A Glossary of Zombie Words

Fight The Dead Fear The Living image from the zombie series The Walking Dead
1200sEyrbyggja Saga’ (‘Story of the People of Eyrr’) was written. 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, and 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.
1697The 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.
1726The 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.
1819Robert 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.
1838The word zombie first appeared in print in an American newspaper in a reprinted short story called “The Unknown Painter” in 1838.
1928The word zombie became mainstream in English after W. B. Seabrook published The Magic Island.
28 Days LaterDanny 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.
Astral zombiesAstral zombies are individuals who still walk among the living but have either sold their souls or had them stolen by a houngan. Astral zombies derive from Haitian folklore. But as you can probaly see, they also share similarities with Deal With The Devil stories. Young adult novel The Boy Who Couldn’t Die by William Sleator (2004) is an astral zombie story.
AutomatonSimilar to zombies in that they have no free will, but unlike zombies they didn’t start from a living being.
ApocalypseThere are many references in the Bible about the resurrection of saints and sinners in the end times. Zombies are thereby associated with apocalypse. Why We’re Obsessed With The Zombie Apocalypse from Live Science
BokorMany people who follow the voodoo religion today believe zombies are myths, but some believe zombies are people revived by a voodoo practitioner known as a bokor.
CannibalA cannibal eats other humans. Throughout human history, cannibalism has sometimes been acceptable practice, involving ceremonial consumption of flesh from diseased relatives or, more often, from captives of war.   Zombies are commonly cannibals and have a craving for human flesh.
BrainsThese days, zombies are commonly thought to eat brains. A lot of our modern conception of what zombies are like comes from George Romero’s film franchise, but Romero himself did not create zombies who ate brains (they ate living flesh in general).   The idea that zombies eat brains may come from an episode of The Simpsons Dial Z For Zombies. This is a spoof of Return of the Living Dead. A generation of kids saw this episode before they were old enough to see a real zombie film.
Comics Code AuthorityIn the 1930s and 1940s plenty of zombie tales appeared in pulp magazines like Weird Tales and Strange Tales.   In the 1950s, zombie tales alarmed child development experts. In America, their activism led to the formation of the Comics Code Authority. For the two decades after 1953, this authority prohibited ‘scenes dealing with, or instruments associated with walking dead, torture vampirism, ghouls, cannibalism, and werewolfism’ and this put some horror comics out of business. However, some comic publishers refused to abide by the rules and zombie stories continued to find an audience.
CryptA crypt is a stone chamber beneath the floor of a church or other building. It typically contains coffins, sarcophagi (coffins) or religious relics.
DecayZombie bodies are often decaying. This emphasises the horror of death itself.
DreadDread is anticipatory anxiety. The fear of encroaching zombies is as bad as actually facing them head on, if not worse. Hence, they often walk slowly, allowing more time for audience (and character) dread.
DraugarMalevolent corpses from the Norse sagas. These creatures take the offensive by attacking and eating anyone who invades their burial barrows. The wonderful gothic subject matter of these sagas became popular outside Scandinavia in the second half of the 1700s. Draug Asuidus and Thorolf Baegifot are examples.
Exhumeto dig out (something buried, especially a corpse) from the ground
EzekielThere aren’t exactly any zombies in the Bible, but there are many references to bodies being reanimated or resurrected. The book of Ezekiel describes a vision where Ezekiel is dropped in a boneyard and prophesies to the bones. The bones start to shake and become covered with muscle and flesh until they’re reanimated yet “there was no breath in them.”
Féile na MarbhIrish Feast of the Dead. On this night, spirits of the departed rise up, seeking the warmth of the fireside and communion with their living kind. Irish families are supposed to light a candle and leave it in the window, or leave an empty chair by the fire to guide wandering wraiths back home, where the wraiths will receive their blessing for the coming year.
Flat characterZombies in stories will always be flat characters because of their lack of free will. Their desires are basic (not tiered), they can’t make plans and they are indistinguishable from one another, or from any number of other horror monster creations which simply won’t quit. They don’t understand the wretchedness of their condition.
FrankensteinFrankenstein’s monster is a bit like a zombie because he has no free will but he is not made from a reanimated human or animal and therefore does not qualify as a zombie.
Free willTo qualify as a zombie, a creature must have no free will. Mummies and vampires are also renanimated corpses but are not zombies because they have free will. Zombies must be completely subordinate to the will of someone else or to some monomaniacal drive. The drive might be for human flesh, violence, revenge or perhaps resistance of the tyranny of entropy itself. Zombies are therefore a parody of slavery. (The other critieria is that a zombie must be reanimated from a human or animal.)
Golemin Jewish folklore, a golem is an image (typically made from clay or mud) brought to life by magic. Golem in the Bible and in Talmudic literature refers to an embryonic or incomplete substance. Golems are not zombies but instead corporeal beings created from other forms of matter. Zombies have to come from humans or animals to qualify as zombies.
GothicModern zombie stories are commonly set in the 1700s especially if they’re comic e.g. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. This was the century that invented the gothic novel. We think of Enlightenment and Regency England as a time of rigid, stable and elaborate social codes. Whether this is true or not, this era makes a good setting, ripe for disruption. Also, characters in powdered wigs contrast comically with decayed bodies wearing them.   I Walked with a Zombie (1943) owes a lot to Gothic stories from the 1800s, and is very loosely based on Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bornte. The story is set in the Caribbean. Also typically, the dark-skinned natives use voodoo for good (improved health and well-being) but the whites appropriate native practices for their own evil ends.
GrendelGrendel is a character in the poem Beowulf. HE and his mother exhibit some qualities of the modern zombie — they can’t speak, eat human flesh and just keep coming after the Danes for no reason. They are also strangely human. Metaphorically, they represent the Danes’ failings: pillaging vengeance and pride.
Grotesquecomically or repulsively ugly or distorted
Haitian RevolutionImportant to understand: In the late 1700s, enslaved Haitians successfully threw off their oppressors. There was a massive bloody struggle. The number of British and French soldiers was far higher but slaves still managed a revolution.   It was two decades after this revolution that the word ‘zombie’ first appeared in English. In 1819 a poet called Robert Southey used it as a metaphor for imperialism in the Americas, meaning that colonised people had been robbed of their free will.
HamletShakespeare may have made reference to zombies in Hamlet:  
A mote it is to trouble the mind’s eye.
In the most high and palmy state of Rome
A little ere the mightiest Julius fell,
The graves stood tenantless and the sheeted dead
Did squeak and gibber in the Roman streets
HounganZombies have Haitian roots. A houngan is a type of voodoo priest. If you want to take revenge on someone, you can pay this houngan to give your victim a deadly neurotoxin out of a pufferfish. This toxin convincingly simulates death. The victim’s family thinks they’re dead and buries them. However, the houngan digs them back up and revives them, sort of. This newly minted ‘zombie’ is kept ‘in thrall’ and used as a slave. The zombie is not properly fed – they must be kept in a malnourished state. In fact, feeding zombies salt or meat may be enough to rouse them from their stupor. At this point they’ll either kill their master, kill themselves or go running back to their grave. When the houngan dies, the zombie person is meant to be free. But sometimes that just means jumping to their death.
