Storytelling Tips from Northern Lights by Phillip Pullman

Northern Lights cover

Northern Lights is a YA story with broad appeal for adults. The plot follows mythic structure.

Northern Lights has been adapted into a film (2007) and also into an action/adventure puzzle game (by Sega). While in some cases films can be just as enjoyable — or even more enjoyable — than the books upon which they are based, that is nowhere near true in this case. There are many reasons for this which resulted from too many cooks spoiling the broth. Not least:

Before its release, the film received criticism from secularist organisations and fans of His Dark Materials for the dilution of elements of the story which were critical of religion, as well as from some religious organisations for the source material’s anti-Catholic themes. The studio ordered significant changes late in post-production, which Weitz later called a “terrible” experience.

— Wikipedia

Ideology

There is no god, or if there is, things aren’t as black and white as the Christian idea of heaven vs hell would have children believe. In reality people are both ‘good’ and ‘bad’. Our viewpoint character, Lyra, is a natural atheist, regarding stories from the Bible as symbols rather than truths:

“And that was how sin came into the world, ” he said [after reading the story of Adam and Eve], “sin and shame and death. It came the moment their daemons became fixed.”

“But…” Lyra struggled to find the words she wanted: “but it en’t true, is it? Not true like chemistry or engineering, not that kind of true?” There wasn’t really an Adam and Eve? The Cassington Scholar told me it was just a kind of fairy-tale.”

People use religion as a means to gain power.

“You see, your mother’s always been ambitious for power. At first she tried to get it in the normal way, through marriage, but that didn’t work, as I think you’ve heard. So she had to turn to the Church. Naturally she couldn’t take the route a man could have taken — priesthood and so on — it had to be unorthodox; she had to set up her own order, her own channels of influence, and work through that. It was a good move to specialize in Dust. Everyone was frightened of it; no one knew what to do; and when she offered to direct an investigation, the Magisterium was so relieved that they backed her with money and resources of all kinds.”

 

Working hard gives you purpose in life.

Now that Lyra had a task in mind, she felt all very well, but Pantalaimon was right: she wasn’t really doing any work there, she was just a pretty pet. On the gyptian boat, there was real work to do, and Ma Costa made sure she did it. She cleaned and swept, she peeled potatoes and made tea, she greased the propellor-shaft bearings, she kept the weed-trap clear over the propellor, she washed dishes, she opened lock gates, she tied the boat up at mooring-posts, and within a couple of day sshe was as much at home with this new life as if she’d been born gyptian.

The appearance of perfection is empty and its pursuit will lead you astray.

 

Setting

Religion

It’s well-known that Pullman wrote this His Dark Materials trilogy as an antidote to the Narnia Chronicles by C.S. Lewis.

A dogmatic ruling power called the Magisterium opposes free inquiry.

Ever since Pope John Calvin had moved the seat of the Papacy to Geneva and set up the Consistorial Court of Discipline, the Church’s power over every aspect of life had been absolute. The Papacy itself had been abolished after Calvin’s death, and a tangle of courts, colleges, and councils, collectively known as the Magisterium, had grown up in its place. Those agencies were not always united; sometimes a bitter rivalry grew up between them. For a large part of the previous century, the most powerful had been the College of Bishops, but in recent years the Consistorial Court of Discipline had taken its place as the most active and the most feared of all the Church’s bodies.

But it was always possible for independent agencies to grow up under the protection of another part of the Magisterium, and the Oblation Board, which the Librarian had referred to, was one of these.

Consistorial: An assembly of cardinals presided over by the pope for the solemn promulgation of papal acts, such as the canonization of a saint.

Type Of Fantasy World

The world of The Golden Compass is a world very much like ours, in a parallel universe. Much of it would be familiar to us — the continents, the oceans, Brytain, Norroway and The North Pole — but much is shockingly different. On this parallel Earth, a person’s soul lives on the outside of their body, in the form of a daemon — a talking animal spirit that accompanies them through life. A child’s daemon can change shape, assuming all the forms that a child’s infinite potential inspires; but as a person ages, their daemon eventually settles into one form, according to their character and nature.

— from a glossary of a promotional adaptation based on the film for Nestle Breakfast Cereals called The Golden Monkey and the Duel of the Daemons

This is an example of ‘low fantasy’, along with Tom’s Midnight Garden and, of course, The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe.

Low fantasy is a subgenre of fantasy fiction involving “non-rational happenings that are without causality or rationality because they occur in the rational world where such things are not supposed to occur.” Low fantasy stories are usually set in a fictional but rational world, and are contrasted with high fantasy stories, which take place in a completely fictional fantasy world setting with its own set of rules and physical laws.

— Wikipedia

So we find that the world of Northern Lights is set upon a palimpsest of England and Northern Europe, with familiar names such as London, Oxford and Whitehall, Lapland, Berlin and Svalbard.

Lyra herself (in a close third person narrative moment) regards the subterranean area as ‘the netherworld’. It’s no coincidence that she and Roger find dead bodies down here. As mentioned below, with Lyra’s hobby of roof jumping, Pullman creates an expansive world that not only has great latitude but also makes full use of altitude.

Ghosts

As in Philippa Pearce’s Tom’s Midnight Garden, this is an England where ghosts are real. When Lyra interferes with the skulls in the crypt, headless bodies enter her room at night to torment her. It is left up to the reader to decide whether this was real within the setting or if it is Lyra’s dreamscape.

