The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe Storytelling


So much has been said about Narnia already. Can I add a single thing to the corpus by blogging about storytelling techniques in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe?

Probably not, but my 10-year-old is studying this novel at school. She’s home sick today. I know the rest of her class is watching the 2005 film adaptation this afternoon for a compare and contrast exercise, because they send home permission slips for PG rated material. (Honestly, heh, I showed this to my kid when she was about 5.) It’s been a while since we cracked open the DVD, so today we are rewatching The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, together at home, under a blanket.

This blog post is mainly about the 2005 film adaptation, not about the novel. I haven’t read the novel since I was in my late teens, though I keep meaning to go back. I bought myself a beautiful illustrated version for my 30th birthday. What’s keeping me from dusting it off? Probably all the commentary around it, and knowing how problematic it is as a vehicle for certain ideas.


Some time ago Francis Spufford, author of The Child That Books Built (among many others), spoke with Kim Hill on Radio New Zealand.

Spufford considers The Chronicles of Narnia the ‘essence of book’. (He went on to write Unapologetic.) As a child, the Christian bits meant least to him, but the allegories weren’t mysterious to a church-going boy. What Spufford loved about Narnia was the sensuousness of it. Looking at it critically from an adult point of view it’s easy to criticise this series as a ‘dog’s breakfast’. (After all, it has water nymphs and Father Christmas in the same world.) But Lewis loved all of these elements and he had the ability to bring his passions to life. No other series delivered a world like those ones did. (A modern audience has Harry Potter for an equally sensuous setting, bringing many different elements together.)

Reading as an adult, Spufford noticed misogyny and racism. The racist elements are easy enough to figure out — Lewis was influenced by Arabian Nights and other things. The author’s feelings about women, on the other hand, are harder to figure out. There are a lot of dangerous snake women who keep popping up in the different chronicles and there are no women (apart from mothers) who are safe, at all. Fantasy is a horribly revealing form. People make fantasy out of the deep material of their imagination. Where did this misogyny come from?


Spufford reminds us that C.S. Lewis’ mother died when he was very young. He adds that it now ‘seems unfair to ask the past to know what the present knows’. I disagree wholeheartedly with Spufford on this point. Missing a mother does not make misogyny. As evidence, I proffer every single misogynist who has a perfectly good mother. Instead, all we need for misogynistic tales to thrive is a misogynistic world. And the 1950s were nothing if not that.

Others make the case that The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe is empowering to women. Here’s the argument in a nutshell, from what I can gather:

  • Lewis wasn’t making women subservient to men; he was making humans subservient to God. Lewis intends to exalt divinity, not men. (Gah, now that’s a damn stretch.)
  • Sure, the bad people in Narnia are women, but bad women are powerful women. (I am on board with this argument. I get this one. We’ll know we’ve reached true gender equality when we see as many flawed women in positions of power as there are flawed men. Unfortunately, we’re nowhere near that point yet. This real world fact means that a preponderance of terrible females in positions of fictional power feeds into the existing idea that women are generally terrible when given any power at all.)
  • Susan and Lucy are allowed to be heroines. (Yes, but very specifically female ones. As my ten-year-old said as they laid their heads upon poor, dead Aslan, “Ugh, so they make the girls cry.” Moreover, Lucy is given the stereotypically feminine role of healing, like a wartime nurse.)
  • Lewis isn’t ranking masculine coded activities as higher than feminine coded activities. He doesn’t rank Peter’s skill with the sword HIGHER than he rates Lucy’s ability to heal and empathise. (I’ve heard this a lot before, but ranking is beside the point. Simply assigning gender to certain tasks keeps women in their ‘rightful’ place as caregivers, nurturers and providers of emotional labour.)
  • All of the main characters in Narnia embody feminine characteristics, because submission (to God) is a feminine coded thing to do. All people are feminine to God. And this is the Christian ideal. (Sure, Peter looks after Lucy’s feelings at times, but on the other hand he’s in a clear patriarchal big struggle with his own brother. Peter is a benevolent sexist, at best.)
  • Some have pointed out a difference between ‘classical heroism’ (masculine) and ‘spiritual heroism’ (feminine). These characters go on a spiritual journey, therefore they all go on a feminine journey, rendering gender binaries moot. Some go so far as to say Lewis is even critiquing classical heroism.
  • Lewis plays so much with so-called feminine and masculine virtues that we can’t even think of his characters in this binary gendered way. (Yes, this is always a sticking point in such arguments. But people who study this stuff know full well which attributes are coded feminine by the dominant culture and which are coded masculine. People who use this argument are derailing.)

That is not an exhaustive list of the arguments in favour of gender equality in the Narnia Chronicles. Instead, I want to leave you with a quote from Lewis himself:

I do not believe that God created an egalitarian world. I believe the authority of parent over child, husband over wife, learned over simple to have been as much a part of the original plan as the authority of man over beast.

The Weight of Glory, p 168

If you don’t see that exact ideology shining through in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, I don’t know what to tell you.

Here’s the vital thing to grasp about Lewis and his world view: He didn’t just believe that there is a biological difference between the sexes; he believed there was a spiritual difference as well. To him, femininity represents subjection to God. Men, to Lewis, were literally closer to God. This is still the case for many fundamentalist Christians.

However, C.S. Lewis did believe in political and vocational equality. Donald Trump, by the way, is exactly the same. This is why it’s important to make a distinction between sexism and misogyny. C.S. Lewis, like Donald Trump, was not a clear sexist. He did believe that women were capable of contributing fully to the world (and was happy for women to do just that, recognising that their labours would benefit him). However, he was a keen upholder of the police force of patriarchy, otherwise known as misogyny. For more on this point, I refer you to the excellent book Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny by Kate Manne, specifically page 89.


There’s an entire article on the Setting of Narnia at Wikipedia.

Narnia is a quasi-medieval world written in the mid 20th century.

I can’t think of a clearer example of The Symbolism of Seasons in Storytelling. Winter means death, summer means life.

The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe is a classic portal fantasy. C.S. Lewis knew to really dwell on the portal. Getting all four children through the portal dominates the first quarter of the story.

