The Tale of Mr Jeremy Fisher by Beatrix Potter

The Tale of Mr. Jeremy Fisher (1906) is one of Beatrix Potter’s more popular stories, and is an excellent example of how to write a sympathetic main character. Publishers had been telling Potter since she wrote it in 1893 for her last nanny’s son that frogs aren’t cute and fluffy enough to warrant main character status in children’s literature. This feels almost unbelievable today, but Potter helped pave the way for non-fluffy stars in picture books.

Perhaps Jeremy Fisher even had an influence on this piece by Ohara Koson, Frog Sumo, ca. 1930s



STORYWORLD OF JEREMY FISHER

JEREMY’S HOUSE

Jeremy Fisher lives in a part human, part animal dwelling, which looks like a regular house but with water slopping all around the corridors and larder. (Just this week I’ve had the washing machine overflow, which calls to mind Jeremy Fisher.)

STICKING PLASTERS

I was surprised to read that when Jeremy gets mildly injured he reaches for the sticking plasters. I didn’t think they’d have been around that long. I looked up ‘when were sticking plasters invented’. Certain American websites think they didn’t exist until Johnson & Johnson made them, but the adhesive plaster has a much longer history in England. These days I don’t hear kids talk about ‘sticking plasters’ — Band-aid seems to have suffered the fate of generification.

Beatrix sold Jeremy Fisher partly on her beautiful scenery to compensate for the unappealing amphibian. So The Tale of Jeremy Fisher is one of Potter’s most beautiful books. The flora, the mountainous background with its misty aerial perspective and the reflections in the water are beautifully rendered. Jeremy Fisher himself is patterned in what looks (to the modern eye) like camo pants, but they’re actually his own skin.

SYMBOLISM OF WATER

Potter is making doubly symbolic use of the water. Consider bodies of water two separate realms in storytelling: The water’s surface and the water’s depths. The water surface functions more like a vast plain (a la the Wild West) whereas the depths are more like outer space — you never know what can come out of it. You can’t see things coming, either. Humans have a natural fear of the ocean, and the further down we go, the more gruesome the fish life appears to us.

STORY STRUCTURE OF JEREMY FISHER

SHORTCOMING

Through my contemporary lens, Jeremy Fisher is sympathetic in his own right, even without the help of lush scenery. Potter did a great job of his body language and face. The illustration below succeeds in making him look super cute, don’t you think? It’s all in the tilt of the head and perhaps in the underbite jaw.

Jeremy’s Shortcoming is that he is a low down on the food chain. Potter depicts him as fully a part of it — Jeremy plans to eat minnows, which he catches with worms. He invites to dinner a creature who only eats salad. The reader is made fully cognisant of the food chain and Jeremy’s place within it. There’s nothing sentimental about these stories.

Potter makes Jeremy sympathetic with subtle injections of humour. For instance, his ‘boat’ looks ‘very like the other lily-leaves’. In fact it’s just a lily leaf, not a boat at all. So Jeremy thinks of himself as a human. I know when my dog does things that appear human, I find him very cute. (Curling up in my bean bag, making use of a blanket to keep warm, learning how to open the door etc.) This tends to compensate for the annoyance.

DESIRE

Jeremy Desires minnows (small fish) for his dinner. Ideally he wants to catch more than he needs so he can entertain his friends at his house. This is a likeable sort of desire — we can see Jeremy is a generous ‘person’. Like actual animals in the wild, his relationship with killing isn’t about power (with humans it’s often about power), but about sustenance.

OPPONENT

Jeremy’s Opponents are the much larger fish who swim beneath his ‘boat’. They can eat him up at any time. (He seems remarkably relaxed, considering.)

PLAN

  1. Dig in the garden for worms
  2. Take can of worms to the ‘boat’
  3. Dangle worms in water on the end of a fishing line
  4. Catch minnows
  5. Take minnows home to cook for dinner

He gets as far as 3.

BIG STRUGGLE

The Battle is beautifully set up, because Potter’s unseen narrator (Potter herself) tells us before the dire moment that the situation would have been dire had he not been wearing his macintosh. This leads us to expect less than what happens: We think he’s going to get terribly splashed.

ANAGNORISIS

Plot revelation: In fact Jeremy’s almost eaten. He is only spat out because the big fish doesn’t like the taste of the macintosh. This would feel like a shock to the young reader.

Jeremy’s Anagnorisis is that he’s not safe down near the water and he won’t be going fishing again.

NEW SITUATION

But we’re given a nice cosy New Situation, with the three friends enjoying a (disgusting) meal together around Jeremy’s dinner table. The original plan didn’t work out, but Jeremy came up with a modified menu.

