Stephen King’s IT Storytelling Techniques

IT 2017 movie poster

IT is a 1986 horror novel by Stephen King, first adapted for screen in 1990, and most recently in 2017. This blog post is about the storytelling of the 2017 film.

THE TERRIBLE MONSTER OF IT

I liked what one reviewer had to say about IT: The monster in this film is whatever the story requires him to be for the scene. Indeed, this monster is the ultimate shapeshifter, sometimes calm, sometimes unleashed. This monster is a writer’s dream — he seems to have no rules. Why doesn’t every horror writer create a monster like this? He’s awesome.

He’s also one-dimensional.

Here’s the golden rule about movie-length (or novel-length) stories about unpredictable monster villains with no redeeming features: Villain versus hero cannot, in itself, sustain a story. The character web is simply not interesting enough. Alongside the monstrous villain the writer must create a very human web of opposition. We see this time and time again in popular storytelling:

  • In Twister we have man versus tornado, but the human opposition comes from a couple of professional storm-chasers on the brink of divorce as well as an entire band of rival storm-chasers who aim to beat our heroes in their storm-chasing game.
  • In Jaws we have man versus shark, but the interest comes once again from the human opposition. Sheriff Martin Brody wants to close the beach, but this is opposed by local businessmen. Then there’s the most subtle, macho opposition between manly-man Quint and the others on his boat.
  • In Jurassic Park we have man versus velociraptor, but a park employee attempts to steal Hammond’s dinosaur embryos, among other interpersonal opposition.

And in IT, we have the evil outside villain (the shapeshifting clown), but there is a very strong human gang of bullies who are just as scary. The gang of bully kids is a common way to flesh out a web of opposition, especially in stories about children. Suzie Templeton used the bully opposition web for her short film adaptation of Peter and the Wolf.

IT: MODERN MONSTER

IT is very explicit about the symbolism of the clown, and why it is a shapeshifter. But this is the typical modern horror monster. I have written previously: What is the horror genre for? IT is a modern horror, having moved away from Christian symbolism and into psychological symbolism. The monster is a representation of whatever terrible thing happens to be in your own life.

SETTING OF IT

Realism interpretation of the IT setting: There is no clown. Georgie Denbrough drowns while trying to retrieve his paper boat from a drain. The body is never found. Bill bonds with the others in his vicinity who each have their own significant trauma: incest, Munchausen syndrome by proxy and so on. The monster is different depending on who sees him. This is like the Mirror of Erised in Harry Potter. Whoever looks into it sees their own unfulfilled desire. The Mirror of Erised is a descendent of an old fairy tale device, such as the mirror in stories such as Snow White.

Horror is one of the three most symbolic genres in existence. (The other two are science fiction and Western.) Much has already been said about the symbolism and, frankly, if you’ve seen a lot of horror, it doesn’t need saying.

A Fixer Upper 1946 illustration by John Falter. This house looks like the old house visited by the children of IT.
A Fixer Upper 1946 illustration by John Falter. This house looks like the old house visited by the children of IT.

CHILDHOOD REALISTICALLY DEPICTED IN A STORY FOR ADULTS

One thing that struck me while watching IT: The smart aleck dialogue, especially the crass sexual jokes in the dialogue of Richie Tozier, felt realistic. The irony is that this dialogue would never be acceptable in books for children of that age. These kids are meant to be 13, which upper middle grade, lower young adult. In children’s literature you never read dialogue such as:

Richie Tozier : You punched me, made me walk through shitty water, dragged me through a crackhouse… and now I’m gonna have to kill this fucking clown.

Richie Tozier : I hear the list is longer than my wang.
Stanley Uris : That’s not saying much.

Richie Tozier : Hey Eddie, are these your birth control pills?
Eddie Kaspbrak : Yeah, I’m saving them for your sister!

I have known adolescent boys who talk very much like this. Another difference between stories for adults and stories for children: Children in stories for children must function, to some extent, as role models. Child characters in children’s stories are more naive and wholesome than many real-life counterparts.

It’s not just the horror elements of this film which keep this movie out of children’s hands. The clown, all told, isn’t that scary for many kids. The clown is clearly a monster. But the stone throwing, the chase, the fat shaming, the mutilation on a boy’s belly — those elements all feel uncomfortably real.

CHILDHOOD SONGS SECONDED FOR ADULT HORROR

Listen to the IT soundtrack (composed and arranged by Benjamin Wallfisch) and you’ll hear a very creepy, echoey version of Oranges and Lemons, music box inspired atmospheric tunes and children singing, slowly and without instrumental accompaniment.

This technique is common across horror and thriller films. Quentin Tarantino understood the creepiness of Shivaree’s 2000 song entitled ‘Goodnight Moon‘ when he chose for the soundtrack of Kill Bill Vol. 2.

There’s a nail in the door
And there’s glass on the lawn
Tacks on the floor
And the TV is on
And I always sleep with my guns
When you’re gone

There’s a blade by the bed
And a phone in my hand
A dog on the floor
And some cash on the nightstand
When I’m all alone the dreaming stops
And I just can’t stand

On it goes. Fans of child literature, however, are more likely to think of the eponymous but innocent story by Margaret Wise Brown.

That link to the well-known picture book is part of what makes for the creepiness of the song. There’s something about the admixture of horror and childhood familiarities such as songs, clowns, circuses and picture books which intensifies the creepiness of the creepy bit. This is how the folk at TV Tropes put it:

If a program or film wants to add fear to a scene one of the most creepy ways is to have a Creepy Child, or a whole creepy choir, singing somewhere in the distance or background, usually the tune is a mournful nursery rhyme. Sometimes it will seem like the characters can hear it and they may even call out, asking if anyone is there.

Creepy Children Singing

The Wire is a TV series for adults, creepy because of its uncomfortable realism. The character Omar Comin is particularly interesting, due to his role as sometime-comic relief, for his incongruous same-sex attraction in an overwhelmingly macho environment, and for his sociopathic ability to kill. Regular viewers of the show will soon learn that when Omar Comin starts to whistle Farmer In The Dell, bad stuff is going to happen. In this clip, bystanders realise from the whistle that Omar is up to very bad business.

Why Farmer In The Dell? Because viewers familiar with the tune will associate it with innocence, childlike naivete and comfort. The tune works well in the story because Omar is probably using one of his own childhood favourites for dual purpose: To set up a nonchalant persona for himself in the eyes of others, and also to steady his own nerves. The words themselves may also have thematic significance, though The Wire is not known for its ham-handed metaphors in the manner of Mad Men, so this may be an overanalysis.

The tinkle of bells, the fast-to-slow tune of a music box, the call of the ice-cream van — all make for excellent horror soundtracks and IT makes use of it too.

RELATED

10 Things You Might Not Know About Stephen King’s IT from Mental Floss

How IT handles the book’s most controversial scene from Entertainment Weekly

Giants and Ogres In Storytelling

Jack and the Beanstalk

Giants and ogres are central archetypes in the fairytale cast. Though similar, they’re not exactly the same.

GIANTS AND OGRES: THE DIFFERENCE

Giants are big. That’s their defining feature. Ogres have a massive appetite. That’s their defining feature, and in true fairytale fashion, their body is an outworking of their inner story. Because of their massive appetites, they also happen to be big.

The songs and stories that feature ogres and cannibal devils and other monstrous eaters raise questions about the very nature of desire and our ways of expressing it: do our appetites make us monstrous?

Marina Warner, No Go the Bogeyman
Ogre on cover of L'Assiette au Beurre
Ogre on cover of L’Assiette au Beurre

Ogre stories are related to the Oedipal plot, about the big struggle of power between fathers and sons.

Ogre stories are about food and power, about food in the right place and who puts it there, and vice versa. This concern has grown, as monsters have proliferated and their appetites been ever more luridly dramatised, so that fading and monstrosity have begun to coincide in meaning: from the Cookie Monster of Sesame Street to the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park.

Marina Warner, No Go the Bogeyman

When you think of an ogre you have probably been conditioned via modern narrative to code him male. But go back to antiquity and we find fearsome female creatures who very much fit the description of an ogre.

An excellent example is the reproductive demon Gello. Reproductive demons are coded femme because they concern themselves with wreaking havoc for babies and their mothers. They kill babies, take them, eat them. Gello was thought to have been from the island of Lesbos. She died as a virgin then, because she was cut off in the prime of her life she remained incomplete. The state of incompleteness is a dangerous thing to be. It means you’ll come back and haunt people once you’re dead. So Gello did just that. She hung around as a ghost and ate babies in a rather extreme case of lateral violence.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF GIANTS IN STORYTELLING

It’s hard to think of an example of a good ogre, but giants in storytelling are often shown to be not so bad — simply misunderstood, out of place.

Defeated giants inspire a certain patronising affection, as mirrors of a buried and superseded ancestry […] and they enter the comic repertory of entertaining tales. […] Paradoxically, it is the monsters done to death by heroes who survive gloriously, narrated again and again as part of their murderers’ destinies.

Marina Warner, No Go the Bogeyman
Giants in World Myth

I wonder why Africa and South America are the only continents without widely recalled tracks of giants.