C.S. Lewis also made full use of The Symbolism of Altitude, which is not only symbolic but also lends dimensionality to a landscape. Characters go below ground (with the beavers), above ground and high above ground (up trees, on mountains, in a palace).

The 1972 map of Narnia depicts a setting which is mostly forested, except for marshlands in the north. In the Bible, the enemy of God’s people come from the north, bringing destructionFalse kings come from the north. See also: The Symbolism of Cardinal Direction.


The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe is your classic home-away-home story with a mythic structure.


The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe features an ensemble cast with no stand-out main character. The story crosscuts between Lucy and Edmond, or whoever happens to be the most alone and vulnerable at the time. However, we definitely empathise with Lucy. For my purposes, I nominate Lucy as ‘the main character’. She is also a ‘viewpoint’ character, because when Lucy sees Narnia for the first time, so do we. However, Edmond undergoes the biggest character arc so we could just as easily pick him. (If not more so.)

Lucy’s main shortcoming is that she is the youngest, and therefore expected to be immature and unreliable.

Nobody believes Lucy when she walks through the back of the wardrobe. Honestly, wouldn’t you believe Edmond?

Edmund’s lie of omission, failing to tell his siblings about his encounter with the White Witch, drives much of the drama in the first Narnia story. Interestingly, though, he is probably judged more harshly by contemporary readers than Lewis intended. It is almost impossible, now, to imagine the feelings a child – used to the privations of wartime Britain – might experience on being offered some Turkish Delight. This is one of those occasions where some of the context is lost in the passage of history. If you had grown up with rationing, been shipped out to the country for protection, and found yourself in a magical land where you were offered extraordinary, rarefied sweet things, wouldn’t you lie too?

The Guardian

For more on that, see Liars in Storytelling.

In this new fantasy world she does not understand the threats. Narnia is a fascination to her. This is the shortcoming that could cost Lucy her life.


The Pevensie children stumble into a fantasy world entirely by accident, and as soon as they get there, their mission is to have fun with it. When the learn the stakes, they at first turn down the Call to Adventure (saving everyone from the White Witch), which Joseph Campbell calls Refusal of the Call. It’s mandatory, basically. Against their will, the children are forced to fight on behalf of everyone, proving their mettle.


Edmond is the black sheep of the Pevensie kids, but I can see why. Peter is so annoying. I call him Patriarchal Peter — we see another identical personality in Peter from Famous Five. “Just do as I tell you! I’m the better-looking, more sensible one!” Peter shames Edmond constantly by demoting him to the status of ‘girl’, first by insulting him during cricket, then by telling him he deserves to wear a girl’s fur coat, as if lying is a naturally feminine attribute. (Highly, highly problematic. It makes my skin crawl.)

The White Witch is your classic Thriller villain — her desire is for power, at whatever cost. She’ll even kill you and your family. She’s almost inhuman, but her logic is understandable to a human audience (she’s not a supernatural horror villain). This makes The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe a children’s action thriller, by my reckoning. Within the setting, the White Witch is a descendent of Lilith the ‘Jinn’. In real world, ancient Jewish mythology, Lilith was a female demon, representing all things “dark and terrifying.” In Jewish folklore she was referred to as the first wife of Adam. She left the Garden of Eden because she did not want to be Adam’s wife. (Why ever not?) A ‘jinn’ is a term sometimes used to refer to genies.

C.S. Lewis has included in his character web the entire gamut of familiar opponent (the siblings), really scary new opponent (White Witch), possible opponent (the Professor), annoying adult opponent (the housekeeper) as well as a false-ally (Mr Tumnus), a possible opponent who turns out to be on their side (Aslan) and everything in between. The true goodness of each character is kept as a reveal, as the audience, alongside the characters, work out who is good and who is evil in this strange new world.


In a thriller (yep, I’m sure this is a thriller), the hero (heroes plural in this case) need a special super power to help them overcome their enemy. The Pevensie kids are pretty ordinary but Father Christmas turns up to help them out. He endows them with actual gifts — a sword for Patriarchal Peter, bow and arrow for Susan, healing medicine for Lucy and I’ve completely forgotten what he gave to Edmond, oh well.

(My daughter thought Father Christmas was the Professor. Like me watching Game of Thrones, old men in grey beards all look the same. Are we meant to think the professor is secretly the Father Christmas of Narnia? The Professor portrayed as bafflingly conspiratorial in the film.)

The children are led by their allies, Mr Tumnus (after he turns), by the beavers and so on. The kids just keep ploughing along the path and battling whoever fights them. That’s the big plan. When they find themselves on the throne they aren’t all that surprised — it’s their birthright. (This is a very white story, in more ways than one.)


The Battle scene is hugely elongated in this film and reminds me of the most boring parts of Lord of the Rings (ie. most of it).

I found this image on Comic Vine, so the similarity must be obvious to everyone. (Return of the King came out two years prior.)

Gandalf White Witch

In 2005, the CGI of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe would have been enough to impress. Now it’s showing it’s age a little. (Characters don’t look fully integrated with the background scenery.) But if you enjoy watching strange creatures running towards each other then doing hand-to-hand combat, this movie is for you.

During this big struggle, I started to side with the White Witch. Tilda Swinton has great costume, great hair, her own fake lion’s mane (or maybe it’s meant to be real) and she gets lots of low angle shots which allow her to show her power. Whatever you say about this White Witch, she knows what she wants and she goes for it. She ain’t no bitch of the patriarchy.


For Peter, Susan and Lucy, their experience in Narnia is a run-of-the-mill coming-of-age story in which they discover their true power.

But Edmond undergoes a more significant character arc, because he had the furthest to come. He shifts from lying traitor to loyal younger brother who knows his place in the patriarchal hierarchy. Peter says, after saving him during Battle, “When are you going to learn to do as you’re told?” echoing the wrapper story of the London bombings. Even before then, he is shown as acceding power to older brother Peter.

This is seen as a good thing, because now the brothers are less Cain and Abel, more like friends. And friends is always a good thing, right?

