“My Mother’s Dream” is a short story by Alice Munro, and the final offering in The Love Of A Good Woman (1998). This is an absolute masterwork in how to subvert an established narrative trope.Continue reading “My Mother’s Dream by Alice Munro Short Story Analysis”
If you wanted to create a scary monster, the scariest ever, how would you go about it? Make it big (like an ogre). Make it invisible, so you never know when it’s there. Make it sometimes nasty, sometimes nice, like a white witch, seductive and charming, all the while scheming.
Make it unexpectedly violent. Therefore make it a woman. Worse, make it a mother. Make it a failed mother. Make it a vengeful failed mother who cooks and eats children. Make it a vengeful failed mother who eats her own children. RAW.
That, folks, is peak monster.
Actually, maybe we can go one step further and make it even worse. Make the cannibal a CHILD. Don’t blame me for that mental imagery. I didn’t invent it.
At least, that’s what I thought, until I listened to the Scale of Evil episode of Unpopular Culture podcast. At around the 20 minute mark they talk about actual instances of cannibalistic criminals in our time, and it turns out my mind hadn’t gone there. If you are hellbent on finding out what’s even worse than what I just described above, I offer only a link.Continue reading “Cannibalism in Storytelling”
“The Juniper Tree”, as told by the Grimm Brothers, is a horrible tale. I don’t have a problem with gruesome. I can deal with fairytale cannibalism. The murder of the boy is comical rather than realistic and he comes back to life anyhow. No, “The Juniper Tree” is horrible for its symbolic annihilation of the mother. This is a tale written by men, for men, to reassure men of their dominance within the family hierarchy. Though it draws directly on a long history of tales in which children are fed to parents, the Grimm version inserts an extra level of female erasure.
This goes a long, long way back in history. “The Juniper Tree” is a newer take on a couple of ancient Greek stories. Medea took revenge on her husband by stewing their children. Season that story with the tale of Philomel, who transformed into a bird to sing about being raped by her brother-in-law. So her sister chops up the kids to feed to rapist dad. Because what did medieval humans use as stories? Europeans were well-schooled in the myths of Ancient Greece. It’s natural that these myths became basis for what we now call fairytale.
The Pennywinkle ghost story from the Ozarks is a ghost story riff on “The Juniper Tree”.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “THE JUNIPER TREE”
This is the story of a family and a commentary on family structure. But the hero is the son/father who — for symbolic purposes — are one and the same. Literally. I mean, the father eats the son, incorporating him into himself. The hero is ‘the male of the family’.
Though this is a modern interpretation, the shortcoming of the father is that the woman and daughter run the household. The women may be indentured — unsupported even if they do want to go out into the world and work outside the kitchen — but since women do work in the kitchens, women are also in charge of what the family eats. This gives women some power, and must therefore lead to some dark fears among men. Food, of course, symbolises something bigger: nurturing. The women have to do all the child-rearing, but they also have the privilege of doing all the child-rearing.
The great shortcoming of the father: He doesn’t get to control what goes on at home. He goes out to work. While he’s away, the women could get up to all sorts. And they do. Oh, how they do.
The father wants a more secure role within the family. He wants to know he is the father of the children; he wants to be involved in nurturing (and controlling) them.
The women. Women in general, symbolised by the second wife and the mean daughter who like nothing better than to kill boys and feed them to men.
It is the bird version of the son/father who has the plan to dispose of the female characters altogether. He collects a variety of things by singing his truth in the song. Then he takes them to the father. This way, the father will know he’s still alive.
The bird drops the millstone onto the mother’s head and kills her.
The father and Marlene learn what a wicked woman Marlene’s mother is, and so they are pleased when she is killed in an act of retributive justice.
For me, the revelation is that a happy ending in the culture of this story means killing off the woman (the second one), who is too powerful in her femininity to bear.
Father, little brother and Marlene are happy — well, at least until the son inherits the entire house in a culture of primogeniture which excludes women and girls. And then who knows. I suspect the father will eventually dispose of Marlene, too, when she hits adolescence and becomes a reproductive threat.
JUNIPER AND BIRTH
“The Juniper Tree” is a fairy modern tale (though as shown above, its inspirations are ancient). But in the medieval era, people used herbal remedies which have since been lost to us. Some of these were surprisingly effective (experimental medicine wasn’t against any law, so I guess that helped move things along). For instance, willow bark was given to patients with fever — much later, this lead directly to the invention of aspirin. And juniper was used to promote contractions during birth. I do wonder if the people who told early versions of The Juniper Tree knew of the connection between birth and juniper as medication. For a modern audience, there’s nothing feminine about juniper — but was this story an attempt to redistribute (re-)birthing to men?
Other writers have made the most of the link between femininity and the juniper tree. Monica Furlong named her girl hero ‘Juniper’ in her Wise Child series, which is one of those books with a cult following and which should be widely known, but which is sadly out of print.
UNUSUALLY VIVID DESCRIPTION IN “THE JUNIPER TREE”
Usually in fairytales:
Imagery and description: there is no imagery in fairy tales apart from the most obvious. As white as snow, as red as blood: that’s about it. Nor is there any close description of the natural world or of individuals. A forest is deep, the princess is beautiful, her hair is golden; there’s no need to say more. When what you want to know is what happens next, beautiful descriptive wordplay can only irritate.Philip Pullman
But “The Juniper Tree” is unlike other tales anthologised by the Grimm brothers. The imagery is very clear, probably because it was sent to the Grimm brothers by Achm von Arnim after being written down by Philipp Otto Runge. It is already, therefore, more of a literary fairytale than those which came from the oral tradition. Philip Pullman doesn’t seem to share my own distaste for the tale:
In [“The Juniper Tree”] … there is a passage that successfully combines beautiful description with the relation of events in such a way that one would not work without the other. […] the passage I mean comes after the wife has made her wish for a child as red as blood and as white as snow. It links her pregnancy with the passing seasons:
One month went by, and the snow vanished.
Two months went by, and the world turned green.
Three months went by, and flowers bloomed out of the earth.
Four months went by, and all the twigs on all the trees in the forest grew stronger and pressed themselves together, and the birds sang so loud that the woods resounded, and the blossom fell from the trees.
Five months went by, and the woman stood under the juniper tree. It smelled so sweet that her heart leaped in her breast, and she fell to her knees with joy.
Six months went by, and the fruit grew firm and heavy, and the woman fell still.
When seven months had gone by, she plucked the juniper berries and ate so many that she felt sick and sorrowful.
After the eighth month had gone, she called her husband and said to him, weeping, ‘If I die, bury me under the juniper tree.’
This is wonderful, but it’s wonderful in a curious way: there’s little any teller of this tale can do to improve it. It has to be rendered exactly as it is here, or at least the different months have to be given equally different characteristics, and carefully linked in equally meaningful ways with the growth of the child in his mother’s womb, and that growth with the juniper tree that will be instrumental in his later resurrection.
However, that is a great and rare exception. In most of these tales, just as the characters are flat, description is absent. In the later editions, it is true, Wilhelm’s telling became a little more florid and inventive, but the real interest of the tale continues to be in what happened, and what happened next. The formulas are so common, the lack of interest in the particularity of things so widespread, that it comes as a real shock to read a sentence like this in “Jorinda and Joringel”:
It was a lovely evening; the sun shone warmly on the tree trunks against the dark green of the deep woods, and turtledoves cooed mournfully in the old beech trees.
