A Glossary of Zombie Words

Fight The Dead Fear The Living image from the zombie series The Walking Dead

Why all the zombies in stories? Zombies have unlimited potential as metaphor. Historically, storytellers have used zombies to explore tensions between conservative and progressive values. The zombies themselves represent widespread cultural anxieties of their era.

Some storytellers use zombie stories to reinforce the status quo while progressive storytellers use zombies to critique it.

Watching the anti-vaccine, anti-lockdown protests in other parts of the world, shows me how inaccurate most zombie apocalypse fiction is. There would be groups of people getting themselves bitten on purpose, wouldn’t there?

@davidgary wood 7:35am · 25 Jul 2021

A BRIEF TIMELINE OF POPULAR ZOMBIE STORIES

1200s

The 1200s gave us ‘Eyrbyggja Saga’ (‘Story of the People of Eyrr’). This story is full of the walking dead, e.g. Thorodd and his men. In this story, the living aren’t especially worried about the walking dead. Thorodd and his men have been drowned. The living believed that drowned people had been well received by the sea-goddess, Ran, if they attended their own funeral feast. It was only later that the walking dead became unwelcome. They loiter around the first every night and the living become unnerved. So the hero of the story sues them. They leave. These walking-dead stories are to do with the beliefs of pre-Northern Europeans — that the dead could still see, hear and feel.

1697

The word ‘zombi’ first appeared in Le Zombi du grand Perou by Corneille Blessebois. A woman is tricked into thinking she’s an invisible spirit called a zombi. Back then, zombis were spirits or ghosts, not the walking dead as we know them today.

1726

The word ‘zumbi’ appears with a meaning closer to how we use it today in A History of the Voyages and Travels of Capt. Nathaniel Uring. The word ‘zumbi’ refers to the apparition of the dead person, but they walk around and torment the living, much like contemporary zombies.

1819

Robert Southey publishes History of Brazil, in which ‘zombi’ refers to the elected chief of the maroons in Pernambuco. Southey means the guy behaves like he doesn’t have any free will. These early zombie stories were influenced by colonialism. In this era, the zombie characters themselves allude to savage and unintelligent “colonial objects”.

1838

The word zombie first appeared in print in an American newspaper in a reprinted short story called “The Unknown Painter” in 1838.

1928

The word zombie became mainstream in English after W. B. Seabrook published The Magic Island.

SEPTEMBER 11 2001

After the 9/11 attacks zombies in stories were commonly interpreted as a metaphor for terrorism.

28 Days Later

Danny Boyle’s modern version of Romero’s films. But these zombies are neither bewitched nor reanimated dead. Instead, they’re infected with a virus known as ‘rage’. Docile humans transform into terrifying red-eyed shells of their former selves. The virus has a magical quality.

Continue reading “A Glossary of Zombie Words”

What does Gothic mean in literature?

The Gothic is notoriously difficult to define. This is a type of story in constant flux. Each new literary period adds is own spin. “Gothic” is more like a skin layered upon other genres, most often: horror, romance, science fiction and fantasy. Where does one genre end and the gothic element begin?

Gothic horror is also known as gothic fiction. Characters generally get caught up in paranormal schemes. The victim of these schemes is normally an innocent and helpless female character. In some instances, supernatural phenomena such as vampires and werewolves are later explained in perfectly natural terms, but in other works they remain completely inexplicable.

Continue reading “What does Gothic mean in literature?”

Adventureland Storytelling Techniques

Adventureland is a 2009 coming-of-age movie written and directed by Greg MottolaIn. In the summer of 1987, a college graduate takes a ‘nowhere’ job at his local amusement park, only to find it’s the perfect course to get him prepared for the real world.

GENRE BLEND

comedy, drama, romance >> true life

The True Life stories genre can surprise an audience by diverting from the expected because life is also like that.

STORY STRUCTURE OF ADVENTURELAND

Anagnorisis, need, desire

1. James will learn how to treat a woman well, enough to begin his first romantic relationship. (No gossiping about her secrets when you’ve had a fight, no looking around at other girls when you’re keen on one in particular.)

2. He knows the difference between love and sex. Until now he has been waiting for both at once and is therefore still a virgin.

3. James is too naive to function as an adult in society.

Ghost (backstory)

The elephant in the room is James’s virginity, a symbol for general lack of maturity. This lack of experience is the thing that will hold him back. (A non-event rather than an event.) There’s also the ending of the 11 day romance which went nowhere — he has had his heart disproportionately broken by that rejection. The virginity comes out on his first date with Em, who asks if he’s ‘had a lot of girls’.

Em has the ghost of a recent troubled past and we soon learn that she’s in a horrible relationship with a horrible, married man.

Setting

This is an enslaving world, as most stories are. James is in a hole due to his parents no longer supporting him financially and his lack of life experience.

1. This is a great arena — a cheesy, kitsch adventure park frequented by proto-Trump voter types and staffed by eccentrics.

2. Beyond the park there are hills and sea. We do get a glimpse of this — the characters can see that there is more outside the Adventureland — the main characters are all far too overqualified to be working in such a deadend job.

3. It’s summer — the classic time for university students to either finish their education or get a job. Summer is a more carefree season, where James will let his guard down just a little bit, smoking pot and socialising with people he wouldn’t normally see ever.

4. The man-made space of the Adventureland park is made up of many little islands of faux-fun. This place is supposed to be fun, but it’s really not. It’s repetitive and mindless and sometimes dangerous.

5. Technology — There are gimmicky games in the park, like games where you shoot a (glued-on) hat off a mannequin. Some of these are symbolic. For example, when Connell bursts James’s bubble, a balloon he’s blowing up literally bursts. Stuffed bananas stand in for manhood (with suggestions that James is lacking in it). The lightbulb montage in the opening credits perhaps symbolise ‘lightbulb moments’ for James, since this is a coming-of-age story.

6. The story is set in 1987, because this is a memoir. The clothes, drugs, food choices, possible venues of entertainment and the prejudices etc of the characters (no dating Jews for the Catholic girls) are specific to the era.

Shortcoming & Need (Problem)

James’s psychological shortcoming: He is naive in general after too much book learning and not enough life experience. He is the underdog among his male peers. He hasn’t grown up yet, still at the mercy of his parents’ financial situation even though he’s just had 4 years of college. He needs to grow up now. He is too ingratiating at times.

Moral shortcoming: He is too reliant on his parents. He is basically very nice to other people, but he throws a bit of a tantrum and does a lot of damage in this story.

In order to have a better life: James needs to learn to treat women with full respect and be less ingratiating to other people — men in particular. (This is a highly gendered story.)

Problem: The crisis at the beginning of the story is that James wants to go to grad school at Columbia to study journalism but his parents can no longer bankroll him. Nor can he go on the trip to Europe with his rich buddy. So he’s going to have to find a summer job, but he has absolutely no practical experience in anything except mowing the neighbour’s lawn.

Inciting Incident

The inciting incident (above) is revealed at the restaurant with his parents. It connects need and desire — the thing that’s the most wrong with James is that he can’t stand on his own two feet, but now he’s going to have to.

Desire

James’s goal is to save enough money to move to NYC and do a postgrad year of journalism. He wants to report on real events of the world, which is why a bachelor’s degree isn’t enough for him.

Ally/Allies

At his new job he quickly meets Joel, an even more nerdy and highly qualified version of himself.

He also meets Em, who saves him from getting knifed by some white trash guy who cheats to get a giant panda for his son.

Opponent

There’s a super annoying little guy called Frigo who, even though smaller than James, is constantly undermining his manhood by punching him in the balls and similar.

Mystery

Fake-Ally Opponent

Connell is the repairs guy who helps run the show. He appears to be an ally by taking James under his wing and giving girl advice but in fact he’s keeping tabs on Em, because he knows Em is going out with James. In reality, he’s standing in the way of James’s happiness with Em.

Changed Desire and Motive

This comes later: When James no longer has the money to study in NYC due to totalling his parents’ car, he still wants to move to NYC, but this time he’ll take a year off to continue his worldly education, focus on his relationship with Em, and perhaps attend grad school the following year.

First Revelation and Decision

Although he likes Em, Em doesn’t feel the same way about him (or isn’t in a position to commit).

So he decides to take Lisa P up on her offer to go out with her.

Plan

James’s plan is to ask Em out, be super nice to her and hopefully she’ll want to date him exclusively. They will then continue their relationship in NYC after the summer.

James will have to dig deep and come up with a better strategy because Em is already ‘taken’, and Connell is standing in his way. He’ll have to first uncover the truth of the situation and then grow morally alongside Em.

Opponent’s Plan and Main Counterattack

Connell wants to keep Em apart from James so that he can continue having sex with Em in his mother’s basement.

Connell’s plan is visible to the audience, but another opponent is Lisa P. We don’t see how gossipy and unreliable she is until James does. (Though we might guess.)

Drive

He will follow Em to see if what he’s learned about Em and Connell is true.

Connell is a strong opponent though, because he’s manly and he’s having sex with Em already.

This is when he has his meltdown, in which he is newly irresponsible in a way that shows us he has fundamentally changed after this experience of first real love. He’s never been hurt like this before.

Attack By Ally

Joel quits the place in disgust after being attacked by a guy over the glued-on-hats. So James visits him at his home. In the story, the reason for this is to try and persuade Joel to come back to work, but the plotting reason is so that Joel can confront James about how shitty it is to go out with Lisa P when the girl he really likes is Em.

Apparent Defeat

Em has also quit Adventureland, and it appears James will never see her again, either. By telling Lisa P about Em and Connell, he’s started a horrible gossip mill and has dug himself into a hole.

Obsessive Drive, Changed Drive, and Motive

After setting his sights on Em, he’s now going to have a go with Lisa P, for the experience if nothing else. He’s been absorbing the message that ‘men have needs’.

Second revelation and decision

On a date with Lisa P, he realises the two of them have nothing in common.

The next day, Em apologises to him for being non-committal and James realises he’s made a mistake. He will refocus his attentions on Em.

Audience revelation

The audience is aware of the relationship between Em and Connell long before James is. This allows us to feel sorry for him and empathise. But when Lisa P reveals to James that Connell regularly takes girls to his mother’s basement, we should feel a whole new level of disgust for Connell, and begin to feel a little more sorry for Em, who has also lost her mother recently and is dealing with an unpleasant step-mother.

Third Revelation and Decision

At this point James realises who Connell really is. This is shown in the scene at Adventureland where James sees him talking to a group of three, young, pretty women — we all know that Connell is already onto his next pretty young things. He also corrects Connell on a matter of music trivia, showing that Connell has been full of shit about playing with a famous artist back in the day — and James now knows he’s full of shit in general.

Gate, gauntlet, visit to death

James totals his parents car after getting drunk, when he realises the girl he likes has been seeing Connell all this time.

Big Struggle

There’s a big struggle scene between James and Em after James follows her and asks her what the hell she’s doing with Connell and why didn’t she tell him.

Anagnorisis

While sitting on a hilltop with Joel (the classic place for revelations, since Moses), they talk about nothing particularly significant, but it’s clear that James has had some sort of quiet epiphany. This is evidenced by the fact he stands up and gives Frigo a knee in the balls. (I assume that’s the entire reason Frigo is in the scene — to allow the audience to see how much James has grown up — he is no longer overly ingratiating)

Moral Decision

James has two choices: He can stay in his home town and go to a nearby journalism school, probably ending up with an internship on Mr Rogers. This is shown in a dining table scene with his parents. This would be tragic for James, as Mr Rogers is a children’s show and would symbolise a permanent regression to childhood. Or he can go to NYC anyway, embrace uncertainty and stand on his own two feet.

New Situation

After a romantic speech in the rain after waiting for Em outside her new NYC apartment, both parties admit that they fucked up over summer. Now they will start again, on different turf, away from the Adventureland arena.

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Home » Shakespeare

Symbolism Of The Forest In Storytelling

the hobbit full cover

Be it woods or forest, when a character enters the trees in fiction, beware! We learned this from fairytales, but is fear of the forest innate, or is it taught, partly via fiction?

