Aforetime — God said he created the djinn ‘aforetime’. Stories of the djinn predate the Quran. The concept of the djinn is ancient.
Aladdin — Disney’s Aladdin is a presentation of a stereotypical genie as we view them in the West. Aladd in is only loosely based on the folklore of the djinn. Like “Ali Baba”, “Aladdin” is a French-Syrian tale dating from the start of the 1700s. “Aladdin” is such a popular and widespread story that it forms its own tale type (ATU 561). There’s a simpler version known as a Magic Ring tale (ATU 560). In these tables a poor young man with the help of a magic object builds a palace more beautiful than the king’s. He marries a princess. But he loses his palace and princess due to a second magic object. He recovers everything lost.
“The Widow’s Broom” is a 1992 picture book by American author illustrator Chris Van Allsburg. Like many of Van Allsburg’s books, this one remains popular with teachers, partly because this is a storyteller who requires the reader to do a little work. Students can practise their inference skills in class.
Like all good stories which rely on reader imagination, this picture book can be interpreted in a number of ways.
THE DUAL AUDIENCE OF THE WIDOW’S BROOM
This is an example of a story which will be used one way in the infant classroom and quite differently in the senior Language Arts classroom.
A broom which ‘walks’, feeds chickens and plays piano will appeal to children at an early stage of development, which Piaget described as spatial egocentrism. He also talked about child development and animism, the worldview that non-human entities possess consciousness and a life of its own. In modern picture books animism tends to finds an outworking in animals who walk and talk like humans.
[A]nimism…is the belief that everything in nature has consciousness and life…. When Christopher Robin, the child in Winnie-the-Pooh, talks to his woodland friends, a donkey, a tiger, an owl, a pig, and a bear, he is engaged in what Jean Piaget has called ‘animism’. As do the majority of picture books that feature animal characters, a child engaged in animism, readily accepts that animals can and do behave as humans. An example is Olivia, Ian Falconer’s character who has resonated with adults and children alike and is the protagonist of [more than] five titles.
Go back in time, to the early 1900s and before, and you’ll find plenty of children’s stories in which household objects come alive. This trend mostly seems to have gone away. (Likewise you won’t find so many moons with actual faces on them in contemporary picture books.)
When picture book storytellers do utilise animism to bring household objects alive, it’s generally to hark back to an earlier time. Here, to the pre-Christian world of superstition, modern ideas about Paganism, and fairytale. Therein lies the historical interest for older readers, culminating in a quite sophisticated message about humankind.
Miracle: Divine communication with humans via extraordinary actions. Gods can interact with the human world whenever they wish, but miracles generally need to be asked for by humans.
A miracle story may be considered a subgenre of the disaster story.
Miracles happen only to the fortunate few.
Suspense: No one knows whether God is going to perform a miracle or not. Even Jesus Christ picked and chose who he cured and helped. Humans are told that God has his reasons and those reasons are not for us to know.
THE PURPOSE OF MIRACLE STORIES
My guess was that miracle stories are used to communicate the comforting idea of a benevolent interventionist god. But I’m wrong: that’s not what miracle stories were for. Characters did not witness (what they thought were) miracles and subsequently consider that evidence of God. In the golden age of Miracle Stories, belief in God was a given. Miracles neither proved nor disproved God’s existence.
The actual purpose of miracle stories:
In earlier times, miracle stories which people bothered to write down served a second specific function: To persuade living communities that certain dead holy people should be canonised.
Miracle stories were also to help process trauma. A miracle story creates a memory which allows someone to cope with the shock of disaster narrowly averted. These events will be remembered forever, as near-death experiences generally are.
NECESSARY INGREDIENTS OF A MIRACLE STORY
According to Niels Chsristian Hvidt:
Divine Intervention: God acts beyond or in ways different from the natural order.
Psychology: Characters who witness the event will interpret it as a miracle.
Symbolic Interpretation: The miracle is regarded evidence of God’s wish to communicate with humans.
The character narrating the story already knows the entire story as they embark upon the retelling of it. This affects how the entire story is told.
STRUCTURE OF A MIRACLE STORY
The senses of hearing/sight/touch are emphasised. Miracle stories tend to feature dead people and hearing, sight and touch are the senses most involved in that. (Assuming they are discovered soon after death, in which case smell may come into it.)
How the ‘magic’ works: Bodies cannot come back to life via miracle more than a few days after the death.
A miracle story opens with a description of why a miracle was prayed for in the first place. Many miracle stories feature dying children. These stories are broken into two basic categories:
A child becomes ill, gets sicker and dies
This plot will detail how close the parents are to the child, how much the child is loved etc.
A child dies suddenly in extreme circumstances
The parents discover their child is dead, or are told by someone else who was present at the time of the accident. Commonly, characters try ‘rolling’ the child to see if the child can be brought back to life.
The dead body would commonly be left for a few hours to see if it comes back to life.
Next comes a description of the emotional response of the left-behind. In contrast to films today, in which any screaming sound effects issue forth from a woman, in Swedish Miracle Stories, it is the men who are more outward in their response to grief. (This is regionally dependent.) Some have suggested this is because men’s activities was more societal focused and therefore public, whereas women were more confined to the home, family-focused and therefore quieter. In many miracle stories both men and women cry equally. Crying is heavily culturally scripted.
Another reason why Swedish men cry in miracle stories: The strong emotion of a bereft father demonstrates the equally strong tie between father and child.
In England and on the rest of the European continent, men crying is seen as shameful.
Expressions of grief are greater when the death is sudden and unexpected.
Today we talk about Stages of Grief. Miracle stories emphasise the stages of disbelief and confusion.
Instead of responding emotionally, the bereaved may jump straight to praying. They pray to a particular saint for a miracle. In many stories, preparations for the dead body have begun while the parents pray for a miracle.
In every miracle story, someone related to the dying child prays to a saint. Perhaps this is not a direct prayer, but a way of thinking. In the Medieval era, the practice of using your mind to voice another prayer while reciting a standard prayer was recommended.
Who to direct a prayer to?
Sometimes before the prayer there is a lot-casting scene in which the characters learn which Saint may step in to help. All of this can be doing without a church leader in attendance. This is lay people’s business. Religious people had use of texts such as ars moriendi (a manual for dying which was popular back then) but laypeople constructed their own prayers to use at time of death.
Parents make a votive promise. (“Bring our child back to life and we will give God this, do this for God…)
Although people know that God can grant miracles as he pleases, they don’t complain to him that their child’s life was too short or accuse him of taking their child when he shouldn’t. It is accepted that death is part of God’s mysterious plan. (I also wonder if this is avoided — in the stories, at least — on the assumption you don’t throw accusation at someone from whom you need a big favour.)
Biblical miracles are immediate and quick.
The child comes back to life.
But Medieval miracles are a lengthy process. They don’t happen in an instant. Life may be regained limb by limb. Infants are the exception to gradual resurrection: they immediately start suckling again.
This part of the story often drills down on specific detail with the purpose of creating believability: names of witnesses, specific villages, occupations of those present etc.
In the stories of Medieval miracles, the parents have to carry out their promises to the saint before they get their kid revived. In miracle stories, parents always follow through on their promises.
Since we’re all going to hell (by someone’s rules), here is a glossary of terms you may need before you get there. I’d provide a map, but that is coming.
One of the Five Rivers of the Realm of Hades, according to Ancient Greeks. This is an actual river located in northwest Greece. The Ancient Greeks called it the ‘river of woe’. Homer and Virgil contributed to the mythology around it. Virgil called it the main river of Tartarus, which is where you go if you’ve been bad.
Of the Fields of Asphodel. According to Ancient Greek thought, this is the part of the Underworld where ordinary people are sent.
The Romans geolocated the place where Virgil’s Aeneus is meant to have entered the Underworld, and they reckon the entrance is located at a placed called Avernus, a crater near Cumae. To the Romans, Aeneus refers to Hell/The Underworld.
The symbolic underworld of the dream house is the basement. Naturally, stories with basements are more frequently found in fiction written by authors who live in countries where houses tend to have basements. Canadian writer Alice Munro makes use of this in her short story “Cortes Island“. Her main character lives in a basement, but the fairytale upon which is seems based takes its main character to the underworld.