Italian zombie filmZombie (1979) by Lucio Fulci is a typical example of the Italian zombie film – a category in its own right. Similar to serial killers in American slasher films, Italian zombie films are shot from the heterosexual male gaze, and the audience is expected to become complicit in feasting upon naked women, or preying on couples having sex. Laura Mulvey has said that the image of a naked young woman often juxtaposes against an image of a disgusting, decaying zombie. In the Italian zombie films this takes on a more literal layer – the zombie is shown to eat the naked woman’s body. These are women who receive abuse from both humans and zombies. The women exist to absorb violence.
Lunacythe state of being a lunatic; insanity (not in technical use). The word comes from ‘moonstruck’. It used to be thought that the moon causes madness.
MacabreThis word describes something disturbing because of its connection with death.
Male gazeIn early 20th century zombie films, time and again villains learn that to possess the woman’s mindless body is unsatisfying. (A guy called Dendle said that.) White Zombie is a classic example, and so is Plague.
Malevolenthaving or showing a wish to do evil to others. This is the zombie’s only desire.
Maraudto go about in search of things to steal or people to attack.
Marbh bheoIrish night walkers
Memento MoriThe zombie is quite literally a memento mori, and serves to remind us that if we think we can cheat death, we are only fooling ourselves.
Night of the Living Dead
MisogynyZombie stories are typically about keeping women in traditional subordinate position.   Does The Walking Dead Still Have A Woman Problem? (Season 3 update from Pajiba) See also: Walking Dead Writers — Don’t Ruin Carol, from Persephone Magazine. See also Thoughts On Andrea from My Friend Amy.
MummyMummies share the shambling gait of the zombie but are generally covered in bandages. Generally mummies aren’t considered zombies because they not entirely without their own will, or completely controlled by one basic drive.
Night of the Living DeadNight of the Living Dead by Romero (1968) is a watershed zombie film series. Romero took various aspects of earlier zombies and crystalised them into an iconic creature we recognise today — the slow, inarticulate, shambling, undead thing motivated only by a desire to eat human flesh. They have no master and are horribly persistent.   George Romero’s zombies are created by a vague technology run amok. We are never told what brings the recently dead back to life, but it’s thought to be radiation leaking to earth from a satellite. This was a typically Cold War fear, reminiscent of a whole lot of 1950s films in which radiation causes men to shrink and women to grow massive. In this film there is an indistinct boundary between monster and victim, and the audience questions how monsters are essentially different from humans. (Maybe not so different after all.)
OgreUnlike giants (more generally), ogres have a massive appetite. Zombies and ogres are therefore related.
OutcastOn the island of Haiti, it’s not unheard of for family members to actually see their dead alive, walking in a state of zombification. But no one wants to reclaim them. They are seen as irredeemably unclean and are now outcasts forever. They’re not figures of terror, though. They’re not capable of harming anyone. Instead, they are a creature hovering between life and death – it has no will to kill, or any will at all – and is simply a scary symbol of human bondage.
OutbreakIn stories, zombies often come about due to some sort of outbreak.   Robert Kirkman, creator of the immensely popular Walking Dead series, has said he will never reveal how the original zombie outbreak started or how the zombies infect through biting because that detail is “unimportant” to the story.
PowdersBokors have a tradition of using herbs, shells, fish, animal parts, bones and other objects to create concoctions including “zombie powders,” which contain tetrodotoxin, a deadly neurotoxin found in pufferfish and some other marine species.
RacismWhite film makers of the 20th century tended to appropriate from other cultures and centre white people and white people’s fears. The white male nature of zombie stories itself is a zombie that just won’t die.
The Walking Dead Has Become A White Patriarchy, so I have been going elsewhere for my zombie stories.
ReanimationZombies have two basic criteria: It must be the reanimated corpse or possessed living body of one person (or animal). (The other is it must have no free will.)
Ring of Salt an enchanted circle of protection to keep the bad out — a kind of magic circle
Robert SoutheyIn the early 1800s poet Robert Southey used the term ‘zombie’ as a metaphor for someone who has no will. This is how we tend to use zombie today.
Samhainn Irish culture, Samhain is a major Druidic festival marking the boundary between the living and the spirit world. This is the last festival of the harvest year, so pagan Ireland decreed that fruit and nuts (especially apples) would be eaten on the night of Samhain.
The Serpent and the RainbowA zombie craze was sparked in the 1980s after Harvard scientist Wade Davis traveled to Haiti to investigate two documented cases of zombies and wrote about his experience with vodou in “The Serpent and the Rainbow,” which inspired the 1988 film. Variety
SlavesIn a Haitian community Zombies make excellent slaves because their memory and intellect is disabled by the toxin but the lower brain functions still work, allowing the body to move. Obviously, keeping someone as a zombie slave requires complicity from an entire community. Generally, no one in the community likes the victim so they don’t bother checking they’re actually properly dead before burying them. (Means of checking might include cutting off their head or driving a dagger through the heart.) Some people might want to intervene, but they’re afraid the same thing will happen to them.
SoulZombies don’t have souls, and this distinguishes them from humans
SpiritsZombies appeared in literature as far back as 1697 and were described as spirits or ghosts, not cannibalistic fiends.
Survival of the FittestThis is a Darwinian term meaning harsh conditions weed out weaker members of a species. Survival of the Fittest a common theme among zombie narratives. Zombie narratives tend to have a resurgence after a big, scary world event such as the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War 2.
SymbolThe zombie is a malleable symbol. Storytellers can use zombies as they see fit. Zombies have been used to represent the horrors of slavery, white xenophobia, Cold War angst, the fear of death, apprehensions about consumer culture.   Zombie films are quite often about the specific anxieties of white men, and the perceived threat to the white male ability to control the sexuality of white women. Zombies Are All About The Heteronormative Power Struggle from Science 2.0 When zombies were about slavery, stories were concerned about how slavery transplanted to the USA something malignant, but for the masters more than the slaves. These stories were for white audiences terrified of voodoo. The House In The Magnolias (1932) and Song of the Slaves (1940) are two examples of that.
TetrodotoxinUsed carefully at sub-lethal doses, the tetrodotoxin combination may cause zombie-like symptoms such as difficulty walking, mental confusion and respiratory problems.
High doses of tetrodotoxin can lead to paralysis and coma. This could cause someone to appear dead and be buried alive – then later revived.
UndeadThe Ancient Greeks may have been the first civilisation terrorised by a fear of the undead. Archaeologists have unearthed many ancient graves which contained skeletons pinned down by rocks and other heavy objects, assumedly to prevent the dead bodies from reanimating.
VirusZombie outbreaks can be caused by a virus, which makes the story an allegory for our human fear of viruses. The Bestial Virus: The Infectious Origins of Werewolves, Zombies & Vampires from Discover Magazine
VoodooVoodoo (sometimes spelled vodou or vodun) is a religion based in West Africa and practiced throughout Haiti and the Caribbean, Brazil, the American South and other places with an African heritage.

New Orleans voodoo and American hoodoo derive from Haitian vodou. Professor Cosentino explains there’s really not much evil to these sacred religions:

“The Haitian revolution … actually scared the s–t out of America because it was the first and only successful national slave revolution in world history. And of course, what America saw was that the vast slave population in the United States could do this too and so there was the immediate beginning of this degradation of Haiti and of Haiti’s religion, which is vodou.” — Variety
Walking CorpseIn earlier English, corpse referred simply to ‘the body’. Only later did it refer to ‘the dead body’. Romeo’s zombies walk slowly, but Danny Boyle’s Zombies in 28 Days Later are really fast.
WeaknessIn any good zombie story, the zombies represent the weakness of a society or community of people they come after. Zombie films are therefore allegories. In Night of the Living Dead, the zombies tape into anxieties of the late 1960s — the dehumanising violence of the Vietnam War, uneasy reactions to the Civil Rights movement and a human tendency to become as monstrous as any monster who attacks us. With each subsequent film, the allegory gets updated. The next film is about brain-dead consumerism and after that the sexism turns into feminism.
White ZombieThe first zombie film. Frankenstein and Dracula also appeared on film at this time (1932).   In early zombie films, villains learn that to possess a woman’s mindless body is unsatisfying. White Zombie started that.
W. B. SeabrookThe word zombie was used intermittently throughout the 1800s but wasn’t a well-known word until 1929, when W. B. Seabrook published a travelogue called The Magic Island. Seabrook was an American journalist and adventurer who traveled to Haiti and lived there with his family. (Um, he was also a cannibal.) Seabrook collected stories about zombies and voodoo and he even thought he saw a dead man resurrected once. Readers in the West were intrigued by these stories, especially Protestant readers, perhaps, because free will is held very dear to the Protestant’s heart – thought to be humanity’s main virtue.
ZeitgeistIn 28 Days Later, the virus called ‘rage’ is the Zeitgeist of the modern era, where everything is so impersonalised and moves so rapidly that everyone is consumed by fury and can do nothing about it.
ZombieAn Enlightenment zombie meant someone who has no free will, and could refer to a high-level administator.   Zombie can now mean that, but also a supernatural creature who has been renanimated from the dead and walks (or runs) around trying to eat the living, or infect them with a virus. More recently, zombie describes a computer that’s been taken over by a remote host. Zombies are generally stupid but recent zombies are able to learn quickly, sort of like artificial intelligence. This says something about our collective fear of computers taking over. For years zombi was spelt without an ‘e’ at the end.
Zombie litA whole literary subgenre featuring zombies

FURTHER READING

I really like Walking Dead, in spite of its many problems. But the truth is, thinking about the show is often better than watching the show.

Blue Milk

The Zombie Manifesto: Marx and The Walking Dead from TSP

20 Essential Zombie Reads, Now with Superheroes! from Tor

Then there’s zombie cake pops and A Zombie door stopper and Baby’s First Book Of Zombies. I want these.

World War Z Concept Art Shows Off the Zombie Designs from Shock Til You Drop

There’s something strangely zombie-like about these creepy anatomical kitchen cooking tools.

Gothic Horror And Children’s Books

Gothic horror is also known as gothic fiction and refers to a type of story with a genre blend of horror, death and romance. 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.

When romance is the main focus it’s called gothic romance. Dark paranormal romance is the new gothic romance and is a popular genre in young adult literature.

See also: What’s behind the wide appeal of all the horrible, brooding YA boyfriends?

A Short History Of Gothic Horror

gothic horror

English author Horace Walpole is thought to have kicked the gothic genre off, with his 1764 novel The Castle of Otranto, subtitled (in its second edition) “A Gothic Story.” This story originated in England in the second half of the 18th century. But it took until the late 1790s for “Gothic” to take on some of the meanings we most frequently associate with it today: Gothic as synonym for grotesque, ghastly and violently superhuman. 

The Gothic continued with much success in the 19th century, with the popularity of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and the works of Edgar Allan Poe. Another well-known novel in this genre, dating from the late Victorian era, is Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

The height of the Gothic period closely aligns with Romanticism (1764-1840).

The word “Gothic” also refers to the (pseudo)-medieval buildings, emulating Gothic architecture, in which many of these stories take place.

When the Gothic was emerging as an important genre in its own right, medical science was just starting to replace the mystery of the female body with scientific facts. Hysteria was the dominant response to sexual confusion and abuse. Encoded in law, marriage meant a loss of power and autonomous identity for women. Pregnancy and childbirth were downright dangerous, messy and awful. Today things are a bit different: We understand (basically) how the body works. We know that hysteria is an unhelpful, outdated word for what is actually a collection of disparate conditions. Many women are brought up to believe we can have it all (itself a kind of fairytale). But we still live in a patriarchal world. Classic Gothic ideas are still recognisable to modern readers.

Gothic motifs change rapidly and consistently, both in form and in significance. It all depends on what is feared and valued at any given time. The Gothic genre is especially responsive to historical moment and cultural location. Patricia Murphy has said that “a truism of critical commentary holds that the gothic emerges in literature during times of cultural anxiety.” (Zombie stories are another example of this.)

These days, readers are unwilling to unilaterally assign blame to one character in a Manichean view of human nature. Even in children’s literature, with perhaps a slightly higher tolerance for ‘black and white’ morality, the opponent web is more complex than ever. Even if a story contains a Minotaur opponent (pure bad), there will be other more nuanced opponents. These characters are not inherently evil, but behave badly as a result of their environment. When writers create fictional characters, they usually hint at how they became that way, by giving them a ‘psychic wound‘ (sometimes called ‘fatal flaw’ or ‘ghost’).

The ‘innocent’ victims, too, are afforded some dignity in that they are assumed to have some part in their own predicament. In other words, modern victims have a psychological and moral shortcoming, whereas earlier victims were more ‘victim-y’ and more boring as heroes, to be fair. Though it may seem counterintuitive, characters with moral shortcomings are more likeable.

Modern gothic stories don’t seek to expel evil completely, but rather to accommodate it and give it its own space. Modern gothic stories are about finding some sort of middle ground.