I went to the woods because I wanted to live deliberately, I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to put to rout all that was not life and not when I had come to die, discover that I had not lived.

Henry David Thoreau
The Court of Faerie Thomas Maybank, 1906
The Court of Faerie Thomas Maybank, 1906

Come back, come back, my childhood;
Thou art summon’d by a spell
From the green leaves of the wild wood,
From beside the charmed well!
For Red Riding Hood, the darling,— ⁠
The flower of fairy lore.

Letitia Elizabeth Landon

‘Woods’ and ‘forest’ may describe basically the same geographical feature, but in English carry different connotations. Woods are more likely cosy and protective, and I feel woods are smaller than a forest. If lost in the woods, you’re more likely to stumble across the edge of them, back to safety.

In The Woods by Chris Wormell
In The Woods by Chris Wormell
Into The Woods by Lyn Gardner pictures by Mini Grey

Into the Woods is a feminist fractured fairy tale comprising parts from various stories including “The Pied Piper“, “The Snow Queen“, “Hansel and Gretel” and “Little Red Riding Hood“.

Both forests and woods can be regarded as protective. In some stories, especially utopian ones, characters find all they need to survive among the trees — nuts and berries aplenty, appearing like manna, miraculously. Forests and woods function exactly how the storyteller needs them to function. When trees give us everything we need, this is the ultimate reminder that we have everything we need.

The central story quality of the forest is that it is a natural cathedral.

Painting- Tómas Sanchez, Cuban Painter. Prayer in a Green Cathedral, 1948
Arthur Henry “Art” Young (January 14, 1866–December 29, 1943) cathedral of trees
Arthur Henry “Art” Young (January 14, 1866–December 29, 1943) cathedral of trees

The tall trees, with their leaves hanging over us and protecting us, seem like the oldest wise men assuring us that whatever the circumstances, it will resolve as time moves on. It is the place where contemplative people go and to which lovers sneak away.

The journey into the wood is part of the journey into the psyche from birth through death to rebirth. Hansel and Gretel, the woodcutter’s children, are familiar with the wood’s verges but not its heart. Snow White is abandoned in the forest. What happens to us in the depths of the wood? Civilisation and its discontents give way to the irrational and half-seen. Back in the villages, with our sourced relationships, we are neurotic, but the wood releases our full-blown madness. Birds and animals talk to  us, departed souls speak. The tiny rush-light of the cottages is only a fading memory. Lost in the extinguishing darkness, we cannot see our hand before our face. We lose all sense of our body’s boundaries. We melt into the trees, into the bark and the sap. From this green blood we draw new life, and are healed. […] All tales…are at some level a journey into the woods to find the missing part of us, to retrieve it and make ourselves whole. Storytelling is as simple and complex as that.

John Yorke, Into The Woods

The Worldwide Symbolism of the Forest

The picture below depicts a scene from Indian mythological tale of Nala and Damayanti. The story originally belongs to Indian epic Mahabharata. Forced to live in a jungle, while Damayanti was sleeping, Nala deserted her. (The full story is here.)

There’s nothing so bad as being lost in a forest.

a scene from Indian mythological tale of Nala and Damayanti, Lithograph by Raja Ravi Varma Press,  early 20th century
a scene from Indian mythological tale of Nala and Damayanti, Lithograph by Raja Ravi Varma Press, early 20th century

The Forest In Early Roman Times

Early Romans had a particularly strong set of superstitions about these dense, trackless forests. For early civilisations, forests really were uncharted territory. Brigands and bandits could hide themselves in forests. Inside forests, it was everyone for themselves. Forests were also connected to religious belief. Many cultures had tree-worship as part of their customs e.g. Greece, Rome, Germany, a lot of other Indo-European cultures. Forests are important in Japan.

Even before fairytales there were many myths about forests. The story of Actaeon is one example. While out hunting, Actaeon came across Diana bathing naked. Diana immediately turned him into a deer and Actaeon’s own hounds tore him to bits.

The Forest In Medieval Times

These days, the forest can stand for a kind of Arcadia (utopia, heaven, idyll). But in Medieval England, the word ‘forest’ had a technical meaning and stood for something that was far from idyllic. Robin Hood and the Monk is the earliest of the Robin Hood stories. It opens by creating a picture of a forest idyll, but note that the word ‘forest’ is accompanied by ‘green wood’:

In summer, when the woods do shine,
And leaves be large and long,
It is full merry in fair forest
To hear the birdies song,
To see the deer draw to the dale,
And leave the hills so high,
And shelter  in the leaves so green,
Under the green wood tree.

The concept of ‘green wood’ runs throughout the medieval outlaw stories, and when the forest is portrayed as a refuge, ‘green wood’ is preferred over ‘forest’. Green wood = modern day meaning of forest. Terry Jones explains what ‘forest’ meant in Norman England:

One of William’s first acts as conqueror of England was to create ‘The New Forest’. This didn’t mean he planted a lot of nice trees so people could enjoy a picnic in the shade. What he was doing was ear-marking a vast tract of land as his own personal hunting-ground. This is what the Norman word ‘forest’ meant. Whether there were trees or not wasn’t really the point. The ‘forest’ was wherever ‘Forest Law’ applied, and ‘Forest Law’ was not something anyone wanted to live under.

Towns and villages could be, and were, destroyed, and every animal and tree became royal property. The forest was administered by royal officials with draconian powers, who replaced the community as denouncers before the court.

Terry Jones, Medieval Lives

In other words, medieval forests became covered in trees because people were shooed off the land and were no longer able to civilise it.

Shakespeare

In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, to take one example, the woods outside Athens are the realm of the fairies and spirits. Remember, Shakespeare was well-versed in Ovid, a Roman poet who  lived during the reign of Augustus. Ovid is today best known for the Metamorphoses, a 15-book continuous mythological narrative

The Symbolism Of The Forest In 20th Century British Children’s Literature

The second chapter of Francis Spufford’s memoir of reading, The Child That Books Built, is called ‘The Forest’. Spufford makes the following points and more:

  • In a literary forest you know that you can find all manner of wild creatures, travellers, knights and kings, youngest sons and so on. These other people and dangers are never far away, but in any particular story you may not intersect. The nature of the forest is that you are alone in it. Merlyn and Mole (from Wind In The Willows) will never meet. You have no resources except yourself.
  • There are encounters, of course. The creatures you meet will be tests. You never come out the same person you were when you went in. (See What Is Mythic Structure, in which the forest is an important setting.)
  • Kenneth Grahame called his forest the ‘Wild Wood’. This is a concept that endured in Europe into the middle ages, aka The Old English Jungle. In these old stories (fairy tales, Robin Hood etc.) there was an almost moralised distinction between what was wild and what was tame. In the wildwood anything might happen. The Saxons represented a fearful disordder, thought of as wreckers and enemies of orderliness.
  • The history of the British wildwood: Arrived at the end of the last Ice Age (c 11000 BC), existed until it was cleared by humans as agriculture reached Britain. By 2000 BC there were big open spaces i. By 500 BC half the wildwood had gone. Therefore, the wildwood had already gone by the time history began being recorded. So the death of the wildwood precedes history.
  • The wildwood is a great setting for stories about orphans, which seem to be a necessity for children a developmental stage in which we realise that we are in fact separate entities from our family.
  • Hansel and Gretel and Little Red Riding Hood were moulded by the real landscapes of Germany and France respectively. These fairytales travelled across the Atlantic to the English-speaking early settlers of America, where they resonated because these early settlers were themselves surrounded by forest again. But even the English liked these tales, even though technically it has been impossible to get lost in a forest in England  since 1086 at the latest. (No English forest was longer than 4 miles across by that stage.)
  • The forest is a metaphorical setting. It’s not a specific location, only a ‘vivid referent’ ‘a tree line imprinted onto the imagination’.
  • You can’t see far through a forest because it is thick. It’s ‘a place of formless impressions’, ‘of aboriginal darkness and confusion’. No one in a story has ever been taken into a forest and offered all the kingdoms of the earth.
  • The inverse of a forest is a mount, or a desert. Jesus was being tempted on a mountaintop and in a desert. Empty sands or gulfs of air are places where a traveller’s powers (divine or otherwise) are tested. But the forest is not to be mastered. The forest is therefore the great symbol of the unconscious. (See Bettelheim, The Uses Of Enchantment.) (Bettelheim was an asshole who set psychology back a couple of decades. Look up his theories on the causes of autism. (tl;dr: Refrigerator Mothers)
  • Forests are dark because the traveller hasn’t admitted all the darkness inside the mind. Fears haven’t been faced.
  • Forests are full of robbers, waiting to jump out at you from behind a tree or a bush.
JUFFROUW SPITS OP REIS [c. 1948] Piet Broos robbers forest
JUFFROUW SPITS OP REIS [c. 1948] Piet Broos

FORESTS IN THE VARIOUS SCHOOLS OF THERAPY

  • Freud: A firmly individual thing, a private wood, which grows differently in everybody. Contains only those unacknowledged fears and desire that our own life has laid down there.
  • Jung: A collective unconscious, a shared forest. A million separate paths lead into the one terrain. Instead of dreaming our own private dreams, we’re tapping into an elemental experience. This verges on mysticism and magic (if you let it be more than a metaphor). Robert Holdstock’s Ryhope Wood is an example of a Jungian forest.
  • Jean Piaget was the first to study young children and how their minds work completely differently from those of adults. For example, young children (and fundamentalist religious folk) believe the natural world was arranged entirely for human benefit. A three-year-old’s world is magical. Three-year-olds are ‘in the woods’, before they’ve learned that the world operates in basically predictable ways.

The Symbolism Of The Forest In Australian Literature

A peculiarity of Australian English is that ‘the bush’ can refer to what anyone else would basically call ‘a plain with nothing much on it in the way of shrubbery’. But Australia also has quite a lot of forested land, unlike in modern England. It is still very much possible to get lost in the Australian forest/bush.

The symbolism of the forest and its guardian monsters has flourished in the literature of Australia, where white settlement is very recent and where the settlers confronted a continent which appeared to them to be as much a wilderness as the cedar forest which Gilgamesh and Enkidu entered. The primary theme of white Australian writing, at least until the last few decades, has been the alienating and terrifying encounter with the land, but many Australian stories conclude on a far less confident note…The bush has evoked ambivalent responses from white Australians, but on the whole fear and uncertainty has outweighed delight. The white child lost in the bush is an iconic image in Australian art, and tales, such as the story of Eliza Frazer, in which lost Europeans are adopted by Aboriginal tribes and absorbed into their culture, grip white imaginations.

Deconstructing The Hero, Marjery Hourihan

Even in books by Australasian authors, bears are likely to appear in the woods at any time. Especially if you’re having a picnic.

Warwick Goble, 1862-1943. Illustration for Nannillo and Nennella, the Italian Hansel and Gretel
Warwick Goble, 1862-1943. Illustration for Nannillo and Nennella, the Italian Hansel and Gretel
Brian Wildsmith for 'The Bluebird' a picturebook adapted from Maeterlinck's play 1976
Brian Wildsmith for ‘The Bluebird’ a picturebook adapted from Maeterlinck’s play 1976

FURTHER READING

Forest and Tree Symbolism In Folklore

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Home » Shakespeare

The Three Main Types Of Modern Myth Stories

First, what is meant by mythic structure?

In everyday English, a myth is a story which is not true. In a myth, the surface level story is not true, but the symbols running through the story say something deeper about humankind. This is what makes it true.

If you look at all the Ancient myths they have things in common. Characters go on a journey, change, then either return home a changed person or find a new home.

The farthest you can travel is to come back to the place you already are and see that place with new eyes.

T.S. Elliot

This is all related to the symbolism of the labyrinth. The journey itself takes the hero into the deepest darkest parts of the soul, where the hero encounters a Minotaur (opponent). The journey out of the labyrinth is a rebirth.

Sometimes you find yourself in the middle of nowhere, and sometimes, in the middle of nowhere, you find yourself.

Unknown

British novel: let’s go to a party and find a wife.
German novel: let’s go to the wilderness and find ourselves.
Russian novel: let’s go to the depths of despair and then find out there is an even deeper level of despair we didn’t know about and go there.

@ExistentialComics

Since all cultures are built on myth, the mythic story works across cultures.

ZELTZER: How much do you draw on fairy tales or myths?

URSULA LE GUIN: Well, it’s useless to differentiate them; you always end up with the same damn archetypes.

The Last Interview

Take The Pilgrim’s Progress as a fairly modern story making use of mythic symbols:

Although The Pilgrim’s Progress is allegorical, it is impossible even for an adult to read about Christian’s journey to the Celestial City in any other way than as a story. The passages through the Slough of Despond and the Valley of Humiliation, the fight with the monster Apollyon, the loss of Christian’s comrade Faithful in Vanity Fair, the crossing of the River of Death: these are actual and vivid events, as real in their own way as the mass of detail with which Defoe built up Robinson Crusoe. It may be noted that the themes of all these three books the dangerous journey, as in The Pilgrim’s Progress, the desert island, as in Robinson Crusoe: and the miniature or other imaginary world, as in Gulliver have served for innumerable later books, both children’s and adult, and are by no means worn out.

Written for Children by John Rowe Townsend

Mythic stories work via symbolism, the universal kind of symbolism connected to what has lately been called ‘transformative memory’. This term describes memories which are not authentic, but created by the brain to make sense of life, turning disorder and fragmentation into some kind of meaning.

‘Transformative memory’ is Janice Haaken’s term. (See Haaken’s 1998 book Pillar of Salt: Gender, memory and the perils of looking back.)

Pillar of Salt introduces the controversy over recollections of childhood sexual abuse as the window onto a much broader field of ideas concerning memory, storytelling, and the psychology of women. The book moves beyond the poles of “true” and “false” memories to show how women’s stories reveal layers of gendered and ambiguous meanings, spanning a wide historical, cultural, literary, and clinical landscape. The author offers the concept of transformative remembering as an alternative framework for looking back, one that makes use of fantasy in understanding the narrative truth of childhood recollections.

Haaken provides an alternative reading of clinical material, showing how sexual storytelling transcends the symbolic and the “real” and how cultural repression of desire remains as problematic for women as the psychological legacy of trauma.

I’ve always wanted to get as far as possible from the place where I was born. Far both geographically and spiritually […] I feel that life is very short and the world is there to see […] and one should know as much of it as possible. One belongs to the whole world, not just one part of it.

Paul Bowles, American expatriate composer, author, and translator

Myth is not a part of every story. Even Joseph Campbell himself said that there was no mythic structure to be found in 25% of stories.

Raison D’être Of Mythic Stories

Myths are born of the sticky dark. That’s why the truest have survived thousands of years. They present fictional answers to primal questions: Why do tragic things happen? Which is stronger, love or death? What if death is just the beginning?

Marcus Sakey, Publishers Weekly

There are three main types of modern adventure stories, and they all make use of mythic structure. (For more on children’s adventure stories and their evolution, see The Centrality of the Adventure Story.)

The Adventure Story

MYTH IN RELATION TO FOLKTALES AND FAIRY TALES

Myths and folktales are assumed to be the very first stories in the history of humankind, closely related to rites of passage. Thus, a fairytale becomes a travel instruction for a young person on the way toward adulthood, directions on exactly how to behave in various situations. […] The hero’s task in a folktale is totally impossible for an “ordinary” human being, it is always a symbolic or allegorical depiction. Allegories (like Dante’s Divina Commedia or Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress) are also travel instructions. But the addressee knows that you cannot die and then rise from the dead, nor be eaten by a whale and then come out again, nor descend into the realm of death, and so on. When the March sisters try to follow Bunyan’s instructions for a journey, they have to “translate” the allegory into more everyday conditions. […] The modern version of a travel instruction is formula fiction in all its forms: crime novel, science fiction, horror, romance, soap opera, and so on. The addressee of these texts also knows that the story has very little to do with life. On the contrary, the text is based on detachment, especially through its exotic settings and incredible events. Many scholars have noted the similarities between fairytales and formula fiction. As early as the 1920s Propp suggested that his model for folktale analysis could be applied to novels of chivalry and other texts with fixed narrative structures.

Maria Nikolajeva, From Mythic to Linear: Time in Children’s Literature

Nikolajeva refers to Umberto Eco’s analysis of structure of James Bond movies as an example of such analysis.

  • M moves and gives a task to Bond.
  • The villian moves and appears to Bond.
  • Bond moves and gives a first check to the villain or the villiain gives first check to Bond.
  • Woman moves and shows herself to Bond.
  • Bond consumes woman: possesses her or begins her seduction
  • The villain captures Bond
  • The villain tortures Bond
  • Bond conquers the villain
  • Bond convalescing enjoys woman, who he then loses

Award-winning children’s authors such as Kate DiCamillo typically write with a mythic structure, though the list could go on:

[A] tendency to reflection is why DiCamillo’s style often echoes with the dark-light verities of Victorian or Edwardian children’s literature which, too, dwell on the private lives of playthings and speaking animals on heroic quests.

Canberra Times

Now to the three main types of myths in modern storytelling.

1. THE MYTHIC JOURNEY

The O.G. Myth is regularly considered to be The Odyssey, first recorded by Homer 800 BC.

In this kind of adventure there are often two journeys, closely linked and mutually dependent, one physical and the other spiritual. The protagonist, by means of a physical journey, experiences a growth in self-knowledge or subtle character development. An observant reader will respond to both journeys and be aware of the spiritual growth that has taken place.

Give Them Wings, edited by Saxby and Winch

The Odyssey is so well-known that marketers sometimes use ‘Odyssey’ to mean ‘mythic journey’ and audiences basically know what we’re getting:

The Odyssean myth is so powerful that even something the length of an advertisement can create powerful emotions. Check out a Coca-cola ad below. (Big brands can afford to spend the most on their campaigns. McDonalds also makes excellent ads.)

“We find a model for learning how to live in stories about heroism. The heroic quest is about saying yes to yourself and, in so doing, becoming more fully alive and more effective in the world. For the hero’s journey is first about taking a journey to find the treasure of your true self, and then about returning home to give your gift to help transform the kingdom- and, in the process, your own life. The quest itself is replete with dangers and pitfalls, but if offers great rewards: the capacity to be successful in the world, knowledge of the mysteries of the human soul, the opportunity to find and express your unique gifts in the world, and to live in loving community with other people.”

Carol S. Pearson, Awakening the Heroes Within: Twelve Archetypes to Help Us Find Ourselves and Transform Our World

The Home-away-home story is also very common in picturebooks. This is basically the mythic journey but in different words specifically applied to picture books.

The mythic journey is also called the (mythic) quest.

The technical definition of myth:

The story of the transformation of the soul and the stages of its illumination.

The pictorial representation of a mythic story is the labyrinth as viewed from above.

Although in English we have inherited the Greek word, the labyrinth shape can be seen across many different cultures. It’s a universal symbol and this is exactly why the labyrinthine shape so beautifully represents the shape of the universal mythological story structure. I’ve written a lot about that elsewhere, but in short, a hero goes on a long journey and meets many opponents along the way. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series draws heavily upon ancient mythology. Rowling’s Triwizard Maze features many opponents within it.

Our classical hero finally comes across a REALLY bad guy, who kills him (or not, in a tragedy) then after some spiritual awakening the hero returns home, or finds a new home (or is dead).

In The Shining, Jack freezes to death after chasing Danny into a hedge maze and getting lost.

He (and it’s almost always a he) will face moral choices along the way (which we might better represent as choices within a maze, not a labyrinth). In the case of a labyrinth, the journey itself takes you further and further into yourself, into your soul, where you will face your deepest darkest fears. The journey in and out is a cycle of death and rebirth. By rebirthing, you become a different person. You basically become a shapeshifter. In the famous Greek myth, Theseus transforms from a youth into a king. It’s basically a coming-of-age story. The labyrinth is his initiation.

In order to get out alive you’ll need to find the following within yourself:

  • trickery (this is why tricksters are so universally popular across storytelling)
  • perseverance
  • unhurriedness
  • curiosity
  • playfulness
  • flexibility
  • improvisation
  • self-mastery
  • smarts, because you must resist the lure of easy solutions which are not solutions at all.

Throughout the last 3000 years of history (at least), people have understood this symbolism across cultures. The shape itself actually goes back further than 3000 years, to the Neolithic (New Stone) age. The Neolithic age began around 12,000 years ago.

As a narrative structure, the mythic labyrinth/maze forms the basis of all human storytelling, across cultures. Whenever someone tells us a story, we are expecting something which conforms to this shape, with certain accepted shape variations. This is why there is such a thing as universal story structure.

Apart from The Odyssey there are a whole bunch of really old myths that all have the basic same plot: Jason and the Golden Fleece, Beowulf, Saint George etc.

A slightly more modern mythic journey is Gulliver’s Travels, published 1726.

Gulliver tied down

From Gulliver’s Travels came 20th Century stories such as:

(Gulliver’s Travels is also the O.G. Miniature Story as well as being the O.G. Journey.)

An example of an Odyssean journey in a picture book is Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak.

Other examples of Odyssean Mythic Structures:

  • The Lion King
  • Thelma and Louise a female buddy movie. Buddy movies tend to make use of mythic structure. Thelma and Louise is of course a standout Road Trip story as well, which is a modern American take on the Odyssean mythic journey, spawned by the development of America’s federal highway system in the 20th century.
  • Beauty and the Beast
  • The Piano myth blended with anti-romance
  • True Grit  basically a crime story, blended with mythic structure
  • Harry Potter Typically for main characters of myth stories, Harry is a foundling, abandoned by his parents and brought up by horrible people.
  • Le Week-end a film written by Hanif Kureishi in which the journey takes the form of a romantic weekend away with the purpose of rekindling a failing marriage
  • Locke a road trip with one on-screen character played by Tom Hardy. Extraordinarily well scripted, we really only see Tom Hardy sitting in his car. The opponents he meets on his journey come only in form of voices through his car phone. By the end of the journey he is in a different place both physically and spiritually.
  • I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore – an indie-film which provides an excellent example of modern use of mythic symbolism such as the labyrinth and the river. The backdrop is American suburbia. The main hero is a woman, though she is joined by a man. Interesting for its gender inversions.
  • Wildlike a 14 year old girl is sent to stay with her uncle in Alaska one summer as her mother is receiving treatment for an illness. She is soon faced with the task of running away from the uncle and making her way back to Seattle. She meets various helpers and opponents along the way, and contributes to a grieving man’s character arc as he grieves for his own wife’s recent death.
  • Jolene a 2008 film based on a story by E.L. Doctorow. A young orphan marries but in a Cinderella-like tragedy things don’t go well and she ends up on the road, meeting all sorts of people along the way, mostly horrible.
  • Hunt For The Wilderpeople a New Zealand comedy drama about the relationship between a cranky man and a boy, who go bush, pursued by the police for suspected child abuse.

Then there are computer games, such as Halo and Red Dead Redemption.

Occasionally, the story isn’t so much about what the character learns about themselves. It is about what the main character teaches others they meet. This hero is like a sage, going from place to place fixing things. Let’s call this type of journey-person a ‘blow-in saviour’.

Blow-in Saviour describes a character who travels from place to place fixing the joint, or spreading joy, then moving on. We assume the cycle will continue.

Blow-in Saviour characters are found mainly in Westerns, detective stories and comedies. They are also found in children’s stories. Sometimes the Blow-in Saviours of children’s stories are children, sometimes they are adults. As I’ve noted before, characters in children’s stories are not always rounded to the point that they are treating others wrongly in some way. This is less true of contemporary adults’ stories.

Blow-in Saviours tend to turn up with a community is in trouble. (But not always.) Mary Poppins turns up when a household is in trouble. (Middle grade fiction is about the household more than about the community). They fix the problems, then move on.

The Blow-in Saviour trope is a benevolent outworking of the walking the Earth’ trope.