The church was a large and lonely one, and we loved to go there, especially upon bright nights. The path skirted a wood, cut through it once, and ran along the crest of the hill through two meadows, and round the churchyard wall, over which the old yews loomed in black masses of shadow. This path, which was partly paved, was called “the bier-balk,” for it had long been the way by which the corpses had been carried to burial. The churchyard was richly treed, and was shaded by great elms which stood just outside and stretched their majestic arms in benediction over the happy dead. A large, low porch let one into the building by a Norman doorway and a heavy oak door studded with iron. Inside, the arches rose into darkness, and between them the reticulated windows, which stood out white in the moonlight. In the chancel, the windows were of rich glass, which showed in faint light their noble colouring, and made the black oak of the choir pews hardly more solid than the shadows. But on each side of the altar lay a grey marble figure of a knight in full plate armour lying upon a low slab, with hands held up in everlasting prayer, and these figures, oddly enough, were always to be seen if there was any glimmer of light in the church. Their names were lost, but the peasants told of them that they had been fierce and wicked men, marauders by land and sea, who had been the scourge of their time, and had been guilty of deeds so foul that the house they had lived in—the big house, by the way, that had stood on the site of our cottage—had been stricken by lightning and the vengeance of Heaven. But for all that, the gold of their heirs had bought them a place in the church. Looking at the bad hard faces reproduced in the marble, this story was easily believed.
Critics who treat adult as a term of approval, instead of merely a descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these are the marks of childhood and adolescence […] The modern view seems to me to involve a false conception of growth … surely arrested development consists not in refusing to lose old things but in failing to add new things?
C.S. Lewis, 1966
One of the oddest things we do to children is to confront them with someone else who is also eight, or ten, or seven, and insist that they be friends … What concerns me is the misconception that people are fossilised at any particular point in a lifetime. We are none of us ‘the young’ or ‘the middle-aged’ or ‘the old’. We are all of those things. To allow children to think otherwise is to encourage a disability — a disability both of awareness and communication.
These notes draw heavily from Fiction For Young Adults – the fourth in a series of units offered at Bendigo’s La Trobe University, delivered by Professor David Beagley, available on iTunes U.
Young adult literature is now defined as a market, in fact it’s a market that defines most other fashion, including clothing.
The crossover novel is a concept that first became clear with Harry Potter, when Bloomsbury (the publishers) realised they should start publishing this children’s story with adult covers. The adult versions are dark and sombre. This was so successful that the final two books sold more copies with adult covers than with those designed for children.
‘Notions of the “child”, “childhood” and “children’s literature” are contingent, not essentialist; embodying the social construction of a particular historical context; they are useful fictions intended to redress reality as much as to reflect ideology of Romantic literature and criticism. These ideas have been applied to eighteenth-century children’s authors such as Maria Edgworth. The child constructed by Romantic ideology recurs as Wordsworth’s ‘child of nature’ in such figures as Kipling’s Mowgli and Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Dickon in The Secret Garden and, as one critic points out, ‘many children’s books that feature children obviously wiser than the adults they must deal with — like F. Anstey’s Vice Versa or E. Nesbit’s Story of the Amulet — would have been unthinkable without the Romantic revaluation of childhood’.
from History and Culture in Understanding Children’s Literature edited by Peter Hunt
What exactly is a child?
The labels themselves have the result of setting boundaries: child, adolescent, teenager, young adult.
Historically, during the Renaissance (1400s onwards), society’s thinking changed hugely, starting with religion, into ideas of government. Art changed, music changed. All of these things happened over a couple of centuries. The change in attitude towards the child is typified by this painted icon of Madonna and Child (1228), and conveys the idea that the child is simply a smaller version of the adult.
The baby Jesus is being held by his mother, in terms of the proportion of the arms/legs/head is an adult figure. [Might this simply be a bad painter, or reflecting the idea that the baby Jesus was never a normal baby? However, I get the idea.]
The following passage from Aesthetic Approaches to Children’s Literature: An Introduction, by Maria Nikolajeva, is an interesting glimpse into how just 100-200 years ago, children were seen as pure and untouchable. The idea that any adult could be sexually attracted to a child and cause them harm never crossed anyone’s mind in such a culture:
Two recent biographies of Lewis Carroll have portrayed him in two radically different manners, both strongly deviant from the standard view proposed in a biography written in 1899 by his nephew. One of these paints Carroll as a pedophile, based on his ostensibly pathological interest for little girls. The other biography, going back to Carroll’s unpublished diaries, points out that the “little girls” in question were in fact around twenty-five years old, and that they used to visit Carroll unchaperoned, which in the eyes of his contemporaries was highly immoral. Apparently, the myth of the author’s interest for “little girls” was deliberately created by his family to hide what they regarded as inappropriate, while children were considered pure and innocent and therefore suitable as a cover. For us today, pedophilia is certainly a worse offence. This is a good example of how facts about an author can be interpreted differently. Our understanding of Alice in Wonderland can be affected by our understanding of the author’s views on children.
A different but related idea
I think the way we’ve constructed adulthood against and alongside our construction of childhood is bad for adults. It’s bad for children, too, but it’s also bad for adults. In the same way that sexism is bad for women and men, so too is our adoration of The Child bad for the child and the grownup.
When you see a child throwing a tantrum in the supermarket and the carer smacks the child – should you use violence on a child? Is the child being naughty or is the child simply doing what the adult doesn’t want? Does the child have the capacity to make the moral judgement between good and evil? Before the Renaissance, it was assumed. Humans were thought to be inherently evil, because we were descended from the evil Adam and Eve. Therefore every child ever since is sinful and accepts responsibility just like everybody else. John Locke and others presented the idea that the child became not the adult but the baby Jesus, essentially innocent and pure, corrupted by the world. This is a huge change in thinking.
Should children be treated differently?
A couple of the gospels from the Christian Bible: Mark 10:14, repeated at Luke 18:16. A group of children were trying to get to Jesus. They were being held back, but said that the children are special and let them come to me. The bible says unless we humble ourselves like little children we’ll never get into heaven. This was recognition that children could not and should not be treated as adults, but it took the rest of the Western world another 1500 years or so to wake up to this idea, but wake up they did, in the Renaissance.
Schooling became a structured, organised social activity, not just something parents passed onto their children. Before the Renaissance, if your father was a weaver, you were a weaver. Schooling became a social construct between the 1700 and 1800s. It was originally provided by the church, in Britain and then copied in Australia. Eventually schooling was compulsory – in 1872 both in Britain and in Victoria here in Australia. That separated children as a social group. They were not just part of a family, but part of the group of ‘school children’.
Before this were labour laws prohibiting children from being employed, originally when they were 12, then 14. Even in the 1930s and 1940s, most people left school after about the age of 14 (what we would call Year 8) and go to work. Only a few would go on to specific qualifications to become professionals. Anne of Green Gables finished school at about year eight. Next year she’s back as the teacher, teaching the class. After a couple of years of doing that she goes off to university to become a teacher.
There were laws about when a person could marry, engage in sexual activity, when they could inherit and so on. These laws gradually started coming in to protect the child and childhood. The middle class came about after leisure came about. People had money to buy books, for example.
Teenagers, or the concept of ‘teenagehood’ came about much later, in the 1950s.
Huge social upheavals happened. Disposable income, compulsory schooling – all of those elements were leading to this point, and probably should have happened earlier, but the World Wars and Great Depression inserted turmoil. Gender roles were also important. Women were required in the workforce and therefore unable to look after the children as they were able to before.
All of a sudden there was a jump between the child to the 18 year old adult, fixed by warfare, because you were unable to fight before the age of 18. This gave birth to ‘the teenager’. Rock and Roll occurred because there was a group who couldn’t yet fight or do other adult things.
When do you pay full fare to the movies or on the plane? (When you fit into a seat rather than on someone’s knee.)
When can you leave school?
When can you work?
It’s blurred there, because there is an upper limit on hours for teenagers. When can you smoke, marry? Between 10 and 16 children can engage in sexual activity, as long as the two partners are both consenting and within two years of age. If you’re over 16 there are still some limits, if you’re over 18 open slather, with anyone. Anywhere between about 3 and 25 for certain inheritance laws. Is a 19 year old the same as a 13 year old? They’re both ‘teenagers’. The word ‘adolescent’ implies that there is growth but it is not yet there.
