Symbolism of Birds

VERNEUIL, Maurice Pillard (1869-1942). L'Animal dans la décoration. Paris- Librairie centrale des Beaux-arts, [1897] Birds Snails

Birds are much older than we are — living dinosaurs. Across cultures, birds function as smart collaborators with humans. We now know how smart (some) birds really are, but we have long had a sense of their canniness. The smartest bird in the world is currently thought to be the New Zealand Kea, which isn’t so great if you live in New Zealand and the kea is chewing the bits of rubber off your car.

New Zealand’s kakapo is also a bit of a… character.


Birds are frequently utilised in tales of transmogrification. Wings are frequently stuck onto chimerae. This surely has something to do with humans’ long-held wish-fulfilment fantasy of being able to fly.

Take the Ancient Greek mythological siren.

Bird symbolism in the Greek imagination was common. Reverse-engineering the meaning of all these story-birds isn’t easy. For instance, we’ll never know for sure why Sirens took the form of a hybrid bird-woman, but we do know that in ancient mythology birds represented a number of things:

  • oracles
  • enchantresses
  • messengers of deities
  • mediators (between the human world and the supernatural realm)

Over the centuries, however, the Siren transformed. In the Middle Ages, the spread of Christianity throughout Europe saw the Siren morph from a bird-woman into a fish-bodied being, who personified the dangers of both the sea and female sexuality. The seventh-century medieval bestiary Liber monstruorum diversis generibus, or the “Book of Monsters,” is one of the earliest examples of this transition, describing Sirens as sea-girls who “are like human beings from the head to the navel, with the body of a maiden, but have scaly fish tails, with which they always lurk in the sea.” Illustrations from the period clearly reveal the difference; the Sirens now have voluptuous bodies, perform erotic moves, and exhibit brazen tactics of seduction, such as staring longingly into mirrors and combing their hair. These Sirens no longer symbolized the spirit, but rather, the pleasures of the flesh.

Continue reading “Symbolism of Birds”

Depicting Motion In Illustration

How do illustrators convey motion when creating static images?

As a case study, we can’t go past Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter. Others have analysed her illustrations in depth. Although soft watercolours aren’t the usual medium for high action, life-or-death picture books these days, Potter successfully used soft watercolours to create excitement. It’s deceptive. Impressively, she created high action illustrations even without the comic book flourishes, without the slashes of primary colour, without the art noir techniques.


Building a field of unified motion has been an artist’s tool for attracting the viewer’s attention. A unified field of motion keeps the image coherent, sustains the attention of the viewer and, invests the image with an enlivening spirit, “its Alive!” We pay more attention to active than inert subjects.

J.M.W. Turner took pride in his ability to suggest motion. He invested so much motion in his later works that viewers complained he sacrificed legibility. But, motion is more evocative of vitality than objects delineated in stasis. Turner’s fascination with motion inspired him to create his famous early 1844 locomotive painting, “Rain Steam and Speed”. The entire surface roils with clouds of movement.

David Dunlop

In his post, David Dunlop also talks about Degas and Van Gogh, and points out how natural weather events contribute to motion. Wind is one such event.

Rain is another, creating a natural sense of vertical motion, except of course when it’s accompanied by wind.

Ida Rentoul Outhwaite 1888 - 1960 The Storm
Ida Rentoul Outhwaite 1888 – 1960 The Storm

Back to children’s books, Blinky Bill is another interesting case study into motion, partly because koalas are famous for doing nothing all day (or appearing to). Yet Dorothy Wall created a story full of action. For young readers who knew koalas, this in itself would have functioned as a comic paradox.

By 1933, the comic book conventions are established. Notice the motion lines of the kangaroo, of the items flying off the desk, and of Blinky Bill’s slingshot. The image of Madam Hare reprimanding Brer Rabbit is more interesting, because Wall has used a motion flourish behind the onlookers, who are still, to suggest drama. The black flourish itself looks like a massive motion line. Wall reuses this technique in the final blow, where Madam Hare delivers a parting kick. This time, Wall makes use of ‘pow!’ lines as well as that black, background flourish.

More modern children’s book illustrators also use comic book flourishes to suggest motion. In full colour illustration, the white brush stroke is aesthetically pleasing.

The troll from the Three Billy Goats Gruff flies through the air. Illustration by Robert Lumley.

Chris Van Dusen also uses the interesting technique of bordering his characters in a thin corona of white aand/or yellow, to help them stand out against his beautifully detailed backgrounds. (Basically this is his way of dealing with aerial perspective.)

Mercy Watson Goes For A Ride, illustrated by Chris Van Dusen
Mercy Watson Goes For A Ride, illustrated by Chris Van Dusen

Mo speed, mo lines. The entire road in this poster comprises motion lines.

Le Mans 1954 poster by Charles Avalon motion
Le Mans 1954 poster by Charles Avalon motion
Illustrator unknown, circa 1920
Alfred Crocker Leighton (1901-1965) Canadian travel poster 1933
Alfred Crocker Leighton (1901-1965) Canadian travel poster 1933
Alfred Crocker Leighton (1901-1965) Canadian Pacific Railway poster for use in the travel market in Belgium, ca 1930
Alfred Crocker Leighton (1901-1965) Canadian Pacific Railway poster for use in the travel market in Belgium, ca 1930
1928 car advertisement with eagle by Lagache motion
1928 car advertisement with eagle by Lagache
Grant Haffner
Grant Haffner
Art Fitzpatrick and Van Kaufman for the Pontiac Bonneville Vista, 1960.  Less lean and sway on turns, corners, curves. motion
Art Fitzpatrick and Van Kaufman for the Pontiac Bonneville Vista, 1960. Less lean and sway on turns, corners, curves.

Back to Billy Goats Gruff and Robert Lumley. No motion lines here, but we do have a visual depiction of sound, which coincides with the goat trip-trapping across that bridge. This technique is especially widespread throughout manga, which originate in Japan — a language rich in onomatopoeia and mimesis.

Robert Lumley illustrates the billy goat trotting across the bridge.

The Art Deco poster below uses decoration to double-duty as the motion of ringing bells and a visual representation of the ringing coming out of them.

Certain objects lend themselves to motion, and in this case the motion of the lasso provides a ‘grid’ for the entire composition. This is an excellent case of typography helping out with the sense of motion.

Cover by N. Zimelli, 1931 motion
Cover by N. Zimelli, 1931
magazine cover from 1927
magazine cover from 1927

As Beatrix Potter knew, watercolour, in the hands of a master painter, is excellent for depicting motion. Even in the hands of a master painter, it always does its own thing, and this unpredictability is felt by the viewer.

Janusz Grabianski (1929-1976), Polish children’s book illustrator. This fox in motion is from The Big Book of Animal Stories, 1961
A cover of Japanese publication Shukan Shincho shows a magical hovering insect human chimera inside concentric circles. I can almost hear the hum.
A cover of Japanese publication Shukan Shincho shows a magical hovering insect human chimera inside concentric circles. I can almost hear the hum.
Dugald Stewart Walker illustrator, Sara Teasdale (1884-1933) writer, ‘Rainbow gold; poems old and new selected for boys and girls’ 1922-6
Harry Beckhoff (1901–1979) Reader's Digest illustration from the 1950s, train, motion
Harry Beckhoff (1901–1979) Reader’s Digest illustration from the 1950s
Robert L. Dickey 1930
Robert L. Dickey 1930
In The Snowman, Raymond Briggs demonstrates that colour pencil/pastel is also pretty good for motion lines, too.
In The Snowman, Raymond Briggs demonstrates that colour pencil/pastel is also pretty good for motion lines, too.
Dan May moth
Dan May



Distortion of bodies and even of objects is a…conventional means by which pictures convey motion. As Peter runs from Mr. McGregor in another picture in The Tale of Peter Rabbit, his head seems almost bullet-shaped, his ears apparently held down by air resistance, his body at an impossible slant that conveys great speed.

Perry Nodelman, Words About Pictures
stop thief peter rabbit

Below are more exaggerated examples of the same technique.

The Greedy Little Cobbler by Tony Ross, Arrow Books Ltd, London 1988 motion
The Greedy Little Cobbler by Tony Ross, Arrow Books Ltd, London 1988 motion


Where characters wear loose clothing with billowing potential, illustrators can easily convey motion by simply billowing the fabric. (Actually drawing fabric in motion is an art in itself, however!)

