Magic Words and Spells

The Magic Circle 1886 by John William Waterhouse 1849-1917

In children’s fantasy, enchanted realism and magical realism, there is often an arc word (leitwort) which enters popular lexicon, or sticks in the mind long after the reader leaves the story. These magic words sometimes become a part of the child’s own imaginative play, an improvised version of early childhood fan fiction.

Where Do Magic Words Come From?

Imagine a baby on the verge of learning to speak. For all of her life she has been inarticulate — she wants something, but all she can do is cry or say “Uh, uh, uh!” Then, somehow, the purpose of speech is revealed to her, and after what must be a tremendous struggle, the power of speech. Though we all once experienced it, it is hard now to picture the immense thrill of power we must have felt the first time we cried “Mommy!” or “Cookie!” and saw what we desired appear. From this experience, surely, comes the power of magic words and spells in fairytales.

Small children like simple, repetitive rhymes and games, just as they like repetitive or cumulative folktales such as The Gingerbread Man. As they grow older and more competent linguistically they become impatient with such tales; they learn that the magic spell doesn’t always work and that words don’t always mean what they seem to mean.

Alison Lurie, Don’t Tell The Grownups: The subversive power of children’s literature
1920s Magic poster 'Brush The Mystic The Hindu Basket'
1920s Magic poster ‘Brush The Mystic The Hindu Basket’

Examples of Magic Words and Spells

  • Nickety Nacketty Noo Noo Noo by Joy Cowley, in which the spell is in the title
  • Harry Potter is full of them: Riddikulus, Obliviat, Alohomora etc.
  • The Magic Faraway Tree series by Enid Blyton features trees which whisper ‘wisha wisha’, which as a child reader sent a tingle down my spine. While this onomatopoeia doesn’t directly function as a magic word, it signals that the children have entered an enchanted realm.
AbracadabraIn the late 17th century this word was used as a charm to ward off illness. The word comes from Latin and was first recorded in a 2nd-century poem by Q. Serenus Sammonicus. . It comes from the Hebrew phrase abreq ad hâbra, meaning ‘hurl your thunderbolt even unto death’. It was usually inscribed inside an inverted triangle.
Presto!From Italian ‘quick, quickly’, from late Latin praestus ‘ready’. In modern English, it’s usually ‘Hey, presto!” This is because magicians started using ‘Hey presto!’ in the late 18th century. English speakers first borrowed presto from Italian as a musical term.
ShazamThis is relatively new, dating only from the 1940s, and a guy called Gomer Pyle, who popularised the Marvel Comics word.
Ta-da!This is from the art deco era, and is simply mimetic, meaning it’s the sound we imagine is made when a magician makes a flourish and presents something magical to the audience.
Voila!French (voilà) from the 1700s, basically means ‘Look!’

What makes a good magic word?

For the answer to this, I turn to the work of scholars who have studied nursery rhymes. Nursery rhymes have a proven track record for memorability and infiltration into the real lives of children (and caregivers).

In her paper “From nursery rhymes to childlore: orality and ideology“, Catalina Millán Scheiding writes about the enduring popularity of nursery rhymes under the following headings:

  1. Rhythm rhythm is an especially important aspect of the prosody of nursery rhyme (along with  intonation, stress and tempo of speech). Then there’s isochrony (e.g. whether a language is stress-timed or syllable timed). Children’s rhymes tend to have a ‘binary structure’ e.g. quatrains, or four-beat lines (Baa Baa Black Sheep). Some have proposed that this is because they mimic heartbeats, which we remember from our time in the womb. Nursery rhymes often offer a sense of closure in their rhythm. This is known as a ‘closed circular structure’. Scheiding offers Baa Baa Black Sheep as an example of this. John Prine’s Prine’s rhythmic delivery of “Illegal Smile” is likewise phrased ‘like a children’s sing-along, emphasizing the final two syllables of each line: “I chased a rainbow down a one-way street — dead end/And all my friends turned out to be insurance — sales men.”’
  2. Musicality refers to metrical pattern and how rhythm is marked. English is an example of a ‘stress timed language’, which means native English speakers in most dialects around the world leave the same length of time between stressed syllables. (Māori background speakers in New Zealand often speak native English without the stress timing, borrowing Māori syllable timing unrelated of whether they also speak Te Reo Māori.) ‘Musicality’ of an utterance will partly depend on who is uttering it.
  3. Repetition Binary structures lend themselves to repetition. Rhyme is another form of repetition and the following observation is especially interesting:

Rhymes are generally rooted in the sensory world and make reference to people, objects, and actions, but not ideas, although ideas can and are inferred and assumed from the short actions found in the rhymes. This situational nature makes rhymes more recognizable, as the objects and actions they depict are related to the culture they belong to, and can be found in daily actions. A rhyme could then be recalled and ‘activated’ when in contact with any of these domestic activities which it mentions.