  • Let’s go right back to inferno’s giganti (Virgil’s Dante), who strike terror in the poet. Dante (the character) names Nimrod, who built the tower of Babel. Ephialtes was one of the Titans who rebelled against Zeus. Also, Zeus defeated the Titans with his thunderbolts.
  • In Norse mythology, jots are ‘huge, shaggy beings of a demonic character who dwell in a distant dark chaotic land.
  • The order of the monstrous belongs to a horrible, frightening past. We continue to be fascinated by giants and we like to summon them to mind in the present.
  • Giants and ogres have been superseded in popular storytelling. Though immortal, they’re always in the throes of defeat. However, the story of the big struggles that overthrew them is rehearsed again and again. Often in contemporary storytelling The Corporation stands in for The Giant.
  • Celtic gods, who were supplanted by Christian saints, are a kind of giant.
  • The Nephilim, (from Genesis) are the heroes of days gone by, the offspring of gods coupling with the daughters of men.
  • Atlas (one of the deposed Titans) foreshadows the Catholic giant St. Christopher. Christopher is literally Christo-phoros, the Christ-bearer (suggesting he was big and strong).
  • Further back in time, beings were thought to grow larger than today (we see it in contemporary stories such as Jurassic Park). The New World was imagined as a haunt of giants. (Did people suspect dinosaurs even before dinosaur bones were unearthed?) People imagined men with one eye in the middle of their chests, who shaded themselves from the sun with a single, gigantic foot.
  • Paranormal giants: Yeti, Abominable Snowman, Bigfoot, Sasquatch, Yowie (Aboriginal Australia, who goes by a similar description to a Hobbit, with big, hairy feet.)
  • As mentioned, most cultures have giant myths. My home country of New Zealand had Kiharoa and Matua, among others:

There is the story of Kiharoa, a giant of the Ngati-Raukawa and Ngati-Whakatere tribes, who met his death about a hundred and fifty years ago. His stronghold was Tokanui Pa, on the middle hill of the “Three Sisters,” the conical hills which are seen close to the present motor road through the King Country a short distance south of the Puniu River. The story has it that he was twice the height of an ordinary man, and he wielded a hard-wood taiaha of unusual length and weight. He was killed at last when he slipped on some karaka leaves as he fought in a big struggle just outside his pa. His enormous head presently decorated the palisades of Totorewa, a pa of the Ngati-Maniapoto. An excavation for an oven to cook the huge body was made where he fell, and in one’s youth in those parts the “Giant’s Grave,” as it was called, in the fern, was pointed out by the Maori; the spot is close to where the Tokanui Hall now stands at the cross-roads. Two fathoms long and a foot over, is the native word-of-mouth record of Kiha-roa’s height. It may seem slightly exaggerated; but let us be generous and allow that he was at least eight feet.

There was another giant of these parts long ago, one Matau; like Kiharoa, he was a man of the Ngati-Raukawa tribe, and, too, his favourite weapon was the taiaha. He lived on a hill above the Wairaka River, a few miles beyond Orakau. Maori accounts aver that he was eleven feet high.

Legends of the Maori, Victoria University
German Fairy Tales

Jakob Grimm commented that ‘In the giants as a whole, an untamed natural force has full swing, entailing their excessive bodily size, their overbearing insolence, that is to say, their abuse of corporal and mental power.’

Seven-mile boots (or seven-league boots) are an element of European folklore. They allow the person wearing them to take strides of seven leagues per step, resulting in great speed.

The Diamond Fairy Book. c.1898. Frank Papé. LILLKORT - “Lillekort with his magic sword struck off the fifteen heads at one blow ”
The Diamond Fairy Book. c.1898. Frank Papé. LILLKORT – “Lillekort with his magic sword struck off the fifteen heads at one blow ”
English Fairy Tales

In The Chronicles of Geoffrey of Monmouth, Albion is a mighty British giant, defeated with all his giant cohorts and his brothers Got and Magog, by the founder of London, Brutus. (Albion is most remembered.)

Anywhere you have a child, or young person, dealing with giants, the comparison to Jack (of giant slayer and beanstalk fame), is inevitable

Fairytale News Blog
Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift (1726)

When Lemuel Gulliver wakes to find himself stranded on the island of Lilliput, he has no way of knowing that this is just the first of his encounters with strange and unknown people, including the giants of Brobdingnag.

In real belief from around this time, giants were thought to exist, and expected to bark like dogs. Some iconic giants even had the heads of dogs. Did you know St Christopher had a dog’s head before he was converted from paganism to Christianity? (Saint Christopher is the patron saint of travellers.) He was depicted as a kind of Anubis, the jackal-headed ferryman of lost souls, from Egypt. Perhaps his hallucinations were inspired by this imagery, but the sixteenth century explorer Antonio Pigafetta (c. 1491 – c. 1531) said he heard giants barking when he sailed past Patagonia.

When Gulliver spoofed the long genre of travel writing, he sure had brilliant material to work with.

CONTEMPORARY GIANTS IN STORYTELLING

Odd and the Frost Giants by Neil Gaiman  Inspired by the Norse myths, Neil Gaiman takes readers on an epic journey with a boy named Odd and his animal companions as they try to save Asgard, the Norse city of the Gods, from the Frost Giants who have invaded it.

James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl  Visit a gigantic piece of fruit and the oversized insects that live inside it. One of Dahl’s most well-known stories, this book is a starting point for reading the rest of his works.

The BFG by Roald Dahl This story is more obviously about giants, anthropomorphised. The giants draw on a long history of the cannibalistic ogre. I Kill Giants, the film  

Giants appear frequently in picture books, often as sympathetic outcasts. “There’s nothing to be afraid of, children.”

Giants And Symbolism

Giants are not what we think they are. The same qualities that appear to give them strength are often the sources of great shortcoming.

Malcolm Gladwell, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants

Giants are often depicted as hairy.

REAL LIFE GIANTS?

Mark Hall is an American scholar who has compiled global records of the existence of giants. He argues that gigantopithecus is another species of primate who were largely wiped out by us (as the Neanderthals were). But he also argues a few of them survive to this day. He describes them as we have long described giants in storytelling, conflating them with ogres:

  • cannibalistic
  • primitive
  • huge
  • far-dwelling living in areas inhospitable to humans. (Dahl used this in The BFG.)
The Giant and How He Humbugged America by Jim Murphy

The Cardiff Giant mystery became one of 19th-century America’s biggest scams. See how George Hull fooled the masses when a large statue was uncovered on his farm.

Carnival Castells

Sometimes the risk-taking [of carnivals] is no masquerade but, as in bullfighting, places the participants in real danger: on feast days throughout Catalonia, confraternities form troupes of acrobats to build human castells or towers, living giants composed of eight or more tiers of men, girls and boys climbing one above the other, gripping thighs, backs and shoulders, until at the end the whole perilous edifice is crowned by the anxaneta, a small child who shins up to the pinnacle, which towers 40 feet or more above the ground.

No Go the Bogeyman, Marina Warner

Wilt Chamberlain and André the Giant taking Arnold Schwarzenegger for a stroll

41 Strange (@41Strange) July 28, 2019
THE GIANT 1923 by N.C. (Newell Convers) Wyeth, Ladies Home Journal 1923
THE GIANT 1923 by N.C. (Newell Convers) Wyeth, Ladies Home Journal 1923
Andre The Giant

There have always been medical conditions which lead to large physical stature. One of the most famous is French wrestler. Unfortunately, real life ‘giants’ face real life discrimination, the result of millennia of negative storytelling archetyping (aka stereotyping).

Let’s give him the last word, at least.

Transmogrification In Storytelling

transmogrification Spirited Away

Transmogrification in storytelling has a long history. Today it can be seen across different types of story in many permutations.

WHAT IS TRANSMOGRIFICATION AND WHAT IS ITS USE IN STORYTELLING?

Transmogrification is the act of transforming into something else. The technique may be used by storytellers for the following reasons:

  • Humorous effect
  • Grotesque effect
  • Humorous and grotesque at once
  • In myth, transmogrification provides an explanation for natural things. It restores order by rationalising phenomena, inventing origin stories. We see it used in modern stories to explain a system of magic within a fantasy setting.
  • Christianity includes commitment to an embodied self. Even after we die, we keep the integrity of the self, and this self will be perfected in Heaven. A lot of stories are built on Judeo-Christian thought. The transmogrification story can help a character have a revelation about who they really are who is the integral self? I was a bear for a while, now I can embrace my wilder self. In other words, transmogrification is often a part of the anagnorisis phase. In fairy tales, this redemption arc commonly changes foul to fair, ugly to lovely.
  • The idea of shapeshifting is alluring as a wish-fulfilment fantasy: What if I was somebody else? When shapeshifting into an animal, it allows us an escape from humanity.
  • Storytellers are able to explore what it might be like to be a dog, a cat, a bird.
  • Metamorphosis is perhaps the most rewarding way of evading fear. It can symbolise the evasion of threat.
  • Inventing faces for terrors or redrawing their features in a changed shape represents a way of coping with them — making them familiar. What if you were to transmogrify into a monster for a while? Would you still be scared of monsters?

