Chicken Little (mostly America) is also known as Chicken Licken or Henny Penny (mostly Britain).
I hope the current generation of children don’t grow up thinking the 2005 animated movie version of Chicken Little has much to do with earlier versions of this story. The movie logline sounds okay on paper: “After ruining his reputation with the town, a courageous chicken must come to the rescue of his fellow citizens when aliens start an invasion”, but tonally, this Disney production is loud, bright and frenetic. The natural ‘opponent’ of the acorn has been turned into the more interesting and formidable aliens in order to sustain a movie length story. Against that tone, the frenzy of Chicken Little himself is absorbed rather than emphasised. Further than that I can’t comment, as I find the movie entirely unwatchable.
Then again, am I really advocating for the continued teaching of the moral of Chicken Little? What does this fable teach us, really?
STORY STRUCTURE OF CHICKEN LITTLE
This is a cumulative tale — you know, the kind you get sick of reading to your kid unless the wordplay is excellent. The ending is tragic, depending on how kind you feel towards foxes. In any cases, we’re not really encouraged to empathise with the birds, so when they die it kind of feels like just desserts for them. I’m sure the characterisation of this tale has something to do with the fact that humans have a long history of eating birds but not foxes. Continue reading “Chicken Little, Cassandra and Modern Horror”
Looking at the marketing copy and reader descriptions of these books a few tropes are common to this category of books often called ‘magical realism’ or ‘fabulist’:
The protagonist often has a super power, which as often as not is the flipside of a weakness. Sometimes it’s an original kind of superpower which hasn’t been used by Marvel and you haven’t seen it in fairytales. For example the ability to see words shining above people’s heads.
It’s often the sort of magic that lives next door. Or in the kitchen. Or in the shed at the bottom of the garden (Skellig).
Moving house is a common introduction to this kind of story. The child used to live in the ordinary world but now the parents have moved them to this island, this rickety house, this dilapidated mansion. In Skellig, Michael’s journey from the security of his early life on Random Road to the precarious and confusing removal to Falconer Road is essentially a maturation from a state of childhood innocence to pre-adolescent experience of self and other, bound together in the greater world of humankind. Random Road was a place of physical security for Michael. He was born there and took its existence for granted. He was the only child and so was the focus of his parents’ love. They provided for his needs, and he had no reason to discover that life could ever be different. It is a kind of Garden of Eden prior to the knowledge of good and evil. In the newly discovered Falconer Road Michael must increase his knowledge of the world. Significantly, this new house has to be remodelled before it becomes comfortable, mirroring Michael’s interior relationship with his environs.
Witches/trolls/mermaids etc. exist alongside humans, perhaps living secretly. Their secret lives can be an allegory for some kind of exclusion which happens to groups of people in the real world.
Fortune-telling is often a thing.
Luck can be a reliable, real thing, influenced by charms and whatnot.
Fate is also a thing, but can be thrown off-course by a savvy young protagonist. Related to fate, the moon features large in many fabulist stories.
Some stories have an atavistic fable/folklore/legend quality to them, taking modern people back to a time when humans really did believe the world was made of magic. There might be some direct link to the ancient past emphasised in the story e.g. finding something ancient or learning something about history in school or perhaps it’s simply working out some family history. In Skellig we have Archaeopteryx and evoltuion as a way to make Skellig credible. We don’t know what he is or where he came from. But we are reminded that there once was a dinosaur that flew, and evolution can produce many different forms of strange beings. It just may be that Skellig is the last of an ancient species, something akin to an angel. It is also a way to connect his story to the much older story of the evolution of humans and the personal evolution of understanding the ephemeral nature of being.
Wish fulfilment in these stories is often about getting a bully back using magical powers. Hence, the school or neighbourhood bully is often the villain of the story (rather than say, dragons, in a work of high fantasy). This is also the wish-fulfilment of a typical superhero story.
There is sometimes time travel which affects individuals at the personal (friendship/family) level. The Girl Who Leapt Through Time is an example of that. These kids aren’t out to save the world — they’re trying to subvert personal tragedies and relationship breakups.
Serious issues such as drug-use and bullying can be made heartwarming by an injection of fabulism.
Hence, there’s quite a bit of sickness. Recently dead parents, cancer, rashes, and other horrible life journeys which is made a little easier with magic.
They’re quite often set in a real-world big city such as L.A., London or New York City, but can also be set in a realistic little town which mimics a real place. Or they might be set in a deliberately magical sounding place with a poetic name.
A character may need to keep their magical powers secret, or magic might be a widely accepted part of the natural storyworld. Sometimes only the children know about the magic because the adults are too busy to notice it, or wouldn’t believe it even if they were told. Sometimes this can feel contrived. David Almond avoids any sense of contrivance by having Michael engage adults when he recognises his own ignorance. For example, he asks a doctor about arthritis and quizzes a teacher about evolution and shoulder blades, though significantly, he doesn’t talk to them about Skellig. He has Mina — another child — for that.
The fabulism in children’s books often creates an atmosphere which feels cosy and snug and whimsical.
There is often a ‘wise woman’ or a ‘wise man’ or sometimes a child character is wise beyond their years (e.g. Mina in Skellig, who might also be interpreted as simply mimicking her mother). Other fairytale archetypes can be mapped onto contemporary characters.
Fabulism can be a part of any genre — sometimes it’s a mystery, sometimes it’s used to solve a crime, sometimes it’s a story about human relationships.
In a small-town setting, fabulist stories are probably full of eccentric characters with strange powers, habits and hobbies. In a children’s book, these adults are probably quite childlike themselves, whereas ‘regular’ adults have forgotten how to be playful and observant.
Perhaps the storyworld used to be far more magical than it is now, but something happened and now it’s up to the child character to break the curse or to bring full magic back.
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.
Throughout history, folklore has included stories of dogs who roam towns at night, especially in Britain. There’s Wiltshire’s Wilton dog or the fierce mastiff that roamed the streets of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Anyone who has ever seen a huge unfriendly dog standing right outside their glass door will know how frightening it can be. Pinfold takes that fear and now we have Blackdog.
A black dog is the name given to an entity found primarily in the folklore of the British Isles. The black dog is essentially a nocturnal apparition, often said to be associated with the Devil or a hellhound. Its appearance was regarded as a portent of death. It is generally supposed to be larger than a normal dog, and often has large, glowing eyes. It is often associated with electrical storms (such as Black Shuck’s appearance at Bungay, Suffolk), and also with crossroads, places of execution and ancient pathways.
The illustrations are so beautiful in this author/illustrator picture book I suspected the story wouldn’t quite reach the same level. Readers will have varied responses to this, but for me, the story is structurally fine but the message problematic: Readers are taught to face their fears head-on, using the metaphor of a big dog outside the house. The problem is, I’ve been trying to teach my kid the opposite when it comes to dogs, as there are a lot of dangerous ones in our neighbourhood: If a dog looks scary, it probably is! I’m therefore left wishing the dog could have been some mythical, non-existent creature. The final scene shows a young child hugging the dog in a way that dogs should never, ever be hugged, as it’s a sign of domination, and little kids tend to be right at eye-level too. Even when picture books are to be read at the metaphorical level, we can’t forget that the literal level doesn’t suddenly cease to exist. So for entirely practical/safety purposes I do have a couple of issues with this book.
ALLEGORY AND SYMBOL
There may be a good symbolic reason for using a black dog, however, as the black dog has been used as a metaphor for depression and other mental illness, i.e. The Black Dog Institute. I have absolutely no idea if this were intended by the author/illustrator, but because of the black dog connection I can’t read this book as anything other than an allegory for agoraphobia/anxiety. (Update: I’m more sure of the symbolism since happening across the history of black dogs as metaphors of mental illness.)
Let’s look at Blackdog through this lens and see if it holds up.
Agoraphobia isn’t contagious insofar as I know, so it would be unusual for an entire family to be simultaneously terrified of going outside. For this reason, I’m interpreting the family as ‘different aspects of the same individual’, in much the same way as the Winnie-the-Pooh characters are each different facets of a child’s single personality. Sometimes this person looks out of the window and is not quite so scared — other days the size of the menace is overwhelming. But there is one small part inside this individual which has sufficient bravery to face the world. This is the classic mouse tale trope, in which the smallest character is ironically the bravest. (And anyone who’s ever had a mouse infestation knows they’re not timid at all — mice are stupid brave for their size, relying on speed more than smarts!) This technique definitely lends the feel of ‘fable’ to this story, with thanks to Aesop and The Lion and the Mouse.
By going out into the world and practising exposure therapy the small child in this story shrinks the black dog down to size. Again, a metaphor for mental illness: mental illness is always a part of you, but it can be reduced to a manageable size.
A MINIATURE WORLD
The presence of a massive dog temporarily turns this family into miniatures, of the type you’ve seen in The Borrowers and Stuart Little. There are specific narrative reasons for making use of miniatures.
A miniature has three main uses in a story:
1. It lets the audience see the world of the story as a whole.
2. It allows the author to express various aspects, or facets, of a character.
3. It shows the exercise of power, often of tyranny.
— John Truby, TheAnatomy of Story
All three reasons are at play in Blackdog: We see the warm interior/foggy, cold exterior all at once; we see each member of the family react differently to the same event; we can easily imagine how scared we would be at this tyrannical creature outside our house.
JUXTAPOSITION OF SETTING
The snowy, ethereal setting of Blackdog is a brilliant choice, and is in stark contrast to the warm, but oddly grotesque interior:
There’s something steampunk about this house, and the scene of the bathroom and playground, with the rivets and steel, remind me very much of Shaun Tan’s The Lost Thing.
Though Pinfold has his own distinctive style, the colour choice, too, is very Shaun Tan, especially when you look at the accent colours. Pinfold makes use of inset thumbnails, too, and in this book we have tiny sepia drawings decorating the text. It’s tempting to skip over these thumbnails because the eye tends to linger on the full-colour spreads, but if you go back and examine them closely, these thumbnails offer the ‘alternative view’ of the story: While the full colour spreads in the first half of the story depict only the inside of the house and a little of what can be seen through the window, the thumbnails show us the massive dog outside in a long shot view of the tall, skinny house.
There’s something gothic about that house. It’s a three-storied structure with an attic which would never get approved by any local council, and must have therefore come from another era. This is the trope of the Terrifying House. But this house is both terrifying and warm.
Opposite the warm house, the terrifying house is usually a house that has gone over the line from cocoon to prison. In the best stories of this kind, the house is terrifying because it is an outgrowth of the great weakness and need of the character. This house is the hero’s biggest fear made manifest. In the extreme, the character’s mind has rotted in some way, and the house too is in ruins. But it is no less powerful a prison.
— John Truby, Anatomy of Story
It’s warm because it’s cosy, with the roaring fire and comfort of family. It’s cheery like a rainbow, in fact, with each room having its own dominant hue. This is more obvious when you view the various parts of this house together in a single image. Orange, yellow, green, pink…
But the accoutrements scattered around — the stone animals with their staring eyes, the cluttered chaos, the soap-holder that looks almost like a mechanical hand reaching into the dirty old bath, the red tricycle that will always scare anyone who ever watched Saw — there’s something definitely spooky here. And of course your warm house is spooky… when you can never leave. The mother looks a lot like a Marionette as she clutches the jug in the orange image above.
Shaun Tan’s The Lost Thing — as well as his other work — features industrial smoke and city smog, but here the outside world is shrouded in a clean, forest mist — a great choice given the accepted symbolism of fog and mist. In fiction, fog equals obfuscation and mystery. In Blackdog I think it also has connections to ‘mental fug’ and not being able to see more than a couple of metres ahead, but ploughing on anyway.
