Gothic Horror And Children’s Books

Gothic horror is also known as gothic fiction. This refers to a type of story with a combination of horror, death and romance. The characters generally get caught up in paranormal schemes. The victim of these schemes is normally an innocent and helpless female character. In some instances, supernatural features such as vampires and werewolves are later explained in perfectly natural terms, but in other works they remain completely inexplicable.

When romance is the main focus it’s called gothic romance. Dark paranormal romance is the new gothic romance.

See also: What’s behind the wide appeal of all the horrible, brooding YA  boyfriends?

A Short History Of Gothic Horror

gothic horror

Its origin is attributed to English author Horace Walpole, with his 1764 novel The Castle of Otranto, subtitled (in its second edition) “A Gothic Story.” It originated in England in the second half of the 18th century. Only in the late 1790s did “Gothic” take on some of the meanings we most frequently associate with it today: Gothic as synonym for grotesque, ghastly and violently superhuman. 

The Gothic continued with much success in the 19th century, with the popularity of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and the works of Edgar Allan Poe. Another well known novel in this genre, dating from the late Victorian era, is Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

The height of the Gothic period is closely aligned with Romanticism (1764-1840).

The word Gothic also refers to the (pseudo)-medieval buildings, emulating Gothic architecture, in which many of these stories take place.

When the Gothic was emerging as an important genre in its own right, medical science was just starting to replace the mystery of the female body with scientific facts. Hysteria was the dominant response to sexual confusion and abuse. Cultural codes were still writing marriage as a loss of power and autonomous identity for women. Pregnancy and childbirth were downright dangerous, messy and awful. Today things are a bit different: We understand (basically) how the body works. We know that hysteria is actually depression. Women are brought up to believe we can have it all (itself a kind of fairytale). But the Gothic ideas are still recognisable to modern readers.

Gothic motifs change rapidly and consistently, both in form and in significance. It all depends on what is feared and valued at any given time. The Gothic genre is especially responsive to historical moment and cultural location.

These days, readers are unwilling to unilaterally assign blame. Even in children’s literature, villains are more complex. They are not inherently evil, but behave badly as a result of their environment. The innocent victims, too, are afforded some dignity in that they are assumed to have some part in their own predicament. In other words, modern victims have a psychological and moral weakness, whereas earlier victims were more ‘victim-y’ and more boring as heroes, to be fair.

Modern gothic stories don’t seek to expel the evil completely, but rather to accommodate it and give it its own space. Modern gothic stories are about finding some sort of middle ground.

Continue reading “Gothic Horror And Children’s Books”

Adventureland Storytelling Techniques

adventureland movie poster

GENRE BLEND

comedy, drama, romance >> true life

Comedies in this sense always have happy endings, and they characters have sex.

It could’ve been a true life story because Mottola really did work at a theme park. But he was steered away from the True Stories genre and gave his story the Hollywood gloss hoping it would turn out like Superbad. But ultimately he chose to portray all of the messiness of his relationships, his stupid decisions, and grand failures as they really happened, which makes it more drama than comedy. It ends up being quite different from Superbad. As John Truby says, the story is both cathartic and believable — more a “memoir” than a “based upon.”

The True Life stories genre can surprise an audience by diverting from the expected because life is also like that.

STORY STRUCTURE OF ADVENTURELAND

Before I take a close look at John Truby’s story structure, this is one film Truby has taken a look at himself on his own blog. Here are a few things he has to say about it:

  • Constructed as a classical comedy, very like “A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Young people coming of age leave adult society to enter a forest (in this case, an amusement park) where they work out, after some false starts, their sexual coming of age and prepare to re-enter society. 
  • The move away from a comedy like Superbad makes Adventureland refreshingly authentic, if not tied up in a nice, neat bundle.
  • The battle and new equilibrium are there.
  • The hero and love opponent both complete arcs that the writer could have easily idealized, 20 years after the fact, having gone through several more relationships.
  • This could easily have been overly-preachy, filled with the banalities of a college grad acting as a fish out of water amongst the under-educated. In fact, Mottola went the opposite route.
  • The most intelligent character is poor [Joel] who has no plans for his future, but the hero immediately recognizes the kinship they will have and befriends his coworker. He makes allies with nearly all of his coworkers, and gets along well with his bosses, too. The effect was a strong character web from which most of the comedy of the story could grow — a style used commonly by Judd Apatow, a frequent collaborator with Greg Mottola. [See Freaks and Geeks for an example of Apatow’s excellent character webbing.]

Self-revelation, need, desire

1. James will learn how to treat a woman well, enough to begin his first romantic relationship. (No gossiping about her secrets when you’ve had a fight, no looking around at other girls when you’re keen on one in particular.)

2. He knows the difference between love and sex. Until now he has been waiting for both at once and is therefore still a virgin.

3. James is too naive to function as an adult in society.

Ghost (backstory)

The elephant in the room is James’s virginity, a symbol for general lack of maturity. This lack of experience is the thing that will hold him back. (A non-event rather than an event.) There’s also the ending of the 11 day romance which went nowhere — he has had his heart disproportionately broken by that rejection. The virginity comes out on his first date with Em, who asks if he’s ‘had a lot of girls’.

Em has the ghost of a recent troubled past and we soon learn that she’s in a horrible relationship with a horrible, married man.

Storyworld

This is an enslaving world, as most stories are. James is in a hole due to his parents no longer supporting him financially and his lack of life experience.

1. This is a great arena — a cheesy, kitsch adventure park frequented by proto-Trump voter types and staffed by eccentrics.

2. Beyond the park there are hills and sea. We do get a glimpse of this — the characters can see that there is more outside the Adventureland — the main characters are all far too overqualified to be working in such a deadend job.