Technology

This is almost a steampunk world. Instead of photographs we have magical photograms. Photograms are real things but in this world they can function magically so long as you use the right emulsion to develop the film. People have lorgnettes instead of spectacles (a pair of glasses or opera glasses held in front of a person’s eyes by a long handle at one side.)

Alethiometer

This is Pullman’s creation, inspired by the real world compass.

The word ‘alethic’ is a philosophical term denoting modalities of truth such as necessity, contingency, or impossibility. It’s basically a ‘truth-o-meter’.

“Dust”

The concept of dust is mentioned throughout the book and we are left to wonder what it is. It is revealed at the end to be connected to our real world, probably similar to how ‘dark matter’ or ‘junk DNA’ will eventually be proven to be something far more complex than we’d assumed, like how ‘bad air’ was later discovered to be a mosquito-borne virus, malaria.

Dust is revealed to be an elementary particle, thought to be evidence of Original Sin.

“But think of Adam and Eve like an imaginary number, like the square root of minus one: you can never see any concrete proof that it exists, but if you include it in your equations, you can caluclate all manner of things that couldn’t be imagined without it.

“Anyway, it’s what the Church has taught for thousands of years. And when Rusakov discovered Dust, at last there was a physical proof that something happened when innocence changed into experience.

“Incidentally, the Bible gave us the name Dust as well. At first they were called Rusakov Particles, but soon someone pointed out a curious verse toward the end of the Third Chapter of Genesis, where God’s cursing Adam for eating the fruit.”

 

Social Structure

It’s no accident that Lyra is a girl, not the default boy. Some authors create a girl protagonist for the reason of equal representation, as a move against symbolic annihilation, but another reason for creating a girl hero is because femaleness can be part of her underdog-ness, and an audience loves an underdog.

The reason Lyra is an underdog is because she lives in a patriarchy, similar to that found in England a few decades ago, where only (white) men were to be found in the halls of Oxbridge. There are a few token women, but they do not have equality:

“Are you a female Scholar?” said Lyra. She regarded female Scholars with a proper Jordan disdain: there were such people but, poor things, they could never be taken more seriously than animals dressed up and acting a play.

As in any unequal society, there is a strong caste system, with Scholars and politicians and royalty at the top and the servant class much further down (they all have dogs as daemons). Below them are the homeless and the travellers.

Animals

Pullman’s daemons (pronounced ‘demons’) are like spirit animals. They accompany characters everywhere, every character has one, and they can change form depending on the circumstance. At least, that is true for children. As children become adults their spirit animal settles into one creature. This is obviously symbolic of how we all grow more like ourselves as we grow older and figure out who we are.

This view of ‘concrete adult personality’ has been a dominant in psychology, at least in pop psychology, throughout recent history, though recent research suggests it’s not true at all. In February 2017 the results from the longest ever personality study revealed that our personalities when measured at the age of 77 are completely unrecognisable from those of our 14-year-old selves.

It is interesting to meet all the different forms that Pan takes on, and the animals of other characters’ daemons. Most writers are heavily influenced by Aesop when borrowing the animal tropes. Pullman makes use of standard animal characterisations but is highly original in both his choice of animal and which part of Lyra’s personality they represent.

STORY STRUCTURE OF NORTHERN LIGHTS

Shortcoming/Need/Problem

Lots of children’s books star ‘the every boy’ or ‘the every girl’. This is someone without distinct features. The reader — or often the middle class white reader — is then able to paste themselves over top, embodying the fictional character. Bella Swan is a good example of the featureless ‘every girl’.

Here we have a completely different heroine. Lyra goes beyond the every girl. Lyra Belacqua is a full-on rascal, “half-wild, half-civilised”, an implied orphan at the beginning:

  • Even though she hasn’t reached puberty she drinks and smokes. The drink is stolen and she’s not sorry for it even when she throws up.
  • She is engaged in petty warfare with whatever rival gang seems the most fun. She doesn’t think why she’s doing it.
  • She has some AD/HD qualities — she doesn’t sit still and listen when the Scholars try and tell her things, and when they do, it’s in one ear and out the other. These types of girls make very interesting protagonists and we see them a lot in middle grade fiction because they are fun. They are unafraid of adventure, and indeed crave it.
  • Lyra is a natural leader. She’s the decider in her ‘pack’ of friends, not just because she has noble blood but because that’s her personality.

So Lyra has very clear moral shortcomings: She lives her life in the name of fun even when others are at the butt end of her bullying. She is a renegade, which will come in handy later but for now means she steals and wrecks her health.

Lyra needs to learn which big struggles are worth fighting, and it’s not throwing rocks at the travellers’ kids who come into town. It is only when her best friend Roger gets abducted that she realises this is serious.

The reader already knows that Lyra is a Chosen Hero, much like Harry Potter, because we’ve been privy to the conversation between The Master and the Librarian after the failed poison attempt. The reader is clued-in to the fact that Lyra will succeed in her preordained mission.

Desire

At the beginning of the story Lyra’s only desire is to have fun. She is a natural explorer and very curious, so she explores the environment from the roofs and when she learns about the underground she goes down there, too. With her friend Roger she is trying to locate Gobblers, who to her are almost a kind of mythical creature.

However, when the Gobblers take Roger, shit gets real, and Lyra’s Strong Storyline Desire kicks into action. Not insignificantly, her doubling down happens on top of a roof. In stories revelations and decisions often take place in high places. It’s from the Bible. (Moses on the Mount.) It’s on the roof that she decides to go in search for Roger.

