Symbolic Archetypes In Children’s Stories

These symbolic archetypes are very old. The earliest written record we have is often in fairy tales.

light and shadow

Innate Wisdom vs. Educated Stupidity

Some characters exhibit wisdom and understanding of situations instinctively as opposed to those supposedly in charge. Loyal retainers often exhibit this wisdom as they accompany the hero on the journey.

This pretty much describes all carnivalesque picture books. “The Wisdom Of Children” is an ideology common to children’s literature, in which it is thought that humans are born natural and wise, and that cultural conditioning ruins us somehow, by making us sophisticated and blind to the realities around us. Children (and animals), from their naive but unadulterated perspectives, are able to see things that adults cannot. This is helped by their smallness, and how they are close to the ground and literally see the world from a different angle. Therefore, perspective shots from low angles illustrate this archetype.

Supernatural Intervention

Spiritual beings intervene on the side of the heroes, or sometimes against them.

cinderella-fairy-godmother-ruth-ives-1954
Cinderella and her fairy godmother by Ruth Ives 1954

Fire and Ice

Fire represents knowledge, light, life, and rebirth.

If we watch fire in the fireplace, which is a source of pleasure and comfort, it is expressive of a mood of aliveness, warmth, and pleasure. But if we see a building or forest on fire, it conveys to us an experience of threat or terror, of the powerlessness of man against the elements of nature. Fire, then, can be the symbolic representation of inner aliveness and happiness as well as of fear, powerlessness, or of one’s own destructive tendencies.

Erich Fromm, The Forgotten Language

Ice, like the desert, represents ignorance, darkness, sterility, and death.

The Snow Queen

Snow in 101 Dalmatians increases the tension. Being lost and in danger is bad enough, but when snow cascades down… even worse. Especially when your paw prints can be tracked by Cruella de Vil.

101 Dalmatians snowy scene

Nature vs. Mechanistic World

Nature is good; technology is evil.

Shaun Tan subverts this archetype in The Lost Thing. The weak, vulnerable ‘character’ is a machine who no one notices.

The Threshold

Thresholds are symbolised by a gateway to a new world which the hero must enter to change and grow. Fantasy portals take many forms.

Eric, by Shaun Tan, features a fantasy gateway which neither the narrator nor the audience fully understands.

eric-cupboard-shaun-tan

The Underworld

The underworld is a place of death or a metaphorical encounter with the dark side of the self. Entering an underworld is a form of facing a fear of death.

Hilda Bewildered, Slap Happy Larry, 2015.

hilda-bewildered-underfoot-jungle_800x600

I used a subway in our book app, but an overland tunnel achieves a similar thing. The 101 Dalmatians film is basically a long chase scene. A tunnel is used at some point to heighten the feeling that we’re on a journey and there’s nowhere to go but forward.

In fairytales, the forest can stand in for the underworld. (See below)

Haven vs. Wilderness

Places of safety contrast sharply against dangerous wilderness. Heroes are often sheltered for a time to regain health and resources.

This describes all fairytale worlds in which there is a forest right next to a town or village.

the-chase

See here for Symbolism of the Forest in Storytelling.

See also The Symbolism of Windows, in which a pane of glass often separates these two settings.

Water vs. Desert

Because water is necessary to life it commonly appears as a birth symbol. In religious ceremony, we have baptism. This symbolises spiritual birth and commonly involves water. There may be a strong psychological/physiological reason for this link — a lot of swimmers will tell you there’s nothing like a bracing dip in the ocean to completely clear the mind.

Rainfalls, rivers, oceans, etc. function the same way.

adventures-of-raggedy-ann-river
Adventures Of Raggedy Ann, falling into the river in a ‘baptism’ scene

In visual media like film, a dip in the water often accompanies the character’s Anagnorisis. A great example of that is the film American Honey.

The Desert suggests the inverse.

Throughout most of human history, towns were situated next to dependable rivers. Western towns in films such as High Noon, The Searchers, The Wild Bunch, and Unforgiven, however, are situated in the middle of some of the driest places on earth. Perhaps that’s because deserts, in the Hebrew, Christian, and Islamic Bibles, are places of spiritual conflict.

— Howard Suber

Heaven vs. Hell

Parts of the universe not accessible to us = the dwelling places of the primordial forces that govern our world. Gods live in the skies and mountaintops. The bowels of the earth contain diabolic forces.

See also: The Symbolism Of Altitude

The Maze

The maze represents a puzzling dilemma or great uncertainty. The maze can be part of mythic structure, symbolising the  search for the dangerous monster inside oneself, or a journey into the heart of darkness.

It doesn’t have to be a literal maze, but might instead be getting lost in an urban jungle.

Shaun Tan’s The Lost Thing is an example of an urban jungle maze.

The Cat Returns features a darkly humorous maze scene full of meta-humour and slapstick.

The maze is often a microcosm of the mythic journey, which is usually ‘epic’.

The Castle

The castle is a fortified place of safety which protects treasure or princess. The castle may be enchanted or bewitched, especially in the Gothic tradition.

Cinderella approaches the ball, illustration by Ruth Ives 1954
Cinderella approaches the ball, illustration by Ruth Ives 1954

Castle Motif on StorySearch

The Tower

A tower is similar to a castle but represents the isolation of self. Bluebeard’s castle was probably a tower.

Rapunzel is the archetypal tower.

Tower motif on StorySearch

The Magic Weapon

In a traditional mythic story, the hero needs a weapon to complete his or her quest (but mostly still his, because most heroes are males and when heroes are female they often don’t fight). In a big struggle-free myth, the characters don’t fight — instead they think and feel themselves out of a tight fix. In that case, the hero probably needs a mentor, or a library book or a magic spell (as in Brave). Interestingly, there is archery (weaponry) in Brave, but it’s not actually used for fighting. It’s more of a prop, and aids as a symbol for fate and the passing of time.

Weapon Motif on StorySearch

Mountains And Valleys

See here for the symbolism of altitude.