Edmond’s arc doesn’t sit right with me. The idea that ‘younger siblings must obey older siblings’ led to significant fraternal bullying in the past. Now, with smaller families and/or more vigilant parenting, sibling hierarchy has mostly disappeared. If older siblings are still in charge it’s because they’re developmentally more advanced, not because of a patrimonial culture which grants permanent, life-long power to eldest children, especially to eldest sons.


When the Pevensie children return to their primary world, ‘the wonderful adventure [in Narnia] has been merely a “time-out”, a picnic.’ Nikolajeva likens these books to a modern computer game, in which the player ‘dies’, but simply plays the game again, consequence free.

The fact is that in most quest stories for children…the protagonists, unlike the hero in myth (or a novice during initiation), are liberated from the necessity to suffer the consequences of their actions. What is described is not the real rite of passage, but merely play or, to follow Bakhtin’s notion, carnival.

Maria Nikolajeva

For more on Nikolajeva’s concept of ‘picnic’ and how that relates to ‘genre’ in children’s literature, see this post.


Dick Clark’s Unique Flintstone Style House For Sale In MalibuSecret door inside this wardrobe leads to a Narnia themed playroom.

If you’re a Narnia fan, you can listen to the story online here.

The Happy Hypocrite by Max Beerbohm

Mask of Apollo

The Happy Hypocrite” is a short story by Max Beerbohm first published 1897. Basically, in this misogynistic tale, a man who won’t take no for an answer pursues a much younger girl anyway. Her goodness improves his countenance for real, and he is rewarded by owning her forever after.

Lest you think “The Happy Hypocrite” is a story of its time, there have been many popular stories since in which a boy or a man who won’t take no for an answer pursues the girl anyway, and is rewarded with her at the end after undergoing an improving character arc.

Apparently, this sotry is a more humorous version of The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, but since I haven’t read that this isn’t part of my response.

The Role Of Masks In “The Happy Hypocrite”

I’ve previously written about the role of masks in storytelling.

When reading this short story, I’m first reminded of a voice excerpt on the Paris Wells album Various Small Fires. A man says

My heart and brain concur.
I love but one more than you, the one I thought you were.

(You’ll find it at the end of “No Hard Feelings”.) In issue #383 of The Brag, Paris Wells explains this is poetry by a guy they met in a Jazz club in New York — “this old lovely Jewish guy in a wheelchair.” His name is Marvin Wildstein and she just had to put him in the album. (Here’s another of his poems.) Marvin died of pneumonia early April 2015.

Is it possible to be in love with someone who doesn’t exist? Atheists would say yes. Perhaps we are all in love with someone who doesn’t exist, insofar as it’s never possible to know another completely.

Is it possible to change completely? To what extent can being in love change us? Do we become more like our romantic partners?

Masks in stories tend to throw up these kinds of questions.

Setting of “The Happy Hypocrite”

“The Happy Hypocrite” takes a real world setting (specific parts of London) and marries it with Greek mythology to create a story which feels out of place in the Golden Argosy collection. It starts off feeling like a period drama, then feels like Greek mythology, then the happily married elopes into the woods and it’s a European fairytale. (Which woods? By 1900 Britain was 5% woods, which is half what there is now.) A sixteen-year-old girl falls in love with a bad man in a mask, and because she is so lovely, he becomes lovely too, atones for his sins in order to remain with her and they both live happily ever after, even after his mask comes off.

So although the story starts off with a premise I find really interesting, it’s quite a Victorian didactic tale with the moral that if you do good then you are good. This story is also a close relative of ‘female maturity formula‘, in which a female character is used to show a man how he can be a better person. Perhaps she is more closely related to the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope.

Note the binary between the debauched city (London) and the utopia of nature. Before his turn, George hates the country. He even hates flowers. But Jenny teaches him all about flowers, he learns to love the country and nature and he is turned into a better man. In other words, city = bad, country = good.



The story opens with a clear viewpoint homodiegetic narrator and a story starring the evocatively named Lord George Hell. His shortcoming (great naughtiness) is clearly listed straight away. He is ‘greedy, destructive and disobedient’. We don’t yet know who he is ‘disobedient’ to. This may also be his greatest strength.

He has a fondness for clothes, suggesting he dresses above his station, even though he is titled.

He is brutally honest. The narrator doesn’t see that as a good thing, since his honestly itself is evil.

I’m getting the vibe of a camp character, sort of the Gordon Ramsay of the street, passing judgment for fun and to deliberately insult. The narrator compares him to Caligula (a tyrannical Roman Emperor) with a dash of Sir John Falstaff (a loveable rogue invented by Shakespeare).

In fact, the entire first section is a character study of this man, highlighting his faults. How does the author make this guy interesting? An all bad character is pretty boring. But Lord George Hell has become a legendary figure, used as a Wee Willy Winky character by nurses when cajoling their young charges. The man has a few unusual traits — he doesn’t smoke when we might expect him to. And we don’t know why he’s allowed to get away with card sharking. ‘We can only wonder that he was tolerated at all.’ The fact that he hasn’t been completely ostricised from society already makes us wonder what he did to break the camel’s back.


It seems Lord George Hell is only interested in being king pin of his own local environs, hoodwinking others, getting rich as a result. But when he fells madly in love at first sight, with a girl less than half his age, we learn that he did desire true love after all.

This particular desire of his is not questioned in the text. It is taken as a given that a man who is good deserves a lovely sixteen-year-old girl for his bride, and that this is the pinnacle of ‘done well for himself’.

Yet this story is still recommended by some for a wonderful depiction of the beauty of grace. As you can probably tell, that’s not what I got out of it.


A mystery functions as opposition. A mystery is set up right away and the narrator is going to withhold this information for suspense: Why did Lord George Hell suddenly disappear? This applies to the wrapper story.

La Gambogi is a fairytale witch archetype who becomes George’s nemesis when she threatens to take off his mask.

The binary between ‘good girl’ and ‘evil woman’ is stark in this story, with the character of spurned lover La Gambogi compared to a large cat at the end, which is one way women are often dehumanised, whether women are fighting, talking or having sex.


When George falls in love at first sight he beseeches the object of his affection but because he is an asshole he won’t take no for an answer.


There is a physical tousle in the utopian world created by the lovers (in full limerance, having been together for only one month).


When the mask comes off and it matches his actual face, George realises that by being good he has become so.


