Mr Rabbit and the Lovely Present by Sendak and Zolotow Analysis

Mr Rabbit and the Lovely Present is a 1962 picture book written by Charlotte Zolotow and illustrated by Maurice Sendak. Zolotow and Sendak were both giants of American picture book world. Mr Rabbit and the Lovely Present was also a Caldecott Medal Honor Book, so it’s interesting to look through a contemporary lens and see how picture books have changed, or how reader responses have changed. The word which frequently crops up in consumer reviews of Mr Rabbit and the Lovely Present is ‘creepy’.

It’s wonderful, and probably necessary, for children to have the opportunity to do something nice for the adults in their lives. Children by their nature must constantly be on the receiving end of care, attention and gifts, but it’s a wonderful feeling to be a child and to do something you know is truly appreciated by those who normally take care of you.

Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present by Charlotte Zolotow pictures by Maurice Sendak, 1962
Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present by Charlotte Zolotow pictures by Maurice Sendak, 1962

Mr Rabbit seems to be more of a Pooka, as in the classic movie Harvey of the mid 20th century.

Harvey is a 1950 American comedy-drama film based on Mary Chase’s 1944 play…The story centers on a man whose best friend is a pooka named Harvey, a 6 foot 3.5 inch tall invisible rabbit, and the ensuing debacle when the man’s sister tries to have him committed to a sanatorium.

Wikipedia
Harvey DVD cover rabbit mirror
A Texas Jackrabbit post card 1950s
A Texas Jackrabbit post card 1950s
Elwood P. Dowd from ‘Harvey’
Elwood P. Dowd from ‘Harvey’

I’m Gen X, so for me the massive rabbit friend in Mr Rabbit and the Lovely Present reminds me of Donnie Darko.

The púca (Irish for spirit/ghost; plural púcaí), pookaphouka is primarily a creature of Celtic folklore. Considered to be bringers both of good and bad fortune, they could help or hinder rural and marine communities. Púcaí can have dark or white fur or hair. The creatures were said to be shape-changers, which could take the appearance of horses, goats, cats, dogs, and hares. They may also take a human form, which includes various animal features, such as ears or a tail.

WIKIPEDIA

There was a time when massive rabbits were in fashion. The example below is an ‘Illustrated letter to Grace Orpen’ by William Orpen, undated. Fantasy rabbits have gotten a lot smaller in children’s stories, perhaps because massive rabbits are CREEPY.

SETTING OF MR RABBIT AND THE LOVELY PRESENT

This is a fairytale setting in a prelapsarian forest, where there is always enough food.

Noteworthy: the absence of blue. Like Rosie’s Walk, there is a complete absence of blue in the palette, a decision clearly made by Maurice Sendak, who had plenty of opportunity to include some blue when the text talked about ‘blue’ grapes. He made them purple (close enough). Interestingly, blue as a concept is relatively recent. See for example reference to the ‘wine dark sea’ in Homer’s Odyssey. Sendak has ignored the concept of blue and gone in the reverse direction. Blue does not exist. Even the sky is greenish.

Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present by Charlotte Zolotow pictures by Maurice Sendak, 1962
Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present by Charlotte Zolotow pictures by Maurice Sendak, 1962

Why might an illustrator avoid blue? Blue tends to feel ominous. Even the warm tones can feel a bit scary.

The forest is a European forest, which explains why The Little Girl and Mr Rabbit don’t find a banana tree, but instead stumble across someone’s abandoned picnic. I’m not sure if it’s a common reading experience to wonder who abandoned their picnic like that, and whether they’re about to come back to find their banana missing, but that’s where my mind went.

CARNIVALESQUE STORY STRUCTURE OF MR RABBIT AND THE LOVELY PRESENT

Not all carnivalesque stories are paced like The Cat In The Hat, or like one of Madeline’s adventures. Sometimes fun doesn’t look like a carnival, complete with the flying trapeze. Sometimes it looks very much like this: A retreat into imagination, where the pay off is simply doing something nice for someone you love.

The pace of the book is entrancing, part suspenseful, part predictable, feels like sailing in a light summer breeze. I can see why children have loved this book for half a century.

CONSUMER REVIEW

PARATEXT

One of the older covers of this book depicts the girl smiling at the ‘camera’.

[L]ike the smiling image of the girl on the title page of Mr. Rabbit, pictures often imply through signifying gestures that the victims of our gaze are willing victims. We all know that we should “smile for the camera”—show a facial gesture that signifies pleasure to those who will eventually see the picture, and who will view it with a relentless attention that would cause us to stop smiling and feel abused if we experienced it in reality. The covers of many picture books ape such photographs and show their main character in a sort of introductory portrait that implies an acquiescence in the right of viewers to observe and to enjoy what they see. There are also, of course, many picture books whose covers show their protagonists simply getting on with the business at hand, whatever that business may be. But interestingly, those who smile and invite the gaze of viewers are most often female, the others usually male.

Perry Nodelman, Words About Pictures

An Every Child is at Home

Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present by Charlotte Zolotow pictures by Maurice Sendak, 1962

The Little Girl and Mr Rabbit start their story on a hill in the forest, but the the buildings of civilisation (home) are visible nearby.

The Every Child wishes to have fun.

The Little Girl wants to find the perfect gift for her mother. This is her idea of fun, and regardless of whether this character is a boy or girl, this is what gives the story a feminine sensibility. The female maturity formula is at work here, and so is our patriarchal culture in which girls are more likely to be encouraged to think about the needs of others than boys are. (This, after all, is at the heart of patriarchy.)

Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present by Charlotte Zolotow pictures by Maurice Sendak, 1962 2
Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present by Charlotte Zolotow pictures by Maurice Sendak, 1962 “But what?” said the little girl.

We still need more stories in which masculo-coded characters are the stars of stories like these.

Disappearance or backgrounding of the home authority figure

Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present by Charlotte Zolotow pictures by Maurice Sendak, 1962
Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present by Charlotte Zolotow pictures by Maurice Sendak, 1962

Adults in this story are physically absent but emotionally very present. The Little Girl spends the whole time apart from her mother thinking about her mother.

Appearance of an Ally in Fun

In this story, the rabbit is there from the start.

Hierarchy is overturned. Fun ensues.

Unusually for a carnivalesque story, Mr Rabbit has the authority. We can even see it in the names: little girl versus Mr. The rabbit is the authority when it comes to saying things like “You can’t give red”. Usually, carnivalesque rabbits who turn up out of the blue are a bit more fun than this guy.

Modern audiences tend to read this rabbit as creepy. Some readers find him less creepy when they code him as imaginary. For others it doesn’t help. Here’s a man-sized rabbit suggesting red underwear, leaning on a little girl, hanging out with her in the woods… Not questions that were significant (or raised) in the 1960s when this book was nominated for a Caldecott.

Here’s Mr Rabbit invading the little girl’s personal space.

Fun builds!

Rather than ‘building’, this carnivalesque story utilises a repeating structure. Red, yellow, green… The story functions pedagogically, teaching the difference between concrete and abstract nouns (obliquely), colours (for younger readers) and also to consider whether the receipient of a gift would like it. This is complex for young readers, who are inclined to give gifts they themselves would like. The little girl is practising theory of mind.

Although this story is repeating, there is still a build. Ther always is. Sometimes the build is subtle. The build here is in the amazingness of the gift. By the time they look up at the stars and consider giving the stars, the story is utilising a version of The Overview Effect. Many stories feature a contemplation of sky at this part of the narrative. This helps readers to connect the events of any given story to more universal themes. (Yes, it’s very literal.) And because we’re used to stories structured in this way, a glance up at the sky (or down from the sky in a low angle shot) helps to convey the sense of an ending.

Peak Fun!

Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present by Charlotte Zolotow pictures by Maurice Sendak, 1962
Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present by Charlotte Zolotow pictures by Maurice Sendak, 1962

Surprise! (for the reader)

On first read, I half expected the story to end with the appearance of the mother, and her pleasure at receiving the thoughtful gift. But the mother never appears. We are left to imagine how much the mother will appreciate the fruit basket.

The gag in this story is very minor:

“Happy birthday and happy basket of fruit to your mother.”

(Because it’s not usual to say ‘happy basket of fruit’.)

Return to the Home state

The rabbit and girl have said goodbye. This particular carnivalesque story did not begin inside the house, so it does not end inside the house, either. ♦

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Higglety Piggelty Pop! or There Must Be More To Life Analysis

Higglety Pigglety Pop! or There Must Be More To Life is an illustrated short story, though some might just call it a picture book. The language is too sophisticated to count as an early reader, unlike the Mercy Watson series, of a similar length and also divided into chapters.

Why divide such a short story into chapters, anyway? In the case of the Mercy Watson series, the young reader feels a sense of achievement after finishing each chapter. Also, the point of view switches between Mercy Watson’s house and that of their neighbours, Eugenia and Baby. In Higglety Pigglety Pop! the chapters strike me as a parody of a longer, mythically structured work.

The Kirkus reviewer also had difficulty classifying this story as a picture book:

Maurice Sendak’s books have been, right along, projections of concepts rather than pictorializations of plots, so that it is almost gratuitous to hail his arrival as an author; but this tidy little package, despite its size and shape, is not a picture book, nor is it, like Hector Protector an elaboration of Mother Goose for little children – there is more to life, and his supple style matches his consummate skill as an artist.

Kirkus Reviews

Despite the title, the main character of this story is a dog. (The pig is secondary.) The terrier is called Jennie, and she is based on a real dog:

Dogs frequently appear in the picture books of Maurice Sendak. The best known is Jennie, the Sealyham terrier pursued down the stairs by Max in Where the Wild Things Are (1963). Reflecting on the fourteen-year partnership with his dog, Sendak said, “Jennie was the love of my life.” Jennie appeared in most of Sendak’s books from 1954 to her death, which is memorialized in Higglety Pigglety Pop! or There Must be More to Life (1967). The dramatist, Tony Kushner, has written that Higglety Pigglety Pop is “perhaps the most personal work of an artist who unstintingly mines his own psyche and soul for his art. Higglety belongs to the select library of essential art about death and grief.”

Jan Susina, Sendak Goes to the Dogs: Maurice Sendak’s Empathic View of Dogs

Sendak wrote this book while grieving the death of his dog Jennie.

Typically, picture books about death and grief require a metaphorical interpretation from the reader. See also Australian picture book John Brown, Rose and the Midnight Cat. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the Australian example also features a beloved dog with a typically human name.

Why are picture books about death so surreal and metaphorical? A young child, perhaps not yet ready for stories about death and grief, will instead be enjoying a surface level narrative, in this case the story of a dog who leaves him to be an actor in a play. I believe the thinking behind this is: The child won’t understand the sadness until they are developmentally ready to understand it.

Whether this works in practice, I don’t know. In theory it’s possible to have a sophisticated metaphorical understanding of narrative and still not be developmentally ready for death plots.

Besides, there’s plenty that’s harrowing in the surface reading of this story: The absent parents who have forgotten how to get back home to baby, the fact that everyone else has forgotten baby’s name, the button near the ground that means the nurse will be fed to the lions and also its seventh victim (in a plot point reminiscent of Bluebeard).

There’s also this idea that children can hook into the deeper meanings of texts precisely because of their lack of experience in the world. The Kirkus reviewer clearly subscribed to that idea:

You can’t compress the reverberations into a review, and certainly not the ominous illustrations; it may by-pass some adults because Sendak speaks directly to the elastic imagination of children.

Kirkus Reviews

It’s worth noting that Maurice Sendak never self-identified as a children’s writer. He said he just made things, and others decided who would read it.

NOTES ON THE ILLUSTRATIONS

Others have pointed out that Sendak’s illustrations are reminiscent of Doré and Dürer. They are rich in hatching and line detail, and relatively flat, tonally.

Sendak drew his toddlers with the faces and facial expressions of much older people, which I find creepy, though this creepiness fits the overall vibe.

