Nymphs and their Habitat

WHAT ARE NYMPHS?

Nymphs are minor female nature deities from Ancient Greek folklore. Like Pan, they serve as personifications of nature but unlike Pan, who can turn up anywhere (e.g. in The Wind In The Willows or as a character in The Secret Garden), nymphs are typically tied to a specific place. They are usually depicted by horny heterosexual male artists as beautiful maidens.

ARE NYMPHS GODS?

Well, they are not necessarily immortal, but are thought to live much longer than humans. In this respect they’re like the djinn, or like characters such as Noah from the Bible, who also lived an extremely long time, apparently?

Some nymphs are depicted with wings; sometimes nymph wings look like cherub wings, suggesting they can fly close to the Heavens, and perhaps occupy a liminal space between Heaven and Earth.

More similar to Greek gods than to monotheistic Gods, nymphs sit at all points along a morality spectrum: Some are simply beautiful and laze around next to rivers as a beautiful addition to nature while others have far too much sex and encourage men to do very bad sex things which will send them to Hell.

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The Stranger by Chris Van Allsburg Analysis

The Stranger by Chris Van Allsburg cover

The Stranger (1986) is the seventh picture book written and illustrated by popular American storyteller Chris Van Allsburg.

This picture book provokes as many questions as it answers, and reminds me of the Australian picture book written and illustrated by Shaun Tan in which a tiny ‘exchange student’ arrives in an Australian home, he admires his new surroundings, and then he departs. The Stranger utilises a similar plot, though it asks us to consider different things. Eric asks us to question what we consider normal about our own culture. The Stranger encourages us to take a closer look at our surroundings, and in aid of that, teaches audiences to close-read a text. This picture book is therefore popular with teachers working on inference skills.

The inciting incident happens on the first page when a young girl’s father runs over a man on the road. At first the father thinks he’s hit a deer, then he is worried he’s killed a human. The pictures reveal that the stranger and the father look almost identical; the man has come face to face with his own mortality, and that’s just for starters.

Running someone over on the highway, meeting yourself face to face… this feels like the fodder of American urban legend; many of those are set on highways. The story gets even more urban-legendy when the doctor’s broken thermometer suggests the man may be a ghost.

PRE-TEACHING THE STRANGER

QUESTIONS
  • When you were little did you used to think objects (or toys) were alive?
  • In stories, what is it called when an object comes to life?
  • List stories about strangers who come into the house. Did the strangers of these stories turn out to be good, bad or somewhere inbetween?
What is the difference between anthropomorphism and personification?

Both personification and anthropomorphization assert intangible human characteristics.  anthropomorphization imposes physical or tangible human characteristics onto the subject to suggest an embodiment of the human form.

(See here for more on anthropomorphism and personification.)

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Symbolism of Coats and Cloaks

The cloak is the garment of Kings, and the King is a symbolic archetype. Fathers and Kings are basically the same archetype in traditional stories. (Fathers are the kings of the home.)

Andrew Lloyd-Weber’s musical Joseph and the Techni-colour Dreamcoat is based on this Biblical story. Artists have taken the concept of the colourful coat and taken it to its extreme. What’s the most colourful coat you can possibly imagine? Why, it’s psychedelic, of course.

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What Is Cosmic Horror?

Do humans see reality as it really is? This is a fundamental question behind cosmic horror and is one philosophers and deep thinkers still ponder today. If H.P. Lovecraft had been born 100 years later he’d be fascinated with theories such as proposed by Donald Hoffman that humans have evolved to see only a veneer of reality, not reality itself.

COSMIC HORROR: A SUBCATEGORY OF A SUBCATEGORY

fiction > fantasy > supernatural fantasy > gothic horror/fantasy > psychological horror > cosmic horror

Supernatural fantasy gathered steam around 1887.

Cosmic horror is a subgenre of Gothic narrative from this Golden Age of Supernatural Fiction. This Golden Age was drawing to a close by the start of the 1910s. Standout examples of supernatural fiction include:

  • The first volumes of M. R. James’s ghost stories
  • Algernon Blackwood short stories and novella such as “The Wendigo” (Audio version: Part One, Part Two)
  • Bram Stoker’s Dracula
  • Arthur Machen’s “White People
  • Henry James’s novella The Turn of the Screw is still popular with modern audiences due to over 30 TV adaptations, most recently The Turning and The Haunting Of Bly Manor. Before that the best known was probably The Innocents (1961), starring Deborah Kerr, a screenplay by Truman Capote and John Mortimer.

“The ambiguity of The Turn of the Screw goes way beyond ‘are the ghosts real or not?’,”  says Dara Downey, a lecturer in English at Trinity College Dublin and editor of The Irish Journal of Gothic and Horror Studies. “Once you start reading it, you realise that nothing in it is really clear – who the governess is, where she’s writing from, what she sees, why she thinks what she thinks about the children, what happens at the end, what we’re meant to take from the story, what those men in the room hearing the story think of it, and so on. 

Neil Armstrong, BBC

I have heard writers say the descriptor ‘American Gothic’ is pretty much useless because it seems to describe everything literary written in the American South, ever, and Armstrong seems to be using it here to describe an American strain of cosmic horror:

“In the 1908 Preface to the New York edition, James says that he wants to make the reader ‘think the evil, make him think it for himself’. So, in other words, he never tells us what the ghosts might be doing or saying to the children, or what happened in the house before the governess got there, so we project our own worst nightmares onto it. The fact that James was writing around the same time as Freud makes it so tempting to read something sexual into it, but really it could be anything. The book is part of a long tradition of American gothic from the 16th Century, building on the Puritans’ fears of devils, the unknown, their own sins, witchcraft, possession, ‘Indians’ in the woods, and so on. I think this makes the book perfect for continual reimagining – each era will emphasise what it most fears.”

Neil Armstrong, BBC

H.P. LOVECRAFT

The name most synonymous with cosmic horror is H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937), with an entire literary movement named after him. But Lovecraft has one of those sad, starving artist biographies. He lived in poverty and died in obscurity at the young age of 47. He never lived to see how influential he’d become on 20th century literature and beyond. Lovecraft is best known for the following:

Cosmic horror was heavily influenced by the Golden Age of Supernatural Fiction. We know this for sure because Lovecraft himself said he was influenced by James, Machen and Blackwood.

Lovecraft was very interested in certain tropes. ‘Common human laws and emotions have no significance in the vast cosmos at large.’ Lovecraft also questioned his Christian background at a very young age, counting Jesus as mythological as Santa Clause. For his stories, Lovecraft became far more interested in ancient myth than in Bible stories.

H.P. Lovecraft was also influenced by the nineteenth century art of Gustave Doré.

One unfortunate aspect of Lovecraft was his enduring racism. Lovecraft saw people of colour as the monsters, no different from the unknowable cosmic horror villain. Lovecraft couldn’t understand people different from himself, and didn’t want to. Ironically, to Native Americans, white people were the cosmic horror. Yet Lovecraft put himself imaginatively in the shoes of the victims.

COSMIC HORROR AND LITERARY IMPRESSIONISM

The two movements share something big in common: It’s impossible for any single person to have a handle on veridical reality. There are techniques used by the literary Impressionists which emphasise this theme (e.g. parallactic viewpoints). Literary Impressionist art asks an audience to reconsider their own viewpoints, and accept that there’s always more to a story than our own individual point of view.

Cosmic horror kicks this aspect up to horror levels. It can be terrifying to realise you’ve been very, very wrong about the entire nature of being.

Both movements happened around the time people’s minds were starting to be expanded by big, mind-blowing advances in science. The more we know about the universe, the smaller we feel.

FEATURES OF COSMIC HORROR

The literary movement is known as ‘cosmicism’.