This 35 year old man has atoned for all past sins, had a complete turn-around and will now live in the forest, humbly, with a 16 year old girl who is plenty young enough to bear many of his children.

Inside Out Story Structure

Inside Out

Inside Out is a Pixar animated film released 2015. This film is one of Pixar’s most popular. Inside Out is therefore fascinating from a writing point of view because it an example of the big battle-free myth form, which we haven’t seen much of until recently.

Inside Out And Neurodiversity

All children must learn at some stage how to recognise and name their own emotions. This is harder for some than others. Even among the neurotypical population, a surprisingly large number of people have difficulty identifying how they feel.

Therapists who work with neurodiverse kids love Inside Out. My ADHD daughter’s occupational therapist recommended I rewatch this film with her and discuss the emotions according to a program called “The Zones Of Regulation”. These zones are designed to be a non-threatening, non-judgmental way of describing states of mind:

Blue Zone: Used to describe a low state of alertness. The Blue Zone is used to describe when one feels sad, tired, sick, or bored.

Green Zone: Used to describe the ideal state of alertness. A person may be described as calm, happy, focused, or content when he or she is in the Green Zone. The student feels a strong sense of internal control when in the Green Zone.

Yellow Zone: Used to describe a heightened state of alertness. A person may be experiencing stress, frustration, anxiety, excitement, silliness, or fear when in the Yellow Zone. The student’s energy is elevated yet he or she feels some sense of internal control in the Yellow Zone.

Red Zone: Used to describe an extremely heightened state of alertness. A person may be experiencing anger, rage, explosive behaviour, panic, extreme grief, terror, or elation when in the Red Zone and feels a loss of control.

Characters Of Inside Out

How do the characters map onto The Zones Of Regulation?

Blue Zone: Sadness is obvious, because Sadness is literally coloured blue.

Green Zone: This is Joy when she is focused on solving a problem. Confusingly, Joy has blue hair. Conveniently, Joy’s dress is green.

Yellow Zone: This is Joy when she is jumping up and down with glee. This is also Disgust, who is coded green in Inside Out. Fear, coded purple in the film, also goes into the yellow zone.

Red Zone: Anger is literally coloured red. But as the neurodiverse population knows well, there’s more to heightened emotions than just anger. My ADHD daughter is frequently in this zone when she is elated, e.g. at the school disco.

Two Main Characters In A Hollywood Film

Though pretty common in novels, it is very unusual in Hollywood to have two main characters. The safest, most financially successful Hollywood blockbuster has a single main character who we follow throughout the film. Who are the two main characters of this film?

  1. The main character of the real world thread — the little girl
  2. The main character of the fantasy world inside the little girl’s head — Joy

There are a number of stories in which a character tells a story about someone else, in which case there’s a main character of each thread. For instance, in Million Dollar Baby, the Clint Eastwood character is the star of the main story, but Morgan Freeman is the star of the narrated, metadiegetic level of the story. (Note: Hillary Swank is not the main character of either thread. She exists as a tool for the narrative arc of the men.)

Story Structure Of Inside Out

Inside Out gives us two full stories running in parallel to each other, intersecting. Stories like these demonstrate why the concept of ‘subplot‘ isn’t useful — each thread is its own full story, and one would not do its job without the other.

Two storylines with two separate main characters means two separate desires. These two different stories stuck together are structured together so that it appears the the audience that there is one single storyline.

What Makes This A ‘Female Myth’ Story?

First, take a look at the traditional mythic structure. (When I say ‘traditional’, I only mean the last 3000 years. Battle-free myths prevailed before that.)

Now take a look at big struggle-free mythic structure.

Take note that it’s not the gender of the main character that determines whether a mythic story is structured male or female. Though I did notice the gender-neutral name of Riley — Riley is not specifically coded as feminine. If the animators changed the look of her and nothing else, Riley would make an equally believable boy. That said, most main characters of male myths are gendered male, and vice versa.

A big struggle-free myth is partly about what is not in the narrative.

What is ‘missing’ from a big struggle-free myth? In a ‘normal’ story the writer aims for the strongest opponent possible, creating the greatest amount of conflict. That’s not how a big struggle-free myth works. In a big struggle-free myth there is no physical conflict with the big monster type of opponent.

Sure enough, the plot during the middle of Inside Out lags a little. Each time I’ve watched Inside Out, I’ve fallen asleep on the couch, just after the midway point. (My daughter didn’t — for kids, the amazing spectacle of hijinks inside the brain is enough to sustain their attention.) There’s a case to be made that perhaps big struggle-free myth stories should be shorter than your average male myth story. But will audiences buy a ticket to something that lasts one hour, or one hour ten, without feeling ripped off? If the big struggle-free myth form is to exist equally among the corpus of entertainment available, the entire structure of Hollywood probably needs to change first. That said, audiences are hungry for this kind of story, as proven by the earnings. The big struggle-free myth is very new to a modern audience, and writers should be hyperaware that they’re going to foil expectations. Battle-free myths need to be better written, more engaging and probably have higher budgets than run-of-the-mill male myth forms in order to compete.

Theme And Ideology Of Inside Out

What’s the difference between the premise and the reason for writing?

PREMISE: After moving interstate, a girl learns to live with some difficult emotions for the first time in her life.

I imagine the writers wanted to do something like this:

Show that it’s impossible to be joyful all the time by creating two side-by-side plots, with one thread taking place in a realistic modern day San Francisco, and another fantasy world inside one girl’s head, homanculi-ed with representations of the major human emotions. The outtake sequence will show that everybody has the same range of emotions inside their heads, too.

Inside Out expresses a modern view of psychology. While fairytales gave us a good/evil binary, in which characters were born good or bad, later stories kept the binary but attributed evil to ‘possession’ or child abuse. Last century offered stories like The Iron Giant. In order for that story to work, the author first set up a binary of good versus evil. However, the story is typical of its era: The Iron Giant has been designed with evil intent, but in the end he can choose to use his powers for good. Hence the Superman references sprinkled throughout. Superman is the archetypal ‘Use your powers for good’ character. (The much later, 1999 film adaptation of The Iron Giant winks to the audience on this point, by creating a character who wears a yin yang dressing gown.)