Child As Symbol Of The Future
When considering the symbolism of the child, pair with the elderly person, who represents the past. In popular imagination, we consider life as a circle, in which the very elderly return to a kind of childhood. Live long enough and we become transformed. We acquire a new simplicity. This idea comes from Cirlot, who thought that if you dreamed of a child, some great spiritual change would be about to take place under favourable circumstance.
Nietzsche deals with this idea in relation to the ‘three transformations’ in Thus Spake Zarathustra. Nietzsche wrote about the process of spiritual transformation. He believed there were three distinct phases of self-actualisation, represented by:
The camel — the hump on its back represents your burdens, conquests and scars
The lion — in this stage you want to be free and be lord of your own desert
The child — you can’t be fully mature until you recapture the serious play which defined your youth.
The Imaginary Child is a concept to describe the way pro-natalists want every adult to procreate in order to save the nation. This concept is widely understood in places such as Romania, which is facing a decreased birth rate and widely publicised census. The concept of The Imaginary Child has real social consequences for those who choose not to have children, impacting heavily on the GRSM (gender, romantic and sexual minorities) community especially. Even when queer people do procreate, their queerness is blamed for falling fertility rates, and fear of the ‘Queer Apocalypse’.
Child As Angel
The concept of universal childhood is a Romantic abstraction which ignores the real conditions of children’s communication across borders. There is no ‘world republic of childhood’ in which the conditions are in any way on a par with one another…The vision of the universal child, the same the world over, refuses to acknowledge difficulties and contradictions in relation to childhood, offering in their place a glorification of the child, cast in the role of innocent saviour of mankind in a tradition which reaches back to Rousseau’s Emile with its creed that with every child humankind receives another chance for positive renewal.
Comparative Children’s Literature by Emer O’Sullivan
Children often appear as angels in Christian iconography. (This is why cherubs have wings.) But as noted in the tweet below, cherubs have a certain creepiness to them. This is because of their history as scary creatures.
The Kewpie dolls (and related merchandising) were clearly modelled on classical images of cherubs.
The Ideal Child Of The Imagination
When parents are expecting a child, the child as a personality exists only in the imagination. This lasts for a few years into parenting. I remember the words of a mother whose own child had died saying that one of the most difficult parts of this grief was, to her, seeing preschoolers. The reason she gave? This is the time in a child’s life when anything at all is still possible. We have so many hopes and dreams for our young children. We never imagine that they won’t make it to adulthood.
This theme tends to be covered in work for adult readers. The short stories “The Child” by Ali Smith and by “Ernestine and Kit” by Kevin Barry are macabre tales about how adults become disappointed in children.
However, look outside the English speaking world and you occasionally find a story for kids with this exact theme: An exploration of the difference between what a parent hopes for and what they actually get. An example is Ivory Coast picture book Le Bébé de Madame Guénon [Mrs Monkey’s Baby] published 2009.
A monkey mother worries about her friends’ reactions to the beautiful baby she has just given birth to. Will their compliments be sincere? And will their judgment be fair? Visits and compliments do not appease her anxiety: she must do everything to make her baby even more beautiful! …The story plays on the animal’s parade and the repetition of visit scenes, but its gist is indeed the terrifying anguish of mothers who dream of an ideal child.
As Diane Purkiss points out in her book Troublesome Things, ideas about the child changed in the Romantic era (approx, 1800-1850), when childhood became a safe refuge from the harsh realities of life. Childhood became the opposite of work. It was thought that the very happiest way to spend a childhood was safe, carefree in the country.
But the Romantic invention of the child as the holy innocent coincided with growing child poverty, urbanisation and child prostitution.
While Wordsworth and Dickens were extolling the purity of the child, actual children were working from dusk til dawn. Victorians were faced with reconciling this harsh reality against their imaginary, idealised version of childhood.
If we compare Americans and French, it seems as though the relation between childhood and adulthood is almost completely opposite in the two cultures. In America we regard childhood as a very nearly ideal time, a time for enjoyment, an end in itself. The American image of the child…is of a young person with great resources for enjoyment, whose present life is an end in itself. With the French…it seems to be the other way around. Childhood is a period of probation, when everything is a means to an end, it is unenviable from the vantage point of adulthood.
Childhood In Contemporary Culture, Wolfenstein (1955)
Child as Idle Mischief Maker
1840s England was especially worried about idle children, especially street children. This was a class and race issue. It was thought that without something to occupy children, they would get up to mischief.
Child As Cherub
Children originate in the Hebrew Bible as kerubim and often appear as cherubs in Baroque grotesque.
Putto is an Italian concept similar to the cherub but is not religious in origin. (The plural is putti.) The main difference is whether or not the cherubic creature has wings. Whereas all cherubs have wings, not all putti have them. In Baroque art the putto came to represent the omnipresence of God.
Some fauns are also depicted as cherubs but with hooves.
These characters are almost always boys. Significantly, the Italian word putto comes from the Latin word putus, meaning “boy” or “child” — boy as every child. (Boys are regular humans but girls are extra.)
Interestingly, the word cherub comes from kerub. Kerubim were completely different from today’s cherubs — imposing winged creatures who existed to guard the thrones of Gods and kings as well as the Mesopotamian Tree of Life. These Kerubim are described in the Book of Ezekiel (Old Testament). They are scary chimeras, each with a different head: lion, bull, eagle and human. These kerubim later became symbols for the four evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John (New Testament).
This is interesting because scary mythical creatures are quite often evolved by storytellers into something much more tame and pleasant. In this case, scary winged creatures become chubby-cheeked children. In the case of scary femme-coded mythical creatures, storytellers turn them into sexual objects. Sirens are an excellent case study of this. Witches, too, are often rendered as sexy rather than scary old hags in modern storytelling.
The witch/kerubim genealogy together demonstrate how women have been disempowered, alongside children, across the history of myth: Sexually alluring young women have had their scariness stripped away. Likewise, cherubim have had their adult-sized ferocity stripped away. Iconography without ferocity is more comfortable.
Freud’s View Of Children
Influential psychoanalysts have influenced our collective view of the child.
Erich Fromm succinctly summarises Freud’s thoughts on children in general. See what you make of this:
An assumption Freud makes about the nature of dreams is that these irrational desires which are expressed as fulfilled in the dream are rooted in our childhood, that they once were alive when we were children, that they have continued an underground existence, and have come to life in our dreams. This view is based on Freud’s general assumption of the irrationality fo the child.
To him the child has many asocial impulses. Since it lacks the physical strength and the knowledge to act on its impulses, it is harmless and no one needs to protect himself against its evil designs. But if one focuses on the quality of its strivings rather than on their results in practice, the young child is an asocial and amoral being. This holds true in the first place for its sexual impulses. According to Freud, all those sexual strivings which, when they appear in the adult, are called perversions are part of the normal sexual development of the child. In the infant the sexual energy (libido) centers around the mouth, later it is connected with defecation, and eventually it centers around the genitals. The young child has intense sadistic and masochistic strivings. It is an exhibitionist and also a little “peeping Tom.” It is not capable of loving anyone but is narcissistic, loving only itself to the exclusion of anyone else. It is intensely jealous and filled with destructive impulses against its rivals. The sexual life of the little boy and the little girl is dominated by incestuous strivings. They have a strong sexual attachment to the parent of the opposite sex and feel jealous of the parent of the same sex and hate him or her. Only the fear of retribution from the hated rival makes the child suppress these incestuous wishes. By identifying himself with the commands and prohibitions of the father, the little boy overcomes his hate against him and replaces it with the wish to be like him. The development of conscience is the result of the “Oedipus complex”.
Erich Fromm, The Forgotten Language
If Freud seemed to hate kids, bear this in mind: During the Victorian age, it was widely thought that children were wholly ‘innocent’. Children had no sexuality and were considered incapable of doing or thinking ‘bad’ things.
This was Freud trying to swing that pendulum the other way.
Jung’s Divine Child Archetype
If you’re reading a story with a child in it, and the child doesn’t seem to be a rounded person, functioning more like a bearer of ideology and ethics, this is Jung’s Divine Child archetype.
Jung noticed that all around the world we find stories about amazing children who survive against the odds:
Baby Jesus in Christianity
Child Moses in Judaism
Heracles in Greek tradition
Horus in Egypt
But the Divine Child archetype has a reach in culture outside the stories of myth and religion. Mei from Studio Ghibli’s Totoro is an excellent example of the Divine Child archetype.