The valley enclosed between mountains can arouse in us the feeling of security and comfort, of protection against all dangers from the outside. But the protecting mountains can also mean isolating walls which do not permit us to get out of the valley and thus the valley can become a symbol of imprisonment. The particular meaning of the symbol in any given place can only be determined from the whole context in which the symbol appears, and in terms of the predominant experiences of the person using the symbol.

— Erich Fromm, The Forgotten Language

The River

See here for all the different symbolic uses of the river in children’s literature.

new-equilibrium

Whirlpools

The whirlpool generally symbolises the destructive power of nature or fate.

In A Fish Out Of Water by Helen Palmer (first wife of Dr Seuss), the whirlpool stands for something mysterious happening below.

failed-magic

Whirlpool Motif on StorySearch

Fog

See here for more about fog symbolism in literature.

Fog was once thought to be caused by demons/magic. In other stories fog is an ogre who has drunk until he has burst. Fog can be dispelled by a saint. Fog is a representation of soul.

A picture book example is Blackdog by Levi Pinfold

Black Dog by Levi Pinfold, book jacket

Fog Motif On StorySearch

Colors

Red: blood, sacrifice, passion, disorder, autumn, women, hatred, death

Green: growth, hope, fertility

Blue: highly positive, security, tranquility, spiritual purity

Black: darkness, chaos, mystery, the unknown, death, wisdom, evil, melancholy

White: light, purity, innocence, timelessness (negatives: death, horror, supernatural)

Yellow: enlightenment, wisdom

Numbers

3—light, spiritual awareness, unity (holy trinity), male principle

Children’s books are all about the Rule Of Three.

4—associated with the circle, life cycle, four seasons, female principle, earth, nature, elements

5 — Freemasons (like Pythagoras) regard the number five as sacred, hence they call the pentagram the Blazing Star. (Five points.)

Children’s books for girls tend to be circular in plot, following the seasons. (Books for boys, in contrast, are linear.)

7—the most potent of all symbolic numbers, signifying the union of three and four, the completion of a cycle, perfect order, perfect number, a religious symbol

Snow White And The Seven Dwarves

12

These symbolic archetypes are very old. The earliest written record we have is often in fairy tales.

light and shadow

Innate Wisdom vs. Educated Stupidity

Some characters exhibit wisdom and understanding of situations instinctively as opposed to those supposedly in charge. Loyal retainers often exhibit this wisdom as they accompany the hero on the journey.

This pretty much describes all carnivalesque picture books. “The Wisdom Of Children” is an ideology common to children’s literature, in which it is thought that humans are born natural and wise, and that cultural conditioning ruins us somehow, by making us sophisticated and blind to the realities around us. Children (and animals), from their naive but unadulterated perspectives, are able to see things that adults cannot. This is helped by their smallness, and how they are close to the ground and literally see the world from a different angle. Therefore, perspective shots from low angles illustrate this archetype.

Supernatural Intervention

Spiritual beings intervene on the side of the heroes, or sometimes against them.

cinderella-fairy-godmother-ruth-ives-1954
Cinderella and her fairy godmother by Ruth Ives 1954

Fire and Ice

Fire represents knowledge, light, life, and rebirth.

If we watch fire in the fireplace, which is a source of pleasure and comfort, it is expressive of a mood of aliveness, warmth, and pleasure. But if we see a building or forest on fire, it conveys to us an experience of threat or terror, of the powerlessness of man against the elements of nature. Fire, then, can be the symbolic representation of inner aliveness and happiness as well as of fear, powerlessness, or of one’s own destructive tendencies.

Erich Fromm, The Forgotten Language

Ice, like the desert, represents ignorance, darkness, sterility, and death.

The Snow Queen

Snow in 101 Dalmatians increases the tension. Being lost and in danger is bad enough, but when snow cascades down… even worse. Especially when your paw prints can be tracked by Cruella de Vil.

101 Dalmatians snowy scene

Nature vs. Mechanistic World

Nature is good; technology is evil.

Shaun Tan subverts this archetype in The Lost Thing. The weak, vulnerable ‘character’ is a machine who no one notices.

The Threshold

Thresholds are symbolised by a gateway to a new world which the hero must enter to change and grow. Fantasy portals take many forms.

Eric, by Shaun Tan, features a fantasy gateway which neither the narrator nor the audience fully understands.

eric-cupboard-shaun-tan

The Underworld

The underworld is a place of death or a metaphorical encounter with the dark side of the self. Entering an underworld is a form of facing a fear of death.

Hilda Bewildered, Slap Happy Larry, 2015.

hilda-bewildered-underfoot-jungle_800x600

I used a subway in our book app, but an overland tunnel achieves a similar thing. The 101 Dalmatians film is basically a long chase scene. A tunnel is used at some point to heighten the feeling that we’re on a journey and there’s nowhere to go but forward.

In fairytales, the forest can stand in for the underworld. (See below)

Haven vs. Wilderness

Places of safety contrast sharply against dangerous wilderness. Heroes are often sheltered for a time to regain health and resources.

This describes all fairytale worlds in which there is a forest right next to a town or village.

the-chase

See here for Symbolism of the Forest in Storytelling.

See also The Symbolism of Windows, in which a pane of glass often separates these two settings.

Water vs. Desert

Because water is necessary to life it commonly appears as a birth symbol. In religious ceremony, we have baptism. This symbolises spiritual birth and commonly involves water. There may be a strong psychological/physiological reason for this link — a lot of swimmers will tell you there’s nothing like a bracing dip in the ocean to completely clear the mind.

Rainfalls, rivers, oceans, etc. function the same way.

adventures-of-raggedy-ann-river
Adventures Of Raggedy Ann, falling into the river in a ‘baptism’ scene

In visual media like film, a dip in the water often accompanies the character’s Anagnorisis. A great example of that is the film American Honey.

The Desert suggests the inverse.

Throughout most of human history, towns were situated next to dependable rivers. Western towns in films such as High Noon, The Searchers, The Wild Bunch, and Unforgiven, however, are situated in the middle of some of the driest places on earth. Perhaps that’s because deserts, in the Hebrew, Christian, and Islamic Bibles, are places of spiritual conflict.

