The Symbolism of Water Wells

Henry John Yeend King - By the Well

I didn’t have a well growing up because I didn’t live on a farm. Our water came out of the tap and that’s all I knew about the matter. But I did have a book of Mother Goose nursery rhymes illustrated by Hilda Boswell, and I also had a cat, so I knew wells were deep, dark, dangerous places.

Ding, dong, bell,
Pussy’s in the well.
Who put her in?
Little Johnny Thin.
Who pulled her out?
Little Tommy Stout.
What a naughty boy was that,
To try to drown poor pussy cat,
Who never did him any harm,
But chased all the mice in the farmer’s barn.

by William Shakespeare, maybe
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The Grim Reaper In Art And Storytelling

The Man with the Scythe exhibited 1896 Henry Herbert La Thangue 1859-1929
The Man with the Scythe exhibited 1896 Henry Herbert La Thangue 1859-1929

SLEEP AS A MINI DEATH

Adventures In Sleep from All In The Mind podcast

Scientists still don’t know why we need to sleep. Contrast that lack of full understanding with nutrition science, in which we fully understand why animals need to eat, how nutrition enters the blood stream, how it is metabolised and so on. Sleep remains far more mysterious.

But we do know more and more about sleep, partly thanks to people with disordered sleeping. Some people sleepwalk, drive cars and cook meals in their sleep. Because of this, we have come to understand that parts of the brain can be asleep while other parts remain fully awake. This also applies to the sleep deprived, who won’t notice that part of their brain is asleep while they are technically still ‘awake’, but they will know they’re not on top of their game.

The inverse of sleepwalking is sleep paralysis — a terrifying experience. This is where your brain is awake, but your body remains asleep. To make matters worse, this experience often goes hand in hand with the nightmarish visions in which dark figures seem to be creeping into the room.

In many ways, symbolically and experientially, sleep can feel like a form of death. Also, a common time to die is in the early hours, when metabolism plummets. People near death are at their most vulnerable at about four in the morning.

Visions of death near the bed are therefore commonly found in stories and art.

Death Listened to the Nightingale – The Nightingale, Edmund Dulac
illustration by the 19th century legend of illustration, Gustave Doré
illustration by the 19th century legend of illustration, Gustave Doré
Death Dealing Arrows (1903) - John Everett Millais
Death Dealing Arrows (1903) – John Everett Millais
Birkin, Charles (ed.) - The Haunted Dancers (1967) (LennyS-aMouse) grim reaper
Birkin, Charles (ed.) – The Haunted Dancers (1967) (LennyS-aMouse)

La Thangue was well-known for his realist rustic scenes. Here, uncharacteristically, he introduces a symbolic dimension to his work. A mother discovers that her young daughter has died, presumably after an illness. At the same moment, a man arrives at the gate carrying a scythe, the traditional symbol of death, the ‘grim reaper’.This rather melodramatic treatment can be compared with the more grimly realistic picture of child death Hushed, by Frank Holl, also shown in this room.

Gallery label at The Tate, July 2007
Ingrid von Dardel (Swedish, daughter of painter Nils von Dardel, 1922-1962), Figure med hjärta (Character with heart), 1948, gouache on paper, 44,5 x 36,5 cm. Special collection
Eugene Grasset December calendar

The modern Grim Reaper is more often a man, but the Black Death was seen as an old woman walking the land, with a broom and a rake. Where she raked, some survived. Where she used the broom, everybody died. Old women are more common than old men, which probably accounts for much of the opprobrium directed at old women.

The Pest passing the Mountains 1901 Theodor Kittelsen
The Pest passing the Mountains 1901 Theodor Kittelsen
Sidney H. Sime, The Shadow on the House. Illustration from Pall Mall Magazine; 1906
Sidney H. Sime, The Shadow on the House. Illustration from Pall Mall Magazine; 1906
Charles Robinson
Charles Robinson
Death on a Pale Horse, Gustave Dore, 1865
Death on a Pale Horse, Gustave Dore, 1865

Whenever folklore contains a scary old woman, later artists will always, always subvert the idea of witch-like power by depicting her as an alluring young woman.