3. It’s summer — the classic time for university students to either finish their education or get a job. Summer is a more carefree season, where James will let his guard down just a little bit, smoking pot and socialising with people he wouldn’t normally see ever.

4. The man-made space of the Adventureland park is made up of many little islands of faux-fun. This place is supposed to be fun, but it’s really not. It’s repetitive and mindless and sometimes dangerous.

5. Technology — There are gimmicky games in the park, like games where you shoot a (glued-on) hat off a mannequin. Some of these are symbolic. For example, when Connell bursts James’s bubble, a balloon he’s blowing up literally bursts. Stuffed bananas stand in for manhood (with suggestions that James is lacking in it). The lightbulb montage in the opening credits perhaps symbolise ‘lightbulb moments’ for James, since this is a coming-of-age story.

6. The story is set in 1987, because this is a memoir. The clothes, drugs, food choices, possible venues of entertainment and the prejudices etc of the characters (no dating Jews for the Catholic girls) are specific to the era.

Weakness & Need (Problem)

James’s psychological weakness: He is naive in general after too much book learning and not enough life experience. He is the underdog among his male peers. He hasn’t grown up yet, still at the mercy of his parents’ financial situation even though he’s just had 4 years of college. He needs to grow up now. He is too ingratiating at times.

Moral weakness: He is too reliant on his parents. He is basically very nice to other people, but he throws a bit of a tantrum and does a lot of damage in this story.

In order to have a better life: James needs to learn to treat women with full respect and be less ingratiating to other people — men in particular. (This is a highly gendered story.)

Problem: The crisis at the beginning of the story is that James wants to go to grad school at Columbia to study journalism but his parents can no longer bankroll him. Nor can he go on the trip to Europe with his rich buddy. So he’s going to have to find a summer job, but he has absolutely no practical experience in anything except mowing the neighbour’s lawn.

Inciting Incident

The inciting incident (above) is revealed at the restaurant with his parents. It connects need and desire — the thing that’s the most wrong with James is that he can’t stand on his own two feet, but now he’s going to have to.

Desire

James’s goal is to save enough money to move to NYC and do a postgrad year of journalism. He wants to report on real events of the world, which is why a bachelor’s degree isn’t enough for him.

Ally/Allies

At his new job he quickly meets Joel, an even more nerdy and highly qualified version of himself.

He also meets Em, who saves him from getting knifed by some white trash guy who cheats to get a giant panda for his son.

Opponent

There’s a super annoying little guy called Frigo who, even though smaller than James, is constantly undermining his manhood by punching him in the balls and similar.

Mystery

Fake-Ally Opponent

Connell is the repairs guy who helps run the show. He appears to be an ally by taking James under his wing and giving girl advice but in fact he’s keeping tabs on Em, because he knows Em is going out with James. In reality, he’s standing in the way of James’s happiness with Em.

Changed Desire and Motive

This comes later: When James no longer has the money to study in NYC due to totalling his parents’ car, he still wants to move to NYC, but this time he’ll take a year off to continue his worldly education, focus on his relationship with Em, and perhaps attend grad school the following year.

First Revelation and Decision

Although he likes Em, Em doesn’t feel the same way about him (or isn’t in a position to commit).

So he decides to take Lisa P up on her offer to go out with her.

Plan

James’s plan is to ask Em out, be super nice to her and hopefully she’ll want to date him exclusively. They will then continue their relationship in NYC after the summer.

James will have to dig deep and come up with a better strategy because Em is already ‘taken’, and Connell is standing in his way. He’ll have to first uncover the truth of the situation and then grow morally alongside Em.

Opponent’s Plan and Main Counterattack

Connell wants to keep Em apart from James so that he can continue having sex with Em in his mother’s basement.

Connell’s plan is visible to the audience, but another opponent is Lisa P. We don’t see how gossipy and unreliable she is until James does. (Though we might guess.)

Drive

He will follow Em to see if what he’s learned about Em and Connell is true.

Connell is a strong opponent though, because he’s manly and he’s having sex with Em already.

This is when he has his meltdown, in which he is newly irresponsible in a way that shows us he has fundamentally changed after this experience of first real love. He’s never been hurt like this before.

Attack By Ally

Joel quits the place in disgust after being attacked by a guy over the glued-on-hats. So James visits him at his home. In the story, the reason for this is to try and persuade Joel to come back to work, but the plotting reason is so that Joel can confront James about how shitty it is to go out with Lisa P when the girl he really likes is Em.

Apparent Defeat

Em has also quit Adventureland, and it appears James will never see her again, either. By telling Lisa P about Em and Connell, he’s started a horrible gossip mill and has dug himself into a hole.

Obsessive Drive, Changed Drive, and Motive

After setting his sights on Em, he’s now going to have a go with Lisa P, for the experience if nothing else. He’s been absorbing the message that ‘men have needs’.

Second revelation and decision

On a date with Lisa P, he realises the two of them have nothing in common.

The next day, Em apologises to him for being non-committal and James realises he’s made a mistake. He will refocus his attentions on Em.

Audience revelation

The audience is aware of the relationship between Em and Connell long before James is. This allows us to feel sorry for him and empathise. But when Lisa P reveals to James that Connell regularly takes girls to his mother’s basement, we should feel a whole new level of disgust for Connell, and begin to feel a little more sorry for Em, who has also lost her mother recently and is dealing with an unpleasant step-mother.

Third Revelation and Decision

At this point James realises who Connell really is. This is shown in the scene at Adventureland where James sees him talking to a group of three, young, pretty women — we all know that Connell is already onto his next pretty young things. He also corrects Connell on a matter of music trivia, showing that Connell has been full of shit about playing with a famous artist back in the day — and James now knows he’s full of shit in general.