Suddenly that story stops sounding like a fairy tale and begins to sound like something composed in a literary way by a Romantic writer such as Novalis orJean Paul. The serene, anonymous relation of events has given way, for the space of a sentence, to an individual sensibility: a single mind has felt this impression of nature, has seen these details in the mind’s eye and written them down. A writer’s command of imagery and gift for description is one of the things that make him or her unique, but fairy tales don’t come whole and unaltered from the minds of individual writers, after all; uniqueness and originality are of no interest to them.Philip Pullman
There’s another rare example of a fairy tale which has such specific description that the characters are individualised, and that is Baba Yaga.
Katherine Langrish explores fairy tales, ballads and folk tales. She reflects on the role of women in fairy tales, discusses specific tales such as ‘Briar Rose’ and ‘The Juniper Tree’, and looks at wider themes of White Ladies, Water Spirits, Fairy Brides and many more.
Lady Bird is an American coming-of-age film written and directed by Greta Gerwig, who won a bunch of awards for it. I can see why.
A similar film, but underrated, is The Edge Of Seventeen. If you loved Lady Bird, watch The Edge Of Seventeen. Also, if you like Lady Bird, you like young adult fiction. Lady Bird may not feel like a YA story because this is also a story about a mother who is learning to let go. In this respect I liken it to Richard Linklater’s Boyhood.
Another film considered just as good as Lady Bird, but about a black, gay man is Moonlight. Here’s why we should be paying attention to that film, too.
By the way, there’s an extension for Chrome and Firefox with alows you to stream films with screenplays side-by-side, in sync. Lady Bird is one of the featured films on ScreenplaySubs.
SETTING OF LADY BIRD
Though set in 2002, Lady Bird is considered a ‘period piece’. 9/11 was a year ago, and this influences American culture at the time. The character Lady Bird is drawn to New York, not despite the bombings, but possibly because she’s drawn to excitement (naively).
The story is not autobiographical, but Sacramento was chosen because Gerwig knows this area so well, having grown up here and attending a Catholic girls’ school. The significant thing about this setting: It is not New York. A young woman like Lady Bird feels like nothing important happens here. This story could equally have been set in the Midwest, or in the American South.
PLOT OF LADY BIRD
As Steven Colbert says in his interview with Saoirse Ronan, you can tell someone the entire plot of this film and still not ruin it, because this is very much a character driven story. When listed, there’s nothing in this plot which stands out as spectacle, or ‘original’. The brilliance of this story is in the emotional impact, which is created by well-drawn, relatable characters and focus on details.
STORY STRUCTURE OF LADY BIRD
If you’ve seen the film Frances Ha, you’ll start to see Greta Gerwig is associated with a type (in Frances Ha as an actress, in Lady Bird as writer and director). This type is a young woman who:
- Has artsy aspirations without the talent to match
- Schemes her way into situations with the sorts of people she wants to mirror
- Makes social mistakes/self-sabotaging decisions
- Is assertive almost to the point of aggression (especially as perceived when it comes from a girl)
- Doesn’t process consequences well
Frances Ha as a character is a softer character than Lady Bird. But for comparison purposes I’m picking a different film altogether—Diablo Cody’s 2011 film Young Adult, starring Charlize Theron as Mavis Gary. Critics and audiences alike found the character of Mavis Gary unlikeable, but not in a cool, antihero way a la Walter White — in an unpleasant ‘why am I wasting time watching this person’ kind of way.
Honestly, I think part of it is that Charlize Theron seeks roles that play down her Amazonian good looks (e.g. Monster) but because of how she looks she’ll always be the pretty girl. Studies have been done on beauty, and once you’re over about a seven out of ten your beauty is no longer beneficial to you. (Outside modelling and certain kinds of acting, I guess.) So part of the audience reaction to Mavis Gary might have been to do with Charlize Theron, and our perception that because she conforms to The Western Beauty Ideal then any other failings are absolutely her own fault.
But the unlikeability of Mavis Gary was definitely also in the writing. Female characters don’t need to be likeable. I doubt Diablo Cody was even trying to make a likeable character in Mavis. I’m sure she wasn’t. The problem is, Mavis isn’t sympathetic, either.
Notice her trick fails. Mavis Gary now comes across as a bit simple, and also unkind. My sympathy is with the young woman checking her in, and I don’t think it’s just because I’ve worked in customer service. But Lady Bird is also a trickster who fails.
- She gets caught stealing wafers from church
- She pranks the nun’s car and gets caught.
- She whispers something outrageous during an anti-abortion talk and gets herself suspended from her Catholic school.
- She cracks on she’s living in a flash house and is caught.
The difference is that the audience is already on side with Lady Bird. As my daughter put it, “I don’t like Lady Bird but she’s funny, so I like her.” Lady Bird is a lovable rogue. An interesting aspect of human psychology: Just because someone is rude doesn’t mean we don’t want to be around them. Especially if that person is a fictional character. And in real life: Rude people secretly impress us, even if we don’t really like them.
- The audience is primed to hate self-appointed dobber girls like the one who catches them eating wafers.
- The nun finds the prank funny. The nun obviously likes Lady Bird.
- Most of the audience of this particular film would be sympathetic to Lady Bird’s reaction to the anti-abortion lady, if not to Lady Bird’s way of protesting.
- Lady Bird is caught out lying about her house, but apologises immediately. Her vulnerability is transparent as she asks if they’re still friends. The popular girl looks into her mobile phone and we know this is going to get around. We also understand Lady Bird’s reasons for wanting to appear rich. There is a huge difference between her home and the homes of her private school classmates and most people feel uncomfortable in the company of people vastly more wealthy than ourselves.
Objectively though, the character of Lady Bird is — all things considered — just as self-centred, just as dismissive of people around her and just as rude as Mavis Gary — most of the time. The wonderful thing about writing YA characters is you can legitimately show a number of sides to them as they try to figure out who they are.
Lady Bird is given zingers in her dialogue — the kind of zinger we would like to carry up our sleeves. The audience loves characters who speak the truth, or their own truth, without duplicity.
“Lady Bird. Is that your given name?”
“Yes. I gave it to myself. It was given to me, by me.”
We have also seen Lady Bird throw herself melodramatically from a moving vehicle in order to make a point to her mother. This kind of self-sabotaging slapstick is funny to watch.
She sees the funny side of situations, like when she’s caught by her brother stealing a magazine. The screenwriter has chosen the unexpected reaction here. The more expected reaction is mortification or fear or embarrassment. But no, Lady Bird is an original. She laughs. Later, she laughs when the goody-two-shoes church girl tells her off for eating the wafers. We like characters who drift through a story able to laugh at things. I think this is because we, as audience, are able to see the lighter side from our seats, and this pushes the amused character closer to us, almost breaking the fourth wall. In contrast, Mavis Gary does not have a sense of humour.
Another reason we’ll happily follow Lady Bird: She knows exactly what she wants and she goes for it, even when she’s nervous. Even when it’s ridiculous. We like characters who know what they want and go for it.