Death and the Gravedigger by Carlos Schwabe (1866–1926)

Skeletons As Death

Not surprising, of course, that skeletons are associated with death.

The Symbolic Inverse of the Grim Reaper

In contemporary lore, death more often looks like a man. The painting below is a useful portrayal of symbolic opposites. Death is a malnourished male figure holding a scythe, whereas the inverse of death is a pregnant woman decorated in flowers and pears. The painter Ivar Arosenius did this painting three years before his own death. Perhaps he was contemplating his own demise.

Death & Life (1905) by Ivar Arosenius (1878 – 1909)
Illustration of Prince Prospero confronting the Red Death by Arthur Rackham, 1935
Illustration of Prince Prospero confronting the Red Death by Arthur Rackham, 1935

DEATH AND THE ANCIENT GREEKS

You don’t see much of Hades, God of the Underworld, in Greek art because the Ancient Greeks were so scared of him! They didn’t even want to say his name, so he goes by many other names.

Hades ruled the Underworld and was therefore most often associated with death and feared by men, but he was not Death itself — it is Thanatos, son of Nyx and Erebus, who is the actual personification of death, although Euripides’ play “Alkestis” states fairly clearly that Thanatos and Hades were one and the same deity, and gives an interesting description of Hades as being dark-cloaked and winged; moreover, Hades was also referred to as Hesperos Theos (“god of death & darkness”).

Wikipedia

STORIES WHICH PERSONIFY DEATH

Header illustration: René Bull (1872-1942) 1913 illustration for Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám

Belling The Cat

Gustav Doré The counsel held by the rats 1868

‘Belling the cat’ is idiom which means that it’s all very well to come up with good ideas as a fix, but executing those good ideas is another matter. It comes from a fable of yore, in which rats come up with a great idea for foiling a predatory cat. They’ll put a bell around its neck. But who will dare do that?

This feels like one of Aesop’s, but actually that’s unclear. It’s part of that tradition, though.

Jean de La Fontaine (1621–1695) included this story in his book “Fables”. It still says something very true about committees and hierarchy and how things get done (or not). Wikipedia sums it up nicely: This fable is about ‘the fundamental opposition between consensus and individualism’.

The Council of the Rats

OLD Rodilard, a certain cat,
Such havoc of the rats had made,
’Twas difficult to find a rat
With Nature’s debt unpaid.
The few that did remain,
To leave their holes afraid,
From usual food abstain,
Not eating half their fill.
And wonder no one will,
That one, who made on rats his revel,
With rats passed not for cat, but devil.
Now, on a day, this dread rat-eater,
Who had a wife, went out to meet her;
And while he held his caterwauling,
The unkilled rats, their chapter calling,
Discussed the point, in grave debate,
How they might shun impending fate.
Their dean, a prudent rat,
Thought best, and better soon than late,
To bell the fatal cat;
That, when he took his hunting-round,
The rats, well cautioned by the sound,
Might hide in safety underground.
Indeed, he knew no other means.
And all the rest
At once confessed
Their minds were with the dean’s.
No better plan, they all believed,
Could possibly have been conceived;
No doubt, the thing would work right well,
If any one would hang the bell.
But, one by one, said every rat,
“I’m not so big a fool as that.”
The plan knocked up in this respect,
The council closed without effect.
And many a council I have seen,
Or reverend chapter with its dean,
That, thus resolving wisely,
Fell through like this precisely.

To argue or refute,
Wise counselors abound;
The man to execute
Is harder to be found.

STORYTELLING NOTES

While fables use nameless animals to stand in as proxy humans, this poem opens by giving ‘a certain cat’ an individuating name — the name of Rodilard. This name is made up for the purposes of the poem and remains associated with this particular work: Rodilard is from Latin rodo (“gnaw”) and lardum “lard”. I imagine a few people have named their pet cats Rodilard.

