All Summer in a Day is a short story by American writer Ray Bradbury, first published in 1954. Find it in Ray Bradbury Stories Vol. 1. It’s interesting to see how science fiction evolves alongside our increased understanding of other planets. “All Summer In A Day” is a story of its time, written in an era when people believed Venus probably looked like a jungle.Continue reading “All Summer in a Day by Ray Bradbury”
Dorothy Parker (1893-1967) is remembered as one of America’s greatest wits. If you watch Gilmore girls, you’ll be familiar with her name, as Rory is depicted reading a 1976 edition of The Portable Dorothy Parker. The creator of Gilmore girls, Amy Sherman-Palladino, was clearly a huge fan, naming her production company Dorothy Parker Drank Here. I feel the character of Miss Patty is straight out of Dorothy Parker’s world.Continue reading “I Live On Your Visits by Dorothy Parker”
Tawny Scrawny Lion is a Little Golden Book first published in 1952, written by Kathryn Jackson and illustrated by Gustaf Tenggren. The same team worked on The Saggy Baggy Elephant (1947).
This picture book is an interesting example — indeed, the peak example — of how storytellers for children must cast aside certain unpleasant food chain facts when anthropomorphising animals.
Specifically: lions cannot live on carrots. Carrot soup does not provide nearly enough calories required to live as a lion. Even when made with fish, a lion would need a hell of a lot of it.
Nor do rabbits eat fish. The fish in this story are not considered live, empathetic creatures. Unlike the land animals, their eyes are dots. (The lions and rabbits have human-like eyes, with ‘whites’ (yellows) indicating where they are looking.
Why is the tawny lion so scrawny even though he catches everything he chases? There is no realworld biochemical reason. This is classic fairytale physics, in line with the nonscientific cooling rates of the three differently sized bowls of porridge in Goldilocks And The Three Bears.
SETTING OF TAWNY SCRAWNY LION
At first I assumed Tawny Scrawny Lion is set in a utopian, picture book jungle, looked harder at the pictures and realised it was probably a savannah, then saw a Golden Book Video Classic called ‘Tawny Scrawny Lion’s Jungle Tales’ and realised the setting is meant to be a coded as a jungle. Compared to other picture book jungles, there is comparatively little typical jungle imagery. (Compare to The Saggy, Baggy Elephant, full of classic jungle imagery.)
The social world of Tawny Scrawny Lion starts out more like a real savannah/jungle (where larger carnivores eat smaller ones) and ends in a place completely divorced from a real world place. In any picture book starring animals, those animals will be anthropomorphised to some degree. Normally the storytellers pick a spot on that continuum and stay there, though animals in the same story are frequently positioned at different points on the anthropomorphising continuum.
The rabbits in this particular story are more civilised than the lion, who must become equally anthropomorphised before any of them can live in harmony. (The rabbits have access to bowls, spoons and a cauldron for cooking their carrot soup. They also have access to fishing lines and, most importantly, wear clothes, which are gendered.) Becoming more civilised (more like a human) is the lion’s main character arc. Tawny Scrawny Lion moves from wild animal to gentrified patriarch.
The poor old fish remain as foodstuffs. It’s clearly more difficult for humans to empathise with fish than with land mammals.
Tenggren’s illustrations are appropriately folk arty for this fantasy picture book world, with just the suggestion of savannah, and shapes placed on the page without an attempt at real world perspective.
The implicit ideology is clear; if animals could live more like (vegetarian) humans, the savannah would be a kinder, less brutal place.
This is what dates the book. Mindfully leaving vegetarian ideology aside, we now know how vital large animals are to an ecosystem. Taking wolves as an example, the reestablishment of just one pack of previously eradicatedwolves to an ecosystem can do an amazing amount of good… precisely because they hunt and kill. Lions are equally important.
STORY STRUCTURE OF TAWNY SCRAWNY LION
Once there was a tawny scrawny lion who chased monkeys on Monday—kangaroos on Tuesday—zebras on Wednesday—bears on Thursday—camels on Friday—and on Saturday, elephants!
So begins the funny, classic Golden story of a family of ten fat rabbits that teaches the hungry lion to eat carrot stew—so that he doesn’t eat them!marketing copy
The Tawny Scrawny Lion has a fantasy medical condition where the more animals he catches the scrawnier he becomes.
The lion seems content enough continuing to chase animals, probably never understanding what satiety feels like. The rabbits seem to understand that if they can persuade the lion to eat carrot soup, the benefits will be two-fold: The lion will feel more vigour and the rabbits will have saved all the animals further down the food chain (including themselves) from getting eaten.
Since lions eat rabbits, they are natural opponents.
Though this is left off the page, I imagine a belling the cat scenario in which the rabbits have a meeting, make a plan to invite the lion to change his diet, then invite him around to eat carrot soup.
But we only see the plan being carried out.
Anyone who knows anything about lions will be expecting disaster, but anyone who knows anything about Little Golden Books from the mid 20th century will know that this is a cosy story and the animal characters will be friends by the end.
The prose contains plenty of suspense. When the little rabbit stops to catch some fish ‘this is almost too much for the hungry lion’. The illustrations support the reader’s fear that the lion will lose control and gobble the little rabbits up.
Peak danger: four little rabbits ‘plumped themselves down in the lion’s lap’. Don’t you love the author’s use of ‘plump’? And the illustrator’s depiction of a wide open lion mouth, with those tiny, crazed pupils…
Turn the page and we learn that the carrot soup has worked as a magic potion to quell the lion of hunger. ‘And somehow, even when it was time to say goodnight, that lion wasn’t one bit hungry!’
The lion realises he feels much better eating carrot stew, albeit made with fish stock. He will give up hunting and from now on live the more civilised life of a stew eater…
… so long as the rabbits keep making it for him.
It’s true that large cats (or any wild animal) won’t hunt unless they are hungry. Humans are the only species who kill more than we need for our own sustenance.
So long as the rabbits keep feeding the lion that soup, and so long as it contains plenty of fish, maybe I can believe this happy scenario will continue forever.
It could be argued that this storybook world is so far removed from reality that young readers wouldn’t draw any connection between morality and diet. But that’s not how children’s stories work at all. The surface interpretation is clearly fantasy. Covert ideology carries a story’s resonance; in this case, that animals who eat animals further down the food chain are morally wrong, and until they mend their ways, they will lead an unhappy life.
Adults love a story for children in which enemies become friends. Over the second half of the 20th century The Tawny Scrawny Lion stood the test of time a popular picture book character and sequels followed. ‘Tawny Scrawny Lion’ was now ‘THE Tawny Scrawny Lion’.
FOR FURTHER INVESTIGATION
For more on Gustaf Tenngren, see the article on him at Animation Resources.
At almost 32,000 words, Charlotte’s Web (1952, 1963) is a middle grade novel rather than a chapter book. This is a story with many hidden depths, which appeals to middle grade kids as well as their adult co-readers.
Below I’ll be getting into how this story appeals to both children and adults, the themes of death, the narration, characterisation and the overall story structure.Continue reading “Charlotte’s Web Novel Study”
“A Good Man Is Hard To Find” is a well-known short story by American writer Flannery O’Connor, published 1953. So much has already been said about this story — I will look into its structure from a plotting point of view. It’s also about time I read this story. Without reading Flannery O’Connor’s most famous work I can’t fully appreciate Alice Munro’s 1990s spin on it.