Mrs Tiggy-Winkle by Beatrix Potter

Beatrix Potter wrote Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle specifically to appeal to girls. She thought that Lucie’s feminine garb, with its emphasis on the lost clothing items (o, calamity!), would appeal to girls especially.

Even today, authors and publishers are creating children’s books for the gender binary* e.g. this book will appeal to boys because X; this will appeal to girls because Y.

*Gender binary is not an ideal term, though it’s used widely. We don’t live in a gender binary — that suggests two categories which are equal. We live with gender isomorphism, in which there are ‘men’ and ‘failed men’.

Potter’s concept was a hard sell — publisher Norman Warne (about to become her fiancé) couldn’t see the appeal but he must’ve conceded he wasn’t a girl himself so Beatrix would know better, and Beatrix won (as she often did).

But Beatrix was wrong about the appeal of Lucie. Everyone who sets out to write ‘boy books’ and ‘girl books’ is always completely wrong, of course. Lucie didn’t garner much of an audience at all — everyone preferred the character of Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle.

Norman hadn’t been keen on a ‘hedgehog book’, either. He didn’t think dirty hedgehogs would appeal to kids — probably because they’re not fluffy. (The spines are modified hairs, Norman.) Perhaps it was Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle herself who paved the way for an entire raft of animal children’s books featuring non-cute creatures. Now we see reptiles, naked mole rats, fish, likeable insects and almost anything you can think of in picture books.

STORY STRUCTURE OF MRS. TIGGY WINKLE

Since Potter intended Lucie to be the main character, that’s where I’ll go with it.

SHORTCOMING

Lucie’s shortcoming is that she keeps losing things.

DESIRE

Lucie wants her handkerchief and pinnies back, which sets her out on her journey.

OPPONENT

This is a carnivalesque story, so the Opponent is replaced by a fun creature who allows the child to enter fully into a world of fantasy.

Any sense of danger comes only from the ‘hair-pins’ poking through Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle’s bonnet, wrong end out. This suggests she could snap at any time… though she doesn’t, of course! She’s a working class woman and remains deferential to Lucie, who comes from a middle-class household. (Back then it was very easy to tell socio-economic status from clothing.)

Although I’m sure most readers won’t bring the story of Chicken Little to front-of-mind when reading Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle, Chicken Little exists in a corpus of scary folk and fairy tales in which children go off looking for something, enter a wild creature’s house and come to a messy end. Goldilocks and The Three Bears is another example. So with those tales as palimpsest, there’s an ominous atmosphere to Potter’s Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle, despite the fact that Lucie is always very safe with the hedgehog, despite her dagger-like spines.

PLAN

There are elements of many classic tales here, not only Chicken Licken, which involves a character going from character to character asking the same question. (Also birds. Lots of birds.) In this case Lucie is looking for her handkerchief as a kind of McGuffin. (Not technically, because she does get her things back at the end.)

Jon Klassen uses a similar story structure in I Want My Hat Back.

Eventually Lucie’s plan is to follow a particular bird, who appears to be leading her somewhere — to the top of a hill where she has a revelation. See: The Symbolism of Altitude.

Potter is also making use of the Miniature in Storytelling technique, starting when it appears Lucie can drop a pebble down a chimney, even from the top of a hill. This is describing how Little-town looks tiny from the elevated vantage point, like a dollhouse. She is about to enter a world of play.

When Lucie finds the footprints she follows them, almost in spite of herself. This has the vibe of Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland — she eventually finds a portal — not a rabbit hole but a door straight into the hill. (Pied Piper, anyone?) The Alice imagery continues when Lucie enters the hedgehog’s house and seems to shrink, though she hasn’t literally changed size within the setting — it’s just that the ceiling is low and everything is in miniature. This is the wish fulfilment fantasy of shrinking down and entering your own dollhouse. I can imagine this appealed, though not just to girls.

BIG STRUGGLE

Although this story begins as a mythic journey, Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle is still a pretty standard Domestic Story, set inside the home, with female characters doing feminine things. But because this is a hedgehog washer-woman, this alone is enough to thrill the young audience of its era, and the carnivalesque ‘fun’ involves watching Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle wash clothing items belonging to a variety of woodland creatures.

When Lucie is excited to meet Peter Rabbit and Benjamin Bunny, this is a clear early example of intertextual marketing. You’ll see the same thing done today. For instance, some of the later Babymouse books make sure to mention the authors’ ‘boy book’ companion series about the amoeba.

Finally, the visit concludes when Lucie and Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle sit down and drink tea.

ANAGNORISIS

In a carnivalesque story like this, the Anagnorisis phase is replaced by a stage that marks the end of fun and passage back into the real world. In this case, the stile marks the portal back into the real world.

The inevitable message: Magic must be real. If you can imagine it, perhaps it might come true. Lucie realises this, and so might the reader.

