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.
The Cat Returns is a 2002 feature-length anime about a teenage girl who is transported against her will into a feline fantasy world after saving a cat’s life. Writer Aoi Hiiragi also wrote the script for Whisper of the Heart. This is a sort of sequel to that, where the main character writes this story. In written form, this is an ‘urban fantasy’, which literary agents have recently started to call grounded, contemporary fantasy (I believe it’s a rebranding thing).
Like a number of animated cartoons, The Cat Returns started out as a comic book series, though the film is quite different.
Japanese Title of The Cat Returns
The Japanese title is Neko no ongaeshi, which literally means ‘The Cat’s Favour’. But that’s not a great translation because there’s no exact equivalent of ongaeshi in English:
It means ‘to return a favor’ or ‘to prove a gratitude’. In Japan, the word is perceived as rather antiquated and poetic and describes the space between action and reaction of gratitude. In this context ‘action’ can be described as: an invitation for a project, assistance to a solution for an abstract problem as well as direct support at the workspace. All this leads to a ‘reaction’ which may occur later in time, or have a different context. Even in Japanese it is difficult to comprehend this word which makes it open to imagination and potential.
This month I wrote a post on Teaching Kids How To Structure A Story. Today I continue with a selection of mentor texts to help kids see how it works. Let’s look closely at another wordless picture book, this time by Shirley Hughes: Up and Up, from 1979.
STORY STRUCTURE OF UP AND UP
Up and Up is a carnivalesque portalfantasy, and the portal is the huge chocolate egg.
The story opens with the following wonderfully detailed Where’s Wally-esque opening spread, with foreshadowing of the big balloon partially hidden behind a tree:
WHO IS THE MAIN CHARACTER?
The girl in Up and Up doesn’t have a name, though she may be one of the characters from another Shirley Hughes book. Hughes’s characters all have a similarity to them. Children are drawn like sprightly little old people, somehow.
When characters in children’s books don’t have a name, this turns them by default into The Every Child.
WHAT DOES SHE WANT?
The girl wants to fly like a bird. We see this from the opening spread. A bird flies past; she stands up to watch it leave. At first we don’t know if she’s just interested in bird watching or perhaps feather-collecting, but the following spread cements that wish.
Her natural opponent is gravity, but gravity does not make for an especially interesting opponent. We can’t care about gravity — whether it wins or loses. Gravity just is.
Like many children who go off on carnivalesque adventures, her parents don’t pay attention to her. I guess this is a universal feeling children have, no matter how much time parents have.
Her main human opponent is introduced a bit later — the old man with the telescope, who is the most hellbent on bringing her down. He’s a mad scientist archetype, and so keen to arrest her that he even uses his hot air balloon which he has in his backyard.
WHAT’S THE PLAN?
Shirley Hughes utilises the rule of threes during the opening sequence, giving the girl three separate plans to fly like a bird.
Run and leap (trips and falls)
Make wings out of paper and jump off a ladder. (I have personally done this as a kid, though I didn’t have enough faith to actually make the leap!)
Inflate balloons and float up into the sky. (Gets stuck on a twig.) At this point the story has already crossed over into fantasy realm. First, the girl blows up the balloons with her breath, but these are behaving like helium balloons. Second, there’s no way 9 balloons would lift a girl up into a tree.
All of her plans fail so she goes home in a grumpy mood. She’s standing in her entrance hall when something amazing happens. A massive chocolate egg is dropped off by the postie.
The ‘portal’ takes the girl back into the mundane world rather than into a parallel world. The chocolate egg is something I haven’t seen elsewhere, and to be honest I’d never even realised any connection between my chocolate eggs at Easter and the fact that eggs normally house baby birds.
Ideally, you want your character to move through the passageway slowly. A passageway is a special world unto itself; it should be filled with things and inhabitants that are both strange and organic to your story. Let your character linger there. Your audience will love you for it. The passageway to another world is one of the most popular of all story techniques. Come up with a unique one, and your story is halfway there.
— Notes from John Truby, TheAnatomy of Story
Though these pictures are simple black and white line drawings, I imagine this is the part in ‘Wizard of Oz’ where everything turns technicolour (or perhaps the colour has been seeping in since the balloons fantasy page). What follows is maybe a dream, or maybe it’s real within the world of the picture book. Picture book fantasies generally work like that — they can often be interpreted as the young child’s inner world fantasy.
The Big Battlein this story is preceded by a chase sequence in which people on the ground are chasing the girl to see this amazing spectacle. There’s a large dose of showing off involved here — the wish fulfilment in this fantasy is ‘everyone looks at how amazing I am and I am briefly the centre of attention’.
So we can predict she will defeat the old man chasing her. It’s all part of her own fantasy of being a hero.
You know from the beginning if a character is going to have a self-revelation because there will be something wrong with them. They might not appreciate someone, or they might be lonely, or they might not treat their friends well. In those stories, the character will almost certainly have changed by the end.
But in a carnivalesque story the point is to escape the mundane world and have fun for a while. That’s it. The carnivalesque story structure has more in common with comic structure than with dramatic structure. Though more ‘fun’ than ‘funny’, there is nothing to be learned except ‘that was really fun’ or ‘so that’s what fun looks like’.
HOW WILL LIFE BE DIFFERENT FROM NOW ON?
The point of a carnivalesque story is that it will actually be the same as before… with one small difference. Now the girl knows what it is to have real, unfettered fun. The scene at the end where she’s eating a boiled egg and toast shows the mundane nature of her everyday life. (Boiled eggs are quite often used in fiction to show ‘ordinary’, though less so these days. I think kids are eating fewer boiled eggs in general.)
The following notes on Fantasy in Children’s Literature are from lecture by Prof David Beagley, La Trobe University, available on iTunes U, combined with my own thoughts.
Genre, and talk of genre, irritates the hell out of me, actually. I do not see why something should be the sole type of property of one type of book and not of another. -I’ve got this notion that there’s space to get round anyone’s prejudices, and if you can just think of the right way you can slide round all the nonsense they talk and do something that involves both their Yes and their No. I spend a lot of time before I write a book thinking about this space into which I can slide.
— Diana Wynne Jones, in interview with Charles Butler
Ida Rentoul Outhwaite was an Australian illustrator who for a short time was probably the best paid illustrator in the world.
Enid Blyton made use of these tropes — fairies good, goblins bad, small in size, based in nature.
The whole idea of fantasy is not just this type of greeting card fairy. There’s a lot more to it. The secondary world is inextricably linked to the primary world: The secondary world is often a commentary on the primary world, and and offers a different perspective on reality.
Modern fantasy tends to be sequential. Trilogies are preferred (or longer). A lot of the time this is a marketing tool, but there are other reasons. There is now time for the story world to be properly established. The reader truly understands the full world of the story, which may be very different from our world. Second, enthusiastic readers repeat-read (especially young readers). So rather than reading the first Harry Potter fourteen times, they read the entire series twice.
Supplementary reading list for this course: Artemis Fowl. Not a very nice person. A 12-year-oldgenius super-criminal who wants to set up a worldwide criminal network, but using what he has discovered about the fairy world. The fairy world on the other hand are determined to keep themselves secret to avoid being exploited by humans. So they want to stop Artemis, but after a while Artemis becomes integral to protecting them. (Artemis is the character arc inverse of Walter White from Breaking Bad.)
Rowan of Rin series: Not grand, high-fantasy. Rowan is a little boy who lives in a village like so many other ones: medieval, non-industrialised (why do so many fantasies take place in non-industrial circumstances? — perhaps if those things were present it would be science fiction, not fantasy).
Philip Pullman is a well-known British author, especially for his Dark Materials trilogy. Northern Lights in Britain and Australia is The Golden Compass in the United States. Pullman very specifically states that he has written them to attack the Catholic church in particular and Christianity in general. He has a very specific intention in these books. This has generated a lot of heat, naturally. He sees C.S. Lewis and Narnia as the devil he has to destroy — he thinks they’re the worst propaganda to children and he hates C.S. Lewis. In doing so he has written his stories. Interestingly, there are a lot of Christian people who oppose C.S. Lewis because they don’t think authors should play with the biblical stories. And then Pullman comes along. Now Narnia looks a lot better.
Tamora Pierce: One of Beagley’s favourites. She has created powerful and effective female heroes. It’s so engendered, the idea of hero in our culture. He has to be an alpha male, the white knight on the fiery steed, dripping with testosterone. But Tamora Pierce created characters such as Alana, who is a knight.
Pearce has also created the character of Beka Cooper, who is a dog. (The series is called Provost’s Dog.) Beka turns into a stronger and stronger dog as the series progresses, until finally she is a mastiff. These books are a well-written mixture of crime and fantasy.
Diana Wynne Jones, Anne McCaffrey and Jane Yolen are all modern writers creating good female characters. Yolen tends to write about unicorns and myths and legends, rewriting them very well.
Lloyd Alexander and Sue Cooper write on British folklore, Merlin, that sort of story — Welsh and Scottish legends, rewritten into modern novels (all tend to be some decades ago, 60s onwards. John Wyndham, Peter Dickenson, same thing.