Debbie Pullinger, From Tongue to Text: A New Reading of Children’s Poetry
  1. Formulaicity babies initially learn language as ‘units’ and later as linked strings of words, initially unaware of divisions. Much adult language is also formulaic, and these shared phrases are an important part of a community’s identity.
  2. Language as Play Memorable phrases are phrases which form the basis of play. Audiences incorporate them into play and build on them, using the original as a model. Where magic words and rhymes accompany movement (e.g. clapping, skipping, jumping) they become more memorable. Memorable phrases are performative (contrasting with descriptive).
Charles Geer 1965 Danger Is The Password
Charles Geer 1965 Danger Is The Password

Magic Words Revisited

  • Nickety nacketty noo noo noo appeals because of its repetition, its musicality and its rhythm.
  • J.K. Rowling’s magical words and spells work a bit differently from the nursery rhymes. They appeal to the older reader’s interest in wordplay and etymology. For instance, “Riddikulus” is an adaptation of “ridiculous” as well as of ridiculum (Latin, “joke”) and ridere (Latin, “to laugh”). The reader doesn’t necessarily know all that in order to appreciate it, but by uttering it in an everyday context, bonds with other Harry Potter superfans.
  • Wisha wisha is beautifully onomatopoeic, and whenever I hear wind blowing through trees, I think they are saying ‘wisha wisha’. This is in line with Pullinger’s theory that the best nursery rhymes (and also the best magic words) are situational, found in daily actions (or natural phenomena).

Header painting: The Magic Circle 1886 by John William Waterhouse 1849-1917

How to become invisible

Method 1: Rune Stave

For this one you must go to Iceland. Once in Iceland, get your hands on a magical text full of spells and suchlike, a.k.a. Icelandic grimoires. But to save you the trouble, refer to the recipe below.

You’ll need a magical rune stave. There is literally a rune stave for every possible thing you can imagine up.

The invisibility run stave looks a bit like a snowflake. The one you need is called the hulinhjalmur. Google it.

I’m sure you can recreate that with a marker on paper. Hold your horses, it’s not that simple though. You must engrave this rune stave onto a piece of lignite using magnetic steel that’s been hardened by soaking in human blood.

Be careful how you blend the blood. You need three drops from the index finger of the left hand and three from the ring finger of the right hand. Worse, you also need two drops from the right nipple and one from the left.

Next you need an alive raven. Don’t kill it. You will need to extract six drops of blood, though, straight from the raven’s heart.

Melt it all down, along with the raven’s brain and parts of a human stomach. I’m not actually sure if the raven’s still meant to be alive at this point. I assume the human is not.

Now you should be invisible. Bear in mind, there may be rune staves for picking locks, keeping the butter from going rancid and for protecting yourself against ghosts but there is no rune stave to make you un-invisible. This is your life now. I hear Iceland is beautiful.

Method 2: The Witch Way

Are you a witch? Do you want to be a witch? Let’s be witches. We’re going to Papua New Guinea for this one, where witches have the power to see inside others, and also have the power to become invisible. The best of both worlds. In PNG there is a concept known as gwumu. This refers to a spirit which can live in people, rendering them invisible. (There are also evil spirits, known as sanguma or spirit nogut in Tok Pisin. They came to the world via pigs. Look, it says so in the Bible.)

In other countries, witches don’t become invisible per se, they simply transmogrify themselves into other animals, like ravens. No one thinks twice about a particularly witchy-looking raven flying across the sky at night, right? As ravens, witches are free to attend their moonlit sabbats.

But in the Papua New Guinea highlands, witches don’t bother with the faff of transmogrification. They can, I mean, if they want. They might become a quick, highly mobile creatures: bat, rat, bird, moth, grasshopper, butterfly, cicada… or they might simply become invisible.

Odilon Redon, Butterflies, before 1909, oil on canvas

Let’s do that. That way, we can go about our supernatural lives alongside regulars and we don’t have to worry about a thing.

Except for one thing: We will still be blamed for the following:

  • sickness
  • death
  • poverty
  • lack of development
  • portentous world events
  • that overall feeling that the apocalypse is nigh.

Method 3: Escape to the Woods

Are you living in a fairytale reality? If so, entering a forest will work. Disclaimer: So long as you’re not hiding in the English woods, which are not very vast and expansive these days. By the start of the 20th century, just 5% of Britain was wooded. It doesn’t take too long to find you in the spinneys.

This tactic may work better in, say, America, Canada or other parts of Europe. Works really quite well in the Australian bush.

Downside: You may not make it back out alive.

Method 4: Wear a Mask

Admittedly, masks work better if you’re a character within a fictional story rather than in real life because for some reason I’ve always been recognised even when wearing a mask. I have this in common with Dwight Schrute.

The human brain is very good at recognising someone by their gait. So if you really want to come across as someone else, don’t just rely on the face mask. Change how you walk. Change your height and BMI while you’re at it.

Method 5: Creep Around Like A Ninja

Ninja techniques for hiding are called ongyo-jutsu (隠形術), the way of the hidden form.

