There’s a very good reason why girls should be told the truth about baby-making as soon as they ask: If she’s old enough to be asking, she’s old enough to be worrying. Unless they’re told exactly how pregnancy happens, young girls often worry that it may happen to them at any time, without warning. The prospect is terrifying.
For people without a womb, it’s perhaps difficult to imagine the terror of becoming impregnated against one’s will, to have a human growing inside, to endure excruciating labour. For those exact reasons, existing reproductive rights must not be lost. Full reproductive rights must be afforded to all.
For most of human history, the womb-bearers had little to no choice about becoming the receptacles of new life, often at the expense of their own life. The act of giving birth was historically far more dangerous than it is now, at least for many, in many countries around the world. Before giving birth myself, I used to marvel at the nonchalant looks on pregnant women’s faces. How did they look so serene? Why weren’t they terrified? Turns out they probably were, among many other emotions. The terrifying aspect of pregnancy and labour remains largely hidden to those not currently experiencing it. I believe many mothers also forget that terror once it’s safely over (otherwise no one would go back for subsequent rounds).
But the specific terror of pregnancy and childbirth is right there in our collective consciousness, and we only need look at the history of storytelling. We can trace this specifically feminine fear across our mythologies, folk tales and fairytales, right back to antiquity. Women have always been afraid of pregnancy and childbirth. Women have also been afraid of subjugation to men they’re married of too, often without their full (or partial) consent.
“The Erl-King” is a short story by Angela Carter based on an old ballad by Goethe, one of the most famous ballads ever told. Carter’s re-visioning doesn’t take the plot from Goethe’s ballad, but borrows some of the atmosphere, inverting the gaze, turning it into something new. As you might expect from Angela Carter, her re-visioning expands notions of gender.
Below I take a look at both, as a compare and contrast exercise.
Goethe’s Erl-King (“Der Erlkönig”) is a terrifying narrative poem written by a German called Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in 1782. The Erl-King was originally composed by Goethe as part of a 1782 Singspiel (light opera) called Die Fischerin.
What Happens In “Der Erlkönig”
A boy and his father are out riding one windy night.
The boy is safe and secure, wrapped warmly in his father’s arms.
Suddenly the boy hides his face.
The boy has seen the Erl-King, or fairy king, who he recognises by the Erl-King’s cloak and crown. The Erl-king is King of the Elves and is hideous.
The father reassures the boy, telling him there’s nothing around them but mist. Perhaps he even persuades himself there’s nothing there. The father’s shortcoming is that he has learned not to trust his senses. He is probably doing that very adult and logical thing by relying on past experience, in which he thinks he sees some terrible creature out of the corner of his eye but it always turns out to be nothing.
Who’s riding so late, in the night and wind? It is the father with his child. He grasps the boy in his arm. He holds him securely; he keeps him warm.
My son, why do you hide your face so fearfully? “Father, don’t you see the Erl-King there? The Erl-King with his crown and train?” My son, it’s a streak of mist.
But the Erl-King starts to sing right into the little boy’s ear, asking the boy to come with him. He promises to play games and find bright flowers together on the shore. We never learn why the Erl-King wants the boy. As in Rumpelstiltskin, we just assume that everyone wants children, especially boy children, fantasy creatures included.
Only the boy can hear the Erl-King speak. The father insists there’s no sound but dry leaves in the wind.
The Erl-King keeps promising things to the boy — daughters who will dance for him all night, holding him and rocking him and loving him. (There are realworld religions which promise feminine care and sex to male followers in the after life.)
Now the Erl-King’s daughters beckon to the boy.
The father doesn’t see (or acknowledge) these supernatural creatures and insists the beckoning girls are nothing but willows.
The Erl-King becomes desperate for the boy and says if he won’t come willingly, he’ll take him anyway.
The boy tells his father the Erl-King is gripping him.
Finally the father believes the son. (It’s not clear why he suddenly believes the boy now. Why not before?)
The father quickly dashes home with his son in his arms.
But when the father reaches home, he discovers his son is dead in his arms.
RESONANCE OF GOETHE’S ERL-KING
The trope of the adult who lies to children hoping to protect them from very real fears is utilised frequently to this day in stories. This kind of adult dishonesty continues to be punished in the majority of these narratives, if only because the child is proven correct, exposing the adult as a fool and a liar.
[Goethe’s] ‘Erlking’ … personifies death as a danger above all to the young, who are credited with a more intense perception of the other world in the first place; this intimacy with the supernatural makes them vulnerable to its charms and its desires. Fear is the child’s bedfellow.Marina Warner, No Go The Bogeyman
Goethe’s ballad has been set to music by several composers, most notably by Franz Schubert.
Many artists have illustrated Goethe’s “Erl-King”. The etching below evinces an unmistakably scary, Gothic tone.
But other artists, long before Angela Carter got to it, saw the erotic potential in Goethe’s ballad. The natural target for this objectification was not The Erl-King himself, because these classic artists were largely heterosexual men, but the Erl-King’s daughters.
ANGELA CARTER’S RE-VISIONING
Once Angela Carter gets hold of the Erl-King story, she gets rid of the daughters and instead sexually objectifies the Erl-King, handing the gaze to our narrator. (She also inverts the gender of the male gaze with various other tales in her Bloody Chamber collection.)
Most readers coming to Carter’s short story will be at least somewhat familiar with Goethe’s original, though it stands alone. This is a prospective retelling, though familiarity with Goethe’s ballad illuminates Carter’s feminist take.
I came to Carter’s “Erl-King” expecting she’d do more with the misty, windy environment, but she does much more with the autumn leaves. I thought there’d be a horse but there isn’t. Familiar with many of Carter’s other works, I thought the story might be about the Erl-King’s daughters, but my expectations were wrong.
I own an out-of-print copy of the collected short stories of Angela Carter and I think the image on this 1996 cover might depict “The Erl-King”. The character manifests a 1990s version of femme-androgyny. They are crowned like royalty. There’s a forest in the background, and the character becomes one with the dropped foliage in the foreground. This character is part human, part forest; betwixt female and male; neither real nor unreal (like any fear); both powerful and vulnerably lying back; unmistakably inviting our gaze.
CARTER’S TREATMENT OF TIME
Carter’s re-visioning takes place in a fairytale world, with a forest both protective and scary, and in a place which runs on mythic time (kairos) rather than linear time (chronos).
Unlike classic fairytales, Carter does give us some specificity with the time. The story opens with a rainy day in late October. This accounts for the crunchy leaves of Goethe’s ballad, of course. “Withered blackberries withered like their own dour spooks”. Blackberries are paradoxically symbolic, being both delicious and a pest of a plant, covered in thorns. Here they indicate that summer was a forest cornucopia, but now — in another example of liminality — summer is turning into winter. (The in-between seasons have liminal potential.)
The autumnal light is personified (striking the wood ‘with nicotine-stained fingers); winter is subsequently personified (it ‘grips hold of your belly and holds it tight’). The little stream has ‘grown sullen’, the trees make sounds like the taffeta skirts of women lost in the woods, and so on. This is a story in which the setting is a character in its own right. Carter takes this storytelling technique to its extreme, because The Erl-King equals the forest.
But when does this story take place, exactly? It works on ancient, fairytale time, which turns back on itself, repeats with each season (the underlying reason why Carter mentions season), and note that although Carter places us firmly in a particular season, ‘grass grew over the tracks years ago’, which reminds me of the timelessness of fantasy worlds such as Narnia. Clearly, time works differently through the gates of this forest portal: because ‘once you are inside [the wood] you must stay there until it lets you out’. There is no specificity of time in these details.
Also, the story begins in present tense and later switches to past tense, which is another way of making the switch from iterative (kairos) to singulative (chronos). (It’s done a bit differently in most children’s stories.) Kairos is all about the time of antiquity whereas chronos describes modern, linear time. Kairos is sometimes switched out for the phrase ‘mythic time’.
Notice the story opens with second-person narration, unusual outside the genre of pick-a-path adventures. In general, audiences don’t have much patience for lengthy passages of second person narration. Carter doesn’t stick with it for long — just long enough to make us feel as if we are the main characters of our own story. This forest is the subconscious, and every single one of us has one of those — this story is about all of us, and no one in particular.
The second person narration ends at mention of Little Red Riding Hood, which reminds us that this is a fairytale world. “She will be trapped in her own illusion because everything in the wood is exactly as it seems.” This is the perfect metaphor for the deep, dark subconcious; though the veridical world is nothing like our dreams, our dreams are nonetheless real to us, because we experience them as real while asleep; our fears and desires guide our actions in a very real way.
Little Red Riding Hood turns into a ‘character’ called ‘the interloper’.
Then the unseen character becomes ‘I’ before switching back to ‘you’: ‘Erl-King will do you grievous harm’, but this time the second person address is clearly ‘universal you’, something dished out as eternal advice.
SPATIAL HORROR OF CARTER’S “ERL-KING”
Writers use a variety of tricks to produce discomfort in the reader and no writer I’ve ever seen has a larger toolbox than Angela Carter. Her stories are full of spatial horror. She is constantly working to disorient. What’s in her toolbox?
MISE EN ABYME
Carter uses mise en abyme in “Peter and the Wolf”. She uses it here too when describing how the woods ‘enclose and then enclose again’. This mise en abyme effect is repeated in Carter’s description of the stripping of the heroine, who has several layers; first her clothes, then another layer, her ‘last nakedness, that underskin of mauve, peralised satin, like a skinned rabbit’. Then the mise en abyme reverses as the Erl-King dresses her again.
the intimate perspectives of the wood changed endlessly around the interloper, the imaginary traveler walking toward an invented distance
There’s something very Escher about that.
I am not afraid of him; only afraid of vertigo, of the vertigo with which he seizes hem Afraid of falling down.
Falling as a bird would fall thorugh the air if the Erl-King tied up the winds in his handkerchief and knotted the ends together so they could not get out.
The equinotical gales seize the bare elms and make them whizz and whirl like dervishes
THE FOREST SETTING AND ITS CONNECTION TO THE REAL WORLD
“The Erl-King” is basically an evocation of setting, but this is no ordinary forest: This is a forest of the imagination, and an allegory for how it feels to be a woman straddling that impossible dichotomy between ‘virgin’ vs ‘whore’. That’s the well-known feminist reading.
LIMINALITY AND GENDER
Carter’s Erl-King transgresses gender lines:
He goes out i the morning to gather his unnatural treasres, he handles them as delicately as he does pigeon’s eggs He makes salads He is an excellent housewife.
Carter wrote “The Erl-King” over 40 years ago in the midst of second wave activism. Fast forward to 2020 and I propose the virgin-whore dichotomy has lessened a little for women, at least in some cultures and subcultures. But there are many outworkings of liminality. These days the word ‘intersectionality’ is widely known. ‘Liminal’ in allegory might equal ‘intersectionality’ when applied to social justice activism. Carter’s liminal, feminist, gender expansive “Erl-King” remains relevant as ever.
THE GENDER OF THE NARRATOR
The Erl-King’s gender is not very important to the narrator. Commentators have assumed the narrator is female. For example, Marina Warner calls our narrator-guide ‘the heroine’, because she embodies femme-coded characteristics. This is a fair conclusion because this story is clearly a critique of prison-like matrimony. Doves settle on the Erl-King and those rings around their necks are ‘wedding rings’.
There are other intertextual clues that tell us the narrator is female. The Erl-King keeps other femme-coded characters in cages and captures this narrator. We traditionally associate birds and cages with femme-coded characters, no doubt about that. (And no story stands in isolation from its cultural context, etcetera.)
I suspect Angela Carter was very familiar with the trope of women compared to birds (and also cats). If you spend half a day looking through classic art from Europe it really stands out — young women and girls with birds, birdcages, birds all around them. In literature, women are often compared to birds via metaphor and simile. This is two-fold: A human being with an affinity for birds embodies appropriately gentle feminine attributes. Also, birds are small and vulnerable, much like women-and-children (I mindfully hyphenate that phrase).
But what if the story is more gender expansive than that? If The Erl-King transgresses gender roles, might our narrator be of any gender when re-read in the age of marriage equality?
Okay forget the here and now, let’s briefly go back to Ancient Rome, when sexual identity was not contingent upon a person’s attraction to a particular gender/s, but instead on how much ‘control’ people were able to exert over their impulses (sexual, economic and so on).
Our modern focus on gender as a main determinant of our orientation and identity is very new in the history of humankind. (Michel Foucault went deep into this.) But what if we instead divided people into ‘those turned on by satin sheets’ or ‘my orientation is feather boas’ or whatever? What might we call someone turned on by their awe of personified nature? The narrator in this story is clearly aroused by the forest, which they regard as alive, personified throughout the entire story, evinced by Carter’s choice of imagery. Might attraction to ‘the power of nature’ not just as easily function as an orientation in its own right? And if you are part human, part forest, do you even have a gender? Reading this story in 2020 makes me want to throw the boundaries of gender identity and sexual orientation out the window.
Although Carter’s “Erl-King” is a lyrical exploration of setting and character (one and the same in this case), does it have a structure to speak of? First requirement: a character shortcoming.
Before looking into any moral or psychological shortcomings we need a main character. This is an example of a story in which a viewpoint character (the narrator) looks on and describes another character in great detail, in which case the very concept of ‘main character’ becomes moot.
Warner describes the narrator’s main shortcoming thusly:
Like Goethe’s poems, Carter angles the terror through the fascinated eyes of the Wellings prey. The heroine is in thrall despite herself to the woodland spirit’s feral, eldritch [sinister or ghostly] charms.
So let’s call her ‘the heroine’. We might also call her the ‘victim muse’, a Gothic archetype of the Romantic era.
The heroine may be a victim of Stockholm syndrome, in which a person falls in love (or in this case, lust) with their captor.
[A]nxiety about sexuality and the imagery of engulfment are also combined in [The Bloody Chamber]. This is particularly visible in “The Erl-King” … In the story, the protagonist dwells on her attraction to a fae figured called the Erl-King. The Erl-King captures women who stray into the woods and transforms them into birds that he keeps in cages. Despite this danger, the protagonist allows him to seduce her.Alex Rouch at BookRiot
In “The Erl-King”, Angela Carter creates a man who literally transforms a woman into a bird, but this is allegory for how men typically consider women: As both gentle and vulnerable.
