|1697||The word ‘zombi’ first appeared in Le Zombi du grand Perou by Corneille Blessebois. A woman is tricked into thinking she’s an invisible spirit called a zombi. Back then, zombis were spirits or ghosts, not the walking dead as we know them today.|
|1726||The word ‘zumbi’ appears with a meaning closer to how we use it today in A History of the Voyages and Travels of Capt. Nathaniel Uring. The word ‘zumbi’ refers to the apparition of the dead person, but they walk around and torment the living, much like contemporary zombies.|
|1819||Robert Southey publishes History of Brazil, in which ‘zombi’ refers to the elected chief of the maroons in Pernambuco. Southey means the guy behaves like he doesn’t have any free will.|
|1838||The word zombie first appeared in print in an American newspaper in a reprinted short story called “The Unknown Painter” in 1838.|
|1928||The word zombie became mainstream in English after W. B. Seabrook published The Magic Island.|
|28 Days Later||Danny Boyle’s modern version of Romero’s films. But these zombies are neither bewitched nor reanimated dead. Instead, they’re infected with a virus known as ‘rage’. Docile humans transform into terrifying red-eyed shells of their former selves. The virus has a magical quality.|
|Astral zombies||Astral zombies are individuals who still walk among the living but have either sold their souls or had them stolen by a houngan. Astral zombies derive from Haitian folklore. But as you can probaly see, they also share similarities with Deal With The Devil stories. Young adult novel The Boy Who Couldn’t Die by William Sleator (2004) is an astral zombie story.|
|Automaton||Similar to zombies in that they have no free will, but unlike zombies they didn’t start from a living being.|
|Apocalypse||There are many references in the Bible about the resurrection of saints and sinners in the end times. Zombies are thereby associated with apocalypse. Why We’re Obsessed With The Zombie Apocalypse from Live Science|
|Bokor||Many people who follow the voodoo religion today believe zombies are myths, but some believe zombies are people revived by a voodoo practitioner known as a bokor.|
|Cannibal||A cannibal eats other humans. Throughout human history, cannibalism has sometimes been acceptable practice, involving ceremonial consumption of flesh from diseased relatives or, more often, from captives of war. |
Zombies are commonly cannibals and have a craving for human flesh.
|Brains||These days, zombies are commonly thought to eat brains. A lot of our modern conception of what zombies are like comes from George Romero’s film franchise, but Romero himself did not create zombies who ate brains (they ate living flesh in general). |
The idea that zombies eat brains may come from an episode of The Simpsons Dial Z For Zombies. This is a spoof of Return of the Living Dead. A generation of kids saw this episode before they were old enough to see a real zombie film.
|Comics Code Authority||In the 1930s and 1940s plenty of zombie tales appeared in pulp magazines like Weird Tales and Strange Tales. |
In the 1950s, zombie tales alarmed child development experts. In America, their activism led to the formation of the Comics Code Authority. For the two decades after 1953, this authority prohibited ‘scenes dealing with, or instruments associated with walking dead, torture vampirism, ghouls, cannibalism, and werewolfism’ and this put some horror comics out of business. However, some comic publishers refused to abide by the rules and zombie stories continued to find an audience.
