“The Little Governess” (1915) is one of the most functionally useful stories Katherine Mansfield wrote. It’s a cautionary tale without the Perrault didacticism. It’s Little Red Riding Hood, but social realism. This story exists to say, “You’re not alone.” It’s a gendered story, about the specifically femme experience of being alone in public space. Some critics find the ending inadequate. This is a stellar example of a lyrical short story with emotional closure but no plot closure. And it only succeeds in offering emotional closure if the reader can identify with the experience.
Tricksters, villains and criminals are everywhere in narrative. But throughout storytelling, across history the femme seule must deal with a particular subcategory of predator: The sexually predatory trickster. “The Little Governess” is Mansfield’s treatment of that particular dynamic.
Though this story is over 100 years old, it hasn’t dated as much as we might have hoped. Have you ever got a bad feeling about somebody but didn’t want to seem rude, so went along with their plan anyway? “The Little Governess” is a case study into why a young woman might ignore her instincts and find herself isolated.
The era in which oral folktales became written fairytales was also the era in which children’s literature as a whole began to develop.
How did oral tales change once they became written-down stories?
First, the main audience shifted, notably, from the peasant class to the monied classes. Main characters were previously adults; now they were children.
Oral folktales focused on empowering the oppressed, and tended to centre on class struggles. For this reason they appealed particularly to the lower classes. As they became written fairytales, and so became the domain of the educated classes, class struggles were usually replaced by adult-child power-struggles: the child became the central focus of the story, rather than the peasant.
This meant the ideology also shifted. Oral folk tales were often ribald. Now they became didactic, emphasising upper-class manners:
Zipes points out that, as writers appropriated the oral folk tale, they ‘converted it into a type of literary discourse about mores, values and manners’ for the socialisation of children according to the social codes of the time. Thus, ‘writers of fairytales for children acted ideologically by presenting their notions regarding social conditions and conflicts, and they interacted with each other and with past writers and storytellers of folklore in a public sphere’. This point probably applies to all children’s books (and literature as a whole)
Most importantly, perhaps, the content of a tale was affected by the fact that storytelling was a dynamic process between narrator and listener. When retelling the story of Little Red Riding Hood, the storyteller would grab the child at “All the better to eat you with!” The child listener would probably react in a variety of ways, changing the story slightly with each retelling, perhaps pouncing on the storyteller in turn. The ability to turn the tables affected thee ending of Little Red Riding Hood. The children being told the tale were not harmed, and neither was Little Red Riding Hood, who managed to outwit the wolf in the oral tradition. It was only after being written down that Little Red Riding Hood lost her autonomy.
Another fairy tale perfectly suited to the oral tradition is Rumpelstiltskin, which is very old. Guessing the little man’s name turns the story into an interaction between storyteller and audience.
More recently, Spike Milligan wrote in the oral tradition. His story Badjelly The Witch is perfectly suited to adaptation for radio — the version I grew up with.
Below, Philip Pullman explains the extent to which oral tales vary depending on a variety of factors. He conveys the idea that fairytales were always meant to evolve. Fairy and folk tales are not meant to be set in stone forever, unlike the Gutenberg Press, which froze English spelling in time:
A fairy tale is … a transcription made on one or more occasions of the words spoken by one of many people who have told this tale. And all sorts of things, of course, affect the words that are finally written down. A storyteller might tell the tale more richly, more extravagantly, one day than the next, when he’s tired or not in the mood. A transcriber might find her own equipment failing: a cold in the head might make hearing more difficult, or cause the writing-down to be interrupted by sneezes or coughs. Another accident might affect it too: a good tale might find itself in the mouth of a less than adequate teller.
That matters a great deal, because tellers vary in their talents, their techniques, their attitudes to the process. The Grimms were highly impressed by the ability of one of their sources, Dorothea Viehmann, to tell a tale a second time in the same words as she’d used before, making it easy to transcribe; and the tales that come from her are typically structured with marvellous care and precision. […]
Similarly, this teller might have a talent for comedy, that one for suspense and drama, another for pathos and sentiment. Naturally they will each choose tales that make the most of their talents. When X the great comedian tells a tale, he will invent ridiculous details or funny episodes that will be remembered and passed on, so the tale will be altered a little by his telling; and when Y the mistress of suspense tells a tale of terror, she will invent in like manner, and her inventions and changes will become part of the tradition of telling that tale, until they’re forgotten, or embellished, or improved on in their turn. The fairy tale is in a perpetual state of becoming and alteration. To keep to one version or one translation alone is to put a robin redbreast in a cage. A fairy tale is not a text.