NEW SITUATION

(Now some people say that little Lucie had been asleep upon the stile—but then how could she have found three clean pocket-handkins and a pinny, pinned with a silver safety-pin?

And besides—I have seen that door into the back of the hill called Cat Bells—and besides I am very well acquainted with dear Mrs. Tiggy-winkle!)

Mrs Tiggy-Winkle is an early example of what TV Tropes calls “Or Was It A Dream?” Potter is very clear about what she’s doing, with a note at the end. These days the reader is given no such hand-holding. You see an example of this trope in a picture book like The Polar Express, in which the child seems to go off on a fantasy adventure but is left with a token of proof.

The Scary Kitchen in Children’s Stories

In The Night Kitchen Maurice Sendak

Most often, kitchens in children’s literature serve as metonyms of familial happiness, but every so often you do find a scary kitchen in which not all is well. The kitchen is the perfect place for a scary scene because it is at once close to home (in fact the hub of the home) and contains dangerous items such as knives.

The ultimate scary picture book kitchen is, in my opinion, one created by Maurice Sendak — In The Night Kitchen.

One of Willy Pogany’s superb illustrations for The Witch’s Kitchen

And here are a couple of shots of the kitchens our story app Midnight Feast. I illustrated the story in two colour schemes — the ochre one is the main character’s reality. The colour illustrations are her imagined, improved take on reality, in which there is not enough to eat due to climate change.

I now find the prospect of climate change so terrifying I’d never spend a year and a half making another climate change story.

midnight feast kitchen
magical restaurant kitchen

I made Midnight Feast deliberately terrifying. (My illustration style doesn’t exactly lend itself to light and fluffy.)

But sometimes I wonder if kitchens are accidentally creepy. Below is a bird’s eye view of Doctor Snuggles’ kitchen. His housekeeper is grumpy and hates him messing up his space. The top down view makes Snuggles look small and somewhat vulnerable. The illustrator has skewed perspective a little to give the reader more of his face.

doctor-snuggles-and-the-lavender-lullaby_800x602
from Doctor Snuggles and the Lavender Lullaby created and written by Jeffrey O’Kelly, illustrated by Nicholas Price, 1982, ABC Television

The kitchen in Courage The Cowardly Dog can be scary or welcoming depending on the camera angle and colour scheme. Purples and blues mean something scary is going down.

from Courage The Cowardly Dog: The Shadow Of Courage
from Courage The Cowardly Dog: The Shadow Of Courage

A comically terrifying kitchen-centred story is a Wallace and Gromit film.

Downlighting and horror film techniques make for a spooky kitchen in Wallace and Gromit: A Matter Of Loaf And Death

Do you know which classic story the following scary kitchen is from?

This house was something between a cave, a prison, and a tumbledown pig-stye. There was a strong door, which was shut and locked.

The setting sun made the window panes glow like red flame; but the kitchen fire was not alight. It was neatly laid with dry sticks, as the rabbits could see, when they peeped through the window.

Benjamin sighed with relief.

But there were preparations upon the kitchen table which made him shudder. There was an immense empty pie-dish of blue willow pattern, and a large carving knife and fork, and a chopper.

At the other end of the table was a partly unfolded tablecloth, a plate, a tumbler, a knife and fork, salt-cellar, mustard and a chair—in short, preparations for one person’s supper.

It is from The Tale of Mr. Tod by Beatrix Potter. Some of those sentences would fit perfectly in a horror novel, don’t you think?

by Jim Smith from Frog Band Fanfare in 1977
by Jim Smith from Frog Band Fanfare in 1977

A Country Where You Once Lived by Robin Black

Thomas J. Banks - A Country House, in an Extensive Landscape

“A Country Where You Once Lived” by Robin Black (2010) is a great example of a short story in which the present story plays out alongside the backstory of a stand-out inflection point (“fulcrum”) which happened 13 years earlier. Two separate time periods merge into one. Whenever this happens in a story we are reminded that no single moment in time stands in isolation — the present is inevitably affected by the past.

The symbolism of trains, and their connection to the irreversible march of time, and the unforgiving nature of bad moral decisions, is fully mined in “A Country Where You Once Lived”.



RE-VISIONED CLASSIC TALE

Robin Black’s short story is also a great mentor text if you’re creating a narrative with very loose links to a classic tale, in this case  the legend of The Pied Piper of Hamelin.

