Story Structure: Anagnorisis

Anagnorisis is a moment in a work of fiction when a character makes a critical discovery. Even for plotters rather than pantsers, this is the part of writing that often emerges in the process of storycrafting. Some people call it an epiphany, especially when talking about short stories. Others call it a ‘leap’, as in a ‘leap of understanding’. Teachers talk of ‘aha moments’, scientists of the Eureka effect. Oftentimes in story it is far more gentle than that, or happens fleetingly.

If you’re writing a piece of fiction, I’d urge you not to try to show anything—instead, try to discover something.

Ethan Canin

What is the purpose of writing? For me personally, it is really to explain the mystery of life, and the mystery of life includes, of course, the personal, the political, the forces that make us what we are while there’s another force from inside battling to make us something else.

Nadine Gordimer

The concept of anagnorisis links to a long human history of religious morality. Not surprisingly, storytelling is influenced  by this way of viewing humanity, even in a non-religious modern story. The more common term ‘revelation’ is similar to the 2016 word ‘woke‘ — while it has its origin in religion, the concept is far wider than that.

THE RELIGIOUS ORIGIN OF REVELATION

Religious thought from around the world has shaped our storytelling. A story which includes a anagnorisis is therefore a universal story.

Millions of people never analyze themselves. Mentally they are mechanical products of the factory of their environment, preoccupied with breakfast, lunch, and dinner, working and sleeping, and going here and there to be entertained. They don’t know what or why they are seeking, nor why they never realize complete happiness and lasting satisfaction. By evading self-analysis, people go on being robots, conditioned by their environment.  

Paramahansa Yogananda (Indian guru and yogi)

Americans and Christians in particular will be familiar with The Redemption Story, which has its own specific story structure.

In movies, anagnorises are often shot on a hill, or in some other high place like the top floor of a building.  The film Contact features Jodi Foster sitting in an elevated spot in the desert at the end of the movie — she now has a much better view on the world and its place in the universe. (For more on this, see The Symbolism of Altitude.) It all comes from Moses On The Mount, of course. Or maybe the Bible stories are based on much, much older storytelling conventions. Maybe there’s something about being up high which allows humans to see things differently. (Cats get it.)

True self-analysis is the greatest art of progress.

Paramahansa Yogananda (Indian guru and yogi)

THE EMOTION OF AWE

The emotion most associated with the experience of anagnorisis is ‘awe’, which psychologists have been working to understand. According to Andy Tix, the transformative kind of ‘awe’ looks like this:

  1. It overwhelms individuals with something that transcends their current knowledge or understanding of the world.
  2. It immerses them in the process of trying to accommodate what previously was known with what currently is being experienced.
  3. It involves feelings of smallness or humility in the presence of something greater.
  4. It results in a profound change in thinking or behaviour, even in self-definition.
  5. The subject retains a vivid long-term memory of the event.
  6. Awe occurs very infrequently, maybe even only a few times in life.

ANAGNORISIS EXISTS ON A CONTINUUM

 
Just as there are strong desires and low-level desires, sometimes a character has a Eureka Moment (that’s what TV Tropes calls it), and at other times they realise something, sort of, in a nebulous kind of way.
 
Genre stories tend to have a stronger anagnorisis than more literary/lyrical stories, which can get away with revelations far more subtle. In some types of lyrical short stories the character almost has a revelation, then ignores it. Examples are plentiful in Katherine Mansfield’s modernist stories, but also in modern ones, such as Helen Simpson’s “In-flight Entertainment“.
 
In some stories, the character has no revelation but the reader does, on their behalf. Annie Proulx likes those ones.

ANAGNORISIS IN MYTH

In Greek mythology, a phoenix is a long-lived bird that is cyclically regenerated or born again.

Associated with the Sun, a phoenix obtains new life by arising from the ashes of its predecessor. According to some sources, the phoenix dies in a show of flames and combustion, although there are other sources that claim that the legendary bird dies and simply decomposes before being born again.

Wikipedia

At the beginning of 2018, Uma Thurman opened up to the media about her experiences with Weinstein and Tarantino. Following in from this, Jessica Chastain said the following in a series of tweets:   I keep imagining Tarantino spitting in Uma’s face and strangling her with a chain for KILL BILL. How many images of women in media do we celebrate that showcase abuse? When did this become normalized ‘entertainment’? When violence against women is used as a plot device to make the characters stronger then we have a problem. It is not empowering to be beaten and raped, yet so many films make it their ‘phoenix’ moment for women. We don’t need abuse in order to be powerful. We already are. 