Because transmogrification is not a thing that happens in the real world, there obviously needs to be a system of magic within the world of the story. But there are also realist stories which borrow from the ancient tropes and put a realist spin on it, for example:

  • Makeover stories, in which a character wears make-up and new clothes and takes off her glasses to discover she’s beautiful both inside and out.
  • Fish out of water stories
  • Mistaken identity stories
  • Crime/Mystery stories in which a character must put on a disguise in order to solve a problem
  • Coming-of-age stories in which a young character is thrown into a grown-up world just before they are ready, hastening maturity.

All of these plots are about the fantasy of becoming somebody else for a while of seeing what you’re really capable of, testing your mettle. This is the fundamental reason for any story, so it’s no surprise to find the transmogrification trope used far and wide, across cultures, across time, across different types of story.

IDEOLOGY OF TRANSMOGRIFICATION

I have written before about some ideological problems associated with posing as somebody else the literary equivalent of black face. Because transformation is so strongly associated with not only humour but also the grotesque, it can be highly problematic to dress male characters up as female characters. Yet this is a standard gag in contemporary children’s films.

Perhaps for these reasons, many writers cross species to achieve the humorous/grotesque effect.

Animals inherently contain a sense of mystery, and so I think it makes sense that we would use literal transformations into animals in stories to talk about parts of ourselves and our relationships that are difficult—or impossible—to explain.

Masters Review

OTHER TERMINOLOGY RELATED TO THE CHANGING OF FORM AND TYPE

  • Shapeshifting —  a person or being with the ability to change their physical form at will.
  • Metamorphosis — a general term for any kind of change in physical form, structure or substance. In literature there may be a system of magic or supernatural intervention, but this word is also used in the natural sciences to describe something like a caterpillar’s change into a butterfly.
  • Anthropomorphism — Imagery in which a non-human creature is afforded human features. The creature is not thought to be literally a person within the world of the story.
  • Personification — Imagery in which something inanimate is afforded human features. The object is not thought to be literally a person within the world of the story.
  • Polytropos — literally “many forms”. In literary use, “many personalities”.
  • Body Swap a different take on shapeshifting, in stories which usually achieve a double reversal.
  • Changeling in this case it feels like a child’s body has been swapped for something evil.
  • Dybbuk in Jewish mythology, a dybbuk is a demon who takes the guise of a loved one.is a malicious possessing spirit believed to be the dislocated soul of a dead person. It supposedly leaves the host body once it has accomplished its goal, sometimes after being helped.
  • Metempsychosis  the supposed transmigration at death of the soul of a human being or animal into a new body of the same or a different species. You find this in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. According to pagan magic, natural phenomena was constantly changing from one thing into another. This is the belief system that governs the realm of fairytale. ‘Fairy tale logic’ is Pagan logic. You probably know Pythagoras from your high school maths textbook, but Pythagoras more widely was known back then for his wide dissemination of a set of principles to do with mysticism, not just mathematics. He was just as interested in both. He wrote far more about mysticism than about maths, but still added a lot to our understanding of the world.
  • Transmigration unless you’re talking about the Ancient Greek belief system, transmigration is the word to use. it’s basically another word for the process of reincarnation, which means ‘entering the flesh again’. Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism are pretty well-known for their belief in reincarnation. But the Norse, many Native American nations, lots of Catholics and Muslims also belief in some form of reincarnation, not to mention Scientology, Wicca and a bunch of other religions/cults I’ve never heard of. People seem to love this idea. I see it as one way of coping with knowledge of impending death.

TRANSMOGRIFICATION AND CHRISTIANITY

When my daughter was about five or six she was already a fan of Hayao Miyazaki. Miyazaki animations are full of transmogrification, in line with Japanese folklore. I remember a brief developmental period where she really did believe that people and animals could transmogrify into other things. To her, this wasn’t against the law of physics. But belief in transmogrification isn’t limited to young kids who’ve watched a lot of anime.

In 1381, there was a massive revolt in England, lead by an academic by the name of John Wyclif. What was his problem with the church? Corruption and hypocrisy, mostly. Plenty agreed with him and this led to an uprising. The church lay at the heart of the economy and of politics and to them him this wasn’t right. It even lead to the beheading of the Archbishop of Canterbury.

So what did the Church of England do? They didn’t want to give up their power, their property and political influence.

Wyclif had criticised the Eucharist — the part of Mass where bread and wine are blessed. They are believed to become the body and blood of Christ. Since 1215, the idea had been that a miracle takes place and after the blessing there is no bread and wine left — they become flesh and blood.

But the Church of England had never made much of this point and their people were left to interpret the miracle as they liked, regarding it as ritual if they preferred. Wyclif proposed that the bread and wine become the body of Christ in a spiritual or symbolic sense. Normally this wouldn’t have been a massively out-there thing to say, except after all that had happened, the church doubled down on it. After the incidents of 1381, the bishops — headed by William Courtenay, archbishop of Canterbury — decided this is where they’d draw the line, sort the believers from the enemies. From 1401, archbishops were able to hand over anyone who dared suggest that the bread and wine were not literally the body and blood of Christ. The doubting Thomas would be burnt at the stake. This was a very effective way of retaining the status quo.

The feast of Corpus Christi has not declined today, as have other great medieval feasts, such as Pentecost, but still provides the occasion for remarkable processions, imagery and performances that have become acts of communion beyond the ecclesiastic authorities’ reach. It continues to celebrate the miracle of transubstantiation which lies at the centre of the Catholic belief system. This central doctrine has enhanced, far beyond the write of the Catholic faithful, a contemporary sacramental relationship among bodies, images and their meanings. It informs the theme of ogres and bogeymen more vividly than might at first appear, because its religious meaning attempts to purify cannibalism, to turn the pollution of anthropophagy into a means of salvation. The feast of Corpus Christi celebrates the central sacrificial meal of Christianity, the holy mystery of the true presence of the body and blood of Christ in the consecrated bread and wine of the Mass.

[…]

Catholics who were brought up after World War 2 remember the many hours spent anxiously pondering the mystery of the consecrated host: we should not bite into it, we were instructed by the nuns but let it melt on the tongue and swallow it whole. I was frightened to experiment and nibble at I—in case it might turn bloody in my mouth. Any crumbs were caught in the paten that the serving boy held under our chins and open mouths, and gathered together later; then the priest mixed them up in the wine and drank them down, because Jesus was present in every fragment, infinitely divisible and ubiquitous.

Marina Warner, No Go the Bogeyman

TRANSMOGRIFICATION AND EUROPEAN FAIRY TALES

Transmogrification can be seen across various folklores across the world, and sometimes it takes a slightly different form. For the European fairy tales as collected by Grimm, or written by Hans Christian Andersen, the hope of shapeshifting underpins many of the stories.

  • The Ugly Duckling by Hans Christian Andersen a wish fulfilment fantasy those of us who are ugly won’t always be so. (If not on this earth, then we’ll meet our perfect selves up in Heaven.) This tale is the ur-story of any makeover scene written today.
  • Beauty and the Beast the wish that however ugly our betrothed, by loving him he will become attractive to us eventually.
  • The Frog Princess another take on the Beauty and the Beast category.
  • The Water Babies by Charles Kingsley   Tom transforms into a water baby after falling in the river.
  • Rapunzel, in one interpretation

‘Dwarfing’ is also a form of transmogrification, common in fairytales:

Dwarfing characters, ading bumps and lumps that deviate from ordinary human anatomy, has become, in the late twentieth century, a highly common form of magic charm. Crook-backs are considered lucky in some parts of the world: in Italy, until recently, rubbing thehump was commonplace. Bes, the Egyptian god of portals, who makes rude grimaces to give protection to his votaries, was depicted as a dwarf. Some of this ancient superstition still permeates the totem world of toys. The proportions of the medieval gryllus haunt characters like Tolkien’s Hobbits, the Smurfs (highly popular in the 1980s) and, the greatest charmer of them all, the benevolent E.T. of Steven Spielberg’s huge success.

Marina Warner, No Go the Bogeyman

CONTEMPORARY EXAMPLES OF TRANSMOGRIFICATION IN STORYTELLING

There are many. I’ve analysed a few of them on this blog.

FAMILY FILMS

  • Brave
  • The Cat Returns
  • Spirited Away Chihiro’s parents turn into pigs. Chihiro herself has her name shortened to ‘Sen’ (the Chinese reading of one of the characters in her name). By changing her name she becomes a different person for a while.
  • Wolf Children, and any other werewolf story.

ADULT SHORT STORIES

PICTURE BOOKS

  • Slinky Malinki by Lynley Dodd basically a werewolf story but starring a mischievous pet cat

CHILDREN’S NOVELS

  • Northern Lights the animals keep changing until the child’s personality settles into their permanent one.
  • Freaky Friday, in which a mother and daughter swap bodies to learn about each other
  • The Animorphs series
  • All the transforming spells in Harry Potter
  • Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland when Alice nibbles on a bit of mushroom; when Alice is a huge walking head on the ground. Both of the Alice books play with identity via distortions of the body. According to Marina Warner, ‘ Carroll’s creations are the most eloquent modern exponent of Circean sporting with nature and the pleasures that beasts and monsters can inspire’.