Not everyone agrees with the idea that fairy tales came from the oral tradition:
The popular understanding is that fairytales evolved exclusively from oral folktellers – from the uneducated “Mother Goose” nurse, passing into the imaginations of children by centuries of fireside retellings.
But this story is a myth. Fairytales were invented by the blue blood and pomaded sweat of a coterie of 17th century French female writers known as the conteuses, or storytellers.
Sure enough, some fairy tales did not come from the oral tradition. Beauty and the Beast is the stand-out example of that. I have seen these referred to as ‘literary fairy tales’ to distinguish them from ‘oral fairytales’, in which ‘oral’ is assumed.
Header painting: Henry Herbert La Thangue – The Harvesters’ Supper
All complete narratives feature a big struggle scene. No, that doesn’t have to be a literal big struggle scene, Lord of the Rings style. In fact, we should be thinking outside that box altogether. One thing I love about Larry McMurtry’s anti-Western novels (especially Lonesome Dove) is that he condenses the gun big struggles and torture scenes in favour of character conflict.
I often feel the big struggle sequence in a movie goes on too long. I feel this way about the children’s animation Monster House and also about the Pixar animation Inside Out. The former happened because the plot was too thin in general, the latter because a big struggle-free myth structure should more naturally be shorter.
WHAT IS THE BIG STRUGGLE SEQUENCE?
More commonly it’s known as the climax.
When your character reaches the climax, everything is stacked against them. They think fast, piecing together clues in their head. Usually, those clues are tidbits of knowledge you’ve placed earlier in the story, along with hints the main character observes in the moment. The protagonist assembles these clues into an important realisation. Then they use their newfound understanding to win the day.
Do you have a black moment—a point near the end of the manuscript where your character has lost something or someone extremely important to him/her and all appears to be lost and failure seems inevitable? This usually happens right before he/she has a revelation or a breakthrough of some sort and throws him/herself back into the intensified conflict with a new determination, leading into the climax.
The big struggle sequence can also look like not much at all. As Captain Awkward says in a post about running into family after estrangement, “anticlimax— a good outcome on paper, since it means nothing escalated — can hit some of us as hard emotionally as anything we feared would happen.” A non-big struggle, when expected, is also a ‘big struggle scene’.
The big struggle sequence looks quite different in the big struggle-free myth form. Namely, the fight will be internal, externalised as a representation of the main character’s psychology. These stories avoid sturm und drang.
Torture your protagonist.
The writer is both a sadist and a masochist. We create people we love, and then we torture them. The more we love them, and the more cleverly we torture them along the lines of their greatest vulnerability and fear, the better the story. Sometimes we try to protect them from getting booboos that are too big. Don’t. This is your protagonist, not your kid.
THE BIG STRUGGLE SEQUENCE IN CHILDREN’S LITERATURE
A child’s main shortcoming is that they are small and without power, so a lot of children’s stories have historically relied on an adult stepping in to help. The child’s main job was to find someone more powerful. Victorians preferred the version of “Little Red Riding Hood” in which the adult male woodcutter saves the day, and alternatives of that era have basically been forgotten.
The hero or heroine of a fairy tale usually cannot kill the dragon or marry the princess without help. This, of course, is contrary to the American tradition that if you go it alone and work hard enough, you will get to the top. In fairy tales, characters who refuse help, or refuse to help others, end up covered with tar or talking frogs and snakes.
Alison Lurie: Don’t Tell The Grown-up: The subversive power of children’s literature
Not all fairy tales follow this general rule, of course. That’s because the fairy tales which we read today have been edited by Victorian men who seemed to harbour their own fantasies of stepping in to save women and children. Fairy tales such as “The Gallant Tailor” and “Mollie Whuppie” feature protagonists who save themselves, but it’s unlikely you were exposed to those as a child.