EXAMPLES OF THE BLOW-IN SAVIOUR TROPE
  • Into The Wild — Chris McCandless goes from place to place offering (pseudo-) wisdom and seeming to improve other people’s lives, until his philosophies turn in on himself and lead to his own downfall.
  • Tinkerbell of Peter and Wendy
  • Snufkin from The Moomins is similar. He plays a harmonica wherever he goes, distributing the joy of music.
  • Crocodile Dundee (Australian film) — comedy, adventure
  • Red Dog is another Australian film — in a heartwarming story, a red dog goes from place to place spreading joy.
  • True Grit — anti-Western, adventure
  • Amélie (film) — French comedy romance — Blow-in Saviour comedies are popular in France for some reason
  • Chocolat (book and film) — drama, romance
  • Good Morning, Vietnam (film) — biography, comedy, drama
  • Mary Poppins (family musical based on a series of books by P.L. Travers) — children’s book — comedy, fantasy, Nanny Story
  • Shane (classic Western) — about the only non-ironic Western movie made since the world wars — includes drama and romance
  • Anne Of Green Gables — Anne starts off as a scattered character who causes chaos wherever she goes despite her best efforts. But her character arc turns her into a Blow-in Saviour, which starts the night she saves the Barry girl by knowing what to do for her illness. After she grows up, Anne doesn’t leave Avonlea for good, she is back and forth, and tends to win crotchety people over so long as they are basically good in the first place.
  • Wanda from The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes is wise and humble beyond her years. She visits a school temporarily, changes the social structure for the better, teaches kindness then moves on.
  • Jack Reacher goes from town to town solving mysteries.
  • Xena Warrior Princess and her sidekick Gabrielle go from place to place fighting warlords. The backstory is that Xena is atoning for her past as the worst warlord of them all.
  • Superheroes have Blow-in Saviour attributes. They seem drawn to saving everyone and will travel far and wide to do so.
  • Santa — the ultimate Blow-in Saviour!
  • Miss Rumphius is a bit of a Blow-in Saviour character, walking from place to place spreading flower seeds, beautifying the area.
  • Ray Donovan, a Hollywood ‘fixer’ who later moves to New York.
  • The Straight Story — This 1999  biographical road trip story directed by David Lynch is about Alvin Straight, a man who decides to make an epic journey to see his brother and straighten things up with him before he dies. The journey to Wisconsin wouldn’t ordinarily be so epic, except he makes the eccentric decision to undertake the journey on a series of ride-on lawnmowers which keep breaking down. (We can assume he has lost his car driver’s licence due to old age). This guy meets people along the way and shares wisdom he has collected. (If you enjoy this film, see The World’s Fastest Indian.)

Related: Angelic Tropes at TV Tropes

THE BLOW-IN DASTARD TROPE

An inversion of the Blow-in Saviour trope can be found undertaking less optimistic, borderline misanthropic mythic journeys. Annie Proulx has upended the Blow-in Dastard trope in several of her stories, notably “Heart Songs” and in “Negatives“, both from the Heart Songs collection. Well-heeled outsiders enter a poor, rural community, wreak havoc then move on, only to do the same to the next town, we deduce.

In children’s literature we have Wolf Comes To Town! by Denis Manton and similar stories in which a villain goes from place to place wreaking havoc. Classic fairytales tend to end with the goodies defeating the baddies, but new re-visionings sometimes eschew the happy ending.

When Nellie Bertram joins The (American) Office cast, inserting herself as boss, she describes herself as their blow-in saviour by comparing herself to Tinkerbell (a genuine Blow-in Saviour). In doing so, she describes the Blow-in Saviour perfectly:

Jim: Yeah, that’s the thing. I don’t know if you can even give raises.
Nellie: Jim, have you ever heard of a character named Tinkerbell?
Jim: Yes.
Nellie: I’m Tinkerbell.
Jim: No.
Nellie: Mm-hm. I’m a magical fairy who floated into your office to bring a little bit of magic into your lives, to give you all raises.
Stanley: And we are grateful.
Nellie: But here’s the thing about Tinkerbell, Jim. Everyone has to believe in her or she doesn’t exist.
Jim: She dies.

Office Quotes, Season 8, Episode 19

But Nellie is full of bluff and bluster, a charlatan and a terrible boss. From the outset she is presented as a Blow-in Dastard instead. This works best when the audience understands what she is trying to do, which is why having her explain this is effective.

2. THE STATIC JOURNEY

There are two ways of getting home; and one of them is to stay there.

G.K. CHESTERTON
Albert Dorne (1906-1965) Office of Defense Transportation illustration from 1945
Albert Dorne (1906-1965) Office of Defense Transportation illustration from 1945

The ur-Static Journey is the Robinsonnade, a word that appeared to describe two similar novels which happened to both have ‘Robinson’ in the title: Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Swiss Family Robinson.

The fictional story of Robinson Crusoe had a huge effect on real-world events, especially on the history of Australia. Explorer and cartographer Matthew Flinders read Robinson Crusoe as a kid and wrote in his travel memoirs that he was “induced to go to sea against the wishes of my friends from reading Robinson Crusoe

What made Robinson Crusoe so popular?

  1. A wonderful narrative voice — exciting, unhurried and conversational. Quasi-journalistic.
  2. It’s actually a very old story pattern, also seen in the Bible: transgression, retribution, repentance, redemption. (Youthful rebellion, successive shipwrecks, the painful lessons of isolation, Crusoe’s return home.)
  3. Memorably concrete images, like Friday’s footprints in the sand, Crusoe with his parrot and umbrella.

One reason for the island myth is pure escapism, of course. But this sort of myth is often not an escape from work. Once you’re on the island, characters need to work hard to live. This is like ultra-camping, or the feeling you get watching reality TV of the Doomsday Preppers variety. In Robinson Crusoe, our hero has to build shelters, fence off territories, hunt and farm. This plays into the wish fulfilment fantasy of self-sufficiency.

Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island has […] fallen out of favour with present-day readers, but any number of adventure stories, from Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book to The Action Hero’s Handbook derive from it. Stevenson’s young hero, Jim Hawkins, foreshadows the plucky resourcefulness of Anthony Horowitz’s reluctant teenage spy, and Eoin Colfer’s criminal mastermind Artemis Fowl.

Why this is a golden age of children’s literature, Amanda Craig

Why are these stories so popular? Well, we love a story in which characters work for what they have. This is a dominant ideology in children’s literature, too. When characters get what they desire we like to see evidence that they deserve it. Robinson Crusoe has achieved longevity due in part to its consonance with this modern ideology that work is one of most important things humans can do. Indeed, Defoe presents work as a kind of therapy — working on mind, body and spirit. When Crusoe bakes his own bread he’s proud of his achievement. This is in line with the tale of The Little Red Hen: If you want to enjoy your bread you had better have baked it yourself.

For more on Robinson Crusoe see The Guardian, in which they count Robinson Crusoe as the second most important book in English literature.

A more recent evolution on the Robinsonnade is Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer, written in the mid- to late-1800s in which the hero doesn’t actually need to go anywhere; all the action takes place at home.

In the 20th century we read school stories and holiday stories, which are also static in that the action takes place at a (boarding) school or at a holiday destination.

Around the 1960s and 70s, adventure stories started to focus less on plot and more on character. Romanticism gave way to realism. As in the best adventure stories, setting is still important.

  • Betsy Byars
  • Joan Phipson
  • Patricia Wrightson
  • Ivan Southall — the Simon Black series, considered The Australian Biggles
  • Eleanor Spence
  • Lilith Norman

Most recently these realistic adventure novels have evolved into what are sometimes derisively known as ‘issues novels’, especially in young adult literature, and the trend is now moving down into middle grade literature.

A more direct modern retelling of the Robinson Crusoe story is of course Castaway starring Tom Hanks. But don’t forget that any adventure story which takes place in one place is a descendent of Robinson Crusoe.

Julie of the Wolves is a young adult novel in the Robinsonnade tradition.

You may already be noticing a few problems with traditional mythic stories. The third main type of myth goes some way towards modernising the form, but first, let’s take a look at the known problems.

SOME PROBLEMS WITH ODYSSEAN (AND ROBINSONNADE) MYTHIC STRUCTURE

PROBLEM ONE: UNIVERSALITY IS GOOD BUT PREDICTABLE

The mythic structure is certainly popular, but has been done many times before. It’s possible that the most original stories to emerge will veer away from mythic structure altogether. However, since film audiences are already conditioned for myth, such novel stories are likely to be considered ‘fringe’ and will have less money allocated to their production and marketing. Indie studios are more likely to take such risks. However, you’re more likely to see non-mythic novels than non-mythic Hollywood films for exactly this reason. Genre in novels/short stories/indie film is evolving at a faster pace and is more open to innovation.

The story of the hero and his quest, the adventure story, is always essentially the same. It is the story of Odysseus, of Jason and the Golden Fleece, of Beowulf, of Saint George, of the Knights of the Round Table, of Jack and the Beanstalk, of Robinson Crusoe, of Peter Rabbit, of James Bond, of Luke Skywalker, of Batman, of Indiana Jones, of the latest sci-fi adventure and the latest game in the computer shop. It appears in countless legends, folk tales, children’s stories and adult thrillers. It is ubiquitous. Northrop Frye has argued that the quest myth is the basic myth of all literature, deriving its meanings from the cycle of the seasons and ‘the central expression of human meanings from the cycle of the seasons and ‘the central expression of human energy [which transformed] the amorphous natural environment into the pastoral, cultivated, civilized world of human shape and meaningthe hero is the reviving power of spring and the monster and old king and outgrown forces of apathy and impotence in a symbolic winter.’ Whether we accept this or not, the centrality of the hero story in our culture is unarguable.

Margery Hourihan, Deconstructing The Hero
PROBLEM TWO: LACK OF NUANCE

Since myth tends to rely on simple distinctions between ‘good vs evil’, nuance can be sacrificed. The message that ‘good doesn’t always win out’ isn’t easily conveyed by the mythic structure.

“But to look back from the stony plain along the road which led one to that place is not at all the same thing as walking on the road; the perspective to say the very least, changes only with the journey; only when the road has, all abruptly and treacherously, and with an absoluteness that permits no argument, turned or dropped or risen is one able to see all that one could not have seen from any other place.”

James Baldwin, Go Tell It on the Mountain
PROBLEM THREE: GENDER INVERSIONS DON’T FIX LACK OF REPRESENTATION

In a female-led mythic story the heroine requires an extra step: She FIRST needs to break free of the constraints of home. (See Thelma & Louise.) This is an extra burden on female characters, leads to a less diverse type of storytelling featuring women and girls, and after all, why should stories about women and girls base their template on stories which never included women and girls in the first instance? A good story about the female experience of the world isn’t simply a story about a boy, only with the boy switched out for a girl.

‘Adventure story’ is the term most often used when talking about children’s literature. For more on the centrality of the adventure story see: A Brief History Of The Adventure Story In English.

3. THE NON-BATTLE MYTH

There’s another type of myth that doesn’t involve a big fight for a climax. Others have used the gender binary to describe these myths, though I would like us to move away from this now. Though there’s truth to the observation that stories starring boys and men are more likely to contain fighting at the climax, I’d like to disentangle the idea that masculinity and violence naturally go together. I’d like to see more boys the stars of these so called feminine myths. The feminine myths are about thinking, and I’d also like us to move away from the idea that women and girls are guided by emotions. (Emotions are for everyone.)

All that said, there is an obvious physiological connection between the binary mythic forms:

It could be that we’re all sick of the three act structure and that actually there is a way of telling a story that is different. And it’s just not about the big orgasm [Battle] at the end. We have multiple orgasms, that’s God’s gift to us. […] There is a theory around women’s storytelling, that it isn’t just the three act structure to get to the big bang at the end. That isn’t our biology. We like a slow burn. And it’s very rewarding. What’s wrong with 10 endings?

