Symbolism of Containers

Kitchen Utensils c.1914-8 Leslie Hunter 1877-1931

Vessels or containers are as important for the space they contain as well as for any material they hold. Containers tend to be associated with women. As motifs running throughout a story they can also symbolise physical or emotional containment, either self-driven or imposed upon a character from outside.

The Promise and Intrigue of Containers

How to create optimal mystery? Promise something but don’t show it. This is why we wrap presents. It’s why artists show characters looking at something mysterious out of the frame. It’s why writers drip feed something gradually, slowly bringing a mysterious person or item into view, building up to the big reveal.

Containers are the symbolic embodiment of all that. An enclosed container holds something but we don’t know what. Not until we open it.

18th century children’s story Rosamund and the Purple Jar is anti-climactic precisely because the vessel holds something pretty, then disturbing, and ultimately contains nothing Rosamund wants. Her hopes are dashed. Victorian children were supposed to learn from this didactic story not to place too much hope on the unseen and the unknown. More generally, pretty appearances can disappoint by their lack of true substance.

In her short story “Prelude“, Katherine Mansfield makes use of containers as a motif throughout, liking young Kezia to her grandmother via a shared proximal placement of small containers.



Arks

If you think of ‘ark’, you’re probably thinking of Noah’s Ark, or possibly the Ark of the Covenant. An ark is a big container that holds very valuable objects. In this way, an ark symbolises a treasure chest. It might be massive (as in Noah’s) or it might be small (as in the ‘ark’ that Moses was found in, floating in the reeds). The commonality is that an ark’s contents are precious.

The Bag of Holding

The name of this trope comes from Dungeons and Dragons:

The Bag of Holding is a specific portable item which is Bigger on the Inside than it is on the outside. Much bigger. It may not look it, but that’s because it contains Hammer Space. Because the holding capacity of the bag comes from internal Hammer Space, a thoroughly-packed Bag of Holding will weigh no more than a full normal bag. Odds are, it will weigh no more than an empty normal bag.

Because of the sheer amount of goods you can store in one, trying to find something specific usually results in a Rummage Fail. Except, of course, in videogames where time itself will stop to let you go through your inventory in peace.

TV Tropes

The Cabinet of Curiosities

Domenico Remps (1620-1699), Cabinet of Curiosities, 17th century, painting, Italy, Florence, Museo dell’Opificio delle Pietre Dure

The word ‘cabinet’ originally described a room rather than a cabinet (and is still used to mean ‘room’ when we’re talking about Parliament buildings). Originally, a cabinet of curiosities was a big room in a rich person’s house containing all kinds of treasures — sort of like a private museum. The first cabinets of curiosities appeared in the 16th century. In fact, these rooms were precursors to museums. People who travelled were in the best position to set them up, e.g. merchants.

When cabinets became collections held in pieces of furniture (today’s usual meaning of ‘cabinet’), they were designed to be as interesting to look at as possible. They were highly ornamental, decorative and housed many disparate things. The idea was to represent the entire world in miniature. Interest came from the juxtaposition of many different objects.

Cabinets of curiosities were also show-off items, showing how rich you were, how cultured, how well-travelled.

Over the centuries, artifacts from these collections have proven invaluable to historians, naturalists and archeologists.

Charles Edward Wilson - The Miniature 1912
Charles Edward Wilson – The Miniature 1912

Cauldrons

In fiction, cauldrons have a special association with magic. Some such cauldrons are inherently magical, having some special power or another (an obvious one being the power to produce an endless supply of something you’d make in a more normal pot). Others are just used for magic (especially when Alchemy Is Magic), but apart from that, are just ordinary pots. They’re often black, and the contents are often inexplicably green, but both those things are optional.

TV Tropes

Sometimes the cauldron is called a kettle. Cauldrons and kettles come in various shapes and sizes. Cauldrons can be terrible or wonderful, oftentimes both.

According to witch mythology, an iron cauldron or kettle was used to prepare Sabbat feasts, magical brews and potions. Sometimes the fire is kindled in the cauldron itself. Some witches in fact use ordinary household pots — consecrated, of course.

In public imagination, the cauldron (your own cooking pot) was equally a tool you could use to kill a witch. By performing folk magic you could force a witch down your chimney, where she will fall into your cooking pot and be scalded to death. In order for this to work, people had to imagine a witch small enough to fall down a chimney, so it was necessary to believe that witches could transmogrify. This made them even more scary, because now you believed a witch could get in through any tiny crack.

Haynes King – An Old Friend Failing 1880

The shape of the cauldron resembles the belly of a pregnant woman, and is therefore a symbol of fertility. Its circular shape symbolises never-ending life and regeneration.

Things are heated inside a cauldron, transforming from one thing into another, hence the cauldron also symbolises germination and transformation.

Traditional cauldrons have three legs, representing the triple aspect of the Great Goddess or the three fates. Any cauldron with three legs has strong associations with divination.

Cauldrons are strongly associated with cannibals, e.g. ogres. A cauldron of burning oil means punishment is coming, e.g. in earlier, more disturbing versions of Sleeping Beauty.

But in Celtic tradition, the cauldron symbolises abundance, cornucopia, resuscitation and inexhaustible sustenance. In these stories the dead are frequently thrown into the cauldron and crawl out alive the next day. For this meaning, we can look to a fairytale such as The Magic Porridge Pot (generally illustrated as a mini cauldron in picture books). The pot saves a community from famine but also wreaks havoc, in line with the good and evil duplicity of mythological cauldrons. Likewise in China, the cauldron is a receptacle for offerings. but also a container for torture and capital punishment.

Norse legend is a bit different. According to Nordic tradition, the roaring cauldron is the source of all rivers.

Parable of the Burning Pot, engraved by the Dalziel Brothers published 1881

Ezekiel and the Boiling Pot Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones,

The Chalice

A chalice is a cup or grail generally used in rituals. The Catholic church makes use of a highly decorated chalice in ceremony. Pagans used a much simpler one.

The chalice itself symbolises water. Like the cauldron, the chalice is associated with femininity because of its shape, and because of its use as a vessel (women were and still are considered vessels for carrying other humans). Women are also linked to water because women are linked to the moon — menstrually — and the moon influences tides. We all begin life in the womb in water. Like most associations, it’s a double-edged sword for women. Water, like women, is essential to life. (Women, eh? Can’t live with em, can’t live without em.)

The Holy Grail

As mentioned above, in mystical, pre-Christian times there was a magical cauldron of the Celtic Gods that never emptied and kept everyone satisfied, as mentioned above. This legend is the O.G. of mythology leading to the Holy Grail — the cup that Christ was meant to have drank from at the Last Supper, or maybe it was the container that caught his blood during his crucifixion… who knows?

This sacred vessel went missing (or never existed in the first place), so today ‘the Holy Grail’ means something unfindable but highly treasured. There’s a subcategory of King Arthur tales called Holy Grail Legends, which have kept the rumours alive.

According to Jung, the psychoanalyst, the grail is an emblem of the spirit and symbolises “the inner wholeness for which men have always been searching”. The Philosopher’s Stone, from alchemy, fulfils the same symbolic function — the search for something elusive within oneself.

Header painting is by Leslie Hunter: Kitchen Utensils, c.1914–18.

Birds In Children’s Literature

Birds occupy a special place in children’s stories, as they do in the Bible, in folklore and in fairytales. Are they good or are they evil? No other creature has so successfully been both, equally. If you’re writing a children’s story, you can do what you like with birds.

evil fairytale bird
The hooked beak of Bauer’s bird is clearly evil. John Albert Bauer (4 June 1882 – 20 November 1918) was a Swedish painter and illustrator. His work is concerned with landscape and mythology, but he also composed portraits.

Birds have always been a favourite device for prophecy and warning from the bird with bright feathers carrying the millstone in “The Juniper Tree” to Poe’s Raven. Birds have less obvious physical presence than animals — they may fly away or disappear, and seem naturally proud and arbitrary. In reality they often look arrogant, gay, heartless or beautiful — they seldom look humble unless there is something wrong with them; and there seems to be an unwritten law that magic animals are ancient, powerful, experienced, educated and erudite. Birds have this look, whether heraldic or real, from the Gryphon to Dudu the raven in Mrs Molesworth’s The Tapestry Room (1879).

