The landscape that surrounds us is rich in folklore connected with the plants and flowers that dwell within it. Some of these are old and connect with the world of fairy. Some are more modern and relate to invasive species. All are fascinating. In this episode of the Folklore Podcast, storyteller and environmentalist Lisa Schneidau discusses the research which went into her book “Botanical Folk Tales of Britain and Ireland” and tells some of the stories related to our plant-based beliefs.
Long before Day of the Triffids, carnivorous plants existed in Gothic horror, including in vampire stories. This subgenre was pioneered by Phil Robinson who wrote “The Man Eating Tree” (1881).
In “The Story of the Grey House” guests stay at a secluded country mansion but are strangled and drained of blood by a demoniacal creeper growing among the shrubbery.
Another is “The Purple Terror” (1899) by Fred M. White.
Natalie awoke the next morning to bright sun and clear air, to the gentle movement of her bedroom curtains, to the patterned dancing of the light on the floor; she lay quietly, appreciating the morning in the clear uncomplicated movement vouchsafed occasionally before consciousness returned. Then, with the darkening of the sunlight, the sudden coldness of the day, she was awake and, before perceiving clearly why, she buried her head in the pillow and said, half-aloud, ‘No, please no’.
from Hangsaman by Shirley Jackson
In this passage, all as brightness and cleanliness, the “gentle” movements as the curtains sway in the breeze, light from the sun creating pattern on the floor, reflects the room’s atmosphere as one misaligned with Natalie’s emotions. The space may feel welcoming and still, and the terms Jackson selects to describe this morning after are alarmingly pleasant. Yet, as the passage continues, a sudden jolt from the established comfort moves the room to darkness and coldness. Like storm clouds obstructing sunlight, the room changes its atmosphere. Natalie’s waking up is the moment when which the room changes: Not only does the girl wake up from her dreams, crossing the divide from the unconscious to conscious, but she also begins to encounter the precipitating moment of trauma. There are no doors for Natalie after this trauma, an inability to exit or enter into a space that is not somehow associated with control or defined roles. Her desire for a cleansed and hollow home, ready to be filled in and cared for manifests in the dorm room setting, a space where Natalie attempts to control her surroundings.
Mr Rabbit and the Lovely Present is a 1962 picture book written by Charlotte Zolotow and illustrated by Maurice Sendak. Zolotow and Sendak were both giants of American picture book world. Mr Rabbit and the Lovely Present was also a Caldecott Medal Honor Book, so it’s interesting to look through a contemporary lens and see how picture books have changed, or how reader responses have changed. The word which frequently crops up in consumer reviews of Mr Rabbit and the Lovely Present is ‘creepy’.
It’s wonderful, and probably necessary, for children to have the opportunity to do something nice for the adults in their lives. Children by their nature must constantly be on the receiving end of care, attention and gifts, but it’s a wonderful feeling to be a child and to do something you know is truly appreciated by those who normally take care of you.
Mr Rabbit seems to be more of a Pooka, as in the classic movie Harvey of the mid 20th century.
Harvey is a 1950 American comedy-drama film based on Mary Chase’s 1944 play…The story centers on a man whose best friend is a pooka named Harvey, a 6 foot 3.5 inch tall invisible rabbit, and the ensuing debacle when the man’s sister tries to have him committed to a sanatorium.
I’m Gen X, so for me the massive rabbit friend in Mr Rabbit and the Lovely Present reminds me of Donnie Darko.
The púca (Irish for spirit/ghost; plural púcaí), pooka, phouka is primarily a creature of Celtic folklore. Considered to be bringers both of good and bad fortune, they could help or hinder rural and marine communities. Púcaí can have dark or white fur or hair. The creatures were said to be shape-changers, which could take the appearance of horses, goats, cats, dogs, and hares. They may also take a human form, which includes various animal features, such as ears or a tail.
There was a time when massive rabbits were in fashion. The example below is an ‘Illustrated letter to Grace Orpen’ by William Orpen, undated. Fantasy rabbits have gotten a lot smaller in children’s stories, perhaps because massive rabbits are CREEPY.
This is a fairytale setting in a prelapsarian forest, where there is always enough food.
Noteworthy: the absence of blue. Like Rosie’s Walk, there is a complete absence of blue in the palette, a decision clearly made by Maurice Sendak, who had plenty of opportunity to include some blue when the text talked about ‘blue’ grapes. He made them purple (close enough). Interestingly, blue as a concept is relatively recent. See for example reference to the ‘wine dark sea’ in Homer’s Odyssey. Sendak has ignored the concept of blue and gone in the reverse direction. Blue does not exist. Even the sky is greenish.
Why might an illustrator avoid blue? Blue tends to feel ominous. Even the warm tones can feel a bit scary.
The forest is a European forest, which explains why The Little Girl and Mr Rabbit don’t find a banana tree, but instead stumble across someone’s abandoned picnic. I’m not sure if it’s a common reading experience to wonder who abandoned their picnic like that, and whether they’re about to come back to find their banana missing, but that’s where my mind went.