  1. When sneaking in the dark, slow your movement.
  2. Stop moving if someone is facing you.
  3. Camouflage yourself
  4. Hide in the shadows
  5. Make yourself small e.g. crouch in the shape of a quail (for some reason)
  6. If you have white skin, hide your white face
  7. Be mindful of light sources
  8. Standing in front of a wall or tree may be more effective than you think, because the enemy is busy looking behind rocks and whatnot. Only works if you’re camouflaged and hiding your big white face
  9. Don’t accidentally breathe on your enemy
  10. Be absolutely silent
  11. Risk making noise only while other noise is happening
  12. Use a throw cloth to muffle your footsteps
  13. Bring an animal e.g. a rat to let loose and distract a sentry
  14. Stand downwind of guard dog snoots
  15. Or hide under water making use of a snorkel
  16. Throw down a toothpick to attract the enemy’s attention. While they’re glancing at the toothpick you’ll be able to hide.
Here’s Courage The Cowardly Dog hiding in a toilet. Courage is often hiding inside things.

Dress Like Your Background

Also known as camouflage.

Think outside the box. If you’re playing tennis, wear the same hue as the court, perhaps with one or two white stripes across your body. If you’re planning on staying home, maybe dress like your cushions.

Dahlov Ipcar, American (1917-2017), Winter Window, 1977

Of if you’re freaky, dress like your wallpaper.

Further Reading

A 2001 episode of This American Life asks which superpower would you choose: Invisibility or Flight?

The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe Storytelling

NARNIA LAMPPOST LUCY

So much has been said about Narnia already. Can I add a single thing to the corpus by blogging about storytelling techniques in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe?

Probably not, but my 10-year-old is studying this novel at school. She’s home sick today. I know the rest of her class is watching the 2005 film adaptation this afternoon for a compare and contrast exercise, because they send home permission slips for PG rated material. (Honestly, heh, I showed this to my kid when she was about 5.) It’s been a while since we cracked open the DVD, so today we are rewatching The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, together at home, under a blanket.

This blog post is mainly about the 2005 film adaptation, not about the novel. I haven’t read the novel since I was in my late teens, though I keep meaning to go back. I bought myself a beautiful illustrated version for my 30th birthday. What’s keeping me from dusting it off? Probably all the commentary around it, and knowing how problematic it is as a vehicle for certain ideas.

NARNIA AS A MISOGYNISTIC, RACIST, DOG’S BREAKFAST

Some time ago Francis Spufford, author of The Child That Books Built (among many others), spoke with Kim Hill on Radio New Zealand.

Spufford considers The Chronicles of Narnia the ‘essence of book’. (He went on to write Unapologetic.) As a child, the Christian bits meant least to him, but the allegories weren’t mysterious to a church-going boy. What Spufford loved about Narnia was the sensuousness of it. Looking at it critically from an adult point of view it’s easy to criticise this series as a ‘dog’s breakfast’. (After all, it has water nymphs and Father Christmas in the same world.) But Lewis loved all of these elements and he had the ability to bring his passions to life. No other series delivered a world like those ones did. (A modern audience has Harry Potter for an equally sensuous setting, bringing many different elements together.)

Reading as an adult, Spufford noticed misogyny and racism. The racist elements are easy enough to figure out — Lewis was influenced by Arabian Nights and other things. The author’s feelings about women, on the other hand, are harder to figure out. There are a lot of dangerous snake women who keep popping up in the different chronicles and there are no women (apart from mothers) who are safe, at all. Fantasy is a horribly revealing form. People make fantasy out of the deep material of their imagination. Where did this misogyny come from?

C.S. LEWIS: MISOGYNIST BUT NOT SEXIST

Spufford reminds us that C.S. Lewis’ mother died when he was very young. He adds that it now ‘seems unfair to ask the past to know what the present knows’. I disagree wholeheartedly with Spufford on this point. Missing a mother does not make misogyny. As evidence, I proffer every single misogynist who has a perfectly good mother. Instead, all we need for misogynistic tales to thrive is a misogynistic world. And the 1950s were nothing if not that.

Others make the case that The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe is empowering to women. Here’s the argument in a nutshell, from what I can gather:

  • Lewis wasn’t making women subservient to men; he was making humans subservient to God. Lewis intends to exalt divinity, not men. (Gah, now that’s a damn stretch.)
  • Sure, the bad people in Narnia are women, but bad women are powerful women. (I am on board with this argument. I get this one. We’ll know we’ve reached true gender equality when we see as many flawed women in positions of power as there are flawed men. Unfortunately, we’re nowhere near that point yet. This real world fact means that a preponderance of terrible females in positions of fictional power feeds into the existing idea that women are generally terrible when given any power at all.)
  • Susan and Lucy are allowed to be heroines. (Yes, but very specifically female ones. As my ten-year-old said as they laid their heads upon poor, dead Aslan, “Ugh, so they make the girls cry.” Moreover, Lucy is given the stereotypically feminine role of healing, like a wartime nurse.)
  • Lewis isn’t ranking masculine coded activities as higher than feminine coded activities. He doesn’t rank Peter’s skill with the sword HIGHER than he rates Lucy’s ability to heal and empathise. (I’ve heard this a lot before, but ranking is beside the point. Simply assigning gender to certain tasks keeps women in their ‘rightful’ place as caregivers, nurturers and providers of emotional labour.)
  • All of the main characters in Narnia embody feminine characteristics, because submission (to God) is a feminine coded thing to do. All people are feminine to God. And this is the Christian ideal. (Sure, Peter looks after Lucy’s feelings at times, but on the other hand he’s in a clear patriarchal big struggle with his own brother. Peter is a benevolent sexist, at best.)
  • Some have pointed out a difference between ‘classical heroism’ (masculine) and ‘spiritual heroism’ (feminine). These characters go on a spiritual journey, therefore they all go on a feminine journey, rendering gender binaries moot. Some go so far as to say Lewis is even critiquing classical heroism.
  • Lewis plays so much with so-called feminine and masculine virtues that we can’t even think of his characters in this binary gendered way. (Yes, this is always a sticking point in such arguments. But people who study this stuff know full well which attributes are coded feminine by the dominant culture and which are coded masculine. People who use this argument are derailing.)

