes in stories will set out to accomplish one of the following 10 things. Here, of course, we have a story about number five:
1. The quest for identity
2. The epic journey to find the promised land/to found the good city
3. The quest for vengeance
4. The warrior’s journey to save his people
5. The search for love (to rescue the princess/damsel in distress)
6. The journey in search of knowledge
7. The tragic quest: penance or self-denial
8. The fool’s errand
9. The quest to rid the land of danger
10. The grail quest (the quest for human perfection)

Babette Cole subverts the reader’s expectation that the prince and princess will end up married. These days it doesn’t seem such a radical story at all, but that’s only because we’ve seen it before.

I feel this story is very much an ancestor of the Pixar film Brave:

  • A princess whose parents tell her its time to put away childish, tomboy things and get married
  • The princess doesn’t exactly fit the princess ideal — Merida because of her wild, red hair and Smartypants because of her large, red nose.
  • A succession of tests for potential suitors
  • In which the suitors make bumbling fools of themselves by slapstick means.

brave merida fighting warrior

I’m no huge fan of Brave. I do know a few little girls who love it to bits, mainly because of the archery. But there’s something not quite right about the story arc, and I feel it’s a bit cheap to play the princes for laughs.

As expressed eloquently by Circadian Rhythms:

This [narrative] isn’t just saying that women don’t have to marry, it’s saying that women can humiliate men, force them to work, then don’t marry them. In fact, Princess Smartypants can only live happily ever after when she has rid herself of essentially all men (who are, needless to say, intimidated by her transfiguring osculations). Just like all women! We females can only be free once men have become the toads they are at heart!

Not only that, but the scene in which the prince is made to go shopping with the Queen mother shows him humiliated, not just because of his crawling position, but because he is in the lingerie department, weighed down by a load of female undergarments. It’s impossible to view this scene as humbling without also acknowledging at some level that female undergarments are inherently funny and shameful.

However, back in the mid 1980s when Princess Smartypants was published, the world was seeing feminist inversions of classic tales for the first time.

princess-smartypants-character

STORYWORLD OF PRINCESS SMARTYPANTS

This is a parody of fairytales in general and borrows parts from all the famous ones.

  • The castle is in ‘fairytale land’, but in a modern (1980s) twist
  • The story makes use of the rule of threes, with three bumbling suitors
  • Thrones, crowns, moats, a forest, horses and castles
  • (Comically) scary mythical creatures
  • A high tower made of glass (Rapunzel/Cinderella?)
  • A magic ring
  • Thrown into a pond (The Frog Prince etc)

WEAKNESS/NEED

Princess Smartypants has been born into a life with a rigid path; she must marry into royalty (and produce heirs).

 

find-yourself-a-husband

DESIRE

However, she doesn’t want that life. She wants to remain single and buck conventional gender roles.

OPPONENT

The parents, who represent the entire culture of marital expectations

PLAN

She’ll vet some suitors, but she’ll set such enormous tasks that there’s no way they’ll be able to accomplish them.

BATTLE

The battle scenes comprise a large proportion of a picturebook, and sure enough the princes are put through a series of tasks which involve her scary pets or scary rides.

princess-smartypants-slugs

But ultimately, Princes Swashbuckle is able to accomplish all of these tasks. Princess Smartypants has lost the battle.

SELF-REVELATION

Except Prince Swashbuckle is not interested in her.

A ‘swashbuckler’ is an idealistic hero archetype. He rescues damsels in distress, defends the downtrodden, and in general saves the day.

However, to a modern audience the swashbuckler hero feels like a parody of himself. He is often a little bit camp. This much is left unsaid; instead, Princess Smartypants is required to kiss him (following her own rules of the game) but he turns into a frog, in an inversion of the Princess And The Frog fairytale.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

princess-smartypants-new-equilibrium

Jack and the Baked Beanstalk by Colin Stimpson (2012)

Jack and the Baked Beanstalk

As you can see from the cover art, this picturebook has been illustrated by someone with a lot of experience in digital art — as a coffeetable book of illustrations this stands alone as an exhibition of beautiful colour, wonderfully composed perspective drawings and interesting character design.

See here for notes on ‘the’ original tale.

The original Jack And The Beanstalk, at its heart, a male coming-of-age tale, in a milieu where boys must learn to be the income earners for the females in their family. You’ve probably also heard theories about what the beanstalk symbolises. I think that’s a bit of a stretch.

CRITIQUE OF CAPITALISM

As a story for older readers, this modern retelling would be good for discussing ideas such as industrialisation and its impact on small vendors, the problems with large fast food companies and a capitalist economy.

Normally in stories like these, the ‘giant’ stands for ‘the corporation’. Is that what the giant stands for here? If so, would the world really run better if these corporations suddenly quashed the structures they’ve worked to build?

The ideology of the original tale is a bit dodgy actually, when you think about it: Modern picturebook writers don’t get away with glamorising thieves. Just take a look at the one-star reviews of This Is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen, which is a great story, but rubs some gatekeepers of kidlit completely up the wrong way. I would add, in the case of the modern Klassen story, the thief is duly punished. (He — or she? — gets eaten.) Not so in the original Jack and the Beanstalk. Jack is richly rewarded for his thievery and daring.

In Stimpson’s modern retelling, however, the setting is different and so must be the ideology. What do you think of when you think ‘capitalism’? Those in favour of capitalism probably conjure up a (traditionally) picturebook township, with a milk bar, a greengrocer, a picture theater and butcher on each side of main street. The butcher who sells better sausages ends up making more money and eventually puts the inferior butcher out of business. Consumers win.

We’ve seen over the past centure or so that, actually, capitalism has a much darker side than that; in a capitalist society the rich can become super wealthy simply by having money in the first place, while the poor become increasingly destitute and are unable to work their way out of the pit.