In stories across history, especially in children’s stories, a cat often functions as the Minotaur opponent. This is very frequently the case in stories about mice and rats. He (and he is almost always masculo-coded) will be an irredeemable murderer, because that is part of his nature. Everyone else has no choice but to either kill him or protect themselves. As the poem states explicitly, this kind of opponent is basically ‘the devil’. And devils aren’t that interesting in their own right. A story with a Minotaur/devil opponent will be about the conflict that happens between his victims.

It’s therefore interesting that this cat has ‘a wife’. I think this is comically interesting for precisely the reason that Minotaur opponents have no ‘humanity’ (and family indicates humanity), but also because cats don’t have wives; this tom is out on the prowl, clearly. The story requires a reason to keep the Minotaur opponent occupied with something other than food. Another base instinct.

First, though, the poem depicts a world of ‘havoc’. This cat has been causing upset for quite some time. Like many children’s books in particular, the story opens in the iterative, describing what has been going on every day. Now it will switch to the singulative: Now, on a day…

It’s significant that ‘the dean’ comes up with the idea rather than, say, an underling. People in charge are good at coming up with ideas that will put underlings in danger rather than themselves. Bob Dylan’s song “Masters of War” is all about that.

Come you masters of war
You that build the big guns
You that build the death planes
You that build all the bombs
You that hide behind walls
You that hide behind desks
I just want you to know
I can see through your masks

Masters of War, Bob Dylan

In this case, the dean of a chapter of rats doesn’t have sufficient power to force an underling rat to bell the cat, so the meeting closes with the idea tabled and no plan. While other stories would start right about now, this story ends before it kicks off, because not a single character dares carry it out.

In case the reader has failed to realise what the rats realised, four lines at the end summarise the message for us.

We can extrapolate that the rat community continues to suffer, with the cat keeping the rat population down. Rats are not typically sympathetic characters in stories, which makes them an appropriate choice for this particular fable.

CATS AND MICE IN ART

Cat Calendar art c. 1980s Gary Patterson (1941-present)
Iliane Roels, 1969
Iliane Roels, 1969
Mouse Club Rules by Louis William Wain (1860-1939)
Mouse Club Rules by Louis William Wain (1860-1939)

See also:

Strat and Chatto

ISLAND OF THE SKOG

The Island of the Skog is a 1973 American picture book by Steven Kellogg which is basically an allegory for cosy colonialism. There is an animated version, including a clear ‘belling the cat’ scene. The mice, who have fled persecution as ‘underdogs’ and decided to make a new life on an almost deserted island, know they must first defeat the Skog, fearsome by reputation. They come up with a plan, but who will carry it out?

Listen to Betsy and Kate discuss The Island of the Skog on the Fuse 8 n Kate podcast.

Header image: Gustav Doré The counsel held by the rats, 1868.

Chimneys In Art And Storytelling

Fred Cecil Jones (British,1891-1956) - Chimney stacks and winding ways, 1936

Chimneys are inherently scary. A few years ago I turned up at our local country bookclub and assumed the host had been slow cooking meat for dinner. Others entered one by one and assumed the same. The grim truth was revealed; a possum had fallen down the chimney. I won’t go into further details because they are gruesome and tortuous. But I’ve heard the story more than once. Owning a chimney, at least in Australia and New Zealand, puts wildlife at risk.

Certain wildlife is attracted to chimneys, sometimes because they’re trying to find a hidey-hole to escape a predator, and sometimes, I wonder, if they are attracted to the heat in wintertime.

The Crows of Pearblossom by Aldous Huxley illustrated by Barbara Cooney (1917-2000) published in 1967
The Crows of Pearblossom by Aldous Huxley illustrated by Barbara Cooney (1917-2000) published in 1967
Continue reading “Chimneys In Art And Storytelling”

Egg Symbolism

Carlos Marchiori Illustrations for Edith Fowke - Sally Go Round The Sun 300 Songs, Rhymes and Games of Canadian Children (1969) hen

Eggs are common ingredients in modern cooking. Likewise, throughout the history of folklore and fairy stories, eggs are a common ingredient in magic spells. Anyone who has kept chickens knows that poultry regularly go off the lay. If your chickens are hungry, stressed, clucky or sