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.
NARNIA AS A MISOGYNISTIC, RACIST, DOG’S BREAKFAST
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?
C.S. LEWIS: MISOGYNIST BUT NOT SEXIST
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.
STORYWORLD OF NARNIA
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 destruction. False kings come from the north. See also: The Symbolism of Cardinal Direction.
STORY STRUCTURE OF THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE (2005 FILM ADAPTATION)
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?
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.)
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.
For more on Nikolajeva’s concept of ‘picnic’ and how that relates to ‘genre’ in children’s literature, see this post.
If you’re a Narnia fan, you can listen to the story online here.
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 favour’ 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.
‘The Cat Returns A Favour’ isn’t exactly catchy, so I suppose that’s one reason we got ‘The Cat Returns’ in English. It’s also a sequel, so.
Themes In The Cat Returns
Returning favours is a strongly prosocial custom shared across cultures and across species. In some cultures, the rules of favour are more proscribed than in other cultures. In Japan, there are two times per year that you are expected to give thanks and gifts to everyone in your social circle. (More on Japanese gift-giving culture.) Japanese people are expected to bring back trinkets from a big trip after returning home. This nuisance custom means some Japanese people avoid telling all their neighbours they’re going on holiday at all.
The nuisance aspect of favours and gifts is explored in The Cat Returns. Though the concept of ongaeshi is specifically Japanese, many people can relate to the emotional labour surrounding reciprocity and gifts.
The Grateful Crane
For Japanese people, the concept is connected to a traditional folktale:
ONGAESHI is … connected with the traditional fairy-tale ‘Tsuru no Ongaeshi’, which translates into ‘The Grateful Crane’. After a crane gets rescued from death by a young man, it appears in front of him a second time in disguise of a human girl. The young man is being really helpful and takes the stranger into his house. To prove her gratitude the crane-girl secretly weaves cloth out of her own feathers every night to give them to her rescuer, who is surprised at the sudden gift but also really happy because her cloths sell easy at the market. Soon after that the girl appears to be sick. The man is worried and tries to figure out what is the reason behind her illness and peeks into her room at night. When he sees how she actually plucks out her feathers for his sake, she just flies away. This fairy-tale narrates about the fragility of give-and-take, thankfulness and gratitude.
This makes The Grateful Crane an ur-Story of The Cat Returns. There’s a long tradition of female characters making huge, health-sacrificing sacrifices for the sake of male characters in stories. (These stories are still popular today, even in picture books. Male characters make different kinds of sacrifices — non-domestic ones.)
In The Cat Returns, the gender has been flipped, but like the poor young man, Haru starts off dissatisfied with her lot. She finds a love interest in the fantastical creature. There’s transmogrification of course — a super popular trope in Japanese folklore.
Animals inherently contain a sense of mystery, and so I think it makes sense that we would use literal transformations into animals in stories to talk about parts of ourselves and our relationships that are difficult—or impossible—to explain.
There’s also shades of Rumpelstiltskin in The Grateful Crane, with a female character weaving magical fabric in secret, making her male family member rich.
The Crane Girl by Curtis Manley is a picture book version of The Grateful Crane.
STORYWORLD OF THE CAT RETURNS
The Cat Kingdom looks a lot like popular depictions of Heaven.
In the comic book series, the cats are dead all along and even the hungry cat Haru met as a little girl was dead.
The Cat Kingdom is an snail under the leaf setting.
But we soon learn that this kingdom is ruled over by a maniacal cat with a third eye.
STORY STRUCTURE OF THE CAT RETURNS
Haru is one of those hopeless, klutzy heroines who sleeps through her alarm. Bella Swan is a really popular example of the klutzy girl. Haru’s mother takes a hands-off approach, refusing to step in and wake her. Haru is late for school, and we assume she’s chronically late, that this is like any other morning. This is Haru’s psychological shortcoming. She is also revealed to be romantically unsatisfied — the boy she likes is going out with a younger student. In Japan, the age hierarchy is especially stark, so it’s a real kicker that the love interest is going out with a younger girl.
At first I thought Haru was younger. At 17, this character could pass as a 12-year-old, though by the end of the story she does seem 17.
Haru’s klutziness is very common for female YA characters. Does klutziness make them more likeable? They certainly seem less intimidating, and everyone identifies with embarrassment, so klutziness can lead to audience empathy. TV Tropes calls this trope Butt Monkey.
I place bumbling characters like Haru somewhere between low mimetic and ironic on Northrop Frye’s Displacement of Myth and Typology of Characters hierarchy, though Haru does have that flash of heroic brilliance when saving the cat.
She’s a good athlete. Once she gets into the fantasy world she joins a group and rather than ‘save the day’ on her own, she is mostly saved by the Baron (love interest), though occasionally she has a good idea.
Haru wants a boyfriend. She wants to stop being the butt monkey. She does not want to go on an adventure to save the world or explore another land.
Haru is in opposition to her classmates because of her low social capital, but none of them is an out-and-out foe, unlike in lots of Western teen dramas. Western writers often craft a peer arch nemesis. Bullying is also a problem in Japan of course, but often in stories the high school is depicted as more of a safe haven than a big struggleground. Take The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, for instance, in which the science lab sparkles with magic. When polled, the overwhelming majority of Japanese high school students enjoy school. (But they are passive in their studies and have low self-esteem in general.)
80.4% of Japanese high school students claimed that they “enjoy school life”, compared to 77.4, 77.5 and 75.4% for America, China and Korea.
Contrast this portal fantasy with a YA novel such as Dorothy Must Die, by Danielle Paige. The main character has major issues with a girl in school who bullies her for being poor. This dynamic is established before the cyclone which transports Amy to Oz, where she meets an entire cast of goodies, baddies and everyone in between.
This is one of those stories where a bungling ordinary person finds themselves caught up in fantastic things. These types don’t often have proactive plans — their plan is to avoid whatever’s happening to them. In that case, the plans of their opponents are well-thought-out and successful.
The plan of the cats is to shower her with gifts of the sort they themselves would like to receive in return for the gift of life.
There are big struggles all the way through this story, starting with the minor embarrassment of being caught sneaking into Japanese Literature class late, then the humiliation of falling over a stick in front of her love interest.
The jester scene at the banquet is one of the first big big struggles, where we learn what’s at stake — this guy really is a Caligula type with complete disregard for life.
The scene in the maze offers some great meta-commentary, as the opponents watch our heroes from above, commenting on their progress like the two old men in The Muppet Show.
There is actually so much battling that I lose interest after a while, which is a personal preference against too much action.
The final life and death situation occurs when Haru must find her way back to the real world. The Cat Returns utilises flying — in line with every other Studio Ghibli production — the animators are very good at creating aerial views. Does flight equal freedom in this case? I’ll argue yes, because although Haru is being transported down to Earth rather than up to Heaven, she now knows who she is and is free to be herself.
Haru has become more responsible after her adventure in the cat kingdom. She’s had a near brush with marriage, and faced the possibility of never coming home again. This seems to have hastened her personal development. Haru is also sporting short hair.
The main message in this film is fairly trite — believe in yourself and you’ll be a success. TV Tropes call this an ‘Aesop‘, because it’s such obvious and cliched advice. (Though perhaps not so obvious if you subscribe to the idea that there is no ‘essential self’.) In any case, this message is common in children’s stories.
Haru is no longer interested in that boy from school — she’s rather creepily got a new crush on the older cat guy from the fantasy world.
Leaving that weirdness aside, Haru is now far more mature than she was — almost too mature to be in school. When she’s released from the high school environment, we trust she’ll do well in the world. (Or perhaps she decided to turn into a cat to be with The Baron?)
FURTHER STORYTELLING NOTES
Subversion and Inversion of Tropes
- Muta appears to be a ‘fat bastard’ but this trope is inverted when he turns out to be loyal to his friends.
- Ravens are not terrible in this story. Usually they’re foreshadowing death, but here they are helpful creatures who will come to your rescue even after you’ve insulted them.
- Haru’s life gets worse, not better, when she becomes a princess. (Most modern princess stories are inverted — unlike in traditional fairytales, which are classic examples of The Marriage Plot — the plot ends when the girl gets married to a prince, because her life will be perfect from now on and the story is therefore over.)
Scott Dikkers (founder of The Onion) has created a taxonomy of humour. Meta-humour is one of his 11 categories. There’s a lot of slapstick and wordplay in The Cat Returns (though some of the wordplay is lost in the English dub). The Cat Returns also offers some good examples of meta-humour, which I figure is one of the more rare, as I have less success finding examples of it.
- When the opponents offer commentary on Haru and co’s success in the maze, that is a form of metahumour. The opponents are aligning themselves with the audience. We, too, are watching them from above.
- “Enough of your cheesy light show!” Muta says to The Baron, as The Baron’s house lights up during the setting of the sun. This joke strikes me as odd — I would have taken the beauty of the setting sun at face value. I wonder if the animators wondered if it was too much, and there was a discussion about whether to cut back on it? In any case, it’s an example of metahumour, reminding the audience that this has been created for the benefit of an audience — that audience being Haru, and also being us.
Passive Tea-drinking Scenes Transformed
The Spring 2018 issue of the SCBWI Bulletin has the following writing advice from Joelle Anthony:
The most common scene I come across when working as a freelance editor is the one where the characters are sitting around talking. Generally, the author adds in a cup of tea, a cocktail, or a lovely meal as the “activity” the characters are participating in while they talk. And talk. And talk. Occasionally, the conversation escalates into a heated argument, or turns embarrassing and awkward, but regardless of how the scene plays out, having characters sit around talking is usually boring for ht reader, and it rarely moves the story along int he way the author is hoping.
Why do we do it? Two reasons. First, it’s easy. […] The second reason we do it is because that’s how we do things in real life. […]
Have a look at each scene as you’re revising. If it reads like a slice of life, ask yourself if adding an activity might take it to the next level … one that’s more interesting and also serves the story and characters in a more productive way.
My experience in writing groups is that we all tend to write a sit-down-and-chat scene early on — usually around chapter two. This chapter then needs to be cut entirely. With stories set in a place like Japan, drinking (green) tea is such an important and common custom, it might actually seem weird not to include a tea-drinking scene.
Joelle Anthony offers some suggestions for avoiding boring tea scenes, which the creators of The Cat Returns have utilised:
- Physical activities that mirror the mood of the scene
- Activities which are the opposite of what’s going on
- Something that might change the mood of the scene. If the characters are fighting, could doing this activity lead them to laughter, and would that be useful to you?
- Opportunities for combining scenes are excellent choices. For example, if an upcoming scene is one of these characters working in the garden, combine the two scenes so this conversation interrupts their work (adding tension).
During the obligatory tea scene with The Baron, Muta and the raven are engaged in a dual. They fling insults at each other, adding both action and humour. Finally, Haru is literally carried out the door by cats, adding visual interest. Also, the fact that this takes place in a beautiful, ornate, dollhouse type environment helps. Interesting scenery always helps with the boring scenes.
Light and Dark Symbolism
There is no night-time in the cat kingdom, which is partly what makes it seem like an snail under the leaf setting. The real world, though, doesn’t rest at night. Creepy things happen at night. Light usually suggests hope, renewal, or intellectual illumination. Darkness implies the unknown, ignorance, or despair.
The lightness of the cat kingdom is subverted, as it is revealed that the place is not a utopia at all.
Am I Going Mad?
In urban fantasy the author is juggling realism against ridiculous, unbelievable events. What would you do if you saved a cat and it stood up and talked to you? What would you do if you noticed the weeds in your front yard had grown a metre longer overnight?
The number of lampshading options for character surprise at odd events feels like a closed group:
- Haru’s bestie asks if she banged her head.
- Haru’s mother assumes she’s been working too hard and goes back to bed.
This is known as the Pinch Me trope. (There doesn’t have to be literal pinching.) Other options utilised in storytelling:
- The character assumes they are dreaming (very common)
- Or assumes they are hallucinating (very similar)
Anything outside these obvious ones probably have to be specific to the story. Can you think of other examples?
STORY STRUCTURE OF UP AND UP
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.
For more on flight, see The Symbolism of Flight in Children’s Literature.
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.
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 Battle in 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.
We never see the old man again. I guess he’s dead. (Who said you couldn’t kill people off in picture books? Just make sure it’s off the page.)
WHAT DOES THE CHARACTER LEARN?
A carnivalesque story is not about learning stuff.
You know from the beginning if a character is going to have a anagnorisis 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.)