The Princess and the Pea by Hans Christian Andersen

The Princess and the Pea was first published in 1835, one of a handful of satirical, colloquial fairy tales in an unbound collection by Danish storyteller Hans Christian Andersen. The colloquial language didn’t go down well with critics at the time, who also didn’t appreciate that Andersen’s silly little “wonder tales” failed to convey a moral suitable for children.

It took another 11 years for English speakers to read this story in translation, but it wasn’t the same story at all. Translator Charles Boner didn’t pick up on Andersen’s satire. Or perhaps he did pick up on it, but didn’t find it funny. In any case, Boner (great name, huh?) did not simply translate Andersen’s tale, he changed the ending and left English readers with something quite different.

Continue reading “The Princess and the Pea by Hans Christian Andersen”

Umbrellas In Art And Storytelling

Theodore Levigne (1848 - 1912)

The oldest umbrellas, as we know them today, were used not to keep off the rain but to avoid the sun.

The basic umbrella was invented more than 4,000 years ago. There is evidence of umbrellas in the ancient art and artifacts of Egypt, Assyria, Greece, and China.

These ancient umbrellas or parasols were first designed to provide shade from the sun.

Thought.co
Parasols by Rea Irvin (1881-1972)
Parasols by Rea Irvin (1881-1972)
Continue reading “Umbrellas In Art And Storytelling”

Cry Heart, But Never Break by Glenn Ringtved and Charlotte Pardi

Cry Heart But Never Break cover 2

Cry Heart, But Never Break is a picture book to help children process their grief. The book was first published in Denmark in 2001, then translated into English by Robert Moulthrop five years later. The story is beautifully illustrated by Danish artist Charlotte Pardi.

I recommend this book for children of all ages dealing with grief or contemplating death. I found it moving and can’t imagine how much more moving it would be if I’d just lost someone.

Continue reading “Cry Heart, But Never Break by Glenn Ringtved and Charlotte Pardi”

Tomten Stories For Children

The Tomte is a Christmas creature from Nordic folklore. Tomte is Swedish, and the other Scandinavian countries have their own versions — in Norway known as Nisse. In English, think of your archetypal garden gnome, with his long, white beard and red cap. Tomten also translates as “homestead man”, and some English translators just stick with “troll” for every Scandinavian creature.

The Tomten by Astrid Lindgren and Kitty Crowther
The Tomten by Astrid Lindgren and Kitty Crowther

Saying “The Tomten” doesn’t sit well with bilingual speakers of Swedish and English. Calling tomten “The tomten” is like saying “The the gnome” because the “n” at the end of Tomte already indicates “The”. Likewise with Nisse and Nissen. However, when words are borrowed into other languages, grammar doesn’t come with. Forgive my usage of ‘The Tomten’ and ‘a Tomten’ — English language children’s book publishers have run with it for decades.

Case in point, The Tomten and the Fox is a tomte picture book for children written by Astrid Lindgren, of Pippi Longstocking fame. Harald Wiberg, a Swedish Children’s Book Illustrator, and wildlife artist illustrated an earlier edition. Like any classic tale, there are numerous retellings illustrated by various artists. Belgian artist Kitty Crowther has also illustrated the Lindgren retelling in a more cartoonish, less painterly style, I assume to attract a modern child readership and make it a bit less… creepy.

The creature is straight out of Nordic folklore, and the story itself is based on an old poem by Karl-Erik Forsslund (1872-1941). I can’t easily find this poem, but came across other sources crediting the inspirationalTomten poem to Viktor Rydberg, originally published in 1881. It’s possible that two men both wrote poems about Tomten around this time?

Using Harald Wiberg’s beautiful illustrations, Astrid’s prose version has been adapted for short film. I watched this mid-afternoon, started yawning uncontrollably, then lay down for a very pleasant afternoon nap. Now I’m back, I can tell you that this tale is perfect for putting kids to sleep. Listen to the cadence, which works hypnotically even in English.

My 12-year-old is distracted by the fact that the tomte appears to be wearing a saveloy for a hat, and says it’s the sort of thing they show at school in the library, and everyone goes, “Okay, that was creepy.”

THE STRUCTURE OF LULLABY STORIES

For those still awake, I’d like to point out that the story structure is very similar to that of Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise-Brown. A creature or camera moves from place to place or from object to object, seeming to check up on it, with the covert message that everything is fine, because it will still be there, as expected, even after the child wakes up. Whereas Margaret Wise-Brown is confined to a child’s (?) bedroom (the bedroom has a telephone), The Tomten poem guides us gently around a dark and snowy farm. The snow itself functions as a cosy blanket in what might as well be a bedroom.

These lullaby stories are the rare exception to the ‘rules’ of complete narrative. They do satisfy the intended audience, but don’t contain the steps of every other kind of story in the world. Perhaps this is precisely because they are designed to send a child to sleep. Sleep is the ending.

FOLKLORIC CREATURES PEERING AT CHILDREN THROUGH WINDOWS

I am not Scandinavian and did not grow up with tomte mythology. My ancestry is Scottish so I was spooked by threats of Wee Willy Winky instead.

Wee Willie Winkie rins through the toon,
Up stairs an’ doon stairs in his nicht-gown,
Tirlin’ at the window, crying at the lock,
“Are the weans in their bed, for it’s now eight o’clock?”

Now that I’m an adult, I code Wee Willie Winky as a pedophilic peeping tom. (If you’ve listened to podcasts about the Golden State Killer, you’ll hear police officers saying that peeping toms are more common than commonly believed.)

The tomte story does not give me the same creepy vibe as Wee Willie Winky. I wonder if I was scarred by Willie as a child. Once I’d been ushered into bed I’d pressed my ear to my pillow. I could swear I heard his footsteps pacing down our gravel driveway. I now know that I was hearing my own blood. No, that’s not creepy at all.

Or perhaps there’s some fundamental difference between Willie and the Tomte. Perhaps Willie’s creepiness comes from his night-gown, which makes him less supernatural, more human. (Then there’s the unfortunate other meaning of ‘wee willie’.)

Is the tomte scary for Scandinavian children? This 1941 short film (in Swedish) has a Noseferatu vibe and I wouldn’t try putting kids to sleep with it. The Tomte can be either cosy or scary, depending on treatment. Same as monsters.

I was basking in the warm glow of a familiar, beloved story from my childhood, they were creeped out that little men might be walking around the house while they were sleeping looking in windows. Matter of fact, one of my boys came and crawled into my bed about 20 minutes ago. Guess that story backfired a little…

Goodreads reviewer

In common with Wee Willie Winky, the Nordic tomte is imagined by artists as peering through windows. Windows, in common with doorways and chimneys, are one of those liminal parts of a house where storytellers of yore imagine all sorts of dangers would rush in at night, killing the entire household.

In the illustrations below, Lennart Helje offsets some of the peeping tom creepiness by showing him peering in at the cat (rather than at the children), who he is able to talk to in cat language. However, tomte stories will also show the little man staring fixedly at sleeping children. That’s what he does, after all.

Lennart Helje (1940)
Postcard (1979) by Lennart Helje tomten, tomte stares at you from a tree
The Tomten by Astrid Lindgren and Kitty Crowther 10
The Tomten by Astrid Lindgren and Kitty Crowther

There is another man of folklore who penetrates the safe home in winter to visit children as they sleep and that guy is Santa Clause. But Santa is presumably far too busy to hang around and stare at kids. If he’s not delivering presents he’s eating cookies and milk. Santa wears the same red cap, the same white beard as the tomte. The origin folklore clearly overlaps. (No, Coca-cola did not invent Santa as we know him today.) Santa’s red outfit comes from  civil war cartoonist Thomas Nast in the 1870s, who would’ve been influenced by gnomes.

