Fear of Engulfment in Storytelling

There’s a very good reason why girls should be told the truth about baby-making as soon as they ask: If she’s old enough to be asking, she’s old enough to be worrying. Unless they’re told exactly how pregnancy happens, young girls often worry that it may happen to them at any time, without warning. The prospect is terrifying.

For people without a womb, it’s perhaps difficult to imagine the terror of becoming impregnated against one’s will, to have a human growing inside, to endure excruciating labour. For those exact reasons, existing reproductive rights must not be lost. Full reproductive rights must be afforded to all.

For most of human history, the womb-bearers had little to no choice about becoming the receptacles of new life, often at the expense of their own life. The act of giving birth was historically far more dangerous than it is now, at least for many, in many countries around the world. Before giving birth myself, I used to marvel at the nonchalant looks on pregnant women’s faces. How did they look so serene? Why weren’t they terrified? Turns out they probably were, among many other emotions. The terrifying aspect of pregnancy and labour remains largely hidden to those not currently experiencing it. I believe many mothers also forget that terror once it’s safely over (otherwise no one would go back for subsequent rounds).

But the specific terror of pregnancy and childbirth is right there in our collective consciousness, and we only need look at the history of storytelling. We can trace this specifically feminine fear across our mythologies, folk tales and fairytales, right back to antiquity. Women have always been afraid of pregnancy and childbirth. Women have also been afraid of subjugation to men they’re married of too, often without their full (or partial) consent.

by Constantin Alajalov (1900-1987)
by Constantin Alajalov (1900-1987)
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The Art Of Nightmares

How does an artist offer the viewer a sense of nightmare?

Desaturation

Over all, 12 percent of people dream entirely in black and white. … In the 1940s, studies showed that three-quarters of Americans, including college students, reported “rarely” or “never” seeing any color in their dreams. Now, those numbers are reversed.

NYT

Note how quickly those numbers ‘reversed’. More interesting for artists: The perception that we dream in black-and-white. Regardless of what we actually see while we’re dreaming, the low light levels of night-time means the real world becomes desaturated, and we associate nightmares with the night-time. Artists can suggest a nightmarish quality by desaturating hue, or by working entirely in black and white.

Black and white may work even better than greyscale to suggest a nightmare.

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Creating A Fairytale World

To a modern audience, what makes a setting feel ‘fairytale’? What is it about the tone, style and plot? I argue here that what makes a fairytale setting feel ‘fairytale’ is mostly the ‘fairytale logic’.

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Wheel On The Chimney by Wise Brown and Gergely 1954

Wheel On The Chimney

If you haven’t read Wheel On The Chimney (1954) by Margaret Wise Brown and Tibor Gergely, the Internet Archive has a video of a man reading it, against a backdrop of the most unsettling, grating, unpleasant muzak you’ve heard in your life.

Worse, this retro children’s story evinces a troubling conflation between blackness and villainy which publishers more commonly avoid in contemporary children’s books.

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My Mother’s Dream by Alice Munro

Frank Dicksee - The Mother 1910

“My Mother’s Dream” is a short story by Alice Munro, and the final offering in The Love Of A Good Woman (1998). This is an absolute masterwork in how to subvert an established narrative trope.

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Symbolism of the Maze and Labyrinth

The Cat Returns suburbia as maze

I hate being lost. I’m not the only one. Before the age of cities, suburbs and GPS, it really was dangerous to separate from your tribe.

Professor Kenneth Hill has studied the psychological effects of getting lost, and was interviewed by Jim Mora on the RNZ Sunday morning radio show. Jim asks, why do people freak out when getting lost?

No surprise, I’m not a huge fan of mazes. I’ve been in a hedge maze, and once rented a barn at a maze made of maize, but never entered the maze. Wasn’t interested.

Mazes and labyrinths look a little similar at first glance but once you’re stuck inside one it feels quite different. Here’s the difference: Mazes have many different paths branching off into dead ends, making their symbolism similar to that of the crossroad. If you’re ever stuck inside a maze you’ll have to make decisions about which path to take.