That is not an exhaustive list of the arguments in favour of gender equality in the Narnia Chronicles. Instead, I want to leave you with a quote from Lewis himself:

I do not believe that God created an egalitarian world. I believe the authority of parent over child, husband over wife, learned over simple to have been as much a part of the original plan as the authority of man over beast.

The Weight of Glory, p 168

If you don’t see that exact ideology shining through in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, I don’t know what to tell you.

Here’s the vital thing to grasp about Lewis and his world view: He didn’t just believe that there is a biological difference between the sexes; he believed there was a spiritual difference as well. To him, femininity represents subjection to God. Men, to Lewis, were literally closer to God. This is still the case for many fundamentalist Christians.

However, C.S. Lewis did believe in political and vocational equality. Donald Trump, by the way, is exactly the same. This is why it’s important to make a distinction between sexism and misogyny. C.S. Lewis, like Donald Trump, was not a clear sexist. He did believe that women were capable of contributing fully to the world (and was happy for women to do just that, recognising that their labours would benefit him). However, he was a keen upholder of the police force of patriarchy, otherwise known as misogyny. For more on this point, I refer you to the excellent book Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny by Kate Manne, specifically page 89.

STORYWORLD OF NARNIA

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe cover illustration by Roger Hane ( 1939-1974) portal
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe cover illustration by Roger Hane ( 1939-1974) portal

There’s an entire article on the Setting of Narnia at Wikipedia.

Narnia is a quasi-medieval world written in the mid 20th century.

I can’t think of a clearer example of The Symbolism of Seasons in Storytelling. Winter means death, summer means life.

The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe is a classic portal fantasy. C.S. Lewis knew to really dwell on the portal. Getting all four children through the portal dominates the first quarter of the story.

C.S. Lewis also made full use of The Symbolism of Altitude, which is not only symbolic but also lends dimensionality to a landscape. Characters go below ground (with the beavers), above ground and high above ground (up trees, on mountains, in a palace).

The 1972 map of Narnia depicts a setting which is mostly forested, except for marshlands in the north. In the Bible, the enemy of God’s people come from the north, bringing destructionFalse kings come from the north. See also: The Symbolism of Cardinal Direction.

STORY STRUCTURE OF THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE (2005 FILM ADAPTATION)

The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe is your classic home-away-home story with a mythic structure.

SHORTCOMING

The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe features an ensemble cast with no stand-out main character. The story crosscuts between Lucy and Edmond, or whoever happens to be the most alone and vulnerable at the time. However, we definitely empathise with Lucy. For my purposes, I nominate Lucy as ‘the main character’. She is also a ‘viewpoint’ character, because when Lucy sees Narnia for the first time, so do we. However, Edmond undergoes the biggest character arc so we could just as easily pick him. (If not more so.)

Lucy’s main shortcoming is that she is the youngest, and therefore expected to be immature and unreliable.

Nobody believes Lucy when she walks through the back of the wardrobe. Honestly, wouldn’t you believe Edmond?

Edmund’s lie of omission, failing to tell his siblings about his encounter with the White Witch, drives much of the drama in the first Narnia story. Interestingly, though, he is probably judged more harshly by contemporary readers than Lewis intended. It is almost impossible, now, to imagine the feelings a child – used to the privations of wartime Britain – might experience on being offered some Turkish Delight. This is one of those occasions where some of the context is lost in the passage of history. If you had grown up with rationing, been shipped out to the country for protection, and found yourself in a magical land where you were offered extraordinary, rarefied sweet things, wouldn’t you lie too?

The Guardian

For more on that, see Liars in Storytelling.

In this new fantasy world she does not understand the threats. Narnia is a fascination to her. This is the shortcoming that could cost Lucy her life.

DESIRE

The Pevensie children stumble into a fantasy world entirely by accident, and as soon as they get there, their mission is to have fun with it. When the learn the stakes, they at first turn down the Call to Adventure (saving everyone from the White Witch), which Joseph Campbell calls Refusal of the Call. It’s mandatory, basically. Against their will, the children are forced to fight on behalf of everyone, proving their mettle.

OPPONENT

Edmond is the black sheep of the Pevensie kids, but I can see why. Peter is so annoying. I call him Patriarchal Peter — we see another identical personality in Peter from Famous Five. “Just do as I tell you! I’m the better-looking, more sensible one!” Peter shames Edmond constantly by demoting him to the status of ‘girl’, first by insulting him during cricket, then by telling him he deserves to wear a girl’s fur coat, as if lying is a naturally feminine attribute. (Highly, highly problematic. It makes my skin crawl.)