In contemporary children’s fiction, children fight their own big struggles. However, they very often call in someone more powerful/older to help them in the pre-big struggle stage. That helper might be just a little bit older, or they might be eccentric (powerless in their own way).
In Monster House the children call on the help of the guy who plays computer games down at the arcade.
Or the helper might be very old e.g. a grandparent, neighbour, wizard/witch or realistic equivalent.
These days help may come from the Internet. Courage the Cowardly Dog was one of the first children’s shows to do this — back when the Internet was very new and therefore novel. Courage would regularly consult the personified PC in the Bagge family attic. 25 years on, children’s writers seem less enthused about having The Web solve children’s problems. Now writers of realistic contemporary fiction might have to contrive ways to keep phones out of their characters’ hands all the time.
The people who regularly help children in real life rarely help them in stories. Therefore, you’ll rarely see a parent or a teacher helping a fictional child in any useful way. They may try to help, but inadvertently make the situation worse. This is to do with wish fulfilment — the wish to be independent. Or rather, the first step towards independence.
WHAT DOES A BIG STRUGGLE LOOK LIKE IN CHILDREN’S STORIES?
In books for the very young, you’re not going to find many guns, bows and arrows, fisticuffs and arguments (though you will sometimes). Still, picture books definitely feature ‘big struggles’.
Oftentimes, the big struggle phase seems to comprise about half the entire book.
The big struggle scene may be a ‘culmination’ of ridiculousness (followed by calm after the page turn, perhaps with more white space and calming rhythm.)
Therefore, the ‘big struggle scene’ in a picture book might also be called the ‘Culmination’.
It might also be called ‘The Fright‘.
The big struggle isn’t necessarily between the child and the main opponent. Rather, another opponent will often step in.
Obviously, the climax/low point maps onto the big struggle. (I love the term ‘wink’. For me, the broad concepts of set up and escalation aren’t quite specific enough.)
What form does this so-called big struggle sequence take in picture books? I’ve been breaking down the story structure of picture books for some time now. Now it’s time to take a look at the picture books on my shelf and those studied on this blog.
AN ACTUAL GUN BIG STRUGGLE
Hunters with guns are switched out for the lesser opponents (the animals residing in Thidwick’s antlers) to create a more dramatic big struggle scene.
You can see an oversized bodily function in The Three Little Pigs in which the wolf huffs and puffs and blows the houses down. However, in The Three Little Pigs, the sneezing is not the main big struggle scene. The main big struggle scene (at least in less bowdlerized versions) is the wolf falling splash into the pot.
In Wake Up Do, Lydia Lou! by Julia Donaldson all the animals in the story sneeze together and wake up a sleeping toddler.
In Yertle the Turtle by Dr Seuss, the king turtle is toppled off his perch when the turtle on the bottom of the stack burps.
TRICKSTER HERO WINS BY SAPPING THE OPPONENT’S STRENGTH/POWER
Our hero is a trickster archetype who challenges the opponent to perform things which will eventually lead to their own downfall. We see tricksters in classic tales such as The Emperor’s New Clothes.
In a mythically structured narrative our protagonist defeats a dragon as an archetypal trickster, tiring him out until he’s fast asleep by challenging him to perform tiring feats. (The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch)
A SCARY CHARACTER SUDDENLY POUNCES AFTER A LONG LEAD UP
This kind of story has its origins in oral narrative such as Little Red Riding Hood. The young listener/reader KNOWS what’s going to happen — the thrill is in the waiting.
In Wolf Won’t Bite by Emily Gravett wolf has enough of performing circus tricks for three show-off little pigs and eventually bites them.
THE CULMINATION OF RIDICULOUS, ESCALATING (POSSIBLY NEAR DEATH) EXPERIENCES
This often happens in a tall tale or in a comic classic/carnivalesque plot.
In The Five Chinese Brothers by Claire Huchet Bishop a city tries to murder a man but they can’t do it because he has four brothers and each has a secret superpower. Battle scenes: an attempted drowning, an attempted execution, an attempted burning at the stake, an attempted burning in the oven.