MAZES (1976) Rolf Myller
MAZES (1976) Rolf Myller

But once you enter a labyrinth you are forced to trudge along a single, massively long pathway. The path takes you round and round until eventually — after the longest path possible — you will end up at its centre. According to Greek mythology, a scary part-bull, part-man lives at the centre of the labyrinth at Knossos. He was a chimerical creature killed by a prince called Theseus. Theseus found his way back out by following the length of string he’d unspooled on his way in. (This was actually Ariadne’s idea, the daughter of Minos, who was in love with him. He later abandoned her on an island.)

A similar kind of trickiness is utilised in the fairytale Hansel and Gretel, but unfortunately birds ate the starving children’s crumbs.

Theseus’s length ofstring may seem clever, but was a bit overkill. It shouldn’t be that hard to find your way out of a labyrinth. I haven’t tried this, but apparently you pick a hand, touch the wall with it. Keep that same hand touching the wall and walk until you’re out. A labyrinth is not like a maze, where you have to remember which decisions you made on the way in, only in reverse. This technique also works for mazes actually (with the only tricky bit being bits of wall not attached to anything). You won’t get out by the fastest route doing this, but you’ll make it out alive.

Kevin from The American Office panicking inside Dwight’s hay maze

In modern English, the words maze and labyrinth are often used interchangeably and can function symbolically in many various ways, as reflected in ancient traditions:

  • protection against supernatural powers
  • a path the dead must follow on their way to the world of the spirits (mazes as liminal spaces)
  • Mazes divorce the traveller from the comfort of cardinal direction, shucking off all symbolism to do with points on a compass. This is how a labyrinth/maze can help you find your spiritual path. Removed from the constraints of linear time and markers of ‘the real world’, the traveller has no choice but to focus inward. This is how you find your ‘true path’ in life.
  • In more modern dystopian fiction, the labyrinth can symbolise organisations in which it’s impossible to get anything done — paperwork, bureaucracy. The labyrinth is especially good for conveying this idea because it takes you on the longest journey possible to the centre, or truth.
  • Related to this, the maze/labyrinth symbolises anywhere clarity is deliberately suppressed. This often harks back to a much older story (e.g. the Garden of Eden) in which knowledge is the ultimate taboo (especially for women).
  • The maze/labyrinth is a paradoxical symbol because when viewed from above, or when designed by its artist, the maze is this beautiful, symmetrical work of art. But when you’re stuck inside one at ground level, you become confused, frustrated and ultimately hit peak despair.
  • The labyrinth as an idea is closely related to the knot because they both symbolise journeys. The difference is that in knotwork design there is no beginning and no ending. (The branch of mathematics known as knot theory also studies knots with no beginnings and endings. The simplest mathematical knot is a ring.) A story like Andrea Arnold’s film American Honey resembles a knot more than a labyrinth because the ending suggests our main character will be on the road forever.
  • To enter a labyrinth and make it out alive symbolises a rebirth. Therefore, the labyrinth might be regarded a womb. Fairylands function similarly, or any land beyond the fantasy portal. Once inside, the hero’s mission is to make it out alive.

ABANDONMENT: The symbolism of abandonment has a similar range of reference to that of the ‘lost object’, and they are both parallel to the symbolism of death and resurrection. To feel abandoned is, essentially, to feel forsaken by the ‘god within us’, that is, to lose sight of the eternal light in the human spirit. This imparts to the individual’s existence a sense of estrangement — to which the labyrinth theme is also related.

A Dictionary of Symbols by J.E. Circlot
Labyrinth, 1991 by Leonora Carrington, UK-born Mexican artist, surrealist painter, and novelist
Labyrinth, 1991 by Leonora Carrington, UK-born Mexican artist, surrealist painter, and novelist

THE GREEK LABYRINTH

by Alice and Martin Provensen from “Myths and Legends” (1959). Minotaur and Theseus.

