Symbolic Archetypes In Children’s Stories

These symbolic archetypes are very old. The earliest written record we have is often in fairy tales.

Light vs. Darkness

Light usually suggests hope, renewal, or intellectual illumination. Darkness implies the unknown, ignorance, or despair.

Pure black is rare in children’s illustration but Jon Klassen makes use of matte black in The Dark, which is about a young boy’s fear of the symbolic house at night.

the dark jon klassen

In general, Jon Klassen makes much use of shadows to subtly frame the focal points of his illustrations. This is a technique reminiscent of 1960s illustration, found in animation such as 101 Dalmatians. Below, a scene from 101 Dalmatians contrasts blues (darks) against pinks  (warm and light), and the flame from a fireplace casts a frame within a frame as our villain creeps towards the door. Continue reading “Symbolic Archetypes In Children’s Stories”

The Dark by Lemony Snicket and Jon Klassen

The Dark cover

NOTES ON THE DARK

PLOT

As usual I’ll break the narrative down according to John Truby’s seven essential elements, which seem to apply to everything from advertisements to novels. Picture books are great for studying this structure, because it’s often made so very plain. You can sometimes even lift direct quotes to illustrate the steps:

Weakness/Need

Psychological Weakness: “Laszlo was afraid of the dark.”

In children’s books, characters don’t need a moral weakness. (In other words, a child character doesn’t have to be treating anyone else badly in order for us to find them a sufficiently interesting and engaging character.)

Desire

On the first page we can see what Laszlo desires: He is playing with his toy cars in peace and solitude on the floor, so he obviously wants to continue doing that without being afraid of anything.

Opponent

The Dark. “The dark lived in the same house as Laszlo”. Normally the opponent has to be another human or monster, but here the dark is anthropomorphised, and might as well be a monster: ‘Sometimes the dark hid in the cupboard’. Daniel Handler spends quite a bit of time describing this monster and what it does.

Plan

Lazlo’s trick for keeping the dark out of his bedroom is saying hello to it during the day.

Until the phrase ‘But one night’ the entire book is written in the iterative. Now we see the switch to the singulative.

lazlo's bedroom

Battle

But when the bulb on the night-light burns out (we assume at this point), the dark does come into his room. The dark challenges Laszlo to visit it in the basement, which requires a scary trip down several flights of stairs. (Why he doesn’t just turn that torch on and use it as his night-light I’m not sure. I don’t think we’re meant to think that’s a possibility, though I have to admit it bothers me some — I think it’s a minor weakness in the plot.)

Self-revelation

Laszlo’s self-revelation comes in the form of a lecture, delivered by the author, meant for the young reader. There’s a very Roald Dahl feel to it, because Dahl used to do the same thing (for example in The Twits, when the reader gets a — rather hypocritical — lecture about not judging people based on what they look like):

The Twits beauty

In The Dark we have:

You might be afraid of the dark, but the dark is not afraid of you. That’s why the dark is always close by.

Young readers are then told that every scary thing with dark insides is actually necessary and useful and, ‘without the dark, everything would be light, and you would never know if you needed a lightbulb’, which is of course the far more humorous thing to say rather than, ‘without the dark you wouldn’t get a good night’s sleep’, and is very Daniel Handler.

We assume Laszlo has achieved this revelation on his own without the help of a narrator, and now the open drawer in the basement looks like a smiling face. He has realised there is nothing at all to be afraid of.

The dark can be kind, helpful even.

The Dark, written by Lemony Snicket and illustrated by Jon Klassen, shows us the dark through Lazlo’s eyes, which at first is scary and menacing. But through the shadowy illustrations and the lovely one page monologue in the middle of the book, we realize that we need the dark, and by the end, we fall in love with the dark’s generosity.

Nerdy Book Club

New Equilibrium

‘The dark kept on living with Laszlo but it never bothered him again.’