Mrs Molesworth was, indeed, the first writer to take such a bird out of a fairy tale and place it in what one feels to be the right setting — a contemporary one. The Cuckoo Clock, written in 1877, has in it a bird character who besides being very moral is there in the clock. The arbiter of time, punctuality, rules and rightness, he is also there in a different kind of reality, always heralded by ‘the faint coming sound’ and able to take the lonely child Griselda on magic adventures. The old moral tales took a long time to fade; the Cuckoo from the clock insists on Griselda’s doing as she is old, attending to her lessons and being patient. But he provides the companionship she needs until she is lonely no longer and he can turn once more to wood.  He is stern, logical and philosophical.

Margaret Blount, Animal Land

Whereas dogs as companions in children’s literature tend to be true companions, when birds fill this role they tend to be more than friends — they’re more like ‘engineers of children’s fates’.

For another example of a bird in a short story from around this period, see The Griffin and the Minor Canon. In this story the Griffin is powerful and frightening enough to be almost a winged dragon. But it’s a humorous treatment compared to The Tapestry Room. This bird is as conceited as every fabulous bird ever conceived.

BIRDS IN FAIRYTALES

Once upon a time people believed that secret messages are contained in birdsong. Certain people declared that they could understand what birds were saying. (Manifestations of mental illness?) A bird whose song contains meaning can be seen, for instance, in “The Juniper Tree”.

bird swan fairytale
The Green Forest Fairy Book by Loretta Ellen Brady Illustrated by Alice B. Preston.1920.

Wonder Tales from Many Lands written and illustrated by Katharine Pyle. 1920

Gustaf Tenggren (Swedish, 1896-1970, b. Västra Götaland County, Sweden) – Illustration from an extremely rare edition of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, 1923

DO WE LIKE BIRDS AS MUCH AS WE LIKE TO THINK?

The Phoenix and the Carpet

The Phoenix and the Carpet (1904) is the second in a trilogy of novels that begins with Five Children and It (1902).

[The] oddly moral nature of talking birds seems self-perpetuating. Bird omens and oracles are more familiar than bird friends; perhaps we love birds less than we think. Their formality and frequency in heraldic design, as crests or emblems may have something to do with it — their decorative properties give them a didactic coldness. E. Nesbit’s Phoenix, of The Phoenix and the Carpet, 1904, is hardly a cold bird, but it is, like the others, proud, vain, beautiful, condescending and extraordinarily well educated. It is in full command of every situation, and far more than a device for granting wishes, as was the Psammead who preceded him — indeed, the Carpet does this.

Margaret Blount, Animal Land

What if birds aren't singing

BIRDS IN CHILDREN’S ILLUSTRATIONS

BIRDS WEARING CLOTHES

In illustrated books featuring personified animals, even when all of the other animals are wearing clothes, birds tend to be ‘naked’, wearing only their feathers. Few illustrators manage to draw clothes on birds realistically. The main reason may be that birds, with their brightly coloured plumage, already look as if they are wearing clothes. The most obvious example of this is the penguin, who looks as if he is wearing a ‘penguin suit’. Robins also tend to look dressed in formal attire.

Here are the birds from Peter Rabbit: Although Peter is wearing the blue coat, the birds are stark naked.

lost shoe

lying down ate too much

But here’s a modern solution: This birdy is wearing glasses!

Nerdy Birdy cover

nerdy birdy wearing glasses

Just because a group accepts you, it doesn’t mean the group will accept your friends.

In my first read-through of Nerdy Birdy, written by Aaron Reynolds and illustrated by Matt Davies, I thought the story would be over when Nerdy Birdy befriends Vulture. Surprise! Nerdy Birdy accepts Vulture, but all of the seemingly inclusive nerd-birds won’t allow a non-conformer. Nerdy Birdy realizes has to leave his newly found tribe in order to keep his new friend.

Nerdy Book Club

The bird is in direct opposition to the mouse when it comes to clothes; it is rare to find mice without clothes, and equally rare to find birds wearing them. Except for the robin, who looks as if he (always he) is wearing a suit.