Gate, gauntlet, visit to death

James totals his parents car after getting drunk, when he realises the girl he likes has been seeing Connell all this time.

Battle

There’s a battle scene between James and Em after James follows her and asks her what the hell she’s doing with Connell and why didn’t she tell him.

Self-revelation

While sitting on a hilltop with Joel (the classic place for revelations, since Moses), they talk about nothing particularly significant, but it’s clear that James has had some sort of quiet epiphany. This is evidenced by the fact he stands up and gives Frigo a knee in the balls. (I assume that’s the entire reason Frigo is in the scene — to allow the audience to see how much James has grown up — he is no longer overly ingratiating)

Moral Decision

James has two choices: He can stay in his home town and go to a nearby journalism school, probably ending up with an internship on Mr Rogers — this is shown in a dining table scene with his parents — this would be tragic for James, as Mr Rogers is a children’s show and would symbolise a permanent regression to childhood. Or he can go to NYC anyway, embrace uncertainty and stand on his own two feet.

New Equilibrium

After a romantic speech in the rain after waiting for Em outside her new NYC apartment, both parties admit that they fucked up over summer. Now they will start again, on different turf, away from the Adventureland arena.

Symbolism Of The Forest In Storytelling

the hobbit full cover

Be it woods or forest, when a character enters the trees in fiction, beware! We learned this from fairytales, but is fear of the forest innate,  or taught to us via fiction?

I went to the woods because I wanted to live deliberately, I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to put to rout all that was not life and not when I had come to die, discover that I had not lived.
— Henry David Thoreau

The central story quality of the forest is that it is a natural cathedral. The tall trees, with their leaves hanging over us and protecting us, seem like the oldest wise men assuring us that whatever the circumstances, it will resolve as time moves on. It is the place where contemplative people go and to which lovers sneak away.

But this intense inward gaze of the forest also has a sense of foreboding. The forest is where people get lost. It’s the hiding place of ghosts and past lives. It is where hunters stalk their prey, and their prey is often human. The forest is tamer than the jungle; the jungle will kill anything in it at any moment. The forest, when it does its frightening work, causes mental loss first. It is slower than the jungle but still deadly.

– John Truby, The Anatomy Of Story 

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The Three Main Types Of Modern Myth Stories

The Adventure Story

An adventure story contains the following:

  1. action
  2. suspense
  3. surprise
  4. setback

There are three main types of modern adventure stories, and they all make use of mythic structure. (For more on children’s adventure stories and their evolution, see The Centrality of the Adventure Story.)

1. THE MYTHIC JOURNEY

The ur-Myth is The Odyssey, first recorded by Homer 800 BC.

Also known as the (Mythic) Quest. These stories all have the same basic structure. The technical definition of myth:

The story of the transformation of the soul and the stages of its illumination.

It’s different from other genres — birth to death to rebirth, a story of recycling that never ends. It has the broadest story structure of any genre. Instead of a love story, typically tracking the courtship between a man and a woman, this is a story form that has massive scope. Myth stories are almost always epics. An interesting thing to do is to make a combination between myth and love, which aren’t normally put together, but if you did do this, your work would be separated from almost everyone else writing love stories so it’s an excellent technique.

There are four major story areas where myth is distinguished from other genres: character, story world, plot and theme.

The Monomyth comes from Joseph Campbell — the idea that there’s a single story that all writers tap into. But this is a faulty idea. If you look at the beats Joseph talks about, they tend to be warrior male myth stories, so don’t really work when you’re trying to talk about female myth. Well, maybe there’s a single female myth story? You get into a lot of problems because if you try to reduce all female stories to a single story — you end up reducing her to the single biological function of a woman. Better to think rather that the character can grow past the basic biological capacity to give birth.

There’s a new knight story, with knight stories being one of the most enduring stories at the moment, especially in the West. This story form will continue to be in its more modern version very popular for the next 10-20 years.

The rejuvenation myth is a story form about how do you rejuvenate the city and make it liveable, a place that’s freeing and promotes growth? This is probably the central challenge for story tellers if they’re trying to tell a modern day story. In the past writers have written that the city gets so technological and overbearing that it collapses and starts all over again. That’s no longer a good solution. Look at Avatar to see how popular these stories can be — it’s basically based on ecological story beats, so we have a new story form: ecological.

For more on mythic structure, see: What is mythic structure?

In this kind of adventure there are often two journeys, closely linked and mutually dependent, one physical and the other spiritual. The protagonist, by means of a physical journey, experiences a growth in self-knowledge or subtle character development. An observant reader will respond to both journeys and be aware of the spiritual growth that has taken place.

Give Them Wings, edited by Saxby and Winch

Or, as John Truby says, in a mythic journey, the hero goes on a journey, finds himself, then comes back home a slightly (or vastly) changed individual.

The Home-away-home story is also very common in picturebooks.

Apart from The Odyssey there are a whole bunch of really old myths that all have the basic same plot: Jason and the Golden Fleece, Beowulf, Saint George etc.

A slightly more modern mythic journey is Gulliver’s Travels, published 1726.

Gulliver tied down

From Gulliver’s Travels came 20th Century stories such as:

(Gulliver’s Travels is also the ur-Miniature Story as well as being the ur-Journey.)

An example of an Odyssean journey in a picture book is Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak.

2. THE STATIC JOURNEY

The ur-Static Journey is the Robinsonnade, a word that appeared to describe two similar novels which happened to both have ‘Robinson’ in the title: Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Swiss Family Robinson.

What made Robinson Crusoe so popular?