Gaylene Preston, New Zealand filmmaker

[Some people] think that the bases track neatly onto emotions so that holding hands is a little bit intimate and kissing more intimate and having sex the most intimate thing of all. Reality is rarely this neat or linear. Sex can be boring and impersonal, while a brush of the hand can be thrilling. One person can feel close to another from far away and the same person can have penetrative intercourse and not feel much of anything. Touch doesn’t have to be a hierarchy, and sex doesn’t have to be the only, or even the best, way of achieving intimacy.

Ace: What Asexuality Reveals About Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex by Angela Chen

Odyssean stories and Robinsonades are said to be of the ‘male’ type. The first involves leaving home and going on a journey to find oneself; the second focuses a bit more on character development. Throughout the corpus of children’s literature it is especially obvious — girls get to stay home (domestic stories) while boys leave the home (on adventure).

‘If you were a boy I’d say are you going to seek your fortune?’
‘Can’t girls seek their fortune?’
‘I think they’re supposed to seek a boy with a fortune.’ 

Terry Pratchett, Equal Rites

There are few modern examples of the battle-free myth form, but some well-known examples include:

  1. Inside Out
  2. Frozen
  3. Gravity
  4. Coraline
  5. My Neighbour Totoro
  6. The Snowman
  7. Arrival
  8. The Paperbag Princess as an example of the big struggle-free mythic form. (Book creators have been doing it longer than Hollywood writers have.)
  9. Wolf In The Snow by Matthew Cordell
  10. The Fog by Kyo Maclear and Kenard Pak

In fact, a lot of picture books use a battle-free mythic structure. I would put Where The Wild Things Are in this category because the main character is dealing with his own emotions. Think of any picture book which is a descendent of Where The Wild Things Are: A child feels their emotions, retreats into themselves and go through an internal kind of struggle.

  • Doesn’t have all the fighting
  • Or the fisticuffs type of battle at the climax
  • Doesn’t necessarily involve a journey away from home, but there is some sort of long, difficult journey
  • There doesn’t have to be a ‘minotaur’ (a powerful outside opponent)
  • Plots are not based on conflict
  • It draws heavily from Jungian theory.
  • Interiority. The battle-free myth is an inner journey. It seems to have been around since the Second Wave feminist movement (though there may well be excellent earlier examples I don’t know about.) Either the character goes into their own heads or, as in Inside Out, there’s a whole other world in there. Imagination and fantasy are great combos for the battle-free myth form, as without the big battles and strong outside Minotaur villain we need other points of interest.

Perhaps because we don’t want kids exposed to endless fighting, children’s storytellers are moving towards stories with less violence and more emotion. Pixar has now given three examples (Inside Out and the Frozen films). They will likely give us more because these stories are really popular. In Waking Sleeping Beauty, Roberta Seelinger Trites names two books in particular: The Blue Sword by Robyn McKinley and On Fortune’s Wheel by Cynthia Voight.

THE BLUE SWORD (1982)

This novel has a lot of feminist problems, to be sure.

  • The main character (Harry) basically has to become a boy and do traditionally masculine stuff. Inversion does not equal subversion.
  • Harry is silenced because of how it’s plotted — she can’t speak the local fantasy language and has to rely on a dude to translate everything for her. This means he dominates conversations.
  • Only four of the fifteen knights are women and they remain unnamed, so McKinley doesn’t achieve gender balance in her minor characters.
  • This is ultimately a marriage plot. At the end she gets married and this is a happy ending for her.

But The Blue Sword is an important work because it was one of the first books to allow a female character a traditionally masculine mythic quest.

Seelinger Trites points out that imagery of cycles and wheels inform both texts to emphasize how Birle and Orien’s journeys are process rather than goal-oriented. This lines up with what Maria Nikolajeva has said about how seasons dominate in children’s books written for girls, since seasons are cyclical.

The journeys themselves are circular as well. In male myth forms, the hero often (though not always) ends in a different part of the world.

THE TRICKSTERS BY MARGARET MAHY (1986)

In this sophisticated YAL novel from 1980s New Zealand, Margaret Mahy takes a classic Greek myth and re-visions it into something feminist. To do that, she takes the ‘thread’ of the Minotaur myth and uses another of its meaning: not a literal spool of thread this time, but a ‘plot thread’. Main character Harry (alter ego Ariadne) is using her brain to work through a mystery surrounding her family.

The text of The Tricksters exemplifies the intertextual use of mythology and folklore in feminist children’s novels. It uses intertextual references to underscore its theme, but more important, when the original text oppresses females, the feminist author transforms the story, redeeming it from sexism and claiming it for feminism. Jack Zipes maintains, “Folk tales and fairy tales have always been dependent on customs, rituals and values in the particular socialisation process of a social system. They have always symbolically depicted the nature of power within a given society. Thus, they are strong indicators of the level of civilization, that is, the essential quality of a culture and social order. That the ways a culture uses folktales reflect the culture’s values seems clear. In rewriting folktales to advance feminist ideologies and to identify female subjectivity, feminist writers are both protesting the powerlessness of women inherent in our culture’s old folkways and giving voice to a new set of values: a set that allows for the princess to have power, a set that allows Sleeping Beauty to wake up not to a destiny that immerses her in her husband’s life but to a destiny that is self-defined.

Waking Sleeping Beauty by Roberta Seelinger Trites
ON FORTUNE’S WHEEL (1990)

Cynthia Voight’s novel is similar to The Blue Sword but avoids some of the traps of subversion.

  • Birle goes on a quest, like Harry, though she’s not after an object in particular.
  • She doesn’t give up her voice, identity or her culture when she marries.
  • She starts her journey voluntarily, trying to rescue her family. (This is similar to the much later Katniss Everdeen ‘call’ to adventure.) She’s not kidnapped or anything, decisions are her own.
  • She serves as the male character’s guide for a while then makes her own decision to join him on his journey in the hopes of escaping an unwise betrothal (that she made herself).
  • She falls in love with her male companion and chooses to be with him.
  • Birle is not setting out to destroy a foe. This is what makes it different from the male quest/myth.
  • Instead, it is the process of the journey, which allows the characters’ love for each other to grow, and not the end of the journey that matters. This is the main narrative choice that separates Voight’s quest from others.

One feature of the masculine myth: the rebirth, emphasis on ‘re’. A hero has come from his mother’s womb, but he hasn’t properly disassociated himself from his mother until he undergoes a REbirth. In this way, the symbolic labyrinth (or fantasy world, or journey) is a womb, but a dangerous one. This is why in mythic fairy stories, fairies are always trying to take male babies away from their mothers, and why mothers are always clinging onto the idea that their little boys can be kings and heroes despite having been born of a woman. It probably goes without saying, but all of this is a product of a misogynistic culture.

This works slightly differently in the non-battle myth. Instead of disassociating herself from her mother, the hero of a non-battle myth (usually a heroine) might be separating herself from ‘the male culture that was modelled by her mother’.

Some major differences between the ‘male’ and ‘female’ myth forms are described by Elizabeth Lyon in her book Manuscript Makeover, in which she picks the highlights from an earlier feminist book The Heroine’s Journey by Maureen Murdock, which now feels like a very 90s form of feminism.

MALE MYTH: THE OUTER QUESTFEMALE MYTH: THE INNER QUEST
The Hero is in his familiar Ordinary World when a serious event introduces a problem that is his Call To Adventure.A life changing event compels a woman to go on a quest to find her own identity, separate from the one she assimilated from the male culture that was modelled by her mother.
He refuses the Call because it will mean change, challenge, Separation from the known and familiar, and Departure from home. It may even mean risking his life. He also doesn’t know if he is capable of the task.At first she adopts so-called male behaviours, thinking that she has denied aggressiveness in the past and that is what she needs.
A Mentor assures him that he can do it, must do it, and is the only one who can succeed.This belief leads her into the world of men, often also growing closer to her father.
Emboldened and committed, the Hero departs. He Crosses the Threshold into the Special World, which is alien compared to his Ordinary World.She often achieves success in the work world as she perfects her Animus, the assertive competitive, perfectionist, and male-identified side of her personality.
He quickly learns the rules, encounters Allies and Enemies, and begins his Descent deep into the Special World, the territory of those who oppose him and where he’ll find the solution to the problem.At the same time, she challenges, rejects and even rebukes the beliefs in inferiority, dependency, and romantic love that she now sees as cultural indoctrination of women.
As he continues on the Road of Tests and Trials, the obstacles grow more formidable. He reaches the Approach to the Inner Cave, knowing that at its heart will be the Supreme Ordeal. In the innermost cave, he encounters the biggest obstacles and threats to success. If he overcomes these final challenges, he will have claim to the Reward: He’ll achieve the goal that resolves the problem that set him on his journey.She may blame her mother and distance herself from her.
After he succeeds (or fails), he Refuses the Call to return home, instead emerging from the cave to regale in his glory or to lick his wounds.But when success in the male world also leaves her feeling hollow she no longer feels close to her father or male mentors. She feels betrayed by everyone and everything she has known and believes, including God as a male-defined creation of the culture.
Believing his quest is over and he can at last begin his Return home, he is confronted with one last obstacle, the Ultimate Test. Whether or not he reaches his story goal, if he summons all that he has learned, and releases or heals a wound he was afflicted with in his past, he will let his old self die to be reborn into a new, freer self.Alone, “spiritually arid”, the woman begins her turn inward in search of her unique self. She examines her unique experiences and searches for memories that seem to reflect pieces of a lost but authentic self. However long this period lasts, it often involves shedding any accoutrements of what the patriarchal culture deems appropriate and desirable: female dress, manners and friends. Yet she yearns for an end to the grief and emptiness. She fears she may die without finding her true self and a chance to pursue dreams that she discovers within her.
This is his emotional passage, his Initiation. Death and Rebirth allow him to overcome this final confrontation (unless the story is a tragedy, and then he clings to his old ways, shortcomings, and the emotional wound.)Little by little, or all at once, she finds that connection, and the courage to receive the archetypal power of the Feminine. She integrates it in her own way. She begins to express her unique and now known self. Now she can also express, as needed, nurturing, relatedness and receptivity. These are the positive qualities of the Feminine.
 She reconnects with her mother or with the archetype of the Mother. If the relationship with her earthly mother permits it, she seeks to heal the former breach.
 Instead of rejecting all the Masculine qualities, she integrates the side of herself that also holds the power of the positive Masculine archetype.
At last he can Return with the Elixir, perhaps a treasure, but the true reward is being a new, transformed individual, a Master of Two Worlds, an integrated person with wisdom to share, in the form of the theme reflected by his journey.Finally, she ends her duality, the split of her self and cultural beliefs about the Feminine and Masculine. She ends the misery of beliefs and behaviours not in harmony with her discovered self. She emerges into her new world and selects her new life as an integrated, renewed and healed person.

“Some women tend naturally to be Warriors and Seekers, and some men to be Caregivers and Lovers in spite of their cultural conditioning. The point is for both to take their journeys in such a way as to find their own way to be male or female, and eventually to achieve a positive kind of androgyny, which is not at all about unisex, neutered behavior, but is about gaining the gifts both gender energies and experiences have to offer us.”

Carol S. Pearson, Awakening the Heroes Within: Twelve Archetypes to Help Us Find Ourselves and Transform Our World

In order to work out whether a mythic story is ‘male’ or ‘female’, don’t look at the gender expression of the hero. Men and boys can star in big battle-free myths while women and girls can star in the traditional male myth, and often do (a la the Strong Female Character archetype).

A text may be intended for women and may be about women, but it may still have a masculine point of view because the beliefs in the hypothetical narrator point of view about women are masculine.

Ismay Barwell, Feminist perspectives and narrative points of view, 1993

Oprah’s book club picks are often good examples of the big battle-free myth. Since the reader of this kind of big battle-free myth form is asked to identify with a character battling what is essentially the patriarchy, it’s not surprising that some men (one of whom even refused to appear on Oprah’s book club…) will be turned off by a Oprah’s book club sticker. It is true of many things in life as it is in reading — women are expected to understand and sympathise with the male experience but not vice versa. Many men simply cannot understand what such a battle would feel like, or what it even entails.