How is the Divine Child different from a regular child? We might invoke Northrop Frye here, who placed characters on a continuum from heroic to stupider than the audience. The Divine Child is basically a regular kid with the ability to come through against all odds. We love stories like that.
The Divine Child can’t easily be plotted on Northrop Frye’s continuum because they are both vulnerable and invincible at once. Stories starring the Divine Child are reassuring because there is a contract with the audience from the start — although this character is sufficiently vulnerable to make a good story, their secret superpowers will allow them to win out in the end. This story will end happily.
Jung considered the child as coniunctio between the unconscious and consciousness. If you dream of a child that’s meant to indicate some great spiritual change is about to take place under favourable circumstances.
The idea that we are surrounded by the extraordinary yet remain blind to it is a pretty common theme in picture books, in which the archetype of The (Jungian) Child is useful as a character who hasn’t lost their wonder yet, after being subjected to the monotony of life with adult responsibilities. “Children who notice things adults don’t” could be a subcategory of children’s literature in its own right. Think of all those fantasy portals, never discovered by adults, and all those fantasy creatures. Are they fantasy or real? Are they only real if we see them? What does it even mean to be ‘real’?
Shaun Tan makes use of this trope in “The Lost Thing” (adults don’t notice what children do) but inverts it for “Rules of Summer” (in which children are too busy arguing and watching TV to really enjoy the magic of a summer childhood).
There is some realworld truth to the idea that children see things adults cannot. Professor Alison Gopnik specialises in child psychology. In this podcast from All In The Mind, Gopnik explains exactly how children are better at noticing than adults. Babies and young children are built to explore the world and learn about it, whereas adults have better control of our focus. Therefore, as humans grow older, we become less good at learning about the world and better at executive functioning. Our powers of observation diminish accordingly.
Child As Heroic Figure
The heroic child liberates the world from monsters. A lot of picture books feature this kind of child. Mostly they are ridding their own minds from imaginary monsters rather than saving The World, but within the world of the story these monsters do exist.
A child is a small person. He lingers small just for a while, then he becomes an adult. He grows up without even noticing it.
Beatrice Alemagna, What is a child?
Child as Coward
Go back to the Ancient Greeks, however, and they thought that cowardice separated adult from child: Adults were brave, children were cowardly. Socrates pointed out that our fears originate in childhood, and that we fear death because the child in us is frightened of hobgoblins.
In other words, if an adult is frightened, it must be the ‘child within’, not the actual adult. In many cultures and subcultures, fear is not an acceptable emotion for an adult to express. The closest we can come is to attribute fear to an inner child.
Ancient thinkers really did think that fear was a demon, and in order to escape fear, one had to escape actual demons.
Child As Eternal Life
Alchemy is an ancient art practised in Ancient Egypt, China, India and more ‘recently’ in medieval Europe. Alchemy concerned with two main things: working with real substances and working on one’s own spiritual / personal development / enlightenment. It was highly secretive and full of symbolism. At the heart of this art is the belief that there exists a mysterious legendary substance called the philosopher’s stone. This object is said to transform base metals such as lead into gold.
In Alchemy, the child wearing a crown or regal garments is a symbol of the philosopher’s stone. Important: the gold itself isn’t just gold — the gold symbolises enlightenment and eternal life.
It makes sense that children become associated with eternal life because if it were possible to never grow old, we’d probably remain as children. Although disease and circumstance does take the life of children, we associate death with old age.
The stand-out example of Child as Eternal Life is of course Peter and Wendy. J.M. Barrie did something interesting by flipping dominant ideas about the tragedy of failing to become an adult. Since antiquity, failure to become an adult had been seen as a tragedy. We see this in Greek and Roman mythology. To remain childlike is a tragedy because to remain a child is to remain forever dependent upon others. But then J.M. took that idea and flipped it — now, to become an adult was the tragedy because adulthood meant you lost your true self. It’s interesting to observe that this fantasy of perpetual childhood has been left behind (for now) to languish in the 20th century. This article explains that since copyright expired on Peter and Wendy in 2008, we’ve seen a surge of retellings in which to remain a child is rendered, almost unanimously, as dark and creepy. Peter Pan is now the villain.
Woman As Child
Patriarchy works by rendering women as children in the public imagination. Until very recently, women were considered children in the eyes of the law. It’s not difficult to find evidence of this view right across storytelling.
To make a more universal statement, however, the hero’s journey provides a classic example of the difference between men and women across mythic stories. Men leave the house, encounter a variety of friends and foes then eventually prove themselves in battle. He’ll have weapons of some kind at his disposal.
The female corollary is childbirth. The heroine of these stories never leaves home. She has no weapons at her disposal, entirely vulnerable to her own physiology. The pregnant and birthing woman’s vulnerability renders her childlike. In both stories, the man and the woman come close to death. Both offer up their bodies for the sake of some greater good. But because the hero gets weapons, gets to make decisions, he is afforded symbolic autonomy.
Take a close look at how weapons are used in stories, who gets them, who uses them. Next, consider the genealogy of modern gun culture.
Header image: William Blake’s David Delivered out of Many Waters, c.1805. It is an illustration to Psalm 18, in which David (at the bottom of the image with his arms stretched wide) calls out to God for salvation from his enemies. Christ appears above, riding upon seven cherubim (angels), not one as in the text.
Child As Other
Granny bit her lip. She was never quite certain about children, thinking of them – when she thought about them at all – as coming somewhere between animals and people. She understood babies. You put milk in one end and kept the other end as clean as possible. Adults were even easier, because they did the feeding and cleaning themselves. But in between was a world of experience that she had never really enquired about.
Humans have been making transactions with money for about 5000 years. Before that, our ancestors traded goods; before that, favours. We are a species highly attuned to swapping, making deals, owing favours and keeping stock.
So it’s not surprising that we personify ‘fate’ or ‘life itself’ or God or whatever, and feel, deep down, that if one good thing happens to us we must make a sacrifice later. Sacrifice as a cultural practice has largely disappeared around the world but has it really gone away?
The emotions which drive deal with the devil stories are very much alive. Humans have developed various ways of dealing with inequalities. Here’s how an anthropologist puts it, in relation to supernatural and Pentecostal beliefs in parts of Papua New Guinea:
Witnessing inequalities in attractiveness, wealth, or health, provokes feelings of either pity or poverty depending on perspective. To rectify this imbalance, the morally appropriate response is the exchange of a gift that reestablishes mutual respect and recognition: “Until … the feeling of imbalance is counteracted, the perception of imbalance has the potential to assume a negative form, jealousy, that may lead to destructive actions” (Bashkow 2006: 123).
This post is about Faustian stories. I’ve previously written about a related concept known as the ‘tragic dilemma‘. Also related is the pyrrhic victory. We could plot these outcomes on a continuum — all would be clustered at the tragic end.
You may hear the term ‘inflection points’ to describe the metaphorical crossroads we encounter in life. Psychologists use this term and investors use it as well.
WHAT IS A FAUSTIAN STORY?
The Faustian story is an ur-story, which means it’s the ancestor of many modern tales. TV Tropes calls Faustian plots Deal With The Devil plots.
Many stories, Faustian or not, include a stark ‘moral dilemma’ scene. The Faustian story is one in which the moral dilemma is taken to its extreme: Great riches and the hero’s very life. Alternatively, if the main character chooses ‘no deal’, no riches at all and nothing good, ever. Faustian stories are a thought experiment regarding sacrifice: Everyone has a price. What would yours be?
“Faust” and the adjective “Faustian” now imply, more widely, a situation in which an ambitious person surrenders moral integrity in order to achieve power and success for a delimited term.
But the story of Dr Faustus wasn’t the only ‘Faustian’ tale in the first 1000 years after Christ. Medieval audiences really liked the tale of the guy who sold his soul to the devil.
We also have the similar tale of Theophilus, who started to bitterly regret denouncing Christ and the Virgin in favour of Satan, so he repented. After that he was known as Theophilus the Penitent. The contract with Satan got burnt up. This was a Faustian tale but it was also a redemption tale. (Audiences love those, even today. Especially in America.)
The story of Faustus became the most enduring because it coincided with a time in the medieval era — the 1500s — when certain privileged men were starting to become really schooled up in certain esoteric areas. We take it for granted these days that every professional has their speciality, and no one outside that profession will ever understand what goes on in that specialty area, but in Medieval times, if you had a specialised job, people thought you a sorcerer. Ironically, it was in the age of Newton that these ideas were in the air. Turns out we have always been suspicious of science:
It was medieval philosophers who argued that revelation was to be found hidden in nature, and uncovered by experiment. This was the true scientific revolution. And it was Newton’s age that was the great age of superstition. It was in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that people started to believe that human beings could make a pact with the Devil, and thereby gain supernatural powers.
Medieval Lives by Terry Jones
WHO IS FAUST?
Faust is the main character of a classic German legend. Fictional Faust is a scholar who is highly successful yet dissatisfied with his life. This leads him to make a pact with the Devil, exchanging his soul for unlimited knowledge and worldly pleasures.
But the fictional character of Faust is based on a real man. Johann Georg Faust, born around 1480. He was well-known as an astrologer (an academic in those days) and a necromancer (talking to the dead). He used a magic lantern to conjure up shadows of the dead, which, yes, I can see how people thought that a bit creepy.
The real life Faust was born in Kundlingen but settled longest in Witternberg. He died around age 40 because his chemicals exploded during an accident. If that’s not an interestingly tragic life, I don’t know what is. People at the time thought so, too.
The story of Faust’s life was first published in Frankfurt but had been translated into English by 1592. The title is wonderful: The History of the Damnable Life and Deserved Death of Doctor John Faustus. Whoever translated the German story into English (known only by the initials PF), added many embellishments of their own. This was common back then. I suppose it enlivened the job of translator.
Playwright Christopher Marlowe turned the story into a play which proved very popular with audiences. (Marlowe was born the same year as Shakespeare, to put it in context.) Marlowe called the play The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus. Don’t know about you, but that sounds to me like something Anne Shirley might have come up with.
The story of playwright Christopher Marlowe is as interesting as the story of Dr Faustus. Marlowe was a gay blaspheming atheist at a time when all three of those things were not permitted, but he was actually killed in a tavern brawl over the payment of a bill. Gory as it would’ve been to watch, I wonder how that evening played out exactly.
In any case, we might suspect Marlowe himself had made a pact with the devil. After an illustrious career as a playwright, he was executed at the tender age of 29.
Christopher Marlowe wrote his play, but Goethealso had a go at the Faustian story. Goethe was a German writer born in the mid 1700s. Goethe wrote his Faust story as a ‘closet drama’, which looks like a play on the page, but which is never intended to be performed, but read by a solitary reader ‘in their closet’. It is Goethe’s version which is now known as the Ur-story of Faust.
Faust tries to kill himself but botches the job. Starts with a suicide. Suicide is considered sinful by the Christian church of this time.
Faust calls on the Devil. He wants further knowledge and magical powers which will let him indulge in all the pleasures of the world.
In response, the Devil’s representative, Mephistopheles, appears.
Mephistopheles makes a bargain with Faust: Mephistopheles will serve Faust with his magic powers for a set number of years, but at the end of the term, the Devil will claim Faust’s soul and Faust will be eternally damned. (In the early tales it is usually for24 years, one year for each of the hours in a day.)
More On Mephistopheles
Mephisto/Mephistopheles is a character of Germanic origin. He appeared around the time of the Renaissance and comes out of medieval beliefs and traditions around carnival. He appears in the carnivals around Lent. He has a white face (a death mask). He is said to be a ‘fallen angel’, but he has godlike aspects. He is supposed to have created ocean animals.
Mephisto bcame jealous of humans so teamed up with Lucifer. He is connected to the underworld and represents temptation. (Lent is all about resisting temptation.)
Lent is a very old carnival, but in later carnivals, the character of Harlequin and Mephistopheles become intertwined. In make-up, both are sometimes portrayed with that white face and the sweeping black line above one eyebrow that’s meant to signify intellectual arrogance. (See Gustaf Grundgens’ famous Mephisto make-up.)
The Term Of The Bargain
Faust makes use of Mephistopheles in various ways.
In many versions, Mephistopheles helps Faust seduce a beautiful and innocent girl, usually named Gretchen, whose life is ultimately destroyed. However, Gretchen’s innocence saves her in the end, and she enters Heaven. [Misogynistic bullshit, typical of the era. Perhaps an early take on the Manic Pixie Dream Girl.]
In Goethe’s rendition,Faust is saved by God’s grace via his constant striving—in combination with Gretchen’s pleadings with God in the form of the Eternal Feminine. [Happy Ending]
However, in the early tales, Faust is irrevocably corrupted and believes his sins cannot be forgiven. When the term ends, the Devil carries Faust off to Hell. [Tragic Ending]
THE ENDURING APPEAL OF THE FAUSTIAN PLOT
WE ARE BLOODTHIRSTY
First, audiences really seem to like it when bad acts are justly punished. This remains true in Hollywood today and speaks to an inherent conservatism. Adult audiences (at least) also seem to appreciate when bad children are punished in children’s stories. The Faustian punishment is the ultimate punishment. It appeals to something dark within us as humans — we get some sort of thrill out of revenge, or from knowing that no bad act goes unpunished.
IT RINGS TRUE
A proportion of us really seem to think of the world in Faustian terms, even today. Why does it seem like deals with the devil really do exist? When I think of people who live big lives — often they have a special skill, take lots of drugs and die age 27 — I can imagine they made a deal with the devil for 24 good years in return for the great sacrifice of a hasty death.
Of course, I know no such deal took place. But when it comes to risk-taking behaviour, the very behaviours that were initially rewarded also led to the individual’s downfall. We don’t see all the risk takers who took a risk without the great rewards. But the individuals who do lead Faustian lives stand out.
STAKES ARE HUGE
We find Faustian stories terrifying and alluring in equal measure. These stories are designed to help us understand ourselves, and our own motivations. They also help us to solidify our values.
WE TEND TO THINK WE CAN CHEAT DEATH
One of our most persistent collective wishes is to postpone death. There are always longevity clickbait articles popping up in newsfeeds. Folktales describe many such attempts. Characters rarely succeed, not even in the fantasy world of the fairytale. “Godfather Death,” retold below from a Swedish version, is typical. Although death can’t be cheated longterm, many folktales that describe temporary respites. Is it the temporary respite that we crave?
A poor man with a large family could find no one to be godfather for his latest son. Finally Death appeared, and the poor man chose him, saying: “You make no distinction between high and low.”
Years later, on the godson’s wedding night, Death called him from his bed and took him to a cave where countless candles were burning.
“Whose light is that?” asked the godson, pointing to a candle that was flickering out.
“Your own,” answered the godfather. The godson pleaded with Death to put a new candle in his holder, but the godfather did not answer. The light flickered and went out and the godson fell down dead.
We find from this that you can neither persuade nor cheat Death.
from Thompson, 100 Favorite Folktales, no. 18, type 332
The story of the blacksmith who tricked death (sometimes identified as “the devil”) is one of the most popular folktales in Europe:
The Lord granted a smith three wishes, and the latter chose a pear tree that would detain anyone who climbed into it, an easy chair that would hold anyone who sat in it, and a bag that would imprison anyone who climbed into it. The devil came to get the smith, and the smith invited him to help himself to some fruit from his pear tree. The devil climbed into the tree and was stuck there. The smith would not release him until he promised to give the smith four more years of life. When the time was up the devil returned, but he made the mistake of sitting in the smith’s magic chair, and he had to promise four more years before the smith would release him. On the devil’s third visit, the smith tricked him into his bag, and then beat the bag with his hammer until the devil promised to leave him alone.
Later the smith got to thinking that he had perhaps acted unwisely, and he knocked on the gate of hell to make amends. However the devil would have nothing to do with him, so the smith found his way to heaven. He got there just as St. Peter was letting someone in, and the gate was still ajar. The smith made a rush, and if he didn’t get in, then I don’t know what became of him.
from “The Master-Smith,” type 330 (Asbjørnsen and Moe, East o’ the Sun, p. 105.) For additional variations on this very popular theme see Ashliman, A Guide to Folktales, pp. 73-75
Note how the devil in these tales is not very similar to how we see the Devil depicted in stories today. The devil of traditional religion is cunning, sinister, wicked, and almost as omnipotent as God. But in these folktales he is a fool, and he can be outwitted by a clever, trickster mortal.