Everyday Usage of The Word ‘Gothic’

Modern readers and critics have begun to think of “Gothic literature” as any story that uses an elaborate, opulent setting, combined with supernatural or super-evil forces against an innocent main character. We also associate Gothic with Goths, who are pale, wear a lot of black, and reject mainstream culture as default.

See my post: What’s a Goth?

Natalie Wynn succinctly describes the sensibility of gothic as ‘ruined opulence’, and speculates we may soon see the gothic in abandoned shopping malls.

Raison d’être Of Gothic Stories

Classically Gothic settings (falsely) reassure us that ‘monsters’ are inhuman, and can be recognised quite easily. In reality, monsters are not so easily recognised:

You don’t find [monsters] in gothic dungeons or humid forests. You find them at the mall, at the school, in the town or city with the rest of us. But how do you find them before they victimize someone? With animals, it depends on perspective: The kitten is a monster to the bird, and the bird is a monster to the worm. With man, it is likewise a matter of perspective, but more complicated, because the rapist might first be the charming stranger, the assassin first the admiring fan. The human predator, unlike the others, does not wear a costume so different from ours that he can always be recognised by the naked eye.

Gavin de Becker, The Gift Of Fear

The effect of Gothic fiction feeds on a pleasing sort of terror, an extension of Romantic literary pleasures that were relatively new in the 19th century. The word for this is ‘horripilation’.

The Gothic releases forces which are usually repressed. Anarchy is loosed and contained at the same time. In Gothic, we have the return of whatever’s been repressed. Our enjoyment is visceral. We enjoy the cracking of bone and the snapping of backs and the spilling of blood. The appeal has something to do with lack of restraint, transgression, the overturning of normalcy. Taboos are broken. In this respect, the Gothic is related to the carnivalesque.

The Gothic is also a form known to examine our fear of desire.

Common Features Of Gothic Stories

There is lots of parody within the gothic genre, including parodies of parodies. Authors send up other work by writing a supernatural gothic romance. Ironically, later audiences assume they were meant to take these old parodies seriously, and subsequent authors make parodies of that ‘original’ parody.

The Gothic is basically ‘paranoid‘. But only if you immerse yourself too much in it, succumbing to its fears. Modern mass media itself might be accused of being Gothic, with its emphasis on the macabre.

The Gothic is also often described as ‘sublime‘, which you may realise means something slightly different when it comes to literature. In everyday English, sublime might mean ‘really wonderful’ but in literature it refers to work which provokes terror and pain in the audience. Terror and pain are the two emotions considered most powerful. Unlike the terror and pain of the real world, however, when experienced via story the audience enjoys it very much. The sublime is a feature of romantic work.

Uncanny‘ is another word you’ll hear in reference to the Gothic. The uncanny is a psychological concept which refers to something that is strangely familiar, rather than simply mysterious. The emotions evoked in a work of Gothic fiction will be familiar to you. You may not have seen an actual ghost, but you will have experienced horripilation — that feeling of hair standing on end.

Typical Character Archetypes

Here is the basic cast of characters for those original Gothic stories:

Virginal maiden

Young, beautiful, pure, innocent, kind, virtuous and sensitive. These heroines tend to be orphaned, abandoned, or somehow severed from the world, without guardianship. Usually starts out with a mysterious past and it is later revealed that she is the daughter of an aristocratic or noble family. Modern stories such as Harry Potter borrow from the Gothic. We don’t think of the Grimm fairytales as Gothic, but a lot of them follow this exact plot.

Older, foolish woman

Or the Madwoman, or the Old Wife. Interestingly, British culture consistently associated ghosts and children with the oral tradition in storytelling. These stories were delivered by a greatly misunderstood figure: The Old Wife. The Old Wife was the woman in your community who dished out advice and help to do with childbirth, herbal remedies and so on. She lost a lot of respect, as well as her place in her community, with the emergence of modern day science.

This coincided with a growing distaste for people who believed in ghosts. Shakespeare himself poked fun at the Old Wife who believed in ghosts. You can see him doing that in Macbeth, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest. Women, ghost stories and oral stories were connected. When one lost status, so did the others. Even in the gothic stories themselves, the Old Wife character (who told these very tales) was made fun of. 

Hero

Like the virginal maidens, the hero was innocent, plunged into a weird situation. Gothic stories are melodramatic stories, and in classic melodrama, the main character reacts to crises. The classic hero drives the action, deliberately setting out into the world. In those stories there’s no pull factor, but rather a push factor: to escape the feminine realm of mother and home.

Tyrant/villain

With the exception of a few novels, such as Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla (1872), most Gothic villains are powerful males who prey on young, virginal women. This dynamic creates tension and appeals deeply to the reader’s pathos.

Even today, crime fiction focuses heavily on victims which are young, attractive, female (and white). We seem more interested in their deaths than in deaths of other demographics.

The modern antihero (or hero-villain if you prefer) comes from the Gothic tradition. However, in gothic stories morality is clear. Good is good, evil is evil, even if it is attractive. Evil is not simply misunderstood, it is inherent. Evil cannot be assimilated into everyday society and must be expelled. That’s not how modern stories about anti-heroes typically play out. Viewers were encouraged to understand Walter White and Tony Soprano. Thinking individuals are much more yin-yang about people these days. Less nature, more nurture — even if you’re a nature over nurture sort of person, you probably admit that Tony Soprano’s life would have panned out differently had he not grown up in the mafia.

Bandits/ruffians

These opponents add interesting complexity to the web of opposition. They are less powerful than the main tyrant/villain.

Clergy

Clergy in Gothic stories are always weak, usually evil.

In Medieval times, Monks often were pretty evil. They were rich and pampered. They sequestered funds for themselves (while amazingly often managing to bankrupt the abbey by doing stupid things with money), and sometimes even harboured criminals. They were supposed to live simple lives, but found ways around every rule, including the invention of a sort of sign language to get around the rule of no communication over mealtimes. It’s easy to see how the clergy became figures of fun. By early modern times, people had learned to put far more faith in nuns, more likely to behave properly according to the church.

Gothic Stories And Madness

American Gothic in particular tends to deal with a “madness” in one or more of the characters. An early example is the novel Edgar Huntly or Memoirs of a Sleepwalker by Charles Brockden Brown. Two characters slowly become more and more deranged.