Where are all the female creation myths?

The female body follows the lunar cycle, which is closely associated with the idea of death and rebirth (waning and waxing moon). The cardinal function of the female body is reproduction. The big battle-free myths, describing female initiation, are aimed at repetition, rebirth, the eternal life cycle. Actually, very few genuine big battle-free myths exist in writtenmale, civilised, “symbolic” (Lacan)form, due to many reasons. Connected with essential life mysteries such as menstruation and birth (both involving bloody), big battle-free myths are more secret and sacred than male myths. They have mostly existed in oral form, as esoteric rituals. In Western civilisation, they have been suppressed and muted by the dominant male culture. We can only discover traces and remnants of them, in the figures of the *Progenitrix, the witch, the **chthonic goddess.

*Progenitrix = A female progenitor, a foremother, any of a person’s direct female ancestors (ancestresses).

**Chthonic = relating to or inhabiting the underworld

Maria Nikolajeva, From Mythic to Linear: Time in children’s literature

There are still few big battle-free myths around, which is why I wrote one myself, in the form of Hilda Bewildered. Though I didn’t realise it at the time, this story is similar to Inside Out in that it’s about a girl facing a hard situation, learning to overcome a difficult fear by going inside herself. There is no minotaur; there is no big big battle scene. These stories are certainly difficult to write, for exactly that reason.

How is story different in a non-patriarchal society? I say ‘non-patriarchal’ rather than ‘matriarchal’ because there is no real evidence to suggest that before patriarchy was matriarchy. In fact, evidence points to a flatter social system altogether.

I have blogged previously about how the mythic form as we know it — the form which dominates Hollywood blockbusters even today — is a strongly male-centric story.

The very recent Female Myth form aside, the Male Myth form — the one we’re all veeery familiar with — has been dominant for the last 3000 years.

3000 years sounds like forever, but humans have been around longer than that. We’ve been telling stories for longer than that. What did the original big battle-free myth look like? 20th Century feminist Marilyn French offers some insight in the first chapter of her 1985 book Beyond Power: On Women, Men and Morals:

THE VERY OLD HISTORY OF THE MYTH

  • Most of the metal, human-shaped ornaments found from ancient times are figures of women. There are men too, but most are women. Like, not just 51% women — the overwhelmingly majority are obviously female. Some of these figurines date back to 9500BCE. (Metallurgy wasn’t widespread back then but it was still practised in certain areas.) This suggests that women were more visible in these very old societies, only later wiped from the history books.
  • These female-shaped figurines last right up almost until the Christian era.
  • Many researchers believe these figurines were significant when it comes to worship. Old cultures worshipped regeneration and fertility. It made sense to them that everything came from the female, not the male. Other symbols of regeneration (apart from the female body) included: eggs, butterflies and the aurochs (the wild ox of Europe).
  • The mother goddess was not only in charge of birth but also of death. (“I brought you into this world, and I can take you out!” Anyone?) She was also mistress of the animals. So she could also be symbolised by dogs and pigs and other animals vital to human survival. She was also seen in the form of a bird. (We have to remember that all early art was symbolic.)
  • This view of the world — one ruled by a goddess — wasn’t limited to a small area. It was all over the show. Like, China, the Middle East, Mesoamerica, and in Europe from the far north to the Mediterranean and in Middle Europe as well. For more on this look up work done by Marija Gimbutas.
  • Around the 4th or 5th millennia BCE cultures started to make more and more male figures alongside the female ones and they started to become elaborately dressed.
  • Other changes: The female figurines of the Paleolithic era were corpulent, but after the agricultural era was ushered in she was slimmed right down. She became flanked by domesticated rather than wild animals (dogs, bulls and he-goats). The goddess was also often associated with the bear. Bears are considered particularly good mothers, and may have had a big impact on Europeans.
  • Funnily enough (for anyone who’s read the Old Testament), women were also associated with snakes. This is because snakes lose their skins and ‘regenerate’. There are a whole bunch of other symbols to do with women too, like chickens, which puts me in mind of Baba Yaga. (The bear puts me in mind of Pixar’s Brave — see, we’re still making use of these ancient symbols today.) We even see oversized depictions of female genitalia. From here things start to go downhill for women.
  • From the beginning of what’s known as ‘the Classical period’ (300CE to 900CE) women still appear as sculptures, but only as goddesses or priestesses. After that, right up to the 14th century, depictions of women — anywhere, in any form — basically cease. When we do see women, like in some Aztec art, women are huge, ugly and terrifying.
  • Between 1500 and 1900 there was a lot of religious art: Madonnas and Annunciations coexisted with many crucifixions. There were many, many portraits of saints and Church Fathers and gory martrydoms. In secular art there were condottieres on horseback, gorgeous naked Davids, kings and miinisters in ermine and gold, wizened-looking Protestant merchants with their wives and possessions spread around them.
  • Today, of course, women have reappeared in art but we continue to be depicted in a much more heavily sexualised way. We are back in the story, but even in children’s literature there are 3 male characters for every female. (See the work of Janet McCabe if you need to know someone counted.)

What the hell happened?

  • First – don’t get the wrong idea. Those ancient figures of corpulent women didn’t necessarily mean everyone was living in a matriarchy. All that means is that people valued fertility of all kinds above all else. People lived very close to the land, and had not yet begun agriculture. Men just didn’t seem as important in that kind of society. Maybe it’s because early societies didn’t even know that men were necessary for reproduction? It’s just as likely that they did know — I mean, we know now that both parties are equally important to human life but we still have a gender hierarchy. The male’s role in Paleolithic and early Neolithic society simply wasn’t considered as important as it is now.
  • Then agriculture happened. Those central ideas of fertility, regeneration and a sense of humans as integrally connected with nature… dissipated.
  • Agriculture lead to bigger populations.
  • Bigger populations lead to more complicated social systems. It’s interesting and sad that today, our definition of an ‘advanced society’ is one with an established hierarchy, between men and women, between the very rich and the very poor.
  • With agriculture humans started to use coerced animal labour. For examples, mules were roped in to till our fields for us. This lead to humans pulling away from nature. We no longer saw ourselves as part of nature, but in opposition to it.
  • And when I say ‘we’, I mean men. Men considered women, like their mules, to continue to be a part of that ‘civilization/nature’ dichotomy. It was men and men alone who were elevated to this special place, holier than everyone and everything else. For millennia, women had been considered goddesses of regeneration, so they couldn’t just jump ship away from nature with the men, right? We see this attitude clearly exemplified in works such as the Holy Bible, in which we are told that God made the Earth and the animals for the express use of humans (addressing mainly men at the time).
  • Don’t forget that before men started to use mules to till the fields, this was work which had been done by women. Even without the mules, agriculture requires male strength. Men are in charge of all areas of food production now, not just the hunting. Men control the food source. They are therefore basically in charge of who lives and who dies. It used to be the other way around.
  • It is not clear to anyone exactly how it happened, but there are plenty of clues right there. Communities started warring with each other and the status of women fell. Fell so much that women were now owned as chattels, alongside farm animals. Men owned women until very recently, and women are still fighting for equal status. See this Timeline of Women’s Rights for more on that. Most recently the fight to be in charge of one’s own reproduction is one of the main feminist issues.
  • Joseph Campbell has pointed out that this change in human society can be seen in how (and who) humans worship: Campbell divides his study of creation myths into four stages: in the first, the world is created by a goddess alone; in the second, the goddess is allied with a consort and the efforts of the pair lead to creation. Next, a male creates the world using the body of a goddess in some way; and finally, a male god alone creates it. For an example of that evolution take a close look at the Greek myths (some of the best studied mythologies in the world) and you’ll see the evolution from Ge (Earth) to Zeus. At one time Hera was the primary goddess and Zeus becomes powerful only by marrying her. Take a look at Athene — at one point she is born from the head of Zeus. (For some reason it makes more sense to be born from the head of a man than from the vagina of a woman.)

So, was this some kind of retribution? Did men get sick of living in a matriarchy and decide that men were in charge now?

No. First of all, there is no evidence that humankind lived in a matriarchy. There is no evidence that the Mosuo of today are representative of how most of the world ran way back when. Men have about twice the upper body strength of women and women, during pregnancy and childbirth (most of a woman’s life without contraception) are reliant upon men for survival and protection. There is no good reason to think that — goddess worship aside — women were ever hierarchically above men.

SOCIAL CHARTER AND TRANSFORMING MYTHS

Marilyn French makes the distinction between ‘social charter myths’ and ‘transforming myths’.

‘(Social) charter myth’ is a term used to interpret myths which validate or justify power structures.  Any myth that seems to confirm patriarchal or establishment ideologies is probably a “charter myth”.  For example when Virgil arranged events in the Aeneid to validate the Julio-Claudians by directly connecting them to Romulus and Remus.

A ‘transforming myth’ is also known as a ‘shapeshifting myth’.

As French explains, one of these mythic forms has been worse for women than the other:

Social charter myths implicitly ascribe power to women, if only in the past. They can be read as suggesting that the sexes were once equal, or that women once dominated men. Myths transforming or diminishing female figures like Hera elide such suggestions. Instead, they omit the past and transform the character of the female into something venomous, ugly, dark, mysteriously threatening. By erasing any reference to an earlier power or power struggle they make the hostility of these female figures appear unmotivated, a given. Social charter myths at least acknowledge intersexual conflict. Transforming myths do not acknowledge intersexual conflict. Transforming myths do not — thus the evil power of females appears to be biological, natural. Such a procedure penetrates the moral realm and affects an entire society’s view of women.

Marilyn French

Finally, a fourth type of myth, which isn’t really a myth but a reaction to it.

4. THE ANTI-MYTH

What makes a story an ‘anti-myth’? Basically, it’s a subversion.

  • Whereas the heroes of myths have almost superhuman powers, heroes in anti-myths have real human shortcomings. See Northrop Frye.
  • In an anti-myth the delineations between good and bad are blurred. The heroes are morally flawed, if not downright anti-heroes. Anti-heroes do not serve as models for the addressees.
  • Myths tend to take place on roads and rivers, but the anti-myth might have the characters take a journey to nowhere significant, or nowhere particularly different from before, a la Lonesome Dove. (The typical setting of typical dime Western novels was a lush river setting.)
  • Whereas heroes of myths have a self- and public- anagnorisis, heroes of anti-myths don’t really change a la Don Draper of Mad Men. In myths the character arc is huge; in the anti-myth, there may be no real arc. In a ‘mock-myth’, the main character doesn’t learn anything once returning home. (e.g. Ulysses by James Joyce, a take on The Odyssey.)
  • If main characters of myths win because they are essentially ‘good’, the main characters of anti-myths can lose despite their goodness, because shit happens.
  • Whereas myths focus on psychological states of the heroes, anti-myths focus on moral dilemmas.
  • Whereas heroes of myths tend to be separate identities, main characters of anti-myths can be represented by ensemble characters, with each character representing a different aspect of self. (Winnie-the-Pooh, Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants)
  • Whereas myth stories are circular home-away-home structured stories, anti-myths can take on a variety of different forms.
Dangerous Journey by Tove Jansson, 1954
Dangerous Journey by Tove Jansson, 1954

FURTHER READING

  • Young Adult Fiction Uses Myths To Keep Traditional Storytelling Alive from NPR (and also because traditional mythic form is still a successful way to satisfy an audience).
  • Using Maureen Murdoch’s work, and anything else she could find on the topic, Kim Hudson has crafted a theory of the big battle-free mythic form but calls it The Virgin’s Promise. I’m yet to read this one, but Melanie Marttila summarises the main parts of the theory.
  • This week on Woman’s Hour there is an interview with a woman who spends part of the year living in the Kingdom of Women in China. This is the only matriarchal and matrilineal culture in the world. Rather, it’s the only matriarchal culture left in the world. It’s difficult to imagine what such a culture looks like, but we are told to ‘flip everything’. The men are revered, but as studs and heavy lifted. There is a hierarchy but the women in a matriarchy seem to treat their men better than men treat their women in a patriarchy.
  • For more on this Kingdom of Women, look for the Mosuo.
  • The Hero With A Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell
  • From Mythic to Linear: Time in children’s literature by Maria Nikolajeva
Lemon girl young adult novella

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Home » Shakespeare

Islands and Symbolism in Literature

We see islands in the oldest literature we know, from Shakespeare’s The Tempest (Prospero’s Island) to Homer’s The Odyssey (Circe’s Island) to Jason and the Golden Fleece (Lemnos, Doilones, Cius etc).