We even have the very same image bookending the story — the one where he’s playing with his toys on the floor. But this time the sun is in a slightly different place and Laszlo doesn’t look worried. Also, he no longer feels the need to carry a torch everywhere. This small detail shows that he has now overcome his fear of darkness.

Symbolism

Darkness

Darkness is of course symbolic throughout the history of literature and folkore and everything that came before. Below is a  beautiful excerpt illustrating the dark in words by Joyce Carol Oates:

The house looked larger now in night than it did in day. A solid looming mass confused with the big oaks around it, immense as a mountain. The barns too were dark, heavy, hulking except where moonlight rippled over their tin roofs with a look like water because of the cloud shreds blowing through the sky. No horizon, solid dark dense-wooded ridges like the rim of a deep bowl, and me in the center of the bowl. The mountains were only visible by day. The tree lines. By night our white-painted fences and the barbed wire fences were invisible. In the barnyard, the humped haystack the manure pile, I wouldn’t have been able to identify if I didn’t know what they were. Glazed-brick silo shining with moonlight. Barns, chicken coop, the sheds for the storage of machinery, much of it old, broken-down and rusted machinery, the garage, carports–silent and mysterious in the night. On the far side of the driveway the orchard, mostly winesap apples, massed in the dark and the leaves quavering with wind and it came to me maybe I’m dead? a ghost? maybe I’m not here, at all?

—  from We Were The Mulvaneys

Fear of the dark is at its peak in early childhood, between the time we first learn of the daily dichotomy and the age at which we can logically comfort ourselves that the dark is simply the absence of light; no more, no less.

It’s that in-between period of literature that seeks to reassure rather than scare. There are no monsters here; just nothingness.

The House

As far as picture book houses go, this is a castle rather than an inviting, warm home. The floors are bare. Hard surfaces everywhere. It’s the oneiric house of Gaston Bachelard’s dreams (The Poetics of Space). Of course a house like this needs a cellar. A story like this needs a cellar, because cellars are always dark. From other stories we have learnt to be afraid of cellars — murders and criminals and all sorts can be found in a cellar, or at least suspected, and even when you take a torch down there, the place is still cast mainly in shadow.

(Interestingly, my version reads ‘flights of stairs’ rather than ‘sets of stairs’. Flights definitely feels nicer to me. Is ‘sets of stairs’ an Americanism?)

the dark house

 

NOTES ON THE ILLUSTRATION

Illustrators have many different ways of illustrating the dark. For other examples, see my post Illustrating The Dark.

Geometry

Many modern books include plenty of white space — white is the neutral choice. But where black is chosen as a fill, the effect is dramatic. Here, of course, the black simply equals darkness. These areas of flat blackness emphasise the geometry of the pages. Here we have a rectangle and a couple of triangles, formed by the light from the torch. The triangles themselves almost form a monster’s mouth, with the bed-end resembling a grille of teeth. The effect of these strong, geometrical shapes is to complement the ‘cold windows’ and hard surfaces of this huge, unwelcoming house, which in real life might be nothing of the sort; this is the dream house of a little boy, and when you’re little, your house always seems much bigger in your mind.

thedark2

This kind of geometry really is well-suited to the horror genre in general.

by Levente Szabó
alternative film poster by Levente Szabó
Shadow

The verso image below includes a couple of interesting shadow. We can’t see what is casting the shadow in the foreground. Likewise, we don’t know exactly where that rectangle of light is coming from down the hallway. (We do know it’s from Lazlo’s bedroom, but we can’t see the bedroom.) All of this ‘off-the-page’ lighting lets us into Lazlo’s fear.

the dark hi he would say

COMPARE AND CONTRAST

It creeps all over the house.

I find it hovering in the dining-room, skulking in the parlor, hiding in the hall, lying in wait for me on the stairs.