— Howard Suber

Heaven vs. Hell

Parts of the universe not accessible to us = the dwelling places of the primordial forces that govern our world. Gods live in the skies and mountaintops. The bowels of the earth contain diabolic forces.

See also: The Symbolism Of Altitude

The Maze

The maze represents a puzzling dilemma or great uncertainty. The maze can be part of mythic structure, symbolising the  search for the dangerous monster inside oneself, or a journey into the heart of darkness.

It doesn’t have to be a literal maze, but might instead be getting lost in an urban jungle.

Shaun Tan’s The Lost Thing is an example of an urban jungle maze.

The Cat Returns features a darkly humorous maze scene full of meta-humour and slapstick.

The maze is often a microcosm of the mythic journey, which is usually ‘epic’.

The Castle

The castle is a fortified place of safety which protects treasure or princess. The castle may be enchanted or bewitched, especially in the Gothic tradition.

Cinderella approaches the ball, illustration by Ruth Ives 1954
Cinderella approaches the ball, illustration by Ruth Ives 1954

Castle Motif on StorySearch

The Tower

A tower is similar to a castle but represents the isolation of self. Bluebeard’s castle was probably a tower.

Rapunzel is the archetypal tower.

Tower motif on StorySearch

The Magic Weapon

In a traditional mythic story, the hero needs a weapon to complete his or her quest (but mostly still his, because most heroes are males and when heroes are female they often don’t fight). In a big struggle-free myth, the characters don’t fight — instead they think and feel themselves out of a tight fix. In that case, the hero probably needs a mentor, or a library book or a magic spell (as in Brave). Interestingly, there is archery (weaponry) in Brave, but it’s not actually used for fighting. It’s more of a prop, and aids as a symbol for fate and the passing of time.

Weapon Motif on StorySearch

Mountains And Valleys

See here for the symbolism of altitude.

The valley enclosed between mountains can arouse in us the feeling of security and comfort, of protection against all dangers from the outside. But the protecting mountains can also mean isolating walls which do not permit us to get out of the valley and thus the valley can become a symbol of imprisonment. The particular meaning of the symbol in any given place can only be determined from the whole context in which the symbol appears, and in terms of the predominant experiences of the person using the symbol.

— Erich Fromm, The Forgotten Language

The River

See here for all the different symbolic uses of the river in children’s literature.

new-equilibrium

Whirlpools

The whirlpool generally symbolises the destructive power of nature or fate.

In A Fish Out Of Water by Helen Palmer (first wife of Dr Seuss), the whirlpool stands for something mysterious happening below.

failed-magic

Whirlpool Motif on StorySearch

Fog

See here for more about fog symbolism in literature.

Fog was once thought to be caused by demons/magic. In other stories fog is an ogre who has drunk until he has burst. Fog can be dispelled by a saint. Fog is a representation of soul.

A picture book example is Blackdog by Levi Pinfold

Black Dog by Levi Pinfold, book jacket

Fog Motif On StorySearch

Colors

Red: blood, sacrifice, passion, disorder, autumn, women, hatred, death

Green: growth, hope, fertility

Blue: highly positive, security, tranquility, spiritual purity

Black: darkness, chaos, mystery, the unknown, death, wisdom, evil, melancholy

White: light, purity, innocence, timelessness (negatives: death, horror, supernatural)

Yellow: enlightenment, wisdom

Numbers

3—light, spiritual awareness, unity (holy trinity), male principle

Children’s books are all about the Rule Of Three.

4—associated with the circle, life cycle, four seasons, female principle, earth, nature, elements

5 — Freemasons (like Pythagoras) regard the number five as sacred, hence they call the pentagram the Blazing Star. (Five points.)

Children’s books for girls tend to be circular in plot, following the seasons. (Books for boys, in contrast, are linear.)

7—the most potent of all symbolic numbers, signifying the union of three and four, the completion of a cycle, perfect order, perfect number, a religious symbol.

  • In the Bible, the number 7 can refer to the Sabbath (seventh day), holiness, or completion.
  • It’s also the number of the universe since the 7th day brought completion and peace to the creative act of God.
  • The number 70 (7×10=70) is often used by Jews to describe the universal (Catholic) fulness of the Gentiles.

Snow White And The Seven Dwarves

12 — In the Bible, the number 12 almost always refers to the 12 tribes of Israel. It is the national number of the People of God.

What Is Surrealism?

The word ‘surrealism’ has a different use in everyday English from its meaning in critical discourse.

Surrealism in everyday English: I don’t understand it. Weird somehow. Creepy. Like a dream. Disparate things are together and don’t make sense.

Surrealism in critical discourse: Over and above. Literally, super-real (from French).

‘Surreal’ is a modern word and does indeed mean, correctly, what everyone thinks it means.

The word ‘surrealism’ , however, existed before ‘surreal’, which is a back formation because an adjectival form comes in handy. ‘Surreal’ has been around since the 1930s and took off in the 1950s.

In other words, ‘super-real’ art tells us the ‘super-truth’. It’s all connected to Freudian ideas about dreams meaning something.

This explains David Lynch's storytelling philosophy
This explains David Lynch’s storytelling philosophy

Surrealist Picturebooks

The work of Anthony Browne and other postmodern artists are said to be surrealist.

Shaun Tan has this to say about the word as applied to his work:

I’ve never been entirely comfortable with the term ‘surrealism’, despite often using it as a shorthand to ­introduce my own books. I don’t have a strong interest in dreams per se, or the irrational, the way the capital-S Surrealists championed so brilliantly. I’m more interested in some kind of equivalent to reality, in itself quite rational and meaningful but just different to what we might be expecting. Perhaps post-colonial societies have a special feeling for weirdness that is not actually surrealism but to do with something far more conscious, just unresolved or hard to reconcile — a problem of reality.”

Considering The Rabbits, for example, Tan suggests that the psychological upheaval of the ­collision between European visitors and Aboriginal landowners is almost impossible to represent accurately. “I certainly have no capacity to do so myself, but at least I can indicate something of the impossibility of the task through some strange drawings.

The Financial Times

The author also says that the term ‘magical realism’ is more fitting when describing Tan’s work, even though it’s a word more often used to describe writing.

Surrealism Comic by Grant Snyder 2012

Making reality real is art’s responsibility. It is a practical assignment, then, a self-assignment: to achieve, by a cultivated sensitivity for observing life, a capacity for receiving impressions, a lonely, unremitting, unaided, un-aidable vision, and transferring this vision without distortion to it onto the pages of a novel, where, if the reader is so persuaded, it will turn into the reader’s illusion.

Eudora Welty

Surrealist Humour

This is another word for absurdist humour. Features of surrealist humour:

  • The juxtaposition of unlikely things
  • Non-sequiturs (means ‘does not follow’ in Latin). The converse of a non-sequitur is a cliche, because a non sequitur is something the audience hasn’t seen before.
  • Irrational situations
  • Just when we think we can make sense of something the story shatters our logic, showing us that logic is useless

Spike Milligan is an example of a surrealist comedian:

George Orwell’s assertion that “whatever is funny is subversive” was never truer than in the case of Spike Milligan. He did not invent surrealistic radio comedy – nor did he ever claim to – but he opened up the medium with his uncluttered anarchic vision, and his influence since the early 1950s has been vast.

Film School Rejects

This is why Roald Dahl wanted Spike Milligan to play Wonka in Charlie And The Chocolate Factory:

[Dahl’s] “ideal casting was Spike Milligan,” a surrealist actor. Dahl’s dismissal of his novels’ filmic adaptations are justified — he did write the source material, after all. Yet, with major studios like Paramount Pictures backing and distributing films with a young girl blowing up like a blueberry and evil witches turning children into rats, the Dahl films are already notably more surreal than their Home Alone-esque counterparts.

Film School Rejects

According to research on the ‘meaning maintenance model’ of human reasoning, surreal and absurd art can be so unsettling that the brain reacts as if it is feeling physical pain, yet it ultimately leads us to reaffirm who we are, and sharpens the mind as we look for new ways to make sense of the world. 

David Robson

Alice In Wonderland is also an example of surrealist/absurd humour.

Eric by Shaun Tan Picture Book

Eric book cover

Eric is a miniature, post-modern picture book by Australian author illustrator Shaun Tan. This simple story says big things about cultural difference.

NOTES ON THE COVER OF ERIC

Eric’s cover is inviting; the embossed title and author are both prominently displayed, taking about a third of the already small space. Yet even here there is playfulness and subversion. There is no capitalisation on the page, and the dot of the ‘i’ in ‘eric’ has been displaced, appearing slightly to the left above the ‘r.’ Already, we have the implication that not all the rules will obeyed, and that Eric himself is a little different. This idea is reinforced by the image on the cover. Against the mottled green background suggestive of Eric’s jungle origins, Eric peeps up, dominating the lower half of the spread whilst remaining intriguing and inviting the reader to look further. 

Unlikely Normal  

A similar cover layout is used on the Judy Moody covers by Megan McDonald:  

judy-moody

  Another author whose books often avoid adult-like punctuation such as capitalisation is Lauren Child, whose own name is known for being lower case, like bell hooks:  

that-pesky-rat-lauren-child

  For artists who eschew capitalisation of their names, it’s often because they are making a statement against prescriptivism, and the rules set down by adults. The practice may also symbolise rejection of the ego.  

THE MINIATURE

Only in picture books do you regularly find the size and shape of the book itself has something to do with the content. This green version of Eric is only about as big as your hand.

Notice the peanut: Eric uses a peanut for suitcases. We see the peanut again at the end of the story, with a single peanut on a dinner plate. Surely the family isn’t suddenly eating peanuts for dinner? What is the significance of this?

Since the peanut was used as a suitcase, the peanut now stands in for travel and foreignness. The family’s own dinner may now feel foreign to them, now that they’ve had a glimpse of another culture. The peanut is of course used commonly in the West to symbolise the miniature, further linking the peanut to Eric. When set upon a dinner plate, its small size is emphasised. I don’t believe the family is really eating a peanut for dinner. I believe the peanut is a symbol.

Eric is included in the (full size) Shaun Tan collection: Tales From Outer Suburbia. However, just as an anthology of Beatrix Potter stories doesn’t do justice to the individual tales compared to the individual, child-sized editions, Eric is best experienced in miniature, as I’m sure it was designed to be read. Page breaks and publication size are more important than sometimes given credit.

Hannah Love explains the significance of the page breaks:

The first page has no picture, and indeed Tan never places words and pictures on the same side of the gutter; the spreads may be two images, two paragraphs of narration, or text on one page and image on the other. This separation fully emphasises the two different stories and the division between them, and even creates comic effect in places, such as the account of Eric studying displayed opposite a picture of the tiny Eric having to stand on the book in the middle of his page to read.

Unlikely Normal
Tales From Outer Suburbia by Shaun Tan Cover

Eric is similar to The Lost Thing (written and illustrated by the same author) in that:

  1. The narrator is a first person character, though off stage in this story
  2. It’s set a number years in the past, with the storyteller looking back
  3. The main character is a strange creature who comes from another place/time/dimension, who disappears before the end.
  4. The narrator wonders if this strange creature is happy.
  5. The creature in this story is interested in small things whereas the boy in The Lost Thing is the one who is the noticer. (Noticing this creature is a noticer is itself a form of noticing… mise en abyme.)
  6. Behind the doors, in the darkness, is a world full of interesting artifacts.
  7. The narrator is encouraged at the end to wonder what it all means.

ERIC AS A POSTMODERN PICTUREBOOK

What is a postmodern picturebook?

Eric may not seem like a typical postmodern picture book. It is tiny (15cmx12cm) in comparison to many of its counterparts, lacking the large double spreads that allow for hugely detailed drawings. Yet on closer examination, the book’s inter-relationship of text and image is as complex as its contemporaries; being playful whilst simultaneously breaking boundaries. With the combination of a matter-of-fact narrative and endearing pencil drawings of the diminutive aspects of Eric which are never mentioned in the text, Tan effectively explores issues of identity and cultural difference. Grigg (2003) claims that visual images create bridges between cultures and languages, and Tan plays with this idea, showing how determination to appreciate our own culture can be detrimental to acknowledging the culture of others, a particular danger in a multicultural society. He defines Eric as being about a kind of misunderstanding and cultural miscommunication. According to Tan, the character of Eric is based on a combination of a foreign guest that Tan had to stay, and his own budgerigar. This creates a book that opposes … speculation that modern life undermines childhood as a time of play and engaging with the natural world. Eric and his fascination with the world around him show a childlike innocence compromised by an adult narrator who is baffled by and unable to fully interact with his/her guest.

Unlikely Normal

STORY STRUCTURE OF ERIC

The main character is the storyteller narrator.

SHORTCOMING

This kid (I assumed it is a boy, but she could just as easily be a girl) is overconfident about her ability to explain her world to a newcomer. She feels she knows her own world very well. But her Shortcoming is that she can’t possibly know her own world until she experiences someone else’s.

Because what is her point of reference?

DESIRE

She is looking forward to teaching an exchange student everything about her local environs. This will make her feel like an expert. She will feel heard. She will feel important and useful.

OPPONENT

Eric, however, is not on the same wavelength at all. He asks her questions that simply can’t be answered. This means she doesn’t get to feel like the expert anymore. She never predicted these questions. She didn’t realise there was anything odd about things which are, to her, banal.

eric-illustration

Eric the exchange student, I believe, is a metonym for ‘foreign culture’.

PLAN

Shaun Tan tends to be very specific about the plan part of his narratives:

I had planned for us to go on a number of weekly excursions together, as I was determined to show our visitor the best places in the city and its surrounds.

Despite the past participle, they did go on these excursions, but while the narrator wanted to show Eric the local landmarks, Eric was only interested in little things. For example, at the zoo, Eric sees only the elephant’s foot. This reminds me of the parable The Blind Men And The Elephant.

“The Blind Men And The Elephant” was published in 1873 as part of a collection of rhymes and poems by John Godfrey Saxe. Saxe (1816-87) baed his moral tale — more of a parable in the guise of a rhyme — upon a story of Indian origin that he called a ‘Hindoo Fable’. It is probably quite ancient in origin, as similar tales are told in other religions, including Buddhism, Sufism, Islam and Jainism. In each, the number of blind men varies and sometimes they are not blind at all, but men in a darkened room with an elephant (clearly the only elephant in a room not to be ignored). The Hindu version of the tale goes something like this:

One day three blind men met, as usual, and sat under their favourite tree, talking about many things. All of a sudden, one of them said, ‘I have heard that an elephant is a strange creature.’ Another replied, ‘Yes, it is too bad we are blind and do not have the good fortune to see this strange beast.’ But the third said, ‘Why do we need to see? Just to feel it would be wonderful.’ At that moment a passing merchant with a group of elephants came conveniently along and overheard their conversation. ‘You fellows,’ he called, ‘if you really want to feel an elephant then come with me.’ The three blind men were surprised but very happy. Taking each other by the hand, they quickly followed the merchant and began to speak excitedly about how the animal would feel and how they would form an image of it in their minds.

When they reached the elephants, the merchant told two of them to sit on the ground and wait while he led the first man to one of the beasts. With an outstretched arm, the man touched one of the elephant’s front legs and then the other, stroking each from top to bottom. ‘So’, he said, ‘the strange animal is just like that.’ Then the second man was led to the elephant. With an outstretched arm, he touched the creature on the trunk, stroking it up and down and from side to side. ‘Ah! So now I know, I truly know!’ he cried. The third man encountered the elephant’s tail and wagged it from side to side. ‘That’s it,’ he said, ‘now I know too.’

The three blind men thanked the merchant and returned to their spot under the tree, each one excited about what he had learned. The first man said, ‘This strange animal is just like two big trees, without any branches.’ Luckily, he was unable to see the expressions on his friends’ faces, for they were horrified. ‘No, no!’ they cried in disbelief at what they had just heard. The second man then said, ‘This animal is like a snake, long, strong and flexible.’ ‘What!’ exclaimed the third man. ‘You are both quite wrong. the elephant resembles a fly whisk, swishing from side to side.’

They argued about this for days, each insisting that he alone was correct, and of course, as Saxe points out in the conclusion to his rhyme — all three of them were partly in the right / and all of them were wrong. The moral is that nobody can claim to fully understand a subject until they have grasped — in this case, quite literally — the whole thing. Even then, it is never possible to know the full truth about something, simply because everyone, however knowledgeable or experienced will view it in a different way. Hence, on a deeper level, the elephant can be seen as reality, and we are all the blind men, each of us able to perceive only a tiny part of a much greater whole.

Pop Goes The Weasel: The secret meaning of nursery rhymes by Albert Jack

In short, I believe Shaun Tan has chosen the detail of the elephant’s foot in reference to this ancient parable, turning Tan’s contemporary story of Eric into a parable as well, though its moral is less clearly spelt out: Our own countries are our own separate pieces of the elephant.

This intertextual detail is followed by ordinary, more relatable ones: At the casino Eric gets onto the table and looks at a chip. At the movies he is taken by a dropped piece of popcorn.

BIG STRUGGLE

I might have found this a little exasperating, but I kept thinking about what Mum had said, about the cultural thing. Then I didn’t mind so much.

The Battle is with herself — between the self that wants to show Eric everything she knows, and the self that’s open to learning from the foreigner.

We see more of this psychological big struggle at the dinner table when ‘There was much speculation over dinner later that evening. Did Eric seem upset?’ and so on.

ANAGNORISIS

In Shaun Tan’s work, Anagnorisiss are often accompanied by images of doors and windows.

In this particular story we see Eric fly out the window on a leaf and flower sail.

It actually took us a while to realise he wasn’t coming back.

The window, however, comes before the Battle scene.

So in this case we have a door: the pantry door functioning as symbolic anagnorisis. Always look at whether a door is open or shut, because the meaning is highly dependent upon that.