  • Sunset Boulevard — Since Boulevard’s original film release, the role has become famous for its tragic, hysterical femaleness, and is for that reason vulnerable to one-dimensional renderings of empty, and even harmful, stereotype. Sunset Boulevard subtextually warns that a woman’s ambition, creativity, and desire for sexual fulfilment are the causes of unhappiness and undoing.
  • Fatal Attraction — While Norma of Sunset Boulevard is an artist, the madwoman of Fatal Attraction is a professional.
  • Black Swan
  • Flowers In The Attic by Virginia Andrews
  • Apocalypse Now
  • The Shining by Stephen King — Isolation is used as a vehicle for madness. (Used again more recently in Shut In.) The main character is Jack Torrence, played by Jack Nicholson in Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation. With his family he looks after an empty hotel one winter, partly to concentrate on writing his novel. But he is haunted by visions and descends into murderous madness.
  • Carrie by Stephen King, which promotes anxiety and thereby encourages conformity. A good example of ‘suburban Gothic’, making use of Gothic features such as witch-hunting.
  • Misery by Stephen King
  • The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, who was herself diagnosed with hysteria and commanded never to touch pencil and paper again.
  • Shut In — Naomi Watts plays a widowed child psychologist who lives in isolation in rural New England with her son, who is comatose and bedridden as a result of an automobile accident. Snowed in and withdrawn from the outside world, Watts’ character descends into a desperate existence. It soon becomes difficult for her to distinguish the phantasms of her imagination from the reality of the creepy goings-on in her apparently haunted house.
Joseph Mugnaini, the eerie Modern Gothic of the Rochester House in Los Angeles by Ray Bradbury 1952
Joseph Mugnaini, the eerie Modern Gothic of the Rochester House in Los Angeles by Ray Bradbury 1952

As we learned from Misery, the story of the woman who holds a man captive can never be a glamorous one. Over the course of Stephen King’s 1987 novel, we’re led to understand that Annie’s insanity—her insecurity, her obsession—is inextricable from that which makes her unlovable, a given long before she ever stumbles across the luckless object of her affections, her favourite writer, in the wreckage of his car. Dowdy and deranged, Annie forces him to rewrite his final novel according to her whims, crooning, “I’m your biggest fan,” over his tortured body.

And indeed, what could be beautiful or romantic about a woman with the violent upper hand, the muse forcing herself on the artist—never mind that the gendered inverse (see: Scheherazade’s dilemma) is the stuff of literature? A story about woman holding a man against his will, especially if she seeks to exploit his creative labor…Well, that’s just crazy. And for women, crazy, as we all know, is not a Good Look.

from Davey Davis writing at The Millions

Davis is writing about the gendered nature of craziness:

  • Humanity is not something the crazy woman is typically afforded
  • This ‘madwoman archetype’, or the idea that a woman who desires (what she doesn’t have; what she shouldn’t want; what is inconvenient or dangerous for male authority) must be institutionalised, silenced, or worse — is deep in the bedrock of our culture.
  • Even now, the two attributes of women most feared (by the dominant culture and by women ourselves) are ugliness and craziness. Infertility is linked to ugliness, which is linked to old age. Old age is linked to death, the most scary thing of all.

Settings Of Gothic Horror

The setting of the Gothic novel is a character in itself. The setting not only evokes the atmosphere of horror and dread, but also portrays the deterioration of its world. The decaying, ruined scenery implies that at one time there was a thriving world. At one time the abbey, castle, or landscape was something treasured and appreciated. Now, all that lasts is the decaying shell of a once thriving dwelling.

The term “Gothic” originates with the ornate architecture created by Germanic tribes called the Goths. It was then later expanded to include most of the medieval style of architecture. The ornate and intricate style of this kind of architecture proved to be the ideal backdrop for both the physical and the psychological settings in a new literary style, one which concerned itself with elaborate tales of mystery, suspense, and superstition.

ThoughtCo

The building might be:

  • a castle
  • an abbey
  • a monastery
  • crumbling big strugglements
  • ruined dwellings
  • a prison
  • an abandoned hospital
  • or some other, usually religious, edifice

This building will have secrets of its own, and can therefore almost be considered a character in its own right (with psychological/moral needs and desires). 

Other settings may include caves or the wilderness.

scary house
The scary house on the cover of Spirit Hunters makes use of a tilt angle to increase the feeling that not all is right with this world.
Plot Structure Of A Straight-up Gothic Story

WEAKNESS: A female character is an innocent, unwitting victim with no particular moral shortcoming but she is weak in general owing to her position/station in life.

DESIRE: She (perhaps subconsciously) wants to be saved from her ordinary life. This is the same wish-fulfilment as modern dark, paranormal romances, and is easy to mock until you understand that this desire is borne of a need to escape, because adolescence is terrifying for a girl whose body is suddenly attracting the attention of much larger, stronger men, some of whom will not leave her alone.

OPPONENT: She is the victim of some sort of external malevolence.

ALLY: A rescuer arrives from outside.

BIG STRUGGLE: There is a climactic encounter between the forces of evil and the forces of good.

NEW SITUATION: The evil is now expelled completely.

Symbol Web Of Gothic Horror

Night journeys are a common element seen throughout Gothic literature. They can occur in almost any setting, but in American literature are more commonly seen in the wilderness, forest or any other area that is devoid of people.

Evil characters are also seen in Gothic literature and especially American Gothic. Depending on the time period that the work is written about, the evil characters could be characters like Native Americans, trappers, gold miners etc.

Omens — or portents, visions, etc. — often foreshadow events to come. They can take many forms, such as dreams.

Miraculous survivals are elements within American Gothic literature in which a character or characters will somehow manage to survive some feat that should have led to their demise.

An element of fear is another characteristic of American Gothic literature. This is typically connected to the unknown and is generally seen throughout the course of the entire novel. This can also be connected to the feeling of despair that characters within the novel are overcome by. This element can lead characters to commit heinous crimes. In the case of Brown’s character Edgar Huntly, he experiences this element when he contemplates eating himself, eats an uncooked panther, and drinks his own sweat.

Psychological overlay is an element that is connected to how characters within an American Gothic novel are affected by things like the night and their surroundings. An example of this would be if a character was in a maze-like area and a connection was made to the maze that their minds represented.

Revelation & Gothic’s Relationship To Mystery

Revelation is the basis of much plotted fiction, especially any story containing a mystery—and that includes far more than detective or mystery fiction. Much gothic fiction is founded on a central mystery. When a story’s main dynamic is to have the protagonist find out something, or realize something that’s been true for some time, the story’s narrative drive comes from the finding out, not in the discovered fact itself. More similar to a ‘whydunnit’ mystery than a ‘whodunnit’, in other words.

Often the framework of this kind of mystery/revelation story will be very simple: a quest or journey which involves meeting people, getting into one situation after another, each demonstrating the story’s central theme but otherwise unrelated to the others, each supplying some new information on the story’s central mystery.

The Woman In The Attic Trope

The Mad Woman In The Attic is now a trope, though this real life story flips it — a woman kept her husband in the attic and made him live like a bat. 

Jane Eyre —Mr. Edward Rochester keeps his violently insane wife Bertha locked in the attic of Thornfield. All the while, Rochester is romancing Jane. The story is Jane’s gradual discovery of the unchanging but hidden state of things. Except for the secret — the mystery — the story would be quite static.