The White Witch is your classic Thriller villain — her desire is for power, at whatever cost. She’ll even kill you and your family. She’s almost inhuman, but her logic is understandable to a human audience (she’s not a supernatural horror villain). This makes The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe a children’s action thriller, by my reckoning. Within the setting, the White Witch is a descendent of Lilith the ‘Jinn’. In real world, ancient Jewish mythology, Lilith was a female demon, representing all things “dark and terrifying.” In Jewish folklore she was referred to as the first wife of Adam. She left the Garden of Eden because she did not want to be Adam’s wife. (Why ever not?) A ‘jinn’ is a term sometimes used to refer to genies.

C.S. Lewis has included in his character web the entire gamut of familiar opponent (the siblings), really scary new opponent (White Witch), possible opponent (the Professor), annoying adult opponent (the housekeeper) as well as a false-ally (Mr Tumnus), a possible opponent who turns out to be on their side (Aslan) and everything in between. The true goodness of each character is kept as a reveal, as the audience, alongside the characters, work out who is good and who is evil in this strange new world.

Pauline Baynes,1922-2008, from the lion the witch and the wardrobe ,1950

PLAN

In a thriller (yep, I’m sure this is a thriller), the hero (heroes plural in this case) need a special super power to help them overcome their enemy. The Pevensie kids are pretty ordinary but Father Christmas turns up to help them out. He endows them with actual gifts — a sword for Patriarchal Peter, bow and arrow for Susan, healing medicine for Lucy and I’ve completely forgotten what he gave to Edmond, oh well.

(My daughter thought Father Christmas was the Professor. Like me watching Game of Thrones, old men in grey beards all look the same. Are we meant to think the professor is secretly the Father Christmas of Narnia? The Professor portrayed as bafflingly conspiratorial in the film.)

The children are led by their allies, Mr Tumnus (after he turns), by the beavers and so on. The kids just keep ploughing along the path and battling whoever fights them. That’s the big plan. When they find themselves on the throne they aren’t all that surprised — it’s their birthright. (This is a very white story, in more ways than one.)

BIG STRUGGLE

The Battle scene is hugely elongated in this film and reminds me of the most boring parts of Lord of the Rings (ie. most of it).

I found this image on Comic Vine, so the similarity must be obvious to everyone. (Return of the King came out two years prior.)

Gandalf White Witch

In 2005, the CGI of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe would have been enough to impress. Now it’s showing it’s age a little. (Characters don’t look fully integrated with the background scenery.) But if you enjoy watching strange creatures running towards each other then doing hand-to-hand combat, this movie is for you.

During this big struggle, I started to side with the White Witch. Tilda Swinton has great costume, great hair, her own fake lion’s mane (or maybe it’s meant to be real) and she gets lots of low angle shots which allow her to show her power. Whatever you say about this White Witch, she knows what she wants and she goes for it. She ain’t no bitch of the patriarchy.

ANAGNORISIS

For Peter, Susan and Lucy, their experience in Narnia is a run-of-the-mill coming-of-age story in which they discover their true power.

But Edmond undergoes a more significant character arc, because he had the furthest to come. He shifts from lying traitor to loyal younger brother who knows his place in the patriarchal hierarchy. Peter says, after saving him during Battle, “When are you going to learn to do as you’re told?” echoing the wrapper story of the London bombings. Even before then, he is shown as acceding power to older brother Peter.

This is seen as a good thing, because now the brothers are less Cain and Abel, more like friends. And friends is always a good thing, right?

Edmond’s arc doesn’t sit right with me. The idea that ‘younger siblings must obey older siblings’ led to significant fraternal bullying in the past. Now, with smaller families and/or more vigilant parenting, sibling hierarchy has mostly disappeared. If older siblings are still in charge it’s because they’re developmentally more advanced, not because of a patrimonial culture which grants permanent, life-long power to eldest children, especially to eldest sons.

NEW SITUATION

When the Pevensie children return to their primary world, ‘the wonderful adventure [in Narnia] has been merely a “time-out”, a picnic.’ Nikolajeva likens these books to a modern computer game, in which the player ‘dies’, but simply plays the game again, consequence free.

The fact is that in most quest stories for children…the protagonists, unlike the hero in myth (or a novice during initiation), are liberated from the necessity to suffer the consequences of their actions. What is described is not the real rite of passage, but merely play or, to follow Bakhtin’s notion, carnival.

Maria Nikolajeva

For more on Nikolajeva’s concept of ‘picnic’ and how that relates to ‘genre’ in children’s literature, see this post.

RELATED

Dick Clark’s Unique Flintstone Style House For Sale In MalibuSecret door inside this wardrobe leads to a Narnia themed playroom.

If you’re a Narnia fan, you can listen to the story online here.

Storytelling Tips From Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce (1958)

Tom's Midnight Garden cover with moon and boy silhouette

A descendent of The Secret Garden, sibling of The Chronicles of Narnia and ancestor to The BFG, Tom’s Midnight Garden is an influential and much-loved book which won the Carnegie Medal.

In Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce the moon is heavily symbolic. Night = day as the fantasy world = the real world. This middle grade novel is an example of low fantasy.