Is this heroine both gentle and vulnerable? I argue no, not until The Erl-King turns her into a bird and puts her inside that cage. She is brave. You have to be brave (or stupid, I guess) to enter a creepy forest all the while knowing you might not come out alive. She is also fully in touch with her erotic side, slightly wild. He tames her via the metaphorical equivalent of marriage.
So at the start of the story, the heroine/victim muse is basically horny, driven by a baser instinct. The forest is so overwhelming that she is sexually in awe of it. ‘Nature’ is her orientation. I’m reminded of a scene from Melancholia.
‘Desire’ in Carter’s “Erl-king” is both narrative and sexual. Apart from communing with nature, the narrator doesn’t want anything.
This is because they are written in the Romantic style.
In tales influenced by the Romance era, character desire is less important than mood and symbolism. Romantic poets weren’t about creating an active participant, giving them a goal then showing the audience how they go after it, foiled at every turn. Instead, Romantic characters are tortured souls, the original Goths, haunted by poetry, at the whims of strong forces, often supernatural, outside their control and understanding.
Angela Carter retains Romantic characterisation in her re-visioning. Like Goethe’s ballad, we know nothing about what the characters want. We don’t know where the father and son had been, for what purpose. We don’t know what the Erl-King wants with the boy (and it doesn’t bear thinking about). I suspect contemporary audiences of Goethe would not have even asked why the Erl-King wanted the boy; nor would they have asked why Rumpelstiltskin wanted a firstborn in exchange for spinning straw into gold. Babies, especially boy babies, were considered desirable alongside gold. Everyone wants gold and everyone wants a baby. This is assumed fact.
The heroine knows that the Erl-King (nature) could kill her. She seems to believe in some kind of reincarnation and tells us ‘He could thrust me into the seed-bed of next year’s generation and I would have to wait until he whistled me up from my darkness before I could come back again.’
He wields a magic over her. When he beckons, she comes, both literally and sexually. He beckons her to his cottage in the woods where he vampirically sinks his teeth into her neck, draining the life force out of her.
Angela Carter, as Anton Pieck does his illustration above, does not create an outright hideous Erl-King. Pieck creates a pretty regular old man. If Angela Carter’s Erl-King is hideous, this is because of his chimerical one-ness with leaves and the earth. But chimeras throughout the history of art are often depicted as sexually alluring characters. (Take a look at some of the classic art in this post.)
Carter uses the colour green to connect the Erl-King to the fairy realm — fairies and green are closely associated throughout folklore: ‘Eyes green as apples. Green as dead sea fruit.’
Driven by her awe of nature, the narrator enters the subconscious/forest, follows the Erl-King, enters his cottage and lies on his bed.
To call this a ‘plan’ is a bit of a stretch. Whatever it is, it’s the Romantic equivalent. This narrator is under some kind of influence bigger than themselves. Awe and horniness are both forms of arousal, and it seems a legit theory to me that sometimes they become conflated. I suspect this is what goes on in the minds of pyromaniacs, both awed by their own ability to create catastrophic damage and also sexually aroused by it (accounting for the young male demographic skew), though it’s a point of pride that I will never fully understand the urge to light murderous fires at the peak of an Australian summer.
All of Carter’s pre-introduced moments of spatial horror culminate at the climax of “The Erl-King” — the description of the Erl-King’s eyes, a blend of claustrophobia, warped perspective and the whirlpool effect.
By comparing his eyes to a mirror, Carter even manages a fresh take on mise en abyme. Note how she plays with warped perspective:
What big eyes you have [RED RIDING HOOD REFERENCE]. Eyes of an incomparable luminosity, the numinous phosphorescence of the eyes of lycanthropes. The gelid green of your eyes fixes my reflective face [MISE EN ABYME, MIRROR]. It is a preservative, like a green liquid amber; it catches me. I am afraid I will be trapped [CLAUSTROPHOBIA] in it for ever like the poor little ants and flies that stuck their feet in resin before the sea covered the Baltic. He winds me into the circle [WHIRLPOOL] of his eye on a reel of birdsong. There is a black hole in the middle of both your eyes; it is there still centre, looking there makes me giddy [DIZZINESS], as if I might fall into it [VERTIGO].
Your green eye is a reducing chamber. If I look into it long enough, I will become as small as my own reflection. I will diminish to a point and vanish. I will be drawn down into that black whirlpool and be consumed by you.
I looked up ‘reducing chamber’ wondering if it were a real world contraption but it appears to be a fantasy technology invented by Carter, perhaps a riff on the decompression chamber utilised by scuba divers. The ‘chamber’ is another type of cage.
Now the reason for all of this spatial horror becomes apparent:
I shall become so small you can keep me in one of your osier cages and mock my loss of liberty. I have seen the cage you are weaving for me; it is a very pretty one and I shall sit, hereafter, in my cage among the other singing birds but I — I shall be dumb, from spite.
Welp, the narrator is beholden to him now. Captured by a rush of love hormones, he might as well have locked our narrator in a cage using allure alone, though she entered into this arrangement supposedly of her own volition, knowing her fate full well.
This uneasy combo of choice versus being drawn in reminds me of something said by James Flynn (before he became so controversial) when asked in an interview why young women keep having babies if children so clearly make poor women’s life worse. His response was that procreation is a human impulse, and we should not expect anyone to restrain it in the face of economic logic. Also, for the least privileged women of all, having children is a logical way to live a meaningful life, far more logical a choice than a privileged outsider often assumes.
In Angela Carter’s lifetime, matrimony for women, despite its restrictions, was the safest, most logical way for many women to live their lives. Matrimony itself was an allure as much as a gilded cage.
The narrator secretly plans to kill the Erl-King and tells the reader exactly how she means to do it. It involves cutting off the Erl-King’s hair. But will she? Does she have a hope in hell against this supernatural creature who can shrink people and stuff them into bird cages? Doubt it. If this were ever going to happen, I’d expect Carter would show it. She didn’t exactly shy away.
There is no escape from patriarchy, even if there is escape from matrimony in individual cases.
Our narrator will eke out a living imaginatively, ie., by imagining how she might kill her captor.
A related take:
The reflection [in the Erl-King’s eyes at the climax] could be symbolic of the view of these women from the perspective of the male figure, which holds them in a particular image that they have trouble finding their way out of. The narrator, at the end, plans to find her way out, though; still, she has to ask him to turn his gaze away first before she can do so.
The narrator is also comforted by the fact they are not alone. Take for example the cock robin, whose plumage implies it has been stabbed in the heart. (Note how Carter also used the ‘wedding’ ring around the pigeon’s neck — part of its plumage — for symbolic reasons.)
Robins have long been illustrated dead with their legs in the air, as you can see in the collection below.
Surface reading: The narrator is terrified of a sexual encounter with the Erl-King but because they’re under some kind of magic spell, they’re required to go through with it anyway.
A feminist reading: The struggle is between the narrator’s wish for freedom from the patriarchal nature of partnership with a ‘king’ (archetypically identical to ‘father’ in fairytales), and their simultaneous sexual attraction to these king-fathers.
When we consider this story and its place within a real world that still runs by the rules of patriarchy, Carter illuminates the relationship between sex, gender, power and entrapment.
People who have come out of emotionally abusive relationships often explain that love for a coercive controller acts as an invisible cage. This story is the perfect allegory for that. An episode of Dear Sugar Radio features an episode called Emotional Abuse, and Steve Almond mentions another short story which also makes an excellent allegory: “Runaway” by Alice Munro.
IT is a 1986 horror novel by Stephen King, first adapted for screen in 1990, and most recently in 2017. This blog post is about the storytelling of the 2017 film.
THE TERRIBLE MONSTER OF IT
I liked what one reviewer had to say about IT: The monster in this film is whatever the story requires him to be for the scene. Indeed, this monster is the ultimate shapeshifter, sometimes calm, sometimes unleashed. This monster is a writer’s dream — he seems to have no rules. Why doesn’t every horror writer create a monster like this? He’s awesome.
He’s also one-dimensional.
Here’s the golden rule about movie-length (or novel-length) stories about unpredictable monster villains with no redeeming features: Villain versus hero cannot, in itself, sustain a story. The character web is simply not interesting enough. Alongside the monstrous villain the writer must create a very human web of opposition. We see this time and time again in popular storytelling:
In Twister we have man versus tornado, but the human opposition comes from a couple of professional storm-chasers on the brink of divorce as well as an entire band of rival storm-chasers who aim to beat our heroes in their storm-chasing game.
In Jaws we have man versus shark, but the interest comes once again from the human opposition. Sheriff Martin Brody wants to close the beach, but this is opposed by local businessmen. Then there’s the most subtle, macho opposition between manly-man Quint and the others on his boat.
In Jurassic Park we have man versus velociraptor, but a park employee attempts to steal Hammond’s dinosaur embryos, among other interpersonal opposition.
And in IT, we have the evil outside villain (the shapeshifting clown), but there is a very strong human gang of bullies who are just as scary. The gang of bully kids is a common way to flesh out a web of opposition, especially in stories about children. Suzie Templeton used the bully opposition web for her short film adaptation of Peter and the Wolf.
IT: MODERN MONSTER
IT is very explicit about the symbolism of the clown, and why it is a shapeshifter. But this is the typical modern horror monster. I have written previously: What is the horror genre for? IT is a modern horror, having moved away from Christian symbolism and into psychological symbolism. The monster is a representation of whatever terrible thing happens to be in your own life.
SETTING OF IT
Realism interpretation of the IT setting: There is no clown. Georgie Denbrough drowns while trying to retrieve his paper boat from a drain. The body is never found. Bill bonds with the others in his vicinity who each have their own significant trauma: incest, Munchausen syndrome by proxy and so on. The monster is different depending on who sees him. This is like the Mirror of Erised in Harry Potter. Whoever looks into it sees their own unfulfilled desire. The Mirror of Erised is a descendent of an old fairy tale device, such as the mirror in stories such as Snow White.
Horror is one of the three most symbolic genres in existence. (The other two are science fiction and Western.) Much has already been said about the symbolism and, frankly, if you’ve seen a lot of horror, it doesn’t need saying.
CHILDHOOD REALISTICALLY DEPICTED IN A STORY FOR ADULTS
One thing that struck me while watching IT: The smart aleck dialogue, especially the crass sexual jokes in the dialogue of Richie Tozier, felt realistic. The irony is that this dialogue would never be acceptable in books for children of that age. These kids are meant to be 13, which upper middle grade, lower young adult. In children’s literature you never read dialogue such as:
Richie Tozier : You punched me, made me walk through shitty water, dragged me through a crackhouse… and now I’m gonna have to kill this fucking clown.
I have known adolescent boys who talk very much like this. Another difference between stories for adults and stories for children: Children in stories for children must function, to some extent, as role models. Child characters in children’s stories are more naive and wholesome than many real-life counterparts.
It’s not just the horror elements of this film which keep this movie out of children’s hands. The clown, all told, isn’t that scary for many kids. The clown is clearly a monster. But the stone throwing, the chase, the fat shaming, the mutilation on a boy’s belly — those elements all feel uncomfortably real.
CHILDHOOD SONGS SECONDED FOR ADULT HORROR
Listen to the IT soundtrack (composed and arranged by Benjamin Wallfisch) and you’ll hear a very creepy, echoey version of Oranges and Lemons, music box inspired atmospheric tunes and children singing, slowly and without instrumental accompaniment.
This technique is common across horror and thriller films. Quentin Tarantino understood the creepiness of Shivaree’s 2000 song entitled ‘Goodnight Moon‘ when he chose for the soundtrack of Kill Bill Vol. 2.
There’s a nail in the door And there’s glass on the lawn Tacks on the floor And the TV is on And I always sleep with my guns When you’re gone
There’s a blade by the bed And a phone in my hand A dog on the floor And some cash on the nightstand When I’m all alone the dreaming stops And I just can’t stand
That link to the well-known picture book is part of what makes for the creepiness of the song. There’s something about the admixture of horror and childhood familiarities such as songs, clowns, circuses and picture books which intensifies the creepiness of the creepy bit. This is how the folk at TV Tropes put it:
If a program or film wants to add fear to a scene one of the most creepy ways is to have a Creepy Child, or a whole creepy choir, singing somewhere in the distance or background, usually the tune is a mournful nursery rhyme. Sometimes it will seem like the characters can hear it and they may even call out, asking if anyone is there.
The Wire is a TV series for adults, creepy because of its uncomfortable realism. The character Omar Comin is particularly interesting, due to his role as sometime-comic relief, for his incongruous same-sex attraction in an overwhelmingly macho environment, and for his sociopathic ability to kill. Regular viewers of the show will soon learn that when Omar Comin starts to whistle Farmer In The Dell, bad stuff is going to happen. In this clip, bystanders realise from the whistle that Omar is up to very bad business.
Why Farmer In The Dell? Because viewers familiar with the tune will associate it with innocence, childlike naivete and comfort. The tune works well in the story because Omar is probably using one of his own childhood favourites for dual purpose: To set up a nonchalant persona for himself in the eyes of others, and also to steady his own nerves. The words themselves may also have thematic significance, though The Wire is not known for its ham-handed metaphors in the manner of Mad Men, so this may be an overanalysis.
The tinkle of bells, the fast-to-slow tune of a music box, the call of the ice-cream van — all make for excellent horror soundtracks and IT makes use of it too.
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 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.
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.
‘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.
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.
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’.
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.
Have you ever run away from home? I tried at the age of two — so family legend has it. I escaped the house and ran, fast as my chubby legs would carry me, to the main road. I wore nothing but a nappy and bib. (The streaking part is always emphasised in retellings as if this is especially egregious.) When my parents found me they demanded to know where I was headed. So I told them like it was obvious. I was off to see the lions.
After reading Carter’s short story “Lizzie’s Tiger” I’m glad I never made it to the circus. Things might’ve turned out very differently for my parents if I had. Instead, my father built a massive gate between house and road — inaccessible from both sides to a small person. This gate terrified me in a way lions didn’t. A few years later, when I started school, I made it my morning mantra to ask for the gate to be open in time for my return. (Five year olds used to walk our own selves home back then.) I was terrified my mother would forget, in which case I’d be locked out forever. Obviously. My mother was actually pretty good at remembering to open the gate. She forgot just the once. I screamed and screamed and the entire neighbourhood thought naturally of blue murder. Eileen Austing from across the road came to my rescue. I could not be consoled. I even wet my pants.