See also: A Pictorial History Of Santa

Santa used to wear all sorts of different coloured coats before everyone settled on red, which had happened by the close of the 1920s. This image is from an article about christmas ornaments in Collectors Weekly. Purple is the liturgical color for the season before Christmas, so this may account for the purple, influenced by the mythical figure of Father Advent. Santa would also wear blue, green and brown coats.

SETTING OF THE TOMTEN AND THE FOX

  1. PERIOD — around Christmas time, when the days are very short, the nights very long.
  2. DURATION — over a night time, but repeated. Every night, all winter, every year. This is a cyclical story which conveys the idea that the tomte have been around for a very long time, and will still be around long after we’re gone.
  3. LOCATION — Scandinavia, specifically rural Sweden
  4. ARENA — A storybook farm, with just enough farm animals to keep a family afloat.
  5. MANMADE SPACES — farm buildings and the main house. Traditional Scandinavian farm houses are set up with a specific cosy layout, with buildings forming a mini ‘town square’.
  6. NATURAL SETTINGS — The moon is out, which lights up the arena as if it were daytime. Night-time brightness is reguarly conveyed by illustrators but in Astrid Lindgren’s story, the brightness of the moon is mentioned right there on the page.
Tomten Postcard by Harald Wiberg
Tomten Postcard by Harald Wiberg. Illustrators of children’s stories depict night-time in varying ways. In this case, Wiberg has basically painted as if it’s daytime but made the sky black. This creates an almost luminescent atmosphere.
  1. WEATHER — It has always been snowing in a tomte tale. The snow is crucial to the story because tomte leave footprints. That’s the only clue that they exist.
The Tomten by Astrid Lindgren and Kitty Crowther
Footprints of The Tomten by Kitty Crowther
  1. TECHNOLOGY CRUCIAL TO THIS PARTICULAR STORY — Only the farm technology is crucial.
  2. LEVEL OF CONFLICT — This refers to the story’s position on the hierarchy of human struggles. From antiquity, humans imagine every emptiness occupied by higher forms of life ie. fairies. The tomte is a type of fairy, in the broadest sense. Fairies can fall anywhere on the spectrum of morality. This one has an apotropaic (protective) function. Winter is a dangerous time for people living in cold climes, reliant upon keeping their livestock alive. It would be comforting to think that a supernatural creature is keeping an eye on things, even as you sleep.
  3. THE EMOTIONAL LANDSCAPE — The winter is typically symbolic of death, quiet, sleep and contemplation.The Tomten and the Fox revisioning sets up the fox as the real tomte, for people who want an imaginative jaunt grounded in the logic of reality. But a child audience can choose to believe that those footprints belong to the tomte, not to the fox.
The Tomten and the Fox curled up together as one, illustrated by L Helje
The Tomten by Astrid Lindgren and Kitty Crowther
The Tomten by Astrid Lindgren and Kitty Crowther

STORY STRUCTURE OF THE TOMTEN AND THE FOX (English Edition)

So, The Tomten based on the old poem is more lullaby than plot. But Astrid Lindgren wrote a whole collection of Tomten stories. Let’s take a closer look at The Tomten and the Fox (1966), because she beefed the earlier tomten lullaby poem out into a fuller plot. For that reason, it makes a good case study.

Wikipedia summarises the structural difference:

The Tomten

During the night the people at a farm in a forest are asleep. Only Tomten is awake. No one has ever seen Tomten, the people only know that he is there. Sometimes the people only find his small footprints in the snow. Tomten takes care of the animals and gives them comfort through a cold winter’s night. He promises them that spring will be there soon. Tomten also visits the children, who always want to see him. However, they are always at sleep when he comes, so they dream about him.

The Tomten and the Fox

The fox Mickel is hungry and hasn’t found food for a long time. At Christmas Eve he comes across a farm in the forest. He comes into the chicken’s stable and wants to eat a chicken. However, he is stopped by Tomten. Tomten knows how hungry a fox can be in such a cold winter’s night. When a child leaves a plate of groat on the doorstep for Tomten, Tomten wants to share it with Mickel. He tells Mickel that he would share it every night with him if he needs to. Mickel is happy, full and goes back into the forest.

Wikipedia

PARATEXT

No one knows when he came to the farm, no one has ever seen him, but everyone knows it is the troll Tomten who walks about the lonely old farmhouse on a winter’s night, talking to all the animals and reminding them of the promise of Spring.

marketing copy

SHORTCOMING

The family is vulnerable to predators who come out of the forest at night.

DESIRE

The Tomte has a job and does it well. He protects the farmstead from intruders, not by trickster business and violence but with kindness.

OPPONENT

The fox is named Reynard, a trickster archetype from medieval Dutch, English, French and German fables. Readers may know more about him from other stories. Reynard’s main opponent is the wolf. But Reynard is basically synonymous with any fox. In French, renard now means fox.

The fox has come from the woods (the mythical forest) to steal the chickens. Reynard is not just an enemy of the chooks, but also an enemy of the family reliant upon those chooks for food over winter. He may be just a fox, but this is a life and death struggle.

PLAN

The fox clearly wants to steal some chooks.

The Tomte’s job: to protect the chooks. Tomtes are supposedly vegetarian, I guess. They eat porridge with cinnamon and butter. The Tomte will keep the fox from the chooks by sharing his own porridge.

THE BIG STRUGGLE

The gentleness of the lullaby poem is retained. The fox doesn’t resist the tomte’s plan to feed him porridge, to prevent him from eating meat, but the hungry opponent does leave an aperture of doubt by failing to promise that he’ll stay away from the chickens.

The-Tomten-and-the-Fox-1966-Harald-Wiberg-Swedish-Childrens-Book-IllustratorWildlife-ArtistAuthor
The Tomten and the Fox (1966), illustration by Harald Wiberg, a Swedish Children’s Book Illustrator, Wildlife Artist and Author

ANAGNORISIS

Any revelation here is for the reader, who is hopefully comforted by the idea that there is a tomte looking out for them overnight.

NEW SITUATION

To give a sense of an ending, a storyteller will frequently pan the camera up into the sky.

What is the morning star?

In general, when Mercury or Venus has a western elongation from the sun, it is a morning star; with an eastern elongation, it is an evening star. Different planets may appear together in the morning or evening sky, depending on their location relative to Earth and the sun.

Space.com

EXTRAPOLATED ENDING

Not so sure the Tomte’s plan accounts for bloodlust. I’ve kept chooks, unsuccessfully, from foxes.

RESONANCE

Partly due to the succcess of Pippi Longstocking, when Astrid Lindgren turned the Swedish poem into prose for children’s picture books, and once that had been translated into English, the tomte stories became more widely known in the English speaking realm. Alongside The Three Billy Goats Gruff, these stories are some of the better known folktales outside Scandinavia.

How has Kitty Crowther made the Tomte more relatable and less creepy? See the illustrations below for the answer.