The modern view of human psychology is that there is no single ‘self’. We are all capable of being all sorts of things, depending on the time and place. Moreover, these emotions are not inherently ‘good’ or inherently ‘bad’. Like the psychologists who have come up with therapies for neurodiverse kids, Inside Out is careful to steer clear of value judgement.

[Inside Out] also reflects some of the most important truths about what it means to be an individual person.

The first of these is that there isn’t actually a single, unified you at all. Your brain is not a little world full of anthropomorphic creatures, of course. But it is made up of various different, often competing impulses. You are simply how it all comes together, the sum of your psychic parts.

This, however, is just the first crack at the myth of the enduring, unified self. What the film also shows is that each of these parts is impermanent. Riley’s personality is represented by a series of islands that reflect what matters most to her: friendship, honesty, family, goofiness and hockey. But as life becomes difficult, each of these in turns threatens to crumble. And that is how it is in the real world: as we grow and change and life takes it toll, some of the things that matter most to us will endure, others will fall away and new ones will come in their place.

Julian Baggini, The Guardian

Pygmalion In Modern Stories And Literature

J.C. Leyendecker- the toy maker

Pygmalion was a sculptor who falls in love with an ivory statue he had carved. The most famous story about him is the narrative poem Metamorphoses by Ovid. (Pygmalion can be found in book ten.) In this poem Aphrodite turns the statue into a real woman for him. In some versions they have a son, and also a daughter together.

In Ovid’s narrative, Pygmalion was a Cypriot sculptor who carved a woman out of ivory. According to Ovid, after seeing the Propoetides he was “not interested in women”, but his statue was so fair and realistic that he fell in love with it.

In time, Aphrodite’s festival day came, and Pygmalion made offerings at the altar of Aphrodite. There, too scared to admit his desire, he quietly wished for a bride who would be “the living likeness of my ivory girl”. When he returned home, he kissed his ivory statue, and found that its lips felt warm. He kissed it again, and found that the ivory had lost its hardness. Aphrodite had granted Pygmalion’s wish.

Pygmalion married the ivory sculpture changed to a woman under Aphrodite’s blessing. In Ovid’s narrative, they had a daughter, Paphos, from whom the city’s name is derived.

In some versions Paphos was a son, and they also had a daughter, Metharme.

Basically, Pygmalion/Daedalus is a story in which a man gives birth to a woman. You might say, it’s a type of wish fulfilment for men: The wish to create someone, especially someone in his own image. The creator might be deformed, and wishes he could have the advantage of beauty, like a beautiful woman. (Because women are the main objects of The Gaze.) Or maybe he’ll change a small thing about her to make her his version of ideal. Or it might be about controlling her fertility. 

Edward Burne Jones painting of Pygmalion
Pygmalion and The Image by Edward Burne Jones

The Pygmalion/Daedalus story has been told many times, and continues to be told. There is inherent sexism in this story, of course, or at least there is in many modern renditions, unless the whole point of the retelling is to point out the sexism. The modern narrative is that a man makes a woman into who she is. Ironically, the men do not find fulfilment for having helped a woman fulfil her potential. His control of her generally leads to his downfall rather than to exultation.

As feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey once put it, the woman stands as a “signifier for the male other, bound by a symbolic order in which man can live out his fantasies and obsessions through linguistic command, by imposing on the silent image of woman still tied to her place as a bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning.”


Some examples in stories for adults:

  • The Winter’s Tale, William Shakespeare, about controlling pregnant women’s bodies among other things
  • Million Dollar Baby, the 2004 film starring Clint Eastwood, who turns trailer park kid Hilary Swank into a prize fighter. The film poster would have you believe that this is a film about a female protagonist, but the real hero — the one who changes over the course of the story — is Clint Eastwood.
  • Annie Hall, the 1977 Woody Allen movie. Annie actually resists Alvy’s attempts to turn her into something in his own image, subverting the story. (Woody Allen is a feminist? Who knew!)
  • The Phantom of the Opera, who falls in love with an obscure chorus singer Christine, and privately tutors her while terrorizing the rest of the opera house and demanding Christine be given lead roles
  • Titanic, becauseJack helps Rose speak out and assert her independence from her suffocating family and fiance.
  • The Birth-Mark by Nathaniel Hawthorne, in which a man is repulsed by the birth-mark on his wife’s cheek, so dreams he cuts it out with a knife while she’s asleep, comparing himself to Pygmalion. The man is a natural scientist, so in real life makes a concoction and has her drink it.
  • George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion. A professor of phonetics wagers that he will be able to transform the cockney speaking Covent Garden flower girl, Eliza Doolittle, into a woman as poised and well-spoken as a duchess.
  • Pretty Woman, in which creator and created are united at the end (and is probably why audiences loved it so much)
  • John Cheever’s short story “Metamorphoses” translates legends from Ovid into Westchester settings.
  • Lars and the Real Girl is a film starring Ryan Gosling about an off-the-page autistic man who orders a sex doll and forms a relationship with her. By the end of the movie he has buried the doll and looks set to form a romantic attachment with a real woman. The doll has been a necessary middle step. This ending is considered a triumph according to neurotypical standards, because Lars now conforms more comfortably to societal expectations.

Stories in which a man helps a woman have a sexual awakening might also be considered part of the Pygmalion wish-fulfilment fantasy of men. This can be traced at least as far back as fairytales:

The disadvantage — or, if you prefer it, the advantage — of being a princess is that you are essentially passive. You just sit there on your throne, or on a nearby rock, while the suitors and the dragons fight it out. In an extreme form of this passivity you are literally asleep or in a trance like Sleeping Beauty or Snow White. This particular archetype is one that has always appealed to men, and it turns up again and again in their fiction. The trance takes different forms: sometimes it is physical virginity, sometimes it is a sort of psychic virginity. Often the princess is frigid, or sexually unawakened like Lady Chatterley; sometimes she is intellectually or politically awakened, like Gwendolen Harleth in Daniel Deronda or like the Princess Casamassima in Henry James’s novel of the same name, which is in  many ways, and not always successfully, very much like a fairy tale.