Pullman makes full use of the ups-and-downs of the geography, first with Lyra playing on the rooftops, next with she and Roger exploring the secret passages of Oxford, which her uncle tells her is just as expansive as what’s above ground.

When characters go onto rooftops, this is symbolically very similar to flying.

 

Opponent

Lyra’s life is turned upside down when children start to go missing, kidnapped by the enigmatic “Gobblers”, culminating in the disappearance of her best friend Roger.

We find the full range of villainy in this series, from morally ambiguous to out-and-out-evil, even if the evil is simply in the minds of the populace.

The mythical opponent — the out-and-out evil — is the group of Gobblers, who the reader knows from the outset is not exactly how Lyra understands it.

One thing Pullman does spectacularly well is presenting the adults in Lyra’s life as rounded people with both good and bad points, even when they get not much more than a single scene or a thumbnail character sketch.

  • Lord Asriel is a scary but admirable uncle.
  • The Master tries to kill Lord Asriel, but because we see him in discussion with the Librarian, his decision to kill Asriel is actually because he believes it’s for the greater good. He is not a classic villain, who in literature is bad because he wants to rule the world.

Pullman’s presentation of a yin and yang type universe is part of the deeper theme that there is no good/evil dichtomy. There is no heaven vs hell. It is far more complicated than that. People are far more complicated than that.

Mystery

Even in children’s books which are not of the mystery genre per se, mystery is a natural part of childhood and is therefore a natural part of stories about children. Remember what it’s like being a kid, overhearing adult conversations, standing in the shadows, and trying to work things out because adults don’t tell you things. And even if they do tell you things, you only understand part of it anyway. In this story, Lyra’s education is incomplete, she is pre-adolescent and a faulty memory. She pieces things together at the same rate as the reader.

Pullman is a master at introducing a tidbit then waiting before explaining what’s going on. He applies it to features of this fantasy world:

  • What is dust?
  • What is going on in the North that involves children?
  • Why are children going missing and what is happening to them once they’re gone?
  • What exactly are the Gobblers? This subplot draws on the nature of childhood rhymes such as Wee Willy Winky and folktales such as The Pied Piper. Pullman also understands the nature of urban legend, and we eventually learn where the name Gobbler came from, and who is behind the organisation.
  • What is the alethiometer for? Pullman shows us first, describing only what it looks like as it’s given to Lyra. Next it is pointed out that because it ends in ‘meter’ it’s for measuring something. We learn that only six of them were made. We learn that everyone wants it and it is very precious. Finally Lyra meets people who tell her (and us) exactly what it’s for.

He applies mystery to character:

  • Who are the baddies and who are the goodies?
  • Who are Lyra’s parents?
  • Who is this mysterious Mrs Coulter?

Plan

Lyra goes with the flow until she realises that Mrs Coulter is not all sweetness, as it says on the package. Lyra runs away and is taken in by the Gyptians. She decides to accompany the Gyptians to the wild and dangerous North.

Other characters have their own plans of course. For example, her father plans to build a bridge into a new world through the Northern Lights, where the barrier between the worlds is thin. Each of the main characters has a specific goal.

Battle

There are a number of confrontations, ending in the fight to the death between the bears as climactic big struggle. At least, we think that’s the main big struggle — it is a big struggle scene in the most literal sense and we think that’s the final shock we’re going to get. That’s why we’re not prepared for Lyra’s father suddenly severing Roger’s daemon from him.

(Self)-Revelation

The mystery is tied up and the reader learns the truth about the Gobblers and the Dust: LAt the Northern research station the Gobblers undertake a process called “intercision”, forcibly separating children from their dæmons. This cruel operation supposedly protects children from Dust, the obsession of the civilised world but a mystery to Lyra.

Lyra also learns after a crash landing that Iorek is the rightful king. She manages by trickery to win back the throne from the false king, Iofur Raknison, who had allied the bears with the Gobblers.

She learns after getting away from her wicked mother the second time that she is capable of great things — Lyra is an excellent trickster and it will be up to her to save these children and uncover truths.

Early in the book Lyra mentions that she has an advantage over adults: She has a daemon who can change, whereas adults have a daemon who is set. That gives her an advantage as a child.

Stories don’t generally feature characters with transmogrifying animal daemons, of course, but the idea that children are malleable and adaptable and resilient to change is a common one throughout children’s literature. Their resilience is one main advantage they have over their adult opponents.

New Situation

Overwhelmed by guilt after unwittingly assisting her father in killing Roger, Lyra resolves to find Dust herself, reasoning that if her mother thinks it is a bad thing then the opposite must be true.  She and Pan follow Lord Asriel into the new world.

 

 

The Ideology Of Work Ethic In Children’s Literature

Good children work hard.

Lazy children lose out.

This view of work ethic is so ingrained throughout children’s stories that it’s hardly noticed. However, there is speculation these days (in fact since the 1970s) that humanity may be facing a post-work future. Some argue that no human job is ‘safe’ from robots and apps — the caring and creative professions will be last to go, but go they will.

What if our children, or our children’s grandchildren, are born into a world where most of them never work because robots — or a robot spin-off, yet to be invented — are the new slaves? The Romans and the Greeks managed to contribute so much to the world only because their slavery system allowed a well-educated gentry to dedicate themselves to art and ideas.

What if everyone was in that position? Our children’s grandchildren may look back on literature of the modern era — the literature our children are reading right now — and the work ethic may well stick out as an outdated feature of our age.