Hear a rare recording of “A Good Man Is Hard To Find”, at Open Culture.
In Flannery O’Connor’s most famous story, “A Good Man in Hard to Find,” wherein a southern matriarch watches—or rather listens—as one-by-one the members of her family are executed by one of a pair of escaped serial killers in the woods close behind her, never once are we told how frightened and horrified she must feel. We aren’t told how she feels at all. The horror implicit in the scene is left entirely to our imagination. Which makes it all the more horrific.Never State What You Can Imply, Peter Selgin
SETTING OF “A GOOD MAN IS HARD TO FIND”
A white family goes on a road trip. They are travelling from Tennessee through Georgia to Florida for a holiday. The grandmother, who would’ve been born in the late 1800s, shows a pitiful if kindly attitude towards the Black child they pass on the way. No one else in that car says anything about him at all, except the observation that he is not wearing pants.
THE ENVIRONMENT AS ENDLESSLY RENEWABLE AND GIVING
It is difficult to imagine this attitude now, but The Grandmother tells her grandchildren not to throw their lunch rubbish out the window. The parents remain silent, suggesting this behaviour would’ve been fine with them. It’s only a small detail but reminds me of a scene from Mad Men, in which Don and Betty take the children on a picnic. When they’re done they just leave all the rubbish in the park. Is that what people really did back then? I guess it must be.
When I grew up in 1980s New Zealand there was a TV advertisement showing two children in the back seat of a car, eating fast food, throwing the rubbish out the window. The children were understood to be greedy, lazy and destructive to the environment. The message was to be a Tidy Kiwi. I thought these children were rascals, and couldn’t believe anyone was allowed to eat in the car (we weren’t) let alone throw rubbish out the window. Although the Tidy Kiwi campaign started in the 1960s, by the 1980s, the ‘don’t litter’ message had gotten through to almost everyone. Throughout the 1990s, we were fed the message that if we picked up our own rubbish, we were sufficiently taking care of the environment. By the early 2000s, that had morphed into ‘recycle correctly’. The 2010s and beyond are a different story — right now the onus is on the consumer to avoid buying goods in ‘unnecessary packaging’ in the first place, to create as little rubbish as possible.
Of course this is part of a larger, deeply, more deadly problem — transportation, electricity production and industry are the main culprits in destroying the actual environment at a deep level, and all the ‘responsible consumerism’ won’t do much to help it, other than assuage our own anxiety-guilt. (Not to say we shouldn’t do every little thing we can.)
They stopped at The Tower for barbecued sandwiches. The Tower was a part stucco and part wood filling station and dance hall set in a clearing outside of Timothy.
Red Sam, who owns and runs the place, complains with The Grandmother that the world is going to wreck and ruin. The title of the story is a quote from Red Sam. The Grandmother and Red Sam are of the same generation. These are characters who would’ve lived through America’s depression, so it’s interesting they see 1950s America — an era still romanticised — as a downgrade on that. What, exactly, has been downgraded to them? Do they perhaps look back fondly on a time when slavery was legal? Are they able to put that into words, or would acknowledging it create uncomfortable dissonance with their own self image as ‘good people’?
THE PLANTATION HOUSE OUTSIDE TOOMSBORO
In slightly earlier times this is a plantation that would’ve been run by Black slaves. But this is not what the grandmother remembers:
the house had six white columns across the front and that there was an avenue of oaks leading up to it and two little wooden trellis arbors on either side in front where you sat down with your suitor after a stroll in the garden. … the beautiful glass over the front doorway and the candle-lamp in the hall
The present scenery:
The dirt road was hilly and there were sudden washes in it and sharp curves on dangerous embankments. All at once they would be on a hill, looking down over the blue tops of trees for miles around, then the next minute, they would be in a red depression with the dust-coated trees looking down on them. … The road looked as if no one had traveled on it in months.
This feels like a Hotel California situation. That final sentence leads me to wonder: Are they are going to make it out? Sure enough, this dangerous description of a road foreshadows the accident:
The road was about ten feet above and they could see only the tops of the trees on the other side of it. Behind the ditch they were sitting in there were more woods, tall and dark and deep. … Behind them the line of woods gaped like a dark open mouth.
The woods are of course a trope from long ago, often a symbol for the subconscious.
CHARACTERS OF “A GOOD MAN IS HARD TO FIND”
Flannery O’Connor’s characters are often described as grotesque, which has a specific meaning in literature:
Nowadays, when people talk about “the grotesque,” their meaning is closer to its adjectival form: “very strange or ugly in a way that is not normal or natural.” The grotesque in literature focuses on the human body, and all the ways that it can be distorted or exaggerated: its aim is to simultaneously elicit our empathy and disgust. Very much like the uncanny, the grotesque draws its power from the combination of the familiar and the unfamiliar, or the familiar distorted. Gothic fiction often has elements of the grotesque, such as Mary Shelley’s monster in Frankenstein or the off-kilter characters in Flannery O’Conner’s stories. In its earlier iterations, the term “grotesque” was used in a way that overlapped more with “the uncanny,” referring to works that blurred the line between the real and the fantastic, such as Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis,” in which the human protagonist is transformed into an insect. It is interesting to see the ways in which these terms overlap, and it’s important to note that their exact “definitions” can be hard to nail down because of the way they have changed over time.The Masters Review Blog
THE FAMILY ON THE ROAD TRIP
The Grandmother — Has connections in Tennessee. Does not want to go to Florida because she has heard there’s a criminal on the loose. She is inclined to worry unnecessarily without being able to process probabilities and likelihood. For instance, she won’t leave the cat at home in case he brushes against the knob of the gas burner and asphyxiates himself. (Has this ever happened in the history of the world?) The Grandmother is therefore revealed to be a fantasist as well as a worrier. And this is why I interpret this plot as a metaphor or as a dream, probably endured by The Grandmother as she nodded off in the backseat, rather than as ‘real’ within the world of the story. (Not that it really matters whether the car wreck and the hearse really turned up or not — this doesn’t change any of the themes in the story.)
Bailey — The Grandmother’s son. She lives with him and his family. He doesn’t have much fun in him, but he is wearing bright blue parrots all over his shirt, as if to convince himself he’s going on holiday. This reminds me of the scene in Office Space, where the boss tells his staff to wear Hawaiian shirts on Friday, if they like, because it will be fun. (The staff don’t look like it will be fun — Hawaiian shirts will only remind them of how un-fun it is to be stuck in a cubicle.) Within the world of this story, the brightness of the shirt is equally ironic — it is the shirt he is wearing as he’s marched off for execution.
Bailey’s wife — ‘a young woman in slacks, whose face was as broad and innocent as a cabbage’. We don’t know much else about her, except her grim acceptance of her own fate, much like Carla Jean Moss in No Country For Old Men.
The Baby — sits in the front seat on its mother’s lap, which gives me anxiety. I grew up with a TV advertisement which showed a baby flying through a windscreen, and the devastated, slow-mo aftermath. (It’s amazing what we kids weren’t allowed to watch compared to the trauma we was exposed to during regular TV shows, including the shows aimed at kids.)
June Star — the granddaughter, blonde hair. Sassy. Funny. Cheeky.