Here she is expressing interest in a boy. Lady Bird doesn’t wait around to be asked.
That particular scene does double duty—she feels misunderstood by her boss who accuses her of flirting. “I wasn’t flirting.” And it’s true. She wasn’t. Flirting is a passive thing that girly-girls do. Lady Bird was expressing directly and assertively interest in a boy and setting up a rendezvous. When characters are misunderstood by other characters, we empathise with the side who is misunderstood. We don’t like Mavis Gary in Young Adult because the other characters peg her correctly and treat her possibly better than she deserves to be treated.
Other characters love Lady Bird. It’s clear her mother loves her very much. Her father loves her in a more demonstrative fashion. Lady Bird’s teachers love her, even after she pranks the nun (harmlessly). I call this the Gone With The Wind trick. We only put up with Scarlett O’Hara because she’s surrounded by people who love her. In contrast, Mavis Gary has no one. The character of Gemma is a mirror character to Lady Bird — Gemma is not supposed to be liked by us. Gemma is the Popular Teenage Girl trope, though she’s written a bit more subtly than most characters of this trope. She is acted beautifully with an absolutely vacant face. In the pool scene it is clear that Gemma doesn’t want for much in life — she just wants her popular high school life to continue along a rich girl track, in the same suburb. As mentioned above, it’s harder to empathise with characters who don’t have a strong desire line. This might be because without a strong desire, characters are boring to watch.
Surrounding your main character with laughable tragic stereotypes is another way to make the main character the likeable one. Lady Bird’s brother and girlfriend are getting into the vegan, hippie movement but their logic doesn’t hold water (at least, for much of the viewing audience).
But this particular story isn’t all about the teenage daughter. This is also the mother’s story. I really felt for Marion McPherson, driving away from the airport, then circling back because she didn’t want her daughter to see her crying. This moment reminded me of the heart-wrenching moment in Richard Linklater’s film Boyhood, where the mother realises that her child’s childhood has come to an end, and that she’ll be entering a new phase of her life as a distant advisor parent rather than as a manager parent.
This is a scene which can only be appreciated by older viewers, I feel, more so if they are older parents. Australian TV personality Amanda Keller describes it beautifully below.
Lady Bird establishes the Desire Line of our main character very early on — in the opening scene. This diatribe could sound on the nose, but because it’s an argument the scriptwriter gets away with more. (A truism about argument dialogue in fiction.)
The desire for something more, something big, something MAGNIFICENT! is not original to Lady Bird. This is an old desire, seen in classic literature:
Lucy never knew her desires so clearly as after music. She had not really appreciated the clergyman’s wit, nor the suggestive twitterings of Miss Allan. Conversation was tedious; she wanted something big, and she believed that it would have come to her on the windswept platform of an electric tram.A Room With A View, E.M. Forster
Note that in older classics, the functions of story come much more gradually. Lucy displays no real desire to the reader until the beginning of Chapter Four. Forster’s novel is described on the cover as ‘The tender story of a young girl’s awakening’. (I wouldn’t call a young woman a ‘young’ girl but that’s by the by.) The wanting of Something Big But Don’t Know Quite What Yet is characteristic of coming-of-age stories. (And though I haven’t done a study on it, I suspect it’s especially common with young female characters, because of the cloistered environment they’re brought up in.) It also describes Thelma in Thelma and Louise. The desire to be something else isn’t even necessarily noble.
Lady Bird’s mother is her not-so-secret ally opponent — on the surface this mother/daughter relationship is antagonistic, but underneath the mother is wholly supportive. Shouty-arguing juxtaposes tender moments such as lying in bed together, asleep. Marion is wholly justified in being annoyed with her daughter for insisting on going to New York to study. She works so hard as the only income earner and now her husband is taking out a second mortgage on their house, when Lady Bird could have had an education nearby.
Lady Bird finds herself a romantic opponent, which seems to go remarkably smoothly until she realises he’ll never be into her. The next boy also goes well, until it turns out he has maybe lied to her about his virginity. Or maybe Lady Bird imagined an alternate scenario. The latter is probably more likely, because we’ve already seen that Lady Bird is prone to flights of fancy. The post-coital scene works well because Kyle Scheible isn’t being all that unreasonable. I can see the writer has sympathy for his own worldview.
The more interesting peer opposition is between Lady Bird and her best female friend, Julie. This is ultimately a love story between a girl and her best friend and between a girl and her mother. The boys come and go. When they dance together at the end, it is clear that beats from the romantic genre have been overlaid onto the friendship between two girls. Bicker bicker, kiss kiss, only it’s platonic.
The desire mentioned above is no help to the story until your character makes a plan. Lady Bird’s plan is to:
- Do some things to bolster her college applications
- To her this means being in the school production
- Get into one of the best East Coast colleges
- More immediately, her plan is to find a high school boyfriend
- And when that doesn’t work out, her plan is to get with the cool band boyfriend
- In order to do this, she needs to ditch Julie and get in with the popular girl, who knows him.
It’s all of a piece. Unfortunately, as part of this plan to Be Someone, despite coming from ‘the wrong side of the tracks,’ Lady Bird loses herself to her goal. The goal itself is not the problem — her plans to get it are terrible. She’ll need to come to this realisation over the course of the story, and she does.
Because this film covers several relationship dynamics, there need to be an equal number of Battle Scenes.
- With the first break up: Walking into the toilet cubicle, followed by crying with Julie in the car
- With the rock band boyfriend: Sitting at the end of the bed, after un-special sex
- With Gemma: In her real kitchen, her lie uncovered
- With Julie: In the school yard, in which Lady Bird accuses the friend’s mother of having fake tits
- With the mother: It’s to pick ‘a’ big struggle scene because every scene between mother and daughter is full of conflict. This is the genius of the screenwriting here — the big big struggle scene is very quiet and contracted. The mother doesn’t say much at all and Lady Bird ends up slamming the car door. This is the scene that leads to the anagnorisis (for the mother), so that’s how I am confident that this is Their Big Battle. Note also that relationships aren’t like movie sex — two characters in a big struggle aren’t going to have their anagnorisis simultaneously. Lady Bird does not have any anagnorisis at the airport. This is not her scene. It’s only later, once her father gives her the mother’s trashed love letters that she realises how much her mother loves her. Speaking of which anagnorises…
The film could have ended with Lady Bird leaving at the airport. But it didn’t. If it had ended there, the airport scene would have had to be from Lady Bird’s point of view. Instead, this wrapped up the mother’s character arc. The mother has learned that she needs to let go of her daughter.
Instead, the story follows Lady Bird to New York, where she settles in, slowly, and starts to appreciate some of what she had back in Sacramento. This is symbolised by her wandering into a Catholic church after a real bender of a weekend. Not religious at all in Sacramento (she was only sent to Catholic school because the state school was considered too dangerous), she now embraces some of what the church has to offer. Or perhaps it mostly reminds her of home. Lady Bird’s anagnorisis takes place as she watches the singers in the church. We only know she’s had some sort of epiphany when she calls her mother afterwards. The function of the New York scene sequence is to show Lady Bird’s anagnorisis.