Alison Lurie, Don’t Tell The Grown-ups: The subversive power of children’s literature

This Pygmalion trope is not limited in stories for and about men, written by men; take the Fifty Shades of Grey series by E.L. James. The success of this series shows that the trope has worked its way into a widespread female fantasy of the 2010s.

Edouard Joseph Dantan (1848-1897), French
Edouard Joseph Dantan (1848-1897), French


The Pygmalion effect, or Rosenthal effect, is the phenomenon whereby higher expectations lead to an increase in performance. A corollary of the Pygmalion effect is the golem effect, in which low expectations lead to a decrease in performance; both effects are forms of self-fulfilling prophecy.


What about Pygmalion stories as they apply to children’s literature? Well, there are many, many children’s stories about talking toys. Toys have a place in certain types of wish fulfilment stories: The wish to have a friend and also the wish to never die, especially when toys are mended, or when they can be re-wound, in the case of a wind-up toy. (The modern version would be having its batteries replaced, if this kind of story were more common today.)

The wish for one’s toys to come to life as friends is a common wish-fulfilment fantasy in children’s literature, and I propose that this is the childhood analogue of the adult Pygmalion fantasy.


Maria Nikolajeva makes no distinction between the role of talking animals and the role of talking toys in children’s literature. Whatever can be said of animals can also be said of toys. Though the function is the same, Margaret Blount does make a distinction between who tends to tell which kind of story to whom:

Human is what the child wants his toy or pet to be, the substitute friend or brother, like himself but exempt from all the dreary rules attached to childhood and growing up, the eternal confidant or companion, steadfast and unchangeable. Stories about pets that speak are as old as Dick Whittington or the talking horse Falada, but those about toys that ‘come to life’ are most often of the kind that fathers and mothers tell to children in order, as C.S. Lewis mentions in Three Ways of Writing For Children, to give one particular child what it wants. They do not date back much before the Victorian Age and the time when childhood began to be considered in isolation and regarded in sentimental or romantic fashion.

Animal Land


  • Miniature people (who often have the bodies of mice), supernatural creatures and animated objects have similar roles throughout literature.
  • Imaginary friends can go into the same category.
  • Stories with talking toys therefore are quite often ‘sentimental’ and ‘romantic’.
  • Talking animals are never killed — it would be too much like murder. Especially when toys are in the shape of animals, the author might as well be writing about an animal. That’s how much readers can empathise.
  • There is usually no eating and drinking when it comes to talking toys and pets — it’s a bit uncomfortable that humans eat creatures without conscience.
  • Characters who are toys often have delightful predictability, and sometimes mechanical behaviour which can be used to humorous effect (especially if they wind up at the back).
  • Some toys talk only under certain conditions.
  • Sometimes only their owner can hear them.
  • Toys are made to be loved, yet what they seem to do is endure hardship with patience and steadfastness e.g. The Little Wooden Horse, who is sneered at for being simply and plainly made. (The Ugly Duckling story but in toy form.) Toys make good aesthetes since they don’t even need to eat. (See above)
  • Mark Haddon has said that ‘Ultimately, there is no narrative without death‘. It seems as difficult to write about toys without saying what happened to them as it is to write about humans without  mentioning death. (The town dump in The Mouse and His Child, ‘a big grim box’ for Leotard and the Ark etc.



It is not until 1846 that you get a story like The Little (Brave) Tin Soldier; and in nurseries, the gradual additions of strange creatures to the more conventional ‘human’ families — toy animals, the Golliwog and that indispensable piece of nursery furniture, the enduring Teddy Bear. Adults made the toys talk, and they became a child’s companions on magic adventures.


Though the product is a boy, this is still a Pygmalion story.


The ideology of toy stories is often that one must take care of one’s things, as if they were almost sentient. I wonder if the throwaway culture of today has contributed to the demise of this kind of morality — it’s no longer necessary to treat your teddy bear with such great respect as an object — when my daughter’s bear went missing it was very sad but I was able to buy an identical one for two dollars at the second hand shop. In fact, the idea that a child should be so attached to their things is almost the antithetical morality of today’s stories. (Including in my own, The Artifacts.)

The children in Sarah Trimmer’s (History Of) The Robins (1786) were taught to feed the birds and be kind to them, as Tom had to be kind to the caddis worms. Talking toys too can give a story a certain moral ring; one must be kind to objects or possessions and the screw is turned when they prove to  be human after all. Bad brother breaks his sister’s doll with the excuse that Toys Can’t Feel. Night comes and the toys come to life and of course they can feel and sometimes take a nasty revenge in a place where they are powerful and children are not (Rupert has this experience several times and once with Freudian additions in Mary Tourtel’s Rupert and The Wooden Soldier, 1928. The style is long lasting.) In fact, Toyland becomes a recognisable place for fantasy happenings and sometimes retribution from F. Anstey to Enid Blyton.

Margaret Blount, Animal Land


Only Toys book cover
[This story] has a toys’ vengeance theme and more interesting experiences of doll’s house living, which turns out to be as awkward as Hunca Munca and Tom Thumb found it. Torquil and Irene, transported to the place where toys are real, find their own doll’s house a very inconvenient place to be — the food is inedible, the drink not what it seems, the fire won’t burn and the kettle won’t boil. The dolls have a stiff hierarchy as wooden and artificial as themselves. But few toys stories exist without  human interaction. Toys have owners as pets do and in Toyland toy and owner meet on equal terms. All animals speak, whether ‘real’, carved or stuffed; it is a place that everyone recognises, with wooden trees and animals out of the Ark, always dreamlike, an after dark playground where nothing goes really wrong — one always wakes in time.

Margaret Blount, Animal Land
F Anstey

You may remember in The Little Princess that Sara Crewe has a doll house and she imagines the dolls talk while she’s not there. This lesser-known book for younger children stars those talking dolls, and is told by a fairy narrator. The introduction reads:

Now this is the story about the doll family I liked and the doll family I didn’t. When you read it you are to remember something I am going to tell you: If you think dolls never do anything you don’t see them do, you are very much mistaken. When people are not looking at them they can do anything they choose. They can dance and sing and play on the piano and have all sorts of fun. But they can only move about and talk when people turn their backs and are not looking. If anyone looks, they just stop. Fairies know this and of course Fairies visit in all the dolls’ houses where the dolls are agreeable. They will not associate, though, with dolls who are not nice. They never call or leave their cards at a dolls’ house where the dolls are proud or bad-tempered. They are very particular. If you are conceited or ill-tempered yourself, you will never know a fairy as long as  you live.