This is not an unusual set-up in folktales. In those older stories, even St. Peter is frequently portrayed as a fool. His stupidity also makes Jesus look a lot smarter. (See Godfather Death: Tales of Aarne-Thompson Type 332.) The idea that we can outsmart evil is reassuring, and I imagine this is why audiences enjoyed these folktales so much.
EXAMPLES OF MODERN FAUSTIAN STORIES
You can take my body You can take my bones You can take my blood But not my soul
The story of this song by Rhiannon Giddens centers anyone who has ever had to use their body for someone else’s gain. In this case it is a story of slavery. Slavery itself contains Faustian similarities.
Sometimes the entire plot deviates little from the early Faustian ones. In other stories it’s less obvious.
The Book of Job — “And Satan answered the Lord, and said, Skin for skin, yea, all that a man hath will he give for his life. But put forth thine hand now, and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse thee to thy face. And the Lord said unto Satan, Behold, he is in thine hand; but save his life” (Job 2: 4-6). Job is antithesis to Faust — saintly and completely dedicated to the Lord. Faust is not dedicated to the Lord. He’s all about knowledge rather than faith.
There are various Grimm tales about deals with the devil. Contained in the first of the Grimm collections is “The Blacksmith and the Devil”. A blacksmith almost hangs himself after losing all his money but a man with a long white beard appears from behind a tree and promises ten years of good life, after which the blacksmith belongs to him. Similar tales include “The Godfather” (Grimm, no. 42) and “Godfather Death” (Grimm, no. 44).
The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen
Faust was made for film in 1994 by Jan Svankjajer. Faust is portrayed by actors, puppets and animation in a setting cast in darkness and shadow. Darkness and shadow tend to be common to cinematic Faustian stories.
The Firm — in exchange for a well-paid job in law, a young law graduate gives his life. Now he’s part of the firm, he’ll never be allowed to leave.
Silence of the Lambs (1991) —Hannibal Lecter is Faust’s Mephistopheles. He tempts Clarice Starling with greater knowledge in exchange for his participation in evil. Clarice is Faust. She confronts and deals with evil so she can contain it (to stop her private ‘lambs’, from screaming). She learns the lambs will never stop screaming because evil will always be there. Clarice isn’t interested in Hannibal Lecter so much as she’s interested in evil itself, and the evil within all of us, inclining in herself. (For more on this read Film as Religion by John Lyden.)
The Picture Of Dorian Gray
Paradise Lost of the Justice League (2002) — a children’s cartoon starring caped crusaders. They are able to defeat all them them, until an ancient magician puts all the League under a spell. The only one who can win against Faust is Mephistopheles, who betrays him in the final scene. They all escape with lives intact.
Thelma & Louise sees main characterThelma finally achieving emotional independence and true freedom, but she must pay the price of death.
Batman Begins (2005) — Batman is Faust in a cape.
“The Devil and Daniel Webster” is an American short story by Stephen Vincent Benet, in which a man trades his soul with the devil. In ‘selling soul story’ tradition, this one takes place at a crossroads. Crossroads are highly symbolic. They represent moral dilemmas and major life decisions in general. Sometimes there is no literal crossroads. As a new spin on old tropes, “The Devil and Daniel Webster” contains no cross road in the traditional sense — rather, the story takes place at the meeting of three American state borders: It’s a story they tell in the border country, where Massachusetts joins Vermont and New Hampshire.
Breaking Bad is a Faustian story. Walter White earns ridiculous amounts of money, but he won’t have enough time on earth to spend it. He’s going to die now.
FAUST AND LITERARY MONSTERS
Thomas C. Foster considers Frankenstein a take on the Faustian tale:
We keep getting versions of Faust, from Christopher Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus to Goethe’s Faust to Stephen Vincent Benet’s The Devil and Daniel Webster to Damned Yankees to movie versions of Bedazzled (and, of course, Darth Vader’s turn to the Dark Side) to bluesman Robert Johnson’s stories of how he acquired his musical skill in a meeting with a mysterious stranger at a crossroads. The enduring appeal of this cautionary tale suggests how deeply embedded it is in our collective consciousness. Unlike other versions, however, Frankenstein involves no demonic personage offering the damning margin, so the cautionary being is the product (the monster) rather than the source (the devil) of the unholy act. In his deformity he projects the perils of man seeking to play God, perils that, as in other (non comic) versions, consume the power seeker.
How To Read Literature Like A Professor, Thomas C. Foster
THE STORY OF ROBERT JOHNSON
On Netflix right you can find a number of stories about characters making deals, with something unseen and unknown (maybe the devil). Documentary Devil At The Crossroads is about the myth surrounding real life, hugely influential musician called Robert Johnson, who learned guitar so quickly and so well that nobody believed he could have.
In reality, Johnson had large hands, which allowed him to to do things others could not. (This was not the full story, but part of it.)
My own interpretation of the Robert Johnson story goes like this: If you happen to know any musical savants, you won’t be all that surprised about Johnson — someone whose brain is wired for music can learn it quickly. Robert Johnson was denied musical opportunities as a child, partly because he was poor, partly because he was Black. When he was finally given a guitar and a bit of tuition in early adulthood, he was at first ‘not very good’ but then he disappeared. When he returned a year and a half later, his skills had exceeded that of his mentors.
There is a documentary series on Australian TV about child geniuses called Making Child Prodigies. One of the boys featured is a modern Robert Johnson on the electric guitar. What if Callum had been denied access to a guitar until early adulthood? I believe he would’ve picked it up within a year and a half, because that’s how his brain is wired. On YouTube, Callum McPhie’s channel is called The Heavy Metal Kid.
What really strikes me as eerie: Similarities between Robert Johnson and Christopher Marlowe’s experiences in pubs. Marlowe was actually killed in a tavern brawl age 29. No one knows for sure how Robert Johnson died, but he was dead at age 27. He was a well-known troublemaker in pubs.
According to one theory, Johnson was murdered by the jealous husband of a woman with whom he had flirted. In an account by the blues musician Sonny Boy Williamson, Johnson had been flirting with a married woman at a dance, and she gave him a bottle of whiskey poisoned by her husband. When Johnson took the bottle, Williamson knocked it out of his hand, admonishing him to never drink from a bottle that he had not personally seen opened. Johnson replied, “Don’t ever knock a bottle out of my hand.” Soon after, he was offered another (poisoned) bottle and accepted it. Johnson is reported to have begun feeling ill the evening after and had to be helped back to his room in the early morning hours. Over the next three days his condition steadily worsened. Witnesses reported that he died in a convulsive state of severe pain. The musicologistRobert “Mack” McCormick claimed to have tracked down the man who murdered Johnson and to have obtained a confession from him in a personal interview, but he declined to reveal the man’s name.
SMALL DEALS WITH THE DEVIL IN OTHERWISE NON-FAUSTIAN STORIES
In her short story “Tableau Vivant”, Robin Black deftly depicts a common thought-pattern: that happiness must be repaid by misfortune. The story is about an older woman who has had a stroke. The story goes into Jean’s backstory:
She could remember [her daughter’s] very first few months, how she had been so little trouble, so docile really, that Jean had endured regular bouts of fear, not only that the baby wasn’t normal—by which she then still meant exceptional—but also that so easy an infancy would be paid for one day, fear that it all evens out somehow, suspicious even then of the deals life might make on our behalf.
Robin Black, “Tableau Vivant”, If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This
How many of us recognise this thought-pattern? Something good happens… but it can never last. Something bad will happen, and that will be a kind of payment for enjoying happiness and good fortune. We are inclined to make cause and effect connections when none are present.
This particular cognitive bias can lead to unhappiness. Problematically, we may be loathe to shuck it off, because it can also provide us with consolation during the lowest times. “Something terrible just happened to me; I’m owed something good.”
Hmm, life hasn’t been very kind to me lately (Well) But I suppose it’s a push for moving on (Oh yeah) In time the sun’s gonna shine on me nicely (One day yeah ) Something tells me good things are coming And I ain’t gonna not believe
A Life No One Will Remember. A Story You Will Never Forget.
France, 1714: in a moment of desperation, a young woman makes a Faustian bargain to live forever and is cursed to be forgotten by everyone she meets.