Likewise, Rebecca, whose plot is the disclosure of dead Rebecca’s real nature and how her widower, Maxim, actually felt toward her. Rebecca is a more modern Bluebeard story

Stranger Things, the Netflix TV show, also features a ‘girl in the attic’ trope in Eleven. Stranger Things is indeed a gothic story:

One of the most interesting aspects of this show is how it’s reminiscent of gothic fiction. A lot of early gothic is set in some kind of remote past yet reflects contemporaneous issues. With Stranger Things we have a 21st century TV show set in the 80s, which I guess for young people is a remote past, but speaking to our contemporary moment. We are thus looking at Stranger Things not as an exercise in nostalgia, but as a text that speaks to current issues like surveillance culture and the modern family. In short, it is interesting how the show turns to the past to speak to the present.

interview with Dr Phillip Serrato
A Short List Of Well-known Classic Gothic Tales For Adult Readers
  • Bluebeard — the ur-Castle story
  • Kafka 
  • Gormenghast series— three novels by Mervyn Peake, originally published between 1946 and 1959. Follows the life of Titus Groan, left to fend for himself in a crumbling kingdom he will one day inherit. He is surrounded by bizarre family members. He survives his neglectful childhood, grows up, survives attempted murder. The ending is thought to be pretty poor. Peake never bothered finishing it himself — it’s supposedly finished off by his family, which explains a lot.
  • Princess and the Goblin and The Princess and Curdie by George MacDonald — these stories influenced C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien
  • The horror classic film Freaks
  • The Castle of Otranto (1764) by Horace Walpole is probably the most famous example of pure gothic fiction. The combined elements of terror and medievalism set a precedent for an entirely new, thrilling genre. This story was already a pastiche and self-consciously parodic send-up of the genre that it itself established.
  • The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) by Anne Radcliffe — a good example of a paranormal scheme against a helpless young woman. Bourgeois heroine Emily St. Aubert endures all kinds of struggles. She loses her father to supernatural experiences in an old castle. Jane Austen was influenced by this book. The heroine continuously disavows her own foolish predisposition towards superstition by projecting it onto her servant girl, Annette.
  • Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen (1817) is actually a parody of The Mysteries of Udolpho. Jane Austen parodied the genre but also seemed to really enjoy reading it herself. She continued to read gothic romance for years, even after parodying it.
  • The History of the Caliph Vathek (1786) by William Thomas Beckford
  • The Monk (1796) by Mathew Lewis — Lewis was 19 when he wrote this novel of ecclesiastical debasement. It is stuffed full of love, murder and immorality.
  • Frankenstein (1818) by Mary Shelley — Don’t forget that Frankenstein is the doctor (not the monster). Dr Frankenstein creates a creature from body parts culled from graves at the local cemetery.
  • Melmoth the Wanderer (1820) by Charles Maturin
  • Salathiel the Immortal (1828) by George Croly
  • The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (1831) by Victor Hugo
  • Varney the Vampire; or, The Feast of Blood (1847) by James Malcolm Rymer
  • The Fall of the House of Usher (1839) by Edgar Allan Poe
  • The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) by Robert Louis Stevenson
  • Dracula (1897) by Bram Stoker — Vampires, haunted kingdoms, blood.
  • Jane Eyre
  • The Picture Of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde — a philosophical work about getting old and indulgence. The main character becomes so obsessed with stayng beautiful that he sells his soul. He occasionally goes up to the attic to watch his portrait grow old.
  • The Woman In Black (1983) by Susan Hill — A best-seller from the 1980s. A spooky visitor haunts a small town in England, warning that children are going to die. It’s been adapted for stage and is a hit in West End.
  • Interview With The Vampire by Anne Rice — Written as an interview between a reporter and a vampire called Louis de Pointe du Lac, who recounts the last 200 years of his life. He is full of regret.
  • The Tell Tale Heart (1843) by Edgar Allan Poe — the murderous main character is haunted by the sound of the beating heart of his victim, hidden in pieces under the floorboards.
  • Wuthering Heights (1847) by Emily Bronte — Set on the moors, this story is about class, survival, prejudice and is highly atmospheric.
  • The Tale Of Raw Head and Bloody Bones by Jack Wolf
  • 10 Gothic historical stories and novels that interrogate history but aren’t subject to it

Gothic Children’s Literature

A Brief History Of Gothic Children’s Literature

Gothic children’s literature emerged in response to the adult Gothic romance. However, even children in the 18th century probably preferred the scary tales over the didactic ones they were supposed to read, which were heavily didactic. There was an effort by the gatekeepers of this time to keep Gothic stories away from children. This fear has never subsided. There are always cultural critics worried about the effect Gothic stories have on the tabula rasa of children. In earlier eras children were thought to be entirely innocent. Rousseau was partly responsible for that. These days stories tend to play with the idea that children are somewhat complicit in getting themselves into trouble. This is why children’s stories, too, quite often give a moral shortcoming to the main character. This affords children more agency, in fact.

Maryrose Wood uses this historical attitude in her gothic parody The Mysterious Howling when she writes:

[Penelope the governess] had chosen Dante because she found the rhyme scheme pleasingly jaunty, but she realised too late that the Inferno’s tale of sinners being cruelly punished in the afterlife was much too bloody and disturbing to be suitable for young minds. Penelope could tell this by the way the children hung on her every word and demanded “More, more!” each time she reached the end of a canto and tried to stop […]

Penelope had begun reading poetry to the children in the belief that it would improve their English faster than lists of spelling words ever could. Besides, she personally found poetry very interesting, and since her students [literally raised by wolves] were more or less blank slates when it came to literature, she felt she might as well do what she liked. (As you may already know, the Latin term for “blank slate” is tabula rasa, a phrase the Incorrigibles would no doubt be exposed to a little further on in their educations.)

The Mysterious Howling, book one of The Incorrigible Children Of Ashton Place

Recently we have those fears directed towards the Twilight series, in which the passive heroine basically waits around to be saved by a creepy, much older male monster. The fear is that girls in real life will hope to emulate this as a script for their own romantic lives. (I admit, I have some sympathy for this view myself, if girls are reading dark, paranormal fiction widely but not critically. Then again, who’s to say they’re not critical of the very stories they enjoy?)

Children’s stories have always been gothic. In fact, gothic stories belonged to children all along. The Gothic romances for adults actually came out of fairytales told while these adult readers were still children.

There was a lot of playing with Gothic conventions in the latter half of the 19th century, especially by woman writers, who were presumably reading gothic romance/horror themselves for pleasure.