But lions though? I had no problem with them. Lions and tigers are the stuff of fairytales — to a child they may not even be real.
Angela Carter’s fictional characterisation of a young Lizzie Borden felt the same about tigers as I did of lions. Carter’s short story “Lizzie’s Tiger” reads almost like a child’s fairytale — until it suddenly doesn’t:
The main characters are two little girls who we meet at the ages of 13 and 4.
They’re freshly orphaned, like many fairytale children.
The youngest has a childlike desire — to see the circus for herself.
The adult in her life — the father — refuses to help her, so like any good child character, she sets out on her own, into the world — her own mythic journey.
Angela Carter’s story is almost like the inverse of The Tiger Who Came To Tea — in the picture book, a tiger comes to the house. Tiger and child indulge in a carnivalesque adventure together. In this short story for adults, a child leaves the house to find the tiger, who is not the slightest bit anthropomorphised. This is a proper tiger. Child Lizzie is at an actual carnival, but one of the adult, debauched kind.
That cottage on Ferry — very well, it was a slum; but the undertaker lived on unconcerned among the stiff furnishings of his defunct marriage. His bits and pieces would be admired today if they turned up freshly beeswaxed in an antique story, but in those days they were plain old-fashioned, and time would only make them more so in that dreary interior, the tiny house he never mended, eroding clapboard and diseased paint, mildew on the dark wallpaper with a brown pattern like brains, the ominous crimson border round the top of the walls, the sisters sleeping in one room in one thrifty bed.
On Ferry, in the worst part of town, among the dark-skinned Portuguese fresh off the boat with their earrings, flashing teeth and incomprehensible speech, come over the ocean to work the mills whose newly erected chimneys closed in every perspective; every year more chimneys, more smoke, more newcomers, and the peremptory shriek of the whistle that summoned to labour as bells had once summoned to prayer.
“Lizzie’s Tiger” by Angela Carter
Note various other techniques.
First point — a lot of writers advise against using adjectives. But count the adjectives and tell me Carter didn’t deserve to use every single last one.
Imagine a camera. Carter starts off with a long shot of the cottage, slowly zooming in from large furniture right down to mildew. Then back out to include the inhabitants of the bed — including our heroine. Why did Carter zoom in on the very small? Because Lizzie herself is very small.
‘Pattern like brains’ and ‘diseased paint’ not only carry the negative connotations of axe murder, foreshadowing an event which is not included in this particular snapshot of Lizzie’s life, but also personify the building itself in classic gothic fashion. In Gothic literature, houses are alive. They will swallow you up, absorb you into the walls, and provide shelter to beasts.
In the following paragraph Angela takes the camera high above in an establishing shot — usually, in film, we get the establishing shot first. But in writing the camera is far more fluid. A fictional camera is like an electron, jumping from place to place. This foreshadows Lizzie’s journey from the shelter of her own home — her own bed — into this wider world containing people reminiscent of pirates. Why the focus on the chimneys? Because this is a view from above. Again, with focus on the miniature — a small town containing an even smaller girl, who will do big things.
Again we have the personification of the town in the ‘shriek of the whistle’. This phrase is idiomatic so it’s easy to gloss over, but it’s typically people who shriek — not whistles.
In the final sentence of this description of setting, Carter reminds us of the fairytale, timelessness of this event. This may be about a particular event in a particular year, but by reminding us that this is a town which has recently transitioned from an early modern town ruled by the church into an industrialised centre of manufacturing. This is the story of a girl in flux; it’s also the story of a town in flux. The most interesting stories happen in times of big change. This is a story set in the stages between 2 and 3.
FOUR STAGES of civilisation
The Wilderness (e.g. the forest of fairytale, caves, deserts)
The Small Town or Hamlet (civilisation on the edge of wilderness)
The Oppressive City (which includes suburbs, which often looks like utopia until the ‘snail under the leaf‘ is revealed.)
Why is this connection important to the story? Because Lizzie herself is in transition. This is presumably her first foray out into the world, from the ‘village’ of the home into the ‘city’ of the circus, which collects a wide variety of characters and shoves them together.
The snapshot continues:
The hovel on Ferry Road stood , or rather leaned, at a bibulous angle on a narrow street cut across at an oblique angle by another narrow street, all the old wooden homes like an upset cookie jar of broken gingerbread houses lurching this way and that way, and the shutters hanging off their hinges, and windows stuffed with old newspapers, and the snagged picket fence and raised voices in unknown tongues and howling of dogs who, since puppyhood, had known of the world only the circumference of their chain. Outside the parlour were nothing but rows of counterfeit houses that sometimes used to scream.
“Lizzie’s Tiger” by Angela Carter
When writing from a child’s point of view it’s essential to describe the world as a child would see it. Hence the gingerbread, straight out of a fairytale. Later, we’re told ‘a hand came in the night’ to hang up posters advertising the circus. This too is very fairytale-esque — to young Lizzie there is no person attached to actions. She hasn’t learnt to humanise people, and evidence may point to her never learning this skill. Moreover, this depicts Lizzie’s view of the world as full of bugaboos. The phrasing also suggests she’s drawn to these bugaboos rather than driven back into the house.
I had to look up bibulous: ‘excessively fond of drinking alcohol’. This is a form of pathetic fallacy. The people inside the houses drink. Not the houses themselves: human attribute transferred to nearby object. Carter makes use of this same technique when she tells us the houses scream. This works because to a small child, it would seem the houses scream. A small child may not think any further.
The lean-to houses remind me of an illustrated picture book of The Pied Piper which sits on our shelf. It also reminds me of Tim Burton’s sensibility, but most of all, this is how buildings really were built in the medieval era. Before modern building standards, houses really did lean into each other. The roads between them were narrow, and they often held each other up. They collapsed. This would have felt very precarious, but maybe not to them. As for me, if I could time travel for a day back to the medieval era, I’d be very wary of setting foot inside the buildings!
The buildings of medieval Troyes have been restored to meet modern standards, but I’ve seen old photos in books which show us genuinely medieval buildings leaning into each other. A contemporary snapshot offers a little insight into the leaning nature of medieval streets. Even now, this street seems to lean into itself.
Both are about a young female character who leaves her home on a mission
To end up in a foreign part of town
Coming face-to-face with death.
The similarities might come partly from the details I read about Fall River. At the time of the murders, Fall River was starkly divided into the rich people who live on ‘The Hill’ and the (largely) mill workers who lived down below in a much more culturally diverse mix. This rich/poor divide doesn’t come to the fore — dig down another layer yet — this is about the powerful versus the powerless. Lizzie is powerless because of her size, but her temperament will later compensate. We are told she is not a fearful child.
STORY STRUCTURE OF LIZZIE’S TIGER
“Lizzie’s Tiger” is a classic mythic structure and I’ve written so often on that I feel I know the main (masculine) variety inside out and back to front. This time I’ll zoom in on the most unusual points.
Like all heroes embarking on a big journey (big mostly because Lizzie’s so small), Lizzie meets a variety of characters — some help her but end up contributing to her downfall. (The group of street kids.) Another sexually abuses her. (The lion tamer.) Another man, this time benevolent, helps Lizzie to achieve her goal of seeing the tiger.
The interesting structural aspect of this story is the anagnorisisphase. On the one hand, Carter is really clear that some kind of anagnorisis has happened:
Lizzie’s stunned little face was now mottled all over with a curious reddish-purple, with the heat of the tent, with passion, with the sudden access of enlightenment.
“Lizzie’s Tiger” by Angela Carter
But none of this makes complete sense until the final sentence, when we get a big revelation. (Big revelations are known as ‘reversals’ — we’re encouraged now to see the entire story differently.) Perhaps you know more about the Lizzie Borden case than I did, and you picked it up much earlier. As for me, I had to look this person up online to check she was who I thought she was. Angela Carter seemed fascinated by Lizzie Borden — and I don’t know when she wrote them, but the fascination may have spanned years. Lizzie Borden was the main character in “The Fall River Axe Murders”, included in Black Venus (1985), and this one was included in American Ghosts and Old World Wonders (1993).
In a nutshell, Lizzie Borden entered pop culture as the notorious main suspect in the 1892 axe murders of her father and stepmother. This happened in the beautifully symbolically named Fall River, Massachusetts. She was acquitted, as it happens. In any case, if you know that about Lizzie Borden, you know what the character’s revelation was in this short story: Hypothetical young Lizzie has realised that she contains great power within herself. She is the tiger. In fact, you don’t need to know about Lizzie Borden to have picked that much up. It’s clear from various clues within the text that the tiger is Lizzie’s animal analogue:
Lizzie is strangely entranced by it
Both she and the tiger are abused by the tamer (though at this point, only the tiger has exacted any sort of revenge, in the form of scars)
Lizzie ends up wearing a similar mottled pattern to the tiger.
STORY BEHIND THE STORY
Roald Dahl wrote a similar story about Adolf Hitler as a baby. When he reveals the identity of the baby in the story, the writer asks us to examine whether we still have sympathy for this small child. If we saw Adolf Hitler as a baby and knew what he’d turn into, would we save his little life?
Likewise, an episode of Black MIrror asks us to examine our empathy after withholding the culpability of the empathetic main character until the last few minutes of the story.
These imaginings of notorious people as children are always about empathy. Do horrible adults deserve empathy? How much? Are any of us really responsible for the things we do, or do life circumstances send us forth along a path which seems full of choices but is actually more fatalistic?
Some reviewers have complained that Angela Carter treated her characters like specimens for analysis. Lizzie’s Tiger may be a good example of that. Stories like these are inevitably about the role nurture in shaping personality, sometimes attempting to home in on the moment in which a good child turned bad. In reality, there are rarely such defined moments. We like to think there are. We like to see them in fiction.
Peter and the Wolf is a Russian fairytale for children, with musical composition by Sergei Prokofiev. This fairytale is much newer than most — it dates from 1936. This makes it far newer than the Grimm tales, which all predated the Grimm Brothers themselves — and newer than the fairytales of Hans Christian Andersen. This one is unusual of its type, because it was written with a specific educational purpose: to introduce children to various instruments of an orchestra.
The copyright history of Peter and the Wolf makes for an interesting and frustrating read. In the middle of the 20th century, schools (and anyone else) were free to use this story and music as they saw fit — either in remixes or as it is. Then in 2012 the American Supreme Court judged that previously copyright free works could, at a later date, become copyrighted. This battle had been going on for some time, at least since 1994.
None of this affected what Angela Carter did in her short story of the same name, regardless of what year she wrote it. Titles are not subject to copyright, and Carter’s is a completely different tale about a different Peter and a different kind of wolf altogether. The title encourages readers to consider that the Sergei Prokofiev story might have been different, but that’s where the analogy ends. The Wikipedia entry for the orchestral originaloffers a good summary of Prokofiev’s plot, for anyone interested in a closer comparison.
There’s also the 2009 short film which got in before the ruling, directed by Suzie Templeton, written for screen by Marianela Maldonado. In this version, the national enemies of the Russian original have been personified by a gang of street bullies. But the brutality of the duck murder is preserved, making for a story much darker than most Pixar-raised contemporary kids are used to. It disturbs my daughter no end, especially as the murder comes right after a slapstick scene which has a child audience giggling.
STORY STRUCTURE OF PETER AND THE WOLF BY ANGELA CARTER
The clear main character of Angela Carter’s story remains Peter. She hasn’t switched the viewpoint over to the wolf, which would be another fine option for a re-visioning. She does switch our empathy, however — she does something more difficult. Carter helps us to share it between Peter and The Wolf. This is another excellent option for any re-visioning, because the message is always this: Everyone has their reasons for doing what they do.
The original Peter, being a child, has the usual child shortcomings: He is reliant upon his caregiver (the grandfather) to care for him. Angela Carter, who famously translated the Charles Perrault fairytales into English, was undoubtedly influenced by him, even though she used him as a negative example for how to depict women, in particular. Here she goes the Perrault route, and in writing this fairytale she begins a generation beforehand. In order to understand an individual, it was once thought, we must first know who their parents and grandparents were. We no longer think that, culturally. Or, if we do, we keep it on the down-low. We like to think — or to imagine — that we are not held hostage by our genetics and our ancestry. That anyone can become anyone else, so long as they work hard and be good.
Carter does actually start with the Wolf girl, which might trick you into thinking the girl is the main character. I’ve written beforethat it’s not always easy determining who the main character is in a story. I always come back to this: Who has the revelation at the end? In other words, who gets the character arc? That’s your main character. The Wolf girl is interesting, she is necessary, and big things happen to her in this story, but the revelation belongs clearly to Peter. She aids him in this. Carter’s Peter and the Wolf is technically an example of The Female Maturity Formula, and I point that out because yes, even feminist writers use it — my critique of this arc refers to the canon. Individual stories are absolved.
Peter is introduced in the fifth paragraph — quite a way down, considering this is a short story. Peter is revealed to be smart — good at deduction — but what is his shortcoming? If in doubt, look at the revelation. HIs shortcoming is that he has been taught to fear the wilderness, and anything that cannot be tamed. Carter tells us clearly:
When the eldest grandson, Peter, reached his seventh summer, he was old enough to go up the mountain with his father, as the men did every year, to let the goats feed on the young grass. There Peter sat in the new sunlight, plaiting the straw for baskets, until he saw the thing he had been taught most to fear advancing silently along the lea of an outcrop of rock.
Peter and the Wolf, Angela Carter
Fair enough, we should all be wary of wolves. Maybe. But as the story progresses, and we see Peter’s reaction to the rescue and abduction of the Wolf girl. Fear of life, and of nature in general, far outsizes reason. Guilt and fear paralyse him.
What Angela Carter does so well across all of her stories is link woman to nature. This isn’t Carter’s invention — she is drawing on a long, long history of misogyny, in which men are closer to God and women are closer to the Earth, and can never rise above. This is due to the unmistakable and harrowingly messy process of childbirth and reproductive cycles — cycles which were far more visible until the twentieth century. If women are close to earth, only men can be close to God, and only men can run the entire show. For more on that sorry history, which spans the last 3000 years at least, Marilyn French wrote a comprehensive history of misogyny in her book Beyond Power. Also a feminist, living in the same era as Marilyn French, Angela Carter critiques that same history — that women are to be considered abject because of our strong links to the Earth, and the cycle of life itself. She also makes the link between this view and organised religion, which in earlier times was inextricable from the rest of human thought.
Peter is a fairly passive character — the viewpoint character, in fact. With a character who looks on and observes events, you’ll need the strong, obvious Desire to come from someone else. In this case it’s clearly the Wolf girl, who is captured, but wants to break free from the humans. This desire is so ferocious that she creates a violent big struggle scene in the house.
Afterwards, Peter is left with a desire of his own, but this desire is far more subtle. Wolf girl’s desire is on the surface; Peter’s is under. He doesn’t know himself what he wants. He wants to assuage his generalised anxieties.
The opponent is not the Wolf girl. Even in many orchestral versions, the Wolf and the Boy are pitted against each other, presented as equals at one point. In the 2009 short film, this is most clear when wolf and boy are each dangling from different ends of the same rope, eye to eye, each reliant upon the other for escape.
But it is enough to say that Peter is his own worst enemy? This never makes for a satisfying if that’s the only thing you’re doing, but it does work if there are other big struggles raging. You’re more likely to pull it off in a short story than in a novel, which can’t sustain that level of big struggle, unless it’s something like Fight Club, in which we are presented with a clear opponent, even if that opponent is revealed to be illusory.
Peter is his own opponent because he clings to a system of rituals which aren’t going to help him break free of his fears. You could say the church itself is his opponent, though it would be more accurate to say it’s the culture. Carter says ‘he had been taught’, passively, suggesting he’s learned this response from all sides. Again, church = culture, and culture = church in a setting such as this.
Peter and Wolf girl are presented as diametric opposites — consider them different sides of the same personality, in the same way the Winnie the Pooh characters can be considered different aspects of a child’s traits and emotions. Wolf girl models one possibility — you can rage against the machine and take off to live your own life, literally in the wild, in her case. Or you can buckle down and be a good boy, doing everything expected of you and more.
Peter takes the latter route.
The boy became very pious, so much so that his family were startled and impressed.
The battle scene in which the wolves come to rescue their girl is ‘a big struggle scene’ (better to call it a ‘fight scene’), but for plot purposes it is not The Battle Scene. This is a crucial distinction, and failure to see it can really muck up a story if you’re trying to write one. Peter’s Battle is far more quiet. The Wolf girl crouches before him, uninhibited by her nakedness.
It exercised an absolute fascination upon him.
Her lips opened up as she howled so that she offered hm, without her own intention or volition, a view of a set of Chinese boxes of whorled flesh that seemed to open one upon another into herself, drawing him into an inner, secret place in which destination perpetually receded before him, his first, devastating, vertiginous intimation of infinity.
Peter and the Wolf, Angela Carter
The word ‘devastating’ feels like it’s almost cull-able, but it’s not. This is Peter approaching his own kind of spiritual death. ‘Fascination’ is also important. Today, to be fascinated by something is a good thing — we’ve probably achieved a pleasant ‘flow state’. But that’s not where the word comes from, and in re-visioned fairytales, it pays to consider the medieval meanings of contemporary words. In the 1590s ‘to fascinate’ meant to bewitch or enchant. The word comes from Middle French, Latin and possibly from Greek as well. In any case, you didn’t want to be ‘fascinated’ by anybody in the 1500s, and you didn’t want to be accused of it, either, lest you end up burned for witchcraft.
An understanding of church teachings are necessary before understanding this story, and I think we all know it — sex is sinful. It still is, according to the major religions, outside marriage. Even in (most, I’ll not say ‘dominant’) secular culture, sex is unacceptable outside mutual consent. There’s something icky about the one-sided viewing — this is not consent, exactly. There is a single participant — subject vs object. But Carter inverts the gender of the usual victim in such one-sided experiences. It is Peter who remains affected by it.
The piousness itself is also a near death experience, but literally:
In Lent, he fasted to the bone. On Good Friday, he lashed himself.
Peter and the Wolf, Angela Carter
If you’d like to drive your point home, make like Angela Carter and include but a psychological AND a literal near death experience, rammed home by the actual death of a few characters close to the main one. (Mother figures and male best friends are common victims.)
MISE-EN-ABYME IN STORYTELLING
Using Angela Carter’s excellent example, I’d like to look into the mise-en-abyme technique which I’ve been noticing for a while in various stories. Only a writer such as Carter would take the vulva and vaginal opening and turn that into a mise-en-abyme metaphor; others have found different analogies.
What is mise-en-abyme, exactly?
I would describe myself as the kind of person who describes himself as the kind of person who would describe himself.
In Western art history, mise-en-abyme is a formal technique in which an image contains a smaller copy of itself, in a sequence appearing to recur infinitely; “recursive” is another term for this.
In graphic art, it might be a painting of a painting, which has another painting inside itself.
Stand in a dressing room lined with mirrors and watch the mise en abyme effect. Do you remember the first time you did this? Or maybe you don’t remember the first time, but still recall standing as a child between two mirrors and marvelling at the effect? Did this get you thinking about some pretty bizarre stuff, bigger than yourself? How there might be more than one of you, or how far the little versions of you might extend? Was it this that got you considering the concept of infinity, by any chance? It’s a powerful effect. It distances us from ourself. Which one are we? Are we all?
The song Green & Gold by Lianne La Havas is about that moment of being a little kid, looking in ‘the mirror whirl’ and wondering if it goes on and on forever. As an adult she looks back on her six year old self — she’s since had the revelation that ‘those eyes you gave to me’ let her see where she’s come from — her own heritage. Possible subtext: She sees she’s part of one long chain of peoples, stretching in both directions. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qnogG7IMj8o
When used in storytelling, mise-en-abyme is regularly linked to a ‘vertiginous’ sensation (quoting Carter directly), which in turn starts this spiral of questioning — the main character will probably see themselves as a very small part of something much larger. (Or they’ll remain blind to it, if you’re writing a tragedy. I wrote this kind of tragedy in our illustrated short story app, Midnight Feast.)
Mise-en-abyme and its link to Death
In No Go the Bogeyman, Marina Warner describes the macabre Medieval tradition of death art on church walls, and actual dead and decaying bodies within abbeys, as mise-en-abyme in nature. An example is The Hours of Simon Vostre, a text printed in Paris in the early sixteenth century. The text contains engraving of the danse macabre (Dance of Death) showing working women in various trades and working men. It was also customary for the spectre to wear a tatterdemalion (deliberately tattered) version of the costume of his prey and to imitate with grotesque exaggeration the victim’s usual activities. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YyknBTm_YyM
What’s all this for?
To show that Death is a double; each of us has our own death in the mirror. Death is oneself on the other side, beyond reach. The macabre implicates us in mise-en-abyme, a hall of mirrors. And by means of its use of defamiliarization, it offers the capacity for self-examination. Many of the tombs in which the deceased was shown devoured by worms were actually commissioned and carved during the subject’s lifetime: thus, Archbishop Chichele, founder of All Souls, Oxford, may have contemplated the artistic progress of his own decomposing body not he tomb in Christ Church while he was still alive. These funerary monuments are designed not to engender memory in the narrow sense, nor prayer, but to provoke the pondering of self. It leads to the Anagnorisis phase of a story.
Mise-en-abyme in the Plot Structure
The story-within-a-story is a plot structure rather than a system of imagery, but might equally result in a mise-en-abyme effect for the reader. I’ve found good examples in children’s literature.
In Bye Bye Baby by Janet and Allan Ahlberg, the new mummy reads Baby a sad story with a happy ending, which describes the wrapper story itself. What if there’s another book within the book within the book?
Mise-en-abyme is sometimes used in comedy as a gag. SpongeBob and Patrick try to make money reselling chocolate bars but end up getting duped by a fish who first sells them bags for their chocolate bars, then sells them bags to carry their new bags. This is funny to us partly because the characters are stupid, but also partly because this could go on and on forever — hyperbole, in other words, without needing to go all the way. The SpongeBob example is also an example of character humour — most people can relate — we’ve all noticed that the more things we buy, the more things we need to buy for the bought things (new bookshelves for new books, a bigger garage for a new car). The purpose of this gag is the same as any other example of mise-en-abyme that I’ve seen: Its purpose is to get us to look inwards, stepping back, critiquing our own selves (and in this case, learning to laugh).
MISE EN ABYME AND PSYCHEDELICS
For reasons yet to be fully explored by science, a mise en abyme experience seems fairly common to those who take psychedelic drugs.
John Hayes, the psychotherapist, emerged [from a psychedelic experience] with “his sense of the concrete destabilised,” replaced by a conviction “that there’s a reality beneath the reality of ordinary perceptions. It informed my cosmology—that there is a world beyond this one”.
Another subject from Pollan’s book, Boothy, reminded me very much of Angela Carter’s description of the vulva:
This place in which I seem to find myself, already enormous, suddenly yawns open even further and the shapes that undulate before my eyes appear to explode with new and even more extravagant patterns. Over and over again I had the overwhelming sense of infinity being multiplied by another infinity. I joked to my wife as she drove me home that I felt as if I had been repeatedly sucked into the asshole of God.
Michael Pollan adds:
Boothby had what sounds very much like a classic mystical experience, though he may be the first in the long line of Western mystics to enter the divine realm through that particular aperture.
How to Change Your Mind by Michael Pollan
This terminology isn’t always used by storytelling experts when talking about the same thing. Some people talk in terms of ‘miniatures‘. But it is the same thing. By presenting the reader with the very large and the very small, you as writer are encouraging The Overview Effect. This will lead directly to a Anagnorisis pertinent to the story at hand. What writers need to decide: What is this character going to realise after their near death experience?
So, Angela Carter’s Peter is basically disturbed by the infinite mise-en-abyme effect of a girl’s vulva/vagina. He doubles down to prove himself a good boy, according to his culture and church. (His Plan.)
Where does this get him? Well, nowhere good. Angela Carter’s ideology regarding church conformity is foreshadowed by imagery:
[The wolves] left behind a riotous stench in the house, and white tracks of flour everywhere.Peter and the Wolf, Angela Carter
‘Stench’, or any kind of smell, in a story generally, refers equally to an emotional state. ‘Black sticks of dead wood’ are a pretty obvious clue that Peter has been through some kind of spiritual death. The grandmother’s bitten hand ‘festers’. Infections fester, but we also use the word to refer to inner states which we can’t shake. Then, there is a death. Not Peter’s, but his grandmother’s. Note: Peter loses a female caregiver in a direct reflection — mise-en-abyme reflection — of the Wolf girl, who lost her female wolf caregiver.
Hopefully the reader is undergoing a revelation at this point: Peter and the Wolf girl are different sides of the same wild coin. There’s a bit of wild in all of us, and it cannot be tamed. Peter’s comes next. (Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak is a picture book with a very similar revelation phase… and therefore ‘theme‘.)
Rivers are often associated with revelations. This has a long history in the churches, and no doubt long, long before. Water literally makes a body clean, so the link between rivers and mental cleanliness is a natural one.
At the end of his first day’s travel, he reached a river that ran from the mountain into the valley. The nights were already chilly; he lit himself a fire, prayed, ate bread and cheese his mother had packed for him and slept as well as he could. In spite of his eagerness to plunge into the white world of penance and devotion that awaited him, he was anxious and troubled for reasons he could not explain to himself.
Peter and the Wolf, Angela Carter
Sometimes revelations happen while bathing in the river — less obvious is when they come after. The river does nothing for Peter. The ‘liquid’ is described as ‘cloudy’. No, he requires the wild Wolf girl to aid him in his embrace of his baser self — she is his (extreme) model for how to live a good life. So he sees her once more — this is some years later — and again we have the whole mise-en-abyme / reflection imagery going on, because that’s not finished until the Anagnorisis phase is finished. (Writing note: If you start a strong system of imagery, take it to its conclusion. Don’t abandon it partway.)
She could never have acknowledged that the reflection beneath her in the river was that of herself. She did not know she had a face; she had never known she had a face and so her face itself was the mirror of a different kind of consciousness than ours is, just as her nakedness without innocence or display, was that of our first parents, before the Fall.
Peter and the Wolf, Angela Carter
The Wolf girl is innocent to the extreme, animalistic degree — Peter watches her and realises that he, too, is innocent. By bearing witness to the violent episode of his youth, he has done nothing wrong, and needn’t spend the rest of his life paying penance.
Carter finishes off her system of imagery with this:
For now he knew there was nothing to be afraid of. / He experienced the vertigo of freedom.
Peter and the Wolf, Angela Carter
In this particular story, the mise-en-abyme effect = a glimpse into possible freedom.
Related and interesting: Carter’s Peter and the Wolf is basically a Being-toward-death revelation, seen often in young adult stories.
And if we still haven’t got it:
The birds woke up and sang.
Peter and the Wolf, Angela Carter
Carter is, of course, satirising fairytale conventions — she uses pathetic fallacy and bombastic onomatopoeia with intent. These birds are a form of pathetic fallacy — a technique in which the environment around a character emulates their own inner state. But it works. When the character arc is a bit under the surface, a bit unusual — when your theme and ideology isn’t the expected one, it’s not a bad idea to go the super obvious, slightly satirical route. Otherwise a huge chunk of readers won’t pick anything up at all.
Angela Carter also finishes off in classic fairytale fashion, with a nudge towards the metafictive:
Then he determinedly set his face towards the town and tramped onwards, into a different story.
Peter and the Wolf, Angela Carter
As the Grimm brothers wrote, for instance, the narrator often likes to sign off by reminding the audience that this is a story, separate from the logic of real life. But the word ‘story’ is also used in contemporary English to refer to phases of real life, which is why I call it a tiny and subtle ‘nudge’. Carter does something clever with her final line:
‘If I look back again,’ he thought with a last gasp of superstitious terror, ‘I shall turn into a pillar of salt’.
Peter and the Wolf, Angela Carter
She thus avoids a big character arc, which readers have less time for: People do change after experiences, but a little at a time. Peter has entered the very initial stages of questioning certain ideas conveyed by the church, but there’s no way he’ll shuck it all off and become an actual Wolf man. He must find his own balance.