Some of our oldest stories are popular in part because of their strong work ethic. While Robinson Crusoe (and all of its descendants) is set on an island and is therefore partly escapist, characters don’t actually get to escape work. It’s hard work actually, living on an island. No matter the setting, we love characters who work. If they are lazy, or somehow manage to avoid work through sheer cunning (or even through pragmatism), we generally don’t want to see them get what they want.

Examples Of Strong Work Ethic In Children’s Literature

The Little Red Hen

This is still a popular tale and conveys the clear message that if you want to enjoy something you must work to produce it. You may not jump in at the last minute to enjoy the fruits of someone else’s labour. In Robinson Crusoe, too, Crusoe takes great pleasure in baking his own bread.

The Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton

Blyton’s children were afforded plenty of time to explore the low fantasy worlds right under the adults’ noses, or even to solve crime, but Blyton made sure young readers knew they weren’t off in the woods picnicking until after their household tasks had been completed.

Northern Lights by Philip Pullman

At Mrs Coulter’s house Lyra is mostly decorative and although she is surrounded by beautiful, feminine things and dressed up like a doll, she has no sense of fulfilment until she runs away and is taken in by the gyptian boat people who give her plenty of chores to keep her occupied:

Now that Lyra had a task in mind, she felt all very well, but Pantalaimon was right: she wasn’t really doing any work there, she was just a pretty pet. On the gyptian boat, there was real work to do, and Ma Costa made sure she did it. She cleaned and swept, she peeled potatoes and made tea, she greased the propellor-shaft bearings, she kept the weed-trap clear over the propellor, she washed dishes, she opened lock gates, she tied the boat up at mooring-posts, and within a couple of day she was as much at home with this new life as if she’d been born gyptian.

Spirited Away

Work Ethic in Spirited Away
Work Ethic in Spirited Away

This is an anime for children created by Hayao Miyazaki of the Studio Ghibli studio. Japanese culture is well-known for promoting a strong work ethic, linking work closely to a sense of self. In Spirited Away Chihiro has her name taken away — it is shortened to ‘Sen’. In order to get her full name back (her sense of self), as well as rescue her parents, she must go to work in the fantasy realm. Through pure hard work she somehow saves the day.

Hayao Miyazaki himself was notorious for his strong work ethic and he prioritised work over family, not atypically for a Japanese man of his age. He seems to have retired now, though came back from supposed retirement at least once. Oh, and now he’s back again.

Tar Baby

“The most perplexing aspect of this folk tale is that in many variants the rabbit is portrayed as a free-rider. Asked to help dig a community well, he says he prefers to live off the dew on the grass – and then proceeds to steal water from the well. Asked to till the soil, he refuses, but then proceeds to steal a cabbage here and a turnip there. If the rabbit represents the underdog, how is he also, to use Wagner’s phrase, “a selfish hustler”? Even more curiously, why is he so likeable?”

NPR

Religion In Children’s Literature

Religion is still everywhere. So, reflecting and influencing the culture in which we find them, children’s books are not secular either.

It’s interesting to interrogate the role of religion in children’s literature because children’s literature is an acculturating medium: It will introduce children to social life and history so is both educational and enjoyable.

Many of the following notes are from the Kid You Not Podcast Episode 6: Religion In Children’s Literature.

BLASPHEMY!

There Is No Dog by Meg Rosoff met with controversy for being a ‘blasphemous’ book.

A young teenage boy is god and has created the earth, and is dealing with it very badly. It’s an attempt to explain all the suffering that happens on earth – teenagers can likewise experience the pits of despair and ecstasy at another moment.

This is a ‘concept book’. The premise defines everything about the book, from the language used (pseudo-biblical, a parody of biblical language), to the characterisation. A lot of questions are raised about teenage love and the lack of spiritualism in the teenage years.

 

A BRIEF HISTORY OF RELIGION IN CHILDREN’S LITERATURE

Children’s literature has very strong ties to religion. Religion is kind of the reason why children’s books were written — to indoctrinate children.Children’s publishing was originally to publish pamphlets to develop children’s fear of god.

The very first examples of children’s literature were prayer books and stories that had religious elements. The Bible was for a very very long time the only thing that children ever read (or had read to them). The cradle of children’s literature in the West is of course based on the Christian faith.

A lot of what people call their favourite books, even today, are often very religious. Little Women is one example: All the characters try and follow the Pilgrim’s Progress, a text by John Bunion which children definitely don’t read anymore. The Secret Garden (all of the Frances Hodgson Burnett books, Anne of Green Gables, Polyanna, are all Christian.

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Even children from non-religious backgrounds – who are big readers – today tend to be exposed to heavily Christian works.

Picture books with Christian themes still sell well, and so they are still published, particularly around Easter and Christmas. Parents buy them. Bible stories are really good stories on their own – the nativity story is a very pleasant story. Have they been stripped of the faith? Can they now be treated as a myth or legend? The nativity story probably fits that category for many modern families.

The Lutterworth Press is an old publishing company (of 200 years) whose mission is to publish Christian texts. They published Joan’s Crusade [which my mother had as a child, and it graced my own childhood bookshelves, and I remember one very bored Sunday I actually read it].

In mainstream publishing today, when religion is mentioned in children’s literature it is to talk about religious extremism, or else the human aspect of religion, what humans create. There are books about the Sikh community in Britain, for example, but they don’t explore faith but rather the way of life that accompanies the faith. It is currently unfashionable to express devotion to god in children’s literature.