Another three 18th century woman writers started writing partly in order to combat what they considered worrying trends in contemporary children’s fiction. These women were Mary Wollstonecraft, Anna Laetitia Barbauld and Maria Edgeworth. Bear in mind that each of these women used Gothic features in their writing for children but it wasn’t actually Gothic because they didn’t want to expose children to ghosts. Also, each and every one of them wrote Gothic stories for adults in a different part of her writing career, exposing a double standard. We love the Gothic and find it entertaining, but not for children, whose minds are easily corrupted.

Influential male writers have said they loved to read Gothic chapbooks as children. These men include: Boswell, Johnson, Carlyle, Goethe, Lamb, Wordsworth and Coleridge. Yet chapbooks were never culturally approved. (Chapbooks were magazine type products sold door-to-door — an important means of cultural dissemination before people could afford books.) Chap books were considered trash fiction.

Before the rise of the Gothic novel, faciliated by the development of cheap printing systems, the Chapbook and Bluebook were common forms of literature, particularly in the United Kingdom. For a penny or half-penny, members of the public of any class with the ability to read suddenly had access to a wealth of information (of varying degrees of accuracy) and stories of adventure and morality through these publications. Although looked down on by the higher classes of the time, and indeed by scholars of today, the Chapbooks and Bluebooks are a wonderful repository of folklore which can tell us much about the beliefs and traditions of the people of the time. In this edition of The Folklore Podcast, the first of Season 2, creator and host Mark Norman examines some of the folklore presented in the old Chapbooks and how it was used to teach lessons to others. 

The Folklore Podcast

A very easy definition of Gothic children’s literature: Gothic stories are everything ‘quality’ children’s literature is not, in any given era. When a literature emerged for the middle class white child, ghosts were firmly erased.

Fear (or the pretence of fear) is very popular right now in children’s literature. This is the modern take on ‘gothic’.

Examples Of Early Gothic Children’s Literature
  • Mary Louisa Molesworth (A Christmas Child, A Christmas Posy, An Enchanted Garden and so on)took the gothic tradition and domesticated it.
  • A Sweet Girl Graduate by L.T. Meade is a vivid and detailed description of college life among a perfect bevy of young misses in the old English university town of Kingsdene. It follows the fortunes of a young Devonshire lass who goes away to college and finds herself among entirely different conditions of life and points of view than those that prevail in her own narrow village. L.T. Meade was perhaps the first to transform the school into a gothic place.
  • The Secret Garden has the madwoman in the attic trope, though the prisoner is a little boy, not a mad-woman. There’s also the haunted house and grounds. The Secret Garden is the most obvious example of Gothic children’s literature.
  • C.S. Lewis used The Woman In The Attic trope in his Narnia ChroniclesThe Magician’s Nephew to be exact. The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe begins in a big old scary mansion and a scary, remote owner who is basically a hermit, probably with secrets of his own.
  • The Gashlycrumb Tinies by Edward Gorey, who writes macabre rhymes. “A is for Amy who fell down the stairs, B is for Basil assaulted by bears…”In response to being called gothic, [Gorey] stated, “If you’re doing nonsense it has to be rather awful, because there’d be no point. I’m trying to think if there’s sunny nonsense. Sunny, funny nonsense for children—oh, how boring, boring, boring. As Schubert said, there is no happy music. And that’s true, there really isn’t. And there’s probably no happy nonsense, either.” Wikipedia entry on Edward Gorey
  • Emily series by L.M. Montgomery (who wrote Anne of Green Gables) — Montgomery plays with Gothic conventions, as well as in some of her stand-alone novels and short stories.

If you’re wondering about Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, Alice is not Gothic literature. There are plenty of Gothic features without it adding up to actually Gothic. Alice is absurdist instead.

Features Of Gothic Children’s Literature

What does the Gothic look like in children’s literature? Gothic motifs in general are very well-suited to exploring adolescence, and the way identity seems to change from day to day. With the menarche, girls face blood — another Gothic motif (wayward fluids, murder). Elements include:

  • Hobgoblins, dwarves, trolls, witches, werewolves, vampires and other folkloric creatures
  • Bugaboos such as chimney sweeps, Wee Willy Winkies and other creatures from urban folklore. (Bugaboos come in the night.)
  • Ghouls — The ghoul is the classic Gothic monster. They frighten us and transform the familiar into the strange and threatening.
  • Ghosts, spectres, phantoms, apparitions and general hauntings
  • Schools are often the proxy for haunted mansions and castles. The schoolyard is the forest.
  • Irony and parody is very gothic, so anything meta in the style of Lemony Snicket borrows from the Gothic tradition. There’s a lot of parody of Victorian settings.
  • The Gothic is to do with transgression, lack of restraint and the overturning of normality. For example, Gothic villains break taboos, as do young children, by not doing as they’re told. See again The Carnivalesque, which is a tradition with a long history in children’s literature. No wonder Gothic features so heavily in stories for the young.
  • A lot of Gothic stories have a ‘jump’ ending. Take the oral versions of Little Red Riding Hood, for instance, in which the storyteller grabs the listener as if she is about to get eaten by the wolf. A number of modern stories for young children are also designed to be performed as much as read.
  • The Gothic warns readers of the dangers mysteriously close to even the most familiar places. The Gothic tells us that the world is not safe. How many children’s stories teach that? Quite a number. Pretty much any story that’s not pastoral is teaching children that same lesson: Be vigilant, be smart, stick with your friends, know friends from enemies.
  • Gothic children’s literature often takes the form of fantasy. If the Gothic is about fear of desire, fantasy is a great genre to explore that because fantasy teaches the reader to desire.
  • A lot of children’s stories use the trope of the Explained Ghost. Basically, there’s some sort of supernatural happenings in the world of the story which is later revealed to have been just the over-workings of a foolish mind. This trope is used to teach the reader that there is no such thing as ghosts and whatnot, and to always dig deeper for the truth behind our fancies. Nevertheless, even the Explained Ghost tropes themselves rely upon Gothic motifs and traditions. That’s not to say traditional Gothic stories themselves didn’t make use of the Explained Ghost. Ann Radcliffe herself used it, though perhaps to a different end (to show up rational thinking by later subverting it).
  • There are a lot of orphans in children’s literature. Absent maternity is a feature of the Gothic.
Tips For Writing Gothic Stories For Children

Unlike in Gothic romance for adults, child heroes are mostly given something to fight back with. They don’t wait around to be rescued, except in the odd parody. This is in line with the general advice when writing for children: heroes must be proactive and basically get themselves out of their own predicaments. They may ask for help from a mentor, but no one’s coming to save them.

The writer must be familiar with gothic motifs and tropes and settings — familiar enough to parody them, and to manage whether readers will find something scary or funny (or both).

Writers can take gothic motifs and transplant them to a new setting. This creates a kind of neo-Gothic (to borrow from the term neo-Western). For example, writers may take the labyrinthine qualities of a castle and reuse them in a dystopian city or in a setting inspired by cyberspace.