NEW SITUATION

Although Eric has gone for good, he has left as a gift a different worldview for his host family. They will never see their own environs in quite the same way, ever again. They’ve seen another piece of the elephant.

This is the reason often cited for hosting exchange students. Other people think they’re doing an exchange student a favour by hosting them, without anticipating the benefits they’ll derive themselves.

Shaun Tan, in this picture book, has conveyed these two views with poignancy.

SEE ALSO

Another story with fetching illustrations of a very small character living in a human-scale world is Little Tom (1922).

Little Tom – 1922 Told by V. Tille Illustration by O. Stafl
Little Tom – 1922 Told by V. Tille Illustration by O. Stafl
Eric is a miniature, post-modern picture book by Australian author illustrator Shaun Tan. This simple story says big things about cultural difference.
Little Tom – 1922 Told by V. Tille Illustration by O. Stafl 03

The Lost Thing By Shaun Tan

“The Lost Thing” is an Australian postmodern picture book by Shaun Tan.

Interestingly, the flap copy manages to describe the theme in a metafictional kind of way:

I guess you want to know what this book is about, just by reading this cover flap. Fair enough too; time is short, lives are busy, and most smart, thinking people have better things to do than stand around looking at picture books about some big red thing being lost in a strange city…

This is basically a critique of people wandering through life not noticing things.

The narrator’s parents are too busy keeping up with current events. This reminds me of a Freakonomics podcast Why Do We Really Follow The News?

tl;dl: We follow the news to seem smart. We follow news for entertainment, treating politics like a kind of sport. But does following news really make you smarter, or do you just seem smarter? Are you following the right amount of news, or is your interest in current events perhaps leaving you without time for the small things in your immediate surrounds?

The final page is again metafictive: “And don’t ask me what the moral is.” This is a nod to the fact that children’s books are expected to have morals (even though the best and latest ones don’t at all.)

Readers will bring their own meanings to this story. I’m inclined to see stories as metaphors for autism. The boy’s massive collection of bottle tops is one clue, as is the fact that he is able to notice things others don’t. He’s offered a sign and “I can’t say I knew what it all meant.” There is a popular view of autism as illness, in which an autistic child is expected to learn to fit in with allistics in order to get on in life. Social skills can indeed be learned, but only at the expense of losing that highly individual part of yourself.

More widely, this could be a story about any child with an unusual worldview who, by social conditioning, is gradually forced into adult conformity.

CHARACTER

shaun-tan-lost-thing-characters

The first person narrator is ‘the every child’ — at the moment in children’s literature the every boy is white, and a boy, not a girl.

development-of-the-boy-shaun-tan_1000x1502

Unusually for children’s book narrators, this is a knowing adult looking back at an incident from his childhood with somewhat renewed insight. This kind of narrator is more often encountered in adult fiction (about childhood experiences) and is probably the thing that makes this story feel like a crossover book. Like other work from this artist, The Lost Thing is not a children’s book, per se. It’s more of an art artifact, or a coffee table book.

I say ‘somewhat renewed insight’ because the narrator admits on the very first page that he has forgotten a lot of stories so he’ll just tell this low-key one instead.

Pete is your stoner sage archetype who ‘has an opinion on everything’. (He seems a bit stoner because he puts ‘man’ at the ends of his sentence.) I’m thinking Harris Trinsky from Freaks and Geeks. TV Tropes calls this the Erudite Stoner.

Some stories subvert the trope. You might have some stoner dishing out advice that’s counterproductive. (E.g. Little Miss Sunshine.)

What’s Shaun Tan done here? While Pete’s advice isn’t total nonsense, it feels about as deep as a Facebook meme. Tan is definitely spoofing the archetype: “He paused for dramatic effect”.

The parents are a boring middle-aged couple who are depicted staring at the TV. The message here is that when we become absorbed in media we stop noticing things going on around us, even though they’re really obvious. And the red thing is, ironically, really obvious. It’s huge. It’s red. When you (the reader) look at that thing you can’t help but wonder what it’s for and what it does.

lost-thing

STORY WORLD OF THE LOST THING

This world is a bit steampunk. It’s full of contraptions that we don’t recognise (including the lost thing itself.)

lost-thing-steam-punk

This is a world from perhaps the 1980s, when intriguing people and advice could be garnered from the back pages of a newspaper. (I’m probably the last generation to know what sorts of things were found there.)

The television is the old cathode ray tube type which is way more fun to draw than a plasma screen, and which is dying a slow death in picture books. (For various reasons I chose to draw a CRT TV in my own picture book app Midnight Feast, even though it’s set in the near future. So I understand this completely.)

The following image is Tan’s re-imagining of a famous Australian painting by artist Jeffrey Smart:

shaun-tan-jeffrey-smart

And here’s the 1959 Smart painting, called “The Cahill Expressway”:

cahill-expressway-1959

The Cahill Expressway is in Sydney.

This painting has been the inspiration for many Australian artists, and there is even a collection of short stories, all inspired by the painting. (The book is called Expressway.)

I wonder if Smart’s painting was even influential for Colin Stimpson (though Stimpson is not Australian) when he wrote and illustrated Jack and The Baked Beanstalk.

stimpson_baked_beanstalk

STORY STRUCTURE OF THE LOST THING

SHORTCOMING

The boy as every child means that the shortcoming/need is cast upon the reader: We are all too busy fitting in to notice little things (and also, probably, very big things!) that are right under our noses. We need to stop and look at world. This is metafictive in a less obvious way; picture books require readers to slow down and study the pages in a way no other medium really does. You won’t be able to read this picture book properly unless you linger on the illustrations.

DESIRE

The boy wants to know more about this big red thing, and know that it’s happy and safe.

OPPONENT

The natural opponent is wider society, disinclined to look after the odd things that don’t fit anywhere. This ‘society’ is personified by the parents, who need the Lost Thing pointed out, and even when it’s pointed out, they take no real interest in it.

PLAN

He brings it home and houses it in the shed, but he’s worried his parents are going to find it.