The Tomten by Astrid Lindgren and Kitty Crowther
The Tomten by Astrid Lindgren and Kitty Crowther
The Tomten by Astrid Lindgren and Kitty Crowther
The Tomten by Astrid Lindgren and Kitty Crowther
The Tomten by Astrid Lindgren and Kitty Crowther
The Tomten by Astrid Lindgren and Kitty Crowther

FURTHER READING

Elsa Beskow (Swedish author and illustrator) 1874 - 1953, Tomtebobarnene (Children Of The Forest), c1910
Elsa Beskow (Swedish author and illustrator) 1874 – 1953, Tomtebobarnene (Children Of The Forest), c1910. These tomte are illustrated as regular children with hats that resemble mushrooms.

Hedgie’s Surprise by Jan Brett is another children’s book about tomten.

What Do We Do All Day? has collected a list of Tomte picture books for English readers.

In Trip Trap I created a modern short story by blending Scandinavian mythologies, namely The Three Billy Goats Gruff and a spooky version of Tomten tales.

Writing Activity: Describe A Church

Elisabeth Sonrel (1874 - 1953)

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.

Man-Size in Marble by E. Nesbit
Frederic Edwin Church - View of Olana in the Snow New York America
Frederic Edwin Church – View of Olana in the Snow New York America
Andrew Loomis (1892–1959) singing church
Andrew Loomis (1892–1959)
1959 cover by Dick Sargent
1959 cover by Dick Sargent
Henry Bacon - Christmas Prayers church
Henry Bacon – Christmas Prayers
Henry Bacon - Pay Attention
Henry Bacon – Pay Attention
Mary Whyte - South Carolina, USA  Sunday morning devotion - watercolor church
Mary Whyte – South Carolina, USA Sunday morning devotion – watercolor
Joseph Christian Leyendecker (American artist) 1874 - 1951 Easter church service 1918
Joseph Christian Leyendecker (American artist) 1874 – 1951 Easter church service 1918
Charles Dana Gibson 1925 Church
Charles Dana Gibson 1925 Church
Grant Wood, American, The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere (1931)
Grant Wood, American, The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere (1931)
Nils Hans Christiansen (Danish, 1850 - 1922) Walking to Evening Church in the Snow
Nils Hans Christiansen (Danish, 1850 – 1922) Walking to Evening Church in the Snow
by Anton Franciscus Pieck (19 April 1895 – 24 November 1987) cathedral
by Anton Franciscus Pieck (19 April 1895 – 24 November 1987)
Cornelius Krieghoff - Village Scene in Winter
Cornelius Krieghoff – Village Scene in Winter
Babar Took Them to See the Cathedral of Notre-Dame
Babar Took Them to See the Cathedral of Notre-Dame

Philip Richard Morris - The Christening Party
Philip Richard Morris – The Christening Party
Louis Remy Mignot - Church at Dusk
Louis Remy Mignot – Church at Dusk
Emanuel Church, Lyons Plain Road, Weston, Connecticut 1957 New Yorker cover
Emanuel Church, Lyons Plain Road, Weston, Connecticut 1957 New Yorker cover
New Yorker cover by Garrett Price night delivery church
New Yorker cover by Garrett Price

Header painting is by Elisabeth Sonrel (1874 – 1953)

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Home » Scandinavia

Pettson and Findus Pancake Pie by Sven Nordqvist

Pancake Pie (1984) is a Swedish picture book written and illustrated by Sven Nordqvist, and is the first in the Pettson and Findus series starring a man and his cat who live together on a rustic farm, along with many little creatures who make the setting seem alive.

What is a pancake pie? Is it just… a pancake? I’m reminded of a certain song about a big pizza pie (actually just a pizza), which is much improved after the moray meme came out.

The Pettson and Findus books have been adapted for children’s TV. The Pancake Pie book became Pancake Pudding in the adaptation. I’ve not heard of a pancake pudding, but it does look more like a storybook cake, and I can see it works better on the screen. The storytellers don’t really want the audience to be stuck, as I am, on the question of what the food is. The food is not central to the story.

This is likely why Swedish Pannkakstårtan was first translated as Pancake Pie in 1985 but later as The Birthday Cake in 1999

SETTING OF FINDUS AND PETTSON

Max and Marla Are Having A Picnic
Contrast with Max and Marla, another human/animal duo who go off on adventures, sometimes by bike. The owl doesn’t talk in this one, so if you find Pettson’s cat a bit irritating, you may prefer the silent, stoic owl.
  1. PERIOD — Findus and Pettson live on a storybook farm which is clearly Scandinavian, if you are at all familiar with with a Scandinavian farm looks like, with the open rectangular arrangement of the farm buildings.
  2. DURATION — This particular story takes place over a day. It’s all done and dusted in time for a sit-down afternoon tea outside.
  3. LOCATION — rural Sweden
  4. ARENA — The whole story takes place between the farm and the nearby village where it is possible to buy anything you don’t have at home, in this case flour.
  5. MANMADE SPACES — The Swedish farm buildings, the village shops, the well (which looks unlike your archetypal storybook well — this one must be based on a Swedish well.
  6. NATURAL SETTINGS — pastures around the farm, hills in the distance
  7. WEATHER — The Pettson and Findus stories span all the seasons. Some of them take place when it’s snowing; this one happens in a temperate season, perhaps summer.
  8. TECHNOLOGY CRUCIAL TO THIS PARTICULAR STORY — Pettson’s bicycle is important to his characterisation. I really love this guy, with his pedal power and his cat. If he drove a car he’d be a different sort of guy altogether.
  9. LEVEL OF CONFLICT — In the hierarchy of human struggles, this is an unlikely, fantasy, carnivalesque struggle in which the goal is simple; to bake a birthday cake. It’s not even a high stakes birthday given that the birthday person celebrates birthdays three times a year, just because.
  10. THE EMOTIONAL LANDSCAPE — In the TV adaptation, Findus is annoyed that Pettson seems to have forgotten one of his superfluous birthdays. This story is also about how annoying things happen and there’s no point apportioning blame for these things. Rather, we have no choice but to get on and deal with them if we want to achieve our goal.

STORY STRUCTURE OF PANCAKE PIE

PARATEXT

Translators over the years have had a bit of a job deciding on how to translate this series into English. The paper below makes for an interesting case study into how publishers try something then later change their minds.

From Pettson and Findus to Festus and Mercury… and Back Again: A Comparison of Four Translations of Sven Nordqvist’s Picture Books

The book title Pancake Pie is also translated as Pancakes For Findus (which I admit makes more sense). The title is probably modelled on Blueberries for Sal by Robert McClusky.

Pancakes for Findus is the first story in the adventures of farmer Pettson and his cat Findus. Pettson wants to bake a birthday cake for Findus, who has three birthdays a year. But how will they get the eggs with the bull in the way?
Findus and Pettson live in a ramshackle cottage in the country, with a henhouse, workshop, and woodshed. Their fascinating, magical world is inhabited by tiny creatures who move Pettson’s things about when he isn’t looking.

marketing copy

SHORTCOMING

We know from other books in the series that Pettson is probably a widower and his neighbours find him a little odd. The cat comes across to the reader like a proxy child. For storytelling purposes we can consider Findus a child ranging between the ages of 5 and 10, depending on what the situation calls for.

Pettson wears glasses as part of his character design. This shows how he is oblivious to the small creatures around him who are alive. Another character with the exact same trope is Muriel of Courage the Cowardly Dog. In both cases the pet can see all the opponents but the human occupant sees nothing. In Muriel’s case she fails to see some pretty dire baddies, but the setting of the Pettson and Findus stories is more utopian. The creatures are mischievous and sometimes cranky, but never evil.