  1. A wonderful narrative voice — exciting, unhurried and conversational. Quasi-journalistic.
  2. It’s actually a very old story pattern, also seen in the Bible: transgression, retribution, repentance, redemption. (Youthful rebellion, successive shipwrecks, the painful lessons of isolation, Crusoe’s return home.)
  3. Memorably concrete images, like Friday’s footprints in the sand, Crusoe with his parrot and umbrella.

One reason for the island myth is pure escapism, of course. But this sort of myth is often not an escape from work. Once you’re on the island, you need to work hard to live. Like ultra-camping, or the feeling you get watching reality TV of the Doomsday Preppers variety. In Robinson Crusoe, our hero has to build shelters, fence off territories, hunt and farm.

Another island story is The Tempest, by William Shakespeare. Prospero has to procure the island’s secrets from Caliban, make the wretch his slave, learn to master the elements and protect his daughter.

Why are these stories so popular? Well, we love a story in which characters work for what they have. This is a dominant ideology in children’s literature too. When characters get what they desire we like to see evidence that they deserve it. Robinson Crusoe has achieved longevity due in part to its consonance with this modern ideology that work is one of most important things humans can do. Indeed, Defoe presents work as a kind of therapy — working on mind, body and spirit. When Crusoe bakes his own bread he’s proud of his achievement. This is in line with the tale of The Little Red Hen: If you want to enjoy your bread you had better have baked it yourself.

For more on Robinson Crusoe see The Guardian, in which they count Robinson Crusoe as the second most important book in English literature.

A more recent evolution is Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer, written in the mid- to late-1800s in which the hero doesn’t actually need to go anywhere; all the action takes place at home.

In the 20th century we read school stories and holiday stories, which are also static in that the action takes place at a (boarding) school or at a holiday destination.  See: School Stories.

Around the 1960s and 70s adventure stories started to focus less on plot and more on character. Romanticism gave way to realism. As in the best adventure stories, setting is still important.

  • Betsy Byars
  • Joan Phipson
  • Patricia Wrightson
  • Ivan Southall — the Simon Black series — the Australian Biggles
  • Eleanor Spence
  • Lilith Norman

Most recently these realistic adventure novels have evolved into ‘issues novels’, especially in YA, and the trend is now moving down into MG.

A more direct modern retelling of the Robinson Crusoe story is of course Castaway starring Tom Hanks. But don’t forget that any adventure story which takes place in one place is a descendent of Robinson Crusoe.

Julie of the Wolves is a YA novel in the Robinsonnade tradition.

3. THE FEMALE MYTH

It could be that we’re all sick of the three act structure and that actually there is a way of telling a story that is different. And it’s just not about the big orgasm [Battle] at the end. We have multiple orgasms, that’s God’s gift to us. […] There is a theory around women’s storytelling, that it isn’t just the three act structure to get to the big bang at the end. That isn’t our biology. We like a slow burn. And it’s very rewarding. What’s wrong with 10 endings?

Gaylene Preston, New Zealand filmmaker

Odyssean stories and Robinsonades are of the ‘male’ type. (The first involves leaving home and going on a journey to find oneself; the second focuses a bit more on character development.) The Male Myth form is well-known to everyone because it is so common and so ancient.

Then there is the female myth form which is much newer.

This new female myth form is a blend of the two minus a few things.

There are few modern examples of the female myth form, but some notable examples are:

  1. Inside Out
  2. Frozen
  3. Gravity

For the last 3000 years (since The Odyssey) adventure stories have been about men and typically masculine pursuits. Frozen is one of the most popular animated films of all time. This shows the absurdity of the old Hollywood conventional wisdom that says you can’t have a blockbuster hit with a female lead character. There is a tremendous thirst for new female myth forms.

Riley from Inside Out, a female myth
Riley of Pixar’s Inside Out is a good example of a female character who also happens to star in a female myth.

John Truby says that female myths:

fundamentally change our collective vision of who the hero is and what she will accomplish on her life and story paths.[…] Of course both Joy and Riley are female. But that alone does not make this a female myth. Joy is not a warrior like the Diana goddess, as depicted by the Katniss Everdeen character in The Hunger Games. She is an emotion, and a way of seeing and interacting with the world without fighting. Riley isn’t the typical Disney princess. She’s a normal, eleven-year-old girl facing a traumatic life event where she’s been forced to move to a new home.

Like the Male Warrior Myth laid out by Joseph Campbell, Joy goes on a long, difficult journey. But she doesn’t fight her way through one opponent after another, ending with a big bloody battle. She thinks and feels her way through the labyrinth that is Riley’s mind. Nor is there a Minotaur at the center that Joy must slay. There are references to some of the old Greek myths, such as the Cyclops in the form of a giant, scary clown and a mountain which Joy, as Sisyphus, must climb only to tumble back down and try again. But it’s the way she handles the opposition, and ultimately succeeds, that makes this a new Female Myth story.

In other words, the Female Myth:

  • Doesn’t technically have to star female heroes — ‘female myth’ describes the story type rather than the gender of the main character. The inverse is also true: Just because a myth stars a female doesn’t mean the story is a ‘female myth form’. (Likewise, a feminist story doesn’t have to star a female character — feminist stories let characters of all genders transcend limitations of their sex.)
  • Doesn’t have all the fighting
  • Or the big battle at the climax
  • Doesn’t necessarily involve a journey away from home, but there is some sort of long, difficult journey
  • There doesn’t have to be a ‘minotaur’ (a powerful outside opponent)
  • Plots are not based on conflict
  • It draws heavily from Jungian theory.
  • Interiority. The Female Myth is an inner journey. It seems to have been around since the Second Wave feminist movement (though there may well be excellent earlier examples I don’t know about.) Either the character goes into their own heads or, as in Inside Out, there’s a whole other world in there. Imagination and fantasy are great combos for the female myth form, as without the big battles and strong outside villain we do require a rich story world.