Jane Aiken (Hodge?) does some very interesting time slips, looking at an alternative Queen Victorian age, in the genre that is now called Steampunk: an industrialised world but with steam driven cars and floating airships and titanic sized technology of the late 19th century. Jane Aitken was one of the first writing in this style.
Some authors write specifically for the child/adult/teen market, particularly Australian writers. Emily Rodda targets more the primary school age than the secondary. She goes a little younger, to 8-10 years old — still enthusiastic about their reading. Patricia Wrightson’sWirrun Trilogy is one of the best known Australian one, dealing with indigenous stories, putting them into the landscape.
Wirrun is a hero like Harry Potter — he doesn’t want to be a hero, just wants to live a quiet life but he has to deal with world-threatening people. There are three types of people: people in the know (indigenous), in in-landers (who have an inkling of what’s going on — farmers) and then there’s the happy folk (who live on the edge of the country — completely oblivious — the bulk of the Australian population.)
Isobelle Carmody is another really interesting one, all other-world fantasy. The series is still going, started about 20 years ago, returned to it more recently.
Kate Constable — the Chanters of Tremaris has a very interesting take on the nature of magic. Magic there is sung. (The ‘chant’ from enchantment.) Men and women sing different magics because their voices are different, and also children, especially boys.
Carol Wilkinson’s dragon series goes back to ancient China and looks at the nature of the ancient dragon, who is a water spirit not a fire spirit.
Michael Pryor is the editor of a large series of books — James Maloney, Gary Crew, major writers around Australia contribute. There is a city but each person then writes their own story within that city, so the setting is shared. The people writing later have to go along with the earlier stories even if they don’t like it. [His website is called Narrative Transport.]
Victor Kelleher, originally South African, wrote Taronga in which the animals in the zoo take over after an apocalypse.
Sophie Masson divides her time between France and Australia and delves into the Grimm’s fairytale type world.
These books tend to have toys, animals, family rather than the high fantasy swords and sorcery. They include what matters to a younger child: home, play, toys. Narnia is basically the kids trying to understand the world. Also Winnie the Pooh and the little woodland spirits of Mae Gibbs, Blinky Bill. E.B. White wrote about animals/toys.
Anna Fienberg’s Tashi books are based on old folklore from Europe, and the Tashi series is a cat. They are a brilliant bridge from the picturebook first reader where the picture does most of the work, to the full-text type of novel. It’s half in half. They’re not quite comics with text but every page has illustration, usually black and white, and is done in a sort of comic frame (though with no line) and three or four sentences to a page.
So many movies fill this area of storytelling: Flushed Away, Toy Story, A Bug’s Life. [Beagley loves Flushed Away and spends some time talking about it, but I don’t like at all.]
Older reader movies: Pan’s Labyrinth, Jim Henson’s Storyteller series, using muppet-like characters to tell Grimm (and plain old grim) fairytales. These tales are very dark.
Some recent adult movies Mirror Mirror, Red Riding Hood, Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland are very much adult takes on these tales.
The key to any evaluation of a particular genre, regardless of genre and subject matter: Is it good literature? Is it good writing? Does it extend the readers? Does it draw them in? Is it a good intellectual and creative product? How believable is the secondary world? Does the fantasy therefore encourage you to say, ‘Oh no, this is ridiculous?’ or are you intrigued? How effective is the opening? Are you encouraged to read on and forget that this is a made-up world? Is the story consistent? Is magic used to get out of plot holes, or is it used more as an embellishment? Does the fantasy world make you look afresh at your own world?
One of the metaphors you can use for the fantasy author is that they are playing with lego. They’re taking established blocks but putting them together to make their own creation.
It is very easy to write cliched work. What has the author done to make their fantasy fresh and intriguing to draw you in? Cliche isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Young readers will read the same style of book over and over again. Young readers can be delighted to have 27 stories in the same series, even if it’s basically the same story each time.
Literary elements: What aspects of literature helps us determine good fantasy from the bad?
Character: Can you picture the main character straight away? Do you get a full view or is the character one-dimensional?
Setting: Especially in medieval stories, it’s easy to simply get facts wrong. Do you have a sense of the light? (The Australian light is very different from the light in a tropical forest.)
Plot: Do you know what happens? Are you able to figure things out from the details given? How does it end? (A lot of people don’t like the ending of Harry Potter, but endings are hard.) What causes the problem to emerge, what happens?
Who are we listening to? An external narrator, or through the eyes of characters? An issue with long series is that the reader is now more familiar with the world than the characters in it, so the reader will pick out inconsistencies easily.
Terry Pratchett’s series are humorous and satirical. He picks on the cliches and makes fun of everyday life. For example, he looks at the postal service, looking at the issue of lost mail.