On The Antler by Annie Proulx

Heart Songs Annie Proulx

“On The Antler” is the first short story in Annie Proulx’s Heart Songs collection, published 1994. This was before Proulx moved to Wyoming, so these are set in an imaginary setting aligned with rural New England. This is where the author spent the early portion of her life (Connecticut, Maine, Vermont.)

STORYWORLD OF ON THE ANTLER

“On The Antler” makes another excellent case study in how to link character to environment. Hawkheel = his environment. You change the environment, you change him. Without solitude in the natural world, Hawkheel cannot find peace with himself, in general. Hawkheel’s Native American-ness is never mentioned, but his name-category is different from the others in the story. (Perhaps to Americans this is too obvious to mention?) In any case, Hawkheel is closely connected to his home land. He wants things to stay the same. He is hugely affected by the new folk coming in and buying up rural land for their own private purposes. This is an issue explored by Proulx in various different stories, including in her novel The Shipping News.

[The] theme of decay runs through [Heart Songs], connecting the entropic effect of climate, as evidenced by stone walls brought down by frost, or a logging road that “has fallen back into wilderness”. This theme also extends to the physical and moral decay of characterswhether they are local or new arrivals. […] In “On The Antler”, for instance, Stong’s “sagging clapboard house” mirrors his own ongoing process of decay, manifested in his ceaseless lying to summer people, and culminating in his poisoning of Hawkheel so he can shoot Hawkheel’s buck on opening day.  […] The decay Proulx identifies encompasses not just the effect of climate on manmade structures, but also the corrosive effect it has on the psyche of individual characters.

The Geographical Imagination of Annie Proulx: Rethinking Regionalism edited by Alex Hunt

THE BLACK HUMOUR OF ANNIE PROULX

Annie Proulx’s short stories are often darkly humorous. What form does this humour take, exactly? In Understanding Annie Proulx, Karen Lane Rood writes that in the more humorous treatments,  ‘the reader recognises [the characters’] self-inflicted plights but is too amused by their folly to feel much sympathy.’ Hawkheel (a main character here) shares this in common with various others created by Proulx, including Mme Malefoot in “According Crimes” and Mero in The Half-Skinned Steer‘. These guys are more pathetic than funny. We laugh at their single-minded obsessions.

(On a different but related topic, I’ve noticed that the 2010s equivalent of the humorously obsessive character tends to be coded or on the page as autistic, according to popular notions of autism. These characters are also natural underdogs because unlike the reader and other characters, they never fully grasp what’s going on.)

Some of Proulx’s other stories treat her theme of urban invasion into rural land more seriously, as cultural colonialism or a kind of cannibalism in which rural people are ‘consumed’ and put to work according to the needs of outsiders. This presses them into roles that go against their natural aptitudes and desires. Townies and rural dwellers are considered as two mutually exclusive species, though if you sit in the middle you’re kind of worst of the lot. (Bill Stong sits in the middle a kind of turncoat.) “Electric Arrows” is one example of the same theme taken more seriously.

Stong’s eyes shone like those of a greedy barn cat who has learned to fry mice in butter. / “Hell, everybody in town knows she’s doin it but you,” he whispered. He ate Hawkheel up with his eyes, sucked all of the juice out of his sad condition.

“On The Antler” reminds me of Roald Dahl’s trickster stories standout example being The Twits. (Matilda is also basically a trickster story of one-upmanship pranking.) The trickster can be a sympathetic or an unsympathetic character, depending on whether the reader perceives that the tricks they play are justified retribution or not.

Stong caught Hawkheel with petty tricks again and again.

STORY STRUCTURE OF ON THE ANTLER



NARRATIVE TECHNIQUE

Normally I’d write about an author’s narrative technique separately from structure, but in Proulx’s case especially, you can’t disentangle the two.

With the odd exception, Annie Proulx writes mostly using third person limited narration. This is the case here.

Though the time span of a novel or short story proceeds in a linear fashion, important events of the past, and further information about episodes that have occurred earlier in the novel, are revealed as they come to a character’s mind, or as a character learns more about them. Thus, Proulx’s stories tend to have a thematic, rather than chronological order. Her third-person narrators often comment on the action usually paraphrasing or summarising a character’s thoughts rather than interjecting an authorial viewpoint.

Understanding Annie Proulx, Karen Lane Rood

Karen Lane Rood touches on one huge advantage of the storyteller narrator, utilised masterfully by Proulx: The ability to jump around in time to provide a thematic chronology. This is how our brains work most naturally. Who tells an anecdote from start to finish, in perfect chronological order? A few people I guess, and they’d make expert witnesses at a trial. But good storytellers let their minds make connections thematic connections. One memory triggers another. These stories are better for the audience. But it’s deceptive to say these episodes are ‘revealed as they come to a character’s mind’ the art of reveals and reversals is a serious writerly skill.

More significantly than the third-person aspect, Proulx makes use of a (sort of) storyteller narrator. “On The Antler” is a Hatfield and McCoy sort of rivalry, with a clear, long-standing opposition. Though she doesn’t require many words to do it, this short story authentically spans years. Proulx’s narrative choice encourages the reader to identify with one man over the other. The narrator would have to be an unseen inhabitant of the town, whose view on newcomers aligns with that of Hawkheel. Since both Hawkheel and the narrator are against Bill Stong, the reader will be, too.

Although this unnamed narrator doesn’t make it onto the stage (or, onto the page), they must’ve been there, poking around the shop as Hawkheel came in, buying up the books. But it’s impossible they were there with Hawkheel for all of it, especially since Hawkheel is the introverted type. Proulx’s unseen narrator sits in that mid-point between character as storyteller and omniscient eye of God. This is a story written by God, if God lived in 1990s rural Maine and hated hobby farmers.

It’s a mistake to think narrator = author. Still, we assume from Proulx’s entire corpus that the narrator’s values equal the writer’s ownthat bad things come from selling fake rural lifestyles to the rich, who come into a harsh environment they don’t understand to ‘play at’ farming.

What’s especially interesting about “On The Antler”, narratively speaking, is that an unseen storyteller critiques a different kind of storytellera basic bullshitter, whose stories are so powerful that the stories themselves are contributing to the downfall of the community as it was:

It is city people who come to the country for the weekend, or during the summer, who best represent the clash between the old and the new, the urban and the rural, and it is clear whose side Proulx is on. In “On the Antler”, an unsavory character [Stong] gets a new lease of life when visitors and summer residents arrive and decide that his less appealing features make him a “character”: “They liked his stories, they read morals into his rambling lies and encouraged him by standing around the feed store playing farmer […] In late life he found himself admired and popular for the first time, and he was grateful.”. To satisfy the urban visitors’ hunger and curiosity for “authentic” country life, little by little he sells off his family’s possessions, so that “all his family’s interests and enterprises were tangled together on the shelves as if he had drawn a rake through their lives and piled the debris in the store.” This passage reminds us that, since any genuine connection with the land is becoming almost obsolete, rural life itself becomes a consumer event, or a product to be sold and bought not for any intrinsic value, but because of the lifestyle it is supposed to represent.

Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News: A Reader’s Guide by Aliki Varvogli

I would also hazard a guess that Annie Proulx has more respect for keen readers than for people who spout a load of crap without thinking things through. This too comes via her unseen storyteller, and is a common ideology in books, rarely challenged of course, since non-readers aren’t reading.

SHORTCOMING

To do this exercise I need to settle on a main character. “On The Antler” is one of those stories with two main characters, but they’re not ‘main’ in the same way. Hawkheel is the sympathetic character who we follow most closely, getting right into his head. But narrator (via Hawkheel’s point of view) spends quite a bit of time looking at what Stong is up to. Stong is the fascinating exhibit. Since this story is about a clash of values, in which characters represent the values, Hawkheel and Stong spend about an equal amount of time on the page. This is something Annie Proulx is very good at, by the way she writes about communities rather than individuals. (Likewise, “Brokeback Mountain” isn’t about two gay men it’s about a homophobic community. This is why it’s problematic to designate it a ‘love story’. If anything it’s a ‘hate story’.)

I’m settling on Hawkheel as the ‘main character’ of “On The Antler”. When all’s said and done, who changes the most over the course of the story? Well, Bill Stong is a comedic grotesque archetype whereas Hawkheel feels like a real person.

After the first two paragraphs we have a summary of a full character arc of a man who used to hate books but now loves them. This is a great idea for writing a thumbnail character sketch, especially of an older person.

Hawkheel loves books. Here’s the universal fact about characters in books who love books: Readers tend to sympathise with them. Probably because readers like readers. If someone is a reader we assume other things about them, too:

  • introspective
  • observant
  • thoughtful
  • introverted
  • quiet
  • learned

And Hawkheel turns out to be all of those things, breaking out of quietude only at the end. His introversion has a darker sidehe’d probably be happier if he simply ignored his long-time nemesis and pretended he didn’t exist. But in small towns, that’s always easier said than done. Finally I get to his ‘need’: There’s something all heavy readers need a good amount of quiet and solitude. Need for solitude is represented by his love for books.

His shortcoming, of course, is that he’s unable to move with the times. He’ll never be happy surrounded by rich townies.

We are also given his ‘ghost an off-stage character called Josepha left him some years ago.

When it comes to likability, we do tend to empathise with characters who have little and don’t complain. Sure enough, Hawkheel lives in a trailer, has little of his original land left, nothing but social security checks but ‘thought this was the best part of his life’. (Conversely, we despise characters who have a lot more than we do and still complain.)

But we’re also given enough of Bill Stong’s backstory to understand him. Stong has a tragic ghost his entire family died from accidental poisoning. Since he was losing his virginity at the time, he has always linked death and sex. This is a connection that’s been made by more than one writer, in the following case a literature professor:

I have always suspected that authority figures in our culture protect children from knowledge of sex because of our cultural desire to protect children from a knowledge of deathPhilippe Aries refers to this as the “interdict laid upon death” in the twentieth century. The romantic image of the innocent child still dominating our culture perpetuates the illusion that children flourish best if they are free from the corrupting knowledge of carnality. Carnality: sex and death, death and sex. They are cultural and biological concepts that are linked inviolably. 

Roberta Seelinger Trites, Disturbing The Universe

(In literature for younger children, food is considered a replacement for sex.)

Mero of “The Half-Skinned Steer” has this exact same psychological problem.

Mero had thrashed all that ancient night, dreamed of horse breeding or hoarse breathing, whether the act of sex or bloody, cutthroat gasps he didn’t know.

I wonder what Annie Proulx thinks of Internet porn culture, which links sex with violence in the minds of young men experiencing their first pleasures. For her adult male characters, a single formative experience affects them for the rest of their lives.

DESIRE

Hawkheel is a character who wants things to stay the same. This is never a good thing for anyone to want, because whatever stays the same these days? People who can’t change with the times are all at a huge disadvantage.

When you have a character who simply wants continuity, you will need to create an opponent who wants change, and who is very good at bringing that about.

OPPONENT

Stong is popular for the first time in his life turns out he suits the busy salesman trade but didn’t discover that until late in life. Stong’s wish to be surrounded by interested out-of-towners who consider him a ‘character’ is in direct opposition to Hawkheel’s need for continued solitude and free hunting ranges.

PLAN

Although Hawkheel doesn’t want anything different at the beginning of the story, he does formulate a sneaky plan. Note that the plan he makes is not going to solve his problem. By buying up the valuable books at low prices, the best he can manage is a fleeting vengeance, and even that comes to an end when Stong learns from a librarian that he needs to put up his prices.

What’s the takeaway point for writers here? When a passive character makes a plan against their opponent, they’re not always making a plan to defeat them directly. There are all sorts of psychological issues at play here. Sometimes we know from the get-go we can’t beat our opponent, so we take solace in small, mostly unseen revenge tactics. This was never set up as a story in which we wonder who’ll win. Stong was always on the winning side. The interest comes from seeing the exact nature of Hawkheel’s downfall.

BIG STRUGGLE

The big struggle is Hawkheel’s sickness, with the stabs to the gut coming from Stong plying him spiked cider.

ANAGNORISIS

The anagnorisis phase of a short story is often marked with a metaphor such as:

  • Looking into some kind of light source e.g. fire, as comic icon, a lightbulb
  • A breaking dawn
  • Waking up after a dream
  • Bathing in water, especially if it’s cold

The more understated the big struggle, the more important it is to mark the anagnorisis.

In this particular story, Hawkheel’s revelation comes after recovering from a poisoning incident. After feeling better he has ‘a clear head’. In all these cases, the real world act provides a metaphor for the mental act of coming to some kind of understanding. What is Hawkheel’s understanding?

  1. That Stong poisoned him
  2. Because he wanted him out of the way for the hunt of the large deer
  3. That Stong hates himself on the inside, and because he hates himself, he doesn’t value anyone else’s life that much, either.

I’m inclined to think that the self-hatred revealed in the photo album (in which Stong imagines himself dead) and the near death poisoning of Hawkheel make these men two sides of the one coin two different ways of living life in the same, changing environment. Being of the same age, their deaths are linked, too.

NEW SITUATION

The death (actual, almost or imagined) has been foreshadowed from the beginning paragraphs, when Hawkheel marks the books he can’t afford with ‘black crosses like tiny grave markers’. These crosses could also represent the series of little spiritual deaths that happen all the way through the narrative the loss of secret places, the loss of his source of cheap books.