A well-known island from Greek mythology is Ogygia, considered ‘navel of the sea’. This island is mentioned in Homer’s Odyssey as the home of the nymph Calypso. This isn’t your typical rugged island where inhabitants must fight for survival — Ogygia is more like Calypso’s own English country estate where Calypso is an upper class maiden who spends her days singing while she weaves. The island is her house and she is a little housewife.

Desert islands, along with underground hideouts, are classic locales of romance, seen in stories such as Peter Pan. J.M. Barrie returned to the island setting in a later and lesser known work, Mary Rose. This was based on old Scottish legends Barrie heard as a child, in which mortals are stolen away to fairyland and return days or years later with no memory of where they have been.

Island stories often involve a shipwreck.

Painting by John William Waterhouse, 1916, Miranda from The Tempest
Painting by John William Waterhouse, 1916, Miranda from The Tempest
Howard Pyle 'Marooned'
Howard Pyle ‘Marooned’

Island stories also generally involve fire building. Fires are a sign of culture, dividing humans from other animals (who cannot deliberately make fire).

An island without a fire is a waste of a good island.

Swallows and Amazons, Arthur Ransome, 1932

Although an island setting is often also escapist, characters are not let off the hook when it comes to work. Living on an island means intensive work, in fact: Now you are completely reliant on yourself and you must grow your food from scratch. Characters often take delight in the fruits of their labour. Crusoe really enjoys his bread. This plays into the Protestant idea that hard work brings good things.

Islands in fiction are often depicted as liminal sites. (Liminal = relating to a transitional or initial stage of a process.)

Islands are “fertile spaces for the exploration of the shifting sands of identity”. (Mary Thompson)

Island exploration could be a metaphor for childhood and adolescence itself. Island metaphors have made it into English idiom: ‘feeling unanchored, adrift’, being swept away on ‘the rising tide’, ‘turbulent waters/adolescence’.

Islands envisaged in characters’ imagination before they take their full form in the novel’s reality are a recurrent device in children’s fiction.

On islands in children’s stories, the division between fantasy and reality is frequently erased. The island itself is a portal as well as a destination.

To use Foucault’s terminology, the island is a heterotopia.

Islands are, by their definition, separate from the land-mass termed the ‘mainland’. Codes of behaviour acceptable on an island can be viewed as ‘outside’ the norm. This results in a different kind of community and different attitudes about in-group and out-group individuals.

Characters can often feel very possessive about their own island and hostile to newcomers. This makes the island a good setting for exploring themes about homogenous communities and their attitudes to outsiders. Island settings often explore sameness/difference, power/control, order/chaos.

This is why the island setting is often an arena of imprisonment rather than liberation.

Island as Colonial Eden

Imaginary islands often present colonial fantasy, an isolated Eden ready for exploitation by an almost always male character, where the morality of home can be shuffled off, while those whose home has been violated are not even given the dignity of names. Such is in keeping with the pastoral origins of the island-narrative, the myth that such locations are places outside of time and space, simultaneously remote and yet connected by the ocean to every other point on the globe. 

Island Time: On the Poetics of the Isle, The Millions

Tropical Islands

Be careful about falling into stereotypes, especially when it comes to tropical islands.

The separate, abstract quality of the island is why it is often used to depict a utopia or dystopia. And even more than the jungle, the island is the classic setting for showing the workings of evolution. Tropical islands, with boggy marshes, humidity and jungle lifeforms are often associated in fiction with rogue scientists, carrying out experiments with life.

R.L. Stine did this in How I Got My Shrunken Head. Stine tells us only that the story takes place somewhere in ‘Southeast Asia’, and then the guide has a Spanish name, which makes the setting completely ambiguous.

Lisa A. Koosis also makes use of a tropical island setting in her book about cloning and bringing the dead back to life, Resurrecting Sunshine. Here she includes some details of the surrounding landscape, including native people who have a strong tradition of ghosts and prayer — putting me in mind of a Catholic Hispanic milieu.

LE RÊVE DE JEAN-FRANÇOIS (1943) Jean A. Mercier island
LE RÊVE DE JEAN-FRANÇOIS (1943) Jean A. Mercier
LE RÊVE DE JEAN-FRANÇOIS (1943) Jean A. Mercier
LE RÊVE DE JEAN-FRANÇOIS (1943) Jean A. Mercier

Making The Most of Island Settings

In many ways, the island has the most complex story possibilities of any natural setting. Let’s take a closer look at how to get the most out of the island world in your story. Notice that the best way to express the inherent meaning of this natural setting is through the story structure.

Take time in the beginning to set up the normal society and the characters’ place within it.

Send the characters to an island. This plays into a widely shared wish fulfilment of self-sufficiency (also at play in reality TV shows such as Doomsday Preppers.)

Create a new society based on different rules and values. For a standout example of that see Lord of the Flies. The children are now in charge instead of the adults, in a dystopian carnivalesque tale.

Make the relationship between the characters very different from what it was in the original society. (Plan)

Through conflict, show what works and what doesn’t. (Opponent)

Show characters experimenting with something new when things don’t work. (Revelation or anagnorisis)

Well-known Dystopian Island Settings

  • Lord Of The Flies (not written as children’s fiction — it was never originally written nor marketed for a young audience. )
  • Jurassic Park
  • Cast Away
  • The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
  • Shutter Island
  • The Bridge To Terabithia
  • The Shipping News
  • The Martian (with a planet instead of an actual island)
Illustration for Robinson Crusoe by Louis Rhead, 1900 — the wish fulfilment fantasy of hanging out with your pets all day.

Islands and Gothic Fiction

For more on Gothic fiction see here.

The Island of the Blessed, 1902-03 Akseli Gallen-Kallela, Swedish Finnish painter
The Island of the Blessed, 1902-03 Akseli Gallen-Kallela, Swedish Finnish painter
Mason’s Island, Mystic Connecticut, by Garrett Price (1896-1979) New Yorker cover

Well-known Utopian Island Settings

R.L. Stevenson published this in 1883. This is probably the most popular island book ever.

From the moment young Jim Hawkins first encounters the sinister Blind Pew at the Admiral Benbow Inn until the climactic battle for treasure on a tropic isle, the novel creates scenes and characters that have fired the imaginations of generations of readers. Written by a superb prose stylist, a master of both action and atmosphere, the story centers upon the conflict between good and evil – but in this case a particularly engaging form of evil. It is the villainy of that most ambiguous rogue Long John Silver that sets the tempo of this tale of treachery, greed, and daring. Designed to forever kindle a dream of high romance and distant horizons, Treasure Island is, in the words of G. K. Chesterton, ‘the realization of an ideal, that which is promised in its provocative and beckoning map; a vision not only of white skeletons but also green palm trees and sapphire seas.’ G. S. Fraser terms it ‘an utterly original book’ and goes on to write: ‘There will always be a place for stories like Treasure Island that can keep boys and old men happy.’

On the Island of Earraid, N.C. Wyeth, 1913 for Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped
On the Island of Earraid, N.C. Wyeth, 1913 for Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped
Geronimo Stilton: Treasure of the Emerald Eye. Any children's book set on an island with treasure and maps and pirates is probably a spoof of Treasure Island.
Geronimo Stilton: Treasure of the Emerald Eye. Any children’s book set on an island with treasure and maps and pirates is probably a spoof of Treasure Island.

This is the book which gave English the word ‘utopia’ in the first place. Unfortunately for the author, he was executed by King Henry the eighth.

Utopia (Libellus vere aureus, nec minus salutaris quam festivus, de optimo rei publicae statu deque nova insula Utopia) is a satirical work of fiction and political philosophy by Thomas More (1478–1535) published in 1516 in Latin. The book is a frame narrative primarily depicting a fictional island society as described by the character Raphael Hythloday who lived there some years, who describes and its religious, social and political customs.

Anne Of Green Gables/Anne Of The Island — Prince Edward Island removes Anne completely from her former life, to the point where in the classic story she suffers no PTSD (unlike in the remake, Anne With An E).

Daniel Defoe relates the tale of an English sailor marooned on a desert island for nearly three decades. An ordinary man struggling to survive in extraordinary circumstances, Robinson Crusoe wrestles with fate and the nature of God.

Robinson Crusoe is the most iconic of all island books, and an example of desert island fiction, in which a remote and ‘uncivilised’ island is used as the venue of the story and action. It has a particular attraction because it can be placed right outside the ‘real’ world and may be an image of the ideal, the unspoilt and the primitive. It appeals directly to the sense of adventure and exploratory instinct, and to a certain atavistic nostalgia. This novel from 1719 marked the beginning of this universally popular literary genre. However, there is a good case to be made that this is a dystopian story*.

*According to ethnologist and literary expert Susan Arndt from the University of Bayreuth … Defoe’s novel has not been properly examined. “Actually, you have to ask the question how a system of violence and enslavement could be portrayed so harmlessly,” said Arndt, whose research focuses on racism in English literature.

The leaves were cold and slightly clammy. There was no mistaking them. She had seen their likeness painstakingly sketched in her father’s journal. This was his greatest secret, his treasure and his undoing. The Tree of Lies. Now it was hers, and the journey he had never finished stretched out before her.

When Faith’s father is found dead under mysterious circumstances, she is determined to untangle the truth from the lies. Searching through his belongings for clues, she discovers a strange tree. A tree that feeds off whispered lies and bears fruit that reveals hidden secrets.

But as Faith’s untruths spiral out of control, she discovers that where lies seduce, truths shatter…

Frances Hardinge created a snail under the leaf setting in her award winning children’s novel.

Identical twin sisters Summer and Winter live alone on a remote island, sheltered from a destroyed world. They survive on rations stockpiled by their father and spend their days deep in their mother’s collection of classic literature—until a mysterious stranger upends their carefully constructed reality.

At first, Edward is a welcome distraction. But who is he really, and why has he come? As love blooms and the world stops spinning, the secrets of the girls’ past begin to unravel and escape is the only option.

A sumptuously written novel of love and grief; of sisterly affection and the ultimate sacrifice; of technological progress and climate catastrophe; of an enigmatic bear and a talking whale—The End of the World Is Bigger than Love is unlike anything you’ve read before.

Five On Kirrin Island Again by Enid Blyton
  • The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society
  • Five On A Treasure Island/Five On Kirrin Island Again
  • The Light Between Oceans
  • To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf — a modernist, stream-of-consciousness novel about the Ramsay family. An example of a psychological novel.
  • The Voyage Of The Dawn Treader — by C.S. Lewis, part of the Narnia series.
  • The Old Man And The Sea — by Ernest Hemingway, set in Cuba and the Gulf Stream. A man against nature tale with biblical themes, about a man who tries to catch a fish.
  • Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome — the islands where the children summer are islands in a wider sense; apart from the fact their father is away they are totally shielded from news of the war.

The farm at Holly Howe had all turned into foreign country. They were quite different places now that you came to them by water from an island of your own. They were not at all what they had been when you lived there and saw the island far away over the water. Coming back to them was almost the same thing as exploration. It was like exploring a place that you have seen in a dream, where everything is just where you expect it and yet everything is a surprise.

Swallows and Amazons, Arthur Ransome, 1932

Stories set on islands often feature a map at the beginning of the book. Geography is important.

Swallows and Amazons Map

Stories set on islands often feature significant birds.

At its most metaphorical, the island features a lone or significant tree.