Where the fabric is not particularly billowy (ie. most clothing worn by masculo-coded characters), leaping and jumping is conveyed by inserting some space between the feet and the ground. It’s not entirely clear how high this guy is jumping as there’s no grounding shadow. (I conclude he’s flying more than jumping.)

RENE BULL (1845 - 1942) Leaping Warrior based on Ballets Russes, Polovtsian Dances by Michel Fokine
RENE BULL (1845 – 1942) Leaping Warrior based on Ballets Russes, Polovtsian Dances by Michel Fokine

Long hair is as useful as fabric in the motion department. Birds are clearly necessary to the story in The Great Sea Horse illustration below, but birds in flight come in handy more generally for conveying a sense that the static world illustrated before us is alive. A bird with its wings in ‘m’ position cannot exist without constant motion. Ditto for humans in mid stride, and so on.

The Great Sea Horse 1909 by Isabel Anderson 4
The Great Sea Horse 1909 by Isabel Anderson

Skies, especially stormy skies, can be utilised to convey a sense of motion on the ground. This pretty much always results in a dramatic scene. Notice too how Alexander Zick makes use of birds in flight to indicate the motion and direction of the ship.

Alexander Zick (1845-1907) 1892 illustration called ′The Viking’s Funeral’

A fight scene, on a ship, during a storm. Peak motion. Notice that Amos Sewell also makes use of static onlookers (proxy for us). These static viewers serve to emphasise the motion they perceive (as well as lead our eyes to the fighting characters).

Amos Sewell fight on deck during a storm


I’m not talking in this case about houses on legs, Baba Yaga style, though that’s one way of moving a building!

Is the building moving in each image below, or does motion solely derive from the movement of the viewer? It doesn’t matter, and in fact I think it’s both, in which case art does something everyday vision cannot achieve: a melding between object and perceiver.

First we have an example of a music theatre from Gaston and Josephine, a French children’s book from the mid 20th century, illustrated by Feodor Rojankovsky.

In this double spread illustration, we can clearly tell the music has begun, because the interior itself appears to be in motion, with the people in the gallery dangerously tapering away, their seats sliding far to the right (at least they would be if this illustration conformed to the laws of perspective and physics).

Otar Imerlishvili is ‘known for his whimsical scenes that depict daily life through the colored lens of innocence and wonder.’ This fantasy piano house is another good example of an illustration of music. You wouldn’t think it possible to illustrate music, which is an auditory experience rather than a visual one, but the magic of music seems to morph the visual world in synesthesic fashion.

Otar Imerlishvili piano motion
Otar Imerlishvili

Below are more examples of the ‘liquify filter’, applied long before Photoshop existed. In all cases, the buildings and background seem to be in motion.

Cover art for House Beautiful by Marjory C. Woodbury [1891-1964]
Cover art for House Beautiful by Marjory C. Woodbury [1891-1964]
Tumble Timbers (study drawing), around 1925–26, by Wanda Gág
Tumble Timbers (study drawing), around 1925–26, by Wanda Gág
Sidney Walter Stanley for The Willows and Other Queer Tales by Algernon Blackwood 1932
Sidney Walter Stanley for The Willows and Other Queer Tales by Algernon Blackwood 1932

The ‘liquify filter’ on the house below is more subtle. The scrubby brush strokes on the trees work harder to convey a sense of motion. But the wavy lines and slightly off-kilter perspective on the house is still there, aided by the unlikely height of the building.

The Sword of Welleran and Other Stories 1908 illustrated by Sidney Herbert Sime
The Sword of Welleran and Other Stories 1908 illustrated by Sidney Herbert Sime
Cyril Power, 1934 train movement
Cyril Power, 1934 train movement
Poster by Aldo Mazza, 1921
Poster by Aldo Mazza, 1921


The poster below works a little like the continuous narrative art technique utilised by picture book artists to suggest a sequence of activities, only in this case it depicts speed.

Motorcycle Rally Poster – Italian – art by Lucio Venna – 1927 motion
Mikhail Bychkov - Peter Pan
Mikhail Bychkov – Peter Pan
Zbigniew Rychlicki train
Zbigniew Rychlicki


Sometimes there’s little you can do to make the moving object itself look like it’s moving. In the illustration of a moving vehicle below, Anton Pieck includes exhaust fumes coming from the rear of the vehicle, which is a cue that the car is moving rather than parked. However, it’s not quite enough. He includes the boy running alongside the car to show us that the car is in motion.

Anton Pieck (1895-1987), Dutch painter and illustrator
Anton Pieck (1895-1987), Dutch painter and illustrator


This illustration technique works especially well for ships. In the work below, the ‘horizon’ of the ship is tilted, but the actual horizon remains horizontal. It’s the mismatch which conveys the motion. I almost feel sick.

Jean Emile LABORER (1877-1943) Transatlantic, 1907 transatlantic steamboat

In Bernie Wrightson’s Frankenstein illustration below, the horizon itself has shifted. We view the ship from a distance, not as a passenger.

Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ illustration by Bernie Wrightson (1976)

Below we have a non-seascape example of a tilted horizon. Storms and titled horizons go hand in hand. This comes in handy even if your ‘storm’ is pathetic (inducing pathos) rather than literal.

The Sword of Welleran and Other Stories 1908 illustrated by Sidney Herbert Sime
The Sword of Welleran and Other Stories 1908 illustrated by Sidney Herbert Sime

Contrast with the painting below, in which the artist aims for absolute stillness (and achieves it admirably) with a horizontal horizon, water almost like a mirror and a collection of three artfully arranged ships, differing in distance but nonetheless evenly spaced from the viewer’s perspective.

Carl Brandt (1871 - 1930) After the Storm, 1914
Carl Brandt (1871 – 1930) After the Storm, 1914

In Ronald Searle’s illustration below, ‘motion lines’ suggest the big stack of books has been plonked onto the table, In fact that stack of books is probably the only thing not moving. However, those scribbly lines give the illustration an overall sense of motion. ‘Motion lines’ aren’t always attached to the item that’s meant to be moving.

from 'Slightly Foxed - but still desirable - Ronald Searle's wicked world of Book Collecting' Souvenir Press 1989
from ‘Slightly Foxed – but still desirable – Ronald Searle’s wicked world of Book Collecting’ Souvenir Press 1989


Victor Ambrus
Victor Ambrus


Does this horse have two heads, or is it quickly looking backwards then forwards?

André François, 1972
André François, 1972
Nadezhda Illarionova - Cinderella
Nadezhda Illarionova – Cinderella
'Virtuoso' - The Roger Wagner Chorale
‘Virtuoso’ – The Roger Wagner Chorale

Animals Riding Other Animals

Early-twentieth century illustrations by Artuš Scheiner (1863 – 1938) riding horse underwater

When I watched Rise of the Planet of the Apes I was disturbed for an unlikely reason. It wasn’t the dystopian aspect of a world where humans were no longer top of the food chain. The resonant image for me was when the apes were riding horses.

I immediately checked myself. Why am I slightly repelled by the spectacle of apes riding horses? I mean, humans ride horses and we’re not much different from apes.

Yet humans sort of had to ride horses. If we hadn’t used horses at certain points in our history, we wouldn’t be where we are today. Jared Diamond writes about this in his book Guns, Germs and Steel, about how human evolution has favoured certain geographical groups over others.

Kodomo no kuni (“Children’s Land”), 1922–30 monkeys riding horse
Kodomo no kuni (“Children’s Land”), 1922–30 monkeys riding horse


First he points out that domestic animals including horses didn’t do well in Africa because of climate and disease carried by tsetse flies. For that reason, the horse only became established as far south as the equator, and only on the Western side of the African continent until A.D. 1-200, where they transformed warfare. Yet horses had long since become established in other parts of the world. In Egypt they also transformed warfare, starting around 1800 B.C. As soon as horses make their way into an area, humans use them to fight wars with.

Every domesticated animal has a wild ancestor. The wild ancestor of the horse, the wild horse of southern Russia, is now extinct, though a different subspecies survived in the wild to modern times in Mongolia. (This Mongolian horse is now rare and protected and survives in a protected National Park. But it is no longer ‘wild’.) Sheep, goats and pigs were the first wild animals to be domesticated. The most recent example of domestication is the camel.