WRITING TECHNIQUES OF NOTE

EXPAND ON IDIOMS

One thing you can do to turn a cliche into something new is expand on it. Annie Proulx demonstrates how by telling us Stong has a ‘sharp tongue’ but she extends the metaphor of planing and sanding:

As Stong grew older, he let the farm go down. He sat in the food store year after year listening in on the party line. His sharp-tongued gossip rasped at the shells of others’ lives until the quick was exposed. […] Often his razor tongue stropped itself on the faults and flaws of his dead parents as though he had come fresh from rancorous argument with them…

To ‘strop’ means to sharpen or with a strop, which is usually a strip of leather for sharpening razors

The metaphor works so well because Stong is crafting his stories as a craftsman creates something new from nothing the falseness of his stories is emphasised.

So if you find a cliche in your work but you don’t want to get rid of it because it works well within the symbol web, extending it is a solid option.

USE THE IDIOM BUT KEEP THE FAMILIAR WORDS OFF THE PAGE

This is a related technique. Annie Proulx writes in Stong a character who ‘sells out’. He very literally sells everything his family owns, for his personal gain but also to the detriment of his former neighbours. Stong is a sell-out in the most literal sense. But Proulx doesn’t use those words. She shows him doing the literal thing.

AMBIGUITY AROUND TERRIBLE EVENTS

This unseen storyteller unlike gossipy Stong is not someone who wants people to know she indulges in salacious details. Annie Proulx does in general skip over horrible things, giving us just enough to imagine what might have happened.

His father drove jerkily, lips moving in whispered conversation with invisible imps. Hawkheel had kept his hand on the door handle in case the old man steered for the edge and he had to jump. It was oe of the last memories he had of his father.

Did Hawkheel’s father drive himself off a cliff that day, or at some later date, or did he happen to die due to some other cause? If it’s not necessary to the story, Proulx doesn’t spell it out, and even then you have to search for hints. This technique also offsets the possibility that we might be listening to an unreliable narrator. Surely if she doesn’t indulge in misery, when she relates miserable things, she’s not even exaggerating.

As for the above example, it’s cleared up later when we’re told Hawkheel’s father had to carted off to the insane asylum.

USE ALL THE SENSES

This is Writing 101 but see how it’s done:

The barn was filled with dim, brown light shot through like Indian silk with brilliant threads of sunlight. There was a faint smell of apples. On the other side of the wall a rooster beat his wings. Hawkheel looked around and saw, behind the grain sacks, hundreds of boxes, some stacked on shelves and windowsills.

But it’s not true that as a writer you should always make use of the various senses. When characters go about their day-to-day lives, they don’t notice. But when Hawkheel enters the barn he’s about to discover something really good. He’s also a little on edge. This description primes the reader for that.

SHOWING THAT FRIENDLY DOES NOT MEAN GOOD

Stong is a great character because if you met him in certain situations you’d see nothing wrong with him. Annie Proulx’s narrator gives us plenty to make us despise him, but when she writes him in action, we see how his nastiness is subtle:

“Good to see you, Leverd,” said Stong in a creamy voice. He gossiped and joked as if Hawkheel were one of the summer people, winked and said, “Don’t spend your whole social security check on books, Leverd. Save a little out for a good time. You seen the new uger shotguns?” Mellowed and ripened Stong, improved by admiration, thought Hawkheel.

Notice also how the narrator compares Stong to cheese.

It’s almost better when nasty people are nasty all the time, unambiguously. But if you really want someone to hate you, be nasty underneath and nice on the surface, with just a little of the nasty poking through. Cheese can be like that you never know what you’re going to get with cheese until you taste it (or smell it). It can be mild or astringent.

I suppose a less masterful writer would omit that minor juxtaposition, or depict a bad man as nasty at all times.

Fairytales and Modern Storytelling

fairytale study

This is my collection of fairytale links. I’m interested in fairytales from a writing perspective — how do fairytales help us to create new, contemporary stories?

TWO OF THE MOST IMPORTANT ELEMENTS OF FAIRYTALES

  1. the “serene, anonymous” voice in which it’s told
  2. the “conventional, stock figures” who inhabit it.

This is according to American poet James Merrill , as described at the opening of “The Book of Ephraim”.

THE ENDURING APPEAL OF CERTAIN FAIRYTALES

Boy George has said that the difference between a pop song and an unpopular song is repetition. The same can be said of many popular things, including fairy tales.

Many fairytales are harrowing. Nothing written fresh today would get published and heavily marketed for children if it included cannibalism and other child abuse. Yet many of us still read Hansel and Gretel to our children before bedtime. Perhaps my real question is: Why are popular fairytales so awful, and why are they still here?