BIRDS IN THE ILLUSTRATIONS OF QUENTIN BLAKE

[Lauren] Child asks why [birds] are a recurring theme in [Quentin Blake’s] work. ‘They are full of possibility,’ he explains, ‘and a useful thing to put in when you need a little dot of colour for the composition.’ She wants to know why he never did a book about ‘one of my favourite pictures ever’, the ‘owl fancier’ in Blake’s Words and Pictures – a drawing of a rather scruffy man with owls at his feet. Answer: he couldn’t think of a story.

Quentin Blake and Lauren Child interview

For an example of a Quentin Blake story starring a bird, see my analysis of Loveykins, both written and illustrated by Blake.

GROUPS OF DIFFERENT KINDS OF BIRD

Sometimes birds hang out with each other, cross ‘breed’.  Below, only birds sit at the table. A squirrel and a cat sit in the background.

Yuri Vasnetsov, The Magpie, 1938

Here we have a table full of birds plus a squirrel and a hedgehog. But mostly birds.

Zdzisław Witwicki, O Wróbelku Elemelku, 1982

Perhaps the most famous tale about a group of different kinds of birds is Chicken Licken.

Roosters

Thanks to Aesop (and partly thanks to roosters themselves), the rooster as character comes pre-loaded with characteristics of vanity, bossiness, vanity and volume.

Rock-A-Bye Baby. The Saalfield Publishing Co. U.S.A. .1916.

Chickens

Chickens, on the other hand, are vulnerable and mostly stupid, although The Little Red Hen is a sensible, industrious type. When chickens are described as ‘hens‘ they are motherly.

Ducks

Whereas ducks are ho-hum and tend to leave the most disgusting droppings on your patio, no one can tell me ducklings aren’t cute. My husband was in a near car accident when the woman in front of him on the highway braked suddenly for ducklings. I bet she had read Make Way For Ducklings, the Robert McCloskey children’s classic.

Ducklings are also loyal, in a very naive sense: They are known to fall in love with whomever they first clap eyes on. The adorability of ducklings can be exploited for ironic purposes, for instance in an episode of Courage The Cowardly Dog, in which a cute duckling turns out to be evil.

Parrots

Parrots are useful in mystery plots because they talk… or rather, they repeat secrets and half-truths.

Robins

Mr. Robin (1920’s) ~ Margaret Tarrant~ English~ Children’s Book Illustrator/Artist

From-* Nature Notes of an Edwardian Lady* (1989) *originally written and illustrated as *Nature Notes* (1906) ~Edith Holden~ English~ Children’s Book Illustrator/Artist

Swans

Swans are about transformation. They are associated with rags to riches stories, the most notable being, of course, “The Ugly Duckling”.

Header painting: Henry Stacey Marks – A Select Committee 1891

More and Better by Margaret Neve (1980)

MORE AND BETTER

STORY WORLD OF MORE AND BETTER

Once upon a time there was a green valley, with a hundred farmhouse windows shining across the meadows. People were happy and prosperous there, but as the years went by the land grew poor. Many farmers left the valley for the town.

The illustrations of this picture book are based on decorative folk art, with characters facing either left or right, front or backwards and highly simplified perspective. Shading is achieved with many small dots of colour, approaching pointillism.

The folk art style is well-matched to this modern parable.

STORY STRUCTURE OF MORE AND BETTER

A parable illustrates a simple truth for teaching purposes. Unlike a fable, it features people in human bodies (rather than people in animal bodies).

Features Of A Parable

  • Simple story structure
  • Sketches setting, describes action, shows the results
  • The main character faces a moral dilemma, makes a bad decision then suffered the unintended consequences
  • The moral of a parable is not always stated outright but is nevertheless meant to be straightforward and obvious.
  • The parable is like a metaphor in that it uses concrete, perceptible phenomena to illustrate abstract ideas. A parable is a metaphor extended to the length of a complete narrative.
  • Parables don’t exist to explore ‘anomalies’. They aren’t about unusual people in ordinary circumstances; the main character will stand-in for a fairly common sort of viewpoint that the author is critiquing by writing the story.