Diamond draws a clear distinction between animals which can be tamed (e.g. elephants) versus animals which can be domesticated. ‘Tamed’ simply means to become less dangerous to humans, whereas to be domesticated, a wild animal is ‘selectively bred in captivity and thereby modified from its wild ancestors, for use by humans who control the animal’s breeding and food supply’. Some animals can be domesticated and others cannot. For instance, no one has ever domesticated a zebra. You simply cannot put a saddle on a zebra, and you can be sure people have tried. We know that zebras tend to bite you and not loosen their bite. But horses don’t do that. I know from reading Lonesome Dove that horses can bite you badly in the shoulder and also bite off your toes, but horses don’t keep hold of your flesh like zebras do. Horses can therefore be broken in.

Why can you put a saddle on a horse and not on a zebra (or on elk or eland)? Three factors:

  • Horses aren’t as skittish and nervous. You can keep them in captivity.
  • They are herd animals who don’t mind company
  • Horses first developed a firm social hierarchy between themselves. Humans utilised this natural hierarchy and position themselves at the top. (Normally it’d be the top ranking female horse.)

Domesticated horses have therefore been vital to humans, first in warfare, next in agricultural and in transportation across long distances.

Dragons are also fun to ride.

Fairytale book published in 1982 by Vladimir Kovarik, illustrated by Daniela Benesova (27 september 1929, Tsjechië)
Fairytale book published in 1982 by Vladimir Kovarik, illustrated by Daniela Benesova (27 september 1929, Tsjechië)
Virginia Frances Sterrett (1900-1931 USA) riding dragon
Virginia Frances Sterrett (1900-1931 USA)
Feodor Rojankovsky (Frog Went A-Courtin', written by John Langstaff, 1955)
Feodor Rojankovsky (Frog Went A-Courtin’, written by John Langstaff, 1955)
'Pinocchio in the Moon' Illustration by Corrado Sarri, 1924
‘Pinocchio in the Moon’ Illustration by Corrado Sarri, 1924


Since we are used to seeing humans riding horses, it’s no great stretch of the imagination to witness them riding flying horses (pegasuses). Though when a human rides a bird, the human has probably been through some sort of shrinking process. Flight is one of the main wish fulfilment fantasies, especially in children’s literature. The experience of riding a horse is very much like flying, and we use the word ‘fly’ to describe rapid, smooth movement, even across ground.

from Richard Doyle's Fairyland 1870
from Richard Doyle’s Fairyland 1870
Harry Rountree,  The Doings of Furrymouse,  1919 chincilla riding crow
Harry Rountree, The Doings of Furrymouse, 1919.


The illustration below is clearly a play on the English word ‘to ride piggyback’. The phrase refers to anything riding on the back of something else, metaphorically or literally.

L. Leslie Brooke (1862–1940)- “This Little Pig cried 'Wee, wee, wee! I can't find my way home!'" from “Ring O’ Roses, A Nursery Rhyme Picture Book,” Frederick Warne & Company, Ltd., 1922
L. Leslie Brooke (1862–1940)- “This Little Pig cried ‘Wee, wee, wee! I can’t find my way home!'” from “Ring O’ Roses, A Nursery Rhyme Picture Book,” Frederick Warne & Company, Ltd., 1922

The history of this word has nothing to do with pigs:

Piggyback is a corruption of pickaback, which is likely a folk etymology alteration of pick pack (1560s), which perhaps is from pick, a dialectal variant of the verb pitch.

This slightly uncomfortable Frank Beard illustration comes out of America. “What may happen when little boys play leap frog too much.”


It is surprisingly easy to find old illustrations of humans and other animals riding fish and fish-people.

Paulina Garwatowska - The Tales of Hans Christian Andersen old woman riding a fish
Paulina Garwatowska – The Tales of Hans Christian Andersen old woman riding a fish
Chinese Firecracker box label man riding fish
Chinese Firecracker box illustration. A man has gone fishing and ends up riding the fish.
The Great Sea Horse 1909 by Isabel Anderson
The Great Sea Horse 1909 by Isabel Anderson
Alan Aldridge illustration 1973 for The Butterfly Ball and the Grasshopper's Feast riding
Alan Aldridge illustration 1973 for The Butterfly Ball and the Grasshopper’s Feast
Mermaid Riding a Sea Serpent (Hans Christiansen, 1897, a  magazine cover)
Mermaid Riding a Sea Serpent (Hans Christiansen, 1897, a magazine cover)
The Oyster Loaf menu cover, 1940s, Andrew Loomis (1892-1959) riding
The Oyster Loaf menu cover, 1940s, Andrew Loomis (1892-1959)
Marina Marcolin

The flippers on the horse in the illustration below are a particularly resonant detail.

Erich Shutz, Austrian (1886-1937) 1930 riding
Erich Shutz, Austrian (1886-1937) 1930 riding
Kodomo no kuni (“Children’s Land”), 1922–30 riding donkey
Kodomo no kuni (“Children’s Land”), 1922–30
Attilio, 1978 rabbit riding dog
Attilio, 1978 rabbit riding dog
Ikke kjørende og ikke ridende, 1907 riding
Ikke kjørende og ikke ridende, 1907

Looking at art as a corpus, it seems modern audiences no longer look at a fish and imagine riding it, like, at all. Maybe sometimes, in something absurdist. But the illustrations below make me think that in pre-aeroplane times, people were just as likely to imagine fish as birds when conceiving of a flight contraption.

Albert Robida (1848-1926), Le Vingtième siècle aka The Twentieth Century, 1883
Albert Robida (1848-1926), Le Vingtième siècle aka The Twentieth Century, 1883


Sidesaddle riding is a form of equestrianism that uses a type of saddle which allows a rider (usually female) to sit aside rather than astride an equine. Sitting aside dates back to antiquity and developed in European countries in the Middle Ages as a way for women in skirts to ride a horse in a modest fashion while also wearing fine clothing. It has retained a specialty niche even in the modern world.


The sidesaddle tradition goes way back and can be seen on Greek vases. It exists because the rubbish concept of virginity exists, in which the hymen must be preserved so men can marry their daughters off well. As they clearly knew even then, a wide variety of normal activities can stretch the hymen (hymens do not break), but they did not then come to the conclusion that the hymen and penetrative sex have little to do with each other. The natural conclusion was that women’s movements must be further restricted.

None of this comes into children’s picture books, of course. Unless we do a count up of girls with their legs closed versus boys with their legs astride; girls being carried to safey, boys more active in their own travel and rescue.

The Wizard Of Oz- 1944 flying monkeys, illustration by Evelyn Copelman
The Wizard Of Oz- 1944 flying monkeys, illustration by Evelyn Copelman
One of Harry Clarke’s illustrations for Fairy Tales (1916) by Hans Christen Andersen
One of Harry Clarke’s illustrations for Fairy Tales (1916) by Hans Christen Andersen
Charles James Folkard (6 April 1878 – 26 February 1963) riding
Charles James Folkard (6 April 1878 – 26 February 1963)
This illustration by Ida Rentoul Outhwaite is interesting because normally witches are depicted sitting astride their broom, and this looks mighty uncomfortable indeed. But if witches have the power to make broomsticks fly, why wouldn’t they also have the ability to stand on them like this?
Ida Rentoul Outhwaite (1888 - 1960) 1925 illustration Witch's Sister On Her Black Bat for The Enchanted Forest written by her husband Grenbry Outhwaite
Ida Rentoul Outhwaite (1888 – 1960) 1925. This is an illustration called Witch’s Sister On Her Black Bat for The Enchanted Forest, written by her husband Grenbry Outhwaite.
Helen Jacobs (1888-1970), The night flight riding
Helen Jacobs (1888-1970), The night flight
American illustrator Virginia Frances Sterrett riding tortoise
American illustrator Virginia Frances Sterrett died tragically young of TB at the age of 30.
The Green Fairy Book, edited by Andrew Lang with illustrations by H. J. Ford, 1906 riding
The Green Fairy Book, edited by Andrew Lang with illustrations by H. J. Ford, 1906.


This trope describes the situation in which a female character rides on a bike (motorised or otherwise) while a man steers.

Growing up in the 80s, my bike was different from my brothers’ bikes. My top bar was heavily angled. When I asked why, my father told me it was so I could get onto the bike wearing a skirt, which seems ridiculous even for the 80s, except I was required to wear full school uniform to school all through the 90s, so I mostly was trying to pull down my summer tunic as the wind caught it, and constantly trying to keep my winter kilt out from the back wheel. (I didn’t succeed.) Honestly, the nuisance of a horizontal top bar would’ve been the least of my concerns.

Inverse examples of the riding bitch in children’s stories are rare. However, you will occasionally find them, in which case the female character is coded deliberately as a ‘take charge’ sort of girl.