ISLANDS IN PICTURE BOOKS

Ivan Gantschev
Ivan Gantschev

The Island by Armin Greder

The Swiss-Australian writer and illustrator Armin Greder’s picture book The Island (2007) focuses on the arrival of a stranger, who washes up on an unnamed island only to be confronted by the townspeople’s harsh and prejudicial treatment. The illustrations explore this dynamic in a particularly harrowing manner, with Greder’s expressionistic drawings referencing, in one haunting frame, Norwegian artist Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream (1893). The picture book explores fear and hatred of the Other, and collective behaviour in relation to island communities. Perhaps inevitably, there are also potential discussions stemming from this work in relation to migration and the treatment of refugees, and it has been used as a text to facilitate such dialogues in classroom contexts in both Australia and the UK. The theme of prejudice is particularly pervasive in this book, and even individuals who, we might assume, would be figures of decency, for example, the priest and teacher, become complicit in the cruel treatment of this stranger on the island. Not a single islander decides to break rank and come to the aid of the stranger, who is taunted, bullied and, in the final sequence, rejected fully and banished, once again into the ocean.

Ben Screech

Tanglewood by Margaret Wild and Vivienne Goodman

Tanglewood is a tree who lives on an island far away, visited only by the wind. One day a bird shelters from the storm among its branches and a precious bond is formed. But Seagull belongs to the sky and, too soon, must leave.

Note the white space on this first page — the white space itself connotes loneliness.

Tanglewood island

Island Boy by Barbara Cooney (1988)

Barbara Cooney (August 6, 1917 – March 10, 2000) was an American writer and illustrator of 110 children’s books, published over sixty years.

The story is about a pioneer couple who move to an island and populate it with six boys and six girls. This is basically an American Western story — about world building.

The focal character is the baby of the family, Matthais (not to be confused for Matthias). The name apparently means ‘Gift from God’. As the runt of the litter, Matthais is drawn to a lone gull, and manages to tame it somewhat. It seems to be lame, but manages to fly off.

When he grows up, Matthais goes to work at his uncle’s shipyard like all of his older brothers. (The girls are married off.)

Matthais travels the world as a cabin boy, finds a wife called Hannah and brings her back to the island where the story takes a bit of a feminist turn, and Hannah produces three daughters — the youngest of whom ‘can’t sit still inside’ — the designed ‘tomboy’ of the group. Matthais calls her his ‘little wild bird’. (You just know that childhood bird is going to be significant.) The youngest daughter is compared to a bird with her ‘flyaway hair’. When she grows up she even marries a ‘sail maker’ — the closest you can get to a human bird, I guess.

Matthais’ wife dies and Annie sends her grandson back to spend time with the grandfather every weekend. He resists the urge to sell to townsfolk moving in, building houses that they call cottages. The author’s disapproval of this development is clear. “They called themselves rusticators.” The stoic and pious nature of Matthais is underscored when he says to his older daughter, “But our wants are so few now…And this is our home.”

island boy jetty

Despite warning his grandson not to go out in the bad wind, the old man sails to the mainland, gets overturned in a storm, and drowns.

But we see the cycle of life continue when the young Matthias stands under that tree that his grandfather is buried under.

Barbara Cooney wharf dinghy
Barbara Cooney

The Artifacts by Slap Happy Larry (ie. by us)

In our picture book app, The Artifacts, the main character’s loneliness is depicted via island symbolism.

The Artifacts island at sea

A small planet in space does the same thing as an island at sea. In a SF story, space is metaphorically the same as an ocean.

Island in space The Artifacts

ISLANDS IN MIDDLE GRADE NOVELS

The Silent One Joy Cowley cover

The difficulties faced by a deaf boy, who is misunderstood by his village as just lazy, they don’t know what deaf means. And a friend the boy finds in a strange white sea turtle.

The Silent One is written by one of New Zealand’s most loved children’s writers, Joy Cowley. My teacher handed it to me when I was about ten and I still remember it’s about a boy called Jonasi who is deaf. The island setting is a perfect match for the theme of isolation brought about by an inability to fully communicate with others.

In pulp fiction for kids islands are a recurring setting.

The Girl Of Ink And Stars by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

Forbidden to leave her island, Isabella Riosse dreams of the faraway lands her father once mapped.

When her closest friend disappears into the island’s Forgotten Territories, she volunteers to guide the search. As a cartographer’s daughter, she’s equipped with elaborate ink maps and knowledge of the stars, and is eager to navigate the island’s forgotten heart.
But the world beyond the walls is a monster-filled wasteland – and beneath the dry rivers and smoking mountains, a legendary fire demon is stirring from its sleep. Soon, following her map, her heart and an ancient myth, Isabella discovers the true end of her journey: to save the island itself.

The story about a young girl who can’t remember anything from her previous summer after a hurricane.

Twelve-year-old Clara lives on an island that visitors call exotic. But there’s nothing exotic about it to Clara. She loves eating ripe mangos off the ground, running outside in the rain with her Papa during rainy season, and going to her secret hideout with Gaynah–even though lately she’s not acting like a best friend.

But this summer is going to be different for Clara. Everyone is buzzing with excitement over a new girl in the village who is not like other visitors. She is about to make big waves on the island–and give Clara a summer she won’t forget.

The only thing out of the ordinary for Clara is that something happened to her memory that made her forget everything that happened last summer after a hurricane hit. Sometimes things come back to her in drips like a tap that hasn’t been turned off properly. Other times her Mama fills in the blanks…only she knows those aren’t her memories and it is hard feeling like she is not like everybody else.

Beyond The Bright Sea by Lauren Wolk

This story is set on a very small imaginary island within the real-world Elizabeth Islands, near where the author lives. The islands are described as beautiful — a snail under the leaf setting, except when you live there you know that there are social rifts, and one of the islands was used as a leper colony. The same social problems as anywhere else. However, apart from the interpersonal issues, the islands are more utopia than dystopia. There’s an endless supply of food from nature (from the sea, from the garden), and mainland problems like the build-up to war don’t touch the inhabitants.

There are bears and coyotes on the mainland, what Crow calls ‘real wilderness’. People holiday on the islands ostensibly to get out into the wild, but they’re actually protected.

For all the ten years of her life, Hà has only known Saigon: the thrills of its markets, the joy of its traditions, and the warmth of her friends close by. But now the Vietnam War has reached her home. Hà and her family are forced to flee as Saigon falls, and they board a ship headed toward hope. In America, Hà discovers the foreign world of Alabama: the coldness of its strangers, the dullness of its food . . . and the strength of her very own family.

Cat and her brother Chicken have always had a very special bond–Cat is one of the few people who can keep Chicken happy. When he has a “meltdown” she’s the one who scratches his back and reads his favorite story. She’s the one who knows what Chicken needs. Since their mom has had to work double-hard to keep their family afloat after their father passed away, Cat has been the glue holding her family together.

But even the strongest glue sometimes struggles to hold. When a summer trip doesn’t go according to plan, Cat and Chicken end up spending three weeks with grandparents they never knew on Gingerbread Island. For the first time in years, Cat has the opportunity to be a kid again, and the journey she takes shows that even the most broken or strained relationships can be healed if people take the time to walk in one another’s shoes.

Bear Island is a heartfelt picture book about healing after loss by Caldecott Medalist Matthew Cordell.

Louise and her family are sad over the loss of their beloved dog, Charlie. “Life will not be the same,” Louise says, as she visits a little island that Charlie loved.

But on a visit to the island after Charlie’s death, something strange happens: She meets a bear. At first, she’s afraid, but soon she realizes that the bear is sad, too. As Louise visits more often, she realizes that getting over loss takes time. And just when she starts to feel better, it’s time for Bear to bed down for the winter.

Once again, Louise believes that life will not be the same. But sometimes, things can change for the better, and on the first warm day of spring, her family welcomes a new member. Here is a lovely, poignant story about loss and healing that will bring comfort to even the youngest readers.

The breathtaking adventure continues in the sequel to the much-loved Orphans of the Tide.

Orphans Ellie and Seth have crossed an endless ocean in search of freedom and peace.

Arriving on the shores of a colourful tropical island ruled by a mysterious queen, it seems they might just have found the perfect new home.

But there is trouble brewing in paradise and soon Ellie and Seth find themselves caught up in a dangerous struggle for power – and forced to confront terrible truths from their past . . .

Desperate to become a shark caller to avenge the death of her parents, Blue Wing is instead charged with befriending infuriating newcomer Maple. At first they are angry and out of sync with the island and each other. But when the tide breathes the promise of treasure, can they overcome their differences and brave the deadliest shark in the ocean?

CITIES AS ISLANDS

The examples above are examples of literal islands, but a metaphorical island can be something else entirely.

It can be a city.

The skyscrapers of cities are really no more than modern manmade mountains. The streets symbolic of rivers. The gardens symbolic of that ancient image of an earthly paradise first symbolized in the Garden of Eden. And even the city itself, really no more than the symbol of an island surrounded by the vastness of the ocean of nature.

Symbolism of Place
midnight feast lightning
Scene from Midnight Feast. The weather is important to survival on an island, as it is here, in a story set in a city, starring a girl isolated from everything outside her bedroom window.

IMAGINARY ISLANDS

Hy-Brasil was a phantom island off the coast of Ireland, inhabited by large black rabbits and a magician who lived alone in a castle. Almost perpetually shrouded in mist, it is visible for one day every seven years.
The folklore of Scotland tells of a mysterious green island that floats beyond the horizon off the west coast and is home to the goddess Beira, also known as the Cailleach Bheur.

VANISHED ISLANDS

Vanished islands are the stuff of terror […] but also the stuff of fantasy; how many versions of Atlantis, we in the West have continually asked ourselves, will sink beneath the waves, and what kinds of creature will stalk through the destroyed columns, the fallen masonry? Well, perhaps in particular 9again in fantasy) those creatures who appear equally at home on land and in water, the totally Other as represented by the crab and the octopus, which returns us in part to the cephalopod or at least to a creature defined by app[endages, limbs which are inconsistent with the human or even the mammalian world.

Weird or What? The Nautical and the Hauntological by David Punter, Fantastika Journal Vol 1, Issue 2, December 2017

RELATED LINKS

L.M.Montgomery grew up in Prince Edward Island, a real place of “politics and potatoes.” But it’s her fictional island, a richly textured imaginative landscape that has captivated a world of readers since 1908, when Anne of Green Gables became the first of Montgomery’s long string of bestsellers.

Elizabeth Waterston uses the term “magic” to suggest that peculiar, indefinable combination of attributes that unpredictably results in creative genius. Montgomery’s intelligence, her drive, and her sense of humour are essential components of this success. Waterston also features what Montgomery called her “dream life,” a “strange inner life of fancy which had always existed side by side with my outer life.” This special ability to look beyond the veil, to access vibrant inner vistas, produced deceptively layered fictions out of a life that saw not just its share of both fame and ill fortune, but also what Waterston calls “dark passions.”

Magic Island explores the world of L.M. Montgomery in a way never done before. Each chapter of Magic Island discusses a different Montgomery book, following their progression chronologically. Waterston draws parallels between Montgomery’s internal “island,” her personal life, her professional career, and the characters in her novels. Designed to be read alongside the new biography of Montgomery by Mary Rubio, this is the first book to reinterpret Montgomery’s writing in light of important new information about her life. A must-read for any Montgomery fan, Magic Island offers a fresh and insightful look at the world of L.M. Montgomery and the “magic” of artistic creation.

Nobody can leave an island. An island is a cosmos in a nutshell, where the stars slumber in the grass beneath the snow. But occasionally someone tries . . .

Ingrid Barrøy is born on an island that bears her name – a holdfast for a single family, their livestock, their crops, their hopes and dreams.

Her father dreams of building a quay that will connect them to the mainland, but closer ties to the wider world come at a price. Her mother has her own dreams – more children, a smaller island, a different life – and there is one question Ingrid must never ask her.

Island life is hard, a living scratched from the dirt or trawled from the sea, so when Ingrid comes of age, she is sent to the mainland to work for one of the wealthy families on the coast.

But Norway too is waking up to a wider world, a modern world that is capricious and can be cruel. Tragedy strikes, and Ingrid must fight to protect the home she thought she had left behind.(less)

Lemon girl young adult novella

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