John Wesley — the grandson, 8 years old, stocky with glasses. ‘it’s some that can live their whole life out without asking about it and it’s others has to know why it is, and this boy is one of the latters. He’s going to be into everything!’ This is according to the God-like (Devil-like?) killer, so I take it as a fairly accurate assessment of his character.
Pitty Sing — the cat. The Grandmother hides the cat in the car. Eventually the cat will reveal itself, angering Bailey, foreshadowing death. This cat turns The Grandmother into a bit of a witch archetype — the sort of witch who can divine the future.
The Misfit — has broken out of the Federal Penitentiary and is apparently headed towards Florida. Strong white teeth. Menacing. Like a character out of a Western, he wears a black hat. Has ditched his clothes and is not wearing a shirt. This tends to make a criminal look more confident. (I’m thinking of Kevin Bacon’s character in The River Wild.) He wears no armour at all, because he is confident he doesn’t need it. When he recounts all the things he has seen he is older than I first imagined. Wears glasses. ‘Without his glasses, The Misfit’s eyes were red-rimmed and pale and defenseless-looking.’
Bobby Lee — one of the men in the black hearse
Hiram — one of the men in the black hearse, the one who seems to know the most about engines.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “A GOOD MAN IS HARD TO FIND”
The Grandmother is the character we know the most about. Her reactions are described in the most detail. She worries (needlessly) but eventually the very thing she worries about most comes true within the world of the story. So if we read this story at its most literal level, she doesn’t worry needlessly, on this particular occasion.
What gets her into this mess is that she has misremembered some roads from long ago. But if we take a fatalistic view of the story, it wouldn’t have mattered which roads they took — bad would’ve come for them wherever they were. And when I say ‘bad’, I mean death. The black hearse, of course, is an old woman facing her own impending death. Perhaps, metaphorically, the old woman dies on this trip (but in a much less melodramatic way).
Right to the end, The Grandmother has a black and white view of Good and Evil. She believes she is good — she is good because she looks nice; she is good because she comes from a good family (as if lineage is the thing). She thinks that these things will save her.
She doesn’t want to go on holiday but she doesn’t want to stay home, either. She wants to feel as safe as she can, wherever she happens to be, and to remain a member of the Good Gang.
The Misfit and co come along to prove that the very thing she’s most worried about will come to fruition.
After the car rolls, the family plan to wait for someone to pass by and pick them up.
When The Grandmother realises they’re in great danger she tries appealing to God and offering money. Finally she tries to persuade The Misfit that they are all related somehow, in the scheme of things — appealing to his humanity (or perhaps she’s genuinely addled because The Misfit is wearing her dead son’s ironically loud-print shirt).
The scene where The Misfit turns up and shoots the adults is the Battle scene. Murder happens ostensibly because the grandmother recognises who he is and tells him she knows. There’s a chance they all would’ve left with their lives, otherwise. Or would they?
Did the grandmother learn anything about life before she died? She probably came to the conclusion that life contains the evil she always imagined it did — she’s been vindicated.
But she starts off quite hopeful — so long as she behaves correctly, going through the correct rituals in life, everything will turn out fine. By the end of the story all hope has been quashed, in the face of outright sociopathy, though The Grandmother never gives up, in contrast to her resigned daughter-in-law.
The reader’s revelation? Well, my takeaway point is that bad things happen to anyone, and sometimes it’s just a matter of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Some churches teach that so long as you do everything right, your life and afterlife will be excellent. This idea poses a serious dilemma for any free-thinking person — what to make of very unfortunate individuals? To me, “A Good Man Is Hard To Find” is a critique on the idea that it’s possible to divide humanity into heaven-bound and hell-bound individuals.
The family are dead and the baddies keep going wherever they’re going to. The Misfit has a Zen outlook on life — he doesn’t remember what crimes put him in jail. It’s likely he’ll end up back in jail and won’t care to remember the reason. He’s almost a supernatural creature rather than a real one — an earthly Grim Reaper.
COMPARE AND CONTRAST
Annie Proulx’s short story “A Run Of Bad Luck“, because the way in which the reader is asked to consider fate.
Alice Munro’s re-visioning, “Save The Reaper“.
Slate’s Audiobook Special (The Flannery O’Connor part starts at 22:20)
Header photo by Matt Howard
So much has been said about Narnia already. Can I add a single thing to the corpus by blogging about storytelling techniques in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe?
Probably not, but my 10-year-old is studying this novel at school. She’s home sick today. I know the rest of her class is watching the 2005 film adaptation this afternoon for a compare and contrast exercise, because they send home permission slips for PG rated material. (Honestly, heh, I showed this to my kid when she was about 5.) It’s been a while since we cracked open the DVD, so today we are rewatching The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, together at home, under a blanket.
This blog post is mainly about the 2005 film adaptation, not about the novel. I haven’t read the novel since I was in my late teens, though I keep meaning to go back. I bought myself a beautiful illustrated version for my 30th birthday. What’s keeping me from dusting it off? Probably all the commentary around it, and knowing how problematic it is as a vehicle for certain ideas.
NARNIA AS A MISOGYNISTIC, RACIST, DOG’S BREAKFAST
Spufford considers The Chronicles of Narnia the ‘essence of book’. (He went on to write Unapologetic.) As a child, the Christian bits meant least to him, but the allegories weren’t mysterious to a church-going boy. What Spufford loved about Narnia was the sensuousness of it. Looking at it critically from an adult point of view it’s easy to criticise this series as a ‘dog’s breakfast’. (After all, it has water nymphs and Father Christmas in the same world.) But Lewis loved all of these elements and he had the ability to bring his passions to life. No other series delivered a world like those ones did. (A modern audience has Harry Potter for an equally sensuous setting, bringing many different elements together.)
Reading as an adult, Spufford noticed misogyny and racism. The racist elements are easy enough to figure out — Lewis was influenced by Arabian Nights and other things. The author’s feelings about women, on the other hand, are harder to figure out. There are a lot of dangerous snake women who keep popping up in the different chronicles and there are no women (apart from mothers) who are safe, at all. Fantasy is a horribly revealing form. People make fantasy out of the deep material of their imagination. Where did this misogyny come from?
C.S. LEWIS: MISOGYNIST BUT NOT SEXIST
Spufford reminds us that C.S. Lewis’ mother died when he was very young. He adds that it now ‘seems unfair to ask the past to know what the present knows’. I disagree wholeheartedly with Spufford on this point. Missing a mother does not make misogyny. As evidence, I proffer every single misogynist who has a perfectly good mother. Instead, all we need for misogynistic tales to thrive is a misogynistic world. And the 1950s were nothing if not that.
Others make the case that The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe is empowering to women. Here’s the argument in a nutshell, from what I can gather:
- Lewis wasn’t making women subservient to men; he was making humans subservient to God. Lewis intends to exalt divinity, not men. (Gah, now that’s a damn stretch.)
- Sure, the bad people in Narnia are women, but bad women are powerful women. (I am on board with this argument. I get this one. We’ll know we’ve reached true gender equality when we see as many flawed women in positions of power as there are flawed men. Unfortunately, we’re nowhere near that point yet. This real world fact means that a preponderance of terrible females in positions of fictional power feeds into the existing idea that women are generally terrible when given any power at all.)
- Susan and Lucy are allowed to be heroines. (Yes, but very specifically female ones. As my ten-year-old said as they laid their heads upon poor, dead Aslan, “Ugh, so they make the girls cry.” Moreover, Lucy is given the stereotypically feminine role of healing, like a wartime nurse.)