CARTOONS

  • Courage The Cowardly Dog, whenever Courage turns into a monster to try and get his message across without words. This is a gag that happens in every episode.

The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler

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.)

[The Gruffalo] was in her head for a year before she sat down to write. “Normally there’s a long time between germination and the writing.”

The Guardian

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?

The mouse.

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 is she wrong about?

She thinks monsters aren’t real.

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.

OPPONENT/MONSTER/BADDIE/ENEMY/FRENEMY

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 natural 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.

Gruffalo and Mouse

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.

BIG STRUGGLE

In stories with mythic structure, there won’t be just the one big struggle. 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 right behind them, Mouse meets all of those animal opponents again, this time scaring them.

So what’s the Big Struggle? 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 deeper level, Mouse has learned that wits can overcome size in any big struggle. Pessimistically, the reader is reminded that size really does equal scary, and if you’re not big enough yourself, you can use your wits to rope in someone bigger.

At an even deeper level, we might posit all sorts of psychological theories about how if you pretend for long enough, pretence will become your reality. 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.

WHAT I BRING TO THE STORY

I imagine Mouse is a little more confident about their abilities as a trickster now, and even when hearing scary stories, will know that scary situations can be turned to her benefit.

SETTING 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.

FURTHER READING


The Gruffalo was released in 1999, and met with immediate success. The book won the prestigious Smarties prize, which Donaldson accepted wearing a Gruffalo hand puppet. At the time she was working as a writer in residence at a school in Easterhouse, a deprived area of Glasgow. When Donaldson returned from the ceremony, the children gave her a gold star.

The Gruffalo sparked a surge of creativity and a run of bestsellers. But away from books, Donaldson’s home life was fraught with difficulty. Hamish, the eldest of her three sons, suffered from depression and psychosis, and was hospitalised. He was eventually diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder. In 2003, Donaldson’s nephew Gaius, who also suffered from depression, died by suicide. A month later, Hamish killed himself. He was 25.

The Guardian

A Letter To Momo Film Study

A Letter To Momo film poster

Letter to Momo is a 2011 Japanese feature anime directed by Hiroyuki Okiura, also known for Ghost In The Shell. After the oceanographer father drowns in a disaster at sea, mother and daughter move from Tokyo to the small island village where the mother spent holidays once per year with her aunt and uncle to recuperate from her asthma as a child. Creatures from Japanese folklore appear to guide young Momo through the grieving process, in this story intimately connected to Japanese Buddhist and Shinto traditions.

SETTING OF LETTER TO MOMO

Japan is an archipelago of about 3000 islands — five main ones, of course. The director himself grew up on the coast of Hiroshima, which means the edge of the Seto Inland Sea.

Letter To Momo is set on a small island in the Seto Inland Sea of Japan — the body of water separating the islands of Shikoku, Honshu and Kyushu. The real island is called Osaki-Shimojima, whereas the fictional island is shortened and changed slightly to Shiojima.

Though the island is fictional, the landmarks and art are closely based on the real island. For example, Historical Nomieruoka Park is depicted in several scenes. The real island has an area of about 18 square kilometres and a population of about 3,000 people as of 2012. There is a Buddhist temple at its highest point (Mount Ippooji).

The Name Of Shiojima
Welcome to Shiojima
Momo stands in front of the bridge welcoming visitors to Shiojima.

The name of this island is Shiojima. The first character of Shiojima (汐島) means both ‘tide’ and ‘opportunity’. This is the sort of symbolism which doesn’t translate easily into Western narrative and is part of what makes Chinese characters so hard (and fascinating) to study. In Eastern Asia, the fact that the tide is connected to opportunity maps onto this story starring two characters who return to the sea for a second chance at a full life, even after great loss. And even after the great loss was due to the sea. The history of this connection is to do with Japan’s close historical connection to the sea, and their heavy reliance upon fishing. The difference between having enough to eat or not was all about judging the ebb and flow of the tides.

If you look up a Japanese-Japanese dictionary you’ll learn that 汐 refers specifically to the ebb of evening tide, and is associated with a beautiful view. This makes sense, since the character is made up of the radical for ‘water’ next to the character for ‘evening’. If you write some Japanese you can probably guess the character for morning tide. Yep, it’s 潮. Both words for tide are pronounced the same way — either ushio or shio. In everyday Japanese both are used and no mind is ordinarily given to whether the tide is an evening or a morning one. The character for morning tide seems to be more the default.

汐 is often used in girls’ names, which makes it worth knowing. The character conveys ‘softness’ and has relatively few strokes, making it convenient to write. The character itself, when written in calligraphy, is of a curved shape, which makes it feminine. You’ll find it in names such as Shiori (汐里、汐璃、汐莉), or in combinations pronounced Shiomi and Shione. In names, confusingly for foreigners, this character might alternatively be pronounced ‘Kiyo’. So you’ll find it in names like Kiyomi, Kiyora. When found in boys’ names it will always be pronounced Kiyo, occurring in names like Kiyoharu and Kiyohiro. When used in a boys’ name, ‘evening tide’ will be paired with a character with traditionally masculine virtues, presumably to offset the feminine associations with ocean tide.

Why has the character for evening tide been chosen for the name of this village, instead of the character for morning tide? It could have gone either way because Momo is young and is starting a new life, but if you stayed for the roll of credits you’ll have noticed the pillow shots of the slow, elderly nature of the island. This is a village which is dying, devoid of young people. It’s likely those children jumping off the bridge are the only children in the village. Will Momo build an entire life here? I doubt it. I imagine Momo returns to the mainland for her upper education. In fact, I just checked my watch and it’s already 2018, so she’s probably there now.

More on the Symbolism of Islands in storytelling.

Buddhist Culture In Letter To Momo

If you ask young Japanese people on the street about religion, you get something like this:

In Japan you can consider yourself Buddhist without any of the mystical beliefs of yore, just so long as you have a ‘butsudan’ (a Buddhist altar) in your house (or in your parents’ house, probably), and participate in the Bon Festival. You can see a Buddhist altar in this movie. Mother and daughter stand in front of it and think about the dead father. There’s a photo of him hanging there. My host father was the most interested in my host family’s altar — he’d take a small portion of food in there each night for his dead ancestors. The following night he’d bring out the crusty old rice and replace with new. The altar is basically a place where you go to think about loved ones — a convenient little grave right inside your own home. (It’s not where the actual dead bodies are kept.)

At the height of summer, Japanese people have Obon.

Obon (お盆) or just Bon (盆) is a Japanese Buddhist custom to honour the spirits of one’s ancestors. This Buddhist-Confucian custom has evolved into a family reunion holiday during which people return to ancestral family places and visit and clean their ancestors’ graves, and when the spirits of ancestors are supposed to revisit the household altars. It has been celebrated in Japan for more than 500 years and traditionally includes a dance, known as Bon-Odori.

Wikipedia

The lantern tradition is a great spectacle, and the only part of Obon depicted in Letter To Momo:

Tōrō nagashi (灯籠流し) is a Japanese ceremony in which participants float paper lanterns down a river; tōrō is a word for “lantern,” while nagashi means “cruise” or “flow.” This activity is traditionally performed on the final evening of the Bon Festival in the belief that it will help to guide the souls of the departed to the spirit world.

Wikipedia

What must it be like, to really believe that your dead ancestors are visiting Earth again each year? In A Letter To Momo, the idea that the world is inhabited by a parallel realm of live creatures harks back to an earlier time where people really did believe in the supernatural. Dead souls were (are?) thought to hang about for a bit before going to ‘up there’, a belief which  helps the grieving process.

Japanese Culture In Letter To Momo

You’ll notice some specifically Japanese body language in this anime. Here’s Momo in the middle of a big, exaggerated march. This is a girl on a mission. This is a particularly juvenile kind of walk, emphasising youth. I wonder if it comes from the fact that Japanese school children used to do a lot of marching. (There’s still ‘marching music’ played in many Japanese schools at cleaning time.)

Something the animators of this film do extremely well is the body language of Momo (and Mame). Momo doesn’t just sit on the tatami mats — she pushes herself around on them while lying down, propelled forward by her feet.

There are numerous other examples of a girl behaving how kids really behave when they’re not confined to a chair, and it’s not something I’ve seen a studio like Pixar do particularly well. The kids in Pixar films — compared to this one — behave like little adults. Is that because our Western way of making kids sit on chairs and sleep on raised beds prevents them from being kids? In any case, the childlike body language of Momo when she is bored and at home in her Japanese-style house is especially realistic. I believe any child would behave like this in the same setting.

Momo pen held in nose
Momo holds a pen between top lip and nose, like no one is watching her.
jumping the last step
Momo jumps the final few steps.

Momo’s mother beckons to her in a typically Japanese way, calling her over to meet the elderly relatives. When I first got to Japan I thought my host-mother was shooing me away when she did this.

You’ll see Koichi the postman point at his face to mean ‘me’, whereas Westerners tend to point to our chests, as if our ‘selves’ reside in our hearts rather than in our heads.

Shoes are removed in the entrance nooks (genkan), and although it’s polite and ‘correct’ to turn your shoes around to face the door when you step out of them, most kids don’t. We see Yota step into his shoes backwards, shuffling backwards out the front door in a comic-realistic fashion. These are kids being kids, without the parental intervention.

Bicycles and mopeds are a great way of getting around narrow and winding roads such as these, because utility vehicles and cars would need to back up when meeting an oncoming vehicle.

Is there a rule that umbrellas make an appearance in every Japanese anime? I shouldn’t be surprised really, since umbrella culture is strong in Japan. With a heavy and predictable rainy season, in which rain is usually unaccompanied by wind, making them genuinely useful, there is usually a point in a Japanese film when rain is utilised as pathetic fallacy. Here, too, a rainstorm not only functions as an impediment to the characters getting what they want (a doctor for the mother), but also stands in for Momo’s emotions. Rain = tears, thunder and lightning = uncontrollable and strong feelings.

Japanese Folklore In A Letter To Momo

The ‘goblins’ who appear to Momo are known as ‘yookai’ (with the long ‘o’ sound) in Japanese. The class of yokai is much wider than the subtitles translation of ‘goblin’.

Yōkai (妖怪, ghostphantomstrange apparition) are a class of supernatural monsters, spirits and demons in Japanese folklore. The word yōkai is made up of the kanji for “bewitching; attractive; calamity”; and “spectre; apparition; mystery; suspicious”.

Wikipedia

Though historically yokai didn’t look like anything in particular, their forms started to solidify in the collective Japanese imagination once artists started sketching their own imaginings onto emaki (horizontal, illustrated narratives created during the 11th to 16th centuries).

Letter To Momo emaki

The yokai featuring in A Letter To Momo:

  1. Iwa no ke — Spirit of Rocks. This guy looks scary at first because he can’t close his massive mouth. But when he is revealed to be harmless, his permanently open maw makes him look easily duped and comical. Rocks are associated with masculinity in Japanese culture. Therefore he is depicted as big and strong. An evil version of this guy can bite your head off, as Kawa points out. Like Grizz of the We Bare Bears, Iwa is the guy who takes the lead, even when his ideas are terrible.
  2. Kawa no ke — Spirit of Rivers. This guy is particularly grotesque, with stinky big farts being one of his superpowers. An evil version of Kawa can suck your soul out through your mouth, as he comically demonstrates on Kawa. Evil river spirts can also cause drowning. But in other traditional stories they just fart, for some reason. (You’d think this would be more heavily associated with wind, wouldn’t you?) Kawa hates anything that requires effort, and speaks with the dialect favoured by hoodlums who’d like to fancy themselves Yakuza.
  3. Mame no ke — Spirit of Beans. This little guy is harmless and innocent, like a toddler. He is shown to be friendly with all the spirits on the island, which comes in handy later. Beans are associated with smallness in Japanese language, and ‘mame’  is also  a homophone for honest, devoted, hardworking and active.  Of the three yokai here, Mame is the airhead who does things at his own pace. He doesn’t always hang around with the other two, having his own friendly friends.

The idea that there’s a spirit in everything is a Shinto idea rather than a Buddhist one. (Is Shintoism a ‘religion’? A Japanese lecturer at university was a stickler about this — I got marked down in an essay for Shintoism a religion. I’m still bitter.)

Another film — one from Hayao Miyazaki — Princess Mononoke, is all about the spirit of things. In fact, that’s what mononoke means: the spirit of things. If you’ve already seen that anime you’ll recognise the nymphs of the forest. (Kodama)

Kodama from Princess Mononoke
Kodama from Princess Mononoke
Kodama from Letter To Momo

STORY STRUCTURE OF A LETTER TO MOMO

This story spans the time between learning of the father’s death at sea and his final departure to the world of the dead, though the plot begins with Momo arriving at her new home, and flashes back to fill in the parts when they lived in Tokyo, including the two main parts relevant to her recovery:

  • The argument she had with her father
  • The phone call she overheard when her mother learned of his death

The argument is presented twice, once with a medium angle camera, the other view from further away. The first time we don’t know what the argument is about, so the exact details of it are used later as a reveal.

Whenever a plot begins with a child starting in a new place, there will be flashbacks. The story usually starts a bit earlier. There’s a reason why people move and in stories it’s often pretty grim.

PARATEXT

Taglines:

  • When I really started to notice, I wasn’t alone. (Used in the poster below)
  • Dear Momo; An unfinished letter from her father is left behind.
  • A wonderful encounter.
  • They had a “mission”.
  • Are you telling your loved ones what truly matters?
  • Words that were never said.To save those you love.
  • A letter that ties the bond between them.
Letter To Momo Japanese poster
Momo e no tegami, the Japanese movie poster

SHORTCOMING

I'm all alone

Eleven-year-old Momo is the viewpoint character, the main part of the story, and also the character who undergoes the main character arc, making Momo unambiguously the main character. You’ve probably noticed that Japanese directors aren’t afraid to make feature films for everyone starring girls. There’s a reason for this which isn’t feminist in origin  — these girl characters have flaws but are ultimately a version of the Female Maturity Formula. While Momo has her faults, the little mother in her makes her the voice of reason, persuading the male-gendered yokai characters to behave themselves, going to great lengths to stop them from stealing vegetables from the villagers. Upholding the moral fabric of a community is more often considered a feminine job. The yokai make stereotyped reference to ‘women’ numerous times in the dialogue, which is what genders them male in a more-than-symbolic way.

Momo’s ‘ghost‘ is that she has lost her father. We are not told this right away. As is usual, this ghost is withheld as a reveal.

Momo needs to move on from her father’s death and forgive herself.

The problem is, her father is dead, and the last time she saw him she told him to go away and never come back. Now she can’t take those words back.

Her shortcoming is that she can be ‘wagamama’, as Japanese people might put it. Selfish, inward looking. The mother is presented non-empathetically to the audience, but this is because we are seeing her through Momo’s eyes. Momo does not see her mother cry, and nor do we. We only see the mother leave each day for her nursing seminars, leaving her daughter with the basics but alone nonetheless, told to amuse herself with homework. Japanese children do get a lot of homework over summer, but Momo is between schools. She has little motivation to do it.

DESIRE

Momo is a reluctant participant in this new life, wanting only to return to Tokyo. But the mother has said that she sold the house in Tokyo rather than rent it out, so we know this is not an option.

Momo’s ‘below the surface’ desire is to be part of a team, to have friends. Her mother’s clumsy attempt at making friends for her is embarrassing to her. She needs to make genuine friendships alone.

OPPONENT

Momo’s main opponent is ultimately herself — her own conscience — she can’t forgive herself for those careless words she threw at her father. But in a narrative ‘oneself’ makes for a really boring story. Therefore, we have fully embodied opponents which represent the very things Momo doesn’t like about herself. In this supernatural tale them come to her in the form of the yokai.

These yokai are initially very scary, especially for young children. But as soon as Momo works out the nature of them they morph into comedic characters more reminiscent of ribald Japanese humour, resplendent with farts and nose-picking and hairy butt cheeks. They are quite grotesque. Momo, too, thinks of herself as grotesque after yelling at her dad. These yokai are self-absorbed, shown by their never-ending appetites and inability to give a damn about whose food they are stealing.

Momo’s human opponent is also her mother, standing in the way of just packing up and moving back to Tokyo.

At first the twelve-year-old boy looks like he may turn into a romantic opponent, and other directors would have made the most of this possibility but as it happens these kids are allowed to be kids. At eleven years old Momo is pre-adolescent, which is a less usual age for main characters. Main characters tend to be twelve.  Twelve-year-olds are on the cusp of adulthood, but also in English language they are about to hit the ‘teen’ years. This makes me wonder for the first time — is there something about the Japanese way of counting which makes twelve-years-of-age not so special? When counting beyond ten in Japanese it goes ‘ten-one, ten-two, ten-three, ten-four…’. There’s no phonological change after twelve. The concept of ‘teenager’ comes from English, as does the Japanese loanword, ‘tiineejaa’. Is our Western concept of twelve as ‘the end of childhood’ down to the words we use for numbers?

PLAN

Momo’s plan that sustains the middle part of the film is ‘To prevent the yokai from stealing the village vegetables’. This all changes when Ikuko has her asthma attack — now the plan is dire and simple — Momo must get medical help during a terrible storm in order to save her mother’s life, otherwise she’ll be left an orphan.

BIG STRUGGLE

The big struggle phase of A Letter To Momo reminds me of the one in Hud, but only in one sense: A physical tousle is followed by a war of words. These lead into a ‘life or death’ struggle. In Hud, Hud tries to rape Alma. In A Letter To Momo, Momo’s mother almost dies of asthma.

By the way, my asthmatic husband says the depiction of asthma in this film is better than in most, though asthma attacks don’t tend to be accompanied by coughing. This massive asthma attack is foreshadowed by two events:

  • The old man is told not to smoke by his wife, because the old woman knows it sets off Ikuko’s asthma.
  • Ikuko is drinking tea and it goes down the wrong way. This coughing and spluttering fit is probably why the animators thought it necessary to make Ikuko cough during the asthma attack.