Another coming-of-age film which could have ended in a boy’s hometown but actually followed him as he began his new life in New York: Adventureland. Some reviewers thought the film would have been better without that final sequence. This is not something that has been said of Ladybird. This is because the ending sequence of Adventureland ends with the main character joining his love interest in New York. The audience didn’t need to know whether that relationship was going to work out or not. A feature of teenage-hood is falling in love and then quite often needing to move on from that person, even though things might have worked out if both characters had been thirty and ready to commit. Moreover, there is nothing ironic or surprising about the New York scenes of Adventureland.
This is not the case with Lady Bird. We need to see her make a big mistake, getting herself hospitalised after drinking too much. We do need to see her reclaim her birth name, because that tidies up her character arc — she is comfortable to be herself now. Being away from Sacramento makes her proud to be from (and of) Sacramento. We need to see her wander into the church. Now we know that Lady Bird has fond memories of her high school years.
Here’s what makes Lady Bird rise above other, similar films: Greta Gerwig has pulled off a a story in which both mother and daughter experience a self-revelation, each because of the other. This creates a powerful story with a moving ending.
As The ScreenPrism states, what helps Lady Bird deliver its unique, emotional punch is that it is a story from “the perspective of the teen and the parent learning to let go.” Yes, Marion is over-bearing and often unfair but Lady Bird is selfish and often acts in disregard of those around her. Without one perspective, we wouldn’t be able to see the other in a sympathetic light. Together, both mother and daughter prove that there is no easy way around growing up, no way to ensure that you won’t get hurt and no way to be the best person you can be. It’s all a process of gradual understanding. Gerwig’s Academy Award nominated screenplay uses multiple perspectives to show that just because you feel sad, doesn’t mean that it’s all about you and just because it’s not all about you, doesn’t mean that you can’t feel sad.Movie Maker
I’ve treated Lady Bird as the main character, but to backtrack, Marion’s character arc is set up more subtly but set up nonetheless. There’s almost a Save The Cat scene in which Marion gives a baby present to a work colleague who has just become a new father. Later, in the clothing store, she comments on some other acquaintance’s new baby (or perhaps it’s the same baby). What’s the interest with babies? Babies are so full of potential. When you have a new baby, that baby could be anyone. Marion is losing her younger baby. Her interest in other people’s says a lot about her mindset. She still wants to mother. She makes eggs for Lady Bird who ungratefully complains they’re undercooked. “Make your own fucking eggs, then,” Marion says. She wants to mother, but it’s now unappreciated. This is something all parents go through. It’s highly relatable.
We know Lady Bird is going to be okay in New York. I suspect she’ll be really proud of coming from Sacramento after a little while, though the previous night she lied that she came from San Francisco, repeating an old pattern.
Her relationship with her mother will improve with geographical distance between them, but whenever she visits home for special occasions they will continue in their old, established dynamic of bickering I bet. Lady Bird might even return to Sacramento after she graduates. I hope she did!
Matt Bird’s Ultimate Story Checklist for Ladybird
Whether it’s women locked in attics, teenage girls protected by their fathers, children living in gated communities, missing girls or dead mothers, Rapunzel is a significant ur-story.
THE HISTORY OF RAPUNZEL
The life of a fictional woman hasn’t diversified much over the years. Rapunzel is not the only girl who was locked up — take the Irish myth of Ethlinn, for instance. Ethlinn was a moon goddess whose father imprisoned her in a tower so that she could not produce the son prophesied to kill him. Kind of like a cross between Oedipus and Rapunzel, don’t you think?
It seems so obvious it’s not even worth mentioning: The girl locked in a tower thing is a metaphor for how family members would gather around to protect a young woman’s virginity. The fertile woman’s body has historically (and into the present) never been considered her own.
Patrisonella — ‘Neopolitan Rapunzel’ by Giambattista Basile (1630s)
This story predates the Grimm version by about 200 years. ‘Literary’ means it was written down rather than started orally. Neapolitan Giambattista Basile, like the German Grimm Brothers, was a collector of fairytales rather than a creator of them. He wrote down the story of Petrisonella. His sisters published a couple of volumes of his collections after he’d died.
In this version our heroine is an active participant in the tale. She works out her own way to escape the tower. She is named after the vegetable which grows in the ogress’s garden.
Petrosinella isn’t given over at birth as Rapunzel is.
There’s still that backstory with the mother who has cravings for, steals the petrosinella. In this retelling it’s the wife herself who takes the parsley (In Neapolitan, petrosine is parsley.) The mother promises the ogress that she can have her unborn child. The ogress is going to kill her if she doesn’t comply. (Sounds fair. Parsley IS delicious.)
The child, Petrosinella (Little Parsley), lives with her parents but every day on her way to school she passes this ogress who whispers, “Tell your mother to remember her promise!”
The daughter doesn’t know the backstory of this, and repeats this to her mother day after day. The mother eventually advises her own daughter to say to the ogress, “Take it!”
Poor Petrosinella is taken. Dragged by the hair, in fact, and locked in a tower in the woods.
We might assume Petrosinella suffers from PTSD. If a human were to be locked up as Rapunzel was, she would not be thriving. We actually know this from real life examples, such as the case of Blanche Monnier. She knows what it’s like to have a family and friends. She’s basically been sacrificed by the mother who didn’t even tell her the truth. In this way, Petrosinella is an ancestor of ‘Ma’ in Emma Donaghue’s Room. It’s no surprise, really, that Donoghue is a writer who has a strong grasp on the history of fairytale and folklore. Apart from Room she has also written Kissing The Witch: Old Tales In New Skins. Another author with a strong background in fairytale and folklore is Australia’s Kate Forsyth, who brought Petrisonella — or rather the version as written by Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de La Force — back to life in her historical novel Bitter Greens.)
The ogress has no real motivation in this story because at this point in storytelling history it was assumed that certain women are inherently evil, ugly and dangerous.
I have no real issue with the enduring publication of fairytales, which come out year after year after year (presumably at the expense of original tales, because they sell), but I do wonder why publishers insist on continuing under the influence of Grimm rather than purposefully looking back further in time, when heroines were not such unilateral victims.
Persinette by Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de La Force (1698)
Charlotte-Rose also wrote a Girl In The Tower tale closely related to the Neapolitan Petrosinella. She wrote a bunch of things but is best remembered for “Persinette”.
In this version it’s Persinette’s father who takes the parsley. He doesn’t even have to take it. He makes a deal to exchange the baby for the parsley when the witch catches him in her garden. This makes no sense to a modern reader, but Jack Zipes explains that pregnancy cravings were taken very seriously in earlier times. It was thought that if pica cravings were not met, bad luck would befall the pregnancy, because cravings were given prognosticatory significance. “It was incumbent on the husband and other friends and relatives to use spells or charms or other means to fulfill the cravings.” (The Great Fairy Tale Tradition: From Straparola and Basile to the Brothers Grimm edited by Jack Zipes). Other examples of stories in which pregnant women crave fruit and vegetables:
- Cherry Tree Carol (The Virgin Mary tells Joseph she’s pregnant by asking him to pick some cherries for her.)