A fractured fairy tale is a story which makes use of a traditional fairy tale but restructures and reimagines, with the aim of greater nuance and with a contemporary sensibility in mind. The writer might be offering a critique of the ideas offered up in an earlier version. This makes some of them subversive. Fractured fairy tales are often aimed at an adult audience, though they’re common in children’s literature as well.
Sometimes called parodies or transformed tales, fractured tales are humorous or exaggerated imitations of an author, a particular traditional tale, or a style. Fractured tales are currently popular in picture book format. Beginning with The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs (1989). Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith began a trend that shows no sign of abating. Traditional tales from “Little Red Riding Hood” to the “Three Little Pigs” to “The House That Jack Built” have been retold in a humorous vein in picture book format. Picture book examples are The Dinosaur’s New Clothes (1999), illustrated by Diane Goode; Little Red Riding Hood: A New Fangled Prairie Tale (1995), illustrated by Lisa Campbell Ernst; The Little Red Hen Makes a Pizza (1999), illustrated by Amy Walrod: and Beauty and the Beaks: A Turkey’s Cautionary Tale (2007), illustrated by Mary Jane Auch.
A Picture Book Primer: Understanding and Using Picture Books By Denise I. Matulka
Another standout example of a fractured fairytale picture book, mentioned often by literature academics: The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales by Scieszka and Smith. The story’s aim is meta, drawing the reader’s attention to the fact that these are just stories, and whatever meaning they seem to imply should be interrogated. The ‘meaning’ of these ‘stupid tales’ is constructed by the reader.
When classic tales are revisioned to deliberately poke fun at the form, we call them ‘fractured’, but classic tales are always, forever undergoing evolution, even when the re-teller doesn’t intend any changes:
Retelling stories is about as old as storytelling itself. Each generation’s storytellers takes elements from stories they heard as children. They’ll mash those elements with their own ideas and suddenly the story becomes something completely new. No story has survived untouched throughout the ages — even the so-called “classic” fairy tales do this. If you’re familiar with the Greek story of Cupid and Psyche there are an awful lot of similar elements from that tale in the French story “Beauty and the Beast” as well as in “Cinderella.” And elements of “Beauty and the Beast” also turn up in the Norse tale “East of the Sun, West of the Moon.” Storytellers love to take familiar plots and give them a twist. When you take an existing story and adapt it for your own you are making a connection — a connection with every storyteller who told their own version of that story, and a connection with every audience that has loved some variation of that story. It allows the writer to create a kind of shorthand with the audience — if you like “x,” then you’ll find familiar things in this new version of the story. We take comfort in the familiar and relish the new that’s mixed in, and something fresh and original is created from that mixture.
Fractured fairy tales are very popular at the moment, for young adults and adults. In film and television there was a proliferation between 2010 and 2016, and many of these are available on Netflix, for example.
Into The Woods — a stage play running for two years from 2002 by Steven Sondheim which weaves Grimm and Perrault tales together; produced for screen during the ‘proliferation’ period.
Once Upon A Time
Shrek — This franchise takes a classic monster from a fairytale (the ugly ogre) and turns him into a sympathetic character.
Beastly — a retelling of the fairytale Beauty and the Beast and is set in modern-day New York City.
Maleficent — a retelling of Sleeping Beauty from the evil fairy’s point of view.
Hansel and Gretel — horror
Witch Hunters — horror
Snow White and the Huntsmen — horror
Half Baked — horror
Three Types Of Fractured Fairytale
The Cross-over Narrative
Cross-over fractured fairytales intersect various fairy tales to create one big story. Examples are Into the Woods, Once Upon a Time and Grimm.
Subversive fractured fairy tales force the viewer to look at a familiar story from a unique perspective. Examples are Beastly and Maleficent. Often these subversive tales take on the narrative point of view from a different angle — perhaps the viewpoint character is the villain, recast as a sympathetic character. It’s rare for witches to have backstories in the traditional tales, but modern fractured retellings often give us the witch’s perspective.
Many tales which aim to be subversive nevertheless uphold traditional ideas:
Youth is beauty
Age is ugly and to be avoided
It’s not so bad being ugly, but your ugliness still prevents you from marrying someone beautiful (Shrek)
Moral relativism is the view that moral judgments are true or false only relative to some particular standpoint (for instance, that of a culture or a historical period) and that no standpoint is uniquely privileged over all others. Subversive fractured fairy tales tend to take this view. Sure, Maleficent is evil, but once we know her back story, the morality changes. A common technique in retelling old tales from different perspectives is to name previously unnamed characters.
Naming has primary importance as a way of determining a being’s subjectivity. [A character’s namelessness] reinforces his lack of an existence, his lack of agency.
Roberta Seelinger Trites, Waking Sleeping Beauty
So wicked witches are named, Cinderella is known to us by her more familiar name, Ella and so on. Subversive tales can be juxtaposed against another type of ‘re-visioning’, described by Jack Zipes:
There are literally hundreds of publishers who produce and market cheap versions of the Grimms’ tales as pretexts to conceal their profit-making motives. These duplications merely reinforce static nations of the nineteenth-century fairy tales and leave anachronistic values and tastes unquestioned. Whatever changes are made in these duplications—and changes are always made—they tend to be in the name of an ignorant conservatism that upholds arbitrary notions of propriety, for many people believe that there is such a thing as a “proper” Grimms’ fairy tale. In contrast, the reversions of the Grimms’ pre-texts, to use the terms coined by Stephens and McCallum, adulterate the Grimms’ tales by adding ingredients, taking away some elements, and reconstructing them to speak to contemporary audiences in different sociocultural contexts.
Jack Zipes, Sticks and Stones
Inspired fractured fairy tales are only loosely based on traditional stories. Examples are Hansel and Gretel(the film), Witch Hunters, Snow White and the Huntsman.
Angela Carter often uses a title as clue to her inspiration, but then blows away the plot. Carter’s “Erl-King” is inspired by Goethe’s poem without adhering to the original beats.
Hello! Project’s Minimoni starred in a drama based on “The Musicians Of Bremen“. In Japanese it’s called Mini Moni.de Bremen no Ongakutai (Mini Moni’s Bremen Town Musicians). This adaptation goes backwards in time through three periods of Japanese history unveiling the story. The drama is inspired by the Bremen tale but does not have much in common with it.
“The Juniper Tree” is a short ghost story by American writer Lorrie Moore, published in the collection Bark (2014). Or is it a ghost story? I interpret this story as a metaphor for the death of middle-aged friendship, and the mourning process one goes through when deciding to let a friend go.
WHAT HAPPENS IN THE JUNIPER TREE
In “The Juniper Tree,” a beautiful, rending fable, Moore’s narrator can’t bring herself to visit Robin, a dying friend, until it’s too late. She is consoled when a dead Robin returns to visit her. In the story’s last scene, the narrator recalls their final encounter before Robin went to the hospital. After a short conversation over an untouched lemon-meringue pie, Robin suddenly pushes the pie into her own face. “What the fuck?” says the mystified narrator. A reader may ask the same question of many of the things that transpire in Bark. But the initial surprise of Moore’s effervescent, jarring stories ultimately yields to a response that, far from mystification, is its mirror opposite: enlightenment.
LITERAL INTERPRETATION: A friend dies of cancer in hospital. Our narrator meant to visit but never did. Two other friends rope her into a visit to the dead woman’s house. They see her ghost and everything is quite uncomfortable as the narrator is out of the loop. Our narrator remembers the last time she saw her dead friend in good health — they had a minor clash over a man. The dead friend slaps a pie in her own face to lighten the situation but our narrator is not amused. She decides she needs to go to more conferences to meet new friends.
ALTERNATIVE INTERPRETATION: This is a story about the end of a friendship. The first cracks appeared when the two women found themselves dating the same man (not at the same time — it’s a small dating pool in this town). A frank remark about the man’s infidelity lengthens the crack. When our narrator says a premature goodbye after dinner, they are no longer firm friends. Narrator realises she does not want friends who do wacky things like throw a pie in their face for shits and giggles. (I see this as a failed attempt on the part of the dying friend, to lighten the mood.) Narrator deals with the end of the friendship by imagining the friend has actually died. Inspired by the ghostly image of her white-faced (merengue covered) former friend, the ‘dead’ woman morphs into a ghost. Narrator never really put a firm end to the friendship. She meant to keep nurturing it, but made excuses and now she hasn’t visited her in hospital and next thing she’s dead. This scene with the ghost is the narrator’s conscience reminding her that friends are actually few and far between and friendships need nurturing. She imagines visiting this dead friend with two other former friends — each with their own major flaws — one is missing an arm, the other is mentally ill. These are external manifestations of psychological problems which our narrator has decided not to bother with, consequently cutting them loose. By the end of the story our narrator has said her goodbyes to these former friends, psychologically preparing herself to move on to new ones.
The title is therefore ironic. The Juniper tree symbolises rejuvenation, healing and longevity, yet this is a story about death.
COMPARE AND CONTRAST WITH THE JUNIPER TREE FAIRY TALE
“The Juniper Tree” is also one of the darker fairy tales collected by the Grimm brothers, which includes murder, guilt transferred onto a loved daughter and accidental cannibalism. Does that have anything to do with this? While the plots are different, the stories share certain images and emotions:
Whiteness. The fairy tale is white noir, with the white of the snow. Moore’s short story has the white of a meringue and therefore the ghostly white face of the dead.
The fairy tale features a decapitated boy, whose head stays on with the help of a scarf. Moore uses this imagery.
Both stories feature jealously. The fairytale is about a second wife whereas Moore’s story is about a subsequent girlfriend.
In the fairy tale the second wife hates the first born son because he will inherit all her husband’s wealth, according to the customs of the day. (Dealing with primogeniture is a common reason for female ‘evil’ in fairy tales.) In Moore’s story, we see the narrator give birth to some misdirected hatred as she begins to come to terms with her boyfriend’s philandering, expecting fidelity. (This is common in contemporary tales.)
Both stories include a woman hearing voices that are not her own.
Both stories end with grief and sorrow disappearing. Both are stories of catharsis.
Both tales are about dark feelings. If we indulge in these dark emotions, bad things will happen. In Moore’s short story we have a woman who is likely to end up lonely.
Both stories feature singers, and the singers trade. In the fairytale, typical fairytale treasures are traded, whereas in Moore’s story we have friends being traded.
Structurally, both stories have two distinct parts. The fairytale seems to begin an entirely new narrative arc once the bird flies away. Moore’s story features two main scenes: The encounter with the ghost and the final supper before the friend dies.
Lorrie Moore has said in interviews that short story collections based around a theme feel contrived, so I extrapolate that a modern short story hewing too closely to a fairytale would seem similarly contrived to this writer. Moore’s ‘retelling’ of “The Juniper Tree” is therefore an excellent case study for short story writers who are interested in taking flashes of imagery from a classic; we are free to use as little as we like.
All complete narratives feature a big struggle scene. No, that doesn’t have to be a literal big struggle scene, Lord of the Rings style. In fact, we should be thinking outside that box altogether. One thing I love about Larry McMurtry’s anti-Western novels (especially Lonesome Dove) is that he condenses the gun big struggles and torture scenes in favour of character conflict.
I often feel the big struggle sequence in a movie goes on too long. I feel this way about the children’s animation Monster House and also about the Pixar animation Inside Out. The former happened because the plot was too thin in general, the latter because a big struggle-free myth structure should more naturally be shorter.
WHAT IS THE BIG STRUGGLE SEQUENCE?
More commonly it’s known as the climax.
When your character reaches the climax, everything is stacked against them. They think fast, piecing together clues in their head. Usually, those clues are tidbits of knowledge you’ve placed earlier in the story, along with hints the main character observes in the moment. The protagonist assembles these clues into an important realisation. Then they use their newfound understanding to win the day.
Do you have a black moment—a point near the end of the manuscript where your character has lost something or someone extremely important to him/her and all appears to be lost and failure seems inevitable? This usually happens right before he/she has a revelation or a breakthrough of some sort and throws him/herself back into the intensified conflict with a new determination, leading into the climax.
The big struggle sequence can also look like not much at all. As Captain Awkward says in a post about running into family after estrangement, “anticlimax— a good outcome on paper, since it means nothing escalated — can hit some of us as hard emotionally as anything we feared would happen.” A non-big struggle, when expected, is also a ‘big struggle scene’.
The big struggle sequence looks quite different in the big struggle-free myth form. Namely, the fight will be internal, externalised as a representation of the main character’s psychology. These stories avoid sturm und drang.
Torture your protagonist.
The writer is both a sadist and a masochist. We create people we love, and then we torture them. The more we love them, and the more cleverly we torture them along the lines of their greatest vulnerability and fear, the better the story. Sometimes we try to protect them from getting booboos that are too big. Don’t. This is your protagonist, not your kid.
THE BIG STRUGGLE SEQUENCE IN CHILDREN’S LITERATURE
A child’s main shortcoming is that they are small and without power, so a lot of children’s stories have historically relied on an adult stepping in to help. The child’s main job was to find someone more powerful. Victorians preferred the version of “Little Red Riding Hood” in which the adult male woodcutter saves the day, and alternatives of that era have basically been forgotten.
The hero or heroine of a fairy tale usually cannot kill the dragon or marry the princess without help. This, of course, is contrary to the American tradition that if you go it alone and work hard enough, you will get to the top. In fairy tales, characters who refuse help, or refuse to help others, end up covered with tar or talking frogs and snakes.
Alison Lurie: Don’t Tell The Grown-up: The subversive power of children’s literature
Not all fairy tales follow this general rule, of course. That’s because the fairy tales which we read today have been edited by Victorian men who seemed to harbour their own fantasies of stepping in to save women and children. Fairy tales such as “The Gallant Tailor” and “Mollie Whuppie” feature protagonists who save themselves, but it’s unlikely you were exposed to those as a child.
In contemporary children’s fiction, children fight their own big struggles. However, they very often call in someone more powerful/older to help them in the pre-big struggle stage. That helper might be just a little bit older, or they might be eccentric (powerless in their own way).
In Monster House the children call on the help of the guy who plays computer games down at the arcade.