Here’s what’s left off the screen: Ikuko’s getting the doctor. Instead there is a cut from the stormy scene with all the supernatural creatures banding together to save Momo’s mother, right to the next morning, with the mother lying in bed. From that high angle, at first it’s a possibility that she is dead. So that’s one good reason to cut. The other is that there would be no ironic potential in a doctor’s scene, and every scene needs some level of irony. At the doctor’s, Ikuko would be treated for her asthma. We don’t need to see that because it goes exactly as we expect it would.

ANAGNORISIS

As mentioned above, one of the taglines transliterated from ‘catch copy’ in Japanese is:

気がつけば、私、ひとりじゃなかった。
When I really started to notice, I wasn’t alone.

Momo’s big anagnorisis happens in between big struggle scenes. Before rushing out to cross the bridge Momo realises that her mother has been badly affected by her father’s death. This is prompted by the old woman saying that Ikuko’s suppression of emotion has contributed to her failing health. All this time Momo has been wallowing in her own pity. She is lonely all day and doesn’t want to be here where she has no friends, her mother won’t believe they’re surrounded by supernatural creatures that only she can see… Yet Ikuko has her own inner world that Momo cannot see — Ikuko has lost a husband just as much as Momo has lost a father.

At first the film makes us think that by ‘not alone’ Momo means the yokai. Which also works. But really, more deeply and more symbolically, Momo is not alone because she and her mother are going through the same grief. Hence, the deeper meaning of the catch copy.

The second part of the anagnorisis happens when Momo reads the letter from her dead father, sent back on the lantern boat. This is the mother’s anagnorisis, too. She’s had nothing to do with the yokai, but this time she allows herself to believe that her dead husband has a kind message from beyond the grave.

By the way, the English version of the catch copy asks us, “Are you telling your loved ones what really matters?” Which speaks to an interesting cultural difference. Westerners value “I love yous” and other grand gestures of love expressed towards those closest to us, but Japanese families are traditionally laconic in this regard, preferring to let gestures of love speak for themselves. This may be changing with globalisation.

NEW SITUATION

Momo plucks up the courage to jump into the sea from the bridge — all so symbolic it almost hurts.

Momo jumping off bridge

Mother and daughter will always have each other. As they stand together on the beach we know that their relationship will improve from now on. The yokai are no longer needed, so they have departed with the rest of the dead souls at Obon.

CHARACTERISATION OF MOMO

A number of reviewers have something like this to say about the character of Momo:

Momo’s displays of emotion belie an otherwise flat characterisation. Despite the amount of time spent with her, both in and out of flashbacks, she never becomes a truly compelling or inspiring protagonist, as nearly all of the Miyazaki heroines do. Considering that she is in some serious psychological pain, it’s not totally surprising that Momo spends at least half of the film with her shoulders slumped and head down; it’s just a bit disappointing that she rarely reveals herself to be more than what she appears on the surface, exhibiting a plot arc more than a full-fledged personality.

Film Comment

And I’m not sure why. Could it be that English-speaking reviewers can’t connect to an eleven-year-old Japanese girl? Now that I’ve analysed the structure it’s nothing to do with that. Momo’s inability to express her feelings may make her a little distant to a Western audience, but I suspect a native Japanese audience intuitively grasps what she would be feeling inside, and identify with her civic-mindedness regarding saving the community vegetables.

Night Of The Weremole Courage The Cowardly Dog

The folklore of the werewolf is great fodder for a horror comedy and it was bound to be used sooner or later. Others have made new creatures out of the werewolf story — Wallace and Grommit have The Curse Of The Wererabbit, for instance, in which they take a cute, fluffy animal that can’t (directly) harm humans. Here we have a mole, equally harmless to humans, and also a little underrepresented in children’s literature, though we do more recently have Mo Willems and his naked mole rats. For comic appeal, that subcategory is even more appealing.

night of the weremole

See also: The Rule of Oversized Moons In Picture Books

As usual in the Courage stories, the moon has a cycle of its own.

crescent-moon
a crescent moon at the beginning of the story

full-moon
The crescent moon is full after the weremole turns up

STORY STRUCTURE OF “NIGHT OF THE WEREMOLE”

The fact that “Night of the Weremole” is a nod to B-grade horror flicks is underscored by the scenes in which Muriel (and initially Courage) are watching one on their television inside the setting.

b-grade-horror

In a horror comedy the fun is in making use of tropes which are so worn out that editors will rant about how they never want to see certain storylines ever again.

Max Booth at LitReactor writes about one such storyline here:

OH MY! WHAT IS THIS STRANGE AND MYSTERIOUS BITE?

Maybe someone is exploring a forest, then a strange bug happens to take a small bite out of them. Or maybe they receive a mysterious package in the mail, and its contents leave a mark on their flesh. It doesn’t matter how it happened, but now your character has a mark that won’t go away, and every day it spreads. The character goes to the doctor, but the doctor just shrugs, because doctors are stupid and know nothing. The mark continues to mutate until the character has completed its transformation into a monster. The reader has known how this story was going to end from the very beginning. Why? Because everybody writes this story. And it’s never surprising. It’s never interesting. Writers like this idea because it gives them a chance to exercise their gross-out techniques. They can get their hands dirty and have fun detailing graphic mutations. And there’s nothing wrong with that! I love gore just as much as the next guy. But what’s important to remember is this: you need more besides disgusting mutations. You need a real, genuine story. What you have right now is an idea. A very boring, overused idea.

10 Horror Stories Nobody Wants To Read

 

SHORTCOMING

Courage is cowardly. Rather, he is very brave but anxious all the while. A truly cowardly hero would be no good for a series hero.

courage-watches-horror-show
Courage is happy just as long as he’s left alone to snooze in the living room.

eustace-drooling

DESIRE

Courage wants to protect his family from the weremole.

OPPONENT

The weremole who turns up as Muriel is outside doing a spot of night gardening. Because a rabbit turns up first, she is fooled into thinking the creatures are cute and even offers a carrot.

muriel-gardening

rabbit-foil

something-burrowing

muriel-gardening-at-night

Eustace is also an opponent here. Because of his blindness and stupidity he doesn’t realise that he’s trying to kill his own wife with his mallet. The fact that Eustace can’t find his mallet at first lends suspense. We know, eventually, that he will find it.

All B-grade horror films need a bathroom scene. Here we have the gender inverted with a skinny, sexually unappealing old man instead of a terrified, alluring young woman.
All B-grade horror films need a bathroom scene. Here we have the gender inverted with a skinny, sexually unappealing old man instead of a terrified, alluring young woman.

PLAN

As usual, Courage’s initial plans to remedy the situation don’t work and he has to keep thinking of ways to outsmart the situation and his opponents.

When Muriel’s hand swells to an enormous size Courage and Eustace (begrudgingly) take her to the doctor.

Take note which way the ambulance is driving: from right to left. In the West we know from picturebooks that this directionality indicates a stall in the linear flow of the story (based on the desire of the hero).
Take note which way the ambulance is driving: from right to left. In the West we know from picturebooks that this directionality indicates a stall in the linear flow of the story (based on the desire of the hero).

The colour palette is significantly different here to show that the characters are away from the house.
The colour palette is significantly different here to show that the characters are away from the house.

But the doctor, with his bushy eyebrows and no eyes, is just as oblivious as Muriel and Eustace themselves. He repeats that everything will be fine, “just keep soaking it”.

When Courage faints from fright he finds hmself in the doctor’s office. This works really well because the viewer at first expects to see Muriel in the doctor’s office.

courage-at-the-doctors-office

Courage deals with this by picking the doctor up and running with him back home to fix the real problem, which is Muriel.

Unfortunately the doctor gets eaten. (This is temporary.)

doctor-danger

doctor-is-eaten

Courage once more turns to his Internet friend, who tells him that in order to save Muriel he will need hair of the mole. The computer has another purpose though: young viewers aren’t necessarily au fait with the ins and outs of werewolf mythology, so we are told via an animated diagram that once bitten by a were-creature you yourself turn into a were-creature. This is probably already obvious from the story so far, but here it is underscored.

At home, Muriel is soaking her hands in the kitchen sink when she is overcome by the power of the moon, which shines in through the kitchen window.

weremuriel

computer-in-the-attic

Courage dresses himself up as bait, trembling. He wants to get a hair out of that weremole.

courage-dressed-as-rabbit

The weremole’s undoing is his own craziness. He is so busy thrashing Courage around that he doesn’t realise he’s only thrashing around the suit.

The thing about opponents in horror stories is, they act like machines. You can't stop them; nor can they stop themselves.
The thing about opponents in horror stories is, they act like machines. You can’t stop them; nor can they stop themselves.

The audience doesn’t realise this either, until Courage appears back on the scene holding a huge pair of tweezers.

 

BIG STRUGGLE

There are parallel big struggle scenes going on:

  1. Eustace locates his mallet and plays whack-a-mole with the Were-Muriel in the bedroom as she pokes her head through holes in the floor. He thinks it’s a rodent of some kind because, handily, he is oblivious to the world around him.
  2. In the yard, Courage gets attacked by the weremole, who thinks he is a tasty rabbit.

whack-a-mole-muriel

thrashing-the-rabbit

SELF-REVELATION

Courage realises at some point that he can win this big struggle. We see the look on his face after he manages to pluck a hair out of the rabid mole.