In children’s literature, it’s possible to track the development from ‘male myths only’ to where we are today, with Inside Out.

In Waking Sleeping Beauty, Roberta Seelinger Trites names two books in particular: The Blue Sword by Robyn McKinley and On Fortune’s Wheel by Cynthia Voight.

THE BLUE SWORD (1982)

This novel has a lot of feminist problems, to be sure.

  • The main character (Harry) basically has to become a boy and do traditionally masculine stuff. Inversion does not equal subversion.
  • Harry is silenced because of how it’s plotted — she can’t speak the local fantasy language and has to rely on a dude to translate everything for her. This means he dominates conversations.
  • Only four of the fifteen knights are women and they remain unnamed, so McKinley doesn’t achieve gender balance in her minor characters.
  • This is ultimately a marriage plot. At the end she gets married and this is a happy ending for her.

But The Blue Sword is an important work because it was one of the first books to allow a female character a traditionally masculine mythic quest.

Seelinger Trites points out that imagery of cycles and wheels inform both texts to emphasize how Birle and Orien’s journeys are process- rather than goal-oriented. This lines up with what Maria Nikolajeva has said about how seasons dominate in children’s books written for girls, since seasons are cyclical.

The journeys themselves are circular as well. In male myth forms, the hero often (though not always) ends in a different part of the world.

ON FORTUNE’S WHEEL (1990)

Published 8 years later, Cynthia Voight’s novel is similar to The Blue Sword but avoids some of the traps of subversion.

  • Birle goes on a quest, like Harry, though she’s not after an object in particular.
  • She doesn’t give up her voice, identity or her culture when she marries.
  • She starts her journey voluntarily, trying to rescue her family. (This is similar to the much later Katniss Everdeen ‘call’ to adventure.) She’s not kidnapped or anything.
  • She serves as the male character’s guide for a while then makes her own decision to join him on his journey in the hopes of escaping an unwise betrothal (that she made herself).
  • She falls in love with her male companion and chooses to be with him.
  • Birle is not setting out to destroy a foe. This is what makes it different from the male quest/myth.
  • Instead, it is the process of the journey, which allows the characters’ love for each other to grow, and not the end of the journey that matters. This is the main narrative choice that separates Voight’s quest from others.

The differences between the ‘male’ and ‘female’ myth forms are described by Elizabeth Lyon in her book Manuscript Makeover, in which she picks the highlights from an earlier feminist book The Heroine’s Journey by Maureen Murdock.

MALE MYTH: THE OUTER QUEST

FEMALE MYTH: THE INNER QUEST

The Hero is in his familiar Ordinary World when a serious event introduces a problem that is his Call To Adventure.

A life changing event compels a woman to go on a quest to find her own identity, separate from the one she assimilated from the male culture that was modelled by her mother.

He refuses the Call because it will mean change, challenge, Separation from the known and familiar, and Departure from home. It may even mean risking his life. He also doesn’t know if he is capable of the task.

At first she adopts so-called male behaviours, thinking that she has denied aggressiveness in the past and that is what she needs.

A Mentor assures him that he can do it, must do it, and is the only one who can succeed.

This belief leads her into the world of men, often also growing closer to her father.

Emboldened and committed, the Hero departs. He Crosses the Threshold into the Special World, which is alien compared to his Ordinary World.

She often achieves success in the work world as she perfects her Animus, the assertive competitive, perfectionist, and male-identified side of her personality.

He quickly learns the rules, encounters Allies and Enemies, and begins his Descent deep into the Special World, the territory of those who oppose him and where he’ll find the solution to the problem.

At the same time, she challenges, rejects and even rebukes the beliefs in inferiority, dependency, and romantic love that she now sees as cultural indoctrination of women.

As he continues on the Road of Tests and Trials, the obstacles grow more formidable. He reaches the Approach to the Inner Cave, knowing that at its heart will be the Supreme Ordeal. In the innermost cave, he encounters the biggest obstacles and threats to success. If he overcomes these final challenges, he will have claim to the Reward: He’ll achieve the goal that resolves the problem that set him on his journey.

She may blame her mother and distance herself from her.

After he succeeds (or fails), he Refuses the Call to return home, instead emerging from the cave to regale in his glory or to lick his wounds.

But when success in the male world also leaves her feeling hollow she no longer feels close to her father or male mentors. She feels betrayed by everyone and everything she has known and believes, including God as a male-defined creation of the culture.

Believing his quest is over and he can at last begin his Return home, he is confronted with one last obstacle, the Ultimate Test. Whether or not he reaches his story goal, if he summons all that he has learned, and releases or heals a wound he was afflicted with in his past, he will let his old self die to be reborn into a new, freer self.

Alone, “spiritually arid”, the woman begins her turn inward in search of her unique self. She examines her unique experiences and searches for memories that seem to reflect pieces of a lost but authentic self. However long this period lasts, it often involves shedding any accoutrements of what the patriarchal culture deems appropriate and desirable: female dress, manners and friends. Yet she yearns for an end to the grief and emptiness. She fears she may die without finding her true self and a chance to pursue dreams that she discovers within her.

This is his emotional passage, his Initiation. Death and Rebirth allow him to overcome this final confrontation (unless the story is a tragedy, and then he clings to his old ways, weaknesses, and the emotional wound.)