- Duchess of Malfi by John Webster (apricots were believed to induce labour, a belief utilised here)
Anyone who has been pregnant lately will be keenly aware of all the rules around what expectant mothers are and are not allowed to do; even before cigarettes and the ready availability of soft cheeses, pregnant women were controlled via superstition taken seriously: It was thought that if a woman gave in to her cravings she would cause supernatural intervention which would bode poorly for the baby. This ties in with pre 20th century ideas that ‘control’ is what people valued in antiquity. Michel Foucault wrote about this, especially in regards to sex. (The idea that one’s sexual orientation defines you is modern. For ancient civilisations control over one’s own impulses is what defined you. Look to the Ancient Greeks.)
De la Force spends a lot of time describing all the luxuries that Persinette has in her tower.French culture at the time was all about having the best and newest luxuries. You’ll find similar descriptions of the Beast’s castle if you read the original French version of Beauty and the Beast. In both tales, the reader is encouraged to believe that the female prisoner is actually very lucky, having all these nice things around her. She’s, like, almost not even a prisoner at all!
In this version Persinette falls in love with the handsome prince in no time at all. Charlotte-Rose skirts around the wedlock issue by having them ‘married within the hour’. The speed at which Persinette goes from scared to fully in love is more than a little creepy by modern standards:
“He fell at her feet and kissed her knees with persuasive ardor. Persinette was frightened. She cried and then she trembled, nothing could calm her. Her heart was full of all possible love for the prince.”
In this version the fairy finds out Persinette has been ‘seeing’ the prince and is furious, but instead of banishing her to the forest she banishes her to a cute cottage by the sea which provides her magically with food.
For more on the author see here.
When Paul O. Zelinsky illustrated a modern retelling of Rapunzel he chose to paint in an art style reminiscent of this period.
What Did The Grimm Brothers Do To It? (1812)
As usual, the Grimm brothers modified it — or picked the best of many versions — to suit their own morals at the time. Specifically, they changed the ending, because remember they were trying to monetize their work by selling collections to kids instead of sitting at home while people sent them their stories. Oral fairy tales such as “Rapunzel” were never created specifically for a young audience:
The Grimm’s (sentimental) ending to the story of Rapunzel (where the Prince’s blinded eyes are magically restored after Rapunzel’s tears land on them) cannot be found in the oral tradition of this tale.OUP
Here’s what else the Grimm brothers always did to classic oral tales: they took a brave, intelligent heroine and made her passive and naive.
In order to avoid the controversial issue of Rapunzel getting pregnant before getting married, the Grimms have her instead ask the witch (as if she’s a true fool) why she’s so much heavier than the Prince. Some have argued that this Rapunzel is smarter than critics give credit for. For instance, it’s Rapunzel who comes up with the Prince’s plan when she says, “I will willingly go away with thee, but I do not know how to get down. Bring with thee a skein of silk every time that thou comest, and I will weave a ladder with it, and when that is ready I will descend, and thou wilt take me on thy horse.”
As you can see, our ‘ogress’ is now a ‘witch’ — basically another version of an inherently evil woman. The green vegetable stolen from the witch’s garden is now ‘rampion’ which actually refers to three different green, leafy vegetables. The rampion bellflower had leaves which were used like spinach and a root used like a parsnip. These days you don’t really hear about rampion outside this particular retelling of Rapunzel. (Unless you’re a keen gardener, I suppose.)
Barbie As Rapunzel (2002)
Similar to lots of feature-length films starring girls, appealing mainly to girls, the Barbie version of Rapunzel went straight to video. It was produced by Mainframe Entertainment and Mattel. A film like this is never going to get good critical reception and this is no exception.
Say what you will about the Barbie franchise — this version of Rapunzel is probably a bit better than the Grimm’s version. I mean, at least Barbie has agency. She ‘paints’ her way out of the tower. It passes the Bechdel test because Barbie is telling a story to her little sister, Kelly, who doesn’t have confidence in her own painting abilities.
I don’t want to oversell the feminist aspect. My argument is simply that this version looks no worse than the many, many book versions which are told to kids today.
What Did Disney Do To It? (2010)
I have a complicated relationship with Disney/Pixar. Like churches everywhere, they sit consistently slightly behind the times. Okay, Pixar are starting to do some genuinely good stuff. (Inside Out, Moana.) They get a lot of undue credit for sometimes ameliorating what are truly outdated values set in stone by the Brothers Grimm. For instance, when Disney made Rapunzel, they at least gave Mother Gothel a good reason to want a girl in a tower. In earlier versions of similar stories the ogress was given no motive. As 20th C feminist Marilyn French has written, it is important that female characters in stories are given motives for their evil doings:
Myths transforming or diminishing female figures like Hera elide such suggestions. Instead, they omit the past and transform the character of the female into something venomous, ugly, dark, mysteriously threatening. By erasing any reference to an earlier power or power struggle they make the hostility of these female figures appear unmotivated, a given. Social charter myths at least acknowledge intersexual conflict. Transforming myths do not acknowledge intersexual conflict. Transforming myths do not — thus the evil power of females appears to be biological, natural. Such a procedure penetrates the moral realm and affects an entire society’s view of women.Marilyn French
The other thing Disney is credited for: keeping these tales alive. Without Disney/Pixar, I wonder how many parents would still be buying fairytale collections for their kids. Perhaps these fairytales would be getting lost to history right now, and reading them to our five-year-olds would seem as quaint and hipster as reading them The Jungle Book or tales from Norse mythology.
I’m surprised Disney didn’t get to Rapunzel earlier. Tangled was released in 2010, with a screenplay written by Dan Fogelman. He’s also known for Cars, Bolt, Fred Claus (for kids) and Crazy, Stupid Love (a rom-com about a middle-aged man who is forced to grow up after his wife says she wants a divorce).
In Fogelman’s own words, describing the story of Tangled:
It’s a really a two-hander of a movie. It’s really more than anything it’s about this love story at the center of the movie between the girl, Rapunzel, and the guy, Flynn.Go Into The Story
Let’s take a look at the enduring appeal of Rapunzel.
You probably think of a pretty girl up in a tower who lets down her long hair so her boyfriend can climb up to see her. True, it’s a little weird that she was imprisoned there by a witch, but still: kind of romantic. How’s this version: When the witch sees what Rapunzel and her boyfriend are up to in that tower room (hint: it’s not knitting), she cuts off Rapunzel’s hair and drops her into the wilderness to wander around alone. Then the witch sneaks up on the boyfriend, he jumps out of the tower window in fright, and blinds himself on thorn bushes. There is a lot of blinding in fairy tales.Riveted
STORY STRUCTURE OF RAPUNZEL
There are so many versions of “Rapunzel” that I have to pick one to focus on for the story breakdown. I will take a look at the Grimm version, not because it’s my favourite at all, but because it’s the version I grew up with. I’m reading it from a sky-blue hardcover anthology published by Cathay Books in 1979.
In the Grimm version, the girl can no longer be the main character. It just doesn’t work because she is so passive. She might as well be a mannequin. So who is the main character? The main character is the one who changes the most. This does not refer to changes in circumstance (e.g. from rich to poor/alone to married). Who had some sort of awakening? The Grimms’ version posits the Prince as the main character. The prince is active.