Are women’s bikes still built differently? Yes, but in a way that accommodates for average differences in build rather than from some outdated idea that women are still mostly riding skirts on bikes, and are incapable of mounting bicycles featuring horizontal top bars.

Honestly, if women are athletically capable enough to ride a male top bar like pig Josephine below, we have always been sufficiently capable of riding a bike as it was meant to be ridden — using an actual damn seat.

There’s a good reason why female characters rarely give male characters rides like this. If you’ve ever tried it you’ll know that it’s very difficult and requires a substantial differential in size and strength. Girls are simply smaller.

The illustration below disturbs me, as it is meant to. We see acts of violence meted out to people of all genders, of course, but there’s something utterly vulnerable about the violence meted out in this one, in which the riding bitch trope intersects with male violence against a woman. The torture (rather than the finality) of the event is given primacy. The image is even more disturbing if you’ve studied the history of the witch craze.

Images of tortured Jesus are also disturbing, though perhaps rendered less so because of the ubiquity of Jesus on the cross. We rarely see Jesus from this angle. A near ‘upskirt’ angle is specific to femme characters. Notice how even on her way to hell, this tortured witch does not ride astride a horse. She’s still some dude’s riding bitch.

Robin Jacques' iIlustration from ‘Folklore, Myths and Legends of Britain,’ Reader's Digest, 1973 showing the soul of a witch being taken to Hell
Robin Jacques’ iIlustration from ‘Folklore, Myths and Legends of Britain,’ Reader’s Digest, 1973 showing the soul of a witch being taken to Hell
DE NACHTMANNETJES (1946) Eetie van Rees riding
DE NACHTMANNETJES (1946) Eetie van Rees riding

Header illustration: Early-twentieth century illustrations by Artuš Scheiner (1863 – 1938) riding horse underwater

Symbolism of Arrows


The arrow is both a weapon and also a sacred symbol. Divination with arrows over the years affects how we think of them and use them today.

The weapon of Apollo and Diana, signifying the light of supreme power. In both Greece and pre-Columbian America, it was used to designate the sun’s rays. But, because of its shape, it has undeniable phallic significance, specially when it is shown in emblems balanced against the symbol of the ‘mystic Centre’, feminine in character, such as the heart. The heart pierced with an arrow is a symbol of Conjunction.

of the ‘mystic Centre’, feminine in character, such as the heart. The heart pierced
with an arrow is a symbol of ‘Conjunction’.

A Dictionary of Symbols, J.E. Cirlot
Death Dealing Arrows 1903 by John Everett Millais

Arrows As Symbols of Flight

I’ve written before about the Symbolism of Flight. Anything that flies, or finds itself up in the air, can be imbued with all similar associations depending on context.

Arrows As Symbols of Penetration

As a weapon the arrow symbolises the power of the person carrying it (along with the bow). Goddess of the Hunt (Artemis/Diana) carries an arrow, as does Eros, a less violent god who uses it to pierce people’s hearts with love. At first this seems sweet, though it may be a phallic symbol, since love overlaps with (penetrative) sex. Could the Valentine’s Day heart and arrow be a covert symbol of sexual union?

Arrows As Symbols of Direction

In ancient times, Arabians, Chaldeans, Greeks and Tibetans used arrows to try and tell the future. They would shoot arrows into the air and try to read a meaning from the direction of the arrows or from their positions in relation to each other. This was known as belomancy.

If you were lost in the forest and needed to learn your way home, according to belomancy you could throw an arrow onto the ground and just follow its direction home. I wonder how many people met a sorry death in the wildnerness over many centuries of belomancy.

William Tell cover arrow
William Tell cover

Crossed Arrows

According to belomancy, guess what crossed arrows meant? It meant ‘no’. (It might be ‘no’ if the arrows were simply touching.)

Later they’d write words or occult symbols onto the arrows to make answers more meaningful. For example,God orders it me on the first arrow, God forbids it me on the second arrow, and the third would be blank. The arrow that flew the furthest indicated the answer. Or, maybe they didn’t bother flying the arrows at all, instead drawing them. (The lazy belomancer’s trick.) Not sure why they bothered with a third arrow left blank. If that one got drawn or flew farthest they’d only have to do it again.

There’s actually mention of belomancy in the Bible, in the Book of Ezekiel.

Game shows like Wheel of Fortune have a much longer history than I thought. Even drinking games like Spin the Bottle have an air of belomancy about them, with a bottle instead of an arrow determining the ‘fate of true love’.

This symbolism works both physically and metaphorically. Arrows shooting high into the sky symbolise the link between Heaven and Earth. Equally this might symbolise inspiration (an idea) or a message being carried directly to the Gods, who are supposed to live above the earth.

Arrow As Quick-wittedness and Intuition

Arrows travel quickly off the bow and are naturally used to symbolise swiftness, sureness and related attributes. This association can be seen in the Sagittarius astrological sign.

  • The Sagittarius hybrid creature is always shooting an arrow from its bow.
  • Sagittarius comes from Latin sagitta, which means arrow.
  • Sagitta comes from the verb sagire, ‘to perceive keenly or quickly’.
N. C. Wyeth ~ The Black Arrow by Robert Louis Stevenson ~ Published by Scribner's 1916
N. C. Wyeth ~ The Black Arrow by Robert Louis Stevenson ~ Published by Scribner’s 1916

Header photo by Vek Labs 

In-flight Entertainment by Helen Simpson

In-flight entertainment

“In-flight Entertainment” is a short story by Helen Simpson, published in her 2010 collection of the same name.

Thanks in large part to Greta Thunberg (not pronounced how I thought it was pronounced), 2019 seems to have been a turning point in general attitudes towards climate change. The phrase started off as ‘global warming’ (too benign), became ‘climate change’ and is now ‘climate crisis’. My own country’s online newspaper now has its own ‘climate’ tab, prioritising its importance.

But even in 2019, those of us who think a lot about the climate crisis are still living in a bubble. Helen Simpson said in 2011 that if you suggest we might cut back on unnecessary air travel, reception is cold. While some people have indeed cut back on unnecessary trips, it’s business-as-usual.

1917 illustration by Heath Robinson planes
1917 illustration by Heath Robinson

With the climate crisis as focus, “In-flight Entertainment” is a short story about difficult conversations in the face of unwelcome yet inevitable change, and our ability to ignore what we don’t want to hear and go on with our lives. In the past, and on an individual level, this is a wonderful adaptation. Sometimes I wish I was a climate crisis denier. I think I’d be more content.

Which cognitive biases are we talking about exactly? Infuriatingly, it’s a raft of the things, all working together:

  • Hyperbolic discounting: We are very bad at understanding statistical trends and long-term changes, paying attention to immediate threats.
  • We overestimate threats that are less likely but memorable, such as terrorism. Stories of terrorism are memorable because they are stories of individuals (sometimes en masse, but individuals all the same). The Environment appears to have no face to it, precisely because it involves every face. When too many people are affected we lose compassion. This is known as psychic numbing.
  • Too much information confuses us, leading to inaction or poor choices.
  • We  remember immediate threats, so that they could be avoided in the future, but we’re constantly on the look out for opportunities (e.g. for pleasure — holidays and air travel).
  • Richard Dawkins’ Selfish Gene aside, we only really care about the two generations on either side of us (we can’t care further back than our great-grandparents or further forward than our great-grandchildren).
  • The sunk-cost fallacyWe are biased towards staying the course even in the face of negative outcomes. When the world is full of aeroplanes and the economy has been built around aeroplanes, well, we already have them so why not use them?
  • Justification. If we all quit holidaying in tourist destinations, entire communities would collapse. We justify our behaviours by focusing on certain details and avoiding others.
  • The bystander effect. Most of us are inclined to believe someone else will deal with a crisis. We may expect others to stop traveling on planes, but we ourselves have to. Our travel is necessary; others’ travel is not.

This is infuriating for the relatively few Cassandras out there, trying to persuade others that there is no government conspiracy, and that it is far cheaper to avoid a climate crisis than to try to eke out an existence after ecological collapse.

Eric Sloane (1910 – 1985) Night Flight Scene


“In-flight Entertainment” feels like it’s set in a near future when the world is divided into climate deniers and those who are resigned to it. Alan is accused of having grown up in a gadget-ridden childhood, referring to Gen Z (roughly between the ages of 7 and 22″ in 2019, so younger again at time of publication). Alan is of an age now when he has a wife (Penny) and kids.