In And To Think I Saw It On Mulberry Street, Inside a boy’s imagination, a simple horse and cart becomes an entire procession of motley scenarios. The illustration starts simple then becomes more and more detailed until nothing more will fit on the page. The big struggle scene, in other words, is extreme chaos.
In Stuck by Oliver Jeffers there are so many things stuck in a tree that it’s impossible to imagine anything bigger or more ridiculous.
THE MAIN CHARACTER HAS A TANTRUM
Most common in comedy picture books. The childlike character isn’t getting what they want so they just lose it. These stories work if the main character’s shortcoming includes impatience and treating others badly. Young readers will identify well with this particular shortcoming, as their frontal cortexes aren’t fully developed — they know exactly what it feels like to not get what you want and to lose control as a result.
THE MAIN CHARACTER GETS CAUGHT UP IN THEIR OWN TERRIBLE PLAN
This kind of big struggle happens when the character is ‘their own worst enemy’.
A brilliant example of this kind of inner big struggle occurs in This Moose Belongs To Me by Oliver Jeffers, in which a boy on a journey literally gets entangled in the yarn he draped about precisely to help him find his way home.
In Neil Gaiman’s middle grade book Coraline, the big struggle sequence is a chapter straight out of a gothic novel, in which the main character must work her way out of her imaginary household before it morphs into such a shape that it will somehow enfold her within its clutches.
THE MAIN CHARACTER SHOWS KINDNESS AND WINS THE ENEMY OVER
During the climax of the story, your hero shows an astounding level of kindness to the enemy. It might come in the form of unconditional acceptance, unusual empathy and understanding, or an actual gift with a great deal of personal significance. The hero might even give away the very thing the villain was trying to steal. This gesture of goodwill causes a change of heart. The villain decides to stop doing harm, at least for now.In The Lego Movie, all the lego realms are terrorized by Lord Business. He plans to glue all the lego pieces permanently into place, freezing everyone exactly how he wants them. The main character, Emmet, is supposed to be a special person with the power to stop Lord Business, but toward the end, he discovers that he’s no more special than the next lego. To stop the fighting and gluing, Emmet meets with Lord Business. Emmet explains that Lord Business is also special, and that he has something unique to contribute to the world. Because of this conversation, Lord Business abandons his evil plans. The gesture of goodwill is a good match for a character-focused story. But like other character-based conflicts, it’s important to set things up ahead. You’ll want a sympathetic villain with a motivation the audience understands. However, you don’t have to tell their whole backstory in a flashback. Your hero can piece together the villain’s backstory and motivation, and then use that information in making their gesture.
If you think in terms of ‘climax’ rather than ‘big struggle’ followed by ‘anagnorisis’ and ‘new situation’ you may prefer to break climax into further parts:
The climax of a novel actually has four components:
The run-up to the climactic moment (last-minute maneuvering to put the pieces in their final positions)
The main character’s moment of truth (the inner journey point toward which the whole story has been moving)
The climactic moment itself (in which the hero directly affects the outcome)
The immediate results of the climactic moment (the villain might be vanquished, but the roof is still collapsing).
— Writer’s Digest
Moment of truth = anagnorisis Climatic moment itself = near-death big struggle moment
Matt Bird of Cockeyed Caravan breaks down the Battle stages according to which part of the main character is being challenged. I have noticed he’s right on the money for the vast majority of stories:
In the best stories, no matter what the genre, the hero is first challenged socially (often in the form of a humiliation at the beginning), then challenged physically (often in the form of a midpoint disaster), then challenged spiritually, as the hero is forced to either change or accept who he or she really is (often around the ¾ mark).
The pilot of Breaking Bad is exactly like this, starting with Walt’s humiliation as a lowly car washer serving his own students, followed by the diagnosis of lung cancer, then the moral dilemma — does he follow that idea to become a drug lord or doesn’t he?
For pantsers who haven’t decided on the big struggle beforehand, here’s some tips on how to come up with one.
Last year marked the 40th anniversary of William Steig’s The Amazing Bone. This is remarkable because it feels, in some ways, like a much more modern picture book than that. This is all to do with Steig’s voice. Pearl is at no point mortally afraid. We know and she knows that this is a storybook world in which good will always triumph. Steig writes knowingly to the reader — we all know this is a modern fairytale. So when he writes of the baddie, ‘He wore a sprig of lilac in his lapel, he carried a cane, and he was grinning so the whole world could see his sharp teeth’, he is holding nothing back from the reader.