Gothic stories tend to do one of two things:

  1. They can either suggest subversive possibilities to readers
  2. They can scare children into submission and ensure conformity.

Be clear with yourself: Are you achieving the former? If not, you’re writing didactic, 19th century work.

Examples Of Modern Gothic Literature For Children
  • Flowers In The Attic was the Twilight of my generation (teenagers of the 1990s). It features children locked in the attic of a big, mean castle of a house and a wicked grandmother. Also incest.
  • Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl — This is the first of The Caster Chronicles. It is young adult fiction about a main character called Ethan, who has lost his mother and feels trapped in a tiny town.
  • Roald Dahl — Dahl’s work is popular partly because stories preserve the innocence of the child and retains the level of evil of the villain, but gives the child the means to save themselves. Daniel Handler has continued this tradition.
  • Anything Gothic for children these days tends to be compared to Daniel Handler’s Lemony Snicket series, even if there’s not much else really in common.
  • An example often compared to Lemony Snicket is The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place, set in the mid 1850s.
  • J.K. Rowling uses the madwoman in the attic trope in Harry Potter, more than once, and many other elements from Gothic fiction, being the master borrower and remixer of tropes.
  • The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman — chronicles the life of Nobody Owens who lives in a graveyard. The story is a series of loosely connected stories about Bod’s life and what he learns about life/death.
  • Coraline by Neil Gaiman is another middle grade novel from the gothic tradition, with its large house, bizarre characters and supernatural goings-on.
  • Wolves In The Walls by Neil Gaiman is a picture book, with a title reminiscent of The Rats In The Walls, and is similarly gothic in tone.
  • Leo: A Ghost Story by Mac Barnett and Christian Robinson — a picture book about a ghost called Leo who lives alone in a deserted house.
  • The Dark by Lemony Snickett and Jon Klassen — a picture book set in a big, scary, empty, dark house. In reality the house is probably an ordinary one, replete with a mother/father, but the representation of the house on the page is how the boy feels about it.
  • Ghostlight by Sonia Gensler — An American Gothic tale including an abandoned haunted mansion, spooky movies, imaginary games, film-making (a popular device in ghost stories).
  • Doll Bones by Holly Black — A coming-of-age novel about a boy called Zach who plays with dolls. His father throws his creepy porcelain dolls away but this isn’t the last we see of them.
  • The Spiderwick Chronicles by Holly Black
  • The Tricksters by Margaret Mahy
  • Gothic Hospital by Gary Crew
  • The Devil Latch by Sonya Hartnett
  • The Seventh Tower by Garth Nix
  • Thirsty by M.T. Anderson — the main character can’t join in his culture’s hatred of the monstrous because he has discovered it within himself. He has to find a way of living which is neither killing himself nor accepting his fate.
  • Good Masters, Sweet Ladies by Laura Amy Schlitz — As Kate de Goldi said in her RNZ interview review, the author uses Victorian Gothic really skilfully in her books. It’s a great playground for children’s writers at the moment: Writers don’t have to wrestle with technology in the story and this historical setting is dark and mysterious and very colourful, and lends an air of fantasy. This is a really good story. There are big things being talked about women’s place, about exploitation at all levels of life. The author looks very interestingly at disability and writes really tenderly about unusual friendships about people who are marginalised.
  • Splendors and Glooms by Laura Amy Schlitz — The things that Schlitz did well in her first novel were done equally well in this one. (There are two titles for this book depending on the continent.) This is a fantastic adventure about two orphans who work for an Italian puppeteer. They live in poverty. This is a fable, of sorts. Names of characters are really important in this: Clara (light) Wintermute (she can’t speak). In her house she’s been silenced by the grief of her parents. Four of her siblings died in the cholera epidemic but she survived and has the guilt of a survivor. While the plot may sound a bit hokey, the writing is very beautiful. The music, the rhythm of the words… We learn a huge amount of detail about Victorian London. Something Schlitz does without any shrinking is show the evil capacity of ordinary adults. It’s quite frightening the way the adults have buried sexual desires which are under the surface of the text. Having said that, this is very much a children’s story. The end is elevating.

Then there are books which are not obviously Gothic, but influenced by the tradition. The labyrinthine computer game stories set in cyberspace calling to mind the structures of Gothic castles, are one example, as mentioned above. Themes in common: double consciousness, metafiction, moral disintegration. In this way, 19th century Gothic fiction has a lot in common with ultra-contemporary speculative work.

Further Reading

With regard to children’s gothic, Anna Jackson recently edited a collection titled New Directions in Children’s Gothic: Debatable Lands. It’s a good start for getting a sense of the type of scholarship that is going on in the field. Also, anything by Chloe Buckley, who has what sounds like a fascinating book on children’s gothic coming out November 30.

Dr Phillip Serrato

Adventureland Storytelling Techniques

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.

Ghhttps://www.slaphappylarry.com/psychic-wound-fatal-flaw-children-story/ost (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.

Sethttps://www.slaphappylarry.com/writing-setting-setting/ting

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.

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

‘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.

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

FURTHER READING

Forest and Tree Symbolism In Folklore

The Three Main Types Of Modern Myth Stories

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

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.)

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.

2. THE STATIC JOURNEY

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.

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.

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).

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.

ON FORTUNE’S WHEEL (1990)

Published eight years later, 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.

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).

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.

The Artifacts is also a big battle-free myth form even though it stars a boy.

Midnight Feast may also fit the big battle-free myth form — I’m not quite sure myself. But I did aim to write something different, and I think I succeeded in that, for sure.

I would love to see more big battle-free myth forms in the world, so if you have an idea for one, please write it!

(And remember, inversion does not equal subversion.)

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?

RELATED LINKS

  • The masculine, heroic adventure story in the tradition of Odysseus has ‘only’ been dominant for the last 3000 years. Before then, myth was often about ‘origin’— where did we come from? Who made us? Since women are the creators of life, it followed that the heroes of such myths were originally female. But where are all these original creation myths?
  • 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).
  • What Is Meant By Mythic Structure? for writers who would like to use it.
  • 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.
  • 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

Islands and Symbolism in Children’s 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
  • They 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.

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.

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.

Well-known Utopian Island Settings

  • Utopia by Sir Thomas More, the book which gave English the word ‘utopia’ in the first place. Unfortunately for the author, he was executed by King Henry the eighth.
  • 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 a proposed remake).
  • Robinson Crusoe — 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.*
  • Treasure Island — R.L. Stevenson published this in 1883. This is probably the most popular island book ever.
  • The Lie Tree — Frances Hardinge created a snail under the leaf setting in her award winning children’s novel.
*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.
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.
  • 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

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.

Island Boy by Barbara Cooney

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.

island-boy1

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.

island boy tree

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 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.

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.

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.

RELATED LINKS