YOUNG ADULT BOOKS ABOUT RELIGIOUS TRADITIONS RATHER THAN FAITH

For a good example of this, see (Un)arranged Marriage, set in Leicester or Killing Honour, both by Bali Rai.

Popular stories about religious traditions present extremism as something that isn’t part of the faith, as something separate and malicious and which has grown from bitterness. There are very religious characters in the story but never the main character – usually the main character’s parents.

Religion is now presented as a social problem – not necessarily in a negative way – but as something to be dealt with.

More fashionable are books sometimes attack religious beliefs. (For example There Is No Dog.)

 

CHRISTIAN SYMBOLS IN PARANORMAL YOUNG ADULT NOVELS

Angel by L.A. Weatherly is an example of a YA book about angels, which are Christian ideas.

Angels are all around us: beautiful, awe-inspiring, irresistible.

Ordinary mortals yearn to catch a glimpse of one of these stunning beings and thousands flock to The Church of Angels to feel their healing touch.
But what if their potent magnetism isn’t what it seems?
Willow knows she’s different from other girls. And not just because she loves tinkering around with cars.
Willow has a gift. She can look into people’s futures, know their dreams, their hopes and their regrets, just by touching them. But she has no idea where she gets this power from.

Until she meets Alex…
Alex is one of the few who know the truth about angels. He knows Willow’s secret and is on a mission to stop her.
The dark forces within Willow make her dangerous – and irresistible.
In spite of himself, Alex finds he is falling in love with his sworn enemy.

— promotional copy of Angel, book one

 

Yet the Angel series, and the Fallen series by Lauren Kate, is devoid of spirituality even though god exists as a character. He doesn’t exist in the way religious readers would understand. It can therefore sit strangely with religious readers.

Angel accuses angels of being the cause of mental illness, which is completely at odds with their significance in religion. The main plot point is that the angels create The Church Of Angels to help angels break free from humans, which is probably a metaphor for the evangelical churches in America: Meetings, huge churches, TV evangelists. The angels need these to feed on souls. The author cleverly takes all the characteristics of a cult and applies them to angels, and the Church of Angels may be the most ingenious thing about this series. Significantly, the author at no point attacks belief itself, only organised religion. Again, this speaks to the reluctance of YA authors to tackle the issues of faith and belief head-on.

Many other recent dystopian YA novels do not mention religion at all. The Hunger Games, Delirium etc. are visions of a religion free future.

RELIGION AND CHARACTER ARCS IN YOUNG ADULT NOVELS

In pretty much every story, a character goes through a character arc, from less mature to more mature. These stories are known as Bildungsromane, though click through to find out a more accurate term to apply to most YA novels., in which the main character doesn’t become fully adult.

An author’s choice of plot, setting and conflict is pretty much infinite. But the exact nature of the character arc is more predictable than it seems when we look beneath these surface differences:

Adolescent novels that deal with religion as an institution demonstrate how discursive institutions are and how inseparable religion is from adolescents’ affiliation with their parents’ identity politics. Adolescents in such novels eventually experience language determining not only their religions beliefs, but also creating competing dialogues that influence their own religious views. Moreover, such novels depict how religion influences identity politics, especially those of race, class and gender. […] All of the protagonists [in examples given by Seelinger Trites] experience some form of the (over)regulation >> unacceptable rebellion .>> repression >> acceptable rebellion >> transcendence model that typifies the domination repression model of institutional discourse common in adolescent literature.

— Roberta Seelinger Trites, Disturbing The Universe

 

PHILIP PULLMAN AND ‘RELIGIOUS ATHEISM’

Philip Pullman’s series His Dark Materials is all about stories and about how they shape your existence, and how they are your passage to life after death. Pullman hated The Chronicles of Narnia and wrote his own series – Paradise Lost for children, in a way that would say to readers that they are allowed to question religious authority. A huge proportion of the American religious community hate this series. They have been denounced by the pope. These books are able to shape a child’s ideas about religion: They are critical of organised religion but very spiritual. Pullman takes away the Christian God but replaces it with the idea that there is a higher power and everything is connected.

It’s quite a fashionable statement now to say you see the world as spiritual and connected but outside clerical order. Naturally, this is reflected in children’s literature too.

Phillip Pullman describes himself as a ‘religious atheist’. His grandfather was a priest. Most books still do commit to a Christian sense of morality. [I disagree with this. I’m with Richard Dawkins on this point, that modern morality is not of the Bible but rather an evolution of culture, shared by atheists and theists alike. Morality according to the Bible is a tough world indeed. Christians do not own morality, though Lauren and Clementine do specify ‘ideas promoted by Christianity’, which is a better way of phrasing this, I feel.]

Hear a 2010 interview with Philip Pullman on Radio New Zealand, with my favourite interviewer, Kim Hill. The interview is called ‘Jesus and Christ’.

Salman Rushdie’s book for children is also an example of an author with a religious agenda.

WHAT WOULD JESUS DO?

In Harry Potter, it is not questioned that the right thing for Harry to do is to top himself. This has a Jesus ring to it. [The reason I take issue with this being a Christian thing to do is because it’s very much a part of traditional Japanese culture – the harakiri culture which is in place even today – and Japanese culture is not based on Christianity at all. The Japanese, like the British, drive their cars on the left side of the road, but saying that therefore the Japanese drive like the Brits would be erroneous – this shared culture is simply coincidence. However, perhaps it’s the case that J.K. Rowling herself is influenced by Christianity and that it has influenced her work, which is to say a slightly different thing.]