SETTING OF TOM’S MIDNIGHT GARDEN

Real World Connection

The author grew up in Cambridgeshire but calls it Castleford here. This allows her to deviate from reality, placing objects where she likes them. It’s a convenient trick.

For the purpose of some of her fiction, including Tom, Pearce put a creative spin on the Cambridgeshire countryside. Thus, the villages of Great Shelford and Little Shelford became Great Barley and Little Barley. And the major city of Cambridge became Castleford minus the famous university. Oddly, the cathedral city of Ely, which figures prominently in Tom, retained its real name. And running throughout, the omnipresent River Cam became the River Say. Although not specifically mentioned in the book, all indications are that, since the real house and garden were located in Great Shelford, Pearce placed Tom and Hatty’s garden in, or very close to, the renamed Great Barley.

Fred Guida, SLJ blog

The story has been criticised for romanticising aristocratic England. We are lead to believe it’s a huge shame that the beautiful old mansion has been broken down into flats, but what is the alternative? For plebs to continue to live in servitude, while the aristocratic class live like kings?

The Mysterious Mansion

The aunt and uncle’s house is a large house surrounded by many little ones. We know immediately that this house is ‘different’. Mysterious. We can expect mysteries. It is also old — linked to the past — and was once a mansion but has since been divided into smaller flats. The aunt and uncle’s house lies north of Cambridgeshire, where the author herself grew up and where she set her stories.

Ghosts

Compared to Australians, at least, English readers are quite likely to believe in ghosts. It is therefore no surprise that Tom jumps to this conclusion after going through the portal.

Secondary World

This is a portal fantasy. The fantasy has similar workings to The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe in that a child stumbles upon a door to another world inside the house where they have been sent to escape something going on at home. When they go back to prove their discovery the world has disappeared — this world is meant only for Tom.

Measles

The story starts with a case of measles.

Measles have been a problem for humans for centuries. While white people developed some immunity over the centuries, they carried the measles virus to native people around the world and put severe, irreparable dents in their populations. In the 1950s, around 500,000 children a year caught the disease, and about 100 died as a result. It was therefore taken seriously. Tom’s Midnight Garden was published in 1958, and although breakthroughs were already being made at around this time it took another 10 years for children to start being vaccinated in Britain.  However, people still weren’t vaccinating their children. As recently as 1988 there were still 80,000 cases of measles a year among children in England, including 16 deaths. This changed when the vaccination was combined into the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine. The number of measles cases dropped significantly after that. But in 1998 there was another hit to the program after some false news emerged that vaccines cause autism. There has been some recovery from this scare, with around 95% of children receiving the vaccination, but there is still a large proportion of children of the 1990s who missed the vaccine and may never have it.

STORY STRUCTURE OF TOM’S MIDNIGHT GARDEN

SHORTCOMING

Tom Long is the main character.

His moral shortcoming is introduced first, though I may be having a different reaction to Tom as an adult reader who is now a mother — Tom doesn’t understand the reason for his being sent away and is in a strop about it. Instead of thinking about how much his brother must be suffering with measles he is completely inward-focussed and laments the loss of the summer he imagined, having fun with his brother climbing the apple tree in the backyard and so on. He fails to say a genuine farewell to his mother, though this is somewhat mutual.

The paragraph about the apple tree in the description of his own backyard tells us Tom’s need: He needs to be close to nature in order to be happy.

DESIRE

Tom’s desire is to stay in his own house and enjoy the freedom of typical summer holidays. Like many stories about children of this age, this is about one boy’s quest for freedom — spiritual if not actual.

OPPONENT

Tom’s mother is his first opponent, for wanting something different — she doesn’t want him to catch measles, and I’m sure she doesn’t want to have to look after more than one sick son at a time.

Uncle Alan and Aunt Gwen are opponents simply by virtue of conspiring with his mother to host him at their house.

Once at his aunt and uncle’s house a mysterious character is introduced, though adult readers will recognise The Woman In The Attic trope — “Mrs Barthlomew upstairs” who is the owner of the mysterious grandfather clock which strikes 13 o’clock. She dresses all in black and other adult characters give the impression she’s not to be messed with.

PLAN

Tom is fighting against his imprisonment. He plans to get around his measles quarantine in any way he can, even if it means never actually leaving the house. For starters he’ll find out the yard is like, even though it’s apparently nothing to write home about.

When he finds the magical garden he confronts his aunt and uncle, who lied to him about their poky little backyard. He realises only he can see it.

Now he needs to find out as much about it as he can.

The mystery deepens as characters emerge on the scene:

  • Are they ghosts?
  • Is Tom, perhaps, a ghost in the style of Sixth Sense or The Others? These Dead All Along films are much more recent than this children’s book of course, but they were based on older stories such as “An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge” from 1890 (also an episode of The Twilight Zone). I’m thinking maybe Tom died of the measles and though he thinks he was waving to his brother Peter he was actually waving to the live version of himself? The thing about the Dead All Along trope, once you realise the character is dead all along, everything prior in the story makes more sense. That’s not what happens in this case. The explanation is a bit different.

BIG STRUGGLE

The big struggle scene is Tom rushing downstairs trying to get through the gate and failing, realising he can never go back.