So when he happens upon an advertisement in the back of the newspaper he goes on a mission to find out where this thing fits in.

BIG STRUGGLE

The big struggle is the mythic journey that the boy must embark upon after he finds the sign with the squiggly arrow. It’s a battle finding out where the Lost Thing fits because he has to work it out himself.

ANAGNORISIS

The anagnorisis is symbolised with a literal door open, and a big red button. The boy learns that there is a whole other world full of non-conforming things right behind the boring veneer of society.

NEW SITUATION

The unhappy ending is that this boy is an adult now and can hardly remember any of the amazing things he knew of as a child.

RESONANCE

The idea that adults don’t pay enough attention once we monotropically become sophisticated workers with specialised skills is not new since the smartphone, in case you were wondering. It’s an old idea and I doubt it’s going anywhere soon.

The following illustration is from 1966.

Lift Up Thine Eyes Norman Rockwell 1966
Lift Up Thine Eyes Norman Rockwell 1966

The Rabbits by John Marsden and Shaun Tan

The Rabbits by John Marsden and Shaun Tan is an example of a modern environmental picture book, which critiques the historical environmental disaster which was the introduction of rabbits into Australia. Much has already been said about that. John Marsden has done a couple of interesting things with the traditional story structure, especially in the final two steps, which is what I’d like to write about here.

Shaun Tan writes about his work on his own blog. I highly recommend taking a look at Tan’s entry on The Rabbits if you haven’t already.

STORY STRUCTURE OF THE RABBITS

SHORTCOMING

The native creatures are not very numerous. They are vulnerable to invasion.

DESIRE

At first they want to get to know the rabbits. There aren’t many rabbits. But after a while too many rabbits come.

OPPONENT

Now the rabbits become the opponents.

PLAN

Unfortunately for the native creatures, there is no real plan other than to try and protect themselves.

BIG STRUGGLE

“Sometimes we had fights … We lost the fights.”

The main big struggle page is the double spread in which the children are stolen. The reader has already realised that this tale is an allegory for the white invasion of Australia and the decimation of Aboriginal peoples. The stolen children remains one of the most egregious politically sanctioned crimes in Australia today, so this part is treated very carefully: Each word is separated within the illustration, giving it due weight.

the rabbits internal image

ANAGNORISIS

Instead of a typical anagnorisis, we have a few double spreads of reflection:

Where is the rich, dark earth,

Brown and moist?

and so on.

NEW SITUATION

Unusually for a story, this one ends with a question. “Who will save us from the rabbits?” Despite the question, the new situation is clear: The native creatures are in trouble.

COMPARE AND CONTRAST

Some picture books for children remain classics, but their environmental messages have unfortunately not aged well. A classic example of that is Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney, in which a woman creates beauty in the world by throwing a whole lot of lupins seeds about the place. Individuals seed bombing the environment based on beauty rather than proper understanding of the local ecosystem is not a message we’d likely see in a picture book published today.

Other picture books are more subtly outdated, environmentally. For example, storylines which include a child taking things home with them as souvenirs (e.g. seashells) or stories which focus on picking up litter, which is fine in of itself, but doesn’t even touch the sides of what is actually happening to our environment.

Rules Of Summer by Shaun Tan Story Structure

On the surface, Shaun Tan’s award-winning picture book Rules Of Summer is simply a list of rules. Below I take a look at how Rules Of Summer is in fact a complete narrative.

There is also a message here. Readers are asked to wonder: What are the real rules of summer? Play together. Use your imaginations. Work out your differences.

STORY STRUCTURE OF RULES OF SUMMER

Does this picture book — more like a coffee table book of art in some ways — follow the universal seven steps of narrative? Yes, it does, though it requires the reader to provide some of that story. Shaun Tan doesn’t hand it to us on a plate.

Sure enough, Rules Of Summer  is a complete narrative, and this is what makes the book resonant.

SHORTCOMING

Two brothers are faced with a long summer and they must learn to entertain themselves and how to get along.

DESIRE

They want to have fun

OPPONENT

Each other

PLAN

They turn everyday situations into imaginary scenarios to fight the boredom of long, never-ending days of summer holidays.

BIG STRUGGLE

Notice the pictures get darker. Especially the skies.

They have a fist-fight. The older brother wins. The younger brother feels isolated as he waits for an apology.

ANAGNORISIS

If he waits long enough, the older brother will eventually come back to him. This emotional state is depicted as a snowy, cold landscape, juxtaposing against the summery backdrop of an Australian summer. (And summers here in Australia are pretty much the opposite of snowy and cold.)

The Symbolism of Seasons is important in Rules of Summer.

NEW SITUATION

The boys sit together on the couch looking at the TV.

What does it mean when characters in books watch TV, or perhaps their computers? It almost always means they have stopped noticing things going on around them, preferring to slip into the world of other people’s fantasy. In Shaun Tan’s “The Lost Thing”, the parents watch TV while failing to see the amazing things all around them.

What about these boys? Why have they decided to watch TV? Perhaps it is safer, because the fantasy world on the other side of the screen feels less real than the imaginary (or real-to-them) local environs — TV as safe escape.

But have they learned to get along?

Have they learned to entertain themselves?

Blackdog by Levi Pinfold

Black Dog by Levi Pinfold, book jacket

Throughout history, folklore has included stories of dogs who roam towns at night, especially in Britain. There’s Wiltshire’s Wilton dog or the fierce mastiff that roamed the streets of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Anyone who has ever seen a huge unfriendly dog standing right outside their glass door will know how frightening it can be. Pinfold takes that fear and now we have Blackdog.

A black dog is the name given to an entity found primarily in the folklore of the British Isles. The black dog is essentially a nocturnal apparition, often said to be associated with the Devil or a hellhound. Its appearance was regarded as a portent of death. It is generally supposed to be larger than a normal dog, and often has large, glowing eyes. It is often associated with electrical storms (such as Black Shuck’s appearance at Bungay, Suffolk) and also with crossroads, places of execution and ancient pathways.