Part of me thinks it could easily have been set in 2019, but I don’t think we’re quite at this point yet. Currently the world is divided into four groups:

  1. Climate crisis deniers
  2. Those who haven’t given it much thought
  3. Very worried people e.g. activists
  4. The tired and resigned

At some point surely categories 2 and 3 will disappear as the realities of climate change make everyone aware of it, and as even the most ardent activists realise the big struggle has been lost. This flight comprises climate crisis deniers and the tired and resigned. In this view of the near future, air travel doesn’t abate one iota.

The story veers backwards into Alan’s on-the-ground life — we learn that there have been apocalyptic protests at Heathrow, that Alan drives a luxury vehicle, that his parents oppose his carbon intensive lifestyle. Alan’s mother has a view on recycling that is stuck in the 1990s — that if we all pull together and make small economies then our collective efforts will save us. This worked for England during the war. The attitude carried us through the 90s, and can be seen in children’s literature designed to encourage recycling, e.g. Just A Dream by Chris Van Allsburg.

Zenas Winsor McCay (1867 - 1934) planes
Zenas Winsor McCay (1867 – 1934)

Flight can symbolise various things but most notably it stands for freedom. Air travel is the ultimate luxury, though many of us living in rich countries would no longer call it that — we consider the freedom of flight a birthright. The plane is therefore a perfect setting for this story.

The story opens with description of the different classes of people herded onto a plane — there’s no better reminder than planes of economic hierarchy — First Class at the top (significantly, in Helen Simpson’s story, it’s made up of men), followed by Club Class, Business Class and Economy.

The climate crisis is likewise mostly a class issue, with those at the top using more than their fair share of the environment, symbolised in this story as an extra eight inches of space which ‘makes all the difference’. Difference between what? Is the freedom to fly the difference between a life vs a life worth living?

Helen Simpson inverts the freedom aspect of flight with the intertextual reference to an iconic scene from North by Northwest, in which a man cannot hide from a horrifying crop duster, swooping him like a very big, very dangerous magpie during breeding season. This is the scene Alan watches on the plane when he doesn’t want to hear anything more about climate change.

Within the story there also exists implicit critique of a life lived through screens — we criticise Alan for wanting to watch his old film instead of hearing about the realities of climate change. Soon it is revealed that everything he knows about dying comes via fictional TV shows such as Casualty. This is a guy living in a fantasy world, borne of mindful denial.


The flight is from Heathrow to Chicago. There is a diversion to Goose Bay. Significantly this is close to Greenland, where some of the most obvious impacts of climate change are currently seen. It’s also in the middle of nowhere, like the North by Northwest scene above. The landscape is huge; people are rendered tiny and helpless and all alone. No one is coming to save us from the climate crisis.

So how do the Climate Change Cassandras persuade the deniers? According to this story, it may in fact be impossible.

1950s, Aer Lingus, Irish Airline, artist- Hayes
1950s, Aer Lingus, Irish Airline, artist- Hayes


Here is the underlying structure of stories with this sort of theme:

  • A character encounters another character who tells them something they don’t want to hear.
  • Eventually this unwelcome new knowledge becomes too much, so the character hearing the unpleasant thing has some sort of dream/escape sequence.
  • When they wake up, they’ve pretty much forgotten the entire interaction.
  • Except things will never be quite the same, because they haven’t completely forgotten.

Another outstanding example of a story structured in this way is “Her First Ball” by Katherine Mansfield. In Mansfield’s story, an old man reminds young Leila, fresh to the ball scene, that she will be an old lady soon. This is pretty much the last thing you want to hear at your first ball, so Leila mindfully forgets about the interaction.

Popular Aviation woman on plane opens window
Popular Aviation woman on plane opens window


This is the story of a community, so no single character stands out as the main one. “In-flight Entertainment” is designed to expose a general human shortcoming — our ability to see the terrible truth then to ignore it.

The cast of characters requires:

  1. The person who is forced to think deeply about the horrible thing for the first time (for this story it is Alan Barr);
  2. The person who forces the other to think deeply about the horrible thing for the first time (Jeremy Lees).

Also in this story we have the thread of the old man who dies in his seat. Clearly, someone who dies in our presence is confronting. We are forced to acknowledge the inevitability of death, and we’re reminded that we, too, shall die.

Imperial Airways - British Travel Poster - art by Charles C Dickson - c 1928 plane interior
Imperial Airways – British Travel Poster – art by Charles C Dickson – c 1928 plane interior


Alan wants to ignore the facts of the climate crisis. He has come up with a reasonable argument which works to this end:

…the science behind these new reports could be quite shaky. There were two sides to every coin, and anyway Planet Earth has a self-regulating mechanism, rather like the economy, and we should leave it to right itself. Mother Nature knows a thing or two…

In this particular story, Alan wants to enjoy his First Class flight to Chicago to give a presentation. The presentation will be delivered in 13 hours’ time — a ticking clock device which plays on the ‘bad luck’ aspect of the number 13.


Alan, who wants to go on as usual, is in direct opposition to Jeremy, who would have liked the world to change. The ultimate opponent for a climate crisis denier: a climate scientist.

But Helen Simpson then has to explain what the Jeremy is doing aboard an aircraft. This character has reached a point where he has given up trying to change things.

The other opponent is the dead man. His death means they have to stop over and Alan is now in danger of missing his presentation.


Everybody’s plan on this flight is to go on as usual. Even while knowing that our behaviours are wrecking the environment, if anything this makes us do more of that exact thing.


The Battle scene is the part where Alan imagines becoming a Doomsday Prepper, with the gun, the barbed wire, the works.


The tragedy for Alan is that he has no Anagnorisis. He wakes himself up with a snort.

All that alarmist crap that old creep Jeremy had been coming out with, it just seemed like a fairy story now.

To extend the fairy tale connection, Helen Simpson turns Alan into a childlike figure:

In quite a childish way he liked the tiny brightly wrapped bonbons, he liked yawning to pop his ears. Yes, his spirits usually lifted during the descent [HIGHLY SYMBOLIC, OF COURSE], and he would have expected to feel extra-jubilant towards the close of this particular protracted crossing.


Despite trying his best to suppress the information conveyed by Jeremy, Alan doesn’t fully succeed. He is forever changed.

…he had a weight around his heart, a nasty sinking feeling; which was not like him at all.


Interview with Helen Simpson at BBC4 (at about 8:50) and also Margaret Atwood.

The film Melancholia is about depression, but feels to me like it could be about the division between climate crisis deniers and those who know it is coming.

Header photo by Aaron Barnaby

My Neighbour Totoro Storytelling

My Neighbour Totoro (1988), from Japan’s Studio Ghibli, is one of the few genuinely child centred films in existence. In contrast, most films out of DreamWorks and Pixar contain dual levels of meaning, including jokes only the adult co-viewer will understand, or emotional layers inaccessible to children.

For instance, in Toy Story 3 Andy says goodbye to his childhood when he says goodbye to his toys. This evokes the emotion of nostalgia and sadness in adults. Test audiences revealed that children under about 13 have a completely different reaction to this scene — they identify with the toys and feel happy, probably wondering why the adults are tearing up. Nostalgia is one of the few specifically adult emotions.

In contrast, The Good Dinosaur (2015) didn’t garner great reviews. Some critics suggested it’s a fine story for kids, but adult viewers expected a layer aimed specifically at them. But there is no ‘adult layer’ to The Good Dinosaur, which ranks as Pixar’s second-worst rated movie (above Cars 2). In the West adults have been trained to expect kids’ films with separate layers just for us.

My Neighbour Totoro is different altogether.

When My Neighbor Totoro , directed by Hayao Miyazaki, came out in 1988, the public treated it only as a “child pleaser”. Yet Japanese people soon realized that My Neighbor Totoro was something more; it is actually a thought-provoking film. It is now considered one of the most acclaimed films for children and adults.

Reiko Okuhara

Here’s my thesis: Studio Ghibli achieves what Pixar and DreamWorks have thus far not managed:

  1. A film which appeals to all ages
  2. without alienating the preschool viewer from any single part of it.
  3. Adults and children will be laughing at the same moments
  4. experiencing very similar emotions simultaneously.

I first watched Totoro in 1995 as a 17-year-old exchange student in Japan, where it was aired on national TV one wintry Sunday afternoon. The air time suggests family viewing — a film for all ages. I’d be surprised if I ever met a Japanese person who hadn’t seen this film, regardless of age or whether they have children of their own.