I’m sure this book is a Rorschach test, with the reader imposing individual meanings onto the text. For me this story is about the end of childhood. You can never go back. But what if you could? You can, of course, but only in your mind.

ANAGNORISIS

There is a ‘Scooby Doo’ chapter at the end in which all is explained. Mrs Bartholomew heard Tom screaming her name and summons him up to ‘apologise’, but really she wants to tell him that she is Hatty and Tom was sharing her memories.

NEW SITUATION

Tom has closure on the Midnight Garden and will return home satisfied. His uncle and auntie will remain a bit mystified about this slightly odd nephew of theirs.

FURTHER NOTES

Food

Food is important in children’s literature. In utopian stories there is never any concern about where the next meal is coming from — it just appears. See for example The Wind In The Willows or Winnie The Pooh.

In this story, however, the abundant and delicious food is used to show how Tom is stifled. He lies in a ‘snail under the leaf setting’ — safe from harm in the suburbs with people who care for him and his every need met — but for a boy who needs to spread his wings this is a prison.

Aunt Gwen’s cooking was the cause of Tom’s sleeplessness — that and lack of exercise. Tom had to stay indoors and do crossword puzzles and jigsaw puzzles, and never even answered the door when the milkman came, in case he gave the poor man measles. The only exercise he took was in the kitchen when he was helping his aunt to cook those large, rich meals — large and richer than Tom had ever known before.

The Technique of Side Shadowing

For a breakdown of the 3 main types of literary shadowing see here.

Side shadowing lets the reader know how else the story might have panned out. One reason for using this is to offer alternative endings, to ask the reader to consider some sort of theme, like justice, or if the character made the right choice in the end.

But in the case of Tom’s Midnight Garden, Philippa Pearce uses side shadowing mainly to reassure us that ‘This is not just your run-of-the-mill ghost story. I know you think you know how this is going to pan out because you’ve read plenty of ghost stories, no doubt. But I’m telling you you’re in for a surprise!”

She achieves that message with the following passage, written using ‘would’. Notice too the metafictive reference to “Tom’s” reading lots of children’s books — when Tom is a stand-in for the child reader:

Tom resolved that, as soon as he was better, he would call on Mrs Bartholomew. True, she was an unsociable old woman of whom people were afraid, but Tom could not let that stand in his way. He would boldly ring her front door bell; she would open her front door just a crack and peer crossly out at him. Then she would see him, and at the sight of his face her heart would melt (Tom had read of such occurrences in the more old-fashioned children’s books; he had never before thought them very probable, but now it suited him to believe): Mrs Bartholomew, who did not like children, would love Tom as soon as she saw his face. She would draw him inside at once, then and there; and later, over a tea-table laden with delicacies for him alone, she would tell Tom the stories of long ago. Sometimes Tom would ask questions, and she would answer them. ‘A little girl called Harriet, or Hatty?’ she would say, musingly. ‘Why, yes, my late husband told me once of such a child — oh! long ago! An only child she was, and an orphan. When her parents died her aunt took her into this house to live. Her aunt was a disagreeable woman…’

So the story, in Tom’s imagination, rolled on. It became confused and halting where Tom himself did not already know the facts; but after all, he would only have to wait to pay his call upon Mrs Bartholomew, to hear it all from her own lips. She would perhaps end her story, he thought, with a dropped of her voice: [old fashioned melodrama based on the oral tradition] ‘And since then, Tom, they say that she and her garden and all the rest haunt this house. They say that those who are lucky may go down, about when the clock strikes for midnight, and open what was once the garden door and see the ghost of that garden and of the little girl.’

Tom’s mind ran on the subject. His cold was getting so much better […]

For me the side shadowing happens at exactly the right moment, as my attention is starting to flag and I’m wondering if I can already predict the ending of this story.

Pearce also makes use of foreshadowing and also backshadowing in this story — an example of backshadowing is the reference to Hatty’s sons dying in The Great War, which she explains is now known as the First World War. This sort of real world detail is knowledge shared between audience and characters.

Portal Fantasy

Portal fantasy or portal speculative fiction is a story which transports the characters into a magical world via a gate/wardrobe/magical tree or anything else the author might imagine. As a child, this was my favourite kind of story, alongside the everyday humorous category of middle grade fiction written so well by Beverly Cleary.

A PORTAL CAN BE ALMOST ANYTHING

  • Rabbit holes (Alice In Wonderland)
  • Keyholes
  • Mirrors (Through The Looking Glass)
  • Cyclones (Wizard of Oz)
  • A wardrobe (The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, The Aunt and Amabel by E. Nesbit)
  • A Chimney (Mary Poppins)
  • A painting (in The Witches by Roald Dahl)
  • A tunnel (The Cabin In The Woods)
  • A wall at the train station (Harry Potter)
  • A computer screen
  • Television set (Pleasantville, Poltergeist)
  • Rope swing across a river (Bridge To Terabithia)
  • A tall tree in the middle of the woods (The Magic Faraway Tree)
  • A science lab (The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Back To The Future)
  • A maze of back alleys in your own neighbourhood (The Cat Returns)
  • Under water (Ponyo, Begone The Raggedy Witches)
  • In various religious practices the vesica piscis (which looks like two intersecting circles) represents a doorway where the spirit world enters the material world.
  • In various religions, the doorway marks the portal between the real world, and the world of either Heaven or Hell.
"The Gates of FairyLand" (1922) by Margaret W. Tarrant (1888-1959)
“The Gates of FairyLand” (1922) by Margaret W. Tarrant (1888-1959)
The West-Door of Moria from Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien -illustration by  Darrell K Sweet, 1975 portal
The West-Door of Moria from Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien -illustration by Darrell K Sweet, 1975

LINGER IN THE PORTAL

Spending time in the portal itself is key.