The above is an excerpt from the feminist short story from 1892, The Yellow Wallpaper. Charlotte Perkins Gillman inverted the usual trope of the dark, gothic house and applied horror symbolism to yellow, a colour most often associated with sunshine and happiness. The attic at the top of this particular haunted house is an example of a well-lit room, which is quite unusual in horror. Then again, the author isn’t writing a straight horror story; she is writing an allegory for postpartum depression, pointing out how horrifying the condition can feel when you’re in it. She’s inverting the very hauntedness of the house, saying it’s not the house that’s haunted at all; it’s the people inside the house.

Iterative vs Singular Time In Children’s Literature

When writing about different temporalities in children’s literature, academic Maria Nikolajeva makes a useful distinction between ‘iterative’ time and ‘singular’ time.

Iterative Time

In an iterative sentence, it is assumed that whatever is happening has always happened and will continue to keep happening.

Iterative: ‘In the winter time the Rat slept a great deal, retiring early and rising late. During his short day he sometimes scribbled poetry…there was a good deal of storytelling.’ (In which storytelling is a ritual act). There are a lot of iterative sentences in circular stories such as Anne of Green Gables, as well as in The Secret Garden.

Singulative Time

A singulative sentence applies to an action in this particular story. Stories for children often start in the iterative then switch to the singulative.

All over town, from basket and bowl, he pilfered and pillaged, he snitched and he stole. (ITERATIVE)

He pulled them, he dragged them, he HEAVED them until… he’d carried them home to his house on the hill. (ITERATIVE)

One rascally night between midnight and four, Slinky Malinki stole MORE than before.(SINGULATIVE)

— from Slinky Malinki by Lynley Dodd

slinky malinki teddy bear

In picture books the switch to the singulative part of the story is often marked very clearly with a phrase such as ‘But one day’ or ‘However, on her fifth birthday’ or any similar variation.

You may have heard a related term: Discriminated occasion.

DISCRIMINATED OCCASION IN STORYTELLING

A specific, discrete moment portrayed in a fictional work, often signaled by phrases such as “At 5:05 in the morning . . . ,” “It was about dusk, one evening during the supreme madness of the carnival season . . . ,” or “the day before Maggie fell down. . . .”

EXAMPLES OF THE SWITCH

Below is the switch from iterative to singulative in The Dark by Lemony Snicket and Jon Klassen:

lazlo's bedroom

Chapter One of Mercy Watson Goes For A Ride by Kate diCamillo
Chapter One of Mercy Watson Goes For A Ride by Kate diCamillo
Chapter Five marks a switch from the iterative to the singular. This is where the *current* adventure begins.
Chapter Five marks a switch from the iterative to the singular. This is where the *current* adventure begins.

How The French Do It

Note that this division doesn’t necessarily hold for all languages. As James Wood writes in How Fiction Works, grammar works differently in French:

French verb forms allow [Flaubert] to use the imperfect past tense to convey both discrete occurrences (“he was sweeping the road”) and recurrent occurrences (“every week he swept the road”). English is clumsier, and we have to resort to “he was doing something” or “he would do something” or “he used to do something”–“every week he would sweep the road”–to translate recurrent verbs accurately. But as soon as we do that in English, we have given the game away, and are admitting the existence of different temporalities.

Iterative vs Singular in Literature For Adults

While this distinction is particularly obvious in picture books for children, might we also see it in books for older readers?

Yes, though it’s a lot more complex. In a picture book, you can pretty reliably expect the first few pages of the book to be in the iterative, especially if the author is introducing a new character. Then, after the switch to the ‘story at hand’ (the singular), there’s no switch back.

In a novel for sophisticated readers, there is a constant switch between iterative and singulative and the reader copes with this no trouble at all. In genre fiction such as thrillers and crime, rather than starting with the iterative, the modern requirement is for the story to grip the reader, so stories often begin in medias res. In contrast a novel which begins in the iterative lets the reader know that they’re in for a quieter, less disturbing read. Unless you get someone like Stephen King, who likes lengthy set-ups just so he can lull you into a sense of security before knocking you upside the head. It is perhaps psychological thrillers which are more likely to make use of this particular technique, since the setting is very often domestic, and domestic life is by its very nature iterative.