WEIRD THING I DON’T GET
What on earth is a Big Jeffy, though? I expected to be rewarded with the answer after looking closely at the pictures, and I did see much earlier in the story a child’s sketch of Jeffy on the sideboard, but in the end I resorted to the internet and learned that Big Jeffy is off Sesame Street. His inclusion in this story puzzles me. Big Jeffy is a member of Little Jerry and the Monotones, supplying bass back-up for the group. He is considered to be the fourth member of the band. Maybe the author is a particular fan of Sesame Street and will reference a muppet in every picture book? Chris Van Allsburg puts a little white dog in all of his books. (It’s not even his own dog — it was his brother-in-law’s!) I haven’t read Pinfold’s other work so I can’t tell if they also include Sesame Street characters. Also, I wouldn’t be brave enough to try those guys on copyright. It’s possible that Pinfold’s Big Jeffy has no connection to the minor Sesame Street character at all.
Allegorical means, among many other things, that the characters, worlds, actions and objects are, of necessity, highly metaphorical. That doesn’t mean they aren’t unique or created by the writer. It means the symbols have references that echo against previous symbols, often deep in the audience’s mind.
Allegorical also means ‘applicable to our modern world and time’.
Good stories have elements that are founded on the thematic line and oppositions. This especially applies to allegory. For example, for Tolkien, Christian thematic structure emphasises good versus evil.
A parable is a succinct, didactic story, in prose or verse, which illustrates one or more instructive lessons or principles. It differs from a fable in that fables employ animals, plants, inanimate objects, or forces of nature as characters, whereas parables have human characters. A parable is a type of analogy.
Allegories are a more general category of narrative and can sometimes be harder to interpret than parables, with several possible meanings (though not nearly so many possible meanings as symbols).
Like a parable, the allegory employs metaphor.
The parable is more condensed.
Illustrates a simple truth for teaching purposes.
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.
Perhaps the most famous are the Parables of Jesus, found in all the canonical gospels. These are the parables which form the foundation and structure of all parables in the West.
Parable of the Leaven — about a woman baking bread
Parable of the Friend at Night — a man knocks on his neighbour’s door at night
Parable of the Good Samaritan — the aftermath of a roadside mugging
The parables in the Bible teach readers to pray and the meaning of love.
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens — This work is a criticism of the widely held political idea at the time that if we were to support the poor by providing them with food then they’d just procreate in greater numbers and produce even more poor people that the rich will have to keep feeding and feeding. (This idea still hasn’t died, even today.)
Mrs Gatty’s Parables
Margaret Gatty was an English woman who edited Aunt Judy’s Magazine1866-73 and who wrote Parables From Nature, which, as you might expect, were parables for children, inspired by nature.
Mrs Gatty was a great admirer of The Water Babies, which is itself a lot like her Parables from Nature but enlarged and given a continuous plot.
Mrs Gatty’s most interesting parable is that comic delight ‘Inferior Animals’, which foreshadows not Animal Farm by Kipling; yet the satire is almost as sophisticated as that of Swift. The rooks are holding a counsel. The subject is Man. The meeting is addressed tin turn by those learned authorities Mr Ravenwing, Mr Yellowhead, Mr Greylegs. ‘Why Man?’ says Mr Ravenwing, sounding like a religious programme on television. ‘One of the most puzzling whys in connection with Man is, why he wears clothes?’ The birds decide that clothes are probably vestigial feathers, or that Man, having either lost or not yet evolved feathers, is trying to reproduce them artificially, to become, in fact, a Rook. Further proof is supplied (in this coal-using and mining era) by his efforts to attain his original colour — black. Another proof of his need to resume his original life in trees is his continued effort to soar in the air — by balloon. The rooks debate Man as a fallen Rook, arguing delightfully from data, drawing all the wrong conclusions with invincible superiority.