Returning now to Greek mythology, the word ‘labyrinth’ means ‘house of the double axe’. The labrys is an ancient and symbolic axe. What have axes got to do with labyrinths? The labrys was a powerful emblem in Minoan culture — Bronze Age people of Crete (c. 3000 BC — 1100 BC). The Minoans got their name from Minos, a legendary figure from Greek legend, and that’s where ‘Minotaur’ comes from as well. (Minotaur = Minos + bull.)

However, the labyrinth is not a specifically Greek concept. To show the universality of labyrinth symbolism/mythic structure look at the following examples from all around the world:

  • The labyrinth is found on fragments of amulets from Ancient Egypt, who believed the labyrinth mirrored the afterlife
  • in Turkey
  • Greece
  • in the tantric texts of India and in the design of mandalas
  • on Mycenean seals
  • and Etruscan vases
  • in Ireland and Britain, pre-figured in the ring-and-cup marks of stonework and at sights such as Newgrange. (Hedge mazes were an English variation.)
  • Labyrinths were adopted by Christian churches (initially in Algeria)
  • For a while, labyrinths were found in almost all Gothic Catholic cathedrals because walking them was meant to be meditative. But I guess some people found them too fun because most were later removed. They distracted from the religious services in the nave.
  • The Dearinth is a symbol invented by Oberon Zell, used as the symbol for his Church of All Worlds. (That guy also coined the term neo-Pagan.) This symbol is a labyrinth and also looks like a god/goddess stretching their arms above the head.
The Dearinth

Labyrinths are sometimes called ‘Solomon’s Mazes’ because there’s a famous labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral, about 80 km outside Paris, which is exactly 666 feet long (the devil’s number!). At the centre of this labyrinth there’s a six-petaled flower containing the Seal of Solomon inside it. (Either a pentagram or hexagram shape. If it’s a hexagram, it’s known as the Star of David in Jewish tradition. It was meant to be a signet ring owned by King Solomon.)

GOTHIC LITERATURE AND THE LABYRINTH

Gothic stories tend to feature castles as part of the ominous setting. The massive castle is basically the home equivalent of a labyrinth.

Related to these actual Gothic castles are labyrinthine computer game stories, or anything set in cyberspace. Thematically, these settings tend to explore ideas around double consciousness and moral disintegration. They are often metafictive. From 19th century Gothic fiction to ultra-contemporary speculative work, the concept of the labyrinth is heavily utilised as a symbol in fiction.

URBAN STREETS AS MYTHIC MAZE

In the Studio Ghibli anime The Cat Returns, a girl rescues a cat and finds herself caught inside a fantasy world inhabited by talking cats. A castle within the fantasy world features a maze as part of its fortress. This maze is remarkably difficult because the walls keep moving around. The cats are wearing bits of wall, which means the walls have legs.

What’s especially interesting about this setting: Haru’s suburban Japanese life melds into the fantasy world. Some of the cats in the real world are magical, for instance. Apart from that, the narrow, winding, maze-like alleyways of suburbia echo the literal maze of her fantasy world.

The Cat Returns is a super clear example of this, but any urban story which features characters running between tall buildings, perhaps on a chase, perhaps on a ticking-clock mission, is drawing on ancient maze symbolism, and the terror of feeling lost.

FURTHER READING

People who study storytelling tend to use the labyrinth as a symbol of the classic mythic journey. When I say ‘classic’, I mean masculine. Christopher Vogler’s book The Hero’s Journey even features a labyrinth on the cover.

In the hero’s journey, earlier described by Joseph Campbell, a character leaves home to embark upon a journey into the centre of his soul, fights a massive opponent (the Minotaur) and then finds his way out of the labyrinth/subconcious. At the end he’ll have either returned home or found a new one, but either way, he’s changed forever.