What makes cosmic horror ‘horror’? Cosmic horror typically makes lighter use of suspense techniques than other genres such as thriller and even other kinds of horror. What replaces suspense techniques to create narrative drive?

Well, cosmic horror traditionally makes use of its own kind of suspense, akin to the picture book technique of leaving the scary thing off the stage of the page, revealing to the viewer only an ominous shadow. To modern audiences, however, when a cosmic horror viewpoint character is so overwhelmed by what they’ve seen that they’re rendered speechless, this can feel like a cop out.

In cosmic horror, it’s all about the physiological response. Good horror creates a sensation known as ‘horripilation’ in its audience. This is the feeling that the hair on the back of your neck is standing on end. Cosmic horror achieves this by asking its audience to feel, if only for a moment, that there is way more out there than we can ever know. Humans are vulnerable, ignorant and at the mercy of greater forces. But how, then, is cosmic horror different from psychological horror more generally?

It’s partly in the themes. Thematically, cosmic horror exists to subvert matters of value. Whatever humans value is no longer valuable in the world of cosmic horror. Conversely, whatever humans ignore is actually the most important. (Also terrifying.) The message will be this: humans have got everything wrong.

For this reason the picture books of Shaun Tan count as cosmic horror. The Lost Thing is a perfect example of a weird world which exists just beyond the visible world of adults. Across children’s literature, children are able to see what the adults cannot, until they age out of it, or learn to harness their childlike view of reality, unencumbered by the slog of capitalism and consumerism.

He Paints What He Sees, illustration by Virgil Finlay
He Paints What He Sees, illustration by Virgil Finlay

Movies that have been called cosmic horror. In each of these examples, human order falls apart simply due to the existence of something much bigger than ourselves. In some plots the humans have gone looking for it; in others the ‘beast’ has been awoken. That said, if each of these films count as cosmic horror, the definition has been expanded, or the nature of modern cosmic horror has changed.

  • Alien
  • Annihilation
  • Cabin In The Woods
  • Event Horizon
  • The Ritual

Cosmic horror remains popular because we’re still dismounting from ‘The Great Chain Of Being’ notion that humans exist at the top of the animal hierarchy. If you’ve lived your whole life thinking God created the world for you, then it can be terrifying to ponder an alternative that no one gives a hoot about you. You are but a speck in the universe.

CHAIN OF BEING: An elaborate cosmological model of the universe common in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. The Great Chain of Being was a permanently fixed hierarchy with the Judeo-Christian God at the top of the chain and inanimate objects like stones and mud at the bottom. Intermediate beings and objects, such as angels, humans, animals, and plants, were arrayed in descending order of intelligence, authority, and capability between these two extremes. The Chain of Being was seen as designed by God. The idea of the Chain of Being resonates in art, politics, literature, cosmology, theology, and philosophy throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance. It takes on particular complexity because different parts of the Chain were thought to correspond to each other. 

Literary Terms and Definitions

Cosmic horror asks us to consider our own mortality, but also our own reason for being, and the futility of jostling for place in the human hierarchy.

A theme that runs through classic cosmic horror: cults. This is partly why modern commentators consider The Ritual an exampel of cosmic horror.

Dreams in the Witch House Artwork for the H. P. Lovecraft Story by Harry O. Morris, 1972
Dreams in the Witch House Artwork for the H. P. Lovecraft Story by Harry O. Morris, 1972

“Little Runmo” (2019) is an example of cosmic horror. The ‘life’ of a side-scrolling computer game is peak expendability.

You can find cosmic horror techniques in children’s literature. Take the following example from Carrie’s War by Nina Bawden, a middle grade novel from the early 1970s. Two children have been sent from London to the country to provide safety during the war, Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe style. There’s a patch of woods which have a very druidy feeling about them. On the way to collect a goose one day:

She couldn’t explain it. It was such a strange feeling. As if there was something here, something waiting. Deep in the trees or deep in the earth. Not a ghost — nothing so simple. Whatever it was had no name. Something old and huge and nameless, Carrie thought, and started to tremble.

Carrie’s War, Nina Bawden

CHARACTER SHORTCOMING

In the character set up, the main character will have some kind of shortcoming and they will typically be wrong about something. In Cosmic Horror, ‘being wrong about something’ is central. There are monsters; the main character does not believe in monsters. Whatever the main character is wrong about equals what people in general are wrong about. Cosmic horror says, “The mundane will cloud your view of reality. Pay attention and you’ll see what’s really there.”

Aside from this, the main character of cosmic horror is the Every Man or (very rarely) the Every Woman. They function as a viewpoint character. They arrive to the stage (or page) in statu nascendi. Sometimes when writers create characters they want to make them as relatable as possible in a short space of time. They’ll be saving cats, suffering injustices, reacting in relatable ways. The viewpoint characters of cosmic horror aren’t written in this way. If they happen to be relatable it’s precisely because we know very little about them. The story uses human viewpoint characters as the story sees fit. (We don’t really want to fall in love with the viewpoint characters of cosmic horror because they may not live to see the story out…)

In cosmic horror, the world is more important than the character. In transgression horror the mask comes off the character; in cosmic horror the mask comes off the world.

By the way, in the early cosmic horror tales sometimes the viewpoint character would be one removed: This story happened to my friend. Now I’m visiting him in the lunatic asylum. He went mad and is unable to recount the story himself. See: Go Mad From The Revelation at TV Tropes.

DESIRE

Whatever the viewpoint character thought they were going to be doing with their day gets rescheduled when they come across something even more horrifying than they’d imagined.

OPPONENT

The web of opponents works the same as in any horror there will probably be infighting between the humans, with all their different desires and weaknesses, and this infighting pales in comparison to whatever master force reigns supreme.

The big bad evil force is your typical horror villain pure evil. Much Western horror makes use of Christian symbolism and thought, with the rituals of Catholicism. Although rarely explicit, if we think about this, any evil manifested in human concepts of hell can’t have existed prior to religion.

The overwhelming force of Cosmic Horror is sometimes called an ‘Eldritch Abomination‘. Eldritch is an English word used to describe something otherworldly, weird, ghostly, or uncanny. In contemporary culture, the term is closely associated with the Lovecraftian horror.

This is where cosmic horror is a bit different from other types of stories. The Eldritch Abomination in cosmic horror predates religion and even predates humans. It’s probably not even from this world, and may come from a different dimension entirely. Cosmic horror feels to me like an attempt to reject religion by writers who were nonetheless steeped in religious views of the world. As much as they try to nihilistically reject the gods, their fiction keeps coming back to godlike, omniscient, all-powerful… well… gods. Malevolent gods, but gods all the same. (The ancient gods weren’t all that great.) Of all the ancient forces, they are quire like the Djinn, who have been around for far longer than humans have. The Djinn can even fly between solar systems, so their arena is way more massive than ours, as well.

In any case, the humans can’t fight back against this kind of villain. The villain is way too ancient and powerful, and we can’t even understand their motivations, so they’re impossible to foil.