Queen Crosspatch

I do wonder how many young readers wondered why they weren’t visited by these fairies even though they were on their best behaviour.


Quite the most interesting and unusual Toyland was written about by, as might be expected, E. Nesbit in The Magic City — the only book, as distinct from her short stories, where she deals with talking toys. Nesbit children usually do not need toys they are too busy having imaginative adventures by other means. Like F. Antsey’s Torquil, they might remark that toys are ‘a babyish pursuit…except when they are exact models of things’. The Magic City, or rather series of cities, is a place that can be entered only by those who have helped to build it with books for bricks; and it is populated by creatures and people that have been put there, or have managed to escape, out of the books from which it is made. H.R. Millar’s drawings give the city that slabby, Babylonian/Aztec look of any structure made of books, ornaments, chessmen and dominoes. The story has that odd, logical but numinous quality shared by The Enchanted Castle, when the children who enter the city find that it is greater inside than out and has a history, prophecies and laws that seem to be older than its creators. That the dragon outside is a toy with a winding key does not make it any less fearsome; but it is still dreamlike — and one never dies in a dream. The lions in the desert that the children encounter are Noah’s Ark lions, but fierce and predatory. These lions are killed, and when dead are found to have turned to wood once more — a dreamlike easing of otherwise intolerable consequences.

Margaret Blount, Animal Land

All of these stories lead up to Pixar’s Toy Story, released 1995 to huge critical acclaim and huge box office earnings.


Christopher Robin enters a world (The Hundred Acre Wood) where his toys can talk and he never has to go back, unlike Paddington/Mary Plain/the Pushmipullyu. Winnie the Pooh was modelled on the toy bear of illustrator Shepherd’s son Graham. The actual bear is quite a bit thinner, though.

A bear character is never inconsiderable; no Teddy bear takes second place in the toy hierarchy. He is always King, the first in a child’s affection. As Pooh progresses his rotundity increases, his legs and arms shorten, his back becomes humped (a rare characteristic only seen in vintage bears and never on modern ones), his head pokes forward as if in deep thought. He is the first famous fictional bear and all the others owe him something; his size, his fondness for honey, ponderous naïveté and occasional flashes of brilliance have left their mark on other lesser bears, real or toy; and there is no question about Pooh’s reality. His adventures in the Forest and Hundred Acre Wood spring as naturally from character as the happenings in any real life.

Margaret Blount, Animal Land

Toys in popular children’s books are great for people in the modern era to make money — not by selling the stories themselves but by making cheap stuffed toys in China and selling those. Winnie-the-Pooh continues to be the most popular teddy bear from literature, helped along by Disney, who actually made a pretty terrible movie out of the character with none of A.A. Milne’s original wit.

Rupert Bear (1920s and 1930s)

Take a fairy tale from Grimm, one of the more exciting but less grotesque — say, ‘The Golden Goose’ or ‘The Frog Bride‘ or ‘Rumpelstiltskin‘. Add to this some of the glamour of The Arabian Nights, some of the magic and mysterious qualities of the King Arthur cycle and some of its knightly heroism. Add a homely taste of folk tale. Blend these ingredients very smoothly. Dilute the effect by a contemporary setting or framework. Express the result in drawings of beautiful, accurate detail, with no cartoon facetiousness, and then ration the dose to a picture a day, ensuring that addicts will always demand more — and you have the Rupert Bear adventures of the twenties and thirties, and some of the reasons why he enjoyed, and still enjoys, such success and popularity.

Margaret Blount, Animal Land
  • The Rupert Bear entry at Wikipedia tells you the full history.
  • There is no real reason for this boy to be a boy rather than a human, which makes him an ancestor of modern characters such as Olivia the pig.
  • But when he was created it was pretty normal for a child hero to be an animal (a la Pip, Squeak and Wilfrid, the Bruin Boys, Bobby Bear, Teddy Tail).
  • The character was created by talented illustrator Mary Tourtel.
  • Tourtel tended to give Rupert stories too much plot rather than too little. The stories became simplified over the years.
  • The first story was called Little Lost Bear, and was probably inspired by Goldilocks and Red Riding Hood combined. It’s a home-away-home story in which Rupert goes out into the forest, meets a variety of characters then returns home to his mother. (Woods are for getting lost in, in children’s literature.)
  • Tourtel was also inspired by The Arabian Nights tales, and Perrault and Dickens.
  • Tourtel’s collaborator was her husband, who was an editor. After he died — in 1931 — her stories went downhill, possibly because he acted as a restraining force. (Tourtel was first and foremost an artist, storyteller second. The pictures stopped being self-explanatory, requiring lengthy explanations to help the plot along. Also her drawing skills went downhill, due to failing eyesight.)
  • The subsequent Rupert Bear stories are also of this type. “Rupert’s fate was so monotonously terrible that one wondered why he went out at all, and conversely, why his parents never bothered to worry.” — Margaret Blount
  • Rupert Bear stories continued to be written by different authors, as were Sexton Blake, Nancy Drew, Sweet Valley High and The Hardy Boys.
  • Rupert grew younger and was brought more up to date over the decades. He also passed from animal-boy to boy-in-a-bear’s-body. But he still retains a sort of magical power that can only come from being part human part animal.
  • The setting is a place called Nutwood with no towns or cities. It’s populated by other animals and people in about equal numbers. It’s a bit like Narnia in that regard.
  • Animal characters tend to be good; people (witches, magicians etc.) tend to be bad. (Apart from wolves and the occasional dragon, of course, who are also bad.)

Pooh has several direct descendants, but the closest is probably Albert, created by  Alison Jezard from 1968 onwards.

Illustrator Margaret Gordon even makes him look like Winnie.