What about the ideology in this book? This is no idealistic view of capitalism; it is a critique. The ‘little guy’ can easily get screwed over due to the machinations and schemings of people with far more money. This ‘flyover’ symbolises the way in which the super wealthy build their empires without a second thought to the little people, passing them over, so to speak. And in any narrative, the little people are the ‘underdogs‘.  We love stories starring underdogs.

NOTES ON THE ILLUSTRATION

Stimpson’s wonderful illustrations emphasise the similarity between the beanstalk and the flyover. Both are very high, thick structures wending and twisting high into the sky. There are other hints of beanstalk, too, foreshadowing what’s to come. Take a closer look at this wooden pole below, with the electrical cabling wound around it; this city hasn’t completely given itself over to industrialism — vestiges of the more wholesome natural world remain.

Jack and the Baked Beanstalk treasure

The illustrations in this story are wonderfully atmospheric. I love that there seems to be light coming off the magical can.

Continue reading

Bluebeard by Charles Perrault

I never encountered the story of Bluebeard growing up, as it was left out of my childhood fairytale anthologies.

illustration by Beauge Bertall

With horrific images like this, I’m not surprised. (illustration by Beauge Bertall)

As a mental mouthwash, I suggest you read Angela Carter’s feminist version of Bluebeard after reading this much earlier one by the misogynist Perrault. Carter’s story is called The Bloody Chamber.

The original French title is La Barbe bleue.

Disturbing as it is, the Bluebeard story has an influence on many modern stories, so is worth a read for that reason.

Continue reading

The Ocean Symbolism In Children’s Stories

As symbols in stories, consider the ocean as two distinct places: the surface and the deep.

Ocean Surface

The surface is the ultimate two-dimensional landscape, the flat table as far as the eye can see. This makes the ocean surface seem abstract while also being totally natural. This abstract flat surface, like a huge chessboard, intensifies the sense of the contest, a game of life and death played out on the grandest scale.

— John Truby, Anatomy of Story

But the thing about the ocean surface is, unlike the desert, you should be a little worried about what’s hiding underneath.

The great thing about dinghys is that they tend to be moored near the water, easily utilised by adventurous bands of kids.

Examples

Moby-Dick — a great example of a character who the author sets us up to believe is going to be the hero, but then kills him off for some weird reason. Moby Dick has also been rewritten for children, as many of the classics have. See, for instance, the version by Geraldine McCaughrean.

by Rose Forshall

Moby Dick illustration by Rose Forshall

Interior page from Hattie & Ocean scene from Hudson Chris Van Dusen

Interior page from Hattie & Hudson Chris Van Dusen

Titanic — based loosely on historical events, with a great example of a refrigerator ending (you realise afterwards, when you’re looking in the fridge for a snack, that Rose probably could have saved Jack.)

Jaws — the film which revolutionised movie merchandising

Dead Calm — the Nicole Kidman and Sam Neill thriller

Bloodline — Cissy Spacek’s TV series about a black sheep brother who returns home

All Is Lost — the Robert Redford (almost) wordless movie

Open Water — a 2003 American psychological horror drama film loosely based on the true story of an American couple, Tom and Eileen Lonergan, who in 1998 went out with a scuba diving group, Outer Edge Dive Company, on the Great Barrier Reef, and were accidentally left behind because the dive-boat crew failed to take an accurate headcount.

Ocean Deep

The ocean deep is the ultimate three-dimensional landscape where all creatures are weightless and thus live at every level. This weightless, floating quality is a common element when the human mind imagines a utopia, which is why the ocean deep has often been the place of utopian dreamworlds.

But the ocean deep is also a terrifying graveyard, a great, impersonal force quietly grabbing anyone or anything on the surface and pulling it down to the infinite black depths. The ocean is the vast cavern where ancient worlds, prehistoric creatures, past secrets, and old treasure are swallowed up and lie waiting to be discovered.

— John Truby

Ocean Deep At The Pool (Children’s Literature)

Sometimes the excitement of the ocean can be achieved in a swimming pool which, to a child, can seem just as scary.

pool_jihyeonlee21

 

Illustration from Pool by Jihyeon Lee

Illustration from Pool by Jihyeon Lee

Ocean As Utopia

In stories for children, the underwater world is most often a type of utopia.

Examples

The Stream That Stood Still by Beverley Nichols

The Stream That Stood Still

Modern audiences may not have heard of this story, the second of Nichols’ Magic Woodland trilogy, as it was first published in the 1940s, and hasn’t  been made into a movie. The main message in it is that concerted action and goodwill of many weak creatures will sometimes overthrow a single, strong, well-armed tyrant. The underwater world is obtrusively humanised: the sticklebacks belong to a regiment, the minnows are a ladies’ finishing school. The fish have police and magistrates.

The Little Mermaid

The Little Mermaid

Finding Nemo

Finding Nemo underwater

Sponge-Bob Square Pants
The comedy in this TV series works (for both children and adults) because the social structure is mimetic of (North American) human society. The underwater setting allows for wacky characters, a novel setting and lots of gags based on sea creatures.

Sponge Bob statue

Ponyo

ponyo and sousuke

See my post on Ponyo for Miyazaki’s strong sea symbolism.

THE SEA CAVE (LITTORAL CAVE)

The Mystery Of The Tolling Bell — always take your handbag when exploring sea caves.

Another wonderful advantage of sea settings is that the writer might make use of the caves formed by the nearby wave action to turn the ocean into a vast labyrinth where characters can easily get lost both laterally and vertically. One of the most terrifying passages I’ve ever read in fiction is the scene in The Beach by Alex Garland where the main character is swimming underground and almost runs out of breath while lost in the network of sea caves.

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