Hannes Bok for "Pickman's Model", by H.P.Lovecraft
Hannes Bok for “Pickman’s Model” by H.P.Lovecraft

CTHULHU MYTHOS (also spelled Cthulu and Kutulu, pronounced various ways): Strongly influential in pulp science fiction and early twentieth-century horror stories, the Cthulhu mythos revolves around a pantheon of malign alien beings worshipped as gods by half-breed cultists. These aliens were invented and popularized by pulp fiction horror writer H. P. Lovecraft. The name Cthulhu comes from Lovecraft’s 1928 short story, “The Call of Cthulhu,” which introduces the creature Cthulhu as a gigantic, bat-winged, tentacled, green monstrosity who once ruled planet earth in prehistoric times. Currently in a death-like state of hibernation, it now awaits an opportunity to rise from the underwater city of R’lyeh and plunge the earth once more into darkness and terror. August Derleth later coined the term “Cthulhu mythos” to describe collectively the settings, themes, and alien beings first imagined by Lovecraft but later adapted by pulp fiction authors like Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E. Howard, Robert Bloch, Henry Kuttner, and Brian Lumley. Some common elements, motifs, and characters of the mythos include the following:

  • The Great Old Ones,” an assortment of ancient, horrible, powerful (and often unpronounceable) deities/aliens including Cthulhu, Azathoth, Nyarlathotep, Shub-Niggurath, Hastur, Dagon, and Yog-Sothoth.
  • The Elder Gods/Elder Things,” A term used interchangeably with “The Great Old Ones” by Lovecraft, but used by August Derleth to refer to a separate group of aliens at war with the evil “Great Old Ones.” They serve as a deus ex machina in several short stories of the Cthulhu mythos.
  • Servitor races, i.e., lesser alien species that worship and/or act as slaves to The Great Old Ones, including the shape-changing shoggoths, the intelligent fungus crabs (Mi-go) living on Pluto, the tentacled star-spawn, and the aquatic race of “Deep Ones” living near Devil’s Reef in “The Shadow Over Innsmouth.”
  • The imaginary town of Arkham, New England, used as a setting, along with nearby towns like Dunwich and Innsmouth along the Miskatonic river valley.
  • The theme of insanity (often protagonists suffer mental breakdowns merely by viewing one of the Old Ones).
  • The appearance of forbidden books of ancient and dangerous lore, such as the fictional NecronomiconThe Book of Eibon, and Unaussprechlichen Kulten.

from Literary Terms and Definitions

DER ROTE VOGEL FELIX (1975) Marie Sarraz fantasy landscape with snail and tentacles
DER ROTE VOGEL FELIX (1975) Marie Sarraz fantasy landscape with snail and tentacles. Anything with tentacles tends to attract the descriptor ‘Lovecraftian’.

The Kraken is another well-known Lovecraftian opponent. The first description of a kraken (giant squid) reached England in 1755. According to newspapers, one washed up on the coast of Orkney in 1808.

N.C.-Wyeth-illustrations-from-The-Anthology-of-Childrens-Literature-Kraken-1940.-Golden-Age-Comic-Book-Stories
N.C. Wyeth. The Anthology of Children’s Literature, 1940. Golden Age Comic Book Stories.

PLAN

Once the viewpoint character realises there’s something fishy going on, they’ll want to find out more. So the plan will be around that.

STRUGGLE SEQUENCE

Spatial horror is a set of tricks storytellers use to make the audience feel bodily discomfort. As the terror progresses and enters the struggle phase the spatial horror intensifies.

Cosmic horror does not typically involve gore. Cosmic horror is a subcategory of psychological horror.

ANAGNORISIS

This has to be the scariest part of the story. The best of the best cosmic horror stories create a revelation in the reader as well as in the main character, and the reader should feel the whole world looks different, at least for a moment.

However, that poor sucker the viewpoint character doesn’t have the privilege of distance and rather than experiencing life-changing epiphany, goes crazy. The ‘going crazy’ part is a standard fixture of cosmic horror but think widely; they may lose their senses, they may (these days) suffer PTSD. In any case, the human mind isn’t equipped to process the experience.

NEW SITUATION

In many well-known tales of Cosmic Horror, the main character dies at the end. This is partly why you don’t want the audience getting too attached to them.

Cosmic horror is difficult to write because it’s hard to awe a modern audience with a completely new idea. However, the subgenre makes for excellent parody. (Horror and comedy are a great genre blend.) Welcome To Night-Vale is a popular parody of cosmic horror, released as a podcast in the format of local radio. The Hitch-hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy can be considered parody of cosmic horror as well.

RELATED TERMS

Cosmic Irony: An alternative term for situational irony, especially when connected to a fatalistic or pessimistic take on life.

Cosmic Justice: A riff on ‘poetic justice’, in which natural consequences for an action take place in a story, in place of retributive justice meted out by humans, or gods.

FOR FURTHER INVESTIGATION

Episode 65 of the Our Opinions Are Correct podcast gives us all permission to skip Lovecraft. Really, you don’t need to read him unless you’re a completionist. We’re Officially Done with Lovecraft and Campbell

Lemon girl young adult novella

READ AT MY OTHER BLOG

A Brief History of Road Trip Stories

road trip

Road trip stories are basically mythic journeys. Usually, a group of friends or family are travelling together instead of alone. As well as meeting a succession of opponents along the way they argue among themselves. The Minotaur opponent who comes in from outside either binds them together or (in a tragedy) drives them apart. Occasionally a single character embarks upon a road trip, such as the butler in Remains of the Day. This man has no family, and that is the point. But characters from his past travel ‘with’ him in the car; they are there in his memory. This story necessarily relies heavily on flashback.

Sometimes the ‘road’ of a road trip is actually a river. (In stories, a river can function symbolically as a road.) In an American (or Australian) road trip story especially, hotels and motels may play a significant role within the setting.

Having apparently graduated from their secret schools, today’s YA-novel teens are all headed to the stars on colonial trips… when they’re not on road trips, but same thing, right?

@RogerReads
On The Road To London, a plate from the 1914 'Chatterbox Annual', myth
On The Road To London, a plate from the 1914 ‘Chatterbox Annual’, myth
Continue reading “A Brief History of Road Trip Stories”

Story Structure: Anagnorisis

Anagnorisis is a moment in a work of fiction when a character makes a critical discovery. Even for plotters rather than pantsers, this is the part of writing that often emerges in the process of storycrafting.

Aristotle thought a lot about how stories are structured and noticed that stories typically contain reversal and recognition. Reversal often means something different to storytellers these days, but Aristotle was talking about a main character’s reversal of fortune (e.g. in a rags to riches tale). By ‘recognition’, Aristotle meant the moment when a main character realises what has taken place (with horror or delight). The concept of anagnorisis has been around for a long time, and complete, satisfying stories still require this step.

Some people call it an epiphany, especially when talking about short stories.

Others call it a ‘leap’, as in a ‘leap of understanding’. Teachers talk of ‘aha moments’, scientists of the Eureka effect.

Oftentimes in story it is far more gentle than that, or happens fleetingly.

If you’re writing a piece of fiction, I’d urge you not to try to show anything—instead, try to discover something.

Ethan Canin

What is the purpose of writing? For me personally, it is really to explain the mystery of life, and the mystery of life includes, of course, the personal, the political, the forces that make us what we are while there’s another force from inside battling to make us something else.

Nadine Gordimer

The concept of anagnorisis links to a long human history of religious morality. Not surprisingly, storytelling is influenced  by this way of viewing humanity, even in a non-religious modern story. The more common term ‘revelation’ is similar to the 2016 word ‘woke‘ — while it has its origin in religion, the concept is far wider than that.

Religions also differ in how they value personal epiphanies. LDS is a faith that places particularemphasis on feelings as a basis for knowing what to do or what decisions to make.

I had a grace descend down on me.

Bill Henrickson, Big Love

“Then came the most exquisite moment of her whole life passing a stone urn with flowers in it. Sally stopped; picked a flower; kissed her on the lips. The whole world might have turned upside down! The others disappeared; there she was alone with Sally. And she felt that she had been given a present, wrapped up, and told just to keep it, not to look at it — a diamond, something infinitely precious, wrapped up, which, as they walked (up and down, up and down), she uncovered, or the radiance burnt through, the revelation, the religious feeling!”

Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway

THE RELIGIOUS ORIGIN OF REVELATION

Epiphany is a religious term and refers to the Twelfth Day of Christmas.

Religious thought from around the world has shaped our storytelling. A story which includes a anagnorisis is therefore a universal story.

Millions of people never analyze themselves. Mentally they are mechanical products of the factory of their environment, preoccupied with breakfast, lunch, and dinner, working and sleeping, and going here and there to be entertained. They don’t know what or why they are seeking, nor why they never realize complete happiness and lasting satisfaction. By evading self-analysis, people go on being robots, conditioned by their environment.  

Paramahansa Yogananda (Indian guru and yogi)

Americans and Christians in particular will be familiar with The Redemption Story, which has its own specific story structure.

In movies, anagnorises are often shot on a hill, or in some other high place like the top floor of a building.  

Wuthering Heights, 1965 by Robert McGinnis
Wuthering Heights, 1965 by Robert McGinnis

The film Contact features Jodi Foster sitting in an elevated spot in the desert at the end of the movie — she now has a much better view on the world and its place in the universe.

In Charlotte’s Web, for instance, the part where Wilbur gains his understanding of death occurs with the part where Fern is at the top of the Ferris wheel.

For more on this, see The Symbolism of Altitude. It all comes from Moses On The Mount, of course. Or maybe the Bible stories are based on much, much older storytelling conventions. Maybe there’s something about being up high which allows humans to see things differently. (Cats get it.)

True self-analysis is the greatest art of progress.

Paramahansa Yogananda (Indian guru and yogi)

The following demonstrates the close connection between death and enlightenment:

Since our consignment to heaven or hell was to be decided at the hour of death, the ‘good death’ became increasingly significant. Early Victorians idealised the notion of an end slow enough to give the dying the chance to say goodbye to their families and to prepare themselves spiritually for this all important moment. Families would cluster around bedsides, hoping to catch profound last words of their loved ones or witness religious raptures before death. Heavily edited stories of death scenes were expounded in Evangelical memoirs and journals, highlighting the dramatic battle of the dying in the days before death. The reality however was less romantic, leading many to comment on how rare that much romanticised rapture was. Indeed by the late Victorian period people had largely discarded these notions, hoping instead for quick, painless deaths over melodramatic, drawn out affairs.

Victorians and the Art of Dying

THE EMOTION OF AWE

The emotion most associated with the experience of anagnorisis is ‘awe’, which psychologists have been working to understand. According to Andy Tix, the transformative kind of ‘awe’ looks like this:

  1. It overwhelms individuals with something that transcends their current knowledge or understanding of the world.
  2. It immerses them in the process of trying to accommodate what previously was known with what currently is being experienced.
  3. It involves feelings of smallness or humility in the presence of something greater.
  4. It results in a profound change in thinking or behaviour, even in self-definition.
  5. The subject retains a vivid long-term memory of the event.
  6. Awe occurs very infrequently, maybe even only a few times in life.

ANAGNORISIS EXISTS ON A CONTINUUM

 
Just as there are strong desires and low-level desires, sometimes a character has a Eureka Moment (that’s what TV Tropes calls it), and at other times they realise something, sort of, in a nebulous kind of way.
 
Genre stories tend to have a stronger anagnorisis than more literary/lyrical stories, which can get away with revelations far more subtle. In some types of lyrical short stories the character almost has a revelation, then ignores it. Examples are plentiful in Katherine Mansfield’s modernist stories, but also in modern ones, such as Helen Simpson’s “In-flight Entertainment“.

THE ANTI EPIPHANY

Sometimes in a story there is opportunity for an epiphany, but the character suppresses the truth just revealed. Some people call this phase of story the antiepiphany. It often looks like a return to the quotidian mundanity of life.

Short stories don’t have time to dwell in the antiepiphany phrase. In his novels, Joyce takes his characters back to the mundane, but in his short stories end with the epiphany. Likewise, Mansfield doesn’t have time in a short story to show us the ordinary life Laura has woken up to the day after “The Garden Party”. 
 
In some stories, the character has no revelation but the reader does, on their behalf. Annie Proulx likes those ones.

There is only so much revealing one can do. For every self-revelation, there has to be a self-concealment. 

from an interview between Susan Sontag and Geoffrey Movius

Psychologists call it denialism.

As Richard Sennett has argued: “In practising social civility, you keep silent about things you know clearly but which you should not and do not say.”

Just as we can suppress some aspects of ourselves in our self-presentation to others, so we can do the same to ourselves in acknowledging or not acknowledging what we desire. Most of the time, we spare ourselves from the torture of recognising our baser yearnings. But when does this necessary private self-deception become harmful? When it becomes public dogma. In other words: when it becomes denialism.

Denialism: what drives people to reject the truth from The Guardian

But Mole stood still a moment, held in thought. As one wakened suddenly from a beautiful dream, who struggles to recall it, but can recapture nothing but a dim sense of the beauty in it, the beauty! Till that, too, fades away in its turn, and the dreamer bitterly accepts the hard, cold waking and all its penalties.”

Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows

ANAGNORISIS IN MYTH

In Greek mythology, a phoenix is a long-lived bird that is cyclically regenerated or born again.

Associated with the Sun, a phoenix obtains new life by arising from the ashes of its predecessor. According to some sources, the phoenix dies in a show of flames and combustion, although there are other sources that claim that the legendary bird dies and simply decomposes before being born again.

Wikipedia

At the beginning of 2018, Uma Thurman opened up to the media about her experiences with Weinstein and Tarantino. Following in from this, Jessica Chastain said the following in a series of tweets:   I keep imagining Tarantino spitting in Uma’s face and strangling her with a chain for KILL BILL. How many images of women in media do we celebrate that showcase abuse? When did this become normalized ‘entertainment’? When violence against women is used as a plot device to make the characters stronger then we have a problem. It is not empowering to be beaten and raped, yet so many films make it their ‘phoenix’ moment for women. We don’t need abuse in order to be powerful. We already are. 

Jessica Chastain

Chastain’s phrase ‘phoenix moment‘ is a useful one. I consider this a subcategory of the anagnorisis phase in storytelling, and one which is highly problematic when used time and again with certain groups of people. It’s not the phoenix moment itself which is the problem, but the sequence of abuse scenes leading up to that moment.

In the wake of the Australian bushfires of 2019-20, the media talked also about ‘Chernobyl moment‘, as in, will this be Australia’s Chernobyl moment when it comes to understanding the full impact of climate change?

ANAGNORISIS CAN BE THE ENTIRE POINT OF A STORY

Especially lyrical short stories, which often present the mundane in a new way.

The daily papers talk of everything except the daily. The papers annoy me, they teach me nothing. What they recount doesn’t concern me, doesn’t ask me questions and doesn’t answer the questions I ask or would like to ask.

What’s really going on, what we’re experiencing, the rest, all the rest, where is it? How should we take account of, question, describe what happens every day and recurs every day: the banal, the quotidian, the obvious, the common, the ordinary, the infra-ordinary, the background noise, the habitual?

To question the habitual. But that’s just it, we’re habituated to it. We don’t question it, it doesn’t question us, it doesn’t seem to pose a problem, we live it without thinking, as if it carried within it neither questions nor answers, as if it weren’t th bearer of any information. This is no longer even conditioning, it’s anaesthesia. We sleep through our lives in a dreamless sleep. … What’s needed perhaps is finally to found our own anthropology, one that will speak about us, will look in ourselves for what for so long we’ve been pillaging from others. Not the exotic any more, but the endotic.

To question what seems so much a matter of course that we’ve forgotten its origns. To rediscover something of the astonishment that Jules Verne or his readers may have felt faced with an apparatus capable of reproducing or transporting sounds. For that astonishment existed, along with thousands of others, and it’s they which have moulded us.