TEDDY ROBINSON (1955 onwards)

Teddy Robinson’s life is limited to that of his owner Deborah, and he lives in the real world of ‘I said to Teddy and he said to me’, or of Christopher Robin’s Binker, ‘I have to do it for him.’ He moves when Deborah moves and stays where Deborah puts him. His adventures are those of a toy who has thoughts and makes remarks, but is quite unable to move or initiate action. To Deborah he is a child, bear and friend. […] In Deborah’s absence, Teddy Robinson can talk to blackbird, snail, tortoise and kitten; and to Deborah he makes short, simple, acquiescent remarks. Each loves the other wholeheartedly and their lives are totally shared — in many ways Teddy Robinson is the most ‘natural’ bear of all. His personality reflects Deborah’s in the ageless way of well-loved toys, and his adventures are those of getting lose, left behind (on a sandcastle) and forgotten (in a tool shed), placed for sale in a shop window, thrown into a tree by ‘a boy who ran round the garden shooting at people who weren’t there until they were all dead, bouncing on a piano while it is being thumpingly played at a party, playing the games that one insists on one’s toys playing too, being turned into pirate or Indian, or sent to the toys’ hospital.

Margaret Blount

Some of these adventures may remind you of more contemporary books. For example, Shirley Hughes uses the ‘gets lost and winds up for sale’ in her story Dogger.



There are still plenty of talking animals in picture books — take Ian Falconer’s Olivia series, for instance. But modern stories don’t tend to be talking pets and toys — they are just animals that talk, no more questions asked. There are plenty of good reasons for depicting people as animals in picture books, especially.

Also common in modern children’s literature are imaginary friends, or if not friends, creatures who stick around for a short time then depart.


After the 2016 American Election, with my feeds full of Trump news interspersed with the odd grim images from my earthquake wracked hometown, I was glad to come across a positive article for a change — a biographical piece on a woman called Margaret Hamilton: The pioneering software engineer who coded humans to the moon. I’m going to spend the next four years reading about women and people of colour, I had already decided.

So I read the article and soon came across two full paragraphs not on Margaret herself but Professor Lorenz, the man behind the woman:

Professor Lorenz was one of the people who most inspired Hamilton throughout her life. He taught her a lot about software and gave her freedom to experiment with new ways of doing things.

Hamilton said: “Lorenz loved working with his computer and he would share with me his computer-related experiences and what he had learned from them, for which I was most grateful. Known as a genius by his colleagues, his humility stood out and he was one of the nicest people I have ever known.”

This seems fine, right? I’m sure Professor Lorenz was indeed a great mentor.

That said, when was the last time you read a biographical piece about a man with the achievements of Margaret Hamilton, wherein not the man himself is called a ‘genius’, but rather the wo/man behind the man.

Margaret is rendered passive here. Professor Lorenz gave her freedom.

This is something that regularly happens to women. Her agency is diminished. She is instead the product of a man.

I’m aware that much of that is quoted from Margaret herself, who sounds like she may be prone to typically feminine self-deprecation.

Mind that kind of writing which minimises a woman’s achievements while elevating the men in her periphery.

Another example is Hypatia.

Hypatia (c.355–415) was the first woman known to have taught mathematics. Her father Theon was a famous mathematician in Alexandria who wrote commentaries on Euclid’s Elements and works by Ptolemy. Theon taught his daughter math and astronomy, then sent her to Athens to study the teachings of Plato and Aristotle. Father and daughter collaborated on several commentaries, but Hypatia also wrote commentaries of her own and lectured on math, astronomy, and philosophy. Sadly, she died at the hands of a mob of Christian zealots.

Mental Floss

In sum, when writing about high-achieving women, be careful not to elevate the men around her in a way that actually overshadows the woman you’re aiming to highlight, even if you’ve found some self-deprecating quotes from the woman herself.

When reading about high-achieving women, keep an eye out for this almost invisible marginalisation and see it for what it is: a very long history of sexism, in which we cannot accept high-achieving women without attributing their successes to that of men.

Related to the Pygmalion principle of writing female biographies is the tendency to talk about the men and children in their lives more than talking about the woman herself:

Emilie Du Chatelet (1706–1749) was born in Paris in a home that entertained several scientists and mathematicians. Although her mother thought her interest in math was unladylike, her father was supportive. Chatalet initially employed her math skills to gamble, which financed the purchase of math books and lab equipment.

In 1725 she married an army officer, the Marquis Florent-Claude du Chatalet, and the couple eventually had three children. Her husband traveled frequently, an arrangement that provided ample time for her to study mathematics and write scientific articles (it also apparently gave her time to have an affair with Voltaire). From 1745 until her death, Chatalet worked on a translation of Isaac Newton’s Principia. She added her own commentaries, including valuable clarification of the principles in the original work.

Mental Floss

Sarah La Polla, literary agent (update: now freelance editor), points out on her blog that she sees this trope often in submissions:

Regardless of what happens in November, I hope Hillary Clinton’s candidacy will help make a trope I hate finally go awayand that is the Female Character Falling Ass Backwards Into Power. My literal examples are all TV-related:

  • Veep, Male president resigns, female VP rises
  • Commander In Chief, Male president dies, female VP rises
  • Battlestar Gallactica, Everyone in the line of succession dies, female Sec. of Education becomes president (and is amazing, of course, but still)

Seriously, did no one think a woman could just, ya know, get elected? All by herself. Can’t we have even a fictional world where the people chose a woman voluntarily and not because a male option was dead? (But I digress…)

In not-so-literal examples, some trends I’ve noticed in submissions are:

  • Female athlete who learned everything from her dad, who may or may not be the coach of her team too.
  • Battle of the Sexes science fairs or class president elections.
  • Propelled into the plot because of a missing father.
  • Propelled into the plot because her father is the doctor/detective/scientist directly involved in the story.

In each of these stories, the girl is in the shadow of a more powerful man, and then — and only then — can she find her inner strength. It takes an “anything you can do, I can do better” approach to feminism that feels outdated.

Another gendered Pygmalion effect in journalism is noted below, in reference to Dr Oz and Dr Phil both saying highly unsympathetic things in close succession in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic:

Header image: J.C. Leyendecker- the toy maker