Steig’s distinctive voice is also achieved by his choice of vocabulary, which is by turns highly specific against ‘fairytale familiar’ (as above:
On Cobble Road she stopped at Maltby’s barn and stood gawking as the old gaffers pitched their ringing horseshoes and spat tobacco juice.
Pearl the pig is an Anne of Green Gables character — dreamy and optimistic despite the hardships she endures.
Steig opens the story with, “It was a brilliant day, and instead of going straight home from school, Pearl dawdled.” This will remind you of Little Red Riding Hood, no doubt. The Grimm Brothers transcribed that tale at a time when, as properties of men, women and girls were required to be inside the house. If anything happened to them while they were enjoying the outdoors, it was their own damn fault.
As a pig, she is also delicious. Even in 2017 we’re getting a whole heap of ‘I Love Bacon’ memes through our feeds, so most people can relate to a pig’s predicament. Not that children will be thinking along these lines at all. But to this modern reader that is her main shortcoming in the story — she is delicious to foxes. She becomes a victim through no psychological or moral shortcoming of her own.
It does pay to remember, though, that this was not the intention in early iterations of the Red Riding Hood category of tales, which existed to punish girls for stepping outside, and blamed them for the evil predilections of men, while also being saved by them.
Pearl wants to enjoy her day outdoors. Steig gives us quite a lengthy introduction — longer than modern picture books allow for — in which we see her ‘dawdling home’ sequence.
Finally we see her at her most relaxed, sitting in the grass and dreaming.
Note the pacing of this first section of the story (encompassing Pearl’s shortcoming and desire and her ‘normal life’ (which we know is about to be disrupted. We see one scene per page. In fact, this scene is a double spread. Later, as the excitement picks up Steig will put two pictures on each page. This is the illustration equivalent of using short sentences after long, languorous ones.
Pearl’s ally is introduced before her opponent is introduced, which has the useful effect of creating tension in the audience, who will wonder if this amazing bone is really on her side or if it is a fake-ally opponent.
When we meet the bone we also meet the catch phrase of the story: “I don’t know, I didn’t make the world.” This is somewhat metafictive as Steig’s lampshading requires the reader to wonder about the origin of magic in the story. We are reminded not to worry about all that — Steig is taking overt artistic licence to do any unexpected thing he likes. This works very well because of the long history of fairytales. The ones which have survived are not all that ‘quirky’ — they are full of witches and forests and ogres and magic creatures, but not pieces of magic creatures. There is no logical reason for Steig to have written a story starring a magic talking bone and although readers will happily accept a magical witch or something, he gets quite a lot of mileage out of the fact that this bone can talk even though it doesn’t have lips.
The bone explains that he has been dropped by a witch and would prefer to live with the youthful, optimistic Pearl, so they set off home. Pearl knows what her parents will say — they’ll say it’s ridiculous that she has a bone which can talk — more lampshading to humorous effect.
Of course the opponents appear at this point from behind a rock. They are wearing masks from Japanese theatre, which I agree are the most freaky looking traditional masks out there.
The characters with the long noses looks like tengu. They’re a kind of supernatural creature, part human, part bird or prey.
The middle creature in yellow might represent a hannya, This character is possibly the most ridiculously misogynistic of the Noh masks, expressing the fury of a woman turned demon through jealousy and anger and who revenges by attacking.
(These days I feel the V for Vendetta Guy Fawkes mask has supplanted traditional Japanese masks in the West when it comes to freak value. Ghostface is also very scary — perhaps we will not be seeing these in a picture book anytime soon.)
These masked creatures are not the main opponent, however. They are just part of the landscape, reminding Pearl and reminding readers that even in an environment which looks beautiful and safe, evil can jump out from anywhere. These characters are easily scared off by the talking bone in Pearl’s handbag, which they are trying to steal from her, and although we never see their identities, if you look closely at the illustration you’ll probably agree with me that these ‘highway robbers’ are meant to be dogs. Dogs, compared to canines from the wild, are usually fairly hapless criminals, both in real life and in storybooks.