George Perec

DIFFERENT GENRES HAVE THEIR OWN KINDS OF SELF-REVELATIONS

As one example, romance genres require that at some point the main character/s realise they are in love. This love is usually of the romantic kind. (There are other kinds.)

Those epic big screen lip-locks aren’t just selling mouth pleasures, they’re selling Moments of Realization, too, when (at last!) everybody knows for sure that they’re in a love story.

Captain Awkward, who also does a great job of describing how a typical fictional romantic plot can unhelpfully shape our expectations of our relationships in real life.

ANAGNORISIS IN OTHER FORMS OF STORYTELLING

In the world of short stories, this moment is often called an epiphany, a Joycean epiphany, or the epiphanic moment. The ‘A-ha Moment’. However, these other terms often feel too strong for many types of story. As mentioned above, the Literary Impressionists such as Katherine Mansfield distinguished their form of storytelling by rejecting the epiphany, instead writing under the idea that people don’t really change all that much. Even when opportunities for change arise, characters often fail to heed the warnings, and keep plodding on as before — to their own detriment.

  • Walter White has the opportunity to do the right thing and hand himself in when Hank discovers who he really is. But he decides to run instead. He does have a slow, hard-earned self-revelation, though. He acknowledges that he hasn’t been doing it all for his family, but for himself.
  • Despite not changing much, Don Draper in Mad Men does face a number of moral dilemmas, mostly centred upon people finding out who he really is. He decides to continue living as Don Draper, but has regular lapses back into his old, less privileged life. When Don has his Joycean epiphany, that’s when the storytellers decided to leave him. (I imagine he becomes insufferable after that.)
  • In Big Love, Barb, as  first wife, has already faced a number of massive moral decisions at the beginning of the story. Backstory eventually reveals to the audience that Barb had the opportunity to leave Bill when he took on his second wife. Barb is constantly tested, especially when her natal family and her church reject her, leaving her isolated from the rest of the world. The most noticeable character arc in Big Love is the character of Margine, who is so young that she is the main character in a coming-of-age story. At the beginning she is a teenager (revealed in a later season to be younger than initially depicted), but in the end Margine is a self-actualised woman, and makes the best of her polygamist situation to live what is actually a pretty feminist life.

But a complete narrative does seem to require something in the anagnorisis category. Even when the characters learn absolutely nothing, perhaps because they are irredeemably stupid or terrible, the audience needs to get something out of the story.

Dan Harmon outlines the basic skeleton of any good story:

  1. A character is in a zone of comfort (BUT THEY DO NEED A SHORTCOMING)
  2. But they want something (DESIRE)
  3. They enter an unfamiliar situation (OPPONENT)
  4. Adapt to it (PLAN)
  5. Get what they wanted (OR NOT, IN A TRAGEDY)
  6. Pay a heavy price for it (BIG STRUGGLE)
  7. Then return to their familiar situation (IN HOME-AWAY-HOME STORIES, WHICH NOT ALL OF THEM ARE)
  8. Having changed. (NEW SITUATION)

TYPES OF ANAGNORISIS

CHARACTER LEARNS SOMETHING ABOUT THE PLOT

This is called a plot reveal. This will surprise the reader if not the character. Annie Proulx’s “In The Pit” is a good example of this kind of proxy-Anagnorisis. In a twist ending you’ll always have a big reveal (possibly with delayed decoding), and in this case you probably haven’t got a character driven story but a plot driven one. I’m arguing that where there is no Anagnorisis phase in a character driven story, the storyteller needs at least a proxy for that, otherwise the story will seem unfinished to the reader.

CHARACTER LEARNS SOMETHING TRUE ABOUT THEMSELVES

This is the best outcome for a character and makes any pain endured across the story worth the effort.

CHARACTER ALMOST LEARNS SOMETHING ABOUT THEMSELVES

These stories are vexing tragedies for the audience, who experiences an “If only!” reaction. The Wrestler is a great example of this. Randy the Ram comes so close to learning something about himself. If only he’d seen what the audience had seen about him he could’ve improved his life.

“I make all my movies about pretty much the same thing. It’s ultimately death and being alone. It’s existentialism. The meaning of life. All of those big things that would seem obnoxious if I went on about them. And a lot of my characters go through this: There’s an inciting event in your life that shows you who you are and who you have always been, and it’s equally thrilling and repulsive to realize that and that you are entirely alone.”

Jodi Foster

CHARACTER LEARNS SOMETHING UNTRUE ABOUT THEMSELVES

This isn’t usual, but sometimes a character learns something about themselves which isn’t really true about them. The reader is given enough information to know the veridical truth of their character. The unreliable narrator is useful for this. Stories like this tend to have in common themes about how we can never really know ourselves.

Alternatively, the narrator knowingly gives us enough information to make up our own minds. A good example of this technique is Annie Proulx’s short story Heart Songs. Importantly, this faux-self understanding comes before the Battle scene, not after it, where it’s usually placed. Since the character is wrong about himself, it is the very thing that plunges him into the Big Struggle, not what helps him out come of it. We know these characters will never change. That’s the whole point.

Starting out sure about something then becoming less sure is another riff on Anagnorisis.

Sometimes it’s not the main character who learns something about themselves

It’s not always easy to pick which character is the ‘main one’. Is is the character we see the most of? The focalising character? Or is it the one who undergoes the anagnorisis?

Larry McMurtry’s film/book Hud features a main character (called Hud) who refuses to change. But those all around him do change and he is left all alone, which is the point. Don Draper didn’t change until right at the end, in a tacked on, cheesy kind of hippie way (in my opinion). But all the characters around him changed, mostly Peggy.

As Caroline Framke points out at Vox, “Don Draper spent seven seasons refusing to change at all. But others changed all around him. Joan realised that she could work sexism to her advantage for a longterm better future for herself and her son, then pull away entirely, to run her own business. Peggy’s story was a coming-of-age story, from country-girl to Manhattan cosmopolitan who didn’t feel she had to pretend to be someone she was not. Peter had the Anagnorisis that family comes first. Roger reflected on his own life and realised how he’d gone wrong. Don Draper came up with a good idea for a Coca-Cola advertisement.”

If your main character (e.g. Don Draper) does not change, others around them must. (Exception for comedy series, see below.)

ANAGNORISIS IN CHILDREN’S STORIES

If you’re writing a contemporary children’s story, the Anagnorisis better be experienced by the child.

This hasn’t always been the case — The First Golden Age Of Children’s Literature was full of adult characters who went through the character arc helped along by the innocence and inherent goodness of the uncorrupted child.

Adults in children’s books are usually stuck with their characters and incapable of alteration or growth. If they are really unpleasant, the only thing that can rescue them is the natural goodness of the child.

Alison Lurie: The Subversive Power Of Children’s Literature

Lurie offers Mrs Burnett in Little Lord Fauntleroy as the classic example of an adult whose only hope is the goodness of a child.

Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert go through late-life emotional maturity with the addition of Anne Shirley to the household. At least in Anne of Green Gables, Anne has her own emotional journey alongside the adults.

But even today, you’ll still find stories in which the child character exists as a tool in the emotional awakening of an adjacent adult. A particularly egregious example is a DreamWorks movie, which I talk about in my post on how girls are too often asked to play this role. Girls are assumed to be more emotionally mature than boys, giving rise to ‘The Female Maturity Formula’ of modern storytelling. In that film, Dakota Fanning’s character behaves like a miniature adult mother. The adult men in her company mend their ways, with her leading by example.

When examining a story for diversity, avoid a simple tally of gender and ethnicity. Look instead at who gets to have all the Anagnorises. That tells you who the ’rounded humans’ are considered to be.