CARNIVALESQUE STORY STRUCTURE OF MR RABBIT AND THE LOVELY PRESENT
Not all carnivalesque stories are paced like The Cat In The Hat, or like one of Madeline’s adventures. Sometimes fun doesn’t look like a carnival, complete with the flying trapeze. Sometimes it looks very much like this: A retreat into imagination, where the pay off is simply doing something nice for someone you love.
The pace of the book is entrancing, part suspenseful, part predictable, feels like sailing in a light summer breeze. I can see why children have loved this book for half a century.
An Every Child is at Home
The Little Girl and Mr Rabbit start their story on a hill in the forest, but the the buildings of civilisation (home) are visible nearby.
The Little Girl wants to find the perfect gift for her mother. This is her idea of fun, and regardless of whether this character is a boy or girl, this is what gives the story a feminine sensibility. The female maturity formula is at work here, and so is our patriarchal culture in which girls are more likely to be encouraged to think about the needs of others than boys are. (This, after all, is at the heart of patriarchy.)
We still need more stories in which masculo-coded characters are the stars of stories like these.
Disappearance or backgrounding of the home authority figure
Adults in this story are physically absent but emotionally very present. The Little Girl spends the whole time apart from her mother thinking about her mother.
Appearance of an Ally in Fun
In this story, the rabbit is there from the start.
Hierarchy is overturned. Fun ensues.
Unusually for a carnivalesque story, Mr Rabbit has the authority. We can even see it in the names: little girl versus Mr. The rabbit is the authority when it comes to saying things like “You can’t give red”. Usually, carnivalesque rabbits who turn up out of the blue are a bit more fun than this guy.
Modern audiences tend to read this rabbit as creepy. Some readers find him less creepy when they code him as imaginary. For others it doesn’t help. Here’s a man-sized rabbit suggesting red underwear, leaning on a little girl, hanging out with her in the woods… Not questions that were significant (or raised) in the 1960s when this book was nominated for a Caldecott.
Rather than ‘building’, this carnivalesque story utilises a repeating structure. Red, yellow, green… The story functions pedagogically, teaching the difference between concrete and abstract nouns (obliquely), colours (for younger readers) and also to consider whether the receipient of a gift would like it. This is complex for young readers, who are inclined to give gifts they themselves would like. The little girl is practising theory of mind.
Although this story is repeating, there is still a build. Ther always is. Sometimes the build is subtle. The build here is in the amazingness of the gift. By the time they look up at the stars and consider giving the stars, the story is utilising a version of The Overview Effect. Many stories feature a contemplation of sky at this part of the narrative. This helps readers to connect the events of any given story to more universal themes. (Yes, it’s very literal.) And because we’re used to stories structured in this way, a glance up at the sky (or down from the sky in a low angle shot) helps to convey the sense of an ending.
Surprise! (for the reader)
On first read, I half expected the story to end with the appearance of the mother, and her pleasure at receiving the thoughtful gift. But the mother never appears. We are left to imagine how much the mother will appreciate the fruit basket.
The gag in this story is very minor:
“Happy birthday and happy basket of fruit to your mother.”
(Because it’s not usual to say ‘happy basket of fruit’.)
“Gallatin Canyon” is a short, grim road trip story by American author Thomas McGuane. This story served as the title of McGuane’s 2006 collection. In 2021, Deborah Treisman and Téa Obreht discussed its merits on the New Yorker fiction podcast.
A man and a woman drive through Gallatin Canyon, toward Idaho, where the narrator (the man) intends to use his obnoxious guile to undo a business deal. “I’m a trader,” he tells his companion, on what will be their last day together. “It all happens for me in the transition. The moment of liquidation is the essence of capitalism.”
Place exerts the power of destiny in these ten stories of lives uncannily recognizable and unforgettably strange: a boy makes a surprising discovery skating at night on Lake Michigan; an Irish clan in Massachusetts gather at the bedside of their dying matriarch; a battered survivor of the glory days of Key West washes up on other shores. Several of the stories unfold in Big Sky country, McGuane’s signature landscape: a father tries to buy his adult son out of virginity; a convict turned cowhand finds refuge at a ranch in ruination; a couple makes a fateful drive through the perilous gorge of the title story before parting ways. McGuane’s people are seekers, beguiled by the land’s beauty and myth, compelled by the fantasy of what a locale can offer, forced to reconcile dream and truth.
The stories of “Gallatin Canyon” are alternately comical, dark, and poignant. Rich in the wit, compassion, and matchless language for which McGuane is celebrated, they are the work of a master.
“I looked for a present for you. Searched all day yesterday. Something original, very rare, very beautiful. A great gift. Not just a handy thing, a razor – an electric iron – a coffee maker. No: something unique in the world, that nobody, ever, ever, has owned before you. I found the idea earlier: I’ll give you my heart. »A wonderful ode to love that transcends all ages.
“I like the clouds… the clouds that pass… there… there… the wonderful clouds!”
Charles Baudelaire, the stranger
“As a cloud crosses the sun, silence falls on London; and falls on the mind. Effort ceases. Time flaps on the mast. There we stop; there we stand. Rigid, the skeleton of habit alone upholds the human frame. Where there is nothing, Peter Walsh said to himself; feeling hollowed out, utterly empty within. Clarissa refused me, he thought. He stood there thinking, Clarissa refused me.”
Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway
A typical European film opens with golden, sunlit clouds. Cut to even more splendid bouffant clouds. Cut again to yet more magnificent, rubescent clouds. A Hollywood film opens with golden, billowing clouds. In the second shot a 747 jumbo jet comes out of the clouds. In the third, it explodes.
favourite joke among film distributors, from Robert McKee in Story
Some of the books below are specifically about boys and men who dance. Others are more generally about celebrating boys who break free of expected masculine roles.
Unfortunately there’s still a way to go before book publishing breaks away from the strict gender binary. That’s why we’re still getting books which say, “Boys can do girly things” and “Girls can do boyish things”, with the overt encouragement to “Be Yourself”, and also the covert reinforcement that gender is binary, with no room in between.
Aside from the examples offered below, there are a large proportion of stories specifically about characters who ‘can’t dance’. The animals are clearly serving as a metaphor for anyone who has been told that their interest (of any kind) is socially unacceptable, and I find it interesting that dancing is disproportionately picked as something anyone should be able to do, and is regularly shamed for. Children’s stories such as Giraffes Can’t Dance by Giles Andreae and Guy Parker-Reesand Josephine Wants To Danceby Jackie French and Bruce Whatley, Brontorina by James Hove and Randy Cecil and Olga the Brolga by Rod Clement are specifically useful for boys (dancers or not) who may internalise the hegemonic messaging that dancing is girly, and that dancing is unacceptable because women (and gay men) are lower in the social hierarchy.
There are certain character traits which audiences universally dislike. When they appear in fiction, audiences understand ‘this is the character I’m supposed to hate’. This character is called the Hate Sink.
I have previously explored how writers create unlikeable but sympathetic characters. There is a list of tricks which have been utilised by storytellers to make us empathise with characters such as Tony Soprano and Walter White. If these people were unsympathetic, we wouldn’t want to spend a full episode with them let alone journey with them across series and seasons.
Hate Sink characters are different from antiheroes and villains. We love to hate the Hate Sinks.
Ther are three main types of modern myth, and by ‘modern’ I mean ‘3000 years old’. In one type the main character hangs around home base (e.g. an island). This type of myth is known as a Robinsonnade. Another much newer type is the so-called Female Myth, in which the main character (of any gender) thinks and feels their way through a problem.
But by far the most popular mythic structure is the Odyssean plot type, in which a main character (hero) leaves home, goes on a journey, meets friends and foes along the way, has a massive battle with someone or something, learns something about themselves, then either returns home or makes a new one.
So many contemporary stories follow this structure that there is a huge array of stories which we might call ‘Odyssean’.
However, when parents and teachers are looking for ‘children’s fiction based on The Odyssey’, I understand they are looking for something a bit closer to Homer’s epic Greek poem, in which case there are many great options for contemporary young readers. Some of these works are a little harder to come by now, but I’ve included free options as well.
The Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan is sometimes used as a springboard into the ancient myths. There is an extensive Rick Riordan Wiki at Fandom. See the entry for Odysseus.
THE ODYSSEY BY HOMER, ADAPTED BY MAURICE A. RANDALL (1997)
On his harrowing return from the Trojan War, Ulysses tangles with Gods, monsters, mages and beautiful women. But when he reaches home Ulysses won’t find the open-armed welcome he expects. A crowd of killers wait to murder him–and the prize is his wife! “The Odyssey” is a cornerstone of Western literature–and the rollicking tale of a great warrior/trickster.
If you’re struggling a bit to decipher the web of characters on crime drama Mare of Easttown, rest assured you’re not the only one. In line with more mimetic stories such as The Wire, the writers are making us work for basic info, including how characters interweave.
This post avoids major reveals. However, some relationships themselves are held back as mini-reveals. So if you don’t want to have anything at all spoiled for you, not even how people relate to each other, don’t read on.
(This isn’t an exhaustive list of the cast, by the way. Some relationships are easy to work out.)
DETECTIVE SERGEANT MARE (MARIANNE) SHEEHAN
MARE SHEEHAN is the main character, played by Kate Winslet. MARE is a veteran on the local women’s basketball team, “Miss Ladyhawk Herself’.
She has a teenaged daughter called SIOBHAN, and a son called KEVIN who died two years earlier.
It is soon revealed that Mare’s five-year-old grandson DREW (who Mare cares for, alongside her own mother HELEN) is the son of her son KEVIN, who died by suicide.
Mare no longer lives with her husband, but because this is a small town, it just so happens he’s bought the house over the back fence.
Mare also lives with her mother, who she has a comically combatative relationship with. Only Helen, the mother, ever calls Mare ‘Marianne’, and only a couple of times, when they’re enjoying softer moments.
For the last twenty-five years, Mare has been a local hero of Easttown. She made the winning shot at a high school basketball tournament. This is still the town’s claim to fame. She also has a lot of prestige as a member of the police force, but she doesn’t take that role home with her.
Mare: Doin’ something great is overrated because then people expect that from you all the time. What they don’t realize is that you’re just as screwed up as they are.