The other difference in story structure when it comes to these really old tales: Modern readers don’t want to hear about the parents’ stories. A young adult novel these days isn’t going to regale the reader about how the heroine’s parents met. I guess family background was more important a few centuries ago, perhaps because it was thought that bloodlines were truly significant, and that if misfortune befell you, it must have had something to do with you deserving it, somehow, in a caste system of sorts.
How did the blind man get like that? Jesus’ disciples ask. Was it he who sinned, or his parents? My New Age mind/body connection was just another way to force the lepers outside the town walls. Vulnerability cannot enter here. Mortality cannot enter here. It was another way to push my fears away from myself and onto someone else. If you are ill, you can fix it yourself. If you cannot fix it, then you are to blame. It was, I realize looking back, pseudo-spiritual eugenics.Superbabies Don’t Cry
Today it’s enough to write a tragic tale about anyone from any background because according to modern morality, bad things happen to anyone at all. (There is still the rose-tinted idea that anyone can pull themselves out of hard times just so long as they work hard, but that’s an evolution for a future Golden Age of Children’s Literature, perhaps helped along by the Trump administration.)
The prince, like any young adult, is considered incomplete until he has found himself a wife. I guess he can’t become King until he finds a beautiful wife. So that’s his main problem.
He wants that young woman with the beautiful singing voice. Unfortunately there is no door into the tower. He can’t get in.
The witch has locked his prize in a tower to keep her away from the likes of him.
He waits and watches. The witch climbs up the girl’s hair, using it as a rope. He’ll do the same. (Because the girl is pretty stupid she doesn’t notice that a young man sounds different from an old woman, I guess.)
That bit where the prince flings himself in despair from the ledge after seeing the old woman instead of Rapunzel. Part of me wonders if he assumes Rapunzel has transmogrified into that old woman. If he lives in fairy tale land he might well have thought so. Anyhow, if he can’t have Rapunzel he’d rather be dead. Unfortunately, he suffers a fate worse than death. He is blinded on some sort of thorny bush. If he were dead, at least he’d be in Heaven. At least, that’s how readers saw things a few hundred years ago. For the same reason a tale like Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Match Girl is not actually a tragedy — it has a happy ending because the little girl gets to see her dead grandmother in Heaven. Nope, going blind here on Earth is worse than being dead in Heaven.
He roams about in utter misery. He can do nothing but lament. He does this for ‘some years’. At last he finds himself in the wilderness. Now I’d like to draw your attention to The Symbolism Of The Forest. The Forest is where you will go to find yourself in the very pit of despair. We can assume he had some sort of epiphany. Oh, hang on, nope, he would have continued to be miserable but he stumbled upon Rapunzel who had also found herself in that very same forest.
Rapunzel has been caring for a couple of twins all this time. We assume they’re his. Yes, let’s do that. He takes Rapunzel and his twins back to his own kingdom where they are joyfully received. They live long in happiness and contentment together. And by the way, he’s not blind anymore — not in the Grimm version, because Rapunzel has magical eye-healing tears.
Singing The Bones Rapunzel episode (podcast)
A unique collection presenting Kate Forsyth’s extensive academic research into the ‘Rapunzel’ fairy tale, alongside several other pieces related to fairy tales and folklore.
This book is not your usual reference work, but a complex and engaging exploration of the subject matter, written with Forsyth’s distinctive flair.
My disease is as rare as it is famous. It’s a form of Severe Combined Immunodeficiency, but basically, I’m allergic to the world. I don’t leave my house, have not left my house in fifteen years. The only people I ever see are my mom and my nurse, Carla.
But then one day, a moving truck arrives. New next door neighbors. I look out the window, and I see him. He’s tall, lean and wearing all black—black t-shirt, black jeans, black sneakers and a black knit cap that covers his hair completely. He catches me looking and stares at me. I stare right back. His name is Olly. I want to learn everything about him, and I do. I learn that he is funny and fierce. I learn that his eyes are Atlantic Ocean-blue and that his vice is stealing silverware. I learn that when I talk to him, my whole world opens up, and I feel myself starting to change—starting to want things. To want out of my bubble. To want everything, everything the world has to offer.
Maybe we can’t predict the future, but we can predict some things. For example, I am certainly going to fall in love with Olly. It’s almost certainly going to be a disaster.
“Mother’s Day” is an episode from season one of Courage The Cowardly Dog. This is where we get some of Eustace’s back story. Until this point in the series, Eustace Bagge has been a singularly unpleasant character. We haven’t see what made him the way he is. In this episode, for the first time, we learn his ‘psychological wound’, or the backstory that explains why he treats others so badly. In stories, as in real life, this is simplistically attributed to deficiencies in the mother.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “MOTHER’S DAY”
As usual we have an opening shot in which Courage looks momentarily at peace.
Of course this does not last long because of the two people he lives with. Because he is a child (in the body of a dog) he will have to just go along with them, trying to appease them.
Eustace doesn’t want to go see his own mother for mother’s day but he wants to get Muriel off his back.
The opponent is introduced before we see her. Muriel, accommodating as she is, refuses to go visit her mother-in-law, volunteering Courage as a companion instead.
The character archetype is very similar to Bill Henrickson’s mother Lois in the series Big Love.
Like Mrs Bagge, Lois is poor, has tendencies towards vanity, is psychologically abusive (while herself being a victim) and her own son will never live up to her standards.
Lois is a slightly caricatured but nevertheless fairly real representation of this personality type, in a live action TV show made for adults. Over the course of Big Love we also see the ways in which Bill Henrickson is basically his own parents, despite his wish to escape the Juniper Creek compound. While Lois Henrickson is also a Mama Bear who would do anything for her children, I’m of the impression that in a different episode of Courage, with an outside opponent, the abusive mother of Eustace would also turn on a dime to protect her own flesh and blood.
This episode of Courage the Cowardly Dog is a very condensed, highly stylised storyline done differently in Big Love.
In the car on the way, Eustace tells Courage his plan. If Eustace scratches his face, this is a secret signal for Courage to attack the mother. Then they’ll be able to leave early. Eustace makes sure Courage knows how to snarl and growl. He demonstrates it himself.
The plan doesn’t work. We know it’s not going to work the moment the mother greets Courage warmly while ignoring her human son.
The big struggle begins on the doorstep, with Eustace laying into Courage for failing to be sufficiently vicious.
The visit is one long miserable family feud. Obviously a long-running enmity exists between Eustace and his mother. With Courage there, who the mother dotes on, the meanness she displays towards her own son is only emphasised.
Courage is stuck in the middle. Only children are particularly likely to find themselves in an awkward dinner table scene in fiction.
The scene of the two feuding adults sitting at each end of the dining table with the innocent and conflicted child character in the middle is a familiar one from the screen.
Mother gives Courage a big, heaping bowl of food with a literal cherry on top. After admonishing Eustace for being too thin, the mother then accuses him of wanting her to provide him food. When she provides the food, begrudgingly, it is two measly rashers of bacon. This is a parody of psychological abuse.
Mother gives Eustace’s teddy bear to Courage, which really upsets Eustace and comically turns him into a toddler.
During the big struggle sequence the audience is left in no doubt as to the similarities between Eustace and his mother. The scene with the mask introduces every single episode, after all. When turned upon Eustace he is terrified. He can give it, but he can’t take it. Eustace has been temporarily turned into Courage.