Or the helper might be very old e.g. a grandparent, neighbour, wizard/witch or realistic equivalent.
These days help may come from the Internet. Courage the Cowardly Dog was one of the first children’s shows to do this — back when the Internet was very new and therefore novel. Courage would regularly consult the personified PC in the Bagge family attic. 25 years on, children’s writers seem less enthused about having The Web solve children’s problems. Now writers of realistic contemporary fiction might have to contrive ways to keep phones out of their characters’ hands all the time.
The people who regularly help children in real life rarely help them in stories. Therefore, you’ll rarely see a parent or a teacher helping a fictional child in any useful way. They may try to help, but inadvertently make the situation worse. This is to do with wish fulfilment — the wish to be independent. Or rather, the first step towards independence.
WHAT DOES A BIG STRUGGLE LOOK LIKE IN CHILDREN’S STORIES?
In books for the very young, you’re not going to find many guns, bows and arrows, fisticuffs and arguments (though you will sometimes). Still, picture books definitely feature ‘big struggles’.
Oftentimes, the big struggle phase seems to comprise about half the entire book.
The big struggle scene may be a ‘culmination’ of ridiculousness (followed by calm after the page turn, perhaps with more white space and calming rhythm.)
Therefore, the ‘big struggle scene’ in a picture book might also be called the ‘Culmination’.
It might also be called ‘The Fright‘.
The big struggle isn’t necessarily between the child and the main opponent. Rather, another opponent will often step in.
Obviously, the climax/low point maps onto the big struggle. (I love the term ‘wink’. For me, the broad concepts of set up and escalation aren’t quite specific enough.)
What form does this so-called big struggle sequence take in picture books? I’ve been breaking down the story structure of picture books for some time now. Now it’s time to take a look at the picture books on my shelf and those studied on this blog.
AN ACTUAL GUN BIG STRUGGLE
Hunters with guns are switched out for the lesser opponents (the animals residing in Thidwick’s antlers) to create a more dramatic big struggle scene.
You can see an oversized bodily function in The Three Little Pigs in which the wolf huffs and puffs and blows the houses down. However, in The Three Little Pigs, the sneezing is not the main big struggle scene. The main big struggle scene (at least in less bowdlerized versions) is the wolf falling splash into the pot.
In Wake Up Do, Lydia Lou! by Julia Donaldson all the animals in the story sneeze together and wake up a sleeping toddler.
In Yertle the Turtle by Dr Seuss, the king turtle is toppled off his perch when the turtle on the bottom of the stack burps.
TRICKSTER HERO WINS BY SAPPING THE OPPONENT’S STRENGTH/POWER
Our hero is a trickster archetype who challenges the opponent to perform things which will eventually lead to their own downfall. We see tricksters in classic tales such as The Emperor’s New Clothes.
In a mythically structured narrative our protagonist defeats a dragon as an archetypal trickster, tiring him out until he’s fast asleep by challenging him to perform tiring feats. (The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch)
A SCARY CHARACTER SUDDENLY POUNCES AFTER A LONG LEAD UP
This kind of story has its origins in oral narrative such as Little Red Riding Hood. The young listener/reader KNOWS what’s going to happen — the thrill is in the waiting.
In Wolf Won’t Bite by Emily Gravett wolf has enough of performing circus tricks for three show-off little pigs and eventually bites them.
THE CULMINATION OF RIDICULOUS, ESCALATING (POSSIBLY NEAR DEATH) EXPERIENCES
This often happens in a tall tale or in a comic classic/carnivalesque plot.
In The Five Chinese Brothers by Claire Huchet Bishop a city tries to murder a man but they can’t do it because he has four brothers and each has a secret superpower. Battle scenes: an attempted drowning, an attempted execution, an attempted burning at the stake, an attempted burning in the oven.
In And To Think I Saw It On Mulberry Street, Inside a boy’s imagination, a simple horse and cart becomes an entire procession of motley scenarios. The illustration starts simple then becomes more and more detailed until nothing more will fit on the page. The big struggle scene, in other words, is extreme chaos.
In Stuck by Oliver Jeffers there are so many things stuck in a tree that it’s impossible to imagine anything bigger or more ridiculous.
THE MAIN CHARACTER HAS A TANTRUM
Most common in comedy picture books. The childlike character isn’t getting what they want so they just lose it. These stories work if the main character’s shortcoming includes impatience and treating others badly. Young readers will identify well with this particular shortcoming, as their frontal cortexes aren’t fully developed — they know exactly what it feels like to not get what you want and to lose control as a result.
THE MAIN CHARACTER GETS CAUGHT UP IN THEIR OWN TERRIBLE PLAN
This kind of big struggle happens when the character is ‘their own worst enemy’.
A brilliant example of this kind of inner big struggle occurs in This Moose Belongs To Me by Oliver Jeffers, in which a boy on a journey literally gets entangled in the yarn he draped about precisely to help him find his way home.
In Neil Gaiman’s middle grade book Coraline, the big struggle sequence is a chapter straight out of a gothic novel, in which the main character must work her way out of her imaginary household before it morphs into such a shape that it will somehow enfold her within its clutches.
THE MAIN CHARACTER SHOWS KINDNESS AND WINS THE ENEMY OVER
During the climax of the story, your hero shows an astounding level of kindness to the enemy. It might come in the form of unconditional acceptance, unusual empathy and understanding, or an actual gift with a great deal of personal significance. The hero might even give away the very thing the villain was trying to steal. This gesture of goodwill causes a change of heart. The villain decides to stop doing harm, at least for now.In The Lego Movie, all the lego realms are terrorized by Lord Business. He plans to glue all the lego pieces permanently into place, freezing everyone exactly how he wants them. The main character, Emmet, is supposed to be a special person with the power to stop Lord Business, but toward the end, he discovers that he’s no more special than the next lego. To stop the fighting and gluing, Emmet meets with Lord Business. Emmet explains that Lord Business is also special, and that he has something unique to contribute to the world. Because of this conversation, Lord Business abandons his evil plans. The gesture of goodwill is a good match for a character-focused story. But like other character-based conflicts, it’s important to set things up ahead. You’ll want a sympathetic villain with a motivation the audience understands. However, you don’t have to tell their whole backstory in a flashback. Your hero can piece together the villain’s backstory and motivation, and then use that information in making their gesture.
If you think in terms of ‘climax’ rather than ‘big struggle’ followed by ‘anagnorisis’ and ‘new situation’ you may prefer to break climax into further parts:
The climax of a novel actually has four components:
The run-up to the climactic moment (last-minute maneuvering to put the pieces in their final positions)
The main character’s moment of truth (the inner journey point toward which the whole story has been moving)
The climactic moment itself (in which the hero directly affects the outcome)
The immediate results of the climactic moment (the villain might be vanquished, but the roof is still collapsing).
— Writer’s Digest
Moment of truth = anagnorisis Climatic moment itself = near-death big struggle moment
Matt Bird of Cockeyed Caravan breaks down the Battle stages according to which part of the main character is being challenged. I have noticed he’s right on the money for the vast majority of stories:
In the best stories, no matter what the genre, the hero is first challenged socially (often in the form of a humiliation at the beginning), then challenged physically (often in the form of a midpoint disaster), then challenged spiritually, as the hero is forced to either change or accept who he or she really is (often around the ¾ mark).
The pilot of Breaking Bad is exactly like this, starting with Walt’s humiliation as a lowly car washer serving his own students, followed by the diagnosis of lung cancer, then the moral dilemma — does he follow that idea to become a drug lord or doesn’t he?
For pantsers who haven’t decided on the big struggle beforehand, here’s some tips on how to come up with one.
THREEFOLD DEATH: According to Dan Wiley’s entry in Duffy’s Medieval Ireland: An Encyclopedia, threefold death is a motif of the early Irish aideda in which a victim is killed by three different means in rapid succession, often wounding, drowning, and burning. Examples of this motif can also be found in literature of folklore of Wales, France, and Estonia. The widespread nature of the motif makes some scholars think it began in a hypothetical Indo-European tri-functional sacrifice in which human victims were offered to a triad of divinities. Two of the best examples are found in Aided Diarnmata meic Cerbaill (The Death of Diarmait mac Cerbaill) and Aided Muirchertaig meic Erca (The Death of Muirchertach mac Erca). The tales are typically set in the early Christian period between 500 and 699 CE. The narrative pattern typically is (a) a crime is committed against the church, (b) it is prophesied the offender will die a threefold death, (c) such a death does occur. See Duffy 10-11.
Looking at the marketing copy and reader descriptions of these books a few tropes are common to this category of books often called ‘magical realism’ or ‘fabulist’:
The protagonist often has a super power, which as often as not is the flipside of a shortcoming. Sometimes it’s an original kind of superpower which hasn’t been used by Marvel and you haven’t seen it in fairytales. For example the ability to see words shining above people’s heads.
It’s often the sort of magic that lives next door. Or in the kitchen. Or in the shed at the bottom of the garden (Skellig).
Moving house is a common introduction to this kind of story. The child used to live in the ordinary world but now the parents have moved them to this island, this rickety house, this dilapidated mansion. In Skellig, Michael’s journey from the security of his early life on Random Road to the precarious and confusing removal to Falconer Road is essentially a maturation from a state of childhood innocence to pre-adolescent experience of self and other, bound together in the greater world of humankind. Random Road was a place of physical security for Michael. He was born there and took its existence for granted. He was the only child and so was the focus of his parents’ love. They provided for his needs, and he had no reason to discover that life could ever be different. It is a kind of Garden of Eden prior to the knowledge of good and evil. In the newly discovered Falconer Road Michael must increase his knowledge of the world. Significantly, this new house has to be remodelled before it becomes comfortable, mirroring Michael’s interior relationship with his environs.
Witches/trolls/mermaids etc. exist alongside humans, perhaps living secretly. Their secret lives can be an allegory for some kind of exclusion which happens to groups of people in the real world.
Fortune-telling is often a thing.
Luck can be a reliable, real thing, influenced by charms and whatnot.
Fate is also a thing, but can be thrown off-course by a savvy young protagonist. Related to fate, the moon features large in many fabulist stories.
Some stories have an atavistic fable/folklore/legend quality to them, taking modern people back to a time when humans really did believe the world was made of magic. There might be some direct link to the ancient past emphasised in the story e.g. finding something ancient or learning something about history in school or perhaps it’s simply working out some family history. In Skellig we have Archaeopteryx and evoltuion as a way to make Skellig credible. We don’t know what he is or where he came from. But we are reminded that there once was a dinosaur that flew, and evolution can produce many different forms of strange beings. It just may be that Skellig is the last of an ancient species, something akin to an angel. It is also a way to connect his story to the much older story of the evolution of humans and the personal evolution of understanding the ephemeral nature of being.
Wish fulfilment in these stories is often about getting a bully back using magical powers. Hence, the school or neighbourhood bully is often the villain of the story (rather than say, dragons, in a work of high fantasy). This is also the wish-fulfilment of a typical superhero story.
There is sometimes time travel which affects individuals at the personal (friendship/family) level. The Girl Who Leapt Through Time is an example of that. These kids aren’t out to save the world — they’re trying to subvert personal tragedies and relationship breakups.
Serious issues such as drug-use and bullying can be made heartwarming by an injection of fabulism.
Hence, there’s quite a bit of sickness. Recently dead parents, cancer, rashes, and other horrible life journeys which is made a little easier with magic.
They’re quite often set in a real-world big city such as L.A., London or New York City, but can also be set in a realistic little town which mimics a real place. Or they might be set in a deliberately magical sounding place with a poetic name.
A character may need to keep their magical powers secret, or magic might be a widely accepted part of the natural setting. Sometimes only the children know about the magic because the adults are too busy to notice it, or wouldn’t believe it even if they were told. Sometimes this can feel contrived. David Almond avoids any sense of contrivance by having Michael engage adults when he recognises his own ignorance. For example, he asks a doctor about arthritis and quizzes a teacher about evolution and shoulder blades, though significantly, he doesn’t talk to them about Skellig. He has Mina — another child — for that.
The fabulism in children’s books often creates an atmosphere which feels cosy and snug and whimsical.
There is often a ‘wise woman’ or a ‘wise man’ or sometimes a child character is wise beyond their years (e.g. Mina in Skellig, who might also be interpreted as simply mimicking her mother). Other fairytale archetypes can be mapped onto contemporary characters.
Fabulism can be a part of any genre — sometimes it’s a mystery, sometimes it’s used to solve a crime, sometimes it’s a story about human relationships.
In a small-town setting, fabulist stories are probably full of eccentric characters with strange powers, habits and hobbies. In a children’s book, these adults are probably quite childlike themselves, whereas ‘regular’ adults have forgotten how to be playful and observant.
Perhaps the setting used to be far more magical than it is now, but something happened and now it’s up to the child character to break the curse or to bring full magic back.
This isn’t a list that I’ve personally read. I’m just not this well-read. It’s a collection from various places across the web — books which have been designated ‘magical realism’ by others. I’m going with the word fabulism because it’s probably best if we leave the word ‘magical realism’ to work by Latin American authors writing about colonisation.
AKATA WITCH by Nnedi Okorafor — Born in New York, but living in Aba, Nigeria, twelve-year old Sunny is understandably a little lost. She is albino and thus, incredibly sensitive to the sun. All Sunny wants to do is be able to play football and get through another day of school without being bullied. But once she befriends Orlu and Chichi, Sunny is plunged in to the world of the Leopard People, where your worst defect becomes your greatest asset. At some point she sees the future in some flames. She has to work hard to avoid this future. Together, Sunny, Orlu, Chichi and Sasha form the youngest ever Oha Coven. Their mission is to track down Black Hat Otokoto, the man responsible for kidnapping and maiming children. Sunny has to overcome the killer with powers stronger than her own.
ANIMAL FARM by George Orwell — This allegory of a downtrodden society of overworked, mistreated animals, and their quest to create a paradise of progress, justice, and equality is one of the most scathing satires ever published. As we witness the rise and bloody fall of the revolutionary animals, we begin to recognize the seeds of totalitarianism in the most idealistic organisation; and in our most charismatic leaders, the souls of our cruelest oppressors.