Jessica Chastain

Chastain’s phrase ‘phoenix moment‘ is a useful one. I consider this a subcategory of the anagnorisis phase in storytelling, and one which is highly problematic when used time and again with certain groups of people. It’s not the phoenix moment itself which is the problem, but the sequence of abuse scenes leading up to that moment.

In the wake of the Australian bushfires of 2019-20, the media talked also about ‘Chernobyl moment‘, as in, will this be Australia’s Chernobyl moment when it comes to understanding the full impact of climate change?

ANAGNORISIS IN OTHER FORMS OF STORYTELLING

In the world of short stories, this moment is often called an epiphany, a Joycean epiphany, or the epiphanic moment. The ‘A-ha Moment’. However, these other terms often feel too strong for many types of story. As mentioned above, the Literary Impressionists such as Katherine Mansfield distinguished their form of storytelling by rejecting the epiphany, instead writing under the idea that people don’t really change all that much. Even when opportunities for change arise, characters often fail to heed the warnings, and keep plodding on as before — to their own detriment.

  • Walter White has the opportunity to do the right thing and hand himself in when Hank discovers who he really is. But he decides to run instead. He does have a slow, hard-earned self-revelation, though. He acknowledges that he hasn’t been doing it all for his family, but for himself.
  • Despite not changing much, Don Draper in Mad Men does face a number of moral dilemmas, mostly centred upon people finding out who he really is. He decides to continue living as Don Draper, but has regular lapses back into his old, less privileged life. When Don has his Joycean epiphany, that’s when the storytellers decided to leave him. (I imagine he becomes insufferable after that.)
  • In Big Love, Barb, as  first wife, has already faced a number of massive moral decisions at the beginning of the story. Backstory eventually reveals to the audience that Barb had the opportunity to leave Bill when he took on his second wife. Barb is constantly tested, especially when her natal family and her church reject her, leaving her isolated from the rest of the world. The most noticeable character arc in Big Love is the character of Margine, who is so young that she is the main character in a coming-of-age story. At the beginning she is a teenager (revealed in a later season to be younger than initially depicted), but in the end Margine is a self-actualised woman, and makes the best of her polygamist situation to live what is actually a pretty feminist life.

But a complete narrative does seem to require something in the anagnorisis category. Even when the characters learn absolutely nothing, perhaps because they are irredeemably stupid or terrible, the audience needs to get something out of the story.

Dan Harmon outlines the basic skeleton of any good story:

  1. A character is in a zone of comfort (BUT THEY DO NEED A SHORTCOMING)
  2. But they want something (DESIRE)
  3. They enter an unfamiliar situation (OPPONENT)
  4. Adapt to it (PLAN)
  5. Get what they wanted (OR NOT, IN A TRAGEDY)
  6. Pay a heavy price for it (BIG STRUGGLE)
  7. Then return to their familiar situation (IN HOME-AWAY-HOME STORIES, WHICH NOT ALL OF THEM ARE)
  8. Having changed. (NEW SITUATION)

TYPES OF ANAGNORISIS

CHARACTER LEARNS SOMETHING ABOUT THE PLOT

This is called a plot reveal. This will surprise the reader if not the character. Annie Proulx’s “In The Pit” is a good example of this kind of proxy-Anagnorisis. In a twist ending you’ll always have a big reveal (possibly with delayed decoding), and in this case you probably haven’t got a character driven story but a plot driven one. I’m arguing that where there is no Anagnorisis phase in a character driven story, the storyteller needs at least a proxy for that, otherwise the story will seem unfinished to the reader.

CHARACTER LEARNS SOMETHING TRUE ABOUT THEMSELVES

This is the best outcome for a character and makes any pain endured across the story worth the effort.

CHARACTER ALMOST LEARNS SOMETHING ABOUT THEMSELVES

These stories are vexing tragedies for the audience, who experiences an “If only!” reaction. The Wrestler is a great example of this. Randy the Ram comes so close to learning something about himself. If only he’d seen what the audience had seen about him he could’ve improved his life.

CHARACTER LEARNS SOMETHING UNTRUE ABOUT THEMSELVES

This isn’t usual, but sometimes a character learns something about themselves which isn’t really true about them. The reader is given enough information to know the veridical truth of their character. The unreliable narrator is useful for this. Stories like this tend to have in common themes about how we can never really know ourselves.

Alternatively, the narrator knowingly gives us enough information to make up our own minds. A good example of this technique is Annie Proulx’s short story Heart Songs. Importantly, this faux-self understanding comes before the Battle scene, not after it, where it’s usually placed. Since the character is wrong about himself, it is the very thing that plunges him into the Big Struggle, not what helps him out come of it. We know these characters will never change. That’s the whole point.

Starting out sure about something then becoming less sure is another riff on Anagnorisis.

Sometimes it’s not the main character who learns something about themselves

It’s not always easy to pick which character is the ‘main one’. Is is the character we see the most of? The focalising character? Or is it the one who undergoes the anagnorisis?

Larry McMurtry’s film/book Hud features a main character (called Hud) who refuses to change. But those all around him do change and he is left all alone, which is the point. Don Draper didn’t change until right at the end, in a tacked on, cheesy kind of hippie way (in my opinion). But all the characters around him changed, mostly Peggy.

As Caroline Framke points out at Vox, “Don Draper spent seven seasons refusing to change at all. But others changed all around him. Joan realised that she could work sexism to her advantage for a longterm better future for herself and her son, then pull away entirely, to run her own business. Peggy’s story was a coming-of-age story, from country-girl to Manhattan cosmopolitan who didn’t feel she had to pretend to be someone she was not. Peter had the Anagnorisis that family comes first. Roger reflected on his own life and realised how he’d gone wrong. Don Draper came up with a good idea for a Coca-Cola advertisement.”

If your main character (e.g. Don Draper) does not change, others around them must. (Exception for comedy series, see below.)

ANAGNORISIS IN CHILDREN’S STORIES

If you’re writing a contemporary children’s story, the Anagnorisis better be experienced by the child.

This hasn’t always been the case — The First Golden Age Of Children’s Literature was full of adult characters who went through the character arc helped along by the innocence and inherent goodness of the uncorrupted child.

Adults in children’s books are usually stuck with their characters and incapable of alteration or growth. If they are really unpleasant, the only thing that can rescue them is the natural goodness of the child.

Alison Lurie: The Subversive Power Of Children’s Literature

Lurie offers Mrs Burnett in Little Lord Fauntleroy as the classic example of an adult whose only hope is the goodness of a child.

Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert go through late-life emotional maturity with the addition of Anne Shirley to the household. At least in Anne of Green Gables, Anne has her own emotional journey alongside the adults.

But even today, you’ll still find stories in which the child character exists as a tool in the emotional awakening of an adjacent adult. A particularly egregious example is a DreamWorks movie, which I talk about in my post on how girls are too often asked to play this role. Girls are assumed to be more emotionally mature than boys, giving rise to ‘The Female Maturity Formula’ of modern storytelling. In that film, Dakota Fanning’s character behaves like a miniature adult mother. The adult men in her company mend their ways, with her leading by example.

When examining a story for diversity, avoid a simple tally of gender and ethnicity. Look instead at who gets to have all the Anagnorises. That tells you who the ’rounded humans’ are considered to be.

ANAGNORISIS IN COMEDY

Or, absence thereof…

anagnorisis parodied in a Trash Bird comic
comic from Poorly Drawn Comics

We love comedic characters precisely because they never learn. Failing to learn from mistakes is a compulsory psychological shortcoming for a comedic character in an ongoing series.

In comedy — specifically ongoing comedy series, either sit-coms or novel series — there will be no Anagnorisis on the part of the main character. Comical characters are highly flawed, and if they were to learn from their experiences they would get boring and staid. George Costanza never learns from his errors. Nor does Greg Heffley. Even when a comedic character does have a minor Anagnorisis, they’ll have forgotten it by the beginning of the next story, arriving in statu nascendi.

If it’s a stand-alone comedy story, however, the main character is quite likely to learn a big lesson. Groundhog Day is one example.

What does happen, though, especially in comedies for children: The audience has a minor Anagnorisis. Spongebob Squarepants features characters who never learn, yet each episode is mock-didactic. For the viewer. (Didacticism is coded as mock-didacticism in comedy.) Episodes end like a Charles Perrault fairytale, with a summary of a moral lesson.

Likewise, in Courage The Cowardly Dog, the viewer is reminded of the exact same lesson over and over — be nice to others because they can help you out. (Listen to Courage because he’s always the first to detect baddies.)

anagnorisis comic Trash Bird

Related Greek Terms

catharsis: the process of releasing, and thereby providing relief from, strong or repressed emotions. Catharsis is a subcategory of anagnorisis in which the audience empathises so keenly with the main character that they consciously or subconsciously connect the emotions to their own lives, feeling what the character feels. Removed by the filter of fiction, this can be revelatory and healing.
cathexis
cathexis: the concentration of mental energy on one particular person, idea, or object (especially to an unhealthy degree). Another modern word for this is monotropism. At the climax of a story mental energy becomes concentrated, in the empathetic character and ideally mirrored in the audience.

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.

 

 

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