The mother is ungrateful for the gifts, which Eustace gives her to try and make peace. She is allergic to flowers and doesn’t even like chocolate, which only proves that this woman is totally lacking in any kind of sweetness/humanity. She does, however, like the mirror gift. This is because she is vain. (One of the deadly sins, which makes it nice and simple and good for comedy villains.)
Courage eats the chocolates himself, which offers the audience a nice visual representation for how sick he is feeling about the visit.
Mother decides she’d like a photo taken. She goes all out to prepare herself for this, even going under a tanning bed, plucking hairs from her chin and so on in a rapid sequence.
When Mrs Bagge tells Eustace that he’ll never be a real man and never fill his father’s shoes (which are literally huge), Eustace challenges her to an arm wrestle.
In a previous episode we’ve already seen a big struggle carried out via a thumb wrestle, and the writers make much use of common childhood games throughout the series.
It’s significant that neither of them is winning. They are evenly matched, psychologically as well as physically.
Eustace signals to Courage to do something, so Courage retrieves the bouquet of flowers hoping this will cause Mother to sneeze, and lose the game.
The writers foil expectations by having her hair come right off.
The audience has already realised that mother and son are basically the same person. This similarity is underscored visually with the sneeze, and the flying away of the mother’s hair. She breaks down at first, proclaiming that she’s ugly and how could a son possibly love a mother with no hair. We have seen from earlier episodes that Eustace is sensitive about his own bald head, so he is able to identify with his mother’s pain and there is a brief reuniting moment before he leaves with Courage for home.
This is a rare, genuine anagnorisis in the Courage series. Usually there is a revelation, but it is not a anagnorisis.
However, the anagnorisis will do nothing to change Eustace for the better. He will continue into the next episode as mean as he was before.
At home, Muriel has been watching her favourite show. She asks them how it was. Courage produces a photograph, which gives Muriel the impression the visit was far more successful than it actually was. Eustace says grimly that he’ll have to go again sometime soon.
By putting someone else’s hair on a dog the artists also appeal to the sense of humour of its young child audience.
The ideology behind Loveykins: Wild creatures, while sometimes requiring some human nurturing if abandoned by their mother as babies, must eventually be returned to the wild.
There is also a message against ‘over-mothering’ in this story. Let wild creatures be wild creatures is a close cousin to ‘let kids be kids’. Another picture book with the same ideology is Lauren Child’s Who Wants To Be A Poodle I Don’t.
You’ll find flying kids and creatures right throughout children’s literature. In this story flight symbolises the most basic of its metaphorical meanings: Freedom. For other symbolic uses for flight, see The Symbolism of Flight in Children’s Literature.
STORY STRUCTURE OF LOVEYKINS
‘My goodness,’ said Angela. ‘It’s a baby bird blown out of his nest. He needs someone to look after him.’
Anglea Bowling seems to be on the look out for someone to look after. When this happens in a picture book, we tend to assume the shortcoming in the main character is loneliness. (In real life, there’s no correlation between ‘caring for others’ and a deep seated loneliness.)
Angela Bowning is just out for a walk, but desire kicks in when she comes across the bird fallen from its nest.
When we see how Angela looks after the bird, we see that she has no idea what birds really need. She treats the bird like a pretty ornament rather than like a wild creature.
Angela is the bird’s opponent as well as his carer. We can tell from the look on his face that he does not want to be wrapped up in a cardy and placed in a basket.
She feeds the bird delicious food, names him Augustus (which reminds me a lot of Roald Dahl’s over-mothered Augustus Gloop), puts him in a pram and generally treats him as a toddler. She obviously plans to keep this bird as a child stand-in for herself.
This story has a basic mythic structure — Angela leaves the house and encounters a variety of different characters. They end up back home for the big struggle…
…which arrives in the form of a storm. Another storm, in fact, reminiscent of the earlier one which happened just before the story opened, the one that initially knocked the bird out of his nest. This storm blows the garden shed to bits and has the unintended consequence of setting the bird free.
Angela faints ‘clean away’ when she sees the shed has been flattened. The bird takes this opportunity to fly off. So the anagnorisis is had by the bird.
Angela comes to eventually and has we see she has realised cacti make more reliable ‘pets’. Angela has filled a new shed with these.
The bird lives like a bird should in the wild and occasionally brings Angela presents in the form of dead mice or beetles. “She never eats them.”
In other words, Angela gave the bird what he needed, but when it was grown he flew off, into the wild, to live as a wild creature should.
COMPARE AND CONTRAST
THE TOYMAKER AND THE BIRD BY PAMELA ALLEN (2009)
In a little house in a dark forest, a toymaker lives all alone.
The Toymaker learns that although he and the little brown bird make enchanting music together, he must let her follow her natural migration patterns and leave him.
It’s The Bear! by Jez Albrough is one of our daughter’s favourite picture books. She loved it when she was three, and still loves it even though she is now seven. It’s The Bear! is the second of Jez Alborough’s three hugely successful bear books from the 1990s. Published in 1996, It’s The Bear came out two years after the first one, and two years before the final book in the series.
WHAT HAPPENS IN IT’S THE BEAR!
A boy learns not to trust his mum. At least, that’s what our seven-year-old concluded upon our most recent reading. “Eddy’s mum should listen to him!” she said. Basically, a mother takes her son for a picnic in the woods.
They set out the picnic but mum has to duck back to the car to get a blueberry pie which she has forgotten. While she’s away, an enormous bear arrives, despite her earlier reassurances that there are ‘no bears around here’. The bear is a benevolent creature, however, who only wants to eat the picnic, not the humans. The mother gets a huge, comical fright when she turns around to find that her preschooler son is telling the truth about the existence of a bear.
WONDERFULNESS OF IT’S THE BEAR!
SUSPENSE AND TIMING
Like ancient tales such as Little Red Cap, in which the story is designed to be ‘performed’ rather than read, and in which the child audience grows deliciously scared at the point where the wolf eats the grandma up, this story has a theatre quality to it that will have young listeners cuddling up to their adult co-reader.
This is achieved, of course, by building up suspense. The marketing copy itself lets us know at exactly which point the turning point occurs:
The last time Eddie went for a walk in the woods, he had the biggest surprise of his life! There was a bear the size of a house in there! Now Eddie’s mom is in the mood to picnic in the wood—and she insists there aren’t any bears in there, (except Eddie’s teddy, Freddie). But when Mom forgets the blueberry pie, she runs home to get it while Eddie waits in the woods all alone! [TURNING POINT] What happens next? Just guess! Hold on to your teddies, because Jez Alborough is back with another hilarious story about little Eddie and that oversized bear—and this time he’s hungry!
First we have the set up, in which Mum denies the existence of a bear. Therefore, the experienced reader (and any young reader upon second reading) knows that a bear is definitely coming. This in itself builds suspense.
Most of the story is spent on the build up. We see four images of Eddy sitting on the picnic hamper — by the fourth image he is climbing inside to hide.
The following page shows us the first glimpse of the bear. We see Eddy’s eyes as he looks in fright out of the hamper, and we’re sure the bear can see him too.