Thus begins the extraordinary life of Addie LaRue, and a dazzling adventure that will play out across centuries and continents, across history and art, as a young woman learns how far she will go to leave her mark on the world.
But everything changes when, after nearly 300 years, Addie stumbles across a young man in a hidden bookstore and he remembers her name.
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.
Aristotle thought a lot about how stories are structured and noticed that stories typically contain reversal and recognition. Reversal often means something different to storytellers these days, but Aristotle was talking about a main character’s reversal of fortune (e.g. in a rags to riches tale). By ‘recognition’, Aristotle meant the moment when a main character realises what has taken place (with horror or delight). The concept of anagnorisis has been around for a long time, and complete, satisfying stories still require this step.
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.
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.
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.
Religions also differ in how they value personal epiphanies. LDS is a faith that places particularemphasis on feelings as a basis for knowing what to do or what decisions to make.
I had a grace descend down on me.
Bill Henrickson, Big Love
“Then came the most exquisite moment of her whole life passing a stone urn with flowers in it. Sally stopped; picked a flower; kissed her on the lips. The whole world might have turned upside down! The others disappeared; there she was alone with Sally. And she felt that she had been given a present, wrapped up, and told just to keep it, not to look at it — a diamond, something infinitely precious, wrapped up, which, as they walked (up and down, up and down), she uncovered, or the radiance burnt through, the revelation, the religious feeling!”
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.
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.
In Charlotte’s Web, for instance, the part where Wilbur gains his understanding of death occurs with the part where Fern is at the top of the Ferris wheel.
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.
The following demonstrates the close connection between death and enlightenment:
Since our consignment to heaven or hell was to be decided at the hour of death, the ‘good death’ became increasingly significant. Early Victorians idealised the notion of an end slow enough to give the dying the chance to say goodbye to their families and to prepare themselves spiritually for this all important moment. Families would cluster around bedsides, hoping to catch profound last words of their loved ones or witness religious raptures before death. Heavily edited stories of death scenes were expounded in Evangelical memoirs and journals, highlighting the dramatic battle of the dying in the days before death. The reality however was less romantic, leading many to comment on how rare that much romanticised rapture was. Indeed by the late Victorian period people had largely discarded these notions, hoping instead for quick, painless deaths over melodramatic, drawn out affairs.
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“.
THE ANTI EPIPHANY
Sometimes in a story there is opportunity for an epiphany, but the character suppresses the truth just revealed. Some people call this phase of story the antiepiphany. It often looks like a return to the quotidian mundanity of life.
Short stories don’t have time to dwell in the antiepiphany phrase. In his novels, Joyce takes his characters back to the mundane, but in his short stories end with the epiphany. Likewise, Mansfield doesn’t have time in a short story to show us the ordinary life Laura has woken up to the day after “The Garden Party”.
In some stories, the character has no revelation but the reader does, on their behalf. Annie Proulx likes those ones.
There is only so much revealing one can do. For every self-revelation, there has to be a self-concealment.
As Richard Sennett has argued: “In practising social civility, you keep silent about things you know clearly but which you should not and do not say.”
Just as we can suppress some aspects of ourselves in our self-presentation to others, so we can do the same to ourselves in acknowledging or not acknowledging what we desire. Most of the time, we spare ourselves from the torture of recognising our baser yearnings. But when does this necessary private self-deception become harmful? When it becomes public dogma. In other words: when it becomes denialism.
But Mole stood still a moment, held in thought. As one wakened suddenly from a beautiful dream, who struggles to recall it, but can recapture nothing but a dim sense of the beauty in it, the beauty! Till that, too, fades away in its turn, and the dreamer bitterly accepts the hard, cold waking and all its penalties.”
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.
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.
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 CAN BE THE ENTIRE POINT OF A STORY
Especially lyrical short stories, which often present the mundane in a new way.
The daily papers talk of everything except the daily. The papers annoy me, they teach me nothing. What they recount doesn’t concern me, doesn’t ask me questions and doesn’t answer the questions I ask or would like to ask.
What’s really going on, what we’re experiencing, the rest, all the rest, where is it? How should we take account of, question, describe what happens every day and recurs every day: the banal, the quotidian, the obvious, the common, the ordinary, the infra-ordinary, the background noise, the habitual?
To question the habitual. But that’s just it, we’re habituated to it. We don’t question it, it doesn’t question us, it doesn’t seem to pose a problem, we live it without thinking, as if it carried within it neither questions nor answers, as if it weren’t th bearer of any information. This is no longer even conditioning, it’s anaesthesia. We sleep through our lives in a dreamless sleep. … What’s needed perhaps is finally to found our own anthropology, one that will speak about us, will look in ourselves for what for so long we’ve been pillaging from others. Not the exotic any more, but the endotic.
To question what seems so much a matter of course that we’ve forgotten its origns. To rediscover something of the astonishment that Jules Verne or his readers may have felt faced with an apparatus capable of reproducing or transporting sounds. For that astonishment existed, along with thousands of others, and it’s they which have moulded us.
DIFFERENT GENRES HAVE THEIR OWN KINDS OF SELF-REVELATIONS
As one example, romance genres require that at some point the main character/s realise they are in love. This love is usually of the romantic kind. (There are other kinds.)
Those epic big screen lip-locks aren’t just selling mouth pleasures, they’re selling Moments of Realization, too, when (at last!) everybody knows for sure that they’re in a love story.
Captain Awkward, who also does a great job of describing how a typical fictional romantic plot can unhelpfully shape our expectations of our relationships in real life.
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:
A character is in a zone of comfort (BUT THEY DO NEED A SHORTCOMING)
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.
“I make all my movies about pretty much the same thing. It’s ultimately death and being alone. It’s existentialism. The meaning of life. All of those big things that would seem obnoxious if I went on about them. And a lot of my characters go through this: There’s an inciting event in your life that shows you who you are and who you have always been, and it’s equally thrilling and repulsive to realize that and that you are entirely alone.”
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
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.
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…
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 AND THE LGBTQ SHORT STORY
The startling moment of recognition, understanding or disclosure that typifies the short story in general has particular salience for LGBTQ short narratives in which epiphany is structured by a character’s revelation of his or her LGBTQ identity, an act known as coming out. Such a revelation can not only provide the central moment of crisis in a story but, moreover, sometimes indicate a complete rupture of past and future for the LGBTQ character who comes out. […] Equally revelatory are moments in which characters discover unknown or unexpected LGBTQ friends, relatives, and communities.
LGBTQ America Today: An Encyclopedia Volume 3: P-Z edited by John C. Hawley, 2009
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.
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.
ERKENNTNIS AND WISSENSCHAFT
The German language usefully marks this as the distinction between tacit, incompletely articulated and intuitive knowledge (Erkenntnis) and knowledge that comes via science (Wissenschaft). The epiphany experienced by characters in stories is often of the Erkenntnis kind. English synonyms include: realization, recognition, insight, perception. Erkenntnis relies on ‘interpretive’ knowledge. This is often what a storyteller is asking of the audience, also. If we experience epiphanies from reading, it’s probably because we’ve interpreted it ourselves rather than been told outright. Epiphanies are therefore often tacit, incompletely articulated and intuitive.
WHAT IS A MIRROR MOMENT?
A mirror moment is a moment in midpoint scene of a novel or screenplay when the character is forced to look within and reflect on who he is and who he must become in order to achieve his goal. If he decides to continue on as he always has, he will surely fail (tragedy).
If the story is not a tragedy, the hero realizes he must either a) become stronger to overcome the odds or b) transform, shedding his biggest flaws and become more open-minded to new ideas and beliefs. One way or the other, he must better himself in some way to step onto the path which will lead to success.
from Story Midpoint & Mirror Moment: Using Heroes’ Emotions To Transform Them
A satisfying ending is one that delivers on the promise, providing new insight or comfortable confirmation or vicarious happiness. Even when it’s surprising in some way, the ending feels inevitable, because it fulfills the promise of the story. And—this is important—the ending feels satisfying only because the beginning set up the implicit promise in the first place.
The ending must make use of those same forces and conflicts, with nothing important left out and nothing new suddenly appearing at the last minute.