The co-star Findus has all the shortcomings typical of a small child, and as in any comedic series, he never grows up. He continues to be self-centred and petulent, in a lovable way. I I find the TV version of Findus unlikeable, and I think it’s mainly to do with the English dub of his voice, which is irritating. Voicing animals is always difficult.

Another example of this exact difficulty: ‘Dog’ of Footrot Flats by Murray Ball. New Zealanders were already in love with Dog from the newspaper comic strips, and the makers of the 1980s Footrot Flats film had a hell of a time settling on how Dog’s voice should sound. I have a Border collie myself these days and I think they got it right.

The creators of the 1980s Garfield animations also got Garfield right, but as a kid I didn’t think so. I was shocked to find that Garfield had a lazy adult male voice when I had expected something more like… the Findus voice. More ‘miowy’, more aimed at kids. Now I’m an adult I can see Garfield’s voice is correct, and that as a kid I had been far too generous in my interpretation of that cat’s character.

DESIRE

Self-centred Findus wants three birthdays per year and Pettson wants to oblige his cat. However, this kind of self-absorption is only briefly critiqued, and only in the TV adaptation, in which a hen clucks at the extravagance of three birthdays per year. The young reader is not encouraged to side with the judgy hen though, so the idea of three birthdays per year is a carnivalesque bit of fun and also wish fulfilment. What kid wouldn’t want three birthdays per year?

On a deeper level, Findus wants to be the centre of attention with luxuries foisted upon him.

On the most surface level, Pettson and Findus want to celebrate the day by baking something and eating it as a treat, whether we call it a pancake pie or a pancake pudding or whatever.

OPPONENT

The storyworld itself stands between Pettson getting flour, or not. But ‘things going wrong in the world’ doesn’t usually make for a satisfying opposition, so literally populating the arena with tiny creatures, each with their own agenda, is a masterful way to make a setting come alive. Pettson doesn’t simply get a hole in his bicycle tyre; a little creature bites a hole in it.

This is literally how people of yore saw the world. We only need look into earlier versions of fairytales such as The Elves and the Shoemaker to know this. That tale’s reason for existence is to warn people against fraternising with small creatures and spirits in the home, so clearly many people thought they actually existed!

We might as well consider these little creatures fairies. They don’t look like the 21st century conception of a fairy — small, butterfly-like femme coded creatures influenced by Disney’s Tinkerbell. Fairies can refer to any creature who lives in the world around us, and in our living spaces. Earlier humans imagined fairies absolutely everywhere. (Modern audiences get the feeling we now understand Earth and seem more concerned with populating space… we call them aliens though, not fairies.)

This page layout beautifully expresses the flow of events from fishing a key out of the well, to fixing a tyre to riding to town to the goal of enjoying pancake pie for Findus. Notice how each image blends into the one below, creating a clear visual sequence for the reader.
This image reminds me very much of The Tomten. I haven’t even read The Tomten yet, but I still recognise the imagery of a Scandinavian character peering in through a window.

The neighbour who ambles by right as Pettson is washing his pants in a bucket also functions as an ‘observer opponent’. I’ve seen these scenes in other children’s stories, recently in Bluey, in which the father is playing a ridiculous game with his daughter when a dressed-up judgy poodle walks by and drags him with side-eye. She hasn’t got the memo that this small snippet is part of a game.

Audiences seem to love this gag — in which a main character is caught in the most humiliating part of a plot when someone happens to amble by. A funny moment now becomes comedically humiliating with the addition of an intradiegetic audience member. Funny how that works.

In such scenes, is it not humiliating enough that we, the audience, are watching? No, not if the fourth wall remains intact. Also, we are in possession of the complete story. We know how the character got into that position. Humour derives from the fact that the passerby is in audience inferior position. The joke is sort of actually on them, for failing to understand the whole scenario.

PLAN

Pancake Pie is basically a There Was An Old Lady Who Swallowed A Fly cumulative plot, except for one major difference: In the fly story, the old lady’s self-formulated plan is ridiculous. She herself is ridiculous. Perhaps for this reason I have never found that old lady an empathetic character. I couldn’t care less whether she lives or dies (and both endings exist in the world).

In the case of the empathetic Pettson, the scenarios are ridiculous (thanks to the fairies) but his plans are quite sensible, given the world of the story. Key falls down the well? Get a long stick and fish it out. Pants covered in egg? Take them off and wash them in a bucket.

It’s not Pettson who is eccentric; it’s his farm. Pettson is a misunderstood widower.

Another beautiful sequence of events illustrated on a single page. These pages are excellent examples of Continuous Narrative Art. This describes art which gives clues about the sequence of events, without making use of frames. In a Western picture book, the reader’s eyes are trained to move from top to bottom, left to right.

Honestly, I couldn’t follow the Plan part of the plot sequence on first reading. if you’d quizzed me immediately after for comprehension I would not have been able to tell you how Pettson goes from looking for flour to being chased by a bull in a field. But that doesn’t matter. We enjoy the spectacle and don’t mind the sequence.

That said, the sequence must make sense for the story to work, and it does if you’re paying attention, with a clear path from A to B to Z. Lucky for me, someone else wrote the sequence down in a humorous consumer review:

If Pettson, P, is to make a pancake pie, then P must buy flour.

If P is to buy flour, then P must cycle to town.

If P is to use a cycle C, then C’s tires must be intact.

If P is to make C’s tires intact, then P must obtain a cycle repair kit R.

If P is to obtain R, then P must have the key to the toolshed K.

If K is in the well W, then P must have a fishing rod F.

If F is on the roof, then P must have a ladder L.

If L is in the bull B’s field, then P must scare away B.

If P’s neighbor N had known all of the above, then N wouldn’t necessarily have thought P had lost his wits when he saw him playing Jussi Björling records for B on P’s wind-up phonograph.

That’s logic. What do they teach them in schools these days?

Goodreads

THE BIG STRUGGLE

This story might align more closely to the carnivalesque picture book story structure if it weren’t for the bull sequence.

The animals in this story span a broad section of the ‘animal-ness continuum’, with Findus basically human (a child), and the hens who are middle-aged gossipy women archetypes and also this bull who is nothing more than an actual bull.

The bull is a Minotaur opponent (more literally than most Minotaur opponents, which can come in any shape or form and most have nothing to do with actual bulls).

That curtain tied around Findus’ ankle is very handy to the illustrator as a framing device which double as indicating the flow, leading the eye in the correct direction. As an accomplished adult reader you probably take this skill for granted. Younger, emerging readers need help with this.

The story climaxes at the bull fight. Although the ridiculous events around baking a simple pancake pie build into something more and more ridiculous, the level of ridiculousness is not enough to ‘finish off the story’, which must be finished somehow. So Nordqvist ends it with an actual battle scene, complete with danger of death and a chase.

Note the way Nordqvist depicts the movement. I suspect this is influenced by photography, specifically long exposure photography. I’m thinking of all those shots of highways on dusk, in which the headlights look like one long stream on the road of moving cars, or car singular.

ANAGNORISIS

Findus and Pettson have no major epiphany, because this story was all about spectacle (for the reader). They realise that when they have their hands on the flour that they can sit down to enjoy an afternoon tea of pancake pie.

NEW SITUATION

Though the desire for food is mostly the McGuffin of this particular story, Pancake Pie is an excellent example of a children’s book where all is well when the main characters sit down to enjoy food. A number of series work like this, including the more recent Mercy Watson picture books by Kate DiCamillo and Chris Van Dusen. Those stories end when Mercy sits down with everyone to enjoy hot buttered toast.