- Lewis isn’t ranking masculine coded activities as higher than feminine coded activities. He doesn’t rank Peter’s skill with the sword HIGHER than he rates Lucy’s ability to heal and empathise. (I’ve heard this a lot before, but ranking is beside the point. Simply assigning gender to certain tasks keeps women in their ‘rightful’ place as caregivers, nurturers and providers of emotional labour.)
- All of the main characters in Narnia embody feminine characteristics, because submission (to God) is a feminine coded thing to do. All people are feminine to God. And this is the Christian ideal. (Sure, Peter looks after Lucy’s feelings at times, but on the other hand he’s in a clear patriarchal big struggle with his own brother. Peter is a benevolent sexist, at best.)
- Some have pointed out a difference between ‘classical heroism’ (masculine) and ‘spiritual heroism’ (feminine). These characters go on a spiritual journey, therefore they all go on a feminine journey, rendering gender binaries moot. Some go so far as to say Lewis is even critiquing classical heroism.
- Lewis plays so much with so-called feminine and masculine virtues that we can’t even think of his characters in this binary gendered way. (Yes, this is always a sticking point in such arguments. But people who study this stuff know full well which attributes are coded feminine by the dominant culture and which are coded masculine. People who use this argument are derailing.)
That is not an exhaustive list of the arguments in favour of gender equality in the Narnia Chronicles. Instead, I want to leave you with a quote from Lewis himself:
I do not believe that God created an egalitarian world. I believe the authority of parent over child, husband over wife, learned over simple to have been as much a part of the original plan as the authority of man over beast.The Weight of Glory, p 168
If you don’t see that exact ideology shining through in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, I don’t know what to tell you.
Here’s the vital thing to grasp about Lewis and his world view: He didn’t just believe that there is a biological difference between the sexes; he believed there was a spiritual difference as well. To him, femininity represents subjection to God. Men, to Lewis, were literally closer to God. This is still the case for many fundamentalist Christians.
However, C.S. Lewis did believe in political and vocational equality. Donald Trump, by the way, is exactly the same. This is why it’s important to make a distinction between sexism and misogyny. C.S. Lewis, like Donald Trump, was not a clear sexist. He did believe that women were capable of contributing fully to the world (and was happy for women to do just that, recognising that their labours would benefit him). However, he was a keen upholder of the police force of patriarchy, otherwise known as misogyny. For more on this point, I refer you to the excellent book Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny by Kate Manne, specifically page 89.
SETTING OF NARNIA
There’s an entire article on the Setting of Narnia at Wikipedia.
Narnia is a quasi-medieval world written in the mid 20th century.
I can’t think of a clearer example of The Symbolism of Seasons in Storytelling. Winter means death, summer means life.
The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe is a classic portal fantasy. C.S. Lewis knew to really dwell on the portal. Getting all four children through the portal dominates the first quarter of the story.
C.S. Lewis also made full use of The Symbolism of Altitude, which is not only symbolic but also lends dimensionality to a landscape. Characters go below ground (with the beavers), above ground and high above ground (up trees, on mountains, in a palace).
The 1972 map of Narnia depicts a setting which is mostly forested, except for marshlands in the north. In the Bible, the enemy of God’s people come from the north, bringing destruction. False kings come from the north. See also: The Symbolism of Cardinal Direction.
STORY STRUCTURE OF THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE (2005 FILM ADAPTATION)
The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe features an ensemble cast with no stand-out main character. The story crosscuts between Lucy and Edmond, or whoever happens to be the most alone and vulnerable at the time. However, we definitely empathise with Lucy. For my purposes, I nominate Lucy as ‘the main character’. She is also a ‘viewpoint’ character, because when Lucy sees Narnia for the first time, so do we. However, Edmond undergoes the biggest character arc so we could just as easily pick him. (If not more so.)
Lucy’s main shortcoming is that she is the youngest, and therefore expected to be immature and unreliable.
Nobody believes Lucy when she walks through the back of the wardrobe. Honestly, wouldn’t you believe Edmond?
Edmund’s lie of omission, failing to tell his siblings about his encounter with the White Witch, drives much of the drama in the first Narnia story. Interestingly, though, he is probably judged more harshly by contemporary readers than Lewis intended. It is almost impossible, now, to imagine the feelings a child – used to the privations of wartime Britain – might experience on being offered some Turkish Delight. This is one of those occasions where some of the context is lost in the passage of history. If you had grown up with rationing, been shipped out to the country for protection, and found yourself in a magical land where you were offered extraordinary, rarefied sweet things, wouldn’t you lie too?The Guardian
For more on that, see Liars in Storytelling.
In this new fantasy world she does not understand the threats. Narnia is a fascination to her. This is the shortcoming that could cost Lucy her life.
The Pevensie children stumble into a fantasy world entirely by accident, and as soon as they get there, their mission is to have fun with it. When the learn the stakes, they at first turn down the Call to Adventure (saving everyone from the White Witch), which Joseph Campbell calls Refusal of the Call. It’s mandatory, basically. Against their will, the children are forced to fight on behalf of everyone, proving their mettle.
Edmond is the black sheep of the Pevensie kids, but I can see why. Peter is so annoying. I call him Patriarchal Peter — we see another identical personality in Peter from Famous Five. “Just do as I tell you! I’m the better-looking, more sensible one!” Peter shames Edmond constantly by demoting him to the status of ‘girl’, first by insulting him during cricket, then by telling him he deserves to wear a girl’s fur coat, as if lying is a naturally feminine attribute. (Highly, highly problematic. It makes my skin crawl.)
The White Witch is your classic Thriller villain — her desire is for power, at whatever cost. She’ll even kill you and your family. She’s almost inhuman, but her logic is understandable to a human audience (she’s not a supernatural horror villain). This makes The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe a children’s action thriller, by my reckoning. Within the setting, the White Witch is a descendent of Lilith the ‘Jinn’. In real world, ancient Jewish mythology, Lilith was a female demon, representing all things “dark and terrifying.” In Jewish folklore she was referred to as the first wife of Adam. She left the Garden of Eden because she did not want to be Adam’s wife. (Why ever not?) A ‘jinn’ is a term sometimes used to refer to genies.
C.S. Lewis has included in his character web the entire gamut of familiar opponent (the siblings), really scary new opponent (White Witch), possible opponent (the Professor), annoying adult opponent (the housekeeper) as well as a false-ally (Mr Tumnus), a possible opponent who turns out to be on their side (Aslan) and everything in between. The true goodness of each character is kept as a reveal, as the audience, alongside the characters, work out who is good and who is evil in this strange new world.
In a thriller (yep, I’m sure this is a thriller), the hero (heroes plural in this case) need a special super power to help them overcome their enemy. The Pevensie kids are pretty ordinary but Father Christmas turns up to help them out. He endows them with actual gifts — a sword for Patriarchal Peter, bow and arrow for Susan, healing medicine for Lucy and I’ve completely forgotten what he gave to Edmond, oh well.
(My daughter thought Father Christmas was the Professor. Like me watching Game of Thrones, old men in grey beards all look the same. Are we meant to think the professor is secretly the Father Christmas of Narnia? The Professor portrayed as bafflingly conspiratorial in the film.)
The children are led by their allies, Mr Tumnus (after he turns), by the beavers and so on. The kids just keep ploughing along the path and battling whoever fights them. That’s the big plan. When they find themselves on the throne they aren’t all that surprised — it’s their birthright. (This is a very white story, in more ways than one.)
The Battle scene is hugely elongated in this film and reminds me of the most boring parts of Lord of the Rings (ie. most of it).
I found this image on Comic Vine, so the similarity must be obvious to everyone. (Return of the King came out two years prior.)
In 2005, the CGI of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe would have been enough to impress. Now it’s showing it’s age a little. (Characters don’t look fully integrated with the background scenery.) But if you enjoy watching strange creatures running towards each other then doing hand-to-hand combat, this movie is for you.
During this big struggle, I started to side with the White Witch. Tilda Swinton has great costume, great hair, her own fake lion’s mane (or maybe it’s meant to be real) and she gets lots of low angle shots which allow her to show her power. Whatever you say about this White Witch, she knows what she wants and she goes for it. She ain’t no bitch of the patriarchy.
For Peter, Susan and Lucy, their experience in Narnia is a run-of-the-mill coming-of-age story in which they discover their true power.
But Edmond undergoes a more significant character arc, because he had the furthest to come. He shifts from lying traitor to loyal younger brother who knows his place in the patriarchal hierarchy. Peter says, after saving him during Battle, “When are you going to learn to do as you’re told?” echoing the wrapper story of the London bombings. Even before then, he is shown as acceding power to older brother Peter.
This is seen as a good thing, because now the brothers are less Cain and Abel, more like friends. And friends is always a good thing, right?
Edmond’s arc doesn’t sit right with me. The idea that ‘younger siblings must obey older siblings’ led to significant fraternal bullying in the past. Now, with smaller families and/or more vigilant parenting, sibling hierarchy has mostly disappeared. If older siblings are still in charge it’s because they’re developmentally more advanced, not because of a patrimonial culture which grants permanent, life-long power to eldest children, especially to eldest sons.
When the Pevensie children return to their primary world, ‘the wonderful adventure [in Narnia] has been merely a “time-out”, a picnic.’ Nikolajeva likens these books to a modern computer game, in which the player ‘dies’, but simply plays the game again, consequence free.
The fact is that in most quest stories for children…the protagonists, unlike the hero in myth (or a novice during initiation), are liberated from the necessity to suffer the consequences of their actions. What is described is not the real rite of passage, but merely play or, to follow Bakhtin’s notion, carnival.Maria Nikolajeva
For more on Nikolajeva’s concept of ‘picnic’ and how that relates to ‘genre’ in children’s literature, see this post.
If you’re a Narnia fan, you can listen to the story online here.
The Sailor Dog by Margaret Wise Brown is a Little Golden Book classic, first published 1953. After the success of Mister Dog, Wise Brown and Garth Williams were paired by the publisher the following year.
The Sailor Dog is basically a Robinsonnade for the preschool set. The Robinsonnade is an adventure story which takes place in a static place, like an island. For more on that, see this post. And for more about the role of islands in storytelling see this one.
ILLUSTRATIONS OF THE SAILOR DOG
Kirkus Reviews described Garth Williams‘ illustrations as ‘sagacious’: having or showing keen mental discernment and good judgement; wise or shrewd.
What is it about Williams’ illustrations that made them so wise?
As many illustrators have emulated since, he includes little side stories, including characters who aren’t mentioned in the text. The snail on the frontispiece illustration is crawling towards the viewer. There’s another identical snail behind, though the body of that one is concealed. This seems to be a deserted island, but is actually teeming with life, though to the newcomer it is hidden.
The second illustration, of the dogs in the car, reminds me very much of the work of Richard Scarry — both men lived at almost exactly the same time. Williams and Scarry both had the knack of drawing detailed illustrations in an era before photographic reference material was so readily available. It is therefore all the more impressive that Williams is able to draw a submarine, sailboat, lighthouse and whatnot. All the same, these are ‘storybook’ versions of such things. The submarine has an American flag waving on the front — the same gag used by The Beatles when they recorded Yellow Submarine in 1966. (Why the subterfuge when you plan to announce your presence?)
Other little ironies include a duck holding a red umbrella and sitting near the water (don’t ducks like water?). On the ship, Scuppers has a bed pan under his bed. Not sure if this is such a great idea for a ship. (We don’t find out what happened to its presumable contents after Scuppers got all caught up in that storm!)
Scuppers himself looks very cute sleeping in his bed, and again later, across pine branches, more like a man than a dog this time. Scuppers becomes increasingly human-like as the story progresses, which was a point not lost on Williams at all — this is part of his arc, culminating in the illustration below, when he puts on clothes:
I write more about this particular image in a post Still Images In Picture Books, in which characters seem to pose for the camera. Most often, this is because the reader is introduced to the character, but this image performs a different function.
Interestingly, Garth Williams doesn’t care too much about continuity — not in the way modern illustrators do. The snails at the beginning are not the same colour as the snails on top of the treasure chest. That’s fine — they’re simply different snails. The lighthouse at the beginning is not the same lighthouse as the one on the closing image — again, fine — they’re different light houses. All the same, I think the modern trend is to maintain a smaller setting within a picture book. Certainly my own instinct would be to illustrate the same snails, the same lighthouse.
STORY STRUCTURE OF THE SAILOR DOG
Scuppers the dog has an irresistible urge to sail the sea. His little gaff-rigged sailing boat hardly looks seaworthy, with colorful patches on its sails. Though not a luxurious boat, Scuppers keeps it neat and “ship-shape.” He has a hook for his hat, his rope, and his spyglass. Unfortunately, Scuppers gets shipwrecked after a big storm. Being a resourceful dog, he soon makes a house out of driftwood.Wikipedia
Eventually, Scuppers repairs his ship and sails away, arriving at a seaport in a foreign land. The street scene is straight from a canine Kasbah. There are lady dogs dressed in full-length robes with everything but their eyes, paws, and tails covered, balancing jars on their heads. Scuppers needs new clothes after all his travels. He tries on various hats and shoes of different shapes and colors.
Life at sea soon calls Scuppers back to his boat. After stowing all his gear in its right place, he is back “where he wants to be — a sailor sailing the deep green sea.”
Scuppers proves himself comically adept in this inversion of a Robinsonnade tale, so he doesn’t have a shortcoming or a need. In that, he is identical to Mister Dog. But he does have a problem, which is all we need to start a story, especially a picture book. His problem is that he wants to be a sailor, but he’s not a proper sailor (yet). In order to be a proper sailor, he’ll need sailing experience.
He wants to be a sailor.
There is no anthropomorphised opponent in this story, because Margaret Wise Brown does her own thing, always. Instead, the opponent is simply the storm.
If there’s any kind of mythic narrative in which a human opponent is absent, it is the Robinsonnade. The very essence of a Robinsonnade is ‘man alone’, at least for a large part of the story. This makes these stories difficult to write. If there’s no villain, what will you use for your human-interest opposition? For longer works, ‘nature as opposition’ is never enough on its own to create a fascinating character web.
First Scuppers builds a house. This speaks directly to the hygge nature of picture books. When my daughter was a preschooler I noticed that in her play (whether with a dollhouse or in computer games like Terraria), the first tasks she set herself involved making herself a bed. Then, when disaster struck (it always did), her character-self could retreat to the safety of home.
This need for security is depicted in fantasy. I remember at about the age of ten writing my own Robinsonnade (not that I knew that word). It was called “Fruitiful Island” and not much happens except my main character is shipwrecked onto an island which turns out to be a bounty of delicious goods. (I didn’t realise the value of narrative conflict back then and the story languished, half-finished, but a fulsome utopia in my own mind.)
The enduring popularity of The Sailor Dog tells me I’m not the only one with the shipwrecked on an island fantasy, in which we build our lives again from scratch, taking pleasure and pride in our own efforts.
If he could build a house, he could mend the whole ship.
I find this line hilarious. One could say exactly the same thing of Robinson Crusoe, who made such a fine old life for himself on his island, why the hell couldn’t he build himself a ship to get on out of there, if he had so many skills?
In short, Scuppers is far more self-determined than Robinson Crusoe ever was. That seems to be the way of it for children’s characters. Writers can create adult characters for adults who sit around and wait for things to happen to them before springing into action, but if you’re writing child characters for a child audience, they’ll probably be up-and-at-em from the get go. Adults are mullers; children are doers.
We might assume in a Robinsonnade that the Battle scene happens against the backdrop of the big storm which gets Scuppers shipwrecked in the first place. This would indeed make for wonderful pathetic fallacy. But the shipwreck is not the main thing:
Next morning he was shipwrecked. Too big a storm blew out of the sky. The anchor dragged, and the ship crashed onto the rocks. There was a big hole in it.
That’s as close as Margaret Wise Brown gets to a Battle sequence. But for this story, it’s more of a ‘means of transport’, getting Scuppers to the island.
In a classic Robinsonnade narrative, the Battle happens on the island, as the hero fights for his life, trying to find food, coming close to starvation and whatnot. This aspect of the Robinsonnade is the most interesting for an adult audience. We see the hero slowly lose his grip in Castaway, starring Tom Hanks. In Castaway, the hero almost loses himself.
But in a Margaret Wise Brown story, Scuppers had no problems on the island. He sleeps, he mends his own ship, he sails back into civilisation. Scuppers has literally zero problems surviving on the island. This is part of the gag above. This is what makes The Sailor Dog a parody of the Robinsonnade rather than a true Robinsonnade. It works as a story because the elements are all there — the emphasis is simply skewed.
The Anagnorisis is that Scuppers is a proper sailor now. He’s survived a shipwreck, made a life for himself on a (semi-)deserted island, and now he’s wearing sailor clothes to boot. The scene in which Scupper hangs all his new sailor clothes on his hook is the Anagnorisis scene.
Of course, the audience must have the world knowledge to know what a sailor’s uniform looks like. Perhaps a modern audience needs this pointed out. In 1953 I suspect the sight of men in their defence force uniforms were far more common around the world.
And here he is where he wants to be—
a sailor sailing the deep green sea.
The story actually closes with his song. The song underscores the character arc, in case we missed it:
I am Scuppers the Sailor Dog—
I’m Scuppers the Sailor Dog—
I can sail in a gale
right over a whale
under full sail
in a fog.
and so on. The second verse is funnier, but I recommend you get your hands on the book.
Mister Dog, written by Margaret Wise Brown, was first published by Little Golden Books in 1952. This was the last book published in Wise Brown’s lifetime before she died age 42.
Garth Brown illustrated the text in his distinctive Garth Brown style.
The story is about a dog with the stand-out gag that he ‘belongs to himself’. More typically, this personality attribute is given to anthropomorphised cats:
This is reflected in his vaguely recursive (but ultimately nonsensical) name: Crispin’s Crispian*. I believe this was the name of Wise Brown’s own dog, and that the dog ran the show. It makes sense that the author thought of her dog as an individual with his own mind. By all accounts, the author herself refused to be constrained.
*Crispin and Crispian are also meant to be the twin patron saints of certain workmen like cobblers, curriers and tannery workers. I think she probably chose this name because it sounds poetic, not because it makes sense. (Crispin’s Crispin makes sense.)
STORY STRUCTURE OF MISTER DOG
Once upon a time there was a funny dog named Crispin’s Crispian. He was named Crispin’s Crispian because he belonged to himself.
There is no anagnorisis in this story. I have encountered very few stories in which this is the case. A good proportion offer some sort of plot reveal. Another good portion of stories are about characters who fail to learn the lesson they were meant to, and that’s the whole point — people are dumb. But in Mister Dog, none of those atypical anagnorisis things are true.
Mister Dog knows exactly who he is and that’s the point. A character with no Anagnorisis won’t have a psychological shortcoming. Mister Dog doesn’t have a moral shortcoming, either. He is very kind.
In the mornings, he woke himself up and he went to the icebox and gave himself some bread and milk. He was a funny old dog. He liked strawberries.
This detail tells us that Mister Dog wants to live as a man and to be treated as a man. The accompanying illustration, in which Mister Dog pours milk into his cereal, depicts a middle aged, tired expression rather than the typical happy expression of a dog first thing in the morning. This is a dog who hasn’t had his coffee yet. Humour for the adult audience comes in the form of this irony — that by insisting on the life of a middle aged human, one must bear the burdens that go along with it.
The cats and the rabbits in the carnivalesque adventure mentioned below function as proxy opponents.
In the style of a German fairy tale, Mister Dog has no real plans except to leave the house in the hope that something amazing will happen.
Soon he encounters the field of dogs, where he enjoys a brief carnivalesque moment as a dog again, running around as dogs do. During this sequence he loses his hat. Symbolically, the hat is often ‘the’ thing that separates humans from animals.
Eventually he comes to a little boy and they become firm friends. The little boy seems to be orphaned, so Crispin says, “Come live with me,” which is the new plan. (We get none of the little boy’s back story. In Margaret Wise Brown stories, everything happens easily and, as if, naturally.)
Although we can rightly criticise Little Golden Books for their ridiculous gender imbalance in favour of boys (and the inevitable symbolic annihilation of girls), it’s clear also that the publishers (and writers, and illustrators) really did think they were depicting the ‘every child’ when they made the decision to stick to stories about boys. Sometimes, gender subversion is achieved not by including girls in the story at all (because they’re so often included badly), but by giving male characters stereotypically feminine roles. In Mister Dog, the man prepare the meals, looks after the boy in a caring role and they both keep their house neat and tidy.
This is something I haven’t looked into in much detail, but instinct tells me stereotypically feminine roles such as the sweeping and arranging of plates above are not depicted much at all in contemporary children’s books. I can’t think of a modern example that encourages young readers to revel in the joy of keeping house in the way that Mister Dog revels in keeping house. Instead, picture book creators have rendered these tasks utterly invisible. This is perhaps an unintended consequence of a lopsided attempt at gender equality. Girl characters can now go out on adventures, but boy characters, conversely, are not staying home to tidy up after themselves and cook.
And if these tasks are rendered invisible, how do children learn to appreciate the person doing them. At what point do they realise that they, too, must do their share of these everyday tasks?
Here’s the thing about Margaret Wise Brown: She doesn’t do Battle scenes. I haven’t read all of her work, but of the stories I have, this is what makes her stories different. This is why we get to the end and think, “Okay, that story works for its intended audience, but it’s not a typical story. What on earth is she doing here?”