Higglety Pigglety Pop! or There Must Be More to Life
Higglety Pigglety Pop! or There Must Be More to Life
Higglety Pigglety Pop! or There Must Be More to Life Story and pictures by Maurice Sendak 1967
Higglety Pigglety Pop! or There Must Be More to Life Story and pictures by Maurice Sendak 1967

SETTING OF HIGGLETY PIGGLETY POP! OR THERE’S MORE TO LIFE THAN THIS

  1. PERIOD — during the real Jennie’s lifetime, mid 20th century. But there are so many fairytale/mythological aspects to this story that it’s in some ways atemporal (save the details which place it firmly in the 20th century — the house furnishings etc.)
  2. DURATION — Unclear. Maybe a week, maybe weeks. Being is time and time is finite. For human beings, time comes to an end with our death. Stories about death tend to be ambiguous in this regard.
  3. LOCATION — Starts in the home, sees the hero on a mythic path, ends on a stage.
  4. MANMADE SPACES — The road is a literal road in this story (sometimes a river, for instance, in other stories). There’s a house, an aristocratic house (where the baby lives) and a castle.
  5. NATURAL SETTINGS The Forest is significant. The flat land is bordered by mountains in the distance.
  6. WEATHER — Comfortable, like a utopian setting. Moonlit at night.
  7. TECHNOLOGY CRUCIAL TO THIS PARTICULAR STORYThe details of Jennie’s medicines are oddly specific, and once you know Jennie was a real dog, we can deduce that the real Jennie was using these medicines at the end of her life. This technology isn’t ‘necessary’ for the story to work, but do show the reader that Jennie is probably elderly.
  8. LEVEL OF CONFLICT — This refers to the story’s position on the hierarchy of human struggles. Life and death is an evergreen psychological conflict.
  9. THE EMOTIONAL LANDSCAPE — The land which lives inside the main character. Jennie is wrong to think that nothing is better than everything, but she has to experience having nothing to see that this is not what she wanted, either. To have nothing is to be dead. After she experiences nothingness, she moves onto the next plane in something akin to Heidegger’s Being-toward-death. However, Being-toward-death refers to the acceptance that one is going to die someday. The ‘acceptance’ that happens in this story is an end-of-life acceptance, and I think that’s something different. Perhaps a Heidegger expert can clarify.

STORY STRUCTURE OF HIGGLETY PIGGLETY POP! OR THERE MUST BE MORE TO LIFE

Higglety, Pigglety, Pop,
The dog has eaten the mop.
The pig’s in a hurry,
The cat’s in a flurry,
Higglety, pigglety, pop.

Mother Goose nusery rhyme

Only the end (story-within-a-story play) part of the structure has much to do with the nursery rhyme, aside from the cast, which includes a dog (main character), pig and cat in both nursery rhyme and storybook. Clearly, there’s not a helluva lot to work with in five lines, so Sendak fleshed it right out and turned it into mythological journey into the darkest reaches of the soul, culminating in metaphorical death.

PARATEXT

A daring imagination has woven a simple rhyme into a brilliantly original tale about Jennie, the Sealyham terrier, who seeks Experience and becomes the star of the World Mother Goose Theatre.

marketing copy

SHORTCOMING

The ideology of this story: Satisfaction in life comes from wanting more. Humans are compelled to always want something more. This is psychologically true and explains how humans have come to dominate (and wreck) the planet. As the story progresses, it becomes clear that having nothing is also not great.

On the surface, Jennie leaves home because she is ineffably dissasfied. (It’s right there in the subtitle.) The young men of fairy tales often start out like this, leaving home to ‘seek their fortune’, presumably because they’re bored with how things are panning out at home. A significant number of children’s stories start with the character in a place of boredom. In this particular story, there’s an existential loneliness mixed in.

Higglety Pigglety Pop! or There Must Be More To Life  Maurice Sendak - 1967
Higglety Pigglety Pop! or There Must Be More To Life Maurice Sendak – 1967

If we approach this story from a philosophical point of view, using the terminology of Heidegger, the words Vorlaufen and Erwarten come in handy.

Heidegger drew a distinction between anticipation (Vorlaufen) and expectation, or awaiting (Erwarten). At the beginning of this story, Jennie is anticipating something, and we see her ‘awaiting’ something as she looks out of the window (a very common visual metaphor in children’s stories). But as soon as she leaves the house, she metaphorically enters a new phase of understanding: she is on a journey towards death acceptance. Not death in general — she doesn’t give a damn about the life of that plant she just ate — her own death. She won’t fully understand death until she contemplates the end of her own life.

(Heidegger worked on the idea that only human beings die. He thought plants and animals simply perish. Sendak has personified the plant. The plant’s death is clearly the first real death of this story.)

DESIRE

Stories don’t satisfy an audience until the main character wants something. Although Jennie starts out with no goal in mind (other than to get the hell out of the house), she very soon does settle upon a goal: she wants to act in a play. This desire is what propels her forward in her journey. First she requires ‘Experience’.

Sendak plays with the various permutations of this word and how we typically use it in English to mean

  1. Work experience, a prerequisite for many jobs
  2. A positive event in one’s life
  3. A negative event in one’s life (euphemistically)

Presumably because she is a dog, Jennie’s understanding of English is limited. She shares this in common with the child reader. Jennie embodies both adult and child at once — a naive child in the adult role of a nurse, and the brave role of a lion-fighting knight.

OPPONENT

Typically in stories there are two distinct layers of opposition: the ‘family’ and the ‘Minotaur’. Friends and family are natural opponents for wanting different things. These things don’t tend to be life and death. Jennie and the potplant are opponents because Jennie wants to leave and the plant clearly wants to dissuade her, craving company. Jennie eats off all of its leaves and it can’t talk anymore.

Next, Jennie and the Baby are opponents. The baby won’t eat, and if the baby won’t eat, Jennie will be fed to the lion. As far as ‘family opposition’ goes, the threat of death is stronger than average. Normally in stories, families are squabbling about relatively incosequential things (in comparison to the big, outside, Minotaur opposition).

As for the Minotaur opponent in this tale, that would be the big, bad opposition that represents life and death: the Lion — typically used as Minotaur opposition — unreasonable, with the huge appetite of an ogre. An ogre/Lion can like you perfectly well and still want to eat you up. It’s impossible to reason with this category of opponent.

Metaphorically, the Lion represents our greatest fear — fear of death. The following sentence offers clear insight into that:

Lions chased through Jennie’s head.

PLAN

Because Jennie is naively stumbling through the world, she misinterprets the requirements of acting. She is told she needs Experience, subtext reading she needs acting experience, but when she hears of a (dangerous) nursing job and is told that it will certainly be ‘an Experience’ she figures that’ll do nicely to propel her toward her goal.

Sendak employs the ticking clock technique by setting a time limit on applying for the role of actor.

THE BIG STRUGGLE

Stories that culminate in a play/sports event/competition have a climax baked into the plot. But we shouldn’t confuse that part of the story for the near-death section — metaphorically the part where the hero reaches the centre of the labyrinth and confronts the Minotaur.

The mythological vibe of Higglety Pigglety Pop! is clear. Jennie pops her head right into the lion’s mouth. Turns out she was only bluffing as a way to save Baby and she escapes without her beard ‘which never grew back’. This is Jennie’s near-death experience.

In a differently structured story, also featuring a ‘play’, contrast with About A Boy. In that story, the stage performance is the near death experience. (Social death, for the young boy.) The stage scene also functions to show the audience that the older ‘boy’ (played by Hugh Grant in the movie) has finally sacrificed his dignity to do something nice for someone else. He has grown as a human being.

ANAGNORISIS

To tie up this story, Jennie accidentally guesses the baby’s name, even though she never realised the importance of guessing it (contrasting with the similar plot point of Rumpelstiltskin.)

Jennie has come to terms with dying.

“You escaped from the lion!” […]

They all climbed up on the lion’s back.

Significantly, there is nothing morbid about Being-towards-death. And there is nothing morbid about Jennie at the conclusion of this book.

Everything = an unsatisfactory life; nothing = death.
Everything leads to despair because we no longer seek out new Experiences.
Life = Experiences.

NEW SITUATION

Surface reading: Jennie is a stage actor now.

Metaphorical reading: Jennie has accepted her imminent death.

EXTRAPOLATED ENDING

Extrapolating for metaphor, the stage play has functioned as the portal into death, and a microcosm of the overall absurdism/futility of life. When taking a broad view of life, it’s difficult to take seriously things which once seemed so very important.

There IS more to life: death! Life and death are part of the same cycle, an ideology that wends its way right through children’s literature.

Scene: room in a very terrific place.

We can assume they end up in Heaven, or the reader’s cultural equivalent.

RESONANCE

Looking through the various reactions to this story from consumers, Higglety Pigglety Pop! is a divisive story. Readers seem to find it either attractively surreal or creepily off-putting. But Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are cemented Sendak’s position as an influential American 20th century storyteller, ensuring that there will long be an audience who seek out his other work.

Sendak’s book is now better known (at least on the Internet) than the Mother Goose nursery rhyme around which it is written.

Higglety Pigglety Pop has been made into a short film.

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The Scary Kitchen in Children’s Stories

In The Night Kitchen Maurice Sendak

Most often, kitchens in children’s literature serve as metonyms of familial happiness, but every so often you do find a scary kitchen in which not all is well. The kitchen is the perfect place for a scary scene because it is at once close to home (in fact the hub of the home) and contains dangerous items such as knives.

The ultimate scary picture book kitchen is, in my opinion, one created by Maurice Sendak — In The Night Kitchen.

One of Willy Pogany’s superb illustrations for The Witch’s Kitchen

And here are a couple of shots of the kitchens our story app Midnight Feast. I illustrated the story in two colour schemes — the ochre one is the main character’s reality. The colour illustrations are her imagined, improved take on reality, in which there is not enough to eat due to climate change.

I now find the prospect of climate change so terrifying I’d never spend a year and a half making another climate change story.

midnight feast kitchen
magical restaurant kitchen

I made Midnight Feast deliberately terrifying. (My illustration style doesn’t exactly lend itself to light and fluffy.)

But sometimes I wonder if kitchens are accidentally creepy. Below is a bird’s eye view of Doctor Snuggles’ kitchen. His housekeeper is grumpy and hates him messing up his space. The top down view makes Snuggles look small and somewhat vulnerable. The illustrator has skewed perspective a little to give the reader more of his face.

doctor-snuggles-and-the-lavender-lullaby_800x602
from Doctor Snuggles and the Lavender Lullaby created and written by Jeffrey O’Kelly, illustrated by Nicholas Price, 1982, ABC Television

The kitchen in Courage The Cowardly Dog can be scary or welcoming depending on the camera angle and colour scheme. Purples and blues mean something scary is going down.

A comically terrifying kitchen-centred story is a Wallace and Gromit film.

Downlighting and horror film techniques make for a spooky kitchen in Wallace and Gromit: A Matter Of Loaf And Death

Do you know which classic story the following scary kitchen is from?

This house was something between a cave, a prison, and a tumbledown pig-stye. There was a strong door, which was shut and locked.

The setting sun made the window panes glow like red flame; but the kitchen fire was not alight. It was neatly laid with dry sticks, as the rabbits could see, when they peeped through the window.

Benjamin sighed with relief.

But there were preparations upon the kitchen table which made him shudder. There was an immense empty pie-dish of blue willow pattern, and a large carving knife and fork, and a chopper.

At the other end of the table was a partly unfolded tablecloth, a plate, a tumbler, a knife and fork, salt-cellar, mustard and a chair—in short, preparations for one person’s supper.

It is from The Tale of Mr. Tod by Beatrix Potter. Some of those sentences would fit perfectly in a horror novel, don’t you think?

‘Swelter with Kitchen Urchin’ illustrated by Mervyn Peake for the first book of his Gormenghast trilogy “Titus Groan” (1946)
‘Swelter with Kitchen Urchin’ illustrated by Mervyn Peake for the first book of his Gormenghast trilogy “Titus Groan” (1946)
by Jim Smith from Frog Band Fanfare in 1977
by Jim Smith from Frog Band Fanfare in 1977
Martta Wendelin (1893-1986) biscuits
Martta Wendelin (1893-1986)
Rokuro Taniuchi Shuukan Shinshoo
Rokuro Taniuchi Shuukan Shinshoo
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Outside Over There by Maurice Sendak

Outside Over There cover

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. Today I look closely at a picture book classic by iconic American author/illustrator, Maurice Sendak. Outside Over There is a mythic journey of the imagination, with emphasis on atmosphere and emotion. It is a changeling story with the strong influence of fairy and folk tale.

Maurice Sendak’s most famous work is Where The Wild Things Are. Entire theses have been written about Where The Wild Things Are. I’ve summarised some of the key thoughts about that picture book myself, and have since noticed just how influential it was in its depiction of difficult feelings, previously taboo in stories for young readers.

Yet some children’s literature specialists believe Outside Over There is Sendak’s best work. In its publishing history, this picture book hasn’t always been marketed to children. This is one of those ‘children’s books’ which appeals to adults in a different, possibly deeper, way.

Continue reading “Outside Over There by Maurice Sendak”

The Three Main Types Of Modern Myth Stories

First, what is meant by mythic structure?

In everyday English, a myth is a story which is not true. In a myth, the surface level story is not true, but the symbols running through the story say something deeper about humankind. This is what makes it true.

If you look at all the Ancient myths they have things in common. Characters go on a journey, change, then either return home a changed person or find a new home.

The farthest you can travel is to come back to the place you already are and see that place with new eyes.

T.S. Elliot

This is all related to the symbolism of the labyrinth. The journey itself takes the hero into the deepest darkest parts of the soul, where the hero encounters a Minotaur (opponent). The journey out of the labyrinth is a rebirth.

Sometimes you find yourself in the middle of nowhere, and sometimes, in the middle of nowhere, you find yourself.

Unknown

British novel: let’s go to a party and find a wife.
German novel: let’s go to the wilderness and find ourselves.
Russian novel: let’s go to the depths of despair and then find out there is an even deeper level of despair we didn’t know about and go there.

@ExistentialComics

Since all cultures are built on myth, the mythic story works across cultures.

ZELTZER: How much do you draw on fairy tales or myths?

URSULA LE GUIN: Well, it’s useless to differentiate them; you always end up with the same damn archetypes.

The Last Interview

Take The Pilgrim’s Progress as a fairly modern story making use of mythic symbols:

Although The Pilgrim’s Progress is allegorical, it is impossible even for an adult to read about Christian’s journey to the Celestial City in any other way than as a story. The passages through the Slough of Despond and the Valley of Humiliation, the fight with the monster Apollyon, the loss of Christian’s comrade Faithful in Vanity Fair, the crossing of the River of Death: these are actual and vivid events, as real in their own way as the mass of detail with which Defoe built up Robinson Crusoe. It may be noted that the themes of all these three books the dangerous journey, as in The Pilgrim’s Progress, the desert island, as in Robinson Crusoe: and the miniature or other imaginary world, as in Gulliver have served for innumerable later books, both children’s and adult, and are by no means worn out.

Written for Children by John Rowe Townsend

Mythic stories work via symbolism, the universal kind of symbolism connected to what has lately been called ‘transformative memory’. This term describes memories which are not authentic, but created by the brain to make sense of life, turning disorder and fragmentation into some kind of meaning.

‘Transformative memory’ is Janice Haaken’s term. (See Haaken’s 1998 book Pillar of Salt: Gender, memory and the perils of looking back.)

Pillar of Salt introduces the controversy over recollections of childhood sexual abuse as the window onto a much broader field of ideas concerning memory, storytelling, and the psychology of women. The book moves beyond the poles of “true” and “false” memories to show how women’s stories reveal layers of gendered and ambiguous meanings, spanning a wide historical, cultural, literary, and clinical landscape. The author offers the concept of transformative remembering as an alternative framework for looking back, one that makes use of fantasy in understanding the narrative truth of childhood recollections.

Haaken provides an alternative reading of clinical material, showing how sexual storytelling transcends the symbolic and the “real” and how cultural repression of desire remains as problematic for women as the psychological legacy of trauma.

I’ve always wanted to get as far as possible from the place where I was born. Far both geographically and spiritually […] I feel that life is very short and the world is there to see […] and one should know as much of it as possible. One belongs to the whole world, not just one part of it.

Paul Bowles, American expatriate composer, author, and translator

Myth is not a part of every story. Even Joseph Campbell himself said that there was no mythic structure to be found in 25% of stories.

Raison D’être Of Mythic Stories

Myths are born of the sticky dark. That’s why the truest have survived thousands of years. They present fictional answers to primal questions: Why do tragic things happen? Which is stronger, love or death? What if death is just the beginning?

Marcus Sakey, Publishers Weekly

There are three main types of modern adventure stories, and they all make use of mythic structure. (For more on children’s adventure stories and their evolution, see The Centrality of the Adventure Story.)

The Adventure Story

MYTH IN RELATION TO FOLKTALES AND FAIRY TALES

Myths and folktales are assumed to be the very first stories in the history of humankind, closely related to rites of passage. Thus, a fairytale becomes a travel instruction for a young person on the way toward adulthood, directions on exactly how to behave in various situations. […] The hero’s task in a folktale is totally impossible for an “ordinary” human being, it is always a symbolic or allegorical depiction. Allegories (like Dante’s Divina Commedia or Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress) are also travel instructions. But the addressee knows that you cannot die and then rise from the dead, nor be eaten by a whale and then come out again, nor descend into the realm of death, and so on. When the March sisters try to follow Bunyan’s instructions for a journey, they have to “translate” the allegory into more everyday conditions. […] The modern version of a travel instruction is formula fiction in all its forms: crime novel, science fiction, horror, romance, soap opera, and so on. The addressee of these texts also knows that the story has very little to do with life. On the contrary, the text is based on detachment, especially through its exotic settings and incredible events. Many scholars have noted the similarities between fairytales and formula fiction. As early as the 1920s Propp suggested that his model for folktale analysis could be applied to novels of chivalry and other texts with fixed narrative structures.

Maria Nikolajeva, From Mythic to Linear: Time in Children’s Literature

Nikolajeva refers to Umberto Eco’s analysis of structure of James Bond movies as an example of such analysis.

  • M moves and gives a task to Bond.
  • The villian moves and appears to Bond.
  • Bond moves and gives a first check to the villain or the villiain gives first check to Bond.
  • Woman moves and shows herself to Bond.
  • Bond consumes woman: possesses her or begins her seduction
  • The villain captures Bond
  • The villain tortures Bond
  • Bond conquers the villain
  • Bond convalescing enjoys woman, who he then loses

Award-winning children’s authors such as Kate DiCamillo typically write with a mythic structure, though the list could go on:

[A] tendency to reflection is why DiCamillo’s style often echoes with the dark-light verities of Victorian or Edwardian children’s literature which, too, dwell on the private lives of playthings and speaking animals on heroic quests.

Canberra Times

Now to the three main types of myths in modern storytelling.

1. THE MYTHIC JOURNEY

The O.G. Myth is regularly considered to be The Odyssey, first recorded by Homer 800 BC.

In this kind of adventure there are often two journeys, closely linked and mutually dependent, one physical and the other spiritual. The protagonist, by means of a physical journey, experiences a growth in self-knowledge or subtle character development. An observant reader will respond to both journeys and be aware of the spiritual growth that has taken place.

Give Them Wings, edited by Saxby and Winch

The Odyssey is so well-known that marketers sometimes use ‘Odyssey’ to mean ‘mythic journey’ and audiences basically know what we’re getting:

The Odyssean myth is so powerful that even something the length of an advertisement can create powerful emotions. Check out a Coca-cola ad below. (Big brands can afford to spend the most on their campaigns. McDonalds also makes excellent ads.)

“We find a model for learning how to live in stories about heroism. The heroic quest is about saying yes to yourself and, in so doing, becoming more fully alive and more effective in the world. For the hero’s journey is first about taking a journey to find the treasure of your true self, and then about returning home to give your gift to help transform the kingdom- and, in the process, your own life. The quest itself is replete with dangers and pitfalls, but if offers great rewards: the capacity to be successful in the world, knowledge of the mysteries of the human soul, the opportunity to find and express your unique gifts in the world, and to live in loving community with other people.”

Carol S. Pearson, Awakening the Heroes Within: Twelve Archetypes to Help Us Find Ourselves and Transform Our World

The Home-away-home story is also very common in picturebooks. This is basically the mythic journey but in different words specifically applied to picture books.

The mythic journey is also called the (mythic) quest.

The technical definition of myth:

The story of the transformation of the soul and the stages of its illumination.

The pictorial representation of a mythic story is the labyrinth as viewed from above.

Although in English we have inherited the Greek word, the labyrinth shape can be seen across many different cultures. It’s a universal symbol and this is exactly why the labyrinthine shape so beautifully represents the shape of the universal mythological story structure. I’ve written a lot about that elsewhere, but in short, a hero goes on a long journey and meets many opponents along the way. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series draws heavily upon ancient mythology. Rowling’s Triwizard Maze features many opponents within it.

Our classical hero finally comes across a REALLY bad guy, who kills him (or not, in a tragedy) then after some spiritual awakening the hero returns home, or finds a new home (or is dead).

In The Shining, Jack freezes to death after chasing Danny into a hedge maze and getting lost.

He (and it’s almost always a he) will face moral choices along the way (which we might better represent as choices within a maze, not a labyrinth). In the case of a labyrinth, the journey itself takes you further and further into yourself, into your soul, where you will face your deepest darkest fears. The journey in and out is a cycle of death and rebirth. By rebirthing, you become a different person. You basically become a shapeshifter. In the famous Greek myth, Theseus transforms from a youth into a king. It’s basically a coming-of-age story. The labyrinth is his initiation.

In order to get out alive you’ll need to find the following within yourself:

  • trickery (this is why tricksters are so universally popular across storytelling)
  • perseverance
  • unhurriedness
  • curiosity
  • playfulness
  • flexibility
  • improvisation
  • self-mastery
  • smarts, because you must resist the lure of easy solutions which are not solutions at all.

Throughout the last 3000 years of history (at least), people have understood this symbolism across cultures. The shape itself actually goes back further than 3000 years, to the Neolithic (New Stone) age. The Neolithic age began around 12,000 years ago.

As a narrative structure, the mythic labyrinth/maze forms the basis of all human storytelling, across cultures. Whenever someone tells us a story, we are expecting something which conforms to this shape, with certain accepted shape variations. This is why there is such a thing as universal story structure.

Apart from The Odyssey there are a whole bunch of really old myths that all have the basic same plot: Jason and the Golden Fleece, Beowulf, Saint George etc.

A slightly more modern mythic journey is Gulliver’s Travels, published 1726.

Gulliver tied down

From Gulliver’s Travels came 20th Century stories such as:

(Gulliver’s Travels is also the O.G. Miniature Story as well as being the O.G. Journey.)

An example of an Odyssean journey in a picture book is Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak.

Other examples of Odyssean Mythic Structures:

  • The Lion King
  • Thelma and Louise a female buddy movie. Buddy movies tend to make use of mythic structure. Thelma and Louise is of course a standout Road Trip story as well, which is a modern American take on the Odyssean mythic journey, spawned by the development of America’s federal highway system in the 20th century.
  • Beauty and the Beast
  • The Piano myth blended with anti-romance
  • True Grit  basically a crime story, blended with mythic structure
  • Harry Potter Typically for main characters of myth stories, Harry is a foundling, abandoned by his parents and brought up by horrible people.
  • Le Week-end a film written by Hanif Kureishi in which the journey takes the form of a romantic weekend away with the purpose of rekindling a failing marriage
  • Locke a road trip with one on-screen character played by Tom Hardy. Extraordinarily well scripted, we really only see Tom Hardy sitting in his car. The opponents he meets on his journey come only in form of voices through his car phone. By the end of the journey he is in a different place both physically and spiritually.
  • I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore – an indie-film which provides an excellent example of modern use of mythic symbolism such as the labyrinth and the river. The backdrop is American suburbia. The main hero is a woman, though she is joined by a man. Interesting for its gender inversions.
  • Wildlike a 14 year old girl is sent to stay with her uncle in Alaska one summer as her mother is receiving treatment for an illness. She is soon faced with the task of running away from the uncle and making her way back to Seattle. She meets various helpers and opponents along the way, and contributes to a grieving man’s character arc as he grieves for his own wife’s recent death.
  • Jolene a 2008 film based on a story by E.L. Doctorow. A young orphan marries but in a Cinderella-like tragedy things don’t go well and she ends up on the road, meeting all sorts of people along the way, mostly horrible.
  • Hunt For The Wilderpeople a New Zealand comedy drama about the relationship between a cranky man and a boy, who go bush, pursued by the police for suspected child abuse.

Then there are computer games, such as Halo and Red Dead Redemption.

Occasionally, the story isn’t so much about what the character learns about themselves. It is about what the main character teaches others they meet. This hero is like a sage, going from place to place fixing things. Let’s call this type of journey-person a ‘blow-in saviour’.

Blow-in Saviour describes a character who travels from place to place fixing the joint, or spreading joy, then moving on. We assume the cycle will continue.

Blow-in Saviour characters are found mainly in Westerns, detective stories and comedies. They are also found in children’s stories. Sometimes the Blow-in Saviours of children’s stories are children, sometimes they are adults. As I’ve noted before, characters in children’s stories are not always rounded to the point that they are treating others wrongly in some way. This is less true of contemporary adults’ stories.

Blow-in Saviours tend to turn up with a community is in trouble. (But not always.) Mary Poppins turns up when a household is in trouble. (Middle grade fiction is about the household more than about the community). They fix the problems, then move on.

The Blow-in Saviour trope is a benevolent outworking of the walking the Earth’ trope.

EXAMPLES OF THE BLOW-IN SAVIOUR TROPE
  • Into The Wild — Chris McCandless goes from place to place offering (pseudo-) wisdom and seeming to improve other people’s lives, until his philosophies turn in on himself and lead to his own downfall.
  • Tinkerbell of Peter and Wendy
  • Snufkin from The Moomins is similar. He plays a harmonica wherever he goes, distributing the joy of music.
  • Crocodile Dundee (Australian film) — comedy, adventure
  • Red Dog is another Australian film — in a heartwarming story, a red dog goes from place to place spreading joy.
  • True Grit — anti-Western, adventure
  • Amélie (film) — French comedy romance — Blow-in Saviour comedies are popular in France for some reason
  • Chocolat (book and film) — drama, romance
  • Good Morning, Vietnam (film) — biography, comedy, drama
  • Mary Poppins (family musical based on a series of books by P.L. Travers) — children’s book — comedy, fantasy, Nanny Story
  • Shane (classic Western) — about the only non-ironic Western movie made since the world wars — includes drama and romance
  • Anne Of Green Gables — Anne starts off as a scattered character who causes chaos wherever she goes despite her best efforts. But her character arc turns her into a Blow-in Saviour, which starts the night she saves the Barry girl by knowing what to do for her illness. After she grows up, Anne doesn’t leave Avonlea for good, she is back and forth, and tends to win crotchety people over so long as they are basically good in the first place.
  • Wanda from The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes is wise and humble beyond her years. She visits a school temporarily, changes the social structure for the better, teaches kindness then moves on.
  • Jack Reacher goes from town to town solving mysteries.
  • Xena Warrior Princess and her sidekick Gabrielle go from place to place fighting warlords. The backstory is that Xena is atoning for her past as the worst warlord of them all.
  • Superheroes have Blow-in Saviour attributes. They seem drawn to saving everyone and will travel far and wide to do so.
  • Santa — the ultimate Blow-in Saviour!
  • Miss Rumphius is a bit of a Blow-in Saviour character, walking from place to place spreading flower seeds, beautifying the area.
  • Ray Donovan, a Hollywood ‘fixer’ who later moves to New York.
  • The Straight Story — This 1999  biographical road trip story directed by David Lynch is about Alvin Straight, a man who decides to make an epic journey to see his brother and straighten things up with him before he dies. The journey to Wisconsin wouldn’t ordinarily be so epic, except he makes the eccentric decision to undertake the journey on a series of ride-on lawnmowers which keep breaking down. (We can assume he has lost his car driver’s licence due to old age). This guy meets people along the way and shares wisdom he has collected. (If you enjoy this film, see The World’s Fastest Indian.)

Related: Angelic Tropes at TV Tropes

THE BLOW-IN DASTARD TROPE

An inversion of the Blow-in Saviour trope can be found undertaking less optimistic, borderline misanthropic mythic journeys. Annie Proulx has upended the Blow-in Dastard trope in several of her stories, notably “Heart Songs” and in “Negatives“, both from the Heart Songs collection. Well-heeled outsiders enter a poor, rural community, wreak havoc then move on, only to do the same to the next town, we deduce.

In children’s literature we have Wolf Comes To Town! by Denis Manton and similar stories in which a villain goes from place to place wreaking havoc. Classic fairytales tend to end with the goodies defeating the baddies, but new re-visionings sometimes eschew the happy ending.

When Nellie Bertram joins The (American) Office cast, inserting herself as boss, she describes herself as their blow-in saviour by comparing herself to Tinkerbell (a genuine Blow-in Saviour). In doing so, she describes the Blow-in Saviour perfectly:

Jim: Yeah, that’s the thing. I don’t know if you can even give raises.
Nellie: Jim, have you ever heard of a character named Tinkerbell?
Jim: Yes.
Nellie: I’m Tinkerbell.
Jim: No.
Nellie: Mm-hm. I’m a magical fairy who floated into your office to bring a little bit of magic into your lives, to give you all raises.
Stanley: And we are grateful.
Nellie: But here’s the thing about Tinkerbell, Jim. Everyone has to believe in her or she doesn’t exist.
Jim: She dies.

Office Quotes, Season 8, Episode 19

But Nellie is full of bluff and bluster, a charlatan and a terrible boss. From the outset she is presented as a Blow-in Dastard instead. This works best when the audience understands what she is trying to do, which is why having her explain this is effective.

2. THE STATIC JOURNEY

There are two ways of getting home; and one of them is to stay there.

G.K. CHESTERTON
Albert Dorne (1906-1965) Office of Defense Transportation illustration from 1945
Albert Dorne (1906-1965) Office of Defense Transportation illustration from 1945

The ur-Static Journey is the Robinsonnade, a word that appeared to describe two similar novels which happened to both have ‘Robinson’ in the title: Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Swiss Family Robinson.

The fictional story of Robinson Crusoe had a huge effect on real-world events, especially on the history of Australia. Explorer and cartographer Matthew Flinders read Robinson Crusoe as a kid and wrote in his travel memoirs that he was “induced to go to sea against the wishes of my friends from reading Robinson Crusoe

What made Robinson Crusoe so popular?

  1. A wonderful narrative voice — exciting, unhurried and conversational. Quasi-journalistic.
  2. It’s actually a very old story pattern, also seen in the Bible: transgression, retribution, repentance, redemption. (Youthful rebellion, successive shipwrecks, the painful lessons of isolation, Crusoe’s return home.)
  3. Memorably concrete images, like Friday’s footprints in the sand, Crusoe with his parrot and umbrella.

One reason for the island myth is pure escapism, of course. But this sort of myth is often not an escape from work. Once you’re on the island, characters need to work hard to live. This is like ultra-camping, or the feeling you get watching reality TV of the Doomsday Preppers variety. In Robinson Crusoe, our hero has to build shelters, fence off territories, hunt and farm. This plays into the wish fulfilment fantasy of self-sufficiency.

Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island has […] fallen out of favour with present-day readers, but any number of adventure stories, from Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book to The Action Hero’s Handbook derive from it. Stevenson’s young hero, Jim Hawkins, foreshadows the plucky resourcefulness of Anthony Horowitz’s reluctant teenage spy, and Eoin Colfer’s criminal mastermind Artemis Fowl.

Why this is a golden age of children’s literature, Amanda Craig

Why are these stories so popular? Well, we love a story in which characters work for what they have. This is a dominant ideology in children’s literature, too. When characters get what they desire we like to see evidence that they deserve it. Robinson Crusoe has achieved longevity due in part to its consonance with this modern ideology that work is one of most important things humans can do. Indeed, Defoe presents work as a kind of therapy — working on mind, body and spirit. When Crusoe bakes his own bread he’s proud of his achievement. This is in line with the tale of The Little Red Hen: If you want to enjoy your bread you had better have baked it yourself.

For more on Robinson Crusoe see The Guardian, in which they count Robinson Crusoe as the second most important book in English literature.

A more recent evolution on the Robinsonnade is Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer, written in the mid- to late-1800s in which the hero doesn’t actually need to go anywhere; all the action takes place at home.

In the 20th century we read school stories and holiday stories, which are also static in that the action takes place at a (boarding) school or at a holiday destination.

Around the 1960s and 70s, adventure stories started to focus less on plot and more on character. Romanticism gave way to realism. As in the best adventure stories, setting is still important.

  • Betsy Byars
  • Joan Phipson
  • Patricia Wrightson
  • Ivan Southall — the Simon Black series, considered The Australian Biggles
  • Eleanor Spence
  • Lilith Norman

Most recently these realistic adventure novels have evolved into what are sometimes derisively known as ‘issues novels’, especially in young adult literature, and the trend is now moving down into middle grade literature.

A more direct modern retelling of the Robinson Crusoe story is of course Castaway starring Tom Hanks. But don’t forget that any adventure story which takes place in one place is a descendent of Robinson Crusoe.

Julie of the Wolves is a young adult novel in the Robinsonnade tradition.

You may already be noticing a few problems with traditional mythic stories. The third main type of myth goes some way towards modernising the form, but first, let’s take a look at the known problems.

SOME PROBLEMS WITH ODYSSEAN (AND ROBINSONNADE) MYTHIC STRUCTURE

PROBLEM ONE: UNIVERSALITY IS GOOD BUT PREDICTABLE

The mythic structure is certainly popular, but has been done many times before. It’s possible that the most original stories to emerge will veer away from mythic structure altogether. However, since film audiences are already conditioned for myth, such novel stories are likely to be considered ‘fringe’ and will have less money allocated to their production and marketing. Indie studios are more likely to take such risks. However, you’re more likely to see non-mythic novels than non-mythic Hollywood films for exactly this reason. Genre in novels/short stories/indie film is evolving at a faster pace and is more open to innovation.

The story of the hero and his quest, the adventure story, is always essentially the same. It is the story of Odysseus, of Jason and the Golden Fleece, of Beowulf, of Saint George, of the Knights of the Round Table, of Jack and the Beanstalk, of Robinson Crusoe, of Peter Rabbit, of James Bond, of Luke Skywalker, of Batman, of Indiana Jones, of the latest sci-fi adventure and the latest game in the computer shop. It appears in countless legends, folk tales, children’s stories and adult thrillers. It is ubiquitous. Northrop Frye has argued that the quest myth is the basic myth of all literature, deriving its meanings from the cycle of the seasons and ‘the central expression of human meanings from the cycle of the seasons and ‘the central expression of human energy [which transformed] the amorphous natural environment into the pastoral, cultivated, civilized world of human shape and meaningthe hero is the reviving power of spring and the monster and old king and outgrown forces of apathy and impotence in a symbolic winter.’ Whether we accept this or not, the centrality of the hero story in our culture is unarguable.

Margery Hourihan, Deconstructing The Hero
PROBLEM TWO: LACK OF NUANCE

Since myth tends to rely on simple distinctions between ‘good vs evil’, nuance can be sacrificed. The message that ‘good doesn’t always win out’ isn’t easily conveyed by the mythic structure.

“But to look back from the stony plain along the road which led one to that place is not at all the same thing as walking on the road; the perspective to say the very least, changes only with the journey; only when the road has, all abruptly and treacherously, and with an absoluteness that permits no argument, turned or dropped or risen is one able to see all that one could not have seen from any other place.”

James Baldwin, Go Tell It on the Mountain
PROBLEM THREE: GENDER INVERSIONS DON’T FIX LACK OF REPRESENTATION

In a female-led mythic story the heroine requires an extra step: She FIRST needs to break free of the constraints of home. (See Thelma & Louise.) This is an extra burden on female characters, leads to a less diverse type of storytelling featuring women and girls, and after all, why should stories about women and girls base their template on stories which never included women and girls in the first instance? A good story about the female experience of the world isn’t simply a story about a boy, only with the boy switched out for a girl.

‘Adventure story’ is the term most often used when talking about children’s literature. For more on the centrality of the adventure story see: A Brief History Of The Adventure Story In English.

3. THE NON-BATTLE MYTH

There’s another type of myth that doesn’t involve a big fight for a climax. Others have used the gender binary to describe these myths, though I would like us to move away from this now. Though there’s truth to the observation that stories starring boys and men are more likely to contain fighting at the climax, I’d like to disentangle the idea that masculinity and violence naturally go together. I’d like to see more boys the stars of these so called feminine myths. The feminine myths are about thinking, and I’d also like us to move away from the idea that women and girls are guided by emotions. (Emotions are for everyone.)

All that said, there is an obvious physiological connection between the binary mythic forms:

It could be that we’re all sick of the three act structure and that actually there is a way of telling a story that is different. And it’s just not about the big orgasm [Battle] at the end. We have multiple orgasms, that’s God’s gift to us. […] There is a theory around women’s storytelling, that it isn’t just the three act structure to get to the big bang at the end. That isn’t our biology. We like a slow burn. And it’s very rewarding. What’s wrong with 10 endings?

Gaylene Preston, New Zealand filmmaker

[Some people] think that the bases track neatly onto emotions so that holding hands is a little bit intimate and kissing more intimate and having sex the most intimate thing of all. Reality is rarely this neat or linear. Sex can be boring and impersonal, while a brush of the hand can be thrilling. One person can feel close to another from far away and the same person can have penetrative intercourse and not feel much of anything. Touch doesn’t have to be a hierarchy, and sex doesn’t have to be the only, or even the best, way of achieving intimacy.

Ace: What Asexuality Reveals About Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex by Angela Chen

Odyssean stories and Robinsonades are said to be of the ‘male’ type. The first involves leaving home and going on a journey to find oneself; the second focuses a bit more on character development. Throughout the corpus of children’s literature it is especially obvious — girls get to stay home (domestic stories) while boys leave the home (on adventure).

‘If you were a boy I’d say are you going to seek your fortune?’
‘Can’t girls seek their fortune?’
‘I think they’re supposed to seek a boy with a fortune.’ 

Terry Pratchett, Equal Rites

There are few modern examples of the battle-free myth form, but some well-known examples include:

  1. Inside Out
  2. Frozen
  3. Gravity
  4. Coraline
  5. My Neighbour Totoro
  6. The Snowman
  7. Arrival
  8. The Paperbag Princess as an example of the big struggle-free mythic form. (Book creators have been doing it longer than Hollywood writers have.)
  9. Wolf In The Snow by Matthew Cordell
  10. The Fog by Kyo Maclear and Kenard Pak

In fact, a lot of picture books use a battle-free mythic structure. I would put Where The Wild Things Are in this category because the main character is dealing with his own emotions. Think of any picture book which is a descendent of Where The Wild Things Are: A child feels their emotions, retreats into themselves and go through an internal kind of struggle.

  • Doesn’t have all the fighting
  • Or the fisticuffs type of battle at the climax
  • Doesn’t necessarily involve a journey away from home, but there is some sort of long, difficult journey
  • There doesn’t have to be a ‘minotaur’ (a powerful outside opponent)
  • Plots are not based on conflict
  • It draws heavily from Jungian theory.
  • Interiority. The battle-free myth is an inner journey. It seems to have been around since the Second Wave feminist movement (though there may well be excellent earlier examples I don’t know about.) Either the character goes into their own heads or, as in Inside Out, there’s a whole other world in there. Imagination and fantasy are great combos for the battle-free myth form, as without the big battles and strong outside Minotaur villain we need other points of interest.

Perhaps because we don’t want kids exposed to endless fighting, children’s storytellers are moving towards stories with less violence and more emotion. Pixar has now given three examples (Inside Out and the Frozen films). They will likely give us more because these stories are really popular. In Waking Sleeping Beauty, Roberta Seelinger Trites names two books in particular: The Blue Sword by Robyn McKinley and On Fortune’s Wheel by Cynthia Voight.

THE BLUE SWORD (1982)

This novel has a lot of feminist problems, to be sure.

  • The main character (Harry) basically has to become a boy and do traditionally masculine stuff. Inversion does not equal subversion.
  • Harry is silenced because of how it’s plotted — she can’t speak the local fantasy language and has to rely on a dude to translate everything for her. This means he dominates conversations.
  • Only four of the fifteen knights are women and they remain unnamed, so McKinley doesn’t achieve gender balance in her minor characters.
  • This is ultimately a marriage plot. At the end she gets married and this is a happy ending for her.

But The Blue Sword is an important work because it was one of the first books to allow a female character a traditionally masculine mythic quest.

Seelinger Trites points out that imagery of cycles and wheels inform both texts to emphasize how Birle and Orien’s journeys are process rather than goal-oriented. This lines up with what Maria Nikolajeva has said about how seasons dominate in children’s books written for girls, since seasons are cyclical.

The journeys themselves are circular as well. In male myth forms, the hero often (though not always) ends in a different part of the world.

THE TRICKSTERS BY MARGARET MAHY (1986)

In this sophisticated YAL novel from 1980s New Zealand, Margaret Mahy takes a classic Greek myth and re-visions it into something feminist. To do that, she takes the ‘thread’ of the Minotaur myth and uses another of its meaning: not a literal spool of thread this time, but a ‘plot thread’. Main character Harry (alter ego Ariadne) is using her brain to work through a mystery surrounding her family.

The text of The Tricksters exemplifies the intertextual use of mythology and folklore in feminist children’s novels. It uses intertextual references to underscore its theme, but more important, when the original text oppresses females, the feminist author transforms the story, redeeming it from sexism and claiming it for feminism. Jack Zipes maintains, “Folk tales and fairy tales have always been dependent on customs, rituals and values in the particular socialisation process of a social system. They have always symbolically depicted the nature of power within a given society. Thus, they are strong indicators of the level of civilization, that is, the essential quality of a culture and social order. That the ways a culture uses folktales reflect the culture’s values seems clear. In rewriting folktales to advance feminist ideologies and to identify female subjectivity, feminist writers are both protesting the powerlessness of women inherent in our culture’s old folkways and giving voice to a new set of values: a set that allows for the princess to have power, a set that allows Sleeping Beauty to wake up not to a destiny that immerses her in her husband’s life but to a destiny that is self-defined.

Waking Sleeping Beauty by Roberta Seelinger Trites
ON FORTUNE’S WHEEL (1990)

Cynthia Voight’s novel is similar to The Blue Sword but avoids some of the traps of subversion.

  • Birle goes on a quest, like Harry, though she’s not after an object in particular.
  • She doesn’t give up her voice, identity or her culture when she marries.
  • She starts her journey voluntarily, trying to rescue her family. (This is similar to the much later Katniss Everdeen ‘call’ to adventure.) She’s not kidnapped or anything, decisions are her own.
  • She serves as the male character’s guide for a while then makes her own decision to join him on his journey in the hopes of escaping an unwise betrothal (that she made herself).
  • She falls in love with her male companion and chooses to be with him.
  • Birle is not setting out to destroy a foe. This is what makes it different from the male quest/myth.
  • Instead, it is the process of the journey, which allows the characters’ love for each other to grow, and not the end of the journey that matters. This is the main narrative choice that separates Voight’s quest from others.

One feature of the masculine myth: the rebirth, emphasis on ‘re’. A hero has come from his mother’s womb, but he hasn’t properly disassociated himself from his mother until he undergoes a REbirth. In this way, the symbolic labyrinth (or fantasy world, or journey) is a womb, but a dangerous one. This is why in mythic fairy stories, fairies are always trying to take male babies away from their mothers, and why mothers are always clinging onto the idea that their little boys can be kings and heroes despite having been born of a woman. It probably goes without saying, but all of this is a product of a misogynistic culture.

This works slightly differently in the non-battle myth. Instead of disassociating herself from her mother, the hero of a non-battle myth (usually a heroine) might be separating herself from ‘the male culture that was modelled by her mother’.

Some major differences between the ‘male’ and ‘female’ myth forms are described by Elizabeth Lyon in her book Manuscript Makeover, in which she picks the highlights from an earlier feminist book The Heroine’s Journey by Maureen Murdock, which now feels like a very 90s form of feminism.

MALE MYTH: THE OUTER QUESTFEMALE MYTH: THE INNER QUEST
The Hero is in his familiar Ordinary World when a serious event introduces a problem that is his Call To Adventure.A life changing event compels a woman to go on a quest to find her own identity, separate from the one she assimilated from the male culture that was modelled by her mother.
He refuses the Call because it will mean change, challenge, Separation from the known and familiar, and Departure from home. It may even mean risking his life. He also doesn’t know if he is capable of the task.At first she adopts so-called male behaviours, thinking that she has denied aggressiveness in the past and that is what she needs.
A Mentor assures him that he can do it, must do it, and is the only one who can succeed.This belief leads her into the world of men, often also growing closer to her father.
Emboldened and committed, the Hero departs. He Crosses the Threshold into the Special World, which is alien compared to his Ordinary World.She often achieves success in the work world as she perfects her Animus, the assertive competitive, perfectionist, and male-identified side of her personality.
He quickly learns the rules, encounters Allies and Enemies, and begins his Descent deep into the Special World, the territory of those who oppose him and where he’ll find the solution to the problem.At the same time, she challenges, rejects and even rebukes the beliefs in inferiority, dependency, and romantic love that she now sees as cultural indoctrination of women.
As he continues on the Road of Tests and Trials, the obstacles grow more formidable. He reaches the Approach to the Inner Cave, knowing that at its heart will be the Supreme Ordeal. In the innermost cave, he encounters the biggest obstacles and threats to success. If he overcomes these final challenges, he will have claim to the Reward: He’ll achieve the goal that resolves the problem that set him on his journey.She may blame her mother and distance herself from her.
After he succeeds (or fails), he Refuses the Call to return home, instead emerging from the cave to regale in his glory or to lick his wounds.But when success in the male world also leaves her feeling hollow she no longer feels close to her father or male mentors. She feels betrayed by everyone and everything she has known and believes, including God as a male-defined creation of the culture.
Believing his quest is over and he can at last begin his Return home, he is confronted with one last obstacle, the Ultimate Test. Whether or not he reaches his story goal, if he summons all that he has learned, and releases or heals a wound he was afflicted with in his past, he will let his old self die to be reborn into a new, freer self.Alone, “spiritually arid”, the woman begins her turn inward in search of her unique self. She examines her unique experiences and searches for memories that seem to reflect pieces of a lost but authentic self. However long this period lasts, it often involves shedding any accoutrements of what the patriarchal culture deems appropriate and desirable: female dress, manners and friends. Yet she yearns for an end to the grief and emptiness. She fears she may die without finding her true self and a chance to pursue dreams that she discovers within her.
This is his emotional passage, his Initiation. Death and Rebirth allow him to overcome this final confrontation (unless the story is a tragedy, and then he clings to his old ways, shortcomings, and the emotional wound.)Little by little, or all at once, she finds that connection, and the courage to receive the archetypal power of the Feminine. She integrates it in her own way. She begins to express her unique and now known self. Now she can also express, as needed, nurturing, relatedness and receptivity. These are the positive qualities of the Feminine.
 She reconnects with her mother or with the archetype of the Mother. If the relationship with her earthly mother permits it, she seeks to heal the former breach.
 Instead of rejecting all the Masculine qualities, she integrates the side of herself that also holds the power of the positive Masculine archetype.
At last he can Return with the Elixir, perhaps a treasure, but the true reward is being a new, transformed individual, a Master of Two Worlds, an integrated person with wisdom to share, in the form of the theme reflected by his journey.Finally, she ends her duality, the split of her self and cultural beliefs about the Feminine and Masculine. She ends the misery of beliefs and behaviours not in harmony with her discovered self. She emerges into her new world and selects her new life as an integrated, renewed and healed person.

“Some women tend naturally to be Warriors and Seekers, and some men to be Caregivers and Lovers in spite of their cultural conditioning. The point is for both to take their journeys in such a way as to find their own way to be male or female, and eventually to achieve a positive kind of androgyny, which is not at all about unisex, neutered behavior, but is about gaining the gifts both gender energies and experiences have to offer us.”

Carol S. Pearson, Awakening the Heroes Within: Twelve Archetypes to Help Us Find Ourselves and Transform Our World

In order to work out whether a mythic story is ‘male’ or ‘female’, don’t look at the gender expression of the hero. Men and boys can star in big battle-free myths while women and girls can star in the traditional male myth, and often do (a la the Strong Female Character archetype).

A text may be intended for women and may be about women, but it may still have a masculine point of view because the beliefs in the hypothetical narrator point of view about women are masculine.

Ismay Barwell, Feminist perspectives and narrative points of view, 1993

Oprah’s book club picks are often good examples of the big battle-free myth. Since the reader of this kind of big battle-free myth form is asked to identify with a character battling what is essentially the patriarchy, it’s not surprising that some men (one of whom even refused to appear on Oprah’s book club…) will be turned off by a Oprah’s book club sticker. It is true of many things in life as it is in reading — women are expected to understand and sympathise with the male experience but not vice versa. Many men simply cannot understand what such a battle would feel like, or what it even entails.

Where are all the female creation myths?

The female body follows the lunar cycle, which is closely associated with the idea of death and rebirth (waning and waxing moon). The cardinal function of the female body is reproduction. The big battle-free myths, describing female initiation, are aimed at repetition, rebirth, the eternal life cycle. Actually, very few genuine big battle-free myths exist in writtenmale, civilised, “symbolic” (Lacan)form, due to many reasons. Connected with essential life mysteries such as menstruation and birth (both involving bloody), big battle-free myths are more secret and sacred than male myths. They have mostly existed in oral form, as esoteric rituals. In Western civilisation, they have been suppressed and muted by the dominant male culture. We can only discover traces and remnants of them, in the figures of the *Progenitrix, the witch, the **chthonic goddess.

*Progenitrix = A female progenitor, a foremother, any of a person’s direct female ancestors (ancestresses).

**Chthonic = relating to or inhabiting the underworld

Maria Nikolajeva, From Mythic to Linear: Time in children’s literature

There are still few big battle-free myths around, which is why I wrote one myself, in the form of Hilda Bewildered. Though I didn’t realise it at the time, this story is similar to Inside Out in that it’s about a girl facing a hard situation, learning to overcome a difficult fear by going inside herself. There is no minotaur; there is no big big battle scene. These stories are certainly difficult to write, for exactly that reason.

How is story different in a non-patriarchal society? I say ‘non-patriarchal’ rather than ‘matriarchal’ because there is no real evidence to suggest that before patriarchy was matriarchy. In fact, evidence points to a flatter social system altogether.

I have blogged previously about how the mythic form as we know it — the form which dominates Hollywood blockbusters even today — is a strongly male-centric story.

The very recent Female Myth form aside, the Male Myth form — the one we’re all veeery familiar with — has been dominant for the last 3000 years.

3000 years sounds like forever, but humans have been around longer than that. We’ve been telling stories for longer than that. What did the original big battle-free myth look like? 20th Century feminist Marilyn French offers some insight in the first chapter of her 1985 book Beyond Power: On Women, Men and Morals:

THE VERY OLD HISTORY OF THE MYTH

  • Most of the metal, human-shaped ornaments found from ancient times are figures of women. There are men too, but most are women. Like, not just 51% women — the overwhelmingly majority are obviously female. Some of these figurines date back to 9500BCE. (Metallurgy wasn’t widespread back then but it was still practised in certain areas.) This suggests that women were more visible in these very old societies, only later wiped from the history books.
  • These female-shaped figurines last right up almost until the Christian era.
  • Many researchers believe these figurines were significant when it comes to worship. Old cultures worshipped regeneration and fertility. It made sense to them that everything came from the female, not the male. Other symbols of regeneration (apart from the female body) included: eggs, butterflies and the aurochs (the wild ox of Europe).
  • The mother goddess was not only in charge of birth but also of death. (“I brought you into this world, and I can take you out!” Anyone?) She was also mistress of the animals. So she could also be symbolised by dogs and pigs and other animals vital to human survival. She was also seen in the form of a bird. (We have to remember that all early art was symbolic.)
  • This view of the world — one ruled by a goddess — wasn’t limited to a small area. It was all over the show. Like, China, the Middle East, Mesoamerica, and in Europe from the far north to the Mediterranean and in Middle Europe as well. For more on this look up work done by Marija Gimbutas.
  • Around the 4th or 5th millennia BCE cultures started to make more and more male figures alongside the female ones and they started to become elaborately dressed.
  • Other changes: The female figurines of the Paleolithic era were corpulent, but after the agricultural era was ushered in she was slimmed right down. She became flanked by domesticated rather than wild animals (dogs, bulls and he-goats). The goddess was also often associated with the bear. Bears are considered particularly good mothers, and may have had a big impact on Europeans.
  • Funnily enough (for anyone who’s read the Old Testament), women were also associated with snakes. This is because snakes lose their skins and ‘regenerate’. There are a whole bunch of other symbols to do with women too, like chickens, which puts me in mind of Baba Yaga. (The bear puts me in mind of Pixar’s Brave — see, we’re still making use of these ancient symbols today.) We even see oversized depictions of female genitalia. From here things start to go downhill for women.
  • From the beginning of what’s known as ‘the Classical period’ (300CE to 900CE) women still appear as sculptures, but only as goddesses or priestesses. After that, right up to the 14th century, depictions of women — anywhere, in any form — basically cease. When we do see women, like in some Aztec art, women are huge, ugly and terrifying.
  • Between 1500 and 1900 there was a lot of religious art: Madonnas and Annunciations coexisted with many crucifixions. There were many, many portraits of saints and Church Fathers and gory martrydoms. In secular art there were condottieres on horseback, gorgeous naked Davids, kings and miinisters in ermine and gold, wizened-looking Protestant merchants with their wives and possessions spread around them.
  • Today, of course, women have reappeared in art but we continue to be depicted in a much more heavily sexualised way. We are back in the story, but even in children’s literature there are 3 male characters for every female. (See the work of Janet McCabe if you need to know someone counted.)

What the hell happened?

  • First – don’t get the wrong idea. Those ancient figures of corpulent women didn’t necessarily mean everyone was living in a matriarchy. All that means is that people valued fertility of all kinds above all else. People lived very close to the land, and had not yet begun agriculture. Men just didn’t seem as important in that kind of society. Maybe it’s because early societies didn’t even know that men were necessary for reproduction? It’s just as likely that they did know — I mean, we know now that both parties are equally important to human life but we still have a gender hierarchy. The male’s role in Paleolithic and early Neolithic society simply wasn’t considered as important as it is now.
  • Then agriculture happened. Those central ideas of fertility, regeneration and a sense of humans as integrally connected with nature… dissipated.
  • Agriculture lead to bigger populations.
  • Bigger populations lead to more complicated social systems. It’s interesting and sad that today, our definition of an ‘advanced society’ is one with an established hierarchy, between men and women, between the very rich and the very poor.
  • With agriculture humans started to use coerced animal labour. For examples, mules were roped in to till our fields for us. This lead to humans pulling away from nature. We no longer saw ourselves as part of nature, but in opposition to it.
  • And when I say ‘we’, I mean men. Men considered women, like their mules, to continue to be a part of that ‘civilization/nature’ dichotomy. It was men and men alone who were elevated to this special place, holier than everyone and everything else. For millennia, women had been considered goddesses of regeneration, so they couldn’t just jump ship away from nature with the men, right? We see this attitude clearly exemplified in works such as the Holy Bible, in which we are told that God made the Earth and the animals for the express use of humans (addressing mainly men at the time).
  • Don’t forget that before men started to use mules to till the fields, this was work which had been done by women. Even without the mules, agriculture requires male strength. Men are in charge of all areas of food production now, not just the hunting. Men control the food source. They are therefore basically in charge of who lives and who dies. It used to be the other way around.
  • It is not clear to anyone exactly how it happened, but there are plenty of clues right there. Communities started warring with each other and the status of women fell. Fell so much that women were now owned as chattels, alongside farm animals. Men owned women until very recently, and women are still fighting for equal status. See this Timeline of Women’s Rights for more on that. Most recently the fight to be in charge of one’s own reproduction is one of the main feminist issues.
  • Joseph Campbell has pointed out that this change in human society can be seen in how (and who) humans worship: Campbell divides his study of creation myths into four stages: in the first, the world is created by a goddess alone; in the second, the goddess is allied with a consort and the efforts of the pair lead to creation. Next, a male creates the world using the body of a goddess in some way; and finally, a male god alone creates it. For an example of that evolution take a close look at the Greek myths (some of the best studied mythologies in the world) and you’ll see the evolution from Ge (Earth) to Zeus. At one time Hera was the primary goddess and Zeus becomes powerful only by marrying her. Take a look at Athene — at one point she is born from the head of Zeus. (For some reason it makes more sense to be born from the head of a man than from the vagina of a woman.)

So, was this some kind of retribution? Did men get sick of living in a matriarchy and decide that men were in charge now?

No. First of all, there is no evidence that humankind lived in a matriarchy. There is no evidence that the Mosuo of today are representative of how most of the world ran way back when. Men have about twice the upper body strength of women and women, during pregnancy and childbirth (most of a woman’s life without contraception) are reliant upon men for survival and protection. There is no good reason to think that — goddess worship aside — women were ever hierarchically above men.

SOCIAL CHARTER AND TRANSFORMING MYTHS

Marilyn French makes the distinction between ‘social charter myths’ and ‘transforming myths’.

‘(Social) charter myth’ is a term used to interpret myths which validate or justify power structures.  Any myth that seems to confirm patriarchal or establishment ideologies is probably a “charter myth”.  For example when Virgil arranged events in the Aeneid to validate the Julio-Claudians by directly connecting them to Romulus and Remus.

A ‘transforming myth’ is also known as a ‘shapeshifting myth’.

As French explains, one of these mythic forms has been worse for women than the other:

Social charter myths implicitly ascribe power to women, if only in the past. They can be read as suggesting that the sexes were once equal, or that women once dominated men. Myths transforming or diminishing female figures like Hera elide such suggestions. Instead, they omit the past and transform the character of the female into something venomous, ugly, dark, mysteriously threatening. By erasing any reference to an earlier power or power struggle they make the hostility of these female figures appear unmotivated, a given. Social charter myths at least acknowledge intersexual conflict. Transforming myths do not acknowledge intersexual conflict. Transforming myths do not — thus the evil power of females appears to be biological, natural. Such a procedure penetrates the moral realm and affects an entire society’s view of women.

Marilyn French

Finally, a fourth type of myth, which isn’t really a myth but a reaction to it.

4. THE ANTI-MYTH

What makes a story an ‘anti-myth’? Basically, it’s a subversion.

  • Whereas the heroes of myths have almost superhuman powers, heroes in anti-myths have real human shortcomings. See Northrop Frye.
  • In an anti-myth the delineations between good and bad are blurred. The heroes are morally flawed, if not downright anti-heroes. Anti-heroes do not serve as models for the addressees.
  • Myths tend to take place on roads and rivers, but the anti-myth might have the characters take a journey to nowhere significant, or nowhere particularly different from before, a la Lonesome Dove. (The typical setting of typical dime Western novels was a lush river setting.)
  • Whereas heroes of myths have a self- and public- anagnorisis, heroes of anti-myths don’t really change a la Don Draper of Mad Men. In myths the character arc is huge; in the anti-myth, there may be no real arc. In a ‘mock-myth’, the main character doesn’t learn anything once returning home. (e.g. Ulysses by James Joyce, a take on The Odyssey.)
  • If main characters of myths win because they are essentially ‘good’, the main characters of anti-myths can lose despite their goodness, because shit happens.
  • Whereas myths focus on psychological states of the heroes, anti-myths focus on moral dilemmas.
  • Whereas heroes of myths tend to be separate identities, main characters of anti-myths can be represented by ensemble characters, with each character representing a different aspect of self. (Winnie-the-Pooh, Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants)
  • Whereas myth stories are circular home-away-home structured stories, anti-myths can take on a variety of different forms.
Dangerous Journey by Tove Jansson, 1954
Dangerous Journey by Tove Jansson, 1954

FURTHER READING

  • Young Adult Fiction Uses Myths To Keep Traditional Storytelling Alive from NPR (and also because traditional mythic form is still a successful way to satisfy an audience).
  • Using Maureen Murdoch’s work, and anything else she could find on the topic, Kim Hudson has crafted a theory of the big battle-free mythic form but calls it The Virgin’s Promise. I’m yet to read this one, but Melanie Marttila summarises the main parts of the theory.
  • This week on Woman’s Hour there is an interview with a woman who spends part of the year living in the Kingdom of Women in China. This is the only matriarchal and matrilineal culture in the world. Rather, it’s the only matriarchal culture left in the world. It’s difficult to imagine what such a culture looks like, but we are told to ‘flip everything’. The men are revered, but as studs and heavy lifted. There is a hierarchy but the women in a matriarchy seem to treat their men better than men treat their women in a patriarchy.
  • For more on this Kingdom of Women, look for the Mosuo.
  • The Hero With A Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell
  • From Mythic to Linear: Time in children’s literature by Maria Nikolajeva
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Swine Lake by James Marshall and Maurice Sendak

Swine Lake is a 1999 picture book by James Marshall, illustrated by Maurice Sendak. The humour is an example of ‘hero wears a masktransgression comedy.

About the Author and Illustrator

If you’re American, perhaps you’re familiar with the following series:

George-and-Martha

The author and illustrator of the George and Martha series also wrote other books, and one of those was illustrated posthumously (after Marshall had died, that is) by Maurice Sendak. Even if you’re not American, if you’re at this blog you’ll most definitely know who Maurice Sendak is!

So Marshall died in 1992 of a brain tumour. The powers that be probably weren’t expecting him to die quite so young, and awarded him the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award for contributions to children’s literature in 2007.

Maurice Sendak illustrated James Marshall’s standalone book Swine Lake for publication in 1999. Sendak himself died in 2012, but he was 83 when he died and, lucky for him, he lived long enough to see himself awarded that Laura Ingalls Wilder award, as well as receive an honorary doctorate, the National Medal of Arts and the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, among others. The moral of that story is, if you’re a talented picture book creator, make sure you live to a grand old age if you want to live to see all of your awards.

Let’s talk some more about James Marshall.

Marshall obviously enjoyed reimagining pop culture as animals. He came up with George and Martha while lying in a hammock as his mother watched Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? nearby. He took the characters George and Martha from that, but turned them into hippopotami.

He’s done it again in Swine Lake which, to the adult co-reader, at least, is an obvious pun on the famous Russian ballet Swan Lake, composed by Tchaikovsky. A synopsis of Swan Lake can be found here.

Notes On The Illustration Of Swine Lake

It’s interesting to see that lettering on the cover, in which the block letters incorporate the picture, because it’s become very popular since Photoshop with its layer masks making it so easy to do.

Swine Lake puns intratext

Swine Lake is an example of a picture book in which the intratext is a part of the plot. This page adds to the humour, with a variety of #PigTheaterPuns (let’s make that trend on twitter, shall we?) Later in the book we’ll see the wolf reading the reviews of his own performance, in which the review is part of the illustration.