Little by little, or all at once, she finds that connection, and the courage to receive the archetypal power of the Feminine. She integrates it in her own way. She begins to express her unique and now known self. Now she can also express, as needed, nurturing, relatedness and receptivity. These are the positive qualities of the Feminine.

She reconnects with her mother or with the archetype of the Mother. If the relationship with her earthly mother permits it, she seeks to heal the former breach.

Instead of rejecting all the Masculine qualities, she integrates the side of herself that also holds the power of the positive Masculine archetype.

At last he can Return with the Elixir, perhaps a treasure, but the true reward is being a new, transformed individual, a Master of Two Worlds, an integrated person with wisdom to share, in the form of the theme reflected by his journey.

Finally, she ends her duality, the split of her self and cultural beliefs about the Feminine and Masculine. She ends the misery of beliefs and behaviours not in harmony with her discovered self. She emerges into her new world and selects her new life as an integrated, renewed and healed person.

In order to work out whether a mythic story is ‘male’ or ‘female’, don’t look at the gender of the hero. Men and boys can star in female myths while women and girls can star in the traditional male myth.

Oprah’s book club picks were usually good examples of the female myth. Since the reader of this kind of female myth form is asked to identify with a character battling what is essentially the patriarchy, it’s not surprising that some men (one of whom even refused to appear on Oprah’s book club…) will be turned off by a Oprah’s book club sticker. It is true of many things in life as it is in reading — women are expected to understand and sympathise with the male experience but not vice versa. Many men simply cannot understand what such a struggle would feel like, or what it even entails.

The most recent Female Myths have branched out. The woman/girl hero no longer has to battle against the patriarchy, or wrestle with the binary gender norm. We are moving into a political period where, in enlightened communities, the gender binary is put aside in favour of individual expression.

We’re even starting to see the female myth in film — traditionally later than novels in picking up the latest trends. (Hollywood is notoriously conservative.)

The Male Warrior Myth, indeed all of Western storytelling in the last 3000 years, is based on maximum conflict. The hero goes on a journey and fights one opponent after another. There is always a big bloody battle near the end.

Female Myths solve problems in a different way. The hero goes on a journey, but instead of battling with others, she might think and feel her way through her problem.

[Echoing Maureen Murdock and Elizabeth Lyon:] Females as main characters are not what make a ‘female myth form’. It’s all about how the hero deals with the problem.

— John Truby, Anatomy of Story

As John Truby points out, Pixar’s film Inside Out is an excellent example of a Female Myth. While Riley is a girl, she could just as easily have been a boy.

Like the Male Warrior Myth laid out by Joseph Campbell, Joy goes on a long, difficult journey. But she doesn’t fight her way through one opponent after another, ending with a big bloody battle. She thinks and feels her way through the labyrinth that is Riley’s mind. Nor is there a Minotaur at the center that Joy must slay. There are references to some of the old Greek myths, such as the Cyclops in the form of a giant, scary clown and a mountain which Joy, as Sisyphus, must climb only to tumble back down and try again. But it’s the way she handles the opposition, and ultimately succeeds, that makes this a new Female Myth story.

Her primary ally in this journey, and the key to its final success, is another woman, Sadness. As in any Buddy Picture Comedy, the buddy is the first opponent. In the mind of Joy and the audience, Sadness is her polar opposite and best avoided whenever possible. But the key to the self-revelation, for Joy and thus Riley as well, is that experiencing loss and Sadness is part of growing up.

Other examples of the Female Myth form:

  • Coraline — A girl retreats into her imagination where her ideal home life is found. She realises she doesn’t want what she thought she wanted after all, and battles the demons before returning to reality more grateful and satisfied.
  • My Neighbour Totoro
  • The Snowman
  • Arrival — A woman’s ability to see holistically instead of divisively is matched by the story’s structure, and results in a personal and global revolution.
Where are all the female creation myths?

The female body follows the lunar cycle, which is closely associated with the idea of death and rebirth (waning and waxing moon). The cardinal function of the female body is reproduction. The female myths, describing female initiation, are aimed at repetition, rebirth, the eternal life cycle. Actually, very few genuine female myths exist in written–male, civilised, “symbolic” (Lacan)–form, due to many reasons. Connected with essential life mysteries such as menstruation and birth (both involving bloody), female myths are more secret and sacred than male myths. They have mostly existed in oral form, as esoteric rituals. In Western civilisation, they have been suppressed and muted by the dominant male culture. We can only discover traces and remnants of them, in the figures of the *Progenitrix, the witch, the **chthonic goddess.

— Maria Nikolajeva, From Mythic to Linear: Time in children’s literature

*Progenitrix = A female progenitor, a foremother, any of a person’s direct female ancestors (ancestresses).

**Chthonic = relating to or inhabiting the underworld

There are still few female myths around, which is why I wrote one myself, in the form of Hilda Bewildered. Though I didn’t realise it at the time, this story is similar to Inside Out in that it’s about a girl facing a hard situation, learning to overcome a difficult fear by going inside herself. There is no minotaur; there is no big battle scene. These stories are certainly difficult to write, for exactly that reason.

The Artifacts is also a female myth form even though it stars a boy.

Midnight Feast may also fit the female myth form — I’m not quite sure myself. But I did aim to write something different, and I think I succeeded in that, for sure.

I would love to see more female myth forms in the world, so if you have an idea for one, please write it!

(And remember, inversion does not equal subversion.)

RELATED LINKS

The masculine, heroic adventure story in the tradition of Odysseus has ‘only’ been dominant for the last 3000 years. Before then, myth was often about ‘origin’ — where did we come from? Who made us? Since women are the creators of life, it followed that the heroes of such myths were originally female. But where are all these original creation myths?

Young Adult Fiction Uses Myths To Keep Traditional Storytelling Alive from NPR (and also because traditional mythic form is still a successful way to satisfy an audience).

What Is Meant By Mythic Structure? for writers who would like to use it.

Using Maureen Murdoch’s work, and anything else she could find on the topic, Kim Hudson has crafted a theory of the female mythic form but calls it The Virgin’s Promise. I’m yet to read this one, but Melanie Marttila summarises the main parts of the theory.

Islands and Symbolism in Children’s Literature

The island is an ideal setting for creating a story in a social context. Like the ocean and outer space, the island is both highly abstract and completely natural. It is a miniature of the earth, a small piece of land surrounded by water. The island is, by definition, a separated place. This is why, in stories, it is the laboratory of man, a solitary paradise or hell, the place where a special world can be built and where new forms of living can be created and tested.

— John Truby, Anatomy of Story

The Mysterious Island book cover

We see islands in the oldest literature we know, from Shakespeare’s The Tempest (Prospero’s Island) to Homer’s The Odyssey (Circe’s Island) to Jason and the Golden Fleece (Lemnos, Doilones, Cius etc).

Desert islands, along with underground hideouts, are classic locales of romance, seen in stories such as Peter Pan. J.M. Barrie returned to the island setting in a later and lesser known work, Mary Rose. This was based on old Scottish legends Barrie heard as a child, in which mortals are stolen away to fairyland and return days or years later with no memory of where they have been.

Island stories often involve a shipwreck.

Painting by John William Waterhouse, 1916, Miranda from The Tempest
Painting by John William Waterhouse, 1916, Miranda from The Tempest

They also generally involve fire building.

An island without a fire is a waste of a good island.

Swallows and Amazons, Arthur Ransome, 1932

In fact, although an island setting is often also escapist, characters are not let off the hook when it comes to work. Living on an island means intensive work, in fact: Now you are completely reliant on yourself and you must grow your food from scratch. Characters often take delight in the fruits of their labour. Crusoe really enjoys his bread.

Tropical Islands

Be careful about falling into stereotypes, especially when it comes to tropical islands.

The separate, abstract quality of the island is why it is often used to depict a utopia or dystopia. And even more than the jungle, the island is the classic setting for showing the workings of evolution. Tropical islands, with boggy marshes, humidity and jungle lifeforms are often associated in fiction with rogue scientists, carrying out experiments with life.

R.L. Stine did this in How I Got My Shrunken Head. Stine tells us only that the story takes place somewhere in ‘Southeast Asia’, and then the guide has a Spanish name, which makes the setting completely ambiguous.

Lisa A. Koosis also makes use of a tropical island setting in her book about cloning and bringing the dead back to life, Resurrecting Sunshine. Here she includes some details of the surrounding landscape, including native people who have a strong tradition of ghosts and prayer — putting me in mind of a Catholic Hispanic milieu.

Making The Most of Island Settings

In many ways, the island has the most complex story possibilities of any natural setting. Let’s take a closer look at how to get the most out of the island world in your story. Notice that the best way to express the inherent meaning of this natural setting is through the story structure.

  • Take time in the beginning to set up the normal society and the characters’ place within it. (Need)
  • Send the characters to an island. (Desire)
  • Create a new society based on different rules and values. (Desire)
  • Make the relationship between the characters very different from what it was in the original society. (Plan)
  • Through conflict, show what works and what doesn’t. (Opponent)
  • Show characters experimenting with something new when things don’t work. (Revelation or self-revelation)

Well-known Dystopian Island Settings

  • Lord Of The Flies
  • Jurassic Park
  • Cast Away
  • The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
  • Shutter Island
  • The Bridge To Terabithia
  • The Shipping News
  • The Martian (with a planet instead of an actual island)

Well-known Utopian Island Settings

  • Utopia by Sir Thomas More, the book which gave English the word ‘utopia’ in the first place. Unfortunately for the author, he was executed by King Henry the eighth.
  • Anne Of Green Gables/Anne Of The Island — Prince Edward Island removes Anne completely from her former life, to the point where in the classic story she suffers no PTSD (unlike in a proposed remake).
  • Robinson Crusoe — The most iconic of all island books, and an example of desert island fiction, in which a remote and ‘uncivilised’ island is used as the venue of the story and action. It has a particular attraction because it can be placed right outside the ‘real’ world and may be an image of the ideal, the unspoilt and the primit.ve It appeals directly to the sense of adventure and exploratory instinct, and to a certain atavistic nostalgia. This novel from 1719 marked the beginning of this universally popular literary genre. However, there is a good case to be made that this is a dystopian story.*
  • Treasure Island — R.L. Stevenson published this in 1883. This is probably the most popular island book ever.
  • The Lie Tree — Frances Hardinge created an apparent utopia in her award winning children’s novel.
*According to ethnologist and literary expert Susan Arndt from the University of Bayreuth … Defoe’s novel has not been properly examined. “Actually, you have to ask the question how a system of violence and enslavement could be portrayed so harmlessly,” said Arndt, whose research focuses on racism in English literature.
Geronimo Stilton: Treasure of the Emerald Eye. Any children's book set on an island with treasure and maps and pirates is probably a spoof of Treasure Island.
Geronimo Stilton: Treasure of the Emerald Eye. Any children’s book set on an island with treasure and maps and pirates is probably a spoof of Treasure Island.
  • The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society
  • Five On A Treasure Island/Five On Kirrin Island Again
  • The Light Between Oceans
  • To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf — a modernist, stream-of-consciousness novel about the Ramsay family. An example of a psychological novel.
  • The Voyage Of The Dawn Treader — by C.S. Lewis, part of the Narnia series.
  • The Old Man And The Sea — by Ernest Hemingway, set in Cuba and the Gulf Stream. A man against nature tale with biblical themes, about a man who tries to catch a fish.
  • Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome — the islands where the children summer are islands in a wider sense; apart from the fact their father is away they are totally shielded from news of the war.

The farm at Holly Howe had all turned into foreign country. They were quite different places now that you came to them by water from an island of your own. They were not at all what they had been when you lived htere and saw the island far away over the water. Coming back to them was almost the same thing as exploration. It was like exploring a place that you have seen in a dream, where everything is just where you expect it and yet everything is a surprise.

Swallows and Amazons, Arthur Ransome, 1932

Stories set on islands often feature a map at the beginning of the book. Geography is important.

Swallows and Amazons Map

Stories set on islands often feature significant birds.

At its most metaphorical, the island features a lone or significant tree.

ISLANDS IN PICTURE BOOKS

Tanglewood by Margaret Wild and Vivienne Goodman

Tanglewood is a tree who lives on an island far away, visited only by the wind. One day a bird shelters from the storm among its branches and a precious bond is formed. But Seagull belongs to the sky and, too soon, must leave.

Note the white space on this first page — the white space itself connotes loneliness.

Tanglewood island

Island Boy by Barbara Cooney (1988)

Barbara Cooney (August 6, 1917 – March 10, 2000) was an American writer and illustrator of 110 children’s books, published over sixty years.

Island Boy by Barbara Cooney

The story is about a pioneer couple who move to an island and populate it with six boys and six girls. This is basically an American Western story — about world building.

island-boy1

The focal character is the baby of the family, Matthais (not to be confused for Matthias). The name apparently means ‘Gift from God’. As the runt of the litter, Matthais is drawn to a lone gull, and manages to tame it somewhat. It seems to be lame, but manages to fly off.

When he grows up, Matthais goes to work at his uncle’s shipyard like all of his older brothers. (The girls are married off.)

Matthais travels the world as a cabin boy, finds a wife called Hannah and brings her back to the island where the story takes a bit of a feminist turn, and Hannah produces three daughters — the youngest of whom ‘can’t sit still inside’ — the designed ‘tomboy’ of the group. Matthais calls her his ‘little wild bird’. (You just know that childhood bird is going to be significant.) The youngest daughter is compared to a bird with her ‘flyaway hair’. When she grows up she even marries a ‘sail maker’ — the closest you can get to a human bird, I guess.

Matthais’ wife dies and Annie sends her grandson back to spend time with the grandfather every weekend. He resists the urge to sell to townsfolk moving in, building houses that they call cottages. The author’s disapproval of this development is clear. “They called themselves rusticators.” The stoic and pious nature of Matthais is underscored when he says to his older daughter, “But our wants are so few now…And this is our home.”

island boy jetty

Despite warning his grandson not to go out in the bad wind, the old man sails to the mainland, gets overturned in a storm, and drowns.

But we see the cycle of life continue when the young Matthias stands under that tree that his grandfather is buried under.

island boy tree

The Artifacts by Slap Happy Larry

In our picturebook app, The Artifacts, the main character’s loneliness is depicted via island symbolism.

The Artifacts island at sea

A small planet in space does the same thing as an island at sea. In a SF story, space is metaphorically the same as an ocean.

Island in space The Artifacts

ISLANDS IN MIDDLE GRADE NOVELS

The Silent One Joy Cowley cover

The Silent One is written by one of New Zealand’s most loved children’s writers, Joy Cowley. My teacher handed it to me when I was about ten and I still remember it’s about a boy called Jonasi who is deaf. The island setting is a perfect match for the theme of isolation brought about by an inability to fully communicate with others.

In pulp fiction islands are a recurring setting.

 

The Girl Of Ink And Stars by Kiran Millwood Hargrave — Forbidden to leave her island, Isabella Riosse dreams of the faraway lands her father once mapped.
When her closest friend disappears into the island’s Forgotten Territories, she volunteers to guide the search. As a cartographer’s daughter, she’s equipped with elaborate ink maps and knowledge of the stars, and is eager to navigate the island’s forgotten heart.
But the world beyond the walls is a monster-filled wasteland – and beneath the dry rivers and smoking mountains, a legendary fire demon is stirring from its sleep. Soon, following her map, her heart and an ancient myth, Isabella discovers the true end of her journey: to save the island itself.

Beyond The Bright Sea by Lauren Wolk — This story is set on a very small imaginary island within the realworld Elizabeth Islands, near where the author lives. The islands are described as beautiful — an apparent utopia, except when you live there you know that there are social rifts, and one of the islands was used as a leper colony. The same social problems as anywhere else. However, apart from the interpersonal issues, the islands are more utopia than dystopia. There’s an endless supply of food from nature (from the sea, from the garden), and mainland problems like the build-up to war don’t touch the inhabitants.

  • There are bears and coyotes on the mainland, what Crow calls ‘real wilderness’. People holiday on the islands ostensibly to get out into the wild, but they’re actually protected.

CITIES AS ISLANDS

The examples above are examples of literal islands, but a metaphorical island can be something else entirely.

It can be a city.

The skyscrapers of cities are really no more than modern manmade mountains. The streets symbolic of rivers. The gardens symbolic of that ancient image of an earthly paradise first symbolized in the Garden of Eden. And even the city itself, really no more than the symbol of an island surrounded by the vastness of the ocean of nature.

Symbolism of Place

midnight feast lightning
Scene from Midnight Feast. The weather is important to survival on an island, as it is here, in a story set in a city, starring a girl isolated from everything outside her bedroom window.

RELATED LINKS

 Films set on islands, a Wikipedia entry