BECAUSE OF WINN-DIXIE by Kate DiCamillo — The summer Opal and her father, the preacher, move to Naomi, Florida, Opal goes into the Winn-Dixie supermarket—and comes out with a dog. A big, ugly, suffering dog with a sterling sense of humour. A dog she dubs Winn-Dixie. Because of Winn-Dixie, the preacher tells Opal ten things about her absent mother, one for each year Opal has been alive. Winn-Dixie is better at making friends than anyone Opal has ever known, and together they meet the local librarian, Miss Franny Block, who once fought off a bear with a copy of WAR AND PEACE. They meet Gloria Dump, who is nearly blind but sees with her heart, and Otis, an ex-con who sets the animals in his pet shop loose after hours, then lulls them with his guitar. Opal spends all that sweet summer collecting stories about her new friends and thinking about her mother. But because of Winn-Dixie or perhaps because she has grown, Opal learns to let go, just a little, and that friendship—and forgiveness—can sneak up on you like a sudden summer storm.
THE BFG by Roald Dahl — Captured by a giant! The BFG is no ordinary bone-crunching giant. He is far too nice and jumbly. It’s lucky for Sophie that he is. Had she been carried off in the middle of the night by the Bloodbottler, the Fleshlumpeater, the Bonecruncher, or any of the other giants – rather than the BFG – she would have soon become breakfast. When Sophie hears that they are flush-bunking off in England to swollomp a few nice little chiddlers, she decides she must stop them once and for all. And the BFG is going to help her!
BIGGER THAN A BREAD BOX by Laurel Snyder — Perhaps a descendent of Five Children and It, A magical breadbox that delivers whatever you wish for—as long as it fits inside? It’s too good to be true! Twelve-year-old Rebecca is struggling with her parents’ separation, as well as a sudden move to her Gran’s house in another state. For a while, the magic bread box, discovered in the attic, makes life away from home a little easier. Then suddenly it starts to make things much, much more difficult, and Rebecca is forced to decide not just where, but who she really wants to be.
BOUNTY HUNTER by S.J. Hollis — What do you do when your magic makes you a target? Run. Fight. Die. 14-year-old Kai Koson had nothing to do with the apocalypse, thank you very much. He was just a baby the day a coven of blood witches ripped a hole in the universe and the demons fell screaming from the sky. Earth and its magic perished. Witchkind was hunted and annihilated. Now, because he was born a witch, Kai must spend his life running and fighting for survival. Even his own uncle seems determined to abandon him. With nothing left to lose, Kai runs away and joins a team of galactic bounty hunters. But instead of providing an escape, it sets Kai on a path that will destroy everything he believes about himself and the apocalypse, transforming him into the most wanted teenager in the galaxy.
BREADCRUMBS by Anne Ursu — Once upon a time, Hazel and Jack were best friends. They had been best friends since they were six, spending hot Minneapolis summers and cold Minneapolis winters together, dreaming of Hogwarts and Oz, superheroes and baseball. Now that they were eleven, it was weird for a boy and a girl to be best friends. But they couldn’t help it – Hazel and Jack fit, in that way you only read about in books. And they didn’t fit anywhere else. And then, one day, it was over. Jack just stopped talking to Hazel. And while her mom tried to tell her that this sometimes happens to boys and girls at this age, Hazel had read enough stories to know that it’s never that simple. And it turns out, she was right. Jack’s heart had been frozen, and he was taken into the woods by a woman dressed in white to live in a palace made of ice. Now, it’s up to Hazel to venture into the woods after him. Hazel finds, however, that these woods are nothing like what she’s read about, and the Jack that Hazel went in to save isn’t the same Jack that will emerge. Or even the same Hazel. Inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen,” Breadcrumbs is a story of the struggle to hold on, and the things we leave behind.
THE BOY WHO CLIMBED INTO THE MOON by David Almond — There are some strange ideas floating around in Paul’s apartment block. There’s Mabel, who now calls herself Molly and whose brother hides under a paper bag. Then there’s Clarence, the poodle who thinks he can fly. But the strangest notion of all is Paul’s. You see, Paul believes that the moon is not the moon but a great hole in the sky. And he knows that sausages are better than war. How on earth (or not) will he find out if he is bonkers or a genius? With a few equally bonkers (or genius) helpers and a very long ladder, that’s how! From a master of magical realism and a celebrated artist comes another delightfully outrageous expedition.
CAVE OF JOURNEYS by Penny Ross — Join fourteen-year-old Sarah and her eleven-year-old brother Mattie as they journey one hundred years back in time. As they enter a magical cave Sarah, Mattie and their grandfather are mysteriously transported from Iceland in 2011. They arrive in New Iceland, near Gimli, Manitoba. The year is 1911. While exploring, they meet a fourteen-year-old Cree boy named Willow Walker and his First Nations family. The three adventurers stumble upon the CAVE OF JOURNEYS. This magical place records the chapters of humankind through picture writing. Sarah, Mattie and Willow Walker meet an ancient oak tree who recruits them to retrieve original stories of Canadian history. Their whirlwind adventure in a flying canoe takes them to four locations. The youth rush to visit Elders entrusted to guard rock paintings at sites throughout the Canadian Shield. They have four days to accomplish their goal in a race against time. CAVE OF JOURNEYS, a juvenile fiction novel, combines legend with fantasy. Similar to Alice in ALICE IN WONDERLAND the youth face real issues in a world that combines enchantment and fantasy with reality. Is this world, with oversized creatures, wise Elders and a talking tree real? Is Willow Walker real? Or is it all part of a world where legends abound? Join Sarah, Mattie and Willow Walker on their journey as they discover stories rich in the culture and traditions of Cree, Icelandic and Ojibwe people.
CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY by Roald Dahl — Magic is uncovered in the real world after a reclusive chocolatier allows five lucky children into his factory in a sorting contest to find out who should inherit his wealth.
CULLOO by Murielle Cyr — Tough and resourceful Tala will be 13 soon, and no one will tell her what to do. On one fateful day in the forest, however, she has to find her endangered father and protect her young brother from a trio of murderous poachers. All the while, she and her brother may have to face the forest’s legendary keepers—the deceptively playful characters known as the Stone People, and a giant, black bird known and feared as Culloo.
FIVE CHILDREN AND IT by E. Nesbit — The five children find a cantankerous sand fairy, a psammead, in a gravel pit. Every day ‘It’ will grant each of them a wish that lasts until sunset, often with disastrous consequences.
THE GIVER by Lois Lowry — Perhaps the grandmother of A Tangle Of Knots (2013), this haunting story centers on Jonas, who lives in a seemingly ideal, if colorless, world of conformity and contentment. Not until he’s given his life assignment as the Receiver of Memory does he begin to understand the dark, complex secrets behind his fragile community.
THE GRAVEYARD BOOK by Neil Gaiman — After the grisly murder of his entire family, a toddler wanders into a graveyard where the ghosts and other supernatural residents agree to raise him as one of their own. Nobody Owens, known to his friends as Bod, is a normal boy. He would be completely normal if he didn’t live in a sprawling graveyard, being raised and educated by ghosts, with a solitary guardian who belongs to neither the world of the living nor of the dead. There are dangers and adventures in the graveyard for a boy. But if Bod leaves the graveyard, then he will come under attack from the man Jack—who has already killed Bod’s family…
THE GREAT UNEXPECTED by Sharon Creech — This is a story of pairs-of young Naomi and Lizzie, both orphans in present-day Blackbird Tree, USA, and of Sybil and Nula, grown-up sisters from faraway Rooks Orchard, Ireland, who have become estranged. Young Naomi Deane is brimming with curiosity and her best friend, Lizzie Scatterding, could talk the ears off a cornfield. Naomi has a knack for being around when trouble happens. She knows all the peculiar people in town – like Crazy Cora and Witch Wiggins. But then, one day, a boy drops out of a tree. Just like that. A strangely charming Finn boy. And then the Dingle Dangle man appears, asking all kinds of questions. Curious surprises are revealed-three locked trunks, a pair of rooks, a crooked bridge, and that boy-and soon Naomi and Lizzie find their lives changed forever.
HILDAFOLK by Luke Pearson — This is Hilda’s ‘folktale‘.Hildafolk presents a terse tale of the precocious, blue-haired child, Hilda — and essentially just follows her around for a couple of days as she plays and explores and draws. Hilda lives in a mountainous hills-are-alive-with kind of setting and, as she is a child, has few responsibilities beyond staying out of Deep Trouble. Her current interests include reading about the different varieties of local trolls and scribbling in her sketchbook. Her companion is a blue-coated fox with adorable little antlers and her house is visited frequently and to her annoyance by a small man made of wood. Hildafolk‘s story, while slight, exhibits a sense of humour that keeps even the book’s darker moments from infringing too deeply on its sense of place.
HOLES by Louis Sachar — Stanley Yelnats is under a curse. A curse that began with his no-good-dirty-rotten-pig-stealing-great-great-grandfather and has since followed generations of Yelnatses. Now Stanley has been unjustly sent to a boys’ detention center, Camp Green Lake, where the boys build character by spending all day, every day digging holes exactly five feet wide and five feet deep. There is no lake at Camp Green Lake. But there are an awful lot of holes. It doesn’t take long for Stanley to realize there’s more than character improvement going on at Camp Green Lake. The boys are digging holes because the warden is looking for something. But what could be buried under a dried-up lake? Stanley tries to dig up the truth in this inventive and darkly humorous tale of crime and punishment—and redemption.
HOUR OF THE BEES by Lindsay Eager — While her friends are spending their summers having pool parties and sleepovers, twelve-year-old Carolina — Carol — is spending hers in the middle of the New Mexico desert, helping her parents move the grandfather she’s never met into a home for people with dementia. At first, Carol avoids prickly Grandpa Serge. But as the summer wears on and the heat bears down, Carol finds herself drawn to him, fascinated by the crazy stories he tells her about a healing tree, a green-glass lake, and the bees that will bring back the rain and end a hundred years of drought. As the thin line between magic and reality starts to blur, Carol must decide for herself what is possible — and what it means to be true to her roots. Readers who dream that there’s something more out there will be enchanted by this captivating novel of family, renewal, and discovering the wonder of the world.
THE INDIAN IN THE CUPBOARD by Lynne Reid-Banks — At first, Omri is unimpressed with the plastic Indian toy he is given for his birthday. But when he puts it in his old cupboard and turns the key, something extraordinary happens that will change Omri’s life for ever. For Little Bull, the Iroquois Indian brave, comes to life…
JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH by Roald Dahl — When James accidentally drops some magic crystals by the old peach tree, strange things start to happen. The peach at the top of the tree begins to grow, and before long it’s as big as a house. When James discovers a secret entranceway into the fruit and crawls inside, he meets wonderful new friends—the Old-Green-Grasshopper, the dainty Ladybug, and the Centipede of the multiple boots. After years of feeling like an outsider in his aunts’ house, James finally found a place where he belongs. With a snip of the stem, the peach household starts rolling away—and the adventure begins!
JOPLIN, WISHING by Diane Stanley — Fifth grader Joplin Danforth discovers the broken pieces of a beautiful platter in her grandfather’s house and decides to fix it. Once repaired, the surface of the platter reveals the image of a young girl beside a lake. Joplin, who is quite lonely, wishes that she could be friends with the girl in the picture or at least have a friend at school. And to her surprise, her wishes come true. Joplin befriends a boy named Barrett and Sofie, the girl from the platter. Sofie reveals that she’s been trapped for hundreds of years, forced to grant wishes to whoever owns the magical platter. Joplin and Barrett agree to help Sofie escape her curse, and the three set off to find a way to take Sofie 400 years into the past back to her Dutch village.
KARLSSON-ON-THE ROOF by Astrid Lindgren — Imagine Smidge’s delight when, one day, a little man with a propeller on his back appears hovering at the window! It’s Karlson and he lives in a house on the roof. Soon Smidge and Karlson are sharing all sorts of adventures, from tackling thieves and playing tricks to looping the loop and running across the rooftops. Fun and chaos burst from these charming, classic stories.
KEEPER by Kathi Appelt — To ten-year-old Keeper the moon is her chance to fix all that has gone wrong … and so much has gone wrong. But she knows who can make things right again: Maggie Marie, her mermaid mother, who swam away when Keeper was just three. A blue moon calls the mermaids to gather at the sandbar, and that’s exactly where Keeper is headed – in a small boat. In the middle of the night, with only her dog, BD (Best Dog), and seagull named Captain. When the riptide pulls at the boat, tugging her away from the shore and deep into the rough waters of the Gulf of Mexico, panic sets in and the fairy tales that lured her out there go tumbling into the waves. Maybe the blue moon won’t sparkle with mermaids and maybe – Oh, no … “Maybe” is just too difficult to bear. Maggie has a porte-bonheur hanging around her neck (a lucky charm).
THE LITTLE PRINCE by Antoine de Saint-Exupery — Moral allegory and spiritual autobiography, The Little Prince tells the story of a little boy who leaves the safety of his own tiny planet to travel the universe, learning the vagaries of adult behaviour through a series of extraordinary encounters. His personal odyssey culminates in a voyage to Earth and further adventures.
THE LOST THING by Shaun Tan — a boy finds a lost machine walking around and escorts it home.
MATILDA by Roald Dahl — A child prodigy finds she has telekinetic powers. She uses these to overcome a monstrous teacher and escape from her horrible parents.
MIRROR MIRROR by Gregory Maguire — The year is 1502, and seven-year-old Bianca de Nevada lives perched high above the rolling hills and valleys of Tuscany and Umbria at Montefiore, the farm of her beloved father, Don Vicente. There she spends her days cosseted by Primavera Vecchia, the earthy cook, and Fra Ludovico, a priest who tends to their souls between bites of ham and sips of wine. But one day a noble entourage makes its way up the winding slopes to the farm – and the world comes to Montefiore. In the presence of Cesare Borgia and his sister, the lovely and vain Lucrezia – decadent children of a wicked pope – no one can claim innocence for very long. When Borgia sends Don Vicente on a years-long quest to reclaim a relic of the original Tree of Knowledge, he leaves Bianca under the care – so to speak – of Lucrezia. She plots a dire fate for the young girl in the woods below the farm, but in the dark forest there can be found salvation as well.