In place of a Battle scene, we have the dining table spread, with Mister Dog at one end and the boy at the other. Garth Williams has depicted the characters sitting at opposite ends of the table, which presents a certain kind of opposition in the illustration. We often see this exact scene on TV and film, where two characters in serious conflict sit as far away as possible, each at the other end of a long table.
But the Battle scene in Mister Dog is instead a corporeal scene in which two characters eat their dinners:
He chewed it up and swallowed it into his fat little stomach.
In a fairy tale, that same sentence may occur in the Battle scene but the circumstances would be quite different: The baddie has captured the goodie and eaten them up, say. Margaret Wise Brown is drawing on the long tradition of fairy tales to create her proxy Battle scene, with a ‘chewing’ and ‘swallowing’ ‘big struggle’ which is no such thing. The verbs ‘chewing’ and ‘swallowing’ are quite violent in their own way. Normally when characters eat something, we don’t get the gory details.
This is fascinating. Few picture book writers avoid the Battle scene altogether. There are plenty of benign big struggles in cosy picture books, but few as non-confrontational as this one.
This non-conformity to traditional story structure is the reason we know Margaret Wise Brown stories are… odd:
“I’ve decided to take my next book in a slightly different direction. Picture this. A hairy, Republican nudist – no, it’s okay, stay with me – convinces a little homeless boy to come and sleep with him. It has a wonderful moral.”
Perhaps not. Nevertheless, that’s more or less what happens in Mister Dog, surely one of the most peculiar picture story books in existence.Dad Reads
Some storytellers break the Battle scene down into further parts (build-up, big struggle, aftermath, and similar). On reflection, I believe the scene of Mister Dog and the boy at the butcher is a prelude to the dinner table scene, in which eating is the big struggle.
(But hey, have you ever seen such paltry wares at the butcher?)
Crispin’s Crispin was a conservative. He liked everything at the right time—
So begins the clean-up after the non-Battle. This is another unusual page to place near the end of a story, when the drama should be wrapping up. We’re still learning new things about Mister Dog when ordinarily, in a more classic story structure, Mister Dog has been through a near death experience and has learned something about himself.
In short, Margaret Wise Brown has continued to list things about Mister Dog for the reader as a proxy for the typical Anagnorisis.
This fits the story, in its own logical way. Mister Dog knows who he is and what he wants, and that is the entire point. That is the stand-out feature of his temperament.
Dog and Boy go to bed. They’re happy because they each have control of their own dreams. This is a version of ‘And they both lived happily ever after’.
Contemporary children’s books starring anthropomorphised animals tend to steer clear of the uncomfortable reality that some kinds of animals (ie. humans) keep other animals as house slaves, or pets. Mister Dog and Orlando Keeps A Dog were both using this reality to laugh at the situation.
We now have plenty of children’s stories about being your own person (or animal) beholden to no one, believing in yourself. This was also a central message of Mister Dog. And I’ve no doubt Margaret Wise herself lived and died by that philosophy.
“The Last Question” by Isaac Asimov is a science fiction short story first published in 1956. The ideas are even more relevant today than they were back in the 1950s.
I have annotated the short story in a Word document, which can be downloaded here.
Isaac Asimov was an ideas man. I generally find his work hard to read because I read for character first. Asimov worked the other way around — he created characters to convey his ideas. Asimov was able to visualise all sorts of futures, but not a future of gender equality. However, this one is accessible to a wider audience.
“The Last Question” concerns the fallacy of the magic porridge pot. Based on the fairytale, this is the idea that there’s a never-ending supply of everything. By extension, if one group draws heavily from a particular resource, they are able to reason, happily for themselves, that they are not simultaneously taking away from someone else. The ‘someone else’ might be a disadvantaged group in the present. In the case of this story, the ‘someone else’ is future generations.
Another modern term related to the ideas in “The Last Question” is ‘Techno-Jesus’ — the idea that technology is going to save us all (from climate change etc.) We’ll get another Steve Jobs, so don’t worry.
This makes “The Last Question” particularly relevant to today. Interesting that even back in the 1950s, these ideas were considered. Already, back then, some people — especially Americans, perhaps — could see that all this increase in consumption could not go on forever.
Importantly, this was Isaac Asimov’s favourite of all the short stories he wrote. Asimov liked it best for two reasons:
- He wrote it in a ‘white heat’, and it required hardly any modification after the first draft.
- “The Last Question” proved to be the most resonant for his readers. Once you’ve read this story, you won’t forget the main idea.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “THE LAST QUESTION”
The ‘main character’ of this story is ‘humanity’. But even an ideas man needs the usual character web of opposition and allies. Because Asimov was not especially interested in individuals, he used the 20th century default to people his worlds — men. Women were needed occasionally as powerless children, wives, mothers and sexual interest.
The shortcoming of a technologically advanced humanity is that we grow increasingly reliant upon technology to the point where we don’t understand it.
The shortcoming of an ever expanding civilisation is that we are propelled forth even against our will to grow bigger and bigger, go further and further.
To expand. To not die.
But for story purposes, Asimov sets up conversations in which two characters disagree with each other… until he doesn’t. Then it’s computer against the two human characters, and finally there is no conflict because everything has become one.
Humans do their utmost to preserve their immortality. They even go so far as to create new planets from dust and turn them into massive computers.
Each vignette summarises a part of the over-arching Battle against entropy. By the end of each vignette, it is clear that the humans have progressed in one way, but still lost the big struggle.
The revelation, for each of these characters in each of the vignettes—and therefore for the reader—is that there’s no getting around the fact: Humans will never, ever last forever. No matter what we do, entropy is more powerful than all of us.
There is nothing. But because the final sentence is reminiscent of Biblical language, any reader familiar with the major religions will recognise that this is also the beginning of some new universal cycle. We assume this plays out over and over and over for infinity
Next time round, it’s highly unlikely mammals such as humans will reign supreme. It was pretty much a fluke in the first place.
“Lamb to the Slaughter” is one of Roald Dahl’s most widely read short stories, studied in high school English classes around the English speaking world. In this post I take a close look at the structure from a writing point of view. Why has this story found such wide love? What appeals?
STORY STRUCTURE OF LAMB TO THE SLAUGHTER
The ‘main character’ of this short story isn’t clear because this is a story about a scenario, and the characters are required in order to carry out the scenario. The characters are archetypes. However, the story opens with Mary Maloney. We are encouraged to identify with Mary Maloney, and it is Mary who goes through an extensive range of emotions. We end with a conspiratorial relationship with Mary.
SHORTCOMING IN LAMB TO THE SLAUGHTER
Mary Maloney is childlike, as housewives of the mid 20th century often were. Mary is economically and emotionally vulnerable, and she is extra vulnerable because she is six months pregnant. She is unable to simply move on from this relationship, or get a job. Re-partnering will be hard for her, too. This situation encourages the reader to empathise with her plight, even if we don’t agree with her way of dealing with things. Also, readers are like ducklings and we tend to empathise with the character first shown to us. If Dahl had instead described the policeman’s arrival home, starting with him leaving work, turning the difficult situation over in his mind, we might have empathised with him instead.
Mary also has a Virgin Mary association — we don’t think of murderers when we think of ‘Mary’. I guess that’s why when we do get a murderer named Mary, we are intrigued by the story and it becomes lore.
