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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
STORY WORLD OF OUTSIDE OVER THERE
Outside Over There is Sendak’s best work by far. It marks the apogee of the picture book form, a simply profound story told in incantatory words and color drawings of stunning beauty. In creating the 359-word tale, Sendak is said to have been drawn to such childhood memories as the Lindbergh kidnapping and to have listened exclusively to Mozart to evoke the ambiance for the book’s Grimm setting in rural eighteenth-century Germany.
I’m not surprised to learn that Sendak revised the text over 100 times. (I’m more surprised to learn he was counting.) The word arrangement is very strange, with adjectives following nouns, more reminiscent of a Romance language than English. Sendak must have been going for a foreign feel. I wonder if that foreign feel was retained in the translations.
The first time you read Outside Over There it might strike you as somewhat odd. It is not easy to find the rhythm and cadence immediately. It sometimes seems to stop when it should continue and continue when it should stop, it plays constantly with your ear’s expectations (if you expect a rhyme it never comes when you think it should, but when you least expect it, a bit after, a bit before or never). However, the more you read it and the more you make it yours, it is precisely those parts that were frustrating or odd the first times that strike you as so exceptionally beautiful and poetically forceful.
Sendak stretches sentences mercilessly. As someone reading out loud, he loses you for just a second and then takes you by the hand and returns you to your place gently, without you realising. The experience of reading it out loud is almost as if you were sent along an unknown path and on the way were provided with the tools required so as not to get lost.
Outside Over There is another picture book with mythic structure. The whole thing might be Ida’s imagination but that’s neither here nor there. She is called to adventure when goblins steal her little sister. She goes after the sister, defeats the goblins in a big struggle, then arrives home a slightly changed person.
WHO IS THE MAIN CHARACTER?
A girl called Ida. She looks to be 8-10 years old. (Though her feet are unusually huge, imo.)
Ida’s red hair is pretty typical for a girl character who will enter into a fantasy world. (Does she also have green eyes? I just had a peer at my printed copy, and yes, she does.)
What is wrong with Ida?
Outside Over There is about jealousy and sibling rivalry. Sendak’s treatment of this subject might appear simple; instead, it is deeply accurate. The story belongs to Ida, a girl of some 9 years, and when it opens her baby sister has already arrived.
Ida’s nightmarish fantasy that her baby sibling has been swapped out for a demonic character touches on a fear with crosses culture and eras. The idea that a close family member is not who you thought they were taps into a primal fear.
The changeling narrative can help us understand human psychology more generally. This particular fear has been brought up in discussions about why some parents choose not to vaccinate their children:
Honestly, read enough anti-vax stories and they all sound kinda similar to “MY Baby was fine and then one day a faerie swapped it out for a WEIRD baby” except for “faerie” sub “MMR jab.” People never change. People are always people, throughout human existence.
Naturally, Ida in this story isn’t thinking the first thing about vaccinations. Remember, Maurice Sendak never wrote his books with a child audience in mind — he just wrote them. I believe adults are more likely to worry about their children going missing than children are worried about their siblings going missing.
Adult fears about what might make children afraid are usually based on… adult fears.
We Read It Like This
When the little sister is replaced with an ‘ice baby’, this makes use of pretty obvious temperature symbolism. Sounds cheesy when you put it into words (as symbolism always does), but Ida feels cold inside.
WHAT DOES IDA WANT?
This question is simple when it refers to an object. A holy grail story, where the main character is after carrots or a jewel.
For a story like this, which is all about emotion, we need to dig deeper. Ida has psychological needs.
She needs attention. When she forgets to pay attention to her baby sister, she is mimicking the lack of attention her parents pay her. Maybe Ida will be taken away someday, too?
Ida’s parents have withdrawn: Papa is away at sea, Mama is lost in vacant thought and (pictorially) even the family’s protective German shepherd does not see the danger — goblins stealing up the lawn with Bruno Hauptmann’s ladder.
The goblins who take Ida’s little sister, and who might capture her as well if she’s not careful.
WHAT’S THE PLAN?
In various cultures, walking backwards is thought to bring bad luck. (I’m sure that’s just the natural consequence of walking backwards… in which you will eventually run into something and hurt yourself!) In any case, Ida climbs out the window backwards which, in her fantasy, is the wrong thing to do. I think it symbolises ‘inattention’ and ‘not looking’ in this story. Ida’s real mistake, according to Ida, is not paying close enough attention to her little sister.
Ida is aerial and floats there over a haunting and mysterious landscape where a shepherd has fallen asleep unmindful of his flock and where below can be seen the dark, libidinous caves where the robber bridegrooms have taken her sister. But in going outside over there, Ida made “a serious mistake.” A clue comes to her in a riddle like song she hears floating over the water and sung by her sailor Papa: “If Ida backwards in the rain/would only turn around again/and catch the goblins with a tune/she’d spoil their kidnap honeymoon!” Ida’s mistake is to have gone out the window backward on her rescue mission; there is in this kind of reluctance and unwillingness, “so Ida tumbled right side round.”
In a Gravity type plot, Ida doesn’t work out her own mistake. Instead she has to be told what to do by the voice of an absent and significant male figure, her father. The father tells her to turn around and catch the goblins with a tune.
She finds herself smack in the middle of a goblin wedding and discovers that beneath their hoods these goblins all look like her baby sister. Slyly, she starts what Max in the Wild Things calls a “rumpus” and what Ida styles a “hubbub”; playing a captivating tune on her wonder horn, she sets the goblins dancing and sends them into such extremes of pleasure that they cannot control themselves or others. A kind of Pied Piper with a Zauberflöte, Ida churns the goblins’ revelry until they all dissolve into a watery stream. By this magic trick Ida separates the real baby from the goblin impostors and finds her own sister crooning in an eggshell.
There she meets Mama reading a letter to Ida from her Papa: “I’ll be home one day, and my brave, bright little Ida must watch the baby and her Mama for her Papa, who loves her always.” Just as for any child jealous of her sibling, Ida must be reassured by the last word of the letter; still, the fatherly advice is beside the point since we already know with Sendak, as the book concludes, that this “is just what Ida did.”
Always check the final spot illustration in a picture book, even if it looks like it belongs more to the cover than to the story. It always tells you a little more about the story. Compare the final spot illustration to the almost identical one which opens the story. Spot the difference? There was a goblin crouching by the sunflowers but the goblin is gone now.
Receiving a letter from the father seems to have pulled Ida out of her slump, for now.
COMPARE AND CONTRAST
Sendak’s Other Picture Books
Like Wild Things and Night Kitchen, Outside Over There legitimizes taboo feelings by showing their simultaneity and reversibility. In some way, Ida’s playing the wonder horn evokes the goblins who kidnap her sister but also dissolves them so Ida can rescue her sister. Like Sendak’s other books, the pages of this one fold in upon each other so that felt withdrawal of the parents in its opening is answered with the reassurance of “always” love in its conclusion.
As well as Sendak’s other dreamlike picture books, Griswold notices the influence of fairytale. Apart from similarities to The Pied Piper, mentioned above:
While Ida turns her back upon the baby and plays the musical instrument know as her “wonder horn,” the goblins steal into the nursery, kidnap her sister and leave a changeling made of ice. When Ida turns and embraces the baby it is, like most, drippingly wet; but when the changeling melts away. Ida discovers the goblins’ theft and in a rage turns maternal: putting on Mama’s cloak she sets out upon a rescue mission. She heads through the window to “outside over there.” This is the region known in dreams, where the Wild Things are, where the Night Kitchen is, where — to mention the place Rumpelstiltskin’s name is heard in the Grimm tale — the fox and the hare bid each other goodnight. And for Sendak, to whom this image is important, it lies on the other side of the window.
Amanda Katz at NPR draws parallels between Outside Over There and The Juniper Tree.
Though it has none of the bald violence of “The Juniper Tree,” Outside Over There is also the story of a sister whose sibling is torn from her, and who fights to bring him or her back. Ida, Sendak’s big-eyed, horn-playing child heroine, is left with her mother and baby sister when her father goes off to sea. The family inhabits a pastoral wonderland, a kind of German Romantic landscape full of sailors and shepherds and sunflowers crowding, just a touch too aggressively, through the windows of a stately home.
…a small boy is murdered by his stepmother, who then sets up her own even younger daughter to think she has killed him. Then she feeds the dead boy to his father, upon which the appalled, grief-stricken half-sister triggers a supernatural process that eventually brings her brother back to life and kills the evil stepmom. Then the three remaining family members rejoice and finish their dinner.
Coraline by Neil Gaiman is another changeling story, except the parents are swapped out. Traditionally it’s the child.
Even Harry Potter is a take on the changeling story. In 1940 George Orwell published a long essay called Boys’ Weeklies. Based on his own experiences at prep school, he talked about boarding school stories for children and their problematic ideology.
[Orwell] tries to understand why millions of children find stories set in boarding schools so spellbinding, the ‘snob appeal’ of this milieu is ‘absolutely shameless’. ‘The heroic characters all have to talk BBC,’ he observes, something that is equally true of the Potter novels.
In the same essay, Orwell touches on the ‘changeling fantasy’, a common trope of popular children’s literature, in which an apparently ordinary boy or girl turns out to be the child of an impossibly glamorous couple. Harry Potter falls squarely within this genre and that aspect of the novels also taps into the English obsession with ancestry. We are invited to condemn Voldemort for thinking ‘pure-bloods’ deserve special treatment yet to admire Harry’s impressive lineage.
That essay was written between the first and second golden ages of children’s literature, yet the massive success of Harry Potter and its descendants show that a great chunk of contemporary kids love the boarding school story, and its changeling narrative.
That changeling narrative is nowadays more commonly known as a Chosen One story, but its origin in changeling folktales is clear.
Fairies, trolls, elves, and devils kidnap human children, leaving their own demonic offspring in their place.
Jerry Griswold has also explained how Outside Over There takes up Sendak’s identity as a gay male in a deeply symbolic way. (The hornpipe, that makes sailors wild beneath the ocean moon, the goblin wedding and spoiled honeymoon, the father’s disapproval, the man’s insistence that his offspring had made a ‘serious mistake’, the father’s identification of that mistake as being ‘backwards’ and his insistence about ‘needing to turn around again’.
Many children’s stories feature windows, whether it’s children gazing from windows, opponents framed by windows, yellow squares of light offering the solace of civilisation. Windows are important to plot but are also symbolic.
THE WINDOW REFLECTION
Below is a screen capture from The Homesman. This is a trick often used by film directors as a way of showing an actor’s face and what the character is looking at simultaneously.
CHARACTER GAZES FROM WINDOW
This often indicates the beginning of a character arc, possibly a journey away from the house. Or, as in Anne of Green Gables, the story might be a domestic one, governed by the seasons in which the character (usually a girl) returns home each day, but undergoes a character arc nonetheless as a ‘journey’ which takes place in the local surrounds.
The cover below, tied to the major 1980s TV adaptation, features the same symbolism except the window is in the background.
At other times the characters are hiding from the outside world, because the outside world is dangerous.
The following is a passage from Carrie, a young adult novel by Stephen King, describing Sue as she is about to join the fray, where Carrie wreaks havoc.
The town hall whistle went off every day at twelve noon and that was all, except to call the volunteer fire department during grass-fire season in August and September. It was strictly for major disasters, and its sound was dreamy and terrifying in the empty house.
She went to the window, but slowly. The shrieking of the whistle rose and fell, rose and fell. Somewhere, horns were beginning to blat, as if for a wedding. She could see her reflection in the darkened glass, lips parted, eyes wide, and then the condensation of her breath obscured it.
The outside world of 101 Dalmatians (film adaptation is from 1961) is also dangerous for dogs whose hides are wanted for coats.
The window allows the framing of Cruella as she drives past in her Rolls, dangerously close to capturing them.
The audience also sees her two hapless baddies framed by the broken window, highlighting all of their brokenness. Note that this is the climax, in which the Dalmatians successfully escape death. The view of the opponents through the broken window foreshadows this happy outcome.
The brokenness of the glass not only frames the character as psychologically broken but also removes what little distance there might be between heroes and opponents. The baddies are dangerously close to finding us. (The only need to move their eyeballs…)
AUDIENCE GAZES FROM WINDOW
When the audience is gazing through the window we emotionally identify with the character on the same side as we are. Sometimes we’ll be looking over the sympathetic character’s shoulder and other times we’ll be looking out as if we are them. This can happen after the characters have been introduced.
The cover of Pax does not feature a window per se, but when an animal looks through a frame of foliage across a landscape, this is the animal equivalent of a child gazing out a window.
WINDOW AS PORTAL
In The Cat Returns, Haru sees the Baron before she meets him. She’s about to be transported into a miniature world. By allowing this slower meeting, the creators let the audience dwell for longer on the transition. In portal fantasies, transitions are important.
WINDOWS AS VULNERABILITY
An important feature of windows is that, even if they don’t open, they expose occupants of a house to vulnerability.
Humans have known how to make glass for a very long time. It took much longer to work out how to make sheet glass suitable for windows. Before windows, Europeans lived in houses with a different kind of vulnerability: Doors could be locked, but chimneys were always open.
We see evidence of this vulnerability in fairy tales such as The Three Little Pigs. The pigs turn that vulnerable opening to their advantage by coaxing the wolf down the chimney, where he will fall to his death in their cooking pot.
Coaxing a Minotaur Opponent down your chimney in order to cook them in your pot is a trope with a long history. The early to mid 14th century marked the beginning of the witch craze across Europe. Many people really did believe that witches lived in their village. This accounted for the crop failures and starvation. (The culprit was in fact climate change in the form of a little ice age.) To regain a sense of control, people blamed witches. You can’t do anything about climate, but you feel you can do something about an opponent in human form. For example, you could surround your house in witch marks, perform counter magic and force witches down your chimney, where she will fall into your cooking pot and be scalded to death. In order for this to work, people had to imagine a witch small enough to fall down a chimney, so it was necessary to believe that witches could transmogrify. This made them even more scary, because now you believed a witch could get in through any tiny crack.
The idea that entering homes via the chimney is possible has been recast as a pleasant story in the narrative around Santa Clause. This is the version we tell to children.
WINDOWS TO LET OUT THE DEAD
Another medieval belief was that if someone died in bed, you needed to open the window in order to let their soul escape. If you could no longer look after your elderly relative, you might leave the window open hoping they would die. If this worked, it was probably because opening a window also let in the cold. It was probably quite effective in winter.
YELLOW WINDOWS AS SAFETY
A chase scene from 101 Dalmatians starts to feel safer when the puppies approach a window with warm yellows emanating from it. We are reassured that safety is imminent.
In the scene below, our 101 Dalmatians make it home to safety. Their howling wakes up the entire town. We see the lights flick on one by one. Plotwise, these dogs are waking neighbours up, but symbolically, the yellow squares turning on reassure the audience that ‘this is civilisation and our dogs are safe now’.
Alice Munro writes beautifully about cosy, yellow windows in “Fiction”:
There was the one special thing Joyce loved to see as she was driving home and turning in to their own property. At this time many people, even some of the thatched-roof people, were putting in what were called patio doors—even if like Jon and Joyce they had no patio. These were usually left uncurtained, and the two oblongs of light seemed to be a sign or pledge of comfort, of safety and replenishment. Why this should be so, more than with ordinary windows, Joyce could not say. Perhaps it was that most were meant not just to look out on but to open directly into the forest darkness, and that they displayed the haven of home so artlessly. Full-length people cooking or watching television — scenes which beguiled her, even if she knew things would not be so special inside.
WINDOWS AS TOOLS OF SURVEILLANCE
Windows don’t always exist for the benefit of people living behind them. In Michel Foucault’s panopticon, prisoners are afforded windows not so they can enjoy a view, but so that they may be constantly observed by the guard, who sees everything from the tower.
In this way, windows are multivalent in their symbolism: If you have the freedom to see out, others can also see in. The window can therefore function as a symbolic inverse of the veil, which performs a different double duty, both to do with separation. A veil is both revealing and concealing. The window can never conceal, and is about revealing rather than concealing.
WINDOWS AND MAURICE SENDAK
[In the 1950s Sendak] was serving his apprenticeship illustrating the stories of others or creating his own stories and pictures about daydreamers and introverted loners who stare out the window (Kenny’s Window) at life taking place over there (Very Far Away). The breakthrough came with The Sign on Rosie’s Door (1960), when Sendak went through the window and (in his words) “outside over there” to create Rosie — an irrepressible Brooklyn kid who swaggers on stage in a boa and her mother’s high heels and whose infectious manner shows that she is daring personified.
I noticed that a lot of the translations of Outside Over There have ‘window’ in the title, even though there is no ‘Window’ in the English language title. Here is a blog post from the translator of the Spanish edition of Outside Over There, called Sendak’s Windows.
For a case study in the various ways windows can be used symbolically, expanding upon the psychology of character, read “Prelude” by Katherine Mansfield.
As in many children’s books, Kezia looks out of the window of her old house, which marks the end of her early childhood. She’s looking forward to a new section of her life in a new house.
Her mother’s feelings towards her husband are clear when the husband craves intimacy, but Linda goes to the window and closes it because she’s cold.
The open window (and the vase of flowers inside) downstairs at the new house signals to the reader that the inside meets the outside — this is ultimately a story of transitions on all the various levels.
Alongside windows, “Prelude” also makes much symbolic use of mirrors — a slightly more reflective kind of window.
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 MYTH OF THE MONOMYTH
The Monomyth comes from Joseph Campbell — the idea that there’s a single story that all writers tap into. But this is faulty. Joseph describes warrior male myth stories, and these really work when we’re talking about the big struggle-free myth.
1. THE MYTHIC JOURNEY
The ur-Myth is 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
Or, as John Truby says, in a mythic journey, the hero goes on a journey, finds himself, then comes back home a slightly (or vastly) changed individual.
The mythic journey is also known as the (mythic) quest.
The technical definition of myth:
The story of the transformation of the soul and the stages of its illumination.
The mythic journey is different from other genres. Though the plot shape is linear, the cycle is circular: birth to death to rebirth. This is a story of recycling that never ends. It has the broadest story structure of any genre. Myth stories are almost always epics.
THE REJUVENATION MYTH
There’s a new knight story, with knight stories being one of the most enduring stories at the moment, especially in the West. This story form will continue to be in its more modern version very popular for the next 10-20 years.
The rejuvenation myth asks audiences to consider the following:
How do we rejuvenate the city and make it a liveable, freeing place that promotes growth? This is probably the central challenge for story tellers if we’re trying to tell a modern story.
THE ECOLOGICAL MYTH
In the past, storytellers have written that the city gets so technological and overbearing that it collapses and starts all over again. That’s no longer a message that audiences are willing to hear. Avatar is a great example of how popular these stories can be. Avatar is based on ecological story beats, creating a new story form: ecological.
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?
A wonderful narrative voice — exciting, unhurried and conversational. Quasi-journalistic.
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.)
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.
Another island story is The Tempest, by William Shakespeare. Prospero has to procure the island’s secrets from Caliban, make the wretch his slave, learn to master the elements and protect his daughter.
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.
Ivan Southall — the Simon Black series — the Australian Biggles
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 YAL novel in the Robinsonnade tradition.
3. THE FEMALE MYTH
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?
Odyssean stories and Robinsonades are of the ‘male’ type. As described above, the first involves leaving home and going on a journey to find oneself; the second focuses a bit more on character development. The Male Myth form is well-known to everyone because it is so common and so ancient.
Then there is the big struggle-free myth form which is much newer. This new big struggle-free myth form is a blend of the two minus a few things.
There are few modern examples of the big struggle-free myth form, but some notable examples include:
…fundamentally change our collective vision of who the hero is and what she will accomplish on her life and story paths.[…] Of course both Joy and Riley are female. But that alone does not make this a big struggle-free myth. Joy is not a warrior like the Diana goddess, as depicted by the Katniss Everdeen character in The Hunger Games. She is an emotion, and a way of seeing and interacting with the world without fighting. Riley isn’t the typical Disney princess. She’s a normal, eleven-year-old girl facing a traumatic life event where she’s been forced to move to a new home.
Like the Male Warrior Myth laid out by Joseph Campbell, Joy goes on a long, difficult journey.But she doesn’t fight her way through one opponent after another, ending with a big bloody big struggle. She thinks and feels her way through the labyrinth that is Riley’s mind. Nor is there a Minotaur at the centre that Joy must slay. There are references to some of the old Greek myths, such as the Cyclops in the form of a giant, scary clown and a mountain which Joy, as Sisyphus, must climb only to tumble back down and try again. But it’s the way she handles the opposition, and ultimately succeeds, that makes this a new Female Myth story.
In other words, the Female Myth:
Doesn’t technically have to star female heroes — ‘big struggle-free myth’ describes the story type rather than the gender of the main character. The inverse is also true: Just because a myth stars a female doesn’t mean the story is a ‘big struggle-free myth form’. (Likewise, a feminist story doesn’t have to star a female character — feminist stories let characters of all genders transcend limitations of their sex.)
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 Female 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 big struggle-free myth form, as without the big big struggles and strong outside villain we do require a rich setting.
In children’s literature, it’s possible to track the development from ‘male myths only’ to where we are today, with Inside Out.
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.
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.
ON FORTUNE’S WHEEL (1990)
Published eight years later, 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.
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.
The 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.
MALE MYTH: THE OUTER QUEST
FEMALE 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.
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 struggle-free myths while women and girls can star in the traditional male myth, and often do (a la the Strong Female Character archetype).
Oprah’s book club picks are often good examples of the big struggle-free myth. Since the reader of this kind of big struggle-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 struggle would feel like, or what it even entails.
The most recent Female Myths have branched out. The woman/girl hero no longer has to big struggle against the patriarchy, or wrestle with the binary gender norm. We are moving into a political period where, in enlightened communities, the gender binary is put aside in favour of individual expression.
We’re even starting to see the big struggle-free myth in film — traditionally later than novels in picking up the latest trends. (Hollywood is notoriously conservative.)
The Male Warrior Myth, indeed all of Western storytelling in the last 3000 years, is based on maximum conflict. The hero goes on a journey and fights one opponent after another. There is always a big bloody big struggle near the end.
Female Myths solve problems in a different way. The hero goes on a journey, but instead of battling with others, she might think and feel her way through her problem.
[Echoing Maureen Murdock and Elizabeth Lyon:] Females as main characters are not what make a ‘big struggle-free myth form’. It’s all about how the hero deals with the problem.
John Truby, Anatomy of Story
As John Truby points out, Pixar’s film Inside Out is an excellent example of a Female Myth. While Riley is a girl, she could just as easily have been a boy.
Like the Male Warrior Myth laid out by Joseph Campbell, Joy goes on a long, difficult journey. But she doesn’t fight her way through one opponent after another, ending with a big bloody big struggle. She thinks and feels her way through the labyrinth that is Riley’s mind. Nor is there a Minotaur at the center that Joy must slay. There are references to some of the old Greek myths, such as the Cyclops in the form of a giant, scary clown and a mountain which Joy, as Sisyphus, must climb only to tumble back down and try again. But it’s the way she handles the opposition, and ultimately succeeds, that makes this a new Female Myth story.
Her primary ally in this journey, and the key to its final success, is another woman, Sadness. As in any Buddy Picture Comedy, the buddy is the first opponent. In the mind of Joy and the audience, Sadness is her polar opposite and best avoided whenever possible. But the key to the anagnorisis, for Joy and thus Riley as well, is that experiencing loss and Sadness is part of growing up.
Other examples of the Female Myth form:
Coraline — A girl retreats into her imagination where her ideal home life is found. She realises she doesn’t want what she thought she wanted after all, and big struggles the demons before returning to reality more grateful and satisfied.
Arrival — A woman’s ability to see holistically instead of divisively is matched by the story’s structure, and results in a personal and global revolution.
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 struggle-free myths, describing female initiation, are aimed at repetition, rebirth, the eternal life cycle. Actually, very few genuine big struggle-free myths exist in written—male, civilised, “symbolic” (Lacan)—form, due to many reasons. Connected with essential life mysteries such as menstruation and birth (both involving bloody), big struggle-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 struggle-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 struggle scene. These stories are certainly difficult to write, for exactly that reason.
The Artifacts is also a big struggle-free myth form even though it stars a boy.
Midnight Feast may also fit the big struggle-free myth form — I’m not quite sure myself. But I did aim to write something different, and I think I succeeded in that, for sure.
I would love to see more big struggle-free myth forms in the world, so if you have an idea for one, please write it!