It’s fascinating to consider how bad humans are at directions compared to almost all animals, especially certain birds, like homing pigeons. When did we lose this ability to know where we are in space? And might it be possible to get it back? A fascinating podcast on this topic a podcast entitled “A Sense of Direction” from Seriously…Presents:

Many animals can navigate by sensing the earth’s magnetic field. Not humans, though. But might we have evolved the sense but forgotten how to access it? 40 years ago a British zoologist thought he had demonstrated a homing ability in humans. But his results failed to replicate in America and the research was largely discredited. But new evidence suggests that our brains can in fact detect changes in the magnetic field and may even be able to use it to navigate. … Is the magic still there for all of us, just waiting to be rediscovered?

Шерстюк Сергей Александрович (1951-1998) «Exit» 1988
Шерстюк Сергей Александрович (1951-1998) «Exit» 1988. A long hallway with many doors coming off it is the architectural equivalent of a maze or labyrinth.

Header image: Scene from The Cat Returns

Charlotte’s Web Novel Study

Charlotte's Web Cover

At almost 32,000 words, Charlotte’s Web (1952, 1963) is a middle grade novel rather than a chapter book. This is a story with many  hidden depths, which appeals to middle grade kids as well as their adult co-readers.

Below I’ll be getting into how this story appeals to both children and adults, the themes of death, the narration, characterisation and the overall story structure.

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Town Musicians Of Bremen

The Musicians of Bremen, John Parr Miller, 1954

“The Town Musicians Of Bremen” is a folktale that goes by various similar names. Its plot structure is so strong that many storytellers writing series for children borrow this story at some point.

The “Town Musicians of Bremen” tells the story of four ageing domestic animals, who after a lifetime of hard work are neglected and mistreated by their former masters. Eventually, they decide to run away and become town musicians in the city of Bremen. Contrary to the story’s title the characters never arrive in Bremen, as they succeed in tricking and scaring off a band of robbers, capturing their spoils, and moving into their house. “The Town Musicians of Bremen” is a story of Aarne–Thompson Type 130 (“Outcast animals find a new home”).

Wikipedia

I like the art in the version below, based on the scarier (non-bowdlerised) story collected by the Brothers Grimm.

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Cannibalism in Storytelling

If you wanted to create a scary monster, the scariest ever, how would you go about it? Make it big (like an ogre). Make it invisible, so you never know when it’s there. Make it sometimes nasty, sometimes nice, like a white witch, seductive and charming, all the while scheming.

Make it unexpectedly violent. Therefore make it a woman. Worse, make it a mother. Make it a failed mother. Make it a vengeful failed mother who cooks and eats children. Make it a vengeful failed mother who eats her own children. RAW.

That, folks, is peak monster.

Actually, maybe we can go one step further and make it even worse. Make the cannibal a CHILD. Don’t blame me for that mental imagery. I didn’t invent it.

At least, that’s what I thought, until I listened to the Scale of Evil episode of Unpopular Culture podcast. At around the 20 minute mark they talk about actual instances of cannibalistic criminals in our time, and it turns out my mind hadn’t gone there. If you are hellbent on finding out what’s even worse than what I just described above, I offer only a link.

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Chimneys In Art And Storytelling

Fred Cecil Jones (British,1891-1956) - Chimney stacks and winding ways, 1936

Chimneys are inherently scary. A few years ago I turned up at our local country bookclub and assumed the host had been slow cooking meat for dinner. Others entered one by one and assumed the same. The grim truth was revealed; a possum had fallen down the chimney. I won’t go into further details because they are gruesome and tortuous. But I’ve heard the story more than once. Owning a chimney, at least in Australia and New Zealand, puts wildlife at risk.

Certain wildlife is attracted to chimneys, sometimes because they’re trying to find a hidey-hole to escape a predator, and sometimes, I wonder, if they are attracted to the heat in wintertime.

The Crows of Pearblossom by Aldous Huxley illustrated by Barbara Cooney (1917-2000) published in 1967
The Crows of Pearblossom by Aldous Huxley illustrated by Barbara Cooney (1917-2000) published in 1967
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