Black dog (ghost) – Wikipedia

The illustrations are so beautiful in this author/illustrator picture book I suspected the story wouldn’t quite reach the same level. Readers will have varied responses to this, but for me, the story is structurally fine but the message problematic: Readers are taught to face their fears head-on, using the metaphor of a big dog outside the house. The problem is, I’ve been trying to teach my kid the opposite when it comes to dogs, as there are a lot of dangerous ones in our neighbourhood: If a dog looks scary, it probably is! I’m therefore left wishing the dog could have been some mythical, non-existent creature. The final scene shows a young child hugging the dog in a way that dogs should never, ever be hugged, as it’s a sign of domination, and little kids tend to be right at eye-level too. Even when picture books are to be read at the metaphorical level, we can’t forget that the literal level doesn’t suddenly cease to exist. So for entirely practical/safety purposes I do have a couple of issues with this book.

ALLEGORY AND SYMBOL

There may be a good symbolic reason for using a black dog, however, as the black dog has been used as a metaphor for depression and other mental illness, i.e. The Black Dog Institute. I have absolutely no idea if this were intended by the author/illustrator, but because of the black dog connection I can’t read this book as anything other than an allegory for agoraphobia/anxiety. (Update: I’m more sure of the symbolism since happening across the history of black dogs as metaphors of mental illness.)

Let’s look at Blackdog through this lens and see if it holds up.

Agoraphobia isn’t contagious insofar as I know, so it would be unusual for an entire family to be simultaneously terrified of going outside. For this reason, I’m interpreting the family as ‘different aspects of the same individual’, in much the same way as the Winnie-the-Pooh characters are each different facets of a child’s single personality. Sometimes this person looks out of the window and is not quite so scared — other days the size of the menace is overwhelming. But there is one small part inside this individual which has sufficient bravery to face the world. This is the classic mouse tale trope, in which the smallest character is ironically the bravest. (And anyone who’s ever had a mouse infestation knows they’re not timid at all — mice are stupid brave for their size, relying on speed more than smarts!) This technique definitely lends the feel of ‘fable’ to this story, with thanks to Aesop and The Lion and the Mouse.

By going out into the world and practising exposure therapy the small child in this story shrinks the black dog down to size. Again, a metaphor for mental illness: mental illness is always a part of you, but it can be reduced to a manageable size.

A MINIATURE WORLD

blackdog levi pinfold

The presence of a massive dog temporarily turns this family into miniatures, of the type you’ve seen in The Borrowers and Stuart Little.

All three reasons are at play in Blackdog: We see the warm interior/foggy, cold exterior all at once; we see each member of the family react differently to the same event; we can easily imagine how scared we would be at this tyrannical creature outside our house.

JUXTAPOSITION OF SETTING

The snowy, ethereal setting of Blackdog is a brilliant choice, and is in stark contrast to the warm, but oddly grotesque interior:

Hope Family living room

There’s something steampunk about this house, and the scene of the bathroom and playground, with the rivets and steel, remind me very much of Shaun Tan’s The Lost Thing.

blackdog bathroom
The bathroom from Levi Pinfold’s Blackdog
playground levi pinfold
The playground scene from Levi Pinfold’s Blackdog, in which the previously ‘elephant sized’ monster is now small enough to fit through an elephant’s trunk.
lost-thing
The Lost Thing by Shaun Tan

Though Pinfold has his own distinctive style, the colour choice, too, is very Shaun Tan, especially when you look at the accent colours. Pinfold makes use of inset thumbnails, too, and in this book we have tiny sepia drawings decorating the text. It’s tempting to skip over these thumbnails because the eye tends to linger on the full-colour spreads, but if you go back and examine them closely, these thumbnails offer the ‘alternative view’ of the story: While the full colour spreads in the first half of the story depict only the inside of the house and a little of what can be seen through the window, the thumbnails show us the massive dog outside in a long shot view of the tall, skinny house.

There’s something gothic about that house. It’s a three-storied structure with an attic which would never get approved by any local council, and must have therefore come from another era. This is the trope of the Terrifying House. But this house is both terrifying and warm.

It’s warm because it’s cosy, with the roaring fire and comfort of family. It’s cheery like a rainbow, in fact, with each room having its own dominant hue. This is more obvious when you view the various parts of this house together in a single image. Orange, yellow, green, pink…

each room different colour

But the accoutrements scattered around — the stone animals with their staring eyes, the cluttered chaos, the soap-holder that looks almost like a mechanical hand reaching into the dirty old bath, the red tricycle that will always scare anyone who ever watched Saw  — there’s something definitely spooky here. (The stone animals also remind me of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe.) And of course your warm house is also spooky… when you can never leave. The mother looks a lot like a Marionette as she clutches the jug in the orange image above. This particular form of spookiness was utilised by Neil Gaiman in Coraline.

WEATHER SYMBOLISM

Shaun Tan’s The Lost Thing — as well as his other work — features industrial smoke and city smog, but here the outside world is shrouded in a clean, forest mist — a great choice given the accepted symbolism of fog and mist. In fiction, fog equals obfuscation and mystery. In Blackdog I think it also has connections to ‘mental fug’ and not being able to see more than a couple of metres ahead, but ploughing on anyway.

WEIRD THING I DON’T GET

What on earth is a Big Jeffy, though? I expected to be rewarded with the answer after looking closely at the pictures, and I did see much earlier in the story a child’s sketch of Jeffy on the sideboard, but in the end I resorted to the internet and learned that Big Jeffy is off Sesame Street. His inclusion in this story puzzles me. Big Jeffy is a member of Little Jerry and the Monotones, supplying bass back-up for the group. He is considered to be the fourth member of the band. Maybe the author is a particular fan of Sesame Street and will reference a muppet in every picture book?  Chris Van Allsburg puts a little white dog in all of his books. (It’s not even his own dog — it was his brother-in-law’s!) I haven’t read Pinfold’s other work so I can’t tell if they also include Sesame Street characters. Also, I wouldn’t be brave enough to try those guys on copyright. It’s possible that Pinfold’s Big Jeffy has no connection to the minor Sesame Street character at all.