Food is very important in children’s stories.

EXTRAPOLATED ENDING

Findus learns nothing. I fully expect him to wrap Pettson around his little dew claw in further stories of the same series.

RESONANCE

This story established the intriguing world of Pettson and Findus. I fell in love with Pettson immediately. For me the farmer is the sympathetic character, though for children I expect the cat will be relatable. In this way, the series achieves a dual audience.

Worlds populated by tiny creatures endure. The Pettson and Findus books were just a small part of that. The golden age of fairy and goblin stories may seem to have passed, but look at the Hilda series, recently adapted by Netflix, for a similar utopian world populated by tiny creatures who each have their own agenda but who pose no significant threat to the main, human characters.

PIES IN STORYTELLING

MORE MEN AND THEIR CATS

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The Ugly Duckling by Hans Christian Andersen

From Hans Christian Andersen's The Ugly Duckling by Vilhelm Pedersen

A character is different from their family/tribe and feels utterly alone. Eventually they find their ‘people’ who accept them for who they really are. Understanding they are not alone in the world after all, the main character accepts themselves. Now they can be happy.

The Ugly Duckling is at its heart a transgression story. In any transgression story the mask must come off at some point, revealing the animal’s true self. Stories in which a character wears ‘someone else’s’ identity and remains hidden are rare and run counter to audience expectation.

This basic plot of loneliness to community to acceptance is ancient, and not surprisingly so, since humans are a social species. Separated from their tribe in the wild, a human won’t survive for long. Unlike all other animals species, the human woman cannot so much as give birth on her own.

Most non-human primates give birth unassisted with relatively little difficulty.

Obstretrical Dilemma, Wikipedia

Partly for biomechanical reasons, loneliness for us means death, even more than for many other species. This age-old loneliness plot taps into the most primal of human fears. And in children’s literature in particular, stories very often begin with the empathetic main character in a state of loneliness, hence all the moving house/starting new school stories. The child character also quite often starts from a state of boredom, though some loneliness researchers include ‘boredom’ as a type of loneliness (called ‘existential loneliness’ — being without a purpose in the world).

Although The Ugly Duckling features an animal main character, this is clearly a story about humans.

In The Ugly Duckling, Hans Andersen uses animal symbolism to tell a disguised human story. It unites animal transformation and animal moral tale in a unique way; it is about an unrecognised metamorphosis that really isn’t one at all. The Duckling only appears to be a strange outcast because no one knows what he really is, even his mother, who took trouble in hatching and defending him, gives up at last, wishing he had never been born.

Margaret Blount, Animal Land

Blount goes on to explain what Hans Christian Andersen brought afresh to this tale which otherwise relies heavily on Aesopian fable:

The pathos of this strange and beautiful fable is quite new to the form. The Aesop elements are there: the proud turkey cock, the old duck with the red rag of honour, and the incident when the animals quarrel over an eel head which is seized by the cat; and there is a house too, where the cat is master and the hen mistress. But there is far more than barnyard comedy in the rejection of the Duckling and his efforts to do what his nature demands, always thwarted by animals who, when he wants to swim, tell him to lay eggs or purr. Thrown out, hunted, half-starved, frozen, when he eventually meets the swans, his life has become so wretched and hopeless that he is only conscious of ugliness so great that he expects death.

Margaret Blount, Animal Land
H. C. Andersen's 'The Ugly Duckling' Cover and illustrations by Giorgio Trevisan, 1965 hearth
H. C. Andersen’s ‘The Ugly Duckling’ Cover and illustrations by Giorgio Trevisan, 1965

THE UGLY DUCKLING AND THE LIFE OF HANS CHRISTIAN ANDERSEN

Apparently, when Hans Christian Andersen was asked whether he would write an autobiography he replied that “The Ugly Duckling” did the job.

Perhaps Hans Andersen was writing about himself. Everyone interprets the fable in [their] own way, for the story has an echo in everyone. As a fairy tale it is, like many of Andersen’s, very odd. The happy climax is so long delayed that it almost does not happen, unlike Cinderella (with the same plot) where we know the heroine is favoured and only unrecognised by an odd quirk that magic will soon put right. The long suffereings of the lonely duck are alien to the setting which (Orwell always excepted) from Chaucer to Hepzibah Hen is usually gay and superficial. The moral is the one about appearance and reality, expressed by birds so memorably and wonderfully that there is no need to call the story a Parable from Nature; these simple symbols have expressed universal truth as only a story teller of genius can do.

Margaret Blount, Animal Land
Andersen's 'Forty-two Stories' Illustration by Vittorio Accornero, 1952
Andersen’s ‘Forty-two Stories’ Illustration by Vittorio Accornero, 1952

One of the well-known fairy tales that ends happily is The Ugly Duckling. The poor duckling is mocked and humiliated because he is so ugly, but he finally turns into a beautiful swan. On closer examination, what does this story say? It has been usually interpreted as follows: after many hardships, patience and perseverance will be rewarded. But if we stop to think about it, the ugly duckling has turned into a swan only bcause he was hatched from a swan’s egg. If he had been a real duckling, he would have grown into a duck. What does Andersen mean by his tale? Some biographers believe that Andersen was not the son of a washerwoman and a cobbler, but the illegitimate child of a nobleman, perhaps even the king of Denmark. There is no direct evidence for this, but the indications are strong. Perhaps The Ugly Duckling is the author’s way of saying, “I have achieved fame and wealth only because I am in fact of noble birth.”

Another possibility is that Andersen himself believed that he was of noble birth, even if it was not true. In this case, Andersen was suffereing from an obsession, a psychotic condition, traces of which we see in his fairy tale. This is an example of speculative biographical approach. It would perhaps be unwise to apply it as a consistent critical method, but it does illustrate the possibility of using literary works to illuminate the author’s life. However, this approach has little to do with the study of literature. If the focus of psychoanalysis is on the author, then the literary text is used merely as any narrative the patient may tell to the analyst.

from Aesthetic Approaches To Children’s Literature by Maria Nikolajeva
Milo Winter (1888-1956) The Ugly Duckling
Milo Winter (1888-1956) The Ugly Duckling

SETTING OF THE UGLY DUCKLING

“The Ugly Duckling” is an atemporal story that takes place on a river and riverbank. The group of birds is an animal community standing as allegory for human community.

STORY STRUCTURE OF THE UGLY DUCKLING

PARATEXT

“The Ugly Duckling” (“Den grimme ælling”) is a good example of judicious title change. Hans Christian Andersen originally called this story “The Young Swans” but realised the title completely gave away the surprise ending. Don’t give away your ending in the title!

For over one hundred years The Ugly Duckling has been a childhood favorite, and Jerry Pinkney’s spectacular new adaptation brings it triumphantly to new generations of readers. With keen emotion and fresh vision, the acclaimed artist captures the essence of the tale’s timeless appeal: The journey of the awkward little bird — marching bravely through hecklers, hunters, and cruel seasons — is an unforgettable survival story; this blooming into a graceful swan is a reminder of the patience often necessary to discover true happiness. Splendid watercolors set in the lush countryside bring drama to life. 

an example of modern marketing copy for “The Ugly Duckling” turned into a picture book

SHORTCOMING

The problem is that the Ugly Duckling is different.