MY DAD’S A BIRDMAN by David Almond — Lizzie and Dad live in a rainy town in the north of England. Jackie Crow is Lizzie’s father, who sees himself as a ‘Birdman’, someone who can fly with man-made wings just like a bird. He eats bugs, makes wings, and doesn’t do normal adult things at all. Lizzie is a young girl who takes on the mother figure in the household, looking after her father (who is perhaps dealing with depression after the loss of his wife). It is an endearing story of unconditional love, juxtaposed with the humorous and larger than life characters of Mr Poop and Auntie Doreen. The novel follows their journey as things start to change while preparing their wings for ‘The Human Bird competition’ to be held at the River Tyne near where they live. This book is marketed to appeal to Roald Dahl fans but is nothing like the same kind of disturbed that Dahl’s books are.
NIGHTINGALE’S NEST by Nikki Loftin
NINTH WARD by Jewell Parker Rhodes — Twelve-year-old Lanesha lives in a tight-knit community in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward. She doesn’t have a fancy house like her uptown family or lots of friends like the other kids on her street. But what she does have is Mama Ya-Ya, her fiercely loving caretaker, wise in the ways of the world and able to predict the future. So when Mama Ya-Ya’s visions show a powerful hurricane—Katrina—fast approaching, it’s up to Lanesha to call upon the hope and strength Mama Ya-Ya has given her to help them both survive the storm.
THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE by Neil Gaiman — Sussex, England. A middle-aged man returns to his childhood home to attend a funeral. Although the house he lived in is long gone, he is drawn to the farm at the end of the road, where, when he was seven, he encountered a most remarkable girl, Lettie Hempstock, and her mother and grandmother. He hasn’t thought of Lettie in decades, and yet as he sits by the pond (a pond that she’d claimed was an ocean) behind the ramshackle old farmhouse, the unremembered past comes flooding back. And it is a past too strange, too frightening, too dangerous to have happened to anyone, let alone a small boy. Forty years earlier, a man committed suicide in a stolen car at this farm at the end of the road. Like a fuse on a firework, his death lit a touchpaper and resonated in unimaginable ways. The darkness was unleashed, something scary and thoroughly incomprehensible to a little boy. And Lettie—magical, comforting, wise beyond her years—promised to protect him, no matter what.
THE SECRET GARDEN by Frances Hodgson Burnett — When orphaned Mary Lennox comes to live at her uncle’s great house on the Yorkshire Moors, she finds it full of secrets. The mansion has nearly one hundred rooms, and her uncle keeps himself locked up. And at night, she hears the sound of crying down one of the long corridors. The gardens surrounding the large property are Mary’s only escape. Then, Mary discovers a secret garden, surrounded by walls and locked with a missing key. One day, with the help of two unexpected companions, she discovers a way in. Is everything in the garden dead, or can Mary bring it back to life?
A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS by Lemony Snicket — “I’m sorry to say that the book you are holding in your hands is extremely unpleasant. It tells an unhappy tale about three very unlucky children. Even though they are charming and clever, the Baudelaire siblings lead lives filled with misery and woe. From the very first page of this book when the children are at the beach and receive terrible news, continuing on through the entire story, disaster lurks at their heels. One might say they are magnets for misfortune. In this short book alone, the three youngsters encounter a greedy and repulsive villain, itchy clothing, a disastrous fire, a plot to steal their fortune, and cold porridge for breakfast. It is my sad duty to write down these unpleasant tales, but there is nothing stopping you from putting this book down at once and reading something happy, if you prefer that sort of thing.” Fate follows these children like a real creature. That’s part of what makes it seem magical.
SKELLIG by David Almond — Unhappy about his baby sister’s illness and the chaos of moving into a dilapidated old house, Michael retreats to the garage and finds a mysterious stranger who is something like a bird and something like an angel.
A SNICKER OF MAGIC by Natalie Lloyd — Midnight Gulch used to be a magical place, a town where people could sing up thunderstorms and dance up sunflowers. But that was long ago, before a curse drove the magic away. Twelve-year-old Felicity knows all about things like that; her nomadic mother is cursed with a wandering heart. But when she arrives in Midnight Gulch, Felicity thinks her luck’s about to change. A “word collector,” Felicity sees words everywhere—-shining above strangers, tucked into church eves, and tangled up her dog’s floppy ears—-but Midnight Gulch is the first place she’s ever seen the word “home.” And then there’s Jonah, a mysterious, spiky-haired do-gooder who shimmers with words Felicity’s never seen before, words that make Felicity’s heart beat a little faster. Felicity wants to stay in Midnight Gulch more than anything, but first, she’ll need to figure out how to bring back the magic, breaking the spell that’s been cast over the town . . . and her mother’s broken heart.
SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES by Ray Bradbury
THE STRANGE AND BEAUTIFUL SORROWS OF AVA LAVENDER by Leslye Walton —
SUMMER OF THE MARIPOSAS by Guadalupe Garcia McCall
TANGLE OF KNOTS by Lisa Graff — In a slightly magical world where everyone has a Talent, eleven-year-old Cady is an orphan with a phenomenal Talent for cake baking. But little does she know that fate has set her on a journey from the moment she was born. And her destiny leads her to a mysterious address that houses a lost luggage emporium, an old recipe, a family of children searching for their own Talents, and a Talent Thief who will alter her life forever. However, these encounters hold the key to Cady’s past and how she became an orphan. If she’s lucky, fate may reunite her with her long-lost parent.
Lisa Graff adds a pinch of magic to a sharply crafted plot to create a novel that will have readers wondering about fate and the way we’re all connected.
TEETH by Hannah Moskowitz — Be careful what you believe in. In this allegorical, kafkaesque story, Rudy’s life is flipped upside-down when his family moves to a remote island in a last attempt to save his sick younger brother (cystic fibrosis). With nothing to do but worry, Rudy sinks deeper and deeper into loneliness and lies awake at night listening to the screams of the ocean beneath his family’s rickety house. Then he meets Diana, who makes him wonder what he even knows about love, and Teeth, who makes him question what he knows about anything. Rudy can’t remember the last time he felt so connected to someone, but being friends with Teeth is more than a little bit complicated. Teeth is a merman. He soon learns that Teeth has terrible secrets. Violent secrets (including sexual abuse). Secrets that will force Rudy to choose between his own happiness and his brother’s life. There are many parallels between this book and “The Metamorphosis”.
THROUGH THE WOODS by Emily Carroll — a graphic novel of short stories similar to Neil Gaiman and Grimms’ Fairytales. There are old stories with coaches, horses and corsets as well as more modern tales. Something is wrong in each of the stories and you can’t finish until you figure out exactly what it is. The effect is haunting.
THE TIGER RISING by Kate DiCamillo — Walking through the misty Florida woods one morning in that un-nameable book-time of before now and after World War II, twelve-year-old Rob Horton is stunned to encounter a tiger – a real-life, very large tiger – pacing back and forth in a cage. What’s more, on the same extraordinary day, he meets Sistine Bailey, a girl who shows her feelings as readily as Rob hides his. As they learn to trust each other, and ultimately, to be friends, Rob and Sistine prove that some things – like memories, and heartaches, and tigers – can’t be locked up forever.The Tiger Rising follows Rob, a sixth grade boy, whose mother has recently died of cancer, now living in a motel with his father, quietly paralysed by grief. Rob is an outcast at school, bullied by thugs, overlooked by adults, and teased for a skin condition that has resulted from his own suppressed grief. His misunderstood rash, however irritating, proves to be his saviour as he’s sent home from school indefinitely, for fear of spreading it to his fellow classmates, who are oh-so-deserving of something virulent. And then, inexplicably, there is a Tiger. In the woods behind the motel Rob finds the cage, the great orange beauty stalking back and forth in its tiny enclosure, alone and breathtakingly out of place. Rob is enthralled, a sense of wonderment and elation brought back to his life that was stuffed down into his “suitcase of not-thoughts” with the loss of his mother. Rob’s only friend, Sistine, a new girl in town, full of outrage and her own personal loss, is brought in on the secret of the Tiger. Sistine wants to set it free but Rob can’t bear to see it go.
TRUE BLUE SCOUTS OF SUGARMAN SWAMP by Kathi Appelt — Raccoon brothers Bingo and J’miah are the newest recruits of the Official Sugar Man Swamp Scouts. The opportunity to serve the Sugar Man—the massive creature who delights in delicious sugar cane and magnanimously rules over the swamp—is an honor, and also a big responsibility, since the rest of the swamp critters rely heavily on the intel of these hardworking Scouts. Twelve-year-old Chap Brayburn is not a member of any such organisation. But he loves the swamp something fierce, and he’ll do anything to help protect it. And help is surely needed, because world-class alligator wrestler Jaeger Stitch wants to turn Sugar Man swamp into an Alligator World Wrestling Arena and Theme Park, and the troubles don’t end there. There is also a gang of wild feral hogs on the march, headed straight toward them all. The Scouts are ready. All they have to do is wake up the Sugar Man. Problem is, no one’s been able to wake that fellow up in a decade or four…
TUCK EVERLASTING by Natalie Babbitt — Doomed to – or blessed with – eternal life after drinking from a magic spring, the Tuck family wanders about trying to live as inconspicuously and comfortably as they can. When ten-year-old Winnie Foster stumbles on their secret, the Tucks take her home and explain why living forever at one age is less a blessing that it might seem. Complications arise when Winnie is followed by a stranger who wants to market the spring water for a fortune.
TUMBLE & BLUE by Cassie Beasley — There’s a legend about a golden alligator named Munch who appears every 100 years during the red moon and grants good luck to anyone brave enough to ask. One night in 1817, he’s found by two people at the same time and the luck splits down the middle. Good fortune seems to skip a generation for the descendants of the two: Some live out wonderful lives, while others are cursed. Tumble Wilson and Blue Montgomery, the youngest descendants of the original two, decide to take fate into their own hands and undo the terrible mistake their ancestors made.
UGLIES by Scott Westerfeld — Tally is about to turn sixteen, and she can’t wait. In just a few weeks she’ll have the operation that will turn her from a repellent ugly into a stunning pretty. And as a pretty, she’ll be catapulted into a high-tech paradise where her only job is to have fun. But Tally’s new friend Shay isn’t sure she wants to become a pretty. When Shay runs away, Tally learns about a whole new side of the pretty world— and it isn’t very pretty. The authorities offer Tally a choice: find her friend and turn her in, or never turn pretty at all.
THE WITCHES by Roald Dahl — This is not a fairy-tale. This is about REAL WITCHES. Real witches don’t ride around on broomsticks. They don’t even wear black cloaks and hats. They are vile, cunning, detestable creatures who disguise themselves as nice, ordinary ladies. So how can you tell when you’re face to face with one? Well, if you don’t know yet you’d better find out quickly-because there’s nothing a witch loathes quite as much as children and she’ll wield all kinds of terrifying powers to get rid of them.
WEETZIE BAT by Francesca Lia Block — Set in L.A., Weetzie Bat, her best friend Dirk and their search across L.A. for the most dangerous angel of all …true love. There are sporadic tears in the gauze curtain through which we can glimpse the darker and seedier side: there are hints that a friend of a friend found out they had AIDS, someone’s close relative dies from a drug overdose. in Weetzie’s world, everyone finds their ideal matches, ready-made with the same cutesy nicknames that she and her best friend came up with when they were even younger and sillier, everyone lives together on their own without any trouble or financial worry, and even an impulsive and ill-devised baby-making scheme involving a threesome with a best friend and his significant other can turn out hunky-dory. Weetzie is quirky without depth. There’s no road map here for dealing with any of the problems she does encounter because she never deals with them. She denies her problems or ignores them until a convenient magical solution manifests itself or else she runs away from them, and the other characters aren’t really much more than pretty shiny accessories.
WHEN YOU REACH ME by Rebecca Stead — By sixth grade, Miranda and her best friend, Sal, know how to navigate their New York City neighborhood. They know where it’s safe to go, like the local grocery store, and they know whom to avoid, like the crazy guy on the corner. But things start to unravel. Sal gets punched by a new kid for what seems like no reason, and he shuts Miranda out of his life. The apartment key that Miranda’s mom keeps hidden for emergencies is stolen. And then Miranda finds a mysterious note scrawled on a tiny slip of paper. The notes keep coming, and Miranda slowly realizes that whoever is leaving them knows all about her, including things that have not even happened yet. Each message brings her closer to believing that only she can prevent a tragic death. Until the final note makes her think she’s too late.
WHERE THE MOUNTAIN MEETS THE MOON by Grace Lin — A wondrous story of happiness, family, and friendship. A fantasy crossed with Chinese folklore, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon is a timeless adventure story in the classic tradition of The Wizard of Oz. In the Valley of Fruitless Mountain, a young girl named Minli spends her days working hard in the fields and her nights listening to her father spin fantastic tales about the Jade Dragon and the Old Man of the Moon. Minli’s mother, tired of their poor life, chides him for filling her head with nonsense. But Minli believes these enchanting stories and embarks on an extraordinary journey to find the Old Man of the Moon and ask him how her family can change their fortune. She encounters an assorted cast of characters and magical creatures along the way, including a dragon who accompanies her on her quest.
A YEAR WITHOUT AUTUMN by Liz Kessler — On her way to visit her best friend, Autumn, Jenni Green suddenly finds she’s been transported exactly one year forward in time. Now she discovers that in the year that’s gone by, tragedy has struck and her friendship with Autumn will never be the same again. But what caused the tragedy?
YOU CAN’T SHATTER ME by Tahlia Newland — Sixteen-year-old, Carly, is set to become top of her art class until bully-boy, Justin, gives her a vicious payback for standing up for one of his victims. Her boyfriend, karate-trained nerd, Dylan, wants to smash the guys face in, but a fight at school means suspension, losing his chance at school honors and facing a furious father. Carly is determined to find a more creative solution to her problem, but will she sort it out before Dylan’s inner cave man hijacks him and all hell breaks lose? Justin might be a pain, but his harassment leads to a deepening of Dylan and Carly’s romance, and Carly finds an inner strength she didn’t know she had. The magical realism style provides a touch of fantasy in an otherwise very real story that offers heart-warming solutions to bullying. You Can’t Shatter Me is food for the soul.
ZERO by Christina Collins — about a girl who believes the answer to her problems lies in speaking zero words a day