WEAKNESS/NEED/PROBLEM

At last there was only one family left, with one child. His name was Mark.

Like many children’s stories, Mark’s psychological shortcoming is loneliness, particularly for friends his own age.

DESIRE

Like many, many children’s books, especially when the child has no siblings, Mark desires company. This desire is the natural companion of ‘loneliness’.

OPPONENT

The thing about witches in fairytale-type stories is, you can’t be sure if she’s entirely evil, mostly evil or a secret ally. The ‘gimlet eyes’ should tell us that she isn’t entirely good news. A gimlet is a tool used to make a hole in a surface, suggesting she has eye sockets with nothing inside. No soul. Otherworldly.

PLAN

This is where the story has switched from iterative to singulative time. Rather than concocting a plan to visit the witch in the forest he sort of stumbles upon it, Hansel and Gretel style.

Inside the witch’s house, the witch tells him, “Them eats as works”, and similar to Kiki in Kiki’s Delivery Service, Mark proves his mettle by chopping wood for the old woman. Incidentally, both this story and Kiki’s Delivery Service subscribe to The Ideology Of Work Ethic. This is Mark’s plan: To do a good deed for the witch and receive one in return.

BATTLE

Mark’s big struggle is with the nature of how things work: When Mark uses the contents of the little green bottle from the witch everything grows ridiculously large. This creates problems of its own.

He goes crazy with the green stuff. A similar plot line was used in Helen Palmer’s A Fish Out Of Water, in which a boy overfeeds his goldfish and the goldfish grows ridiculously huge. With these stories it is hard to get them right. I don’t think Helen Palmer managed it (and neither did her husband, Dr Seuss, who started it but couldn’t finish). The problem with this plot line is, what does the writer do once the thing has reached its most massive size? The answer is often to rely on another instance of magic, which is very much like deus ex machina, and can end up not really meaning much unless you can do something extra with it.

First the writer must make sure to create as much trouble and chaos as possible. Here the author uses images from the Bible. (The Deadly Plagues.)

As you can see, the big struggle scene in this type of story comprises most of a picture book.

 

SELF-REVELATION

Sure enough, Mark has no choice but to revisit the old woman, relying on magic to get him out of trouble. This is the problem with the Fish Out Of Water type plot — the child needs an adult to get themselves out of trouble, which can sometimes happen successfully but is not ideal in children’s books.

We can see that Mark has learned his lesson though: More does not equal better.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

            

King Ramses’ Curse Courage The Cowardly Dog:

In the “King Ramses’ Curse” episode of Courage the Cowardly Dog we have three plagues — since storytelling loves The Rule Of Three — and the plagues comprise a mixture of ancient and comically modern curses.

This horror comedy for children takes inspiration from ancient holy texts such as found in the Bible and in the Quran.

In the Bible we have The Ten Biblical Plagues, also known as The Plagues of Egypt.

In the Quran there is also mention of a plague and it’s pretty similar except it happens all at once.

king-ramses-curse
Ramses II ruled as pharaoh, or king, of ancient Egypt from 1279 to 1213 BC, the second longest reign in Egyptian history. He was the third king of the 19th dynasty, during the New Kingdom. Ramses, also spelled Ramesses or Rameses, was a highly popular ruler, and under him Egypt enjoyed great prosperity.

STORY STRUCTURE OF KING RAMSES’ CURSE

 

WEAKNESS/NEED

Muriel and Eustace are obliviously going on with their lives inside their house in the middle of Nowhere.

For the first time I notice the Bagges have a moose head on the wall. This will be used later as a sort of indoor fountain, when water gushes out of its mouth.
For the first time I notice the Bagges have a moose head on the wall. This will be used later as a sort of indoor fountain, when water gushes out of its mouth.

Courage sees a crime happening right outside his window but is unable to stop Eustace from getting himself involved.

To go back a bit, this episode opens with the story of the baddies. Two creatures (cats? mice?) have stolen an ancient engraved stone tablet. In a scene out of a heist movie a helicopter (or something similar) is on their trail. There’s an ominous black trail following them. We later realise this is a swarm of locusts.

thieves-in-the-car

In a scene out of (and possibly inspired by) Fargo (1996) the creatures bury the stone near the side of the road. They’re being terrorised by this thing following them and will come back for it later.

thieves-bury-the-treasure

pan shot of the Bagges' house
pan shot of the Bagges’ house

The camera pans to reveal that all this has happened, quite literally, outside Eustace and Muriel’s house.