Fast forward a sociological generation, My Neighbour Totoro was one of the first films I showed my Australian daughter. As I expected, she was captivated as a toddler.

We rewatched it last night. When she first saw it she was the age of Mei; now she is the age of Satsuki. Although it had been years since last viewing, her delight showed me the imagery remains deeply etched in her memory. Revisiting the world of Totoro felt like revisiting a holiday destination from early childhood.

Ponyo is another Studio Ghibli film aimed squarely at a very young audience.



I much prefer the Studio Ghibli films set unambiguously in Japan. The European-inspired Japan as depicted in films like Kiki’s Delivery Service fall into uncanny valley for me. Totoro is set in Japan.

The story is meant to be set in Tokorozawa. If you’re using Chrome as your browser, here it is on Google Earth. This is where Miyazaki lives.

If you visit Japan you can explore a replica of Satsuki and Mei’s house.

If you would like to visit the Ghibli Museum in Mitaka, make sure to book your tickets from outside Japan, because overseas bookings are given preference. Perhaps unfairly, Japanese people booking from within their own country must book many more months in advance.


It’s not easy to guess at the era of My Neighbour Totoro unless you watch it very closely and can read Japanese. (Bear in mind that the main audience — Japanese toddlers — also cannot read Japanese.) The story could be set anytime from Miyazaki’s own boyhood until the 1980s when it was released.

Adult fans have looked really closely and realised it could be set in any number of years within the 1950s. Hayao Miyazaki has been pressed to divulge when, exactly, it’s meant to be set. He replied, “It’s supposed to be 1955, but we weren’t terribly thorough in our research. What came to mind was ‘a recent past’ that everyone can relate to.

Note that Miyazaki uses the word ‘everyone’. That includes children. He hasn’t created any part of this world that 1980s children would be unable to understand without explanation.

Apart from the minor calendar clues within the intratext of the film, My Neighbour Totoro could easily have been set when it was made, in the 1980s. We don’t get a glimpse of life in the cities because the story arena is contained to a very small part of Japan.

The second year I went to Japan (1999) I stayed in a dormitory attached to a university. This dorms were nestled under a mountain, which sounds lovely, except it hadn’t benefitted from a single bit of maintenance since it was constructed at the end of the second world war. If I hadn’t ever visited the city, I might as well have been living in post-wartime Japan. This was a hugely different experience from my high school exchange student year in Yokohama, one train ride from Tokyo, tech mecca setting of futuristic fantasy. I recognise the house from My Neighbour Totoro — the tiled sink, the wooden items, the country manners.

Country Japan has always been bifurcated from urban Japan — a point of pride and also a point of ridicule. The word ‘inaka’ might loosely translate as ‘rural/country’ in English, but it sounds pejorative and insulting as well. (Imagine ‘bumpkin’ on the end of it.)

However, this is not Miyazaki’s view of rural Japan. For Miyazaki, the natural parts of Japan contain ancient magic, and a visit into wilderness afford a trip into the deep subconscious. The forests which surround this old homestead of My Neighbour Totoro function as a forest functions in a fairytale.

Shrooms: the universal symbol for hallucination?

Does the setting of My Neighbour Totoro count as a genuine utopia? According to Maria Nikolajeva, there are seven requirements of a utopian setting and Totoro almost fits, except for number six: Absence of death or sexuality. The sick mother in hospital is a constant reminder that loved ones can die. Satsuki and Mei are terribly worried about their mother and this drives their actions.

Miyazaki adapted Mary Norton’s The Borrowers (released as The Secret World of Arrietty), which also includes the spectre of death with the child sick in bed. Perhaps Miyazaki wants to avoid sentimentality, which is a danger in creating genuine utopias. Genuine utopias are also quite difficult to set a film-length story in, because suspense must come from somewhere. Perhaps ‘unease’ is a better word than ‘suspense’.

Helen McCarthy is the author of Hayao Miyazaki: Master of Japanese Animation and has said that Death in Totoro is simply ‘there’. Death is presented as part of being alive.

Miyazaki does two very difficult things in this film with considerable delicacy and grace: he makes a film at a child’s pace and on a child’s level; and he allows death to assume a major role in the movie without demonising or personalising death.

Hayao Miyazaki: Master of Japanese Animation

The house itself might be considered a bit of a death trap. Our own pergola fell down a few years ago and it was a mission keeping everyone away from it for their own safety. But here, the girls come closer to calamity than they realise when they use the rotting post as a play thing:

This traditional old homestead also has a well — another common death trap, though it exists only as part of the background scenery.

The soot gremlins may or may not indicate the presence of evil. The girls no longer have a safe home. I believe young children will find this house as creepy as the characters do.

However, we might put forward the argument that any Hayao Miyazaki film is a moral utopia:

[T]hose who are familiar with Miyazaki can trace the film’s modern success to his stubborn moral mind. Reluctant to put his characters into straightforward ‘good’ and ‘evil’ boxes, the Ghibli stalwart nevertheless rewards the pure of heart and punishes greed and gluttony. It’s a trait that wasn’t missed by Roger Ebert, who described Totoro’s small kingdom as, “the world we should live in, not the one that we occupy.

Little White Lies


Despite the English translation of the title, ‘tonari’ does not just mean ‘neighbour’ as in ‘those who live in the place next door’. Tonari is a wider word than English ‘neighbour’ suggests, and can mean ‘next to’, or ‘alongside’. Imaginary creature Totoro is ‘alongside’ the girls at every step of their journey (as well as dwelling ‘nearby’.)


One rule of portal fantasy — there is a transition between the ‘real world’ and the ‘fantasy world’. The audience must be allowed to linger in this transitional space for a little while. Ideally, a scene or two will be set inside the transition, or right beside it. In this case, it’s the tunnel made of branches. The father even joins the girls there, blurring for them the sensible, rational adult world and the fantasy play world they have created.

It appears as if someone—probably Big Totoro himself—has invited Mei into the fantasy world. Awakened by the little girl, he appears to be startled not by her presence but by her audacity. Mei’s seclusion has led to Totoro’s invitation to his world; the child archetype acquires the protection of nature, alone and away from motherly care. Mei’s entrance into the fantasy world reminds the audience of the beauty and splendor of nature, which the present generation seems to have forgotten.

Reiko Okuhara


One of the first games we see the Kusakabe girls playing is a Cowboys and Indians fantasy. I haven’t seen modern children mimic the war cries of Native Americans — Westerns have evolved into anti-Westerns, we are a little more enlightened. There is no longer the romance of American expansionism — we no longer buy toy cowboy costumes for our boys as par for the course. This childhood game does plant the story quite firmly in the 1950s when, even in Japan, American culture was having a big influence on children’s fantasy lives (as well as in every other way).

Later the girls are disappointed to find their acorns won’t sprout. But in a fantasy scene quite clearly inspired by English tales such as “Jack and the Beanstalk”, they use arm movements to create a magical force. The trees grow huge in an instant.


We Westerners like to view non-Western art through the lens of Western art. It has been suggested that My Neighbour Totoro is ‘The Japanese Wizard of Oz’. This may be useful as a hook for a Western viewer otherwise disinclined to watch anime on its own terms.

Perhaps one of the biggest reasons for Totoro’s success is that everyone has their own interpretation of what it means. While the physical appearance of the title character has been compared to everything from an owl to a seal to a giant mouse troll, on a metaphysical level the theories run even deeper. In Miyazaki’s book of essays ‘Starting Point: 1979-1996’, Totoro is described as a creation of Mei and Satsuki’s imagination, a gentle giant who guides them through their mother’s illness.

Some believe Totoro to be a Kami (a spirit tied to nature) belonging to the camphor tree which Mei falls into the belly of while she’s out playing. The tagline on the original Japanese poster translates as, “These strange creatures still exist in Japan. Supposedly,” which summons thoughts of old souls and endless wisdom. Ultimately, you can project whatever you want onto Totoro.

Little White Lies

If you grew up in non-Scandinavian country, what was your first introduction to trolls?

Near the end of the film, Satsuki and Mae are shown reading The Three Billy Goats Gruff on a futon with their mother. The creature on the book looks like the creature Totoro, which suggests Mei imagines him up, inspired by the Norwegian folktale.

When Mei ‘meets’ him, she knows exactly who he is. “You’re Totoro!”