NEW SITUATION

At first it seems everything is back to normal

courage-relaxed-with-muriel

Note that we see Courage seeing something before we see it ourselves.

courage-sees-something

courage-terrified

This is a repeating story. The doctor turns into a weredoctor. (Though etymologically, this word doesn’t quite work…The etymology of werewolf is ‘man’ + ‘wolf’. Technically we have a ‘manmole’ in this story.)

weredoctor

The Role Of The Chimera In Storytelling

Les petites faunesses (The Little Faunesses) by Eugene Grasset

Before modern science took hold, when humans were still trying to classify everything we saw around us, people really did believe in the chimera. Take the example of the Scoter duck. No one could decide whether this bird was a bird or a fish. he Abbe of Vallemont even took it out of the bird category and put it in the fish category, and in the 19th century Catholics were allowed to eat Scoter duck on Fridays in lieu of fish if they wanted.

If people thought this duck were a fish, you can imagine how the platypus confused them.
If people thought this duck was a fish, you can imagine how the platypus confused them.

The chimera is important in the horror and speculative fiction/sci-fi genres.

The term chimera may be about to undergo a renaissance in modern parlance, because scientists are using the word to describe a single organism composed of cells from different zygotes. Animal chimeras are produced by the merger of multiple fertilized eggs.

WHAT IS A CHIMERA?

The Ancient East and Its Story by James Baikie.c.1920. Artist – Constance N. Baikie. “Farewell to the Enchanted Island”

A creature composed of body parts from a variety of (at least two) different creatures.

Examples of hybrids in well-known tales:

  • angels — human bodies, wings of birds
  • centaurs — the head, arms, and torso of a man and the body and legs of a horse. Symbolises the essential duality of humans.
  • bucentaur — half man, half ox/bull. Like the centaur, the bucentaur symbolises the essential duality of humans, however in the bucentaur, the baser (animalistic) part is stressed.
  • devils — human plus goat
  • sphinxes —woman’s head, lion’s body
  • tritons — trunk of a man and the tail of a fish
  • mantichore — the man beast
  • gorgon — from Topsell’s Historie of Fourefooted Beasts (Topsell was the 16th century version of Arthur Mee)
  • dipsa — so small that when you step on him you don’t see him
  • pegasus — a horse that can fly, so a horse/bird combo. (Though creatures with wings are not always considered chimeras sometimes they’re symbolically considered just creatures… but with wings.)
  • mermaids and mermen — half human half fish, or the French version, melucina (singular: melusine)
  • sirens — Sirens have changed a lot over history, from freaky bird women to seductive femme creatures more akin to mermaids. What’s so sexy about a chimera, though? This sentence sums it up: ‘The true allure of the Siren … lies in their status as in-between creatures, bridging the human world and the unknown afterlife with a powerful knowledge that both attracts and repels the onlooker.’ (Vice)
  • unicorns — horses plus the horn from some other animal
Manticor
Mantichore from a medieval bestiary
Odilon Redon, Pégase / Pegasus, c.1900, mixed media on card, 47.4 x 37.2 cm, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Odilon Redon, Pegasus / Pegasus, c. 1895-1900, pastel on paper, 67.4 x 48.7 cm, Private collection.jpg

The spectrum of hybrid creatures can be beautiful, with lovely wings, or they can be monstrous and deformed, evoking a wide range of moods.

Gaston Bachelard points out that creatures with shells are regarded suspiciously by us:

And the fact is that a creature that comes out of its shell suggests daydreams of a mixed creature that is not only “half fish, half flesh,” but also half dead, half alive, and, in extreme cases, half stone, half man. This is just the opposite of the daydream that petrifies us with fear. Man is born of stone.

Poetics of Space

E. Nesbit was no stranger to the chimera. As well as children’s stories she also wrote horror, such as “Man-sized in Marble“. In that case, she is making use of the same axis of horror.

Drolleries What, now?

Bachelard, being French, offers the example of Les heures de Marguerite de Beaujeu by Baltrusitis, The Book Of Hours of Marguerite of Beaujeu, (around 1320-1330) as an example of a work full of such creatures. (Marguerite of Beaujeu was the daughter of a lord and the book was made for her. The real work is now kept at The British Library.) This book contains lots of ‘drollery’.

Les heures de marguerite de beaujeu
Les heures de marguerite de beaujeu

A drollery yes, it’s related to the word ‘droll’, is a decorative thumbnail image in the margin of an illuminated manuscript. They were most popular from c1250-15th century. The most common types of drollery images appear as mixed creatures: several different animals, part human, part animal, or part animal, part plant. Or even other, inorganic things.

Without chimeras, many of the most memorable science fiction and horror films would have been impossible, writes Howard Suber. A chimera was an ancient Greek monster with the head of a lion, the body of a goat and the tail of a serpent.

Dragons are a subset of a chimera, being made up of lions, serpents and birds. A great number of characters in myth, legend and folk tales are chimeras. 

Drolleries often have a thematic connection with the subject of the text of the page, and larger miniatures, and they usually form part of a wider scheme of decorated margins, though some are effectively doodles added later. Here’s an example from elsewhere:

from the 14th century, showing a human head with some sort of animal legs
from the 14th century, showing a human head with some sort of animal legs

THE FUNCTION OF CHIMERA IN A STORY

Throughout history, hybrid creatures have functioned as remarkably versatile vehicles for the expression of abiding cultural anxieties. On many occasions, they have been rendered just about tolerable by the sublimation of their uncanny anatomies into so-called “curiosities.” Yet, this has frequently led to a paradoxical situation, insofar as our attraction to those beings’ intractable alterity is never conclusively anesthetized: much as we may seek to domesticate the threatening connotations they are held to carry, by relegating them to the province of the abnormal or the repulsive, the sense of menace abides as a vital component of their bizarre, monstrous and fearful beauty. In other words, hybrids’ attractiveness is inextricable from their intimidating power.

Dani Cavallaro, Magic as Metaphor in Anime: A Critical Study

The most important thing to understand about these metaphorical creatures (and other metaphorical symbols in general) is that they also represent something within the hero.

One way to tame the fearsome chimera is to turn it into a sexual object. This happens regularly with femme coded chimeras but this occasionally happens with the masculo-coded centaur as well. There is a chapter in “The Wind In The Willows” about a sexualised Pan, sometimes left out of editions marketed to children.

Centaur Kiss – George Leonnec (1924)
by Louis le Breton for 1863 edition of Jacques Collin de Plancy’s Dictionnaire infernal
by Louis le Breton for 1863 edition of Jacques Collin de Plancy’s Dictionnaire infernal
The Canaille for The Musket feb 11 1913 by Robert Loewe
The Canaille for The Musket feb 11 1913 by Robert Loewe
from an 18th-century compendium of demonology and magic
From an 18th-century compendium of demonology and magic. Not erotic, but with emphasised phallus.
Believe it or not, this was an illustration for children: a J. Paget-Fredericks illustration for Poems Selected for Young People by Edna St Vincent Millay (1951)

In modern vampire stories, e.g. Twilight, the male werewolf might be considered a kind of sexually objectified chimera. In this case, the human turns wholly into a beast, then wholly back again. Apart from in the process of transformation itself, the body is complete.

But what, exactly, is the appeal of this eroticised centaur? What’s that about?

The feet are where the body ends and the ground begins. They are part of the lower body, the belly, the genitals, the anus, and associated with all three. This is one reason why feet and legs are eroticized in many cultures. Such bodily lowness is also symbolized by the fact that many of the odd feet of demons are animal feet; classical mythology abounds with creatures whose lower bodies are animal and their upper bodies human; satyrs, centaurs, fauns, silenoi, and the god Pan, are all associated with sexual licence.

Diane Purkiss: Troublesome things: A history of fairies and fairy stories

The winged monkeys in The Wizard of Oz are a kind of children’s book chimera. The novel by L. Frank Baum is famously open to interpretation. Everything seems like a symbol.

Flying monkeys By W. W. Denslow (1856-1915)–Ill. f. ‘The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,’ L. Frank Baum (1900)

The flying monkeys is a tern now used in pop psychology when talking about narcissistic abuse:

Flying monkeys … are people who act on behalf of a narcissist to a third party, usually for an abusive purpose (e.g., smear campaign). The phrase has also been used to refer to people who act on behalf of a psychopath, for a similar purpose. The term is not formally used in medical practice or teaching.

Abuse by proxy (or proxy abuse) is a closely related or synonymous concept. The term is from the flying monkeys used by the Wicked Witch of the West in the 1939 film Wizard of Oz to carry out evil deeds on her behalf.[

Wikipedia

WHAT ARE THE BESTIARIES?

A bestiary, or bestiarum vocabulum, is a compendium of beasts. They came from the Ancient world, and became popular in the Middle Ages. Illustrated volumes describe various animals, birds and also inanimate things like rocks. Each beast gets its own illustration, a natural history and tends to end with a moral lesson (similar to Aesop fables).

Bestiaries are Hellenic, Asian and Egyptian in origin. Each illustrator from the 8th century onwards has added flourishes and sometimes given them weirdly humanised faces.

Nearly every animal in a Bestiary was symbolic of a human virtue or vice. So these beasts tend to be divided in binary fashion into good and wicked.