We never hear from these criminals again. They are a classic case of a McGuffin in storytelling. They exist only to get the story going and then they disappear.

DESIRE

Courage wants to know what’s going on outside his front window. In typical pet dog fashion, he takes great interest in whatever’s going on outside while his owners go about their own day obliviously.

courage-looking-outside

digs-up-the-tablet

Eustace wants to be rich. Not because his needs are particularly great, but because he likes the power that goes along with it.

 

OPPONENT

We have already seen the supernatural opponent — it appeared first as a curlicued shadow across the bonnet of the thieves’ car.

We see it more fully after Eustace decides to keep the tablet for himself.

supernatural-opponent

The much weaker and more more comical opponent here is Eustace.

eustace-dismisses-the-dog
Eustace refuses to believe the tablet is anything other than rubbish.
courage-transmogrifies
Even when Courage transmogrifies into a mummy, Eustace is not even looking.

PLAN

Courage has seen the thieves bury something so he brings it inside to show Muriel and Eustace. He also knows that there’s something fishy and scary about the tablet because etchings keep disappearing from it. A screenshot serves to foreshadow what’s going to happen in the episode, though the viewer doesn’t really have time to examine them.

courage-with-the-tablet

It just so happens that on the TV there is a million dollar reward for the return of this ancient stone. Eustace plans to hand it in, collect his reward and buy garden chairs.

Another character turns up. In the Courage stories we often end up meeting the characters who have first appeared on TV. This man is here to collect donations for some archeological society. Donations of a million dollars mean a free tote bag. It wasn’t necessary for the plot for this guy to turn up but it fleshes out the story by adding another opportunity for interaction and also a good gag about charity culture. The other thing that happens when a character off the Bagges’ TV turns up in real life: The line between TV and reality is blurred, or perhaps it is demolished, in a metafictive sense. The audience is very aware that this is a story.

tv-guy

archeologist

tote-bag

BATTLE

If Eustace won’t give the tablet back (and we know he won’t), the supernatural being will initiate three plagues.

  1. The house fills up with water. (A flood.) Courage saves the day by swimming from the attic to the basement and pulling out the plug. (The house has comically been turned into a bathtub.)
  2. The house fills with muzak. Again Courage saves everyone by finding the gramophone and smashing it with his baseball bat.
  3. A plague of locusts heads straight for the house. There’s no way Courage can stop this one.

flood

pulling-out-the-plug

muzak

courage-smashes-gramophone

After a big struggle scene in which Eustace is swinging Courage around,  Courage returns the tablet to the supernatural being outside. Eustace does this, but when he thinks everything is over, and the being has run ‘out of ammo’ having used up his three plagues, he retrieves it. This time the locusts return and eat up half the house leaving it — as baddies often do throughout the series — in a completely unliveable state.

courage-trying-to-get-the-tablet

Meanwhile, another big struggle scene is going on in the kitchen. I assume Muriel is going on a baking frenzy as a way of coping with stress. Both Muriel and the kitchen and also the house get more and more frazzled/destroyed as the montage goes on. Muriel’s signature weapon is her rolling pin, so the oversized rolling pin is a symbol of big struggle.

Notice, too, that she is frying fish. I’m guessing this is a Christian symbol.

The view is through the removal of the so-called ‘fourth wall’. We don’t normally see Muriel’s kitchen from this point of view.

baking-frenzy

muriel-in-the-kitchen

muriel-pot-boiling-over

SELF-REVELATION

There is no helping Eustace, whose plans for new garden chairs have moved on to include spark plugs and other material goods.

eustace-clutches-tablet

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

We have a wonderful high angle shot of the house, which is now a bomb site.

house-destroyed

Eustace — being his usual avaricious self — has refused to hand over the tablet and is now entombed somewhere in Egypt. Muriel wonders where he’s got to.

eustace-inside-the-tomb

close-up