ANAGNORISIS IN COMEDY

Or, absence thereof…

We love comedic characters precisely because they never learn. Failing to learn from mistakes is a compulsory psychological shortcoming for a comedic character in an ongoing series.

In comedy — specifically ongoing comedy series, either sit-coms or novel series — there will be no Anagnorisis on the part of the main character. Comical characters are highly flawed, and if they were to learn from their experiences they would get boring and staid. George Costanza never learns from his errors. Nor does Greg Heffley. Even when a comedic character does have a minor Anagnorisis, they’ll have forgotten it by the beginning of the next story, arriving in statu nascendi.

If it’s a stand-alone comedy story, however, the main character is quite likely to learn a big lesson. Groundhog Day is one example.

What does happen, though, especially in comedies for children: The audience has a minor Anagnorisis. Spongebob Squarepants features characters who never learn, yet each episode is mock-didactic. For the viewer. (Didacticism is coded as mock-didacticism in comedy.) Episodes end like a Charles Perrault fairytale, with a summary of a moral lesson.

The Message That Never Came 1918 Written by Clayton Calhoun Art by Albert Barbelle
The Message That Never Came 1918 Written by Clayton Calhoun Art by Albert Barbelle

Likewise, in Courage The Cowardly Dog, the viewer is reminded of the exact same lesson over and over — be nice to others because they can help you out. (Listen to Courage because he’s always the first to detect baddies.)

ANAGNORISIS AND THE LGBTQ SHORT STORY

The startling moment of recognition, understanding or disclosure that typifies the short story in general has particular salience for LGBTQ short narratives in which epiphany is structured by a character’s revelation of his or her LGBTQ identity, an act known as coming out. Such a revelation can not only provide the central moment of crisis in a story but, moreover, sometimes indicate a complete rupture of past and future for the LGBTQ character who comes out. […] Equally revelatory are moments in which characters discover unknown or unexpected LGBTQ friends, relatives, and communities.

LGBTQ America Today: An Encyclopedia Volume 3: P-Z edited by John C. Hawley, 2009

Related Terms

CATHARSIS

the process of releasing, and thereby providing relief from, strong or repressed emotions. Catharsis is a subcategory of anagnorisis in which the audience empathises so keenly with the main character that they consciously or subconsciously connect the emotions to their own lives, feeling what the character feels. Removed by the filter of fiction, this can be revelatory and healing.

https://twitter.com/dongwon/status/1258794563063345153

CATHEXIS

the concentration of mental energy on one particular person, idea, or object (especially to an unhealthy degree). Another modern word for this is monotropism. At the climax of a story mental energy becomes concentrated, in the empathetic character and ideally mirrored in the audience.

ERKENNTNIS AND WISSENSCHAFT

The German language usefully marks this as the distinction between tacit, incompletely articulated and intuitive knowledge (Erkenntnis) and knowledge that comes via science (Wissenschaft). The epiphany experienced by characters in stories is often of the Erkenntnis kind. English synonyms include: realization, recognition, insight, perception. Erkenntnis relies on ‘interpretive’ knowledge. This is often what a storyteller is asking of the audience, also. If we experience epiphanies from reading, it’s probably because we’ve interpreted it ourselves rather than been told outright. Epiphanies are therefore often tacit, incompletely articulated and intuitive.

WHAT IS A MIRROR MOMENT?

A mirror moment is a moment in midpoint scene of a novel or screenplay when the character is forced to look within and reflect on who he is and who he must become in order to achieve his goal. If he decides to continue on as he always has, he will surely fail (tragedy).

If the story is not a tragedy, the hero realizes he must either a) become stronger to overcome the odds or b) transform, shedding his biggest flaws and become more open-minded to new ideas and beliefs. One way or the other, he must better himself in some way to step onto the path which will lead to success.

from Story Midpoint & Mirror Moment: Using Heroes’ Emotions To Transform Them 

A satisfying ending is one that delivers on the promise, providing new insight or comfortable confirmation or vicarious happiness. Even when it’s surprising in some way, the ending feels inevitable, because it fulfills the promise of the story. And—this is important—the ending feels satisfying only because the beginning set up the implicit promise in the first place.

The ending must make use of those same forces and conflicts, with nothing important left out and nothing new suddenly appearing at the last minute.

Mr. Shakespeare: Every character in your story doesn’t need to know how everything works out for everybody as long as your reader knows. These final scenes are unnecessary and they slow down the action at the end because, frankly, we’ve all heard all of this explanation already. Sometimes twice already. So essentially the audience/reader is forced to sit through a summary of the action while all the characters get caught up.

The Literary Lab, Loose Endings

A successful ending must be tied not only to the author’s implicit promise and the forces dramatized in the middle, but also to the protagonist’s nature. A test for your ending is this question: If my protagonist were a radically different person, would this story still end the same way? The answer should be No.

Finding the right ending sometimes takes time. Once it took me thirteen years.

Nancy Kress, from Beginnings, Middles and Ends
Lemon girl young adult novella

READ AT MY OTHER BLOG

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

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

The Ladybird Book Of Bedtime Stories Geoffrey Lapage, Illustrations George Brook (Wills & Hepworth Ltd., Loughborough UK, 9th edition 1950)  fake crying
The Ladybird Book Of Bedtime Stories Geoffrey Lapage, Illustrations George Brook (Wills & Hepworth Ltd., Loughborough UK, 9th edition 1950) (Pretty sure that’s fake crying.)
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
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.

Camilla Engman, Reisen
Camilla Engman, Reisen

Geese

Il giornalino della Domenica cover by Baby (Roberto Bracco) 1906

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.

Il giornalino della Domenica cover by Ottorino Adreneini, 1909
Il giornalino della Domenica cover by Ottorino Adreneini, 1909

Jungle Birds

From The Animal Kingdom, 1968. Illustrations by the brilliant Charles Harper
From The Animal Kingdom, 1968. Illustrations by the brilliant Charles Harper

Peacocks

Karoly Reich
Carlos Merida, The Bird, 1947
Carlos Merida, The Bird, 1947

Nine-year-old Betita knows she is a crane. Papi has told her the story, even before her family fled to Los Angeles to seek refuge from cartel wars in Mexico. The Aztecs came from a place called Aztlan, what is now the Southwest US, called the land of the cranes. They left Aztlan to establish their great city in the center of the universe-Tenochtitlan, modern-day Mexico City. It was prophesized that their people would one day return to live among the cranes in their promised land. Papi tells Betita that they are cranes that have come home.

Then one day, Betita’s beloved father is arrested by Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) and deported to Mexico. Betita and her pregnant mother are left behind on their own, but soon they too are detained and must learn to survive in a family detention camp outside of Los Angeles. Even in cruel and inhumane conditions, Betita finds heart in her own poetry and in the community she and her mother find in the camp. The voices of her fellow asylum seekers fly above the hatred keeping them caged, but each day threatens to tear them down lower than they ever thought they could be. Will Betita and her family ever be whole again?

Flying Lessons by Gilbert Ford

A flock of birds and an airplane that looks like a bird become friends. The birds decide the plane is not the right fit for them. That is, until they are too cold to fly south for the winter. With the help of the plane, the birds are able to go south and they all become friends once again.

Header painting: Henry Stacey Marks – A Select Committee 1891

Symbolic Archetypes In Children’s Stories Analysis

These symbolic archetypes are very old. The earliest written record we have is often in fairy tales.

Light-and-Shadows-1907-Etching-by-Tyra-Kleen-1854-1951-artist-author-womens-rights-activist
Light and Shadows 1907 Etching by Tyra Kleen (1854-1951)

Innate Wisdom vs. Educated Stupidity

Some characters exhibit wisdom and understanding of situations instinctively as opposed to those supposedly in charge. Loyal retainers often exhibit this wisdom as they accompany the hero on the journey.