Beasts like minotaurs, harpies and centaurs belong to stories of gods and heroes that have been translated into English without being changed or used, apart from the kind of imaginative transference whereby a poet like Gavin Douglas could make the Aeneid sound as if it were happing in Scotland.

Margaret Blount, Animal Land

In the old days, chimeras were mostly made up of different animal parts.

For example, the minotaur is a creature from Greek myth with the head of a bull and the body of a man.

Heraldic creatures or mythical mixtures of parts are supposed to have been created that way, complete and finished. But creatures that have grown warped and monstrous with time and misfortune symbolise too much that is warped in human nature for comfort.

THE CHIMERA AND HUMAN PSYCHOLOGY

Nicoletta Ceccoli is an artist who paints a lot of chimeras. Here she explains why she is drawn to them:

I often depict lonely weird sad creatures. Half woman, half monster. The characters in my pictures are kind of my alter ego. I’ve never felt comfortable with my own body, and I have fought with these feelings all my life. When I was an adolescent I often had the sensation of being a ‘freak’; I felt a sense of isolation, of being lonely and closed in my own thoughts. This brought me to feel a connection with those people who looked foreign to society. The word ‘normal’ scares me a little. In the film ‘Freaks’ by Tod Browning, the idea of man and monster is reversed: the human cruelty of so-called normality is monstrous, not the morality and goodness of the ‘others’. I feel an affection towards creatures that are unusual.

a surreal painting of a girl riding a beetle and a combination animal

MODERN CHIMERAS

Modern chimeras are different: Frankenstein is a man merged with different bodies.

As Margaret Blount writes in Animal Land:

Minotaurs and others of half-human appearance do not seem to have travelled well enough to transplant themselves into stories. But they, and other animals made up from a mixture of parts, seem to have been accepted as facts in the popular Bestiaries; the descriptions proliferated in the telling with all the force of apparent eye-witness accounts, permeated with religious symbolism which lends them awe and wonder.

Chimera in Victorian Children’s Literature

Edward Lear invented quite a few creatures, and we’re not sure what they’re made up of:

  • The Dong — Edward Lear’s “The Dong with a Luminous Nose”
  • The Quangle-Wangle — Edward Lear also wrote a poem called The Quangle Wangle’s Hat
  • Mock Turtle — from Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland — named after ‘mock turtle soup’, a dish popular in the Victorian period

These made-up creatures were particularly useful to writers who loved to make up words: Lear, Seuss, Carroll and Sendak.

  • Psammead — from Five Children and It — a sand fairy who can grant three wishes (Nesbit)
  • Melvyn Peake, who wrote Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor in 1945 also made up a bunch of animals for the story such as the Yellow Creature.
  • The Mr Neverlost books by A. Turnbull (1932-1934) are early Dr. Who stories. Impossible creatures show an interest in humans as specimens. (Science fiction treated as fairy tale.)
  • Then of course we have the strange creatures from Dr. Seuss, such as The Lorax, who might be a cross between species a land dweller who looks like of like something from the deep ocean. One reviewer describes the Lorax of the film adaptation by saying “Danny DeVito voices the Lorax, a mustachioed, tangerine-coloured being that looks like a cross between Wilford Brimley and a potato with a spray tan.” Or maybe The Lorax is a type of walrus without the tusks.

Chimeras In Modern Film

  • The Fly
  • Alien
  • The Terminator
  • The Matrix

Chimeras in Picture Books

Not all chimeras are scary. Today there are ‘toy books’ with split pages in which the young reader is able to create their own chimera by pairing an animal head with a different animal’s body/legs.

aussie-animal-splits

Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler’s Gruffalo also seems to be a kind of chimera, and a portmanteau word made from a blend of ‘Gruff’ and ‘Buffalo’. Gruff, of course, is not a creature but an adjective. But this is still a riff on the ancient chimera.

The Gruffalo

In general I would say that entirely made-up creatures are less terrifying than real ones. Contrast The Gruffalo with Blackdog by Levi Pinfold, in which a massive dog looks in through the window of a cosy house.

The Chimerical Home

In Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard briefly mentions the term ‘chimerical home’, which obviously means a bit from one type of dwelling added onto another type of dwelling. An example of a chimerical home would be a house boat. Another would be a tree house.

RELATED TERM

ADDITIVE MONSTER: In contrast with the composite monster, mythologists and folklorists use the label additive monster to describe a creature from mythology or legend that has an altered number of body parts rather than body parts from multiple animals added together. For instance, the Scandinavian Ettin, a troll or giant with two heads, is an additive monster. Sleipnir, the magical horse in Norse mythology, is a regular horse, except it has eight legs. Deities and demons in the Hindu pantheon often have multiple arms or eyes. The term has also been loosely applied to fantastic creatures that have modified limbs as well. For instance, the gyascutis is a fantastic medieval beast that resembles a sheep, except its limbs vary in length. Its front legs are drastically shortened, and its hind legs are drastically lengthened, which allows it to remain level as it grazes on the incline of steep hills.

Literary Terms and Definitions

FOR FURTHER INVESTIGATION

Sixteen images to flip, mix, and match in a Wire-O bound hard cover book. Sixteen bizarre creatures are combined in extraordinary ways in Edward Gorey’s Mélange Funeste, which could be translated as “The Dreadful Mixture.” Each intricately drawn figure has been divided into three parts and mixed up. Flip the parts and make the figures whole again…or create new combinations of head, torso, and legs.

from an 18th-century compendium of demonology and magic
from an 18th-century compendium of demonology and magic
THE EXQUISITE CORPSE GAME

Exquisite corpse, also known as exquisite cadaver (from the original French term cadavre exquis), is a method by which a collection of words or images is collectively assembled. Each collaborator adds to a composition in sequence, either by following a rule (e.g. “The adjective noun adverb verb the adjective noun.” as in “The green duck sweetly sang the dreadful dirge.”) or by being allowed to see only the end of what the previous person contributed

Header painting: Les petites faunesses (The Little Faunesses) by Eugene Grasset

Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak

“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
Fourth bedroom scene, upon Max's return.
Fourth bedroom scene, upon Max’s return.
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

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

Monsters and Creatures In Children’s Literature

Natalie Tran is one of Australia’s best comedians and I enjoy her increasingly sporadic uploads to Community Channel on YouTube.

Recently Natalie has been babysitting, and wonders what to do when the kid tells her there’s a monster in their bedroom.

a. Do you go along with it?

b. Do you tell them it’s just their imagination?

I like the idea of going in with a cricket bat and coming out with a bunch of clothes in a black bin liner, announcing the job done, but let’s assume this is a serious question. What is the best thing to do?

Most picture book writers are on ‘a’ side of the fence, not only going along with the idea of monsters, but maybe even introducing the very concept of monsters to children in the first place. I mean, who thinks of this stuff?

Here’s some such ‘Don’t Be Scared, There’s Only A Monster Under Your Bed‘ books which I’ve reviewed briefly over on my blog.

Meantime, here’s a trip back to 1999 with Santana, and a song which I have in an iTunes playlist called ‘Lullabies’.

Put Your Lights On

And a visit to Wikipedia has just informed me that the lalala stuff at the end is actually “La ilaha illa Allah”,  which means “there is no god but Allah” in Arabic. Oooh. Secret religious messages.

Making monsters with the six-year-old with Artrage 4
Making monsters with the six-year-old with Artrage 4

A Field Guide to the Eccentric Creatures of Classic Children’s Literature from Huffington Post

The Role Of Children’s Stories In Managing Childhood Fears And Promoting Empowerment, a paper by M.A. Taylor

The Greatest Monsters In Children’s Literature according to Flavorwire

Picture Books With Monsters, a Goodreads list

Monsters Are Living, Breathing Metaphors

Must Monsters Always Be Male? at The Guardian

There are a lot of picture books with the message for preschoolers: Don’t be scared of the dark. The monsters you imagine are benign. We’ll then read a book about a terrible monster under the bed who turns out to be an adorable fluffy creature who befriends the child protagonist.

Here’s what I’d like to know: Do all children imagine monsters? Or is the idea of a monster introduced by the very media designed to assuage their fears? If we were to bring up a child sans media, sans Grimm, sans terror, would that child still conjure up the worst?

I doubt anyone has managed that experiment, but I do know that for our part, the resident toddler didn’t start being afraid of the dark until she started watching more sophisticated television and listening with some comprehension to picture books.

SEA MONSTERS

The Greatest Monsters In Children’s Literature from Flavorwire

Goodreads List of Picture Books About Monsters. (Can you guess the book at number one spot?)

Why Were There So Many Giant Insects In The 1950s? from io9

Mythical Beasts and Modern Monsters from Brainpickings

This List of Legendary Creatures From Japan will open your eyes to the wonderful, wacky world of Asian mythology and folklore and you may realize Grimm Brothers’ fairytales were text bundles of joy by comparison.

The Best Monster Movie Posters, Ever from IndieWire

monsters in stories
comic by Poorly Drawn Lines
Utagawa Shigekiyo A New Collection Of Monsters 1860
Utagawa Shigekiyo A New Collection Of Monsters 1860