Mr. Shakespeare: Every character in your story doesn’t need to know how everything works out for everybody as long as your reader knows. These final scenes are unnecessary and they slow down the action at the end because, frankly, we’ve all heard all of this explanation already. Sometimes twice already. So essentially the audience/reader is forced to sit through a summary of the action while all the characters get caught up.
A successful ending must be tied not only to the author’s implicit promise and the forces dramatized in the middle, but also to the protagonist’s nature. A test for your ending is this question: If my protagonist were a radically different person, would this story still end the same way? The answer should be No.
Finding the right ending sometimes takes time. Once it took me thirteen years.
To a modern audience, The Little Match Girl is unbearably tragic. Perhaps, like me, you vividly recall reading your version of this story as a young kid and being profoundly affected. For me, it was probably the first time I considered the possibility of childhood death.
Hans Christian Andersen was commissioned to write a story based on a woodcut. This woodcut illustration was by painter Johan Thomas Lundbye and was of a poor girl selling matches, dressed in rags. It was widely recognised in Denmark at the time and appeared in calendars with a caption encouraging people to give to the poor. Lundbye himself died at the age of 29, during the Three Years War in Denmark but it’s not clear whether he was accidentally shot or whether he took his own life.
SETTING OF THE LITTLE MATCH GIRL
For the Victorians, child death was all around. These days when a young life ends we focus on all the years lost. But the Victorian mindset was a little different. Sad as death inevitably still was, the focus was not on the years wasted but on the opportunities presented when one is able to fly up to heaven with their childhood innocence intact.
Alison Lurie writes not of The Little Match Girl but of Peter Pan when she talks about the Victorian ideology of childhood innocence, but it applies equally to the mindset of Hans Christian Andersen:
In every society, every century, some time of life seems to embody current cultural ideals and have superior prestige. In ancient China, we are told, the greatest honor was given to old age; America in the 1960s admired teenagers, attributing to them boundless energy, political altruism, and a polymorphously joyous sensuality.
The Victorians, on the other hand, preferred children who had not yet reached puberty. The natural innocents of Blake and Wordsworth reappeared in middlebrow versions in hundreds of nineteenth-century stories and poems, always uncannily good and sensitive, with an angelic beauty and charm that often move the angels to carry them off. But the early death of these children was not felt as wholly tragic, for if they never became adults they would escape worldly sin and suffering; they would remain forever pure and happy.
Don’t Tell The Grownups: The Subversive Power of Children’s Literature
How do we really know this is set in Victorian times, though? That is the assumption, because Hans Christian Andersen lived during this time, and the sensibilities line up. But this is a more timeless story than that, and others adapting this tale have chosen a variety of different eras and places for the story. Another common era for setting this story is the early 20th century, sometimes in an American city, sometimes in London.
SEASONALITY IN THE LITTLE MATCH GIRL
There is something both comforting and dangerous about a village blanketed in snow. Snow can spell death for a human on the wrong side of a window, but for home dwellers tucked up safely in their living rooms sipping mulled wine, snow really does feel like an extra ‘blanket’. I wonder if this comes from the reality that hunting creatures also hunker down in the snow. Bears, for instance, hibernate, so you’re less likely to get mauled by one of them. Despite the almost mythological fear of being mauled by large, wild animals, the biggest danger to humankind has always been other humans. It feels likely that a town is less likely to be assailed by a gang of marauders in the heavy snow.
Andersen used the time span of the year as a metaphor for the time span of a life — the story takes place on New Year’s Eve, which neatly coincides with the very end of the girl’s life.
The Little Match Girl is not set in any specific place, but throughout Europe this was an era of industrialisation, before laws existed to prevent the complete slavery of peasants and the breakdown of family. Children from poor families commonly worked very long days, seven days a week. It was illegal to beg on the streets, so children would ostensibly try to sell a product, hoping for donations. This explains why the girl has a fistful of matches but nothing else — the matches are simply props for her begging. As a kid I always wondered what she planned on doing after the fistful of matches had gone. Even if she had sold them, wasn’t death her eventual fate?
In The Little Match Girl the smell of roast goose emanates onto the street. This is a traditional Danish Christmas dish.
The traditional Danish Christmas meal is
roast pork, duck and goose
For dessert, the classic dish is ris à l’amande;— cold rice pudding with whipped cream, vanilla, almonds and hot cherry sauce. Also ‘risengrød’ — hot rice pudding.
In fairy tale world, if a name starts with ‘Little’, watch out. It means they’re not going to make it to adulthood.
The father in this tale is very much in the background — a villain/monster who threatens to beat her if she comes home without having sold the matches. He’s not going to come out looking for her when he realises she hasn’t come home. The Little Match Girl is — emotionally, and for story purposes — an orphan. In Victorian Denmark there is no safety net for abused and starving kids, so unless she can sell matches she has no money to find food or shelter. Memorably, she is without shoes. Hans Christian Andersen’s father had been a shoemaker, so Hans paid special attention to footwear. He had also been bullied by other children as a child, so he has a boy run off with one of the girl’s slippers after it slips off.
The setting itself, in which she is invisible to passersby and helpless against the climate.
Although this story has been rewritten many times, often with the ending changed so that the Little Match Girl ends up safe and happy ever after in a warm house, this story was a critique on economic inequalities. The story was written at a time when Denmark was doing pretty well, despite some social unrest. Yet there were still abandoned children walking around the streets, as there always are in times of general prosperity. The opponents of this story are people who turn a blind eye. When the ending is changed there is no longer any human opponent — just the cold outside.
The Little Match Girl will live happily in heaven with the grandmother she loves. Hans Christian Andersen was really close to his own grandmother. His grandmothers and older women all have fairy godmother, semi-magical powers attached to them. Here she is surrounded by an aura of light.
Hans Christian Andersen was a devout (possibly Orthodox) Lutheran. Lutheranism is a major branch of Protestant Christianity. Lutherans split from Catholics in the early 1500s. A main difference between Lutheranism and Catholicism: Lutherans believe that scripture is the final authority on all matters. For Catholics, authority comes from both the scriptures and the tradition.
According to Lutheran thinking God persists after death. People are judged before being admitted to Heaven, but worrying about this judgement (or about the future in general) is not considered a mark of faith. A good Lutheran goes about their daily life in accordance with the rules of the church/God without worrying too much about the future.
There seem to be two main interpretations of this ending:
Children are full of imagination and are capable of enduring severe hardship with a positive attitude
The Little Match Girl is a bad example of a human being because she just gives up on life.
Death as a divine release
Death, of course, is not always looked upon as punishment. In fact, in many religious stories virtuous people (often children) are “called home,” frequently under miraculous circumstances. For these blessed individuals, death is a divine release from the sorrows of this world.
Once there was a poor woman who had two children. The youngest one had to go into the forest every day to find wood. Once a little child helped him gather the wood, carried it to the house, and then disappeared. The child told his mother about the helper, but she didn’t believe him. One day the helper child brought a rose and told the child that when the rose was in full blossom he would come again. The mother put the rose into some water. One morning the child did not get up; the mother went to his bed and found him lying there dead. On that same morning the rose came into full blossom.
Source: Retold from The Rose (Grimm, Children’s Legends, no. 3). For similar accounts of foretold deaths, see Grimm, German Legends, nos. 263-267.
Religious legends are told throughout the world, and those describing premonitions and forewarnings of impending death are particularly widespread and persistent. Such accounts spontaneously emerge at solemn family gatherings, then disappear when the mood brightens. They surface again when needed — unrehearsed at other sober occasions, or sophisticatedly refined in universal myths and in the great tragedies of world literature. At their primeval level, these accounts describe only modest miracles: the opening of a flower, the appearance of a bird, the dream of a departed loved one, or perhaps nothing more portentous than an uncanny feeling. They do not claim the power to change the course of human destiny, nor do they offer explanations to life’s unfathomed mysteries. Instead, they are expressions of faith in continuity and of hope for justice, even at times when it is painfully evident that, on this earth at least, we do not live happily ever after.
Hans Christian Andersen wrote this story using a painting as inspiration. How would you write a fractured fairytale using The Little Match Girl as inspiration? Gregory McGuire did it for an NPR Christmas special some years ago. The story is called Matchless. He took a minor character and made made him more sympathetic.
Header illustration: Anne Anderson, Scottish illustrator.
Northern Lights is a young adult 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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’.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.