This pretty much describes all carnivalesque picture books. “The Wisdom Of Children” is an ideology common to children’s literature, in which it is thought that humans are born natural and wise, and that cultural conditioning ruins us somehow, by making us sophisticated and blind to the realities around us. Children (and animals), from their naive but unadulterated perspectives, are able to see things that adults cannot. This is helped by their smallness, and how they are close to the ground and literally see the world from a different angle. Therefore, perspective shots from low angles illustrate this archetype.

Supernatural Intervention

Spiritual beings intervene on the side of the heroes, or sometimes against them.

cinderella-fairy-godmother-ruth-ives-1954
Cinderella and her fairy godmother by Ruth Ives 1954

Fire and Ice

Fire represents knowledge, light, life, and rebirth.

If we watch fire in the fireplace, which is a source of pleasure and comfort, it is expressive of a mood of aliveness, warmth, and pleasure. But if we see a building or forest on fire, it conveys to us an experience of threat or terror, of the powerlessness of man against the elements of nature. Fire, then, can be the symbolic representation of inner aliveness and happiness as well as of fear, powerlessness, or of one’s own destructive tendencies.

Erich Fromm, The Forgotten Language

Ice, like the desert, represents ignorance, darkness, sterility, and death.

The Snow Queen

Snow in 101 Dalmatians increases the tension. Being lost and in danger is bad enough, but when snow cascades down… even worse. Especially when your paw prints can be tracked by Cruella de Vil.

101 Dalmatians snowy scene
101 Dalmatians snowy scene

Nature vs. Mechanistic World

Nature is good; technology is evil.

Shaun Tan subverts this archetype in The Lost Thing. The weak, vulnerable ‘character’ is a machine who no one notices.

The Threshold

Thresholds are symbolised by a gateway to a new world which the hero must enter to change and grow. Fantasy portals take many forms.

Eric, by Shaun Tan, features a fantasy gateway which neither the narrator nor the audience fully understands.

eric-cupboard-shaun-tan

The Underworld

The underworld is a place of death or a metaphorical encounter with the dark side of the self. Entering an underworld is a form of facing a fear of death.

Hilda Bewildered, Slap Happy Larry, 2015.

hilda-bewildered-underfoot-jungle_800x600

I used a subway in our book app, but an overland tunnel achieves a similar thing. The 101 Dalmatians film is basically a long chase scene. A tunnel is used at some point to heighten the feeling that we’re on a journey and there’s nowhere to go but forward.

101 Dalmatians tunnel
101 Dalmatians tunnel

In fairytales, the forest can stand in for the underworld. (See below)

Haven vs. Wilderness

Places of safety contrast sharply against dangerous wilderness. Heroes are often sheltered for a time to regain health and resources.

This describes all fairytale worlds in which there is a forest right next to a town or village.

the-chase

See here for Symbolism of the Forest in Storytelling.

See also The Symbolism of Windows, in which a pane of glass often separates these two settings.

Water vs. Desert

Because water is necessary to life it commonly appears as a birth symbol. In religious ceremony, we have baptism. This symbolises spiritual birth and commonly involves water. There may be a strong psychological/physiological reason for this link — a lot of swimmers will tell you there’s nothing like a bracing dip in the ocean to completely clear the mind.

Rainfalls, rivers, oceans, etc. function the same way.

adventures-of-raggedy-ann-river
Adventures Of Raggedy Ann, falling into the river in a ‘baptism’ scene
The Strange Power of Gary Ford from Alarming Tales November 1958

In visual media like film, a dip in the water often accompanies the character’s Anagnorisis. A great example of that is the film American Honey.

The Desert suggests the inverse.

Throughout most of human history, towns were situated next to dependable rivers. Western towns in films such as High Noon, The Searchers, The Wild Bunch, and Unforgiven, however, are situated in the middle of some of the driest places on earth. Perhaps that’s because deserts, in the Hebrew, Christian, and Islamic Bibles, are places of spiritual conflict.

Howard Suber

Heaven vs. Hell

Parts of the universe not accessible to us = the dwelling places of the primordial forces that govern our world. Gods live in the skies and mountaintops. The bowels of the earth contain diabolic forces.

See also: The Symbolism Of Altitude

The Maze

The maze represents a puzzling dilemma or great uncertainty. The maze can be part of mythic structure, symbolising the  search for the dangerous monster inside oneself, or a journey into the heart of darkness.

It doesn’t have to be a literal maze, but might instead be getting lost in an urban jungle.

Shaun Tan’s The Lost Thing is an example of an urban jungle maze.

The Cat Returns features a darkly humorous maze scene full of meta-humour and slapstick.

The maze is often a microcosm of the mythic journey, which is usually ‘epic’.

The Castle

The castle is a fortified place of safety which protects treasure or princess. The castle may be enchanted or bewitched, especially in the Gothic tradition.

Cinderella approaches the ball, illustration by Ruth Ives 1954
Cinderella approaches the ball, illustration by Ruth Ives 1954

Castle Motif on StorySearch

The Tower

A tower is similar to a castle but represents the isolation of self. Bluebeard’s castle was probably a tower.

Rapunzel is the archetypal tower.

Tower motif on StorySearch

The Magic Weapon

In a traditional mythic story, the hero needs a weapon to complete his or her quest (but mostly still his, because most heroes are males and when heroes are female they often don’t fight). In a big struggle-free myth, the characters don’t fight — instead they think and feel themselves out of a tight fix. In that case, the hero probably needs a mentor, or a library book or a magic spell (as in Brave). Interestingly, there is archery (weaponry) in Brave, but it’s not actually used for fighting. It’s more of a prop, and aids as a symbol for fate and the passing of time.

Mountains And Valleys

See here for the symbolism of altitude.

The valley enclosed between mountains can arouse in us the feeling of security and comfort, of protection against all dangers from the outside. But the protecting mountains can also mean isolating walls which do not permit us to get out of the valley and thus the valley can become a symbol of imprisonment. The particular meaning of the symbol in any given place can only be determined from the whole context in which the symbol appears, and in terms of the predominant experiences of the person using the symbol.

Erich Fromm, The Forgotten Language

The River

See here for all the different symbolic uses of the river in children’s literature.

new-equilibrium

Whirlpools

The whirlpool generally symbolises the destructive power of nature or fate.

In A Fish Out Of Water by Helen Palmer (first wife of Dr Seuss), the whirlpool stands for something mysterious happening below.

Fog

See here for more about fog symbolism in literature.

Fog was once thought to be caused by demons/magic. In other stories fog is an ogre who has drunk until he has burst. Fog can be dispelled by a saint. Fog is a representation of soul.

A picture book example is Blackdog by Levi Pinfold

Black Dog by Levi Pinfold, book jacket

Colors

Red

blood, sacrifice, passion, disorder, autumn, women, hatred, death

Green

growth, hope, fertility

Blue

highly positive, security, tranquility, spiritual purity

Black

darkness, chaos, mystery, the unknown, death, wisdom, evil, melancholy

White

light, purity, innocence, timelessness (negatives: death, horror, supernatural)

Yellow

enlightenment, wisdom

Numbers

3—light, spiritual awareness, unity (holy trinity), male principle

Children’s books are all about the Rule Of Three.

Three is a significant number in witchcraft.

4—associated with the circle, life cycle, four seasons, female principle, earth, nature, elements

5 — Freemasons (like Pythagoras) regard the number five as sacred, hence they call the pentagram the Blazing Star. (Five points.)

Children’s books for girls tend to be circular in plot, following the seasons. (Books for boys, in contrast, are linear.)