|Crypt||A crypt is a stone chamber beneath the floor of a church or other building. It typically contains coffins, sarcophagi (coffins) or religious relics.|
|Decay||Zombie bodies are often decaying. This emphasises the horror of death itself.|
|Dread||Dread is anticipatory anxiety. The fear of encroaching zombies is as bad as actually facing them head on, if not worse. Hence, they often walk slowly, allowing more time for audience (and character) dread.|
|Draugar||Malevolent corpses from the Norse sagas. These creatures take the offensive by attacking and eating anyone who invades their burial barrows. The wonderful gothic subject matter of these sagas became popular outside Scandinavia in the second half of the 1700s. Draug Asuidus and Thorolf Baegifot are examples.|
|Exhume||to dig out (something buried, especially a corpse) from the ground|
|Ezekiel||There aren’t exactly any zombies in the Bible, but there are many references to bodies being reanimated or resurrected. The book of Ezekiel describes a vision where Ezekiel is dropped in a boneyard and prophesies to the bones. The bones start to shake and become covered with muscle and flesh until they’re reanimated yet “there was no breath in them.”|
|Féile na Marbh||Irish Feast of the Dead. On this night, spirits of the departed rise up, seeking the warmth of the fireside and communion with their living kind. Irish families are supposed to light a candle and leave it in the window, or leave an empty chair by the fire to guide wandering wraiths back home, where the wraiths will receive their blessing for the coming year.|
|Flat character||Zombies in stories will always be flat characters because of their lack of free will. Their desires are basic (not tiered), they can’t make plans and they are indistinguishable from one another, or from any number of other horror monster creations which simply won’t quit. They don’t understand the wretchedness of their condition.|
|Frankenstein||Frankenstein’s monster is a bit like a zombie because he has no free will but he is not made from a reanimated human or animal and therefore does not qualify as a zombie.|
|Free will||To qualify as a zombie, a creature must have no free will. Mummies and vampires are also renanimated corpses but are not zombies because they have free will. Zombies must be completely subordinate to the will of someone else or to some monomaniacal drive. The drive might be for human flesh, violence, revenge or perhaps resistance of the tyranny of entropy itself. Zombies are therefore a parody of slavery. (The other critieria is that a zombie must be reanimated from a human or animal.)|
|Golem||in Jewish folklore, a golem is an image (typically made from clay or mud) brought to life by magic. Golem in the Bible and in Talmudic literature refers to an embryonic or incomplete substance. Golems are not zombies but instead corporeal beings created from other forms of matter. Zombies have to come from humans or animals to qualify as zombies.|
|Gothic||Modern zombie stories are commonly set in the 1700s especially if they’re comic e.g. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. This was the century that invented the gothic novel. We think of Enlightenment and Regency England as a time of rigid, stable and elaborate social codes. Whether this is true or not, this era makes a good setting, ripe for disruption. Also, characters in powdered wigs contrast comically with decayed bodies wearing them.|
I Walked with a Zombie (1943) owes a lot to Gothic stories from the 1800s, and is very loosely based on Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bornte. The story is set in the Caribbean. Also typically, the dark-skinned natives use voodoo for good (improved health and well-being) but the whites appropriate native practices for their own evil ends.
|Grendel||Grendel is a character in the poem Beowulf. HE and his mother exhibit some qualities of the modern zombie — they can’t speak, eat human flesh and just keep coming after the Danes for no reason. They are also strangely human. Metaphorically, they represent the Danes’ failings: pillaging vengeance and pride.|
|Grotesque||comically or repulsively ugly or distorted|
|Haitian Revolution||Important to understand: In the late 1700s, enslaved Haitians successfully threw off their oppressors. There was a massive bloody struggle. The number of British and French soldiers was far higher but slaves still managed a revolution. |
It was two decades after this revolution that the word ‘zombie’ first appeared in English. In 1819 a poet called Robert Southey used it as a metaphor for imperialism in the Americas, meaning that colonised people had been robbed of their free will.
|Hamlet||Shakespeare may have made reference to zombies in Hamlet:|
A mote it is to trouble the mind’s eye.
In the most high and palmy state of Rome
A little ere the mightiest Julius fell,
The graves stood tenantless and the sheeted dead
Did squeak and gibber in the Roman streets
|Houngan||Zombies have Haitian roots. A houngan is a type of voodoo priest. If you want to take revenge on someone, you can pay this houngan to give your victim a deadly neurotoxin out of a pufferfish. This toxin convincingly simulates death. The victims’s family thinks they’re dead and buries them. However, the houngan digs them back up and revives them, sort of. This newly minted ‘zombie’ is kept ‘in thrall’ and used as a slave. The zombie is not properly fed – they must be kept in a malnourished state. In fact, feeding zombies salt or meat may be enough to rouse them from their stupor. At this point they’ll either kill their master, kill themselves or go running back to their grave. |
When the houngan dies, the zombie person is meant to be free. But sometimes that just means jumping to their death.
|Italian zombie film||Zombie (1979) by Lucio Fulci is a typical example of the Italian zombie film – a category in its own right. Similar to serial killers in American slasher films, Italian zombie films are shot from the heterosexual male gaze, and the audience is expected to become complicit in feasting upon naked women, or preying on couples having sex. Laura Mulvey has said that the image of a naked young woman often juxtaposes against an image of a disgusting, decaying zombie. In the Italian zombie films this takes on a more literal layer – the zombie is shown to eat the naked woman’s body. These are women who receive abuse from both humans and zombies. The women exist to absorb violence.|
|Lunacy||the state of being a lunatic; insanity (not in technical use). The word comes from ‘moonstruck’. It used to be thought that the moon causes madness.|
|Macabre||This word describes something disturbing because of its connection with death.|
|Male gaze||In early 20th century zombie films, time and again villains learn that to possess the woman’s mindless body is unsatisfying. (A guy called Dendle said that.) White Zombie is a classic example, and so is Plague.|
|Malevolent||having or showing a wish to do evil to others. This is the zombie’s only desire.|
|Maraud||to go about in search of things to steal or people to attack.|
|Marbh bheo||Irish night walkers|
|Memento Mori||The zombie is quite literally a memento mori, and serves to remind us that if we think we can cheat death, we are only fooling ourselves.|
Night of the Living Dead
|Misogyny||Zombie stories are typically about keeping women in traditional subordinate position.|
Does The Walking Dead Still Have A Woman Problem? (Season 3 update from Pajiba) See also: Walking Dead Writers — Don’t Ruin Carol, from Persephone Magazine. See also Thoughts On Andrea from My Friend Amy.
|Mummy||Mummies share the shambling gait of the zombie but are generally covered in bandages. Generally mummies aren’t considered zombies because they not entirely without their own will, or completely controlled by one basic drive.|
|Night of the Living Dead||Night of the Living Dead by Romero (1968) is a watershed zombie film series. Romero took various aspects of earlier zombies and crystalised them into an iconic creature we recognise today — the slow, inarticulate, shambling, undead thing motivated only by a desire to eat human flesh. They have no master and are horribly persistent. |
George Romero’s zombies are created by a vague technology run amok. We are never told what brings the recently dead back to life, but it’s thought to be radiation leaking to earth from a satellite. This was a typically Cold War fear, reminiscent of a whole lot of 1950s films in which radiation causes men to shrink and women to grow massive. In this film there is an indistinct boundary between monster and victim, and the audience questions how monsters are essentially different from humans. (Maybe not so different after all.)
|Ogre||Unlike giants (more generally), ogres have a massive appetite. Zombies and ogres are therefore related.|
|Outcast||On the island of Haiti, it’s not unheard of for family members to actually see their dead alive, walking in a state of zombification. But no one wants to reclaim them. They are seen as irredeemably unclean and are now outcasts forever. They’re not figures of terror, though. They’re not capable of harming anyone. Instead, they are a creature hovering between life and death – it has no will to kill, or any will at all – and is simply a scary symbol of human bondage.|
|Outbreak||In stories, zombies often come about due to some sort of outbreak. |
Robert Kirkman, creator of the immensely popular Walking Dead series, has said he will never reveal how the original zombie outbreak started or how the zombies infect through biting because that detail is “unimportant” to the story.
|Powders||Bokors have a tradition of using herbs, shells, fish, animal parts, bones and other objects to create concoctions including “zombie powders,” which contain tetrodotoxin, a deadly neurotoxin found in pufferfish and some other marine species.|
|Racism||White film makers of the 20th century tended to appropriate from other cultures and centre white people and white people’s fears. The white male nature of zombie stories itself is a zombie that just won’t die.|
The Walking Dead Has Become A White Patriarchy, so I have been going elsewhere for my zombie stories.
|Reanimation||Zombies have two basic criteria: It must be the reanimated corpse or possessed living body of one person (or animal). (The other is it must have no free will.)|
|Ring of Salt|
|Robert Southey||In the early 1800s poet Robert Southey used the term ‘zombie’ as a metaphor for someone who has no will. This is how we tend to use zombie today.|
|Samhain||n Irish culture, Samhain is a major Druidic festival marking the boundary between the living and the spirit world. This is the last festival of the harvest year, so pagan Ireland decreed that fruit and nuts (especially apples) would be eaten on the night of Samhain.|
|Slaves||In a Haitian community Zombies make excellent slaves because their memory and intellect is disabled by the toxin but the lower brain functions still work, allowing the body to move. Obviously, keeping someone as a zombie slave requires complicity from an entire community. Generally, no one in the community likes the victim so they don’t bother checking they’re actually properly dead before burying them. (Means of checking might include cutting off their head or driving a dagger through the heart.) Some people might want to intervene, but they’re afraid the same thing will happen to them.|
|Soul||Zombies don’t have souls.|
|Spirits||Zombies appeared in literature as far back as 1697 and were described as spirits or ghosts, not cannibalistic fiends.|
|Survival of the Fittest||This is a Darwinian term meaning harsh conditions weed out weaker members of a species. Survival of the Fittest a common theme among zombie narratives. Zombie narratives tend to have a resurgence after a big, scary world event such as the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War 2.|
|Symbol||The zombie is a malleable symbol. Storytellers can use zombies as they see fit. Zombies have been used to represent the horrors of slavery, white xenophobia, Cold War angst, the fear of death, apprehensions about consumer culture. |
Zombie films are quite often about the specific anxieties of white men, and the perceived threat to the white male ability to control the sexuality of white women. Zombies Are All About The Heteronormative Power Struggle from Science 2.0
When zombies were about slavery, stories were concerned about how slavery transplanted to the USA something malignant, but for the masters more than the slaves. These stories were for white audiences terrified of voodoo. The House In The Magnolias (1932) and Song of the Slaves (1940) are two examples of that.
|Tetrodotoxin||Used carefully at sub-lethal doses, the tetrodotoxin combination may cause zombie-like symptoms such as difficulty walking, mental confusion and respiratory problems.|
High doses of tetrodotoxin can lead to paralysis and coma. This could cause someone to appear dead and be buried alive – then later revived.
|Undead||The Ancient Greeks may have been the first civilisation terrorised by a fear of the undead. Archaeologists have unearthed many ancient graves which contained skeletons pinned down by rocks and other heavy objects, assumedly to prevent the dead bodies from reanimating.|
|Virus||Zombie outbreaks can be caused by a virus, which makes the story an allegory for our human fear of viruses. The Bestial Virus: The Infectious Origins of Werewolves, Zombies & Vampires from Discover Magazine|
|Voodoo||Voodoo (sometimes spelled vodou or vodun) is a religion based in West Africa and practiced throughout Haiti and the Caribbean, Brazil, the American South and other places with an African heritage.|
|Walking Corpse||In earlier English, corpse referred simply to ‘the body’. Only later did it refer to ‘the dead body’. Romeo’s zombies walk slowly, but Danny Boyle’s Zombies in 28 Days Later are really fast.|
|Weakness||In any good zombie story, the zombies represent the Weakness of a society or community of people they come after. Zombie films are therefore allegories. In Night of the Living Dead, the zombies tape into anxieties of the late 1960s — the dehumanising violence of the Vietnam War, uneasy reactions to the Civil Rights movement and a human tendency to become as monstrous as any monster who attacks us. With each subsequent film, the allegory gets updated. The next film is about brain-dead consumerism and after that the sexism turns into feminism.|
|White Zombie||The first zombie film. Frankenstein and Dracula also appeared on film at this time (1932). |
In early zombie films, villains learn that to possess a woman’s mindless body is unsatisfying. White Zombie started that.
|W. B. Seabrook||The word zombie was used intermittently throughout the 1800s but wasn’t a well-known word until 1929, when W. B. Seabrook published a travelogue called The Magic Island. Seabrook was an American journalist and adventurer who traveled to Haiti and lived there with his family. (Um, he was also a cannibal.) Seabrook collected stories about zombies and voodoo and he even thought he saw a dead man resurrected once. Readers in the West were intrigued by these stories, especially Protestant readers, perhaps, because free will is held very dear to the Protestant’s heart – thought to be humanity’s main virtue.|
|Zeitgeist||In 28 Days Later, the virus called ‘rage’ is the Zeitgeist of the modern era, where everything is so impersonalised and moves so rapidly that everyone is consumed by fury and can do nothing about it.|
|Zombie||An Enlightenment zombie meant someone who has no free will, and could refer to a high-level administator.|
Zombie can now mean that, but also a supernatural creature who has been renanimated from the dead and walks (or runs) around trying to eat the living, or infect them with a virus.
More recently, zombie describes a computer that’s been taken over by a remote host.
Zombies are generally stupid but recent zombies are able to learn quickly, sort of like artificial intelligence. This says something about our collective fear of computers taking over.
For years zombi was spelt without an ‘e’ at the end.
|Zombie lit||A whole literary subgenre featuring zombies|
My Neighbour Totoro (1988), from Japan’s Studio Ghibli, is one of the few genuinely child centred films in existence. In contrast, most films out of DreamWorks and Pixar contain dual levels of meaning, including jokes only the adult co-viewer will understand, or emotional layers inaccessible to children. Continue reading “My Neighbour Totoro Storytelling”
“The Ritual” is a horror film directed by David Bruckner, adapted by Joe Barton from Adam Nevill’s novel. Although this film is pretty standard in its tropes and structure, the CGI monster makes the viewing experience truly scary. This article says more about the monster and its basis in Swedish folklore.
When I think of Sweden I think ‘safety’. I think of social security, free university, and a society that looks after its sick and elderly. This hygge expectation of Scandinavian countries is utilised by Luke Pearson in his creation of the Hilda series. It’s used again in The Ritual. On a hiking trip to Sweden, what could possibly go wrong?
In common with fairytales, the forest in this horror is a metaphor for the subconscious. By entering the trees, you have signed on to take a deep dive into your darkest, most terrible fears.
One reading of this film: A man struggles with guilt and regret when his friend is killed as he stands by, frozen by fear. He replays this situation over and over, wondering what he might have done differently. He blames himself, and when he imagines his friends also blame him, he becomes emotionally isolated from them, emerging alone, with no friendships intact.
The man’s PTSD is symbolised by the monster. When Luke’s friends are picked off one by one, that’s him, cutting himself off, because hanging out with his usual friends only reminds him of the friend that he lost.
This makes The Ritual is a horror story for the modern age: The monster represents a major psychological weakness. The main character (an everyman rather than a hero) must come face to face with his fears before he has a hope of overcoming them. This is in line with the tenets of modern psychology. Suppression and repression are thought to lead to intrusive thoughts, doing damage to our mental wellbeing until we share our fears with others, acknowledge them and use strategies to help us deal with traumas.
The Ritual makes use of a classic trope of horror: A group of people go on a journey, they meet some kind of monster(s), and then each gets picked off, one by one. This is a horror-take on the classic mythic journey. In many ways, four men going off on a hiking trip is the same as a road trip film, because these characters are stuck with each other in close quarters, and the conflict between the men is as important to the narrative as the conflict between man and monster (which is scary, but not otherwise inherently interesting).
This is a story written, adapted and directed by men, and one of the first things that stands out to me is the masculinity of the main characters. The middle-aged friends are jokey-mean and have known each other since their university days. There’s a clear pecking order, with Hutch at the top. There is no room for weakness, which they equate with femininity. When Dom twists his knee/ankle, Hutch refers to him as an ‘Egyptian princess’.
A group of women in the same situation would likely turn back. Women would believe another woman who says she’s too injured to continue. But men of this particular milieu, with a long history of oneupmanship, are not afforded this luxury. They have no choice but to press on. Hence, they take a shortcut through the woods.
The viewer is left to deduce that the men have gone on the hiking trip to Sweden in memory of their dead friend. He wanted to go, even though they did not. They’re not at all athletic. These are men who’d rather be sitting around in pubs or on beaches. This is perfect for storytelling — it makes them fish out of water.
Although it’s the promise of beer that makes the four friends plough on through the Swedish woods, that is simply the surface desire. It is the toxic competition and lack of empathy between them which drives them to plough on. But the monster will sorely test their manliness, as we later see them screaming, cowering and crying. By the time Luke emerges staggering from the woods, he is no longer the same man — he is possibly no longer a ‘man’.