Conservative Ethics

Fairytales do not become mythic unless they are in almost perfect accord with the underlying principles of how the male members of society seek to arrange object relations to satisfy their wants and needs.

Jack Zipes

The ethics of a fairytale are not completely static; they do evolve somewhat with the times.

As they spread, folktales evolve like biological species, from The Conversation

Pacing

Celerity: swiftness is a great virtue in the fairy tale. A good tale moves with a dreamlike speed from event to event, pausing only to say as much as is needed and no more. The best tales are perfect examples of what you do need and what you don’t: in Rudyard Kipling’s image, fires that blaze brightly because all the ashes have been raked out.

The opening of a tale, for example. All we need is the word ‘Once . . .’ and we’re off […]

The speed is exhilarating. You can only go that fast, however, if you’re travelling light; so none of the information you’d look for in a modern work of fiction – names, appearances, background, social context, etc – is present.

Philip Pullman

Comfort

Modern publishers know how most picturebooks are read: at night, by parents, to put their children to sleep. Harrowing as the content may be, a home-away-from home structure is considered essential for putting young kids to sleep, and fairytales provide just that. (At least, the enduring ones that get published over and over again.)

FAIRYTALE ANALYSIS AT THIS BLOG

MODERN FAIRYTALES

Myths and folktales are assumed to be the very first stories in the history of humankind, closely related to rites of passage. Thus, a fairytale becomes a travel instruction for a young person on the way toward adulthood, directions on exactly how to behave in various situations. […] The hero’s task in a folktale is totally impossible for an “ordinary” human being, it is always a symbolic or allegorical depiction. Allegories (like Dante’s Divina Commedia or Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress) are also travel instructions. But the addressee knows that you cannot die and then rise from the dead, nor be eaten by a whale and then come out again, nor descend into the realm of death, and so on. When the March sisters try to follow Bunyan’s instructions for a journey, they have to “translate” the allegory into more everyday conditions. […] The modern version of a travel instruction is formula fiction in all its forms: crime novel, science fiction, horror, romance, soap opera, and so on. The addressee of these texts also knows that the story has very little to do with life. On the contrary, the text is based on detachment, especially through its exotic settings and incredible events. Many scholars have noted the similarities between fairytales and formula fiction. As early as the 1920s Propp suggested that his model for folktale analysis could be applied to novels of chivalry and other texts with fixed narrative structures.

Maria Nikolajeva, From Mythic to Linear: Time in Children’s Literature
Harrington Mann The Fairy Tale 1902
The Fairy Tale 1902 Harrington Mann (1864-1937)

Transmogrification In Storytelling

transmogrification Spirited Away

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

WHAT IS TRANSMOGRIFICATION AND WHAT IS ITS USE IN STORYTELLING?

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

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

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

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

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

IDEOLOGY OF TRANSMOGRIFICATION

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

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

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

Masters Review

OTHER TERMINOLOGY RELATED TO THE CHANGING OF FORM AND TYPE

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

TRANSMOGRIFICATION AND CHRISTIANITY

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

Marina Warner, No Go the Bogeyman

TRANSMOGRIFICATION AND EUROPEAN FAIRY TALES

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

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

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

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

Marina Warner, No Go the Bogeyman

CONTEMPORARY EXAMPLES OF TRANSMOGRIFICATION IN STORYTELLING

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

FAMILY FILMS

  • Brave
  • The Cat Returns
  • Spirited Away Chihiro’s parents turn into pigs. Chihiro herself has her name shortened to ‘Sen’ (the Chinese reading of one of the characters in her name). By changing her name she becomes a different person for a while.
  • Wolf Children, and any other werewolf story.

ADULT SHORT STORIES

PICTURE BOOKS

  • Slinky Malinki by Lynley Dodd basically a werewolf story but starring a mischievous pet cat

CHILDREN’S NOVELS

  • Northern Lights the animals keep changing until the child’s personality settles into their permanent one.
  • Freaky Friday, in which a mother and daughter swap bodies to learn about each other
  • The Animorphs series
  • All the transforming spells in Harry Potter
  • Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland when Alice nibbles on a bit of mushroom; when Alice is a huge walking head on the ground. Both of the Alice books play with identity via distortions of the body. According to Marina Warner, ‘ Carroll’s creations are the most eloquent modern exponent of Circean sporting with nature and the pleasures that beasts and monsters can inspire’.

CARTOONS

  • Courage The Cowardly Dog, whenever Courage turns into a monster to try and get his message across without words. This is a gag that happens in every episode.