  • The main character is symbolically named Jeremy Piper. When an author does this a decision must be made: To point it out in the text or let it be? Ironically, failing to point it out can make it seem trite. Here, Black is sure to point it out: Jeremy imagines the papers having fun with his name were he wrongly convicted of killing his own daughter: Tried Piper Lured Own Daughter.
  • There are children in the story (foetuses) which disappear mysteriously (a series of miscarriages). Zoe, Piper’s daughter, also disappears mysteriously in the backstory.
  • Jeremy’s subsequent estrangement with his daughter is its own kind of child loss, which juxtaposes nicely with the present loss of unborn, unseen children.
  • Jeremy is a scientist by profession. Though rats are not mentioned — they are referred to as ‘animals’ I deduce he performs his mushroom experiments on rats. (Mushrooms are themselves very ‘fairytale’.)
  • Like the Pied Piper, Jeremy is very good at what he does, well-known (within his field).
  • The man Jeremy imagines has abducted his daughter and done vile things is eventually proven to have not existed. There was certainly no Pied Piper Man if children disappeared from the town of Hamelin in the Middle Ages. The man is the representation of whatever it was — plague, crusade, whatever.
  • When Zoe comes home she has transmogrified, as if ‘she has been drained of some essential human moisture’. (She has turned into a kind of rat.)

So while various disparate elements are taken from The Pied Piper legend, it’s as if they’ve been scattered on the table like pick-up-stix and reordered into something completely new.  However, the palimpsest of the legend is still there, and the two stories are thematically linked — both are about the loss of children (and grandchildren).

THE AUTHOR READS

Below, Robin Black reads about the first third of “A Country Where You Once Lived”. First she explains that the publisher felt strongly that the collection should open with “The Guide”, which happens to be the only story with a man as main character. Robin Black felt strongly that it was strange to open with the story about the man when all her other stories were about women, so to offset this unease she did something a little perplexing to me… she wrote another story about a man! “A Country Where You Once Lived” is the only story written ‘for the book’.  The publishers were happy to wait for it.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “A COUNTRY WHERE YOU ONCE LIVED”

SHORTCOMING

Jeremy didn’t cope very well psychologically when his daughter ran away thirteen years ago. (I’m sure the number thirteen would’ve been chosen because of its association with bad luck.) The third person narrator of this story gives no indication that he is reflective to the point where he can see his own part in why she ran away — he has ripped her away from her friends at a time in her life when friends mean everything to her.

His response? To move back to America without his wife and daughter and to start again with a younger woman. His shortcoming is that he still needs some kind of connection with his original wife and daughter.

The reason he finally visits his daughter is to avoid disappointing his new girlfriend, who is probably worried about their fractured relationship for what it might say about him.

DESIRE

Jeremy is in England to meet his daughter’s fiancee. That’s his conscious desire. As part of that, he is hoping to reestablish some intimacy with his daughter. Later, we are told by the narrator that he has come for some forgiveness. The gradual revelation of his desires is designed to match his own gradual realisation regarding what his exact motivation even is.

OPPONENT

Zoe is no longer really an opponent — she has matured to the point where a reconnection looks likely.

Jeremy’s opposition mainly comes in the form of his first wife, Zoe’s mother, who is present in Zoe’s life to the point where there’s not really room for Jeremy — or rather, the degree of her caring and emotional labour makes his absence all the more glaring.

PLAN

Jeremy’s plan is simply to arrive at her house in the country and stay for a while.

Robin Black makes use of a ‘real world fantasy portal’ to signal that Jeremy is now entering a foreign world — not foreign because it’s fantasy but foreign to him because his family is no longer his family:

On either side, anywhere Jeremy looks, vast fields stretch, acres and acres of fields blanketing gentle hills. There are at least three barns in sight and a large half-timbered house right ahead. It is as though they’ve gone through one of those magical gates in children’s stories, into a universe that couldn’t possibly fit into the space concealing it.

BIG STRUGGLE

Unfortunately, his first night coincides with another of Zoe’s miscarriages. She is whisked away.

But the Battle scene takes place on the train between Jeremy and his first wife, Cathleen, who is concealing something. She is also unmasked in the very same scene — she is heading back to see Zoe, and the pair of them don’t want Jeremy there, though didn’t want to say.

ANAGNORISIS

This unmasking forms the basis of Jeremy’s Anagnorisis — that he is now peripheral to his first wife and daughter, and this is the way it will remain. He has no choice but to return to America and form a new life with his new partner.

But he isn’t sad about this. Given the sad nature of the story, his (ironic) Anagnorisis is that he’s actually pretty happy to be moving on.

NEW SITUATION

By re-partnering with the much younger woman and living across the Atlantic from Zoe and Cathleen, Jeremy has given away his opportunity to be part of a multi-generational family in later life. Even if he does start a new family with his 32-year-old girlfriend, he’ll not live long enough to see the children of his younger children.

In the same way, the people of Hamelin lost an entire generation of children. For them it was the end of their society, but Jeremy can still eke out a nice life for himself if he can mentally move on.

Header image Thomas J. Banks – A Country House, in an Extensive Landscape