This is also one of those picture books which includes a subplot running through the illustrations which isn’t mentioned in the text. It’s often a pair of animals which play a minor part, and so it is here with the squirrels who Wolf initially contemplates eating, and who end up laughing at the spectacle of the wolf as dancer. The squirrels know that the wolf is really a wolf even if the pigs don’t. We see them exchange a knowing look on the final page (where there is nothing but a small picture, in true picturebook tradition).

Story Structure Of Swine Lake

Shortcoming/Need

The wolf eats other animals and is ungrateful (for example when offered tickets). He is your typical sociopathic wolf. (Actually, I did hear that wolves are basically ‘sociopathic dogs’.)

Desire

He wants to eat pigs.

Opponent

Is there a true opponent in this story? This is one man’s anagnorisis. Everyone around him is very obliging. The circumstances stand in his way a little — he has no money to buy a ticket.

Plan

He will get inside a performance of Swine Lake because there will be pigs everywhere. He can then have a pig feeding frenzy at an opportune moment. The hitch in his plan is that he has no money for a ticket, but he is saved by circumstance when a rich sow gives him her tickets.

Big Struggle

The reader is expecting a big struggle, and this story subverts the expectations. The wolf’s big struggle is an inner one — what has happened to him? He’s so overwhelmed by the beauty of the play that he’s not the same wolf anymore.

In stories where there is no outer big struggle there is always some sort of climactic scene. Here, the author takes the climactic scene from the play and uses that to convey the crescendo of the wolf’s emotions.

Anagnorisis

Wolf realises he loves the theatre, and his love of this art can even keep his mind off more grim matters.

New situation

After reading such wonderful reviews of his own performance he’ll probably keep going to the theatre and trying to get in on the act. The final sentence says, “And he executed a couple of flashy dance steps.”

The Humour Of Swine Lake

A lot of comedic stories are of the type where the hero wears a mask, metaphorical or otherwise. The structure goes like this:

Discontent: the hero is unhappy about something
Transgression with a ‘mask’: peculiar to comedy and noir thrillers (the mask is metaphorical — the hero is trying to pass themselves off as something they’re not)
Transgression without a mask: midpoint disaster when the mask is ripped off — the hero is ‘found out’
Dealing with consequences  [Howard Suber writes: “What will the hero do when he discovers his armour doesn’t protect him, that he can be violated — now and in the future? There is only one satisfactory answer: he can pick himself up, dust himself off, and start all over again.”]
Spiritual Crisis: happens in almost every story
Growth Without a Mask [Suber writes on this point: Some people might find it astonishing how many memorable popular films end in violence and death, but the history of drama is filled with them, and it is difficult to find any period that is not filled with them. If death is the ultimate separation, the next worst is the separation of people who love one another…The story that resolves itself in unification is most often a comedy.]

This book is a slight variation on this structure — when his mask ‘came off’ (when he lost himself and flew into the middle of the pigs’ performance to dance) the characters around him assumed he was only dressed as a wolf.

Wolf leaps onto stage

The metaphorical mask he didn’t know he was wearing from the get-go has come off, however: He demonstrates his wolflike bravado when he threatens to chase the squirrels (and then doesn’t), and when he has every opportunity to eat pig outside the theatre (but still doesn’t). This wolf is a lot more at home as a lover of ballet. Now he is free to dance. He also seems to have been freed from his wolflike impulses (though I’ve no idea what he’s going to eat from now on, which is a problem in all of these stories in which a carnivorous animal sees the error of their ways — The Tawny Scrawny Lion is another one!).

Everywhere you look in the illustrations, the more you realise you’re living in pig-land. The banister at the theatre has been carved with pig faces, for example. Is this a visit to Pig Town for the wolf, who would surely be spotted right away if he’d really gone to such a part of town, or is this Wolf’s hallucination? We’ve already seen that he is scrawny and sick in bed. He could be dreaming the whole thing.

wolf entranced swine lake

Another word on the humour: A lot of picturebook humour derives from stock characters which have been inverted. In this case, a wolf loves ballet rather than eating meat and ballet dancers are shaped like pigs rather than the svelte figures we’re used to. In other words, it is funny that fat characters are dancing. Of course it is, right? Except for the problematic message this sends. And the fact that ballet is rife with eating disordered young dancers. I’m reminded of the documentary series Big Ballet which sets out to defy expectations by employing dancers with bigger bodies.

For the Channel 4 documentary series Big Ballet, 18 amateur plus-sized dancers were selected from 500 applicants for an experiment: under instruction from former Royal Ballet principal Wayne Sleep and dancer turned artistic director Monica Loughman, the larger ladies (and a couple of men) had just 20 weekends to master Swan Lake.

The Independent

I wonder if Prawn Lake could have been just as funny? I really don’t know. And if we lived in a culture where there was no body-size shaming, this book stands up just fine. I’m simply pointing this out type of humour as an example of just how deeply fat politics run.

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Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak Analysis

“Where The Wild Things Are” by Maurice Sendak is the picture book that changed picture books forever.

Maurice Sendak Where The Wild Things Are Book Cover
Maurice Sendak Where The Wild Things Are (actual cover)
Maurice Sendak Where The Wild Things Are (spoof cover from Better Book Titles)
Maurice Sendak Where The Wild Things Are (spoof cover from Better Book Titles)

The picture book began to be understood,  after Maurice Sendak, as something extraordinary – a fusion of images and limited vocabulary which authors such as Julia Donaldson, Lauren Child, Alan and Janet Ahlberg, Emily Gravett and more have turned into a post-modern art form.

Amanda Craig

When I started reading books about picture books the first thing I noticed was how much the books of Maurice Sendak are referenced as primary sources, especially Where The Wild Things Are. Handy hint: If you’re thinking of reading academic literature in a bid to understand children’s books, have the Sendak oeuvre at your side. (Also Rosie’s Walk, the picturebooks of Anthony Browne and Chris van Allsburg.)

SENDAK_1963_Where_the_Wild_Things_Are_copyright_page

I find it ironic that the Book Depository description of Where The Wild Things Are includes the phrase: ‘Supports the Common Core State Standards’. Sendak famously did not write for children, saying, “I write stories, then someone else decides that they are for children.” I wonder what he would have to say about the heavily pedagogical motivations behind adults encouraging children to read his stories.

Sendak readily acknowledged his inspiration for his stories, and this one was apparently inspired by King Kong.

King Kong interfering with an aeroplane
King Kong

WHAT HAPPENS IN “WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE”

This story is about a boy named Max who, after dressing in his wolf costume, wreaks such havoc through his household that he is sent to bed without his supper. Max’s bedroom undergoes a mysterious transformation into a jungle environment, and he winds up sailing to an island inhabited by malicious beasts known as the “Wild Things.” After successfully intimidating the creatures, Max is hailed as the king of the Wild Things and enjoys a playful romp with his subjects; however, smelling the food that his mother has delivered for him, he decides to return home. The Wild Things are dismayed.

“Pretend” often confuses the adult, but it is the child’s real and serious world, the stage upon which any identity is possible and secret thoughts can be safely revealed.” 

Vivian Gussin Paley, The Boy Who Would Be a Helicopter

THE ENDURING APPEAL OF “WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE”

Where The Wild Things Are is an example of a carnivalesque text. This is a form which endures — young and old audiences love to be whisked away on a jaunt of the imagination, back in time for tea, consequence free.

Marjery Hourihan points out other, more irritating, reasons for this book’s enduring appeal in Deconstructing The Hero:

The persistence of this pattern which inscribes the myth of Western patriarchal superiority is apparent when we see that Maurice Sendak’s celebrated children’s picture book, Where The Wild Things Are (1963), tells a story which is in essence exactly the same as the story of Odysseus. A small boy called Max, dressed in his wolf suit, misbehaves and threatens his mother, so he is sent to bed without his supper. Once in his room he embarks on an imaginary journey, through a forest and across an ocean, to the land where the wild things are. Despite their ferocious appearance Max tames them by saying ‘Be still!’ and looking into their eyes without blinking, whereupon they make him their king. He is given a crown and a scepter and they obey him. Max and the wild things indulge in a joyous and anarchic rumpus which stretches across six pages of illustrations, but finally, lonely for love, Max stops the rumpus and departs despite the wild things’ plea: ‘Oh please don’t go — we’ll eat you up — we love you so!’ He sails home, into his own room where he finds that a hot supper is waiting for him.

Like Odysseus and all the other heroes of antiquity, Max is the primary force in his story. His goal, like Odysseus’s, is to regain his kingdom (his position as a loved child with the freedom of his whole home). Like the ancient heroes he shows no fear in the face of the wild things he encounters and he subdues them by the exercise of his own will. Though they linger in the magical wilderness for a time, neither Max nor Odysseus can be persuaded to stay there despite appeals and blandishments; they remain dedicated to their purpose. Each achieves a successful return to home and normality and is rewarded by the love of a faithful kindswoman. They regain their kingdoms.

Where the Wild Things Are is justly admired for its exquisite illustrations, its meanings which readers might make from the text and the pictures are that in his dream Max realizes he has the power to control his ‘wild’ emotions, understands that when he threatened his mother he had not ceased to love her. The wild things’ appeal to Max: ‘Oh please don’t go — we’ll eat you up — we love you so!’ echoes the earlier threat he made to her: ‘I’ll eat you up!’ and shows his awareness that the intensity of his anger was a function of the intensity of his love. The hot supper which his mother has left for him shows that she realizes this too. The possibility of such personal meanings constitutes a potent appeal for child readers. But part of the story’s enormous and enduring popularity is attributable to Max’s role as a hero who undertakes a successful quest and masters the wild things — and from that other, socially significant meanings emerge. Although he is no more than 4 years old, Max has learnt the trick of domination and is clearly a potential member of the patriarchy.

‘WE’LL EAT YOU UP!’ FOOD IN WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE

The conflation between food (especially sweet food) and love is well known. As Rosalind Coward suggests, there is “something about loving [that] reminds us of food, not potatoes or lemons, but mainly sweet things — ripe fruits, cakes and puddings.”[…] Despite cultural taboos against cannibalism adults often play games with children in which we pretend that we are going to eat them. These games typically involve blowing raspberries on the baby’s tummy, kissing, nibbling and sucking on their toes and fingers, growling and playing giants or monsters, as in “the monster’s going to eat you up!”. Adults understand the food rules and the way they can be bent but not broken. But children, unfamiliar with the way metaphors work, must find adults’ behaviour very troubling.

Carolyn Daniel, Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature

 NOTES ON ILLUSTRATION IN WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE

Maurice Sendak Finds His Style

Illustrators struggle to find their styles; the style of Maurice Sendak’s early books is close to the commonplace conventions of most cartoons, and it seems that Mercer Mayer’s career as a picture-book artist would have been different if Sendak had never invented his Wild Things.  And we do, certainly, tend to admire Sendak more for his original work in Where the Wild Things Are than for his more derivative work in earlier books and more in general than we do the generally derivative work of Mayer.

Perry Nodelman, Words About Pictures
There's An Alligator Under My Bed
You may notice an influence.

Here is the cover of the first book Sendak ever illustrated. As you can see, the style is like many others of around that time:

The Wonderful Farm
published in 1951 when Sendak was 23 years old

Style, to me, is purely a means to an end, and the more styles you have the better […] Each book obviously demands an individual stylistic approach.

Maurice Sendak, The Openhearted Audience

By the time Sendak illustrated Wild Things, his style was distinctively his own. In order to get there, he did a lot of work. By the time he was 34, Sendak had written and illustrated seven books and illustrated 43 others, so his style was either going to develop or stagnate!

Character In Where The Wild Things Are

Sendak was a very influential illustrator, though it’s easy to forget, now, that once every single child depicted in picturebooks was blonde and cherubic. We still haven’t come far enough when it comes to illustrating non-white children, but it was Maurice Sendak who first started drawing pot-bellied, dark-haired, non-pretty looking children. In Outside Over There, the trolls look exactly like human babies, which added to the ‘disturbingness’.

sendak-goblins

Max of Where The Wild Things Are has a human face but the body of an animal (because of his wolf suit). The suit represents the way in which he gives over to his baser, animal instinct to misbehave. He must learn to enjoy being human again.

Color In Where The Wild Things Are

(Note that in order to see the colors properly, it’s necessary to look at the primary text.)

Writes Perry Nodelman in Words About Pictures:

The conventional meanings of colors are of two sorts: those, like the red of a stoplight, that are merely arbitrary and culture-specific and those that relate specific colors to specific emotions…the culture specific codes tend to be more significant in terms of their ability to give weight and meaning to the objects within pictures, but it is the emotional connotations that most influence the mood of picturebooks—the connections between blue and melancholy, yellow and happiness, red and warmth, which appear to derive fairly directly from our basic perceptions of water and sunlight and fire. Since such associations do exist, artists can evoke particular moods by using the appropriate colors—even, sometimes, at the expense of consistency”: Max’s room in Where The Wild Things Are is blue when he is first sent to it, a much more cheerful yellow after his visit to the Wild Things; and his bed changes from moody bluish purple to cheerful pink.