In Japanese Three Billy Goats Gruff translates to 三びきのやぎのがらがらどん (Sanbiki no yagi no gara gara don) in which the ‘gara gara don’ is onomatopoeia for the tripp trapp, tripp trapp of the first written Norwegian version (modified only slightly for English, without the double ‘t’s.)

But maybe Mei read a European version — the ‘trot trot’ of the goats sounds a little like Totoro. It’s significant that Japanese is a heavily onomatopoeic language. Children are excellent at making up their own, original onomatopoeia and I put it to you that Japanese children are excellent at i. Is Totoro Mei’s phonetic rendition of trotting?

Alternatively, ‘troll’ is transcribed as ‘tororu’ in Japanese. A small Japanese speaking child could easily pronounce the word wrongly and come up with Totoro, because Totoro is easier to say than Tororu.


At first glance, My Neighbour Totoro does not follow The Rules Of Story as described by numerous (Western) story gurus. It just feels… different, somehow.

The story [of Totoro] is made up of a series of incidents or episodes, almost none of which I’d classify as a plot point, per se. The only truly tense moment comes late in the film, when Mei runs off to the hospital by herself, worried her mother is in danger. This turns out to have been a false alarm, and everyone is soon reunited. The whole thing is resolutely low-stakes and gentle, its narrative lumpy and relaxed.

Bright Wall, Dark Room

I’ve been thinking about how much Western storytelling trains us to expect that writers show the audience where they’re going right up front. Main characters have to be introduced right away. Twists have to be foreshadowed. Inciting incident in the first 10% etc. BUT Many of my favorite stories, especially Asian ones, don’t adhere to these “rules.” In My Neighbor Totoro, Totoro doesn’t appear until 30 mins into a 90 min film. The slow sense of discovery makes the film enchanting. Can you imagine any American film waiting until the 33% mark?


But look a little deeper and My Neighbour Totoro is a tightly plotted fantasy with a classic mythic structure.

A mythic journey will generally involve a road, a river, a train.

I have no trouble doing my usual breakdown of it, but here’s the thing we need to understand about My Neighbour Totoro: It is much more like a picture book plot than a Pixar plot, and it’s important to understand the concept of the Carnivalesque. (This is why My Neighbour Totoro has been compared to Where The Wild Things Are — the stand out Western example of carnivalesque children’s literature.)


Satsuki and Mei are enduring an upheaval — in common with the beginning of many children’s stories, they are at the tail end of having been moved from some unknown prior location to a creepy big house in the country.

Before they can feel at home here they must face their fears of the unknown.

There’s a much bigger unknown which the girls are initially able to put to the back of their minds, distracted by the newness of the creepy house: Their mother is ill. Like Satsuki and Mei, the audience doesn’t know the nature of this illness. We are kept in a state of ignorance, which may be worse than actually knowing. This is the common experience of childhood — even when children are told things, we don’t know what it means. Not really. This makes childhood scary.

Miyazaki also gets rid of the mother by making her too sick to care for them — a very common plot device in children’s literature, especially in America.

But Mei in particular is the Divine Child archetype, both vulnerable and invincible at once. (Jungian.) The audience understands this contract from the beginning, even if we don’t know Jung’s word for it — nothing really bad will happen to Mei.

The sibling duo in which the younger child is at one with fantasy and imagination while the older child is on the cusp of adulthood, is common in storytelling:

Unlike Mei, who fully enjoys her childhood, her elder sister is about to enter womanhood. Satsuki resembles Wendy in Peter Pan, who must work to believe in Peter, while her younger brothers have no problem believing in Neverland.

Rieko Okuhara


At the deepest level, Satsuki and Mei want their mother to get better and to join them in their new house. But this doesn’t make for a story. There needs to be a more specific desire, one that the characters might actually achieve.

This is where the story turns carnivalesque. Started by the younger and therefore more imaginative Mei (in a sequence reminiscent of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe), they invent (or discover) a magical world as proxy for their subconscious. By entering into this world they will:

  1. Have heaps of fun (carnivalesque)
  2. Face their deepest fears (mythic)


In a carnivalesque children’s story, supernatural/mythic creatures appear and they may appear scary. In this case, it is the large Totoro’s size. Notice how Mei at first encounters small, rabbit-sized Totoros — this correlates to how her fears intensify over the course of the story. In Japan, these totoros are known as Big Totoro, Medium-sized Totoro and Little Totoro. (This reminds me of The Three Bears.)

But Totoro is also furry like a welcoming great bed.

Despite this, Totoro has an element of danger. I’m thinking, if the creature rolls over, Mei could easily be squashed. The scene with Mei and Totoro contains a minor ‘Battle’ of a big sneeze, as Mei fiddles with Totoro’s whiskers. Many children’s picture books feature an outsized bodily function as the climax, most notably in fairytales such as The Three Little Pigs, but also in Yertle The Turtle and Julia Donaldson’s Wake Up Do, Lydia Lou!

In a cosy story like My Neighbour Totoro, the main characters will meet allies (helpers) along their mythic journey.

First there’s the father.

The father—almost like a Wise Old Man, another archetype figure—seems to understand the rules of the gods’ world and explains them to his children.

Rieko Okuhara

Then there is Granny. Mei is scared of her at first, perhaps because she is new, perhaps because she is old, perhaps because she is associated with a scary house. The Granny, like many elderly characters in children’s stories, lives in her own version of a fantasy world. She tells the girls quite confidently that if their mother ate her fresh homegrown vegetables, her illness will clear right up. This is not an especially responsible thing to tell a child, and it is what sets Mei off on her journey to deliver the corn cob to her mother. (This has been foreshadowed by Mei telling her father that she is a big girl now and is off to do ‘errands’. The father thinks nothing of this at the time.)

The boy next door (Granny’s real grandson) is positioned as a natural opponent because he is a boy. Satsuki declares that she does not like boys. However, Kanta reveals his kindness by offering the girls his umbrella — a well-known trope in Japan, where people will indeed share their umbrellas with you if you are caught in a downpour. (Downpours are common during rainy season — when Kanta is chastised by his mother for failing to take an umbrella, there was a surefire bet it would rain heavily.)

Totoro turns up at the bus stop at night — a scary prospect for the girls, whose deeper fear is: “What has happened to Dad?” Dad hasn’t turned up when expected. Without their father, the girls would be utterly alone in the world. So once again, Totoro turns up as a proxy for their fear, and the girls transform him (or her — where did those mini Totoros come from?) into a non-threatening, childlike creature who is so unassuming he is startled by heavy raindrops falling onto the umbrella lent to him by the girls.


Satsuki and Mei first explore their new house. If they explore every nook and cranny they will understand its mysteries. Ergo, they will not feel scared. Exploration of the scary house occupies a good chunk of the beginning. They find ‘soot gremlins’ — very much in line with the sort of creature found throughout traditional Japanese folklore, but actually invented by Miyazaki himself. In the West we have dust bunnies, which are more hairy than sooty.

In a suspenseful story for adults (say, anything from the thriller/detective genres), there will be a chase sequence. Here, too, there is a chase: Mei chases after the intriguing little creatures. In other words, it is Mei who drives the action, not the other way round. The utopian, cosy atmosphere would have been punctured had the Totoros been chasing Mei instead.

Mei also drives the action by visiting Satsuki at school.

Finally, she takes off on a one-girl mission to save her mother. Notice that before she does so, the sisters have an argument.


The Battle sequence, in which the village searches for Mei, is similar to cross-genre ‘lost child’ sequences. We wonder if Mei is dead when a child’s sandal is found. (I wonder who it belonged to?)

Satsuki finds Mei by visiting Totoro. Totoro is able to fly, and can also summon the cat bus. Satsuki saves Mei by making use of forest magic. At least, that’s the fantasy layer of the story.

More literally, Satsuki may summon the courage to find Mei of her own accord, imagining that she has the protection of mysterious, fantasy companions that she and Mei both conjured up, thereby leading her to Mei. By entering Mei’s imaginary Totoro world, Satsuki is also able to deduce that Mei has gone to the hospital with a ‘magic’ vegetable.


Ultimately, this is a story about two children who overcome their fears. They do this with the discovery that they are an integral part of the natural world. This discovery is proxy for the more mature insight they will develop later: That in order to be alive, we must also die. For now, though, their mother is not facing imminent death.

When Satsuki and Mei see their parents through the hospital window, they get the feeling everything with their mother is going to be all right. Often in visual storytelling, when characters come to some sort of realisation they are positioned at an elevated altitude. In this case they are up a tree — ostensibly so they can see through the window — symbolically because they now have a broader view on the situation and can put their mother’s illness in perspective.