I’m not sure who decided ducklings are prettier than baby swans. To me they’re about even. The drake’s feathers rival the majestic outline of the grown swan. I wonder if people ranked the prettiness of these water birds before Hans Christian Andersen turned ‘ugly duckling’ into a meme.

This joke wouldn’t work if we didn’t own the basic assumption that swans simply look more elegant and classy than ducks.

In any case, the baby swan’s main shortcoming is that he is ugly. And because he is ugly, even his mother rejects him. If that’s not pulling at the reader’s heartstrings, I don’t know what will.

DESIRE

The Ugly Duckling wants to be loved. He thinks that if he weren’t ugly then he would be loved. (He is never proven wrong on this point; he is loved once he morphs into a beautiful swan.)

OPPONENT

The mother duck is most responsible for the Ugly Duckling’s rejection. She models her distaste for him and the genetic offspring all gang up. So does every single creature who comes into contact with the Ugly Duckling, though he does meet someone who wants to help him find love despite being ugly: The geese. These guys are more like allies than opponents. The Ugly Duckling never did want to be associated with ugly birds. He knew deep down he was better than that.

PLAN

The Ugly Duckling feels down and waits around to mature. That’s not such bad advice for the mid-teen years.

THE BIG STRUGGLE

The Ugly Duckling thinks he’s going to be murdered by the massive, good-looking swans and offers himself up to them. They can murder him if they want; he feels so wretched and ugly and useless.

ANAGNORISIS

He looks into the reflection and sees that he has grown into a swan.

NEW SITUATION

The Ugly Duckling is really a swan, so will leave the ducks to live happily ever after as a beautiful swan.

EXTRAPOLATED ENDING

Everyone is happier once they are able to live as themselves, so I guess this swan doesn’t have much keeping him down anymore.

No one really disagrees with the idea that in order to be happy you must find your people and thereby find self-acceptance.

But what might Andersen have been wrong about? Which ideas feel dated when read through a modern lens?

  • The mother duck thinks her own babies are pretty because she gave birth to them. This suggests mothers love genetically related children more than adopted children. Studies don’t bear out this idea at all. Parents don’t love their children equally, but there’s no detectable difference between genetic and adopted offspring when both are raised from birth.
  • The ugly ‘duckling’ feels so ugly that ‘even a dog will not bite me’. If we take that as a stand-in for abuse in general, it is simply incorrect that a person can be too ugly to be victimised. This probably wouldn’t bother me if it weren’t used as an actual defense in court when trying to prove the innocence of rapists. This is an example of yet another thing the Ugly Duckling is wrong about. (Main characters are meant to be wrong about something otherwise there’s not much of a character arc.) However, the Ugly Duckling never learns that he is wrong on this point. It’s up to the reader to deduce that he must be wrong, because clearly he’s ugly AND he’s being abused.
  • The ugly duckling only feels legitimised once he looks into the reflection and sees a beautiful swan looking back. This is basically the make-over plot in which Beauty equals worthiness. More modern picturebook retellings of this story generally avoid the literal transformation from ugliness to beauty and instead limit the plot to ‘finds creatures who look just like him’. But what if you have some sort of facial difference and will never find your people? If we read “The Ugly Duckling” at the truly allegorical level, the baby swan was never ugly, only lacking in love. Therefore there was no literal transformation from ugly to beautiful; the bird felt beautiful after finding acceptance with creatures who accept him. The first Shrek movie works in a similar way. Shrek and Fiona are happy because they have ‘found their people’ (both of them ugly by comparison to the haughty, insecure, beautiful versions/imaginings of themselves). The message is ostensibly a positive one for kids: You’re as beautiful as you think you are. The other, unintended message: Know your level, kids. Ugly creatures belong with other ugly creatures; beautiful creatures belong with other beautiful creatures. Beauty is meaningful. Beauty is something we should all be constantly thinking about and trying to improve. In our image obsessed culture it feels hopelessly idealistic to believe that beauty doesn’t mean anything; clearly it does. But can we imagine and work towards a better world than one that runs on Beauty privilege?
  • This is basically a Chosen One story, in which bloodline is king. The Ugly Duckling is really a swan; the poor boy is really a prince. There are many ideological issues with the bloodline story, which remains popular in contemporary storytelling (see Harry Potter and all its offshoots).

RESONANCE

This story is so well-known that ‘ugly duckling’ is now a widely understood English idiom.

The Animal Who Thought He Was A Different Animal is an enduring trope across children’s literature:

Then there’s the animal who wished he were a different animal. The Saggy Baggy Elephant is a Little Golden Book by Jackson and Tenggren, first published in 1947. In the jungle, a bird taunts a baby elephant, saying his skin is too baggy. He doesn’t seem to realise he’s been separated from his tribe. The poor elephant feels self-conscious and tries to shrink his skin so he won’t be wrinkled. The tiger, whose sleek skin fits ‘perfectly’ is no help and instead offers to eat bits of it off for him. (That part is quite gruesome by today’s picture book standards.) The saggy, baggy elephant finds happiness and self-acceptance after meeting other elephants.

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Header illustration from Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Ugly Duckling” by Vilhelm Pedersen

Katherine Mansfield’s Influences

Virginia and Katherine

THE INFLUENCES OF PLACE AND ERA

  • Katherine Mansfield grew up in middle class Wellington, New Zealand and moved to Europe as a young adult to finish her education in London.
  • Some of her stories are influenced by her experiences in England, Belgium and Bavaria (In a German Pension).
  • Her first stories were accepted by The Age but Mansfield grew tired of the sort of story they expected from her. At this time she met John Middleton Murry, who encouraged her to write something different. She became Murry’s partner and they later married.
  • New Zealand influenced her writing, and was the setting in some of her last, and best, works. ‘…if the truth were known I have a perfect passion for the island where I was born. …just as on those mornings white milky mists rise and uncover some beauty, then smother it again and then again disclose it, I tried to lift that mist from my people and let them be seen and then to hide them again…’
  • Mansfield was concerned with nationality in her early stories but later switched to a focus on modernist aesthetics and techniques. Her most New Zealand stories are the “Prelude” trilogy and “How Pearl Button Was Kidnapped“. Her early stories seem to be from the perspective of a white female New Zealander. Of course she wrote her last and best stories about New Zealand.
  • In fact, setting seems more important in Mansfield’s German stories than in her New Zealand ones. For example, the mention of sauerkraut in “Germans At Meat” place the story in a particular place. But in the New Zealand stories, replacement of a particularly New Zealand detail (e.g. a type of tree) wouldn’t affect the story as a whole. “The Wind Blows” is set in windy Wellington, but could be set in many English speaking places. If no one knew Katherine Mansfield was a New Zealander, she wouldn’t be considered A New Zealand Writer.
  • Reading Mansfield’s New Zealand stories, New Zealand feels like an imprisonment, a place of confinement, especially for female characters. New Zealand was a young colony in Mansfield’s time. Any new colony is a hugely patriarchal one — all about domination, exploring and dominion over others. Europe wasn’t much better for women of course, but isolation led to a very constricted type of monotony for young women like Katherine Mansfield growing up in New Zealand.
  • Her final year of life, 1922, was spent in Switzerland.