I figure the monster is scary mostly because of its chimera qualities, blending human with animal. The human arms coming out of its jaw give it an insect appearance, and giant insects are terrifying. (Have you ever seen a blown-up image of a bed bug?) The nice thing about choosing Swedish folklore for a contemporary story is that Swedish monsters are shapeshifters. They can look however you want them to look.
Parts of the monster are revealed to us slowly, which creates several effects:
- We feel a foreboding sense of decapitation. That is hardly subtle in this film — the offering they find in the cottage literally has no head — just hands holding its antlers in place.
- We don’t know what exactly we’re in for. We wouldn’t know what to look out for, and we can’t avoid something we don’t understand. It’s everywhere and nowhere at once.
- The gradual revelation of the monster symbolises the gradual descent into the darkest pits of psychology.
- Eventually the entire monster is revealed and this is the Battle scene. It’s also the payoff for the audience, who enjoys the horripilation. The rule of horror: You can’t show bits and pieces of the monster without eventually showing us the monster. That would be unsatisfying.
Another part of the monster’s scariness derives from its movements. Slow and deliberate followed by rapid movements seem to be the most scary of all. This describes the movements of the most poisonous spiders in the world. (And I speak from experience — I once found the most poisonous spider in the world waiting for me on the carpet beside my desk.)
The old woman in the cottage in the woods is a very old trope, connected to the Baba Yaga stories seen across various eras and locations. This old woman is sometimes helpful, sometimes murderous, which makes her even more terrifying than the monster. At least with the monster you know what you’re getting. But the old woman in The Ritual, who shockingly reveals the stigmata across her chest in place of nurturing breasts, cares for Luke while torturing Dom. There’s no rhyme nor reason, to us.
Why is this creature always a woman? I believe it’s a dichotomy people carry regarding all women: motherly women and non-motherly women. Motherly women will lay down their lives for you. Motherly women will never ever do you harm. Their love towards all children — towards all people — is unconditional. But at some point in our development we must go out into the world, away from our actual mothers, and we must realise, bitterly, that not all women are going to love us unconditionally. This comes as a huge shock. For various reasons to do with how boys and girls are brought up differently, and the more distanced parenting approach of fathers, who let their daughters (and sons) down much earlier in life, the realisation that not all women are motherly types probably comes as an even bigger shock to men.
This is what makes The Ritual a solid horror film. It is scary. It says something deeper about the human condition. The masculinity of it stands out to me precisely because I’m not a man.
By the same token, is it possible to critique male fears while simultaneously indulging in them? The witch is terrifying because she is old and sexually unappealing. This trope has been historically terrible for older women.
The men are punished for their constant oneupmanship, but Luke is also punished for failing to ‘be a man’ and lay his life on the line for his mate. The possibility that he may well have been killed for being a hero is never explored overtly in the film.
This month I’m blogging a series aimed at teaching kids how to structure a story. This seven-step structure works for all forms of narrative. It works for picture books, songs, commercials, films and novels. Today I take a close look at The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson to show how universal structure exists behind all good stories. The Gruffalo is an example of mythic structure, which has been super successful as a story structure across cultures for the last 3000 years.
Julia Donaldson is a master at taking old folktales and rewriting them in rhyme for a contemporary audience. The Gruffalo draws heavily from Alexandra the Rock-eater: An old Rumanian tale, retold by Dorothy Van Woerkom and published in picture book form in 1978. Julia Donaldson uses the same device of tricking a formidable creature into thinking you’re much stronger than you are.
In the Romanian tale, an underdog hero convinces a dragon of her own considerable might. This is a familiar device in many folk tales. (For example, you might squeeze cheese but persuade a formidable opponent that you’re really squeezing buttermilk from a stone.) She’s trying to get rid of the local dragon in return for a gift of animals. She needs animals because she has 100 children to feed (all magic results from having wished for them.)
STORY STRUCTURE OF THE GRUFFALO
For more on mythic structure, see this post. Basically, a character goes on a journey, meets friends and foes, changes as a person (or animal, in this case), and returns home. Sometimes they find a new home. In any case, they’ll be different for their experiences than they were at the beginning. This is called a ‘character arc’.