7—the most potent of all symbolic numbers, signifying the union of three and four, the completion of a cycle, perfect order, perfect number, a religious symbol

Snow White And The Seven Dwarves

9

Nine is often considered a magic number. For example, cats have nine lives. The ancient Greeks said that the number nine referred to the trinity of all trinities. Cats have 9 lives: the facts behind the myth.

12

These symbolic archetypes are very old. The earliest written record we have is often in fairy tales.

Innate Wisdom vs. Educated Stupidity

Some characters exhibit wisdom and understanding of situations instinctively as opposed to those supposedly in charge. Loyal retainers often exhibit this wisdom as they accompany the hero on the journey.

This pretty much describes all carnivalesque picture books. “The Wisdom Of Children” is an ideology common to children’s literature, in which it is thought that humans are born natural and wise, and that cultural conditioning ruins us somehow, by making us sophisticated and blind to the realities around us. Children (and animals), from their naive but unadulterated perspectives, are able to see things that adults cannot. This is helped by their smallness, and how they are close to the ground and literally see the world from a different angle. Therefore, perspective shots from low angles illustrate this archetype.

Lemon girl young adult novella

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Synoptic Narrative In Picture Books

A synoptic narrative depicts a single scene in which a character or characters are portrayed multiple times within a frame to convey that multiple actions are taking place. Synoptic is the adjective of synopsis.

The sequence of events in synoptic art is unclear.

Synoptic narratives typically provide visual cues that convey the sequence, but still might be difficult to decipher for those unfamiliar with the story.

There are 7 main categories of Narrative art. Narrative art is art which tells a story.

  1. Monoscenic — represents a single scene with no repetition of characters and only one action taking place
  2. Sequential — very much like a continuous narrative with one major difference. The artist makes use of frames. Each frame is a particular scene during a particular moment.
  3. Continuous —Continuous narrative art gives clues, provided by the layout itself, about a sequence. Sequential narrative without the frames.
  4. Synoptic offers the synopsis of a bigger story. You must already know a story before you can make temporal sense of synoptic narrative.
  5. Simultaneous — has very little visually discernible organisation unless the viewer is acquainted with its purpose. There’s an emphasis on repeatable patterns.
  6. Panoptic — depicts multiple scenes and actions without the repetition of characters. Think of the word ‘panorama’. ‘All-seeing’ (pan + optic)
  7. Progressive — a single scene in which characters do not repeat. However, multiple actions are taking place in order to convey a passing of time in the narrative. A progressive narrative is not to be interpreted as a group of simultaneous events but rather a sequence that is dependent on its location. Actions displayed by characters in the narratives compact present and future action into a single image.

Synoptic is the adjectival form of ‘synopsis’, which should give us a clue about what’s going on. Synoptic art = the synopsis of a bigger story.

If you watch the news, at least on Australian ABC, the weather announcer talks about a synoptic weather chart each night. A synoptic weather chart is any map that summarises atmospheric conditions (temperature , precipitation , wind speed and direction, atmospheric pressure and cloud coverage) over a wide area at a given time.

Reading synoptic weather charts is a learned skill: How To Read Synoptic Weather Charts. We learn that the circular lines are isobars, that their distance apart tells us how windy it is, and so on and so forth.

Likewise, reading synoptic narrative art is a learned skill.

You can find examples of synoptic narrative art in ancient murals. The viewers of these murals knew the plots of these stories already. The art simply triggered their memories of a familiar story. Everyone of the era understood the basic plot of the myths, fables, legends and wars depicted.

This is Mughal painting — a style from South Asia.
This is Mughal painting — a style from South Asia.
Charles Alston, an African American painter and illustrator, part of the Harlem Renaissance
Charles Alston, an African American painter and illustrator, part of the Harlem Renaissance

(It would be unusual to find a painting like the one above in a modern, Western picture book because the characters are facing the wrong way! In picture books, the action goes toward the page turn, unless there’s some unusual reason to reverse it.)

In picture books the best place to find synoptic artwork is in encyclopaedias and bowdlerised histories. There is a series of Kingfisher encyclopedias featuring synoptic artwork on the covers. Below, the reader has to know the timeline of history before understanding how these pictures relate to each other.

Most versions of children’s Bibles take a single scene and use that as the cover illustration. Noah and Moses are particularly popular. But sometimes the cover artist decides to take a whole bunch of scenes from different periods of Biblical history and amalgamate them into a ‘single’ setting.

Speaking of Noah’s Ark, are we really to believe that Noah marched all of those animals onto the ark at once? I believe the story — and therefore the illustrations of Noah’s ark are themselves synoptic, compressing different scenes: first he put the camels on the ark, the next day he might have put the elephants on… and so on. Yet almost every illustration of Noah’s Ark shows us that all the animals boarded the boat at the same time.

The Illustrated Children's Bible Noah's Ark scene
The Children's Illustrated Bible Victoria Parker
These spot illustrations don’t make narrative sense, unless you know the stories already.
The Children’s Illustrated Bible

The text on its own doesn’t suggest the animals boarded the ark at once:

“Bring a pair of every kind of animal—a male and a female—into the boat with you to keep them alive during the flood. Pairs of every kind of bird, and every kind of animal, and every kind of small animal that scurries along the ground, will come to you to be kept alive. And be sure to take on board enough food for your family and for all the animals.” (Gen. 6:19-21)

However, when children see illustrations of animals such as that above, we all get the idea that in the story of Noah’s Ark, the animals resembled middle-aged tourists getting onto a cruiser. It’s also worth noting that Noah was never told to gather the animals. He was only commanded to build an ark. It could’ve been people working for him who actually put the animals on the ark.

Whereas I read the story of Noah’s Ark as metaphor, adults hoping to teach children a literal reading of the Bible should take note of the extent to which  illustrators synoptically abbreviate stories in order to create interesting visuals, thereby affecting everyone’s understanding of events.

This cover illustration of a fairytale collection places images from different fairytales together. Each story presumably takes place at a separate time within a fictional history of fairies, but each of these scenes takes place within the same fairytale world.

synoptic fairytale art

THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN CONTINUOUS AND SYNOPTIC NARRATIVE ART

Continuous narrative art gives you clues, provided by the layout itself, about the sequence of scenes depicted.

In synoptic narrative art you have to know the story before you can understand the plot sequence.

Is the image below an example of synoptic art? “These are all the things you do in the garden, and here are the tools to help you.” Clearly this is mostly the same man and woman repeated.

What about the gardeners below? Are they the same person on different day?

Gardening, from Prangs Aids for Object Teaching Trades and Occupations c. 1874

Synoptic Narrative In Film Noir Posters

In the film noir poster below, you can see synoptic narrative compressed within the smoke of the candle. Unless you’ve seen the film you don’t know the storyline, though presumably afterwards the images make sense. The point of a movie poster is to encourage people to pay for the ticket, which explains why we aren’t given too many clues about the story before going in.

Synoptic art can also be seen in more literary book covers. The cover is designed to give some idea of what’s going on inside the book, and the illustrator takes a selection of images and arranges them on the page according to aesthetics rather than temporal sequence.

On Israel’s West Bank, a cat sneaks into a small Palestinian house that has just been commandeered by two Israeli soldiers. The house seems empty, until the cat realises that a little boy is hiding beneath the floorboards.

Should she help him?

After all, she’s just a cat.

Or is she?

advertising copy of The Cat At The Wall
We don’t know unless we read this book how the feet are related to the cat under the couch. Nor do we understand the significance of the houses/boxes.
Lemon girl young adult novella

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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.

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

SHORTCOMING

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

BIG STRUGGLE

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 battle 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

ANAGNORISIS

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 SITUATION

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
Lemon girl young adult novella

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