One obvious reason to linger in a portal is to give an audience the enjoyment of being transported to another world. Another reason is to make sure the audience doesn’t zone out for a moment and lose track of where they are.

In Interstellarwe spend quite some time in the wormhole thing that allows our hero to push books off the bookshelf in her bedroom in an earlier era. (Interstellar is an example of Science Fantasy.)

COMMON PROBLEMS WITH PORTAL FANTASIES

Are we no longer willing to go Through The Looking Glass? from io9 asks why publishers have decided not to publish any more portal fantasy. There are several reasons I’ve heard, regarding why agents aren’t interested in representing authors of portal fantasy:

  1. A lot of first time authors write portal fantasy and first time authors don’t tend to be ready for publication.
  2. The reason a lot of first time authors write portal fantasy may also be to do with the fact they grew up on portal fantasy, when it was big. This may be a bad sign that they haven’t read anything since their own childhood.
  3. Even if agents do request a full for a portal fantasy they tend to get sick of the whole rigmarole of going into the new world from the real one and being told everything that’s new about the world. This gets same-old, same-old and is rarely as interesting as the author thinks it is.
  4. Also, once you stop the action to describe the new world, the narrative drive flags.

As someone says in the comments: “Who cares what the publishing industry wants? If you want to write a portal fantasy, write it. Share it with people, polish it as best you can, and put it up on Amazon.”

NOTES FROM A WRITER/EDITOR

As an editor specialising in YA and MG, I tend to see a lot of portal fantasies (stories where the protagonist finds themselves in another world, where most of the conflict then takes place). And I’ve found that sub-genre to have some very common problems.

The most common problem I see with portal fantasies is that the conflict is impersonal. The protagonist is transported to another world, one they usually didn’t know existed, then required to save and/or escape it. My question: why should they (and therefore we) care?

Questions to ask to avoid your portal fantasy having an impersonal conflict:

Why does this world matter to the protagonist in a deeply personal and unique way? What does it mean to them that it doesn’t to anyone else? Why/how will it continue to matter after they save/escape it?

Another common problem with portal fantasies: negative goals. By that I mean, the MC typically wants only to get home or to avoid being captured/killed on this new world. Without a positive goal to back this up, it ends up making the conflict feel stagnant and, again, impersonal.

As you write your portal fantasy, ask yourself what your character wants beyond escape or survival or to save this other world just because that’s the right thing to do (or because “fate”). Could saving this world lead to him/her getting something they want, maybe in their own world?

Another way to make a portal fantasy personal if the character’s central goal is to simply survive or save a world they have no reason to care about: work that growth arc! How can they change while hiding from the evil alien monkeys on Earth-2? How does that impact their future?

Another common flaw in portal fantasies is poor world building. Don’t be afraid to dig deep, get wild, think about how the differences between that world and your character’s world would stand out and affect things at a level your readers might not have realised.

A well-done portal fantasy: Ready Player One (the movie specifically). The Oasis (the “other world”) MATTERED to Wade, and the stakes, though Oasis-focused, were grounded in the real world. The Oasis’s salvation was deeply entwined with Wade’s growth arc. Great world-building too!

@NaomiHughesYA

Query Shark has said about portals: “Stumbling through a portal is one of those devices you use cause you haven’t figured out how to get them to a different world in a more interesting way.”

EXAMPLES OF PORTAL FANTASY IN CHILDREN’S FICTION

  • Bridge To Terabithia a swing rope across a river
  • In The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis has Lucy (and Edmond) go to the wardrobe multiple times. We know exactly what it’s like in there.
  • Alice In Wonderland a rabbit hole
  • The Magic Faraway Tree a magical tree in The Enchanted Wood where a different land swings round at random times
PORTALS IN PICTURE BOOKS

Many picture books are of the structure Home-Away-Home, in which the child starts the journey at home, leaves for an adventure then returns safely. In these books, there is often an image of the front door, or perhaps of a window. This behaves in a similar way to a portal (door or otherwise) in a fantasy novel.

There are a lot of images of the front door and the boy's bedroom window in The Snowman by Raymond Briggs.
There are a lot of images of the front door and the boy’s bedroom window in The Snowman by Raymond Briggs.

Is it still a ‘portal fantasy’ if the doorway takes you back into the mundane world but with extra powers? If so we’ll add:

FURTHER LINKS

The Portal Fantasy entry at Wikipedia

Portal tropes are heavily utilised in video games, of course. A part of me wonders if this is what has turned good children’s writers away from the device.

What If I Told You John Wick Was A Portal Fantasy? at Tor

In film, especially in the Action genre, a whip shot is often used when a character goes through a portal.