WHO IS THE MAIN CHARACTER?
What’s wrong with Mouse? They’re small and therefore vulnerable.
But Mouse’s great strength is that they are a trickster character. The trickster is a super popular archetype in stories from every era. For a successful story (or scene), a trickster character is your absolute best bet. Go ahead and create characters who play tricks to get what they want. You may not approve of what your characters do morally, but readers love tricksters and their tricks.
WHAT DO THEY WANT?
Mouse is off on a journey. We don’t know where s/he is going, but Mouse tells everyone along the way that they are off to see the Gruffalo. Obviously, this is not the mouse’s real desire. Mouse doesn’t think Gruffalos really exist. We’ll never know where Mouse is really going. I’d say they’re off to find nuts, with no particular destination in mind.
Mouse encounters only baddies on this trip — no true helpers/mentors. Mice tend to have a lot of enemies because they are small. That puts them near the bottom of the mammalian food chain. Mice are popular characters in children’s stories because both mice and children are small. So the mouse is a stand-in for the child.
Because Mouse is a trickster, s/he quickly turns the Gruffalo into an ally, even though s/he didn’t even believe in Gruffalos until meeting one.
WHAT’S THE PLAN?
The plan is to walk through the forest freely by telling opponents that s/he’s off to meet a Gruffalo, scaring everyone off.
In lots of stories, the initial plan doesn’t work and has to be changed. Our quick-thinking Mouse does not disappoint. When she realises the Gruffalo is real she decides to trick the Gruffalo into thinking s/he herself is fearsome by having Gruffalo walk behind.
Julia Donaldson has done something masterful here, pulling off what writers call a reversal. The reader now knows that the reason all those other animals were scared of the Gruffalo isn’t just because they’re easily duped — it’s because the Gruffalo really does exist. Perhaps Mouse heard about the Gruffalo but didn’t believe it was real… until this story.
In stories with mythic structure, there won’t be just the one battle. There will be a series of them, increasing in intensity until the final showdown. There is a minor standoff every time Mouse meets a creature who wants to eat them. When Mouse is surprised to see the Gruffalo, that’s another. Then the story works in reverse, very similar to what Roald Dahl did with The Great Big Enormous Crocodile. With The Gruffalo behind, Mouse meets all of those animal opponents again, this time scaring them.
So what’s the Big Battle? It doesn’t consist of much — it’s that ending scene — we might call it the climax. Mouse doesn’t need The Gruffalo anymore, so talks about Gruffalo Crumble, scaring The Gruffalo away.
Mouse has won.
WHAT DOES THE CHARACTER LEARN?
At a surface level, Mouse has learned that Gruffalos really do exist.
At a lower level, Mouse has learned that wits can overcome size in any battle.
At an even lower level, we might posit all sorts of psychological theories about how if you pretend for long enough, that thing really will seem true after a while. Bluster over substance can work. Fake it til you make it…
HOW WILL LIFE BE DIFFERENT FROM NOW ON?
The final page shows Mouse eating nuts, and everything is good. For Mouse, life will continue as before, though I imagine Mouse is a little more confident about their abilities as a trickster now.
STORYWORLD OF THE GRUFFALO
Axel Scheffler’s illustrations are well-suited to Julia Donaldson’s stories because although many of the stories feature scary characters in forests, over boggy marshes (Room On The Broom) and on lonesome highways (The Highway Rat), the colour palette Scheffler uses is colourful and bright even when the atmosphere is raining and dark.
Forests and fairytales go together. If you want to add danger and intrigue to your story, you can place your cast in the middle of a forest, or if they live in a town, put that town right next to a forest. That way, there’s always the threat that something will come out of the forest. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. Doesn’t matter if you use the forest in this way. The existence of a nearby forest is enough.
COMPARE AND CONTRAST
A picture book writer very similar to Julia Donaldson is New Zealand’s Joy Cowley, who also writes rhyming picture books using ancient tales as inspiration. If I told you Nickety Nakkety Noo Noo had been written by Joy Cowley, or that Joy Cowley had written The Gruffalo, you’d probably believe me.