THE INFLUENCE OF THE THEATRE

  • Mansfield was supported financially by her father but never had quite enough. Apart from writing, she also acted as an extra in early movies. The theatre is the subject of her short story “Pictures“.
  • Today’s readers are different from Mansfield’s contemporaries — we have all seen a lot of TV and movies and rarely realise how influenced we are by conventions of the screen. We are highly literate in reading screen narrative compared to early 20th century readers who had seen few moving pictures. But because of her experience in the theatre, Mansfield learned far earlier than most all about the single take, juxtapositions, abrupt openings, quick dissolves and the clarity that cutting can impose. Mansfield’s translation of the language of cinema onto the page antedated that of most Modernist writers. These cinematic techniques are partly what make Mansfield’s short stories feel so contemporary compared to many short stories from around the same era. (For more on that, read Sarah Sandley’s essay on Mansfield and cinema from 2011 and Cinema and the Imagination in Katherine Mansfield’s Writing by M. Ascari.)
  • Mansfield was really interested in Charlie Chaplin and starts talking about him in her letters from 1918. She named one of her cats after him. Chaplin’s talent for hyper-mimesis and self-parody contrasted with the commercial side of film acting. “Je ne parle pas francais” (written 1918) is the best example of self-parody produced by Mansfield, who grew critical of cinema as the emblem of consumerist mass culture. Note that this is the year she was really into Chaplin.

THE INFLUENCE OF ILL HEALTH

  • Plagued by illness all her adult life, death is a major theme. Her parents were told when Mansfield was a child that tuberculosis would probably see the end of her.
  • Facing early death from a young age, Mansfield located herself not only in the present but in the past and future.
  • Mansfield’s medical treatment was expensive and in her last two years she was faced with the task of making money quickly. She spent a lot more time writing book reviews. She’d write 2-3 a week when Murry was editor of the Athenaeum.
  • Because Mansfield knew she was short on time, she made the decision not to write the following: novels, problem stories and ‘nothing that is not simple, open’.
  • In “Psychology”, the playwright character appreciates the ease of breathing. Mansfield always had lung issues, and it’s likely she really did appreciate the otherwise invisible act of easy breathing, whenever it was afforded to her.

THE INFLUENCE OF FRIENDS

  • Mansfield surrounded herself in Bohemian types and these people influenced her.
  • Take Dorothy Brett, a painter. Dorothy was a correspondent, and afforded Mansfield the space to talk about images and the depiction of images in writing. Mansfield told Dorothy that she preferred to paint an image rather than to give a technical account.

THE INFLUENCE OF HER BROTHER’S DEATH

  • Mansfield’s brother Lesley died early in the First World War during an army training exercise. After this Mansfield moved to southern France where she wrote ‘recollections of my own country’. The first New Zealand story she wrote was The Aloe (“Prelude“).
  • Various critics have said this marked a turning point in her writing. She seemed to be thinking a lot more about her time growing up back in Wellington, where she would have been with her brother. Stories she wrote after his death were about middle-class life and family dynamics.
  • However, the loss of her brother doesn’t explain all of the changes in Mansfield’s writing. She wrote “The Wind Blows” before he died. This story shows that Mansfield was already capable of manipulating time adroitly and unexpectedly. She had already started to delve into her Wellington childhood before Lesley’s death.

THE INFLUENCE OF PSYCHOANALYSIS

  • At the end of the 19th century people were starting to look into the concept of the ‘self’. Two major theories were being talked about. The first was the theory of Sigmund Freud. Freud divided the human psyche into consciousness and unconciousness (the Ego and the Id). Freud gave rise to the field of psychanalysis. The second was the theory of William James. James was all about stream of consciousness (what modernism is all about). His book The Principles of Psychology was published in 1890 and it’s said this is the book that founded the field of psychology in America. There is little evidence that Mansfield read the work of either Freud or James. But we know from her notebooks and letters that she was interested in notions of the self. She approached this as someone interested in the idea, not as an academic or philosopher. Her ideas about the self were complex, but she never really settled on a theory — concept of the self in her work is at times contradictory.

LITERARY INFLUENCES AND THOUGHTS ABOUT WRITING

  • As a child she read fey fairy tales and fables.
  • Mansfield’s stories are strewn with Biblical references. “His Sister’s Keeper” (1909) refers to Genesis 4, 9: “Am I my brother’s keeper? In “Psychology” the playwright thinks of the Book of Genesis while offering cake to her man friend. In “Something Childish But Very Natural” she creates a version of Eden when describing two very young lovers’ paradise and mention of the apple tree. (The girl’s name is Edna >> Eden.) And then snakes appear at the end. “Marriage a la Mode” gives us a missing Noah’s Ark (missing because the house of the ‘new Isabel’ is filled with a parody of Bohemian poets and artists, in which the ark is the symbol of happy childhood.
  • She read Ulysses and A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man. She despised the former, but enjoyed the latter upon re-reading. ‘Little in his [Joyce’s] writing is art.’
  • She felt the poems in the Oxford Book of English Verse were generally poor, except for Shakespeare and Marvell and ‘just a handful of others’.
  • She thought lots of novels – ‘pastime novels’ – demanded little of the reader, rehashing the same old stories and settings, failing to challenge the reader.
  • She believed detail for the sake of detail was no good. She believed anyone could describe detail and that writers could only be set apart from the rest of the population by saying something about the greater mysteries of life. There must be an illumination.
  • Mansfield was influenced heavily by Chekhov, quoting him in her letters. She considered herself the English Chekhov. She admired his knowledge and truth. She particularly enjoyed “The Steppe”. Some commentators have said she plagiarised Chekhov’s “Sleepy” when she wrote “The Child-Who-Was-Tired”. Mansfield owes a lot to Chekhov, but her style is her own. For instance, Mansfield made more heavy use of symbolism than Chekhov did.
  • Chekhov showed her that she was quite justified in writing stories of such uneven length. She realised that some of her writing failed to fit neatly into short stories, sketches, impressions or tales. Her longer works have been called novellas; Mansfield herself did not ever categorise her own form of writing. She felt hers were different from other short pieces.
  • Mansfield read D.H. Lawrence’s writing though there was much she didn’t like about it. But she wrote ‘he is the only writer living whom I really profoundly care for. It seems to me whatever he writes, no matter how much one may ‘disagree’, is important.’
  • She also read Dorothy Richardson, and thought they had no plot and no depth.
  • She thought Bunin, Maupassant, Joyce and Proust did not achieve greatness.
  • Mansfield believed that writers who wrote with ‘purpose’ were little more than preachers, and less than artists. (She perhaps meant didacticism.)
  • Influenced by Dostoevsky, Mansfield believed that plot should arise naturally from situation and characters; that events should be seen rather than shown off. The climax should give a sense of inevitability. The atmosphere gives the story continuity. In other words, she believed stories should be character driven.
  • Mansfield believed that the weather was important in reflecting the inner-life of characters in a story and was surprised at how little this connection was explored by other writers, except in its most obvious form (happy because the sun is shining, perturbed because the wind is blowing etc.). A story such as “Pictures” suggests Mansfield herself was highly influenced by the sensory input of her surroundings.