This variety of Anagnorisis combines well with a Child Archetype such as Mei:

The child comes in the very beginning of life. Yet the child also symbolizes the rebirth of a new child; before the rebirth, death must come. The child archetype is an initial and a terminal creature, and represents the process of death and rebirth. When Mei sets out to the hospital to heal her mother, her family loses her for a period of time. The finding of the lost child symbolizes the rebirth of Mei. For Satsuki, finding Mei also means the rediscovery of her childhood. In the embrace of Satsuki and Mei, one witnesses the outcome of Mei’s death and rebirth. The child has combined the opposites, and the spirits are the witnesses to the event. The film ends with the happy smiles of people holding and hugging Mei and the spirits of nature looking over the cheerful scene from the top of the big camphor tree. Mei’s coming home completes a stage in the progression of human beings.

Reiko Okuhara


No matter what happens to the mother, Mei and Satsuki are now emotionally equipped to handle whatever cards they are dealt. They have learnt resilience by means of the power of imagination.

Worth mentioning: The original tagline was “We brought what you left behind.” Clearly this refers to Mei’s delivery of the corn cob, but also works at the symbolic level — Mei reunites her family and village with the wonder of nature around them.


There is much to be said on this topic — I’ll focus on just a few things.


Taking a condense snapshot of main colours (depicted in the poster below), it’s clear how much of this film is set in the rural outdoors (green). The blue band takes the Kusakabe girls into the sky on a flight fantasy in the cat bus. Another green band takes them further into nature. Disregarding the light orange (which indicates the credits) notice the film is bookended by browns — the brown is the home, at first new and scary, by the end a true home.

Kathleen Hale. Orlando; a Seaside Holiday. First published in 1938. The cat vehicle is an old trope.

More recently I’ve been following a discussion about how scenes in Totoro break the rules of perspective, as it is traditionally taught. At first glance scenes look like cartoonified versions of photographs, but that’s not the case. People have whipped their rulers out and discovered that the animators/background artists have broken traditional ‘rules’ (made in the West) to include more information in a single scene.

This, too, is more in line with the off-kilter perspective found in children’s picture books than in animation aimed at older audiences, in which case scenes tend to be beautiful for their technical prowess.


In a film aimed squarely at children, it is perhaps unusual that Miyazaki’s characters don’t have that big-eyed, anime look.   On the other hand, the character designs are very much in line with picture books — an art form which has so far rejected the ‘anime look’. In fact, I’ve heard agents and publishers advise illustrators to steer well clear of manga-esque characterisation if the aim is to illustrate picture books.   The movements of Totoro’s characters are beautifully accurate impressions of how children actually move — in common with how the best children’s book illustrators are able to depict realistic movement in their picture books. The scene in which Mei scoots forward on Totoro’s belly could not have been achieved without close observation of young children. Hayao Miyazaki is well-known for his attention to detail. If he needs to depict water flowing over rocks in a stream, he will go and watch water flowing over rocks in a stream.


Verbal Diorama podcast discuss My Neighbour Totoro.

Up and Up by Shirley Hughes

up and up cover_shirley hughes

This month I wrote a post on Teaching Kids How To Structure A Story. Today I continue with a selection of mentor texts to help kids see how it works. Let’s look closely at another wordless picture book, this time by Shirley Hughes: Up and Up, from 1979.


Up and Up is a carnivalesque portal fantasy, and the portal is the huge chocolate egg.

The story opens with the following wonderfully detailed Where’s Wally-esque opening spread, with foreshadowing of the big balloon partially hidden behind a tree:

up and up opening spread
Our copy has got beetroot on it.


The girl in Up and Up doesn’t have a name, though she may be one of the characters from another Shirley Hughes book. Hughes’s characters all have a similarity to them. Children are drawn like sprightly little old people, somehow.

When characters in children’s books don’t have a name, this turns them by default into The Every Child.


The girl wants to fly like a bird. We see this from the opening spread. A bird flies past; she stands up to watch it leave. At first we don’t know if she’s just interested in bird watching or perhaps feather-collecting, but the following spread cements that wish.

For more on flight, see The Symbolism of Flight in Children’s Literature.


Her natural opponent is gravity, but gravity does not make for an especially interesting opponent. We can’t care about gravity — whether it wins or loses. Gravity just is.

Like many children who go off on carnivalesque adventures, her parents don’t pay attention to her. I guess this is a universal feeling children have, no matter how much time parents have.

up and up newspaper
This is a typical picture book of its era. The father is reading the newspaper while the mother cooks in the kitchen. Notice the small bird outside the window. You can’t miss it, because our eyes are lead to the bird by steam rising.

Her main human opponent is introduced a bit later — the old man with the telescope, who is the most hellbent on bringing her down. He’s a mad scientist archetype, and so keen to arrest her that he even uses his hot air balloon which he has in his backyard.


Shirley Hughes utilises the rule of threes during the opening sequence, giving the girl three separate plans to fly like a bird.

  1. Run and leap (trips and falls)
  2. Make wings out of paper and jump off a ladder. (I have personally done this as a kid, though I didn’t have enough faith to actually make the leap!)
  3. Inflate balloons and float up into the sky. (Gets stuck on a twig.) At this point the story has already crossed over into fantasy realm. First, the girl blows up the balloons with her breath, but these are behaving like helium balloons. Second, there’s no way 9 balloons would lift a girl up into a tree.

All of her plans fail so she goes home in a grumpy mood. She’s standing in her entrance hall when something amazing happens. A massive chocolate egg is dropped off by the postie.

The ‘portal’ takes the girl back into the mundane world rather than into a parallel world. The chocolate egg is something I haven’t seen elsewhere, and to be honest I’d never even realised any connection  between my chocolate eggs at Easter and the fact that eggs normally house baby birds.

Though these pictures are simple black and white line drawings, I imagine this is the part in ‘Wizard of Oz’ where everything turns technicolour (or perhaps the colour has been seeping in since the balloons fantasy page). What follows is maybe a dream, or maybe it’s real within the world of the picture book. Picture book fantasies generally work like that — they can often be interpreted as the young child’s inner world fantasy.


The Big Battle in this story is preceded by a chase sequence in which people on the ground are chasing the girl to see this amazing spectacle. There’s a large dose of showing off involved here — the wish fulfilment in this fantasy is ‘everyone looks at how amazing I am and I am briefly the centre of attention’.

So we can predict she will defeat the old man chasing her. It’s all part of her own fantasy of  being a hero.

We never see the old man again. I guess he’s dead. (Who said you couldn’t kill people off in picture books? Just make sure it’s off the page.)


A carnivalesque story is not about learning stuff.

You know from the beginning if a character is going to have a anagnorisis because there will be something wrong with them. They might not appreciate someone, or they might be lonely, or they might not treat their friends well. In those stories, the character will almost certainly have changed by the end.

But in a carnivalesque story the point is to escape the mundane world and have fun for a while. That’s it. The carnivalesque story structure has more in common with comic structure than with dramatic structure. Though more ‘fun’ than ‘funny’, there is nothing to be learned except ‘that was really fun’ or ‘so that’s what fun looks like’.


The point of a carnivalesque story is that it will actually be the same as before… with one small difference. Now the girl knows what it is to have real, unfettered fun. The scene at the end where she’s eating a boiled egg and toast shows the mundane nature of her everyday life. (Boiled eggs are quite often used in fiction to show ‘ordinary’, though less so these days. I think kids are eating fewer boiled eggs in general.)

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The Symbolism Of Flight In Children’s Literature

Anton Von Beust The Flying Machine 1895

Flight is amazingly common in children’s stories. Several other motifs should be considered symbolically similar:

  1. floating — e.g. by holding onto helium balloons, levitating by magic or by supernatural means
  2. going up onto a high place, such as a roof or a tree(house) — Andy Griffiths and Terry Denton’s tree house series are mega bestsellers in Australia
  3. hovering — a subgenre in African American books
  4. leaping and jumping — In Laura Ingalls Wilder’s fourth book for children, On The Banks Of Plum Creek, Laura and Mary jump with unrestrained joy off a stack of hay (until they’re told not to by their father). This contrasts with later chapters in the book where the outdoorsy Laura finds it difficult to concentrate in class, where she is required to sit still, restrained like a caged creature.
Elisa Kleven. Abuela. Text by Arthur Dorros birds
Elisa Kleven. Abuela. Text by Arthur Dorros birds
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