This is when the real opponent turns up. This time the bone’s talking won’t spook him. We know it won’t spook him because of Aesop. Foxes are smart, unlike dogs.
The wily fox was not as easily duped as the robbers. He saw no dangerous crocodile. He peered into Pearl’s purse, where the sounds seemed to be coming from, and pulled out the bone. “As I live and flourish!” he exclaimed. “A talking bone. I’ve always wanted to own something of this sort.”
(Note that Pearl herself is an ironic Aesopian character. Traditionally, we expect pigs to be dirty and gluttonous, but Pearl is delicate and refined. Dr Seuss does a similar thing with Horton the elephant, who would normally break a tree by sitting in a nest. We see Horton’s bulk and don’t immediately expect him to be timid. Young readers learn not to judge characters based on their appearance.)
The fox is a smartness proxy for the audience. Indeed, when I read this story to my daughter she exclaimed, “Oh, I wish I had a talking bone!” just as the wily fox had done in the story.
The fox takes Pearl home for dinner, where he plans to eat her of course. He locks Pearl and her bone in the basement.
At this point we wonder how on earth Pearl and the bone are going to get out of their dire predicament. Plotting-wise, this is the difficult part for the writer. The writer must come up with some ingenious plan which surprises the reader.
Humour wise, this is the highlight of the story. Pearl and the bone whisper to one another, which gives a read-aloud narrator some welcome variety — not enough picture books encourage stage whispering — and their conversation is alternately melodramatic versus reminiscent of two girls sitting outside the principal’s office rather than about to meet their death:
“I know how you feel,” the bone whispered.
“I’m only just beginning to live,” Pearl whispered back. “I don’t want it to end.”
“I know,” said the bone.
At this tense point Steig uses a technique called the dynamic frame. The dynamic frame is film-making terminology butis even more common in picturebooks than it is in film. Filmmakers who use dynamic frame change the size and shape of the image on the screen. It has gone out of fashion in filmmaking. You still see it in contemporary films when shooting through doorways, for example, so hat the lighted area seen by the audience is shaped, even though the shape of the screen itself doesn’t change.
For another example of this technique in a picture book see Hyman’s Sleeping Beauty, with views through the arches. In Where The Wild Things Are, the pictures gradually grow in size and then become smaller.
This part of the story will probably remind you of Hansel and Gretel more than Little Red Riding Hood, as the fox cranks up the stove ready for Pearl to go in.
Rather lazily, in storytelling terms, Steig’s amazing bone can do magic. It comes out with a number of magical phrases and the fox gradually shrinks to the size of a mouse, retreating into a hole in the wall.
However, it totally works. Steig gets away with ‘rescued by magic’ because of the dialogue. The bone is just as amazed as Pearl at his ability to get them out of trouble, and the joke has been set up earlier with the gag that bones couldn’t possibly talk because they don’t have mouths.
“Well, what made you say those words?”
“I wish I knew, “the bone said. “They just came to me. I had to say them. I must have picked them up somehow, hanging around with that witch.”
It’s the haplessness and the understatement which leads to the humour.
“You are an amazing bone,” said Pearl, “and this is a day I won’t ever forget!”
This is an uninspiring line but a necessary one. Sometimes you need those lines in stories. I’m going to call it the ‘overt revelation’, but it’s not a genuine one. The fact is, humorous picture books don’t actually need a anagnorisis. We hope that Pearl will not suffer from PTSD. We hope that she will go on just as before, frolicking in meadows and enjoying herself.
The audience does have a small revelation — Pearl was absolutely right about what her parents would say about her bringing home a talking bone. Naive as she is, Pearl does have insight into human behaviour, at least when it comes to her own parents.
The bone stayed on and became part of the family. It was given an honored place in a silver tray on the mantelpiece. Pearl always took it to bed when she retired, and the two chatterboxes whispered together until late in the night. Sometimes the bone put Pearl to sleep by singing, or by imitating soft harp music.
Anyone who happened to be alone in the house always had the bone to converse with. And they all have music whenever they wanted it, and sometimes even when they didn’t.