  • Katherine Mansfield grew up in middle class Wellington, New Zealand and moved to Europe as a young adult to finish her education in London.
  • Some of her stories are influenced by her experiences in England, Belgium and Bavaria (In a German Pension).
  • Her first stories were accepted by The Age but Mansfield grew tired of the sort of story they expected from her. At this time she met John Middleton Murry, who encouraged her to write something different. She became Murry’s partner and they later married.
  • New Zealand influenced her writing, and was the setting in some of her last, and best, works. ‘…if the truth were known I have a perfect passion for the island where I was born. …just as on those mornings white milky mists rise and uncover some beauty, then smother it again and then again disclose it, I tried to lift that mist from my people and let them be seen and then to hide them again…’
  • Mansfield was concerned with nationality in her early stories but later switched to a focus on modernist aesthetics and techniques. Her most New Zealand stories are the “Prelude” trilogy and “How Pearl Button Was Kidnapped“. Her early stories seem to be from the perspective of a white female New Zealander. Of course she wrote her last and best stories about New Zealand.
  • In fact, setting seems more important in Mansfield’s German stories than in her New Zealand ones. For example, the mention of sauerkraut in “Germans At Meat” place the story in a particular place. But in the New Zealand stories, replacement of a particularly New Zealand detail (e.g. a type of tree) wouldn’t affect the story as a whole. “The Wind Blows” is set in windy Wellington, but could be set in many English speaking places. If no one knew Katherine Mansfield was a New Zealander, she wouldn’t be considered A New Zealand Writer.
  • Reading Mansfield’s New Zealand stories, New Zealand feels like an imprisonment, a place of confinement, especially for female characters. New Zealand was a young colony in Mansfield’s time. Any new colony is a hugely patriarchal one — all about domination, exploring and dominion over others. Europe wasn’t much better for women of course, but isolation led to a very constricted type of monotony for young women like Katherine Mansfield growing up in New Zealand.
  • Her final year of life, 1922, was spent in Switzerland.



THE INFLUENCE OF THE THEATRE

  • Mansfield was supported financially by her father but never had quite enough. Apart from writing, she also acted as an extra in early movies. The theatre is the subject of her short story “Pictures“.
  • Today’s readers are different from Mansfield’s contemporaries — we have all seen a lot of TV and movies and rarely realise how influenced we are by conventions of the screen. We are highly literate in reading screen narrative compared to early 20th century readers who had seen few moving pictures. But because of her experience in the theatre, Mansfield learned far earlier than most all about the single take, juxtapositions, abrupt openings, quick dissolves and the clarity that cutting can impose. These cinematic techniques are partly what make Mansfield’s short stories feel so contemporary compared to many short stories from around the same era.
  • Mansfield was really interested in Charlie Chaplin and starts talking about him in her letters from 1918. She named one of her cats after him. Chaplin’s talent for hyper-mimesis and self-parody contrasted with the commercial side of film acting. “Je ne parle pas francais” (written 1918) is the best example of self-parody produced by Mansfield, who grew critical of cinema as the emblem of consumerist mass culture. Note that this is the year she was really into Chaplin.

THE INFLUENCE OF ILL HEALTH

  • Plagued by illness all her adult life, death is a major theme. Her parents were told when Mansfield was a child that tuberculosis would probably see the end of her.
  • Facing early death from a young age, Mansfield located herself not only in the present but in the past and future.
  • Mansfield’s medical treatment was expensive and in her last two years she was faced with the task of making money quickly. She spent a lot more time writing book reviews. She’d write 2-3 a week when Murry was editor of the Athenaeum.
  • Because Mansfield knew she was short on time, she made the decision not to write the following: novels, problem stories and ‘nothing that is not simple, open’.

THE INFLUENCE OF FRIENDS

  • Mansfield surrounded herself in Bohemian types and these people influenced her.
  • Take Dorothy Brett, a painter. Dorothy was a correspondent, and afforded Mansfield the space to talk about images and the depiction of images in writing. Mansfield told Dorothy that she preferred to paint an image rather than to give a technical account.

THE INFLUENCE OF HER BROTHER’S DEATH

  • Mansfield’s brother Lesley died early in the First World War during an army training exercise. After this Mansfield moved to southern France where she wrote ‘recollections of my own country’. The first New Zealand story she wrote was The Aloe (“Prelude“).
  • Various critics have said this marked a turning point in her writing. She seemed to be thinking a lot more about her time growing up back in Wellington, where she would have been with her brother. Stories she wrote after his death were about middle-class life and family dynamics.
  • However, the loss of her brother doesn’t explain all of the changes in Mansfield’s writing. She wrote “The Wind Blows” before he died. This story shows that Mansfield was already capable of manipulating time adroitly and unexpectedly. She had already started to delve into her Wellington childhood before Lesley’s death.

THE INFLUENCE OF PSYCHOANALYSIS

  • At the end of the 19th century people were starting to look into the concept of the ‘self’. Two major theories were being talked about. The first was the theory of Sigmund Freud. Freud divided the human psyche into consciousness and unconciousness (the Ego and the Id). Freud gave rise to the field of psychanalysis. The second was the theory of William James. James was all about stream of consciousness (what modernism is all about). His book The Principles of Psychology was published in 1890 and it’s said this is the book that founded the field of psychology in America. There is little evidence that Mansfield read the work of either Freud or James. But we know from her notebooks and letters that she was interested in notions of the self. She approached this as someone interested in the idea, not as an academic or philosopher. Her ideas about the self were complex, but she never really settled on a theory — concept of the self in her work is at times contradictory.

LITERARY INFLUENCES AND THOUGHTS ABOUT WRITING

  • As a child she read fey fairy tales and fables.
  • She read Ulysses and A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man. She despised the former, but enjoyed the latter upon re-reading. ‘Little in his [Joyce’s] writing is art.’
  • She felt the poems in the Oxford Book of English Verse were generally poor, except for Shakespeare and Marvell and ‘just a handful of others’.
  • She thought lots of novels – ‘pastime novels’ – demanded little of the reader, rehashing the same old stories and settings, failing to challenge the reader.
  • She believed detail for the sake of detail was no good. She believed anyone could describe detail and that writers could only be set apart from the rest of the population by saying something about the greater mysteries of life. There must be an illumination.
  • Mansfield was influenced heavily by Chekhov, quoting him in her letters. She considered herself the English Chekhov. She admired his knowledge and truth. She particularly enjoyed “The Steppe”. Some commentators have said she plagiarised Chekhov’s “Sleepy” when she wrote “The Child-Who-Was-Tired”. Mansfield owes a lot to Chekhov, but her style is her own. For instance, Mansfield made more heavy use of symbolism than Chekhov did.
  • Chekhov showed her that she was quite justified in writing stories of such uneven length. She realised that some of her writing failed to fit neatly into short stories, sketches, impressions or tales. Her longer works have been called novellas; Mansfield herself did not ever categorise her own form of writing. She felt hers were different from other short pieces.
  • Mansfield read D.H. Lawrence’s writing though there was much she didn’t like about it. But she wrote ‘he is the only writer living whom I really profoundly care for. It seems to me whatever he writes, no matter how much one may ‘disagree’, is important.’
  • She also read Dorothy Richardson, and thought they had no plot and no depth.
  • She thought Bunin, Maupassant, Joyce and Proust did not achieve greatness.
  • Mansfield believed that writers who wrote with ‘purpose’ were little more than preachers, and less than artists. (She perhaps meant didacticism.)
  • Influenced by Dostoevsky, Mansfield believed that plot should arise naturally from situation and characters; that events should be seen rather than shown off. The climax should give a sense of inevitability. The atmosphere gives the story continuity. In other words, she believed stories should be character driven.
  • Mansfield believed that the weather was important in reflecting the inner-life of characters in a story and was surprised at how little this connection was explored by other writers, except in its most obvious form (happy because the sun is shining, perturbed because the wind is blowing etc.). A story such as “Pictures” suggests Mansfield herself was highly influenced by the sensory input of her surroundings.