First bedroom scene
where-the-wild-things-are-max-bedroom-trees
Second bedroom scene. For other examples of bedrooms morphing into other scenes see Just A Dream by Chris Van Allsburg.
Third bedroom scene
The Bedroom Colors

Other qualities of colors can also convey the emotional content of pictures. Consider the two pictures of Max in his bedroom in Where The Wild Things Are. Not only do the colors of the wall and the bed change, but their doing so changes the effect of the pictures as a whole. In the picture the pink of the bedspread is different from the purple of the bed, and both jar with the greenish yellow carpet; in the other picture everything is suffused with a warming yellow that brings the room together; the bed matches its spread and a bowl on the table. The unified calm of the picture contrasts mightily with the discordancies of the first one. Artists frequently use related colors to imply calm and discordant ones to suggest jarring energy or excitement.

Location of Character on the Page
Max meets the wild things for the first time
Max meets the wild things for the first time

In picture books, artists vary the location of their characters in order to inform us about whether we should be more interested in the action or in a character’s response to it. In Where The Wild Things Are, Max is at the edge of the picture as he sees the Wild Things for the first time, for at this point, what Max sees is what matters. But once we are familiar with the creatures, Max’s own action becomes more significant, and he moves to the center as he joins their wild rumpus.

Nodelman
unsettling page composition
unsettling page composition

A more unusual use of central focus is the picture in Wild Things in which Max makes mischief by building a tent. The tent is on the left of the picture, Max on the right; the center is empty. Max faces out of the picture to the right, and his teddy bear faces out of the picture to the left; the focus is away from the center rather than toward it, and the mood is as unsettling as Max’s tantrum.

Nodelman
Use of Shapes In Where The Wild Things Are
crescent shaped leaves, crescent shaped teeth, pointy crown
crescent shaped leaves, crescent shaped teeth, pointy crown
horns and crown echo shape of the crescent moon

Notice that Max’s wolf suit is the only patch of white, clearness on the entire page. This way, it stands out.

[W]hen the Wild Things make Max king the crescent shape of the moon is echoed by the curved backs and by the crescent shaped horns of the Wild Thing closest to Max. Furthermore, the curves of Max’s crown turn its spikes into more crescents, the position of the first Wild Thing’s legs and arms make them into crescents, many of the leaves of the tree behind Max are crescent-shaped, the ground has suddenly developed a semicircular rise, and the line formed by the tops of the heads of the group of Wild Things on the right forms an arch also. The rhythmic unity of this picture evolkes a much quieter moment than those depicted before and after it, both of which seem to put more emphasis on the points of crescents than on their roundness.

Nodelman

Another thing to note is that the pictures start off postcard size and gradually expand as the book progresses, filling the page as Max’s imagination opens up.

Perspective As Narrative In Where The Wild Things Are
unsettling triangle

Usually, the use of perspective to create focus is…subtle. In Where The Wild Things Are, for instance, Sendak takes advantage of perspective lines to focus our attention on the moon, which gradually develops more weight in the series of pictures in which Max’s bedroom changes into a forest. In the first picture, the moon occupies a point close to the vanishing point, but it is hazy, and the unsettling upside-down triangle made by Max, the door, and the bed focuses our attention on Max and his anger. In the next picture, the moon is more distinct from the background, while the heavily outlined trees make the bed and window stand out less. The original triangle has faded, but no definite focus replaces it, and the picture demands our attention to many of its elements: the more prominent moon, the trees as new and therefore automatically interesting, and still, if only because he is human, Max himself. In the third picture, the bed fades, and the trees lose their harsh outlines; only Max stands out. But the moon, now exactly in front of the vanishing point, demands some attention; furthermore, its whiteness echoes Max’s whiteness, so that a relationship between the two is suggested. The last picture in the sequence makes the relationship clear. Max, his back turned to us, is in shadow, and the moon, at the vanishing point, is the only really bright object left. As the focus of our attention and Max’s, it communicates the key meaning of the picture, the mysterious unreality traditionally associated with moonlight; it creates an atmosphere of freedom from restriction that might imply anarchy, of wonderful but potentially dangerous things about to happen. As a whole, this sequence of pictures shows how subtle changes in focus can make what is basically the same composition express different meanings. The pictures so economically move our attention from Max’s state of mind to the potential excitement of a moon-bathed forest that few words are necessary.

Nodelman
Where The Wild Things Are By Maurice Sendak, 1963
Where The Wild Things Are By Maurice Sendak, 1963
Light Source and Shadow In Where The Wild Things Are

Throughout Wild Things, depictions of the moon attract attention both to themselves and to the objects they cast light upon—usually on Max himself. But surprisingly, the moon is not the only source of light in many of the pictures in which it appears; Sendak invents other invisible light sources to make the objects he wants us to focus on stand out. When Max stands in his bedroom with his back to the moon, his front is lit from the left front; but when he turns his back and focuses his attention—and ours—on the moon, this apparent source of light in the front disappears and Max’s back is shadowed. Something similarly strange happens in Ida’s bedroom in Outside Over There: the light shining through the window causes the table leg to cast a shadow, but as the world outside darkens, the shadow remains. Perhaps […] this is Sendak’s way of telling us that all that happens here is a daydream that occupies only one brief instant.

Nodelman
Movement In Where The Wild Things Are
max dog
notice the drawing which has been done by Max — he has been thinking about these creatures already

Picture books are filled with pictures that show an action just before it reaches its climax. In Where The Wild Things Are, we see Max’s hammer about to hit the nail, Max in midair about to land on the dog, Max’s foot in midair about to stamp the ground. The few pictures showing Max with both feet planted firmly on the ground are the least energetic ones in the book; they either suggest that he is resting or else give him a strong, stable position of authority.

Nodelman
Shading to Convey Energy In Where The Wild Things Are

In Wild Things, Sendak implies various levels of energy by using two different sorts of shading. In the pictures of Max making mischief at the beginning of the book, the shading on the figure of Max is composed of hatching, disconnected lines all in the same direction, but the rest of the picture is shaded with crosshatching, which creates numerous small, enclosed, stable squares. The crosshatching holds the objects down; Max is clearly in motion, while nothing else is. As the forest grows in Max’s room and he calms down, his shading comes to consist of more crosshatching. Later in the book, during the wild rumpus, all the shading but that on Max is crosshatching, and he becomes more filled with crosshatching as the sequence goes on. That helps create a curious dreamlike stasis even in spirt of the exuberant action in these pictures.

Nodelman

For more on the illustration style in this book, see Holly Manns’ slide show.

Later Pictures In A Picturebook Become Context For Earlier Ones

More on the picture of the Wild Thing hanging on the wall at the end of the stairs:

[W]e come to understand the implications of Max’s joyous anarchy in the first pictures of Where The Wild Things Are more completely only when we see the picture that shows him alone in his room; the anarchy is now not merely fun but appears to have significant social implications. Furthermore, it is not until much later in the book that we may recalled the picture “by Max” hanging on the staircase wall in those earlier pictures and come to understand its implications: we learn that Max drew not just a monster but a creature he might visit in his imagination, and we understand how very much the place where the Wild Things are is indeed a product of Max’s imagination. The model airplane hanging over Mickey’s bed in the first pictures of In The Night Kitchen has a similar function. Such examples suggest how very much the later pictures in a book become a context for the earlier ones in re-readings. It is impossible to reread a book as we first experienced it.

Nodelman
Where The Wild Things Are By Maurice Sendak, 1963
Where The Wild Things Are By Maurice Sendak, 1963
Where The Wild Things Are By Maurice Sendak, 1963

STORY SPECS OF WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE

338 words

40pp

According to Sendak, at first Wild Things was banned in libraries and received negative reviews. It took about two years for librarians and teachers to realize that children were flocking to the book, checking it out over and over again, and for critics to relax their opinions.

COMPARE WITH

There is an uncountable number of texts which have been influenced by Wild Things. Also, Wild Things was part of a wider movement, influenced itself by texts which came before.

Harry the Dirty Dog is offered by Stephens as another example of a carnivalesque text in which a child character (in this case a dog) interrogates the established order, then returns home to safety.

Perry Nodelman compares Max to Peter of Peter Rabbit in his book Words About Pictures. Both Max and Peter have a wild side, and are punished for not behaving like proper humans. Peter Rabbit is, of course, ostensibly an animal, but note that it’s his human coat that gets him into all that bother in the first place.

Errol Le Cain (1941–1989) for 'Thorn Rose' by the Brothers Grimm published in 1975
Errol Le Cain (1941–1989) for ‘Thorn Rose’ by the Brothers Grimm published in 1975. This illustration reminds me of a composition from Wild Things and also from Outside Over There.

FURTHER READING ON MAURICE SENDAK

“If there’s anything missing that I’ve observed over the decades it’s that that drive has declined,” said the 83-year-old author… “There’s a certain passivity, a going back to childhood innocence that I never quite believed in. We remembered childhood as a very passionate, upsetting, silly, comic business.”

Children’s books today aren’t wild enough, says Maurice Sendak, The Guardian

Once upon a more staid time, the purpose of children’s books was to model good behaviour… Seuss, Sendak and Silverstein ignored these rules.

The Children’s Authors Who Broke The Rules, New York Times

Notice how ‘people who break rules’ tend to be men. Anecdotally, I can tell you that women who break the picture book rules don’t tend to get their work published. Publishers wait for someone with a masculine name to come along before taking a gamble on him.

Lemon girl young adult novella

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How To Write Underdog Stories

underdogs in fiction

The underdog is very popular as a main character in fiction. But there are ways to write underdogs well as well as pitfalls to avoid.

What Is An Underdog?

  • An underdog story is a ‘David Beats Goliath’ story going back even further than Biblical times.
  • Underdog stories are often rags-to-riches stories. (Cinderella stories)
  • Another variation is the Baby In The Basket, starting with Oedipus.
  • When the main character is an underdog the audience tends to care about them and root for their success in whatever goal the writer sets up.
  • Sometimes the underdog is discriminated against due to their identity, e.g. racism or sexism or any other kind of prejudice. In fairytales it was because they were poor or unconnected or because their stepmother didn’t love them.
  • In children’s stories, the child is always part underdog archetype by virtue of being a child, not considered capable of doing anything significant, not trusted, not believed.
  • In fables, mice are under-‘dogs’ because of their small size.
  • Northrop Frye categorised heroes based on how similar main characters are to the average person. The underdog sits between low mimetic and ironic narrative, right at the bottom of the pecking order.

The Three Assumptions Behind Most Underdog Stories

It’s worth thinking hard about our own attitudes towards social hierarchy before writing an underdog story. In contemporary stories, these are some shared beliefs:

  1. In every situation there always has to be a winner and a loser. A happy ending requires not just someone’s triumph but also someone else’s defeat.
  2. The best way to win is to have the individual power to take control and win by one’s own actions
  3. A truly happy ending occurs only when a person who was oppressed achieves a position in which it’s possible to oppress others. 

If you’re anything like me, you have a problem with these assumptions. For starters they promote a particularly combative, warring view on the world. Subversive stories will go beyond these conservative defaults. From a feminist perspective, these assumptions also pander to a masculine sensibility.

Maurice Sendak’s “Where The Wild Things Are  is an excellent representation of these political assumptions. Surprisingly few award-winning texts for children celebrate the value of groups of people working together as equals; far more celebrate the power of individuals controlling groups.

from The Pleasures of Children’s Literature by Nodelman and Reimer

The Paradox Of Underdog Characters

Readers want heroes to be underdogs, but they don’t want them to be losers. They don’t want your main character to actually go from being zero to hero: they want him or her to start out with skills and admirable characteristics that will carry him or her though the story.

Matt Bird

Matt Bird uses the phrase ‘zero to hero’ to describe how much someone changes over the course of a story.

The Smallest Girl In The Smallest Grade
The Smallest Girl In The Smallest Grade is an example of a children’s story in which the reader is encouraged to root for the smallest character.

Underdog Stories vs Carnivalesque Stories

Leaving Northrop Frye’s categorisation aside for a moment, in which the superhero is the inverse of an underdog, the inverse of an ‘underdog story’ is a ‘carnivalesque’ story. Read Pippi Longstocking for a prime example of carnivalesque. In a carnivalesque story a character with little agency (probably a child, or a child stand-in) has great fun by ignoring societal conventions, basically going on a bender and to hell with the consequences. For the duration of the story, this character has broken free from their underdog status.

Lemon girl young adult novella

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