Mary’s desires seem to be right there on the page: She is lonely during the day and home with no adult company, waiting for a scrap of human interaction from her husband after spending the entire day preparing the home for his arrival. But this interaction with her husband is her surface level desire, and points to a deeper desire: to assuage her utter loneliness. This is especially well set up by Dahl, because the very worst thing that could happen to Mary is to be left all alone.
A simple web: Mary wants to remain married to her husband; her husband wants to leave her for another woman (we guess). Because their desires are in direct conflict, this makes them opponents. Later, the dead husband’s colleagues arrive. Part of what makes this story work: The husband was himself a policeman, so when his colleagues arrive to replace him as new opponents, these men seem like basically the same person to Mary.
Note also the writing trick employed by Dahl — he leaves the exact words of the break-up conversation off the page, instead giving us enough clues to work it out ourselves. This works partly because Mary is so blown-away by this revelation that she wouldn’t be able to take in all the words. This aligns the reader with Mary. It also works for another reason: Break-up sequences are pretty boring for most readers, who have seen the exact same conversation played out time and again in stories. It’s very hard to write a break up scene with any kind of originality, so Dahl just skips it, and trusts us to fill in those blanks. Also, the break-up is not a big part of the story. The Story = what comes after.
A question we might ask ourselves when writing short stories: Which parts of this story have been done so many times before that I can easily skip them? Narrative summary is a useful tool, especially in short stories.
When a character snaps and does something crazy, you can’t really argue that there was a plan. Mary only makes her plan later: She didn’t plan to kill her husband, but she does plan to get out of it. She will visit the grocer, then return home to ‘discover him dead’, then get rid of the murder weapon by acting like a grieving wife in shock, then she will encourage the policemen to eat the lamb. This plays out with what I like to call a ‘heist plot’. I just mean that the reader doesn’t know what Mary’s going to do until she does it. Dahl puts the reader in audience inferior position. Reader satisfaction derives from seeing Mary carry out her plan and then get away with it.
Be wary of writing characters who just snap and do something crazy. I have heard judges of short story competitions complain that they see too many of those — perhaps writers are hoping to emulate Lamb to the Slaughter. Why does it work for Dahl? Because a woman snapping is not the story. Stories which end with a character snapping don’t work because:
- It’s generally unbelievable that people just snap — people who commit these crimes in real life have a history of violence. And in a short story you don’t have time to get into someone’s entire history, so it’s going to feel unfinished.
- It works here because Lamb to the Slaughter is basically melodrama. It’s written with a wry, tongue-in-cheek smile right from the start, and even Mary’s giggling is comical and over-the-top. Lamb to the Slaughter is written in the tall tale tradition.
- If a writer concludes a story by having their main character just snap and do something murderous, it feels like the writer can’t think of a more interesting way to finish the story off. ‘And then she killed him’ is akin to ‘And then she woke up and it was all a dream.’
- There is already a long history of tales which end in sudden death. Take Fitcher’s Bird, a tale collected by the Brothers Grimm. The final sentence: ‘And since nobody could get out, they were all burned to death’.
It’d be easy to think the bit where Mary slaughters her husband is ‘the big struggle scene’, but it’s not, really. There’s no big struggle in that. She comes at him from behind. For storytelling purposes, the big struggle scene comes after a plan has been concocted and mostly carried out. Thus, the ‘big struggle scene’ in this story comprises the sequence in which the policemen hum and ha about whether or not they should go ahead an eat the lamb, with Mary encouraging them to eat. Mary wins that big struggle of words and manners.
The story ends when Mary giggles to herself from the next room. She has concluded she’s getting away with murder.
The new situation phase is cut off in this story — as it is in many short stories — and left for the reader to extrapolate. We may also conclude that Mary has gotten away with murder.
LITERARY INFLUENCES ON LAMB TO THE SLAUGHTER
Dahl wasn’t the first to shock readers with a cannibalistic yet strangely genteel scene involving a character eating its own kind in a story about duplicity.
The Juniper Tree was one of the tales collected by the Grimm Brothers. In a patrilineal culture, a mother is angry that she and her daughter will inherit nothing while her husband’s son will inherit all. She is soon so overcome with anger that she is possessed by the devil, and eventually shuts the boy in a trunk, luring him with apples. The boy is decapitated. The woman tries to tie it back on with a neckerchief, but then the daughter accidentally knocks it off and believes she’s the one who killed him. The boy ends up in a stew. The father comes home, asks where the son is, and is told that the boy has gone away to stay with relatives for six weeks. The man eats the delicious stew — which he feels is part of him somehow — and throws his son’s bones under the table, which makes me wonder if that’s what men did in those days. (It reminds me of modern casino culture, in which big gamblers — mostly men — simply piss on the casino carpet rather than leave their stations to visit the toilet.) It’s the daughter’s job to tidy up after him. She collects the bones in a silk cloth and buries them under the juniper tree. The boy is reborn into the shape of a bird and the story goes on from there. The boy/bird eventually exacts revenge and kills his mother figure for killing his human form and feeding his flesh to his father. The mother is therefore punished, for letting herself become so angry and scared about becoming old and homeless and letting herself go crazy. Presumably, her daughter escapes this kind of crazy with her youth, and lack of understanding about how the world works. The sister doesn’t know that she, too, may become homeless — she is young and is likely to marry. So the inheritance thing probably doesn’t affect her.
Roald Dahl had a different relationship with retribution. Matilda is an entire middle grade novel made of revenge sequences against her terrible parents and Miss Trunchbull. Dahl certainly enjoyed pranks and tricks and loved to let his characters get away with bad stuff. Lamb To The Slaughter is another revenge tale, but unlike in The Juniper Tree, Dahl’s murdering woman is never punished. Dahl leaves his readers to imagine that her husband fully deserved to die.
The Juniper Tree was collected by the Grimms, but originally written down (in low German) by a painter called Philipp Otto Runge. There’s an entire family of tales in which one parent kills a child, the other eats him. (It’s usually a boy who is eaten.) Though these tales weren’t originally for children, food and death have become linked over the course of children’s literature.
Since sex and death (violence) are intertwined in mainstream stories, it is food and death which are intertwined in stories for children.for more on that, see Food and Sex in Children’s Literature
Later, in 1857 the Fables of Aesop were translated into Human Nature. Aesop’s Fables had been published many times before this, but until now, readers had not seen them illustrated so adeptly by a well-known comic illustrator of the time: Charles Bennett (1828-1867).
Bennett dressed Aesop’s animals completely and gave them a contemporary mid 1800s setting. The characters are Victorian Londoners, but with animal heads. In order to find the illustrations funny the reader needs to know something about that particular social milieu. It was funny that Bennet turned the Fox in ‘The Fox and the Crow’ into a philanderer and the Crow into a rich widow, for example. Animals dressed in clothes appeal to children and so Grimm’s fairytales and Aesop’s fables became stories for the whole family, and eventually considered ‘children’s stories’. Likewise, Lamb to the Slaughter is not a children’s story, but when I taught high school English, this short story was studied by year elevens.
Aesop’s Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing is dressed as a policeman, taking supper in the basement with the cook, who is a sheep. They are ominously dining on a leg of lamb, and I wouldn’t mind betting Roald Dahl read the Bennett version of the Aesop’s Fables at some point, perhaps during his childhood. I’m sure Bennett’s comic illustrations would have appealed to Roald Dahl anyhow, whose own work was illustrated by famous British comic illustrator of the late 20th century and beyond, Sir Quentin Blake.