Related: See the short video from Emory University — Harry Potter: A Christ Figure

There are a lot of book in which characters are resurrected. Providence is an important part of children’s literature, as discussed in the podcast on Death in Children’s Literature. Artichoke Hearts doesn’t seem to have much to do with religion but the protagonist frequently calls on not sure who, not sure what, to help her family.

 

FANTASY RELIGION

On the topic of Wicked by Gregory Maguire:

Too often in fantasy religion is either distant, or too close, with gods interacting directly with characters, and characters in turn becoming far too aware of just how this fantasy universe operates, at least divinely. Here, characters cling to faith—in at least two cases, far too fiercely for their own good—without proof, allowing faith or the lack thereof to guide their actions. It allows for both atheism and fanaticism, with convincing depictions of both, odd though this seems for Oz. (Baum’s Oz had one brief reference to a church, and one Thompson book suggests that Ozites may be at least familiar with religious figures, but otherwise, Oz had been entirely secular, if filled with people with supernatural, or faked supernatural, powers and immortality.)

Tor

 

KIND OF RELATED

The Five Best Depictions Of God In Movies from Film School Rejects

Next is a collection of stories about life after death, interview with editor at Books For Keeps

Richard Dawkins, well-known atheist academic [my milkshake duck], wrote The Magic Of Reality to counteract all of the religious, mythical, superstitious and anti-science ideas which permeate children’s stories. Interview also at Books for Keeps.

even miracles take a little time

The Symbolism Of Flight In Children’s Literature

Flight is amazingly common in children’s stories. Several other motifs should be considered symbolically similar:

  1. floating — e.g. by holding onto helium balloons, levitating by magic or by supernatural means
  2. going up onto a high place, such as a roof or a tree(house) — Andy Griffiths and Terry Denton’s tree house series are mega bestsellers in Australia
  3. hovering — a subgenre in African American books
  4. leaping and jumping — In Laura Ingalls Wilder’s fourth book for children, On The Banks Of Plum Creek, Laura and Mary jump with unrestrained joy off a stack of hay (until they’re told not to by their father). This contrasts with later chapters in the book where the outdoorsy Laura finds it difficult to concentrate in class, where she is required to sit still, restrained like a caged creature.

 

Christopher Vogler has this to say about how flight doesn’t always mean actual flying:

Fairy tales include a chase that involves a whimsical transformation of objects, known as the magic flight motif. In a typical story a little girl escapes from the clutches of a witch with the help of gifts from animals she’s been kind to. The girl throws down the gifts one by one in the witch’s path and they magically transform into barriers that delay the witch. A comb becomes a thick forest that slows the witch while she gobbles it up. A scarf becomes a wide river which she has to drink.

Joseph Campbell gives several illustrations of magical flights, and suggests the motif stands for a hero’s attempts to stall the avenging forces in any way possible, by throwing down “protective interpretations, principles, symbols, rationalizations, anything…(to)…delay and absorb” their power.

What the hero throws down in a chase may also represent a sacrifice, the leaving behind of something of value. The little girl of the fairy tales may find it hard to part with the lovely scarf or comb given by the animals. Heroes of movie adventures sometimes have to decide what’s really important, and toss money out the window to slow their pursuers and save their lives. Campbell cites the extreme example of Medea. Escaping with Jason from her father, she had Jason cut up her own brother and toss his pieces into the sea to delay the pursuit.

– The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Storytellers and Screenwriters

FLOATING = FLYING

When considering flight as a metaphor, include floating. As John Truby writes in his review of Avatar, ‘In the history of utopias, the single most important quality is floating or flying. Think of the floating tea party in Mary Poppins, Harry Potter playing Quidditch on his broomstick, or the floating house in Up.’

A good picture book example of floating can be seen in Outside Over There by Maurice Sendak, in which Ida floats backwards out the nursery window, then floats through the fantasy landscape as if she’s underwater. Gravity works differently in this imaginary world of hers, in which her little sister was kidnapped by goblins.

Truby points out that if a fantasy world is to be successful on a grand scale, it must have the qualities of a utopia.

In other words, a successful utopia requires flight.

2009-Pixar-film-Up-010
A lift skywards via balloons can also be seen in various other stories such as The Twits by Roald Dahl.
Dorothy and Toto fly through the air in a farmhouse transported by hurricane.
the-adventures-of-raggedy-ann-flying_1000x760
Raggedy Ann, 1968. There are many different ways a character can take to flight. Here she is tied to a kite by some mischievous boys.

 

FLYING AS WISH FULFILMENT

The ability to fly is a common form of wish fulfilment both in adult and in children’s literature, especially if we widen our definition to include ‘flights of fancy’:

Flights of fancy allow us, as readers, to take off, to let our imaginations take flight. We can sail off with characters, freed of the limitations of our tuition payments and mortgage rates; we can soar into interpretation and speculation.

How To Read Literature Like A Professor, Thomas C. Foster

E. Nesbit’s book Five Children And It explores in serial fashion a variety of common wishes. The first chapter explores the wish to be beautiful, in the second chapter the children become temporarily rich (and learn that gold can’t buy happiness), and since Nesbit has a keen understanding of what people would commonly wish for, should they happen upon their own Psammead, the children soon wish for the ability to fly.

plum thief
It’s a sign of more naive times that it seems the plum farmer is looking straight up the skirt of the little girl.