The page after that is mostly black, and we see Eddy inside the hamper — a top-down view. This mirrors an earlier page in which both Eddy and Mum are looking into the hamper together. We have the same framing of the hamper — the first time we were from the perspective of the food and the large frame was white. This time we see Eddy, and link him to food — Eddy IS the food.
The reader wonders if the bear is going to squash the hamper, but he doesn’t. He (or she) sets up their own teddy bear and ‘greedily gobbles up all of the food’. The small size of the sandwich and plate emphasise the hugeness of the bear.
Take note how many separate illustrations depict the large bear’s realisation that there’s probably dessert in the hamper and actually opening it up. A more economical but far less suspenseful way to illustrate this would have been to show a single illustration (one of any of those shown here). What makes this a picture book rather than an illustrated story is the extra frames.
Notice also that the bear is, despite his size, a child character. We’re to assume he is scared of what’s inside the hamper as Eddy is scared of what’s outside it. One clue: the bear picks up his own teddy as comfort before looking inside — foreshadowing his reaction.
The next two spreads, which readers are to fully enjoy, include between 3 and 5 words each. “Help! shouted Eddy. I want my Mum!”
Adroit framing builds the story for the next big enjoyable surprise: Eddy and Bear have already had their confrontation, now it’s mum’s turn to jump out of her skin. We see her in the distance, but the illustration is framed by the bear’s massive furry leg. Another scene shows her walking closer, with a big smile on her face and a blueberry pie balanced for the taking on her hand, waiter-style. For visual interest, the big bear’s toy teddy is included in this frame.
The following illustration shows how smug and disbelieving the mother is, and allows the bear time to snatch the pie, which seems to be offered to him, after all:
The denouement requires one double page spread, in which Mum and Eddy are sprinting back to the car, and a single page illustration of the very happy bear, who is enjoying the food thrown his way.
This is a story in which the rhyming text really works. There’s nothing fancy about what’s attempted — Teddy, Eddy, Freddy and ready are an example of words which rhyme; others are dear/here, long/gone, spread/bread, my/pie and so on. Much use is made of capitalisation to give clues about where emphasis should be placed.
IS IT ‘REAL’ OR IS IT ALL IMAGINED?
The detail which will have readers wondering about how much of this happened in ‘the world of the story’ is the detail of the toy bears. Eddy just happens to own the same teddy as the big bear, but in miniature. Readers of the previous book have already been treated to a story in which this coincidence makes the plot.
When adults are drawn into the story, witnessing bizarre events for themselves, then we are to assume that ‘there really is a bear in there’. So the question is answered for us.
NOTES ON THE ILLUSTRATION OF IT’S THE BEAR!
The details of the forest look genuinely pre-digital era and are lavishly detailed. This makes the forest seem alive. Our eyes are drawn into the woods just as Eddy’s are. We should be searching for something inside — just as Eddy does.
The wonderful detail has been lost in the screen adaptation, with its focus on movement rather than the gaze. However, I’m sure Hayao Miyazaki would have keep the detail and made the most of it.
STORY SPECS OF IT’S THE BEAR!
Published by Candlewick Press
Written and illustrated by Jez Alborough. Alborough has also written picture books about mice, ducks and dogs.
…an English writer and illustrator of children’s picture books that have been translated into at least 15 languages and have been recognised for numerous awards.
COMPARE IT’S THE BEAR! WITH
When it comes to lavish illustrations of a scary forest, I’m reminded of the illustrations in Anthony Browne’s Hansel and Gretel. In Browne’s story, the reader is rewarded for close examination, because the trees reveal themselves to be ominous shapes.
It’s The Bear is interesting also because it plays with scale and proportion — something that seems to appeal very much to young readers. Other things that appeal to young readers are the identification with characters who are separated from their parents, who have imaginations which scare them, and whose toys seem to come to life. Animated toys are common in tales for children.
Different Types Of Toy Stories
In toy stories […] we should probably distinguish between toys existing in a world of their own (notably, doll-house stories, and Winnie-the-Pooh) and toys in contact with a child protagonist. Toys coming alive together with a lonely child may act as substitutes for missing friends, siblings, or even parents.Maria Nikolajeva, From Mythic to Linear: Time in children’s literature
In the second type of story mentioned above, most toys in toy stories live only when the child is around, being played with. Most of them become worn out or broken and die, but a few go into suspended animation and may come to life generations later into changed worlds.
Animal Stories = Toy Stories
[…] There is no point distinguishing between animals stories and toy stories, since both have the same structure, and toy or animal characters share the same function, primarily representing the child. Clearly anthropomorphic animals (such as Beatrix Potter’s or Janosch’s) are especially hard to distinguish from animated toys. Paddington is another good example—the bear is something in-between an animal and a toy (in illustrations, he definitely looks like a teddy-bear) and has the unmistakable function of an “imaginary friend”. […]
There are many marginal cases, like Winnie-the-Pooh, where some characters seem to be more toys, while others are more animals. It is thus arguable whether Winnie-the-Pooh is a toy story or an animal story […] and this may also be a matter of child versus adult perception. For a child reader, the characters of the book are “real,” that is, animals, while adults probably tend to see them as toys.Maria Nikolajeva, From Mythic to Linear: Time in children’s literature
Why Toy Stories Are Not Their Own Genre
Let us, therefore, not be deceived by the superficial form. Both toys and animals in children’s texts must be seen as representations of children and the texts themselves are, in my text typology, in no way different from domestic stories. When writers present their characters disguised as animals or toys, it is merely a narrative device, which has little to do with genre. There are few similarities between The Jungle Book, Babar and Peter Rabbit, besides their portraying animals; on the other hand, each of them can be related to other books without animals. For instance, The Jungle Book to Robinsonnades, Babar to a sentimental story about an orphan who is finally taken care of (Little Lord Fauntleroy, The Foundling): Peter Rabbit to any didactic naughty-boy book.Maria Nikolajeva, From Mythic to Linear: Time in children’s literature
Nikolajeva explains that therefore, toy and animal stories are even more heterogenous than “realistic” domestic and school stories.
Animals no doubt are more like us than are dolls, since they are living creatures and dolls are not; but dolls are made in our own image, and in the field of anthropomorphic fantasy there seems no harm in giving them a place. To the children who own them, dolls are people; and often they are people who have a hard life. They are to children as children are to adults: small, powerless beings controlled by others.John Rowe Townsend, Written For Children
Older Examples Of Stories Featuring Toys
- The Nutcracker
- Miss Hickory by Carolyn Sherwin Bailey (1946)
- Adventures of a Little Wooden Horse
- The Dolls House
- Rufty Tufty the Golliwog
- Five Dolls in a House
- The Mouse and His Child
- The Mennyms series
- Behind The Attic Wall by Sylvia Cassedy (1983)
- Through The Dolls’ House Door by Jane Gardam (1987)
It is an anxious, sometimes a dangerous thing to be a doll. Dolls cannot choose; they can only be chosen; they cannot “do”; they can only be done by; children who do not understand this often do wrong things, and then the dolls are hurt and abused and lost; and when this happens dolls cannot speak, nor do anything except be hurt and abused and lost.Rumer Godden, The Dolls’ House (1947)