Nesbit also had a good grasp on what flying was for, in children’s literature, and the ideology of most works that have come before. By ‘come before’, I’m pretty sure Nesbit was thinking about the Icarus story when she wrote:

So perhaps the winged children really did do one good thing that day. If so, it was the only one; for really there is nothing like wings for getting you into trouble. But, on the other hand, if you are in trouble, there is nothing like wings for getting you out of it.

— Five Children And It

Enid Blyton's Wishing Chair books are basically a series of adventure in which flying first gets the children into trouble, then out again.
Enid Blyton’s Wishing Chair books are basically a series of adventure in which flying first gets the children into trouble, then out again.

Five Children And It was published in 1902. Inventors had been trying to make a flying contraption for some decades, with little success. Then, in 1903 the Wright Brothers achieved something notable and after that humankind had cracked it: We’ve been using the skies for travelling ever since. But what was it like, living in these times of proto-flight? A lot of people had been killed in their attempts to fly. Adults of 19903 would have — many of them — thought, “Well that’s nice, but no way you’re getting me in the air!” and I’m sure I’d feel the same way if space tourism became an affordable thing for the masses. “That’s nice, but I’ll stick to Earth, thanks!” No wonder children’s literature of this time was all about how flying can get you into trouble… but also out of it.

Nesbit goes out of her way to break the inevitable Christian link between winged children and angels, by pointing out that they're wearing the wrong sort of clothes.
Nesbit goes out of her way to break the inevitable Christian link between winged children and angels, by pointing out that they’re wearing the wrong sort of clothes.

In Karlsson On The Roof by Astrid Lindgren, a small man with a propeller on his back appears hovering at Smidge’s window. Like the children in Five Children and It or like Enid Blyton’s Molly and Peter from The Wishing Chair books, Smidge and Karlson share all sorts of adventures from tackling thieves and playing tricks to looping the loop and running across the rooftops.

FLYING AS DANGER: ICARUS AND DAEDALUS

Gowy Icaro Prado
Gowy Icaro Prado

All cultures around the world seem to have stories about flying, but one of the most influential stories in Western literature is the Greek story of Icarus and Daedalus.

There doesn’t have to be any ‘actual’ flying in order for an author to make use of flight symbolism. Simply using the name Daedalus did it in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

— How To Read Literature Like A Professor, Thomas C. Foster

FLYING = FREEDOM

Or does it?

A lot of the time, flying equals freedom. Not just freedom from specific circumstances in the plot but also freedom from more general burdens. In a slightly religious sense, flying = freeing of the spirit. The notion that the disembodied soul is capable of flight is deeply embedded in the Christian tradition and probably many others. But for the ancient Greeks and Romans this concept was problematic: the souls of blessed and damned alike were meant to go to an underground realm. The belief in a celestial heaven leads much of later Western culture, who think of a soul as light and travelling upwards.

But as in all symbols, the ability to fly can also be symbolic of ‘failure to fly’, or failure to take advantage of one’s freedom.

If anyone flies or falls for too long, Icarus and his imaginary cousins are probably being invoked.

There are plenty of stories about flying whose flights — like Icarus — are interrupted prematurely. In each case there is an element of rebirth.

How To Read Literature Like A Professor, Thomas C. Foster

Many people consider Heaven = Sky a Christian notion, but Jewish people came up with it.

In We Found a Hat by Jon Klassen, two tortoises resolve their dispute when they dream of flying away together, both of them wearing the hat they both want. They have been freed from their pull towards the hat. Jon Klassen previously illustrated a similar story written by Mac Barnett, in which the two main characters are propelled through space then land in another world without realising.

In My Father’s A Birdman by David Almond, flight imagery is used as an escape for the grieving, widowed father who is not coping with life, relying on his daughter to be the adult figure.

In Skellig, flying means many things, one of those things being freedom:

[Michael]  has an archangel’s name. He has moved to Falconer Road. A falconer is someone who trains winged creatures. Michael helps the winged creature, Skellig. Owls join in the care of Skellig. Michael’s friend Mina (Myna, bird) chants Blake’s verses about a caged bird and observes and draws birds. Birds represent freedom, flight, the soaring spirit. To attain its freedom, a bird must leave the nest (the old house) and find its place in the world (the new house). It is time for Michael to exit the golden cage of childhood and soar up into the terrifying and beautiful world of maturity. It is time for innocent children (Michael and Mina) to resuscitate a winged creature that has given up hope.

The Literary Link

For more on flight as freedom, see The Freedom Of Flight (in film) from Now You See It.

The Steven Spielberg film E.T. features an alien flying on a bike as its main image. The characters in E.T. show hostility to anything new. This is a xenophobic town. When our main character and the poor alien are about to get caught by all the people chasing after them, the bicycle leaves the earth and with it the earthbound grownups. Flying is freedom.

FLYING… OR FALLING?

It’s not just flying that’s symbolic: with any flying comes the fear of falling. So what does it mean when a character falls? If a character plummets but still survives this is seen as a feat in its own right. Falling as an act is as symbolic as flying itself.

— How To Read Literature Like A Professor, Thomas C. Foster

In his picture book After The Fall, Dan Santat makes use of fear of falling when he revisits the nursery rhyme of Humpty Dumpty.

FLYING AND FREEDOM IN PETER AND WENDY

Childhood is a time of constraints which frustrate even the happiest children and the flying Peter (of Peter Pan) is an emblem of freedom and autonomy. But more powerfully symbolic is the fact that he teaches the Darling children to fly, for they are surrounded by the kind of restrictions and impediments that children recognise — rules about bedtime, medicine, pyjamas, baths, night lights — so it seems that if they can fly then any child can break free. Their departure through the nursery window , ‘like a flight of birds’ is an exhilarating image of escape from the mundane. In liberating the children from the boring routine of school and office which Mr Darling represents, Peter, like Jack in ‘Jack And The Beanstalk’, overcomes the giant, the oppression of public authority.

Deconstructing The Hero, Marjery Hourihan

At one level, CHILDREN ARE BIRDS and SCHOOLS ARE CAGES operate as fairly traditional (and obvious) symbolism.

— Roberta Trites, in a discussion of David Almond’s My Name Is Mina and Skellig, Literary Conceptualizations of Growth: Metaphors and cognition in adolescent literature

FLYING AS CLOSER TO GOD

flight symbolism piano baja

“They say that shoulder blades are where your wings were, when you were an angel [Mum] said. “They say they’re where your wings will grow again one day.”
“It’s just a story, though,” I said. “A fairy tale for little kids, isn’t it?”
“Who knows? But maybe one day we all had wings and one day we’ll all have wings again.”
“D’you think the baby had wings?”
“Oh, I’m sure that one had wings. Just got to take one look at her. Sometimes I think she’s never quite left Heaven and never quite made it all the way here to Earth.”

— Skellig, David Almond

This is related to the concept of angels of course, and also to the Victorian concept of the child as completely innocent, clean and pure.

FLYING = SEXUAL AUTONOMY

This idea is perhaps more common in young adult literature than in middle grade. The film Maleficent offers a good example:

I had wings once, but they were stolen from me.

Maleficent, the retelling of Sleeping Beauty with the evil fairy as the viewpoint character

Maleficent wings

HOVER-FLYING AS A SUBCATEGORY

Hover-flying may be considered a sub-genre within African-American picture books.

  • Tar Beach by Faith Ringgold (1991)
  • Aunt Harriet’s Underground Railroad in the Sky (1992)
  • Wings by Christopher Myers (2000)
  • Fly! by Christopher Myers (2001)

This hover-flying might be interpreted as expressions of personal autonomy and social responsibility. Hover-flying may also be a metaphor for migration (exodus narratives), utilizing a vertical rather than horizontal way of defamliarising a setting such as a poverty-stricken South or a ghetto.

ROOFS AS A VARIATION ON FLIGHT SYMBOLISM

If the characters make it onto the top of a roof, consider this similar to flying.

Les douze lutins de la princesse Mab, by Jérôme Doucet. Illustrated by Henry Morin. Librairie Hachette, Boulevard Saint-Germain, Paris. .1930. “Mab gravit l’étroite échelle”

Roger and Lyra on the roof in Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights/The Golden Compass.

Santa Claus is famous for flying through the air in a sleigh pulled by reindeer, settling upon roofs. The Santa Claus story would not be quite so magical if he journeyed from place to place by Toyota Corolla.

SKYSCRAPERS = ROOFS

Since King Kong climbed to the top of the Empire State Building in 1933, the movies have often relied on skyscrapers as a tense setting for action thrills. And the buildings, along with studio ambitions, keep getting higher.

New York Times

TREES AS A VARIATION ON FLIGHT SYMBOLISM

Treehouses feature often in children’s stories. In Dav Pilkey’s popular Captain Underpants series, the heroes George and Harold write comics in their treehouse and retreat to it when things get out of hand, to regroup and create their way out of trouble. There are, of course, Tolkien’s Ents, the walking trees who fight on the side of good against Sauron and his army. Or Dr Seuss’s Lorax, who guards the Truffula trees from devastation. Ents and the Lorax are guardians of the ecosystem. When they act we know that something is badly out of kilter – in these cases in the fight between good and evil.

Mention Enid Blyton’s Faraway Tree stories, meanwhile, and many a grown-up gets misty-eyed. Mary Pope Osborne’s Magic Tree House series has been going strong for 25 years, and has nearly 100 titles. Carter Higgins’s Everything You Need for a Treehouse helps you get kitted out for your own woodland home. And mythology is full of trees.

Elizabeth Hale and Lynnette Lounsbury

CLIFFS AND HILLS AS A VARIATION ON FLIGHT SYMBOLISM

For more on the symbolism of altitude, I wrote an entire post about that.

Dr. Seuss loved to vary the altitude of his illustrations, with scenes set on mountains, clifftops, hills trees and whatever fantastical contraption he could dream up. I Had Trouble Getting To Solla Sollew is a good example of that. While his characters rarely fly, the risk of toppling adds to the drama and narrative drive. His characters are often mid-action, leaping and tumbling through the air.

CHILDREN’S BOOKS DEPICTING FLIGHT ON THE COVER

The Girl Who Could Fly
Skirts: not great for taking to the skies. But it’s fun to draw ‘el vuelo de la falda’.

flying on a contraption

No Flying In The House

Russian flying girl

RELATED TO FLIGHT SYMBOLISM

Roald Dahl’s five weeks flying in the airforce had a huge influence on him and his writing. Almost every children’s story he wrote featured flying in some form. The leaps and bounds of The BFG, Billy’s flying through flames on a swan in The Minpins, James tethering birds together in James and the Giant Peach, Mrs Twit lifted up by balloons, children being thrown by the Trunchbull in Matilda. His short story collection Over To You is a collection all about flying.

What are the best children’s books on flying? from The Guardian

Flight And Children’s Literature from Carol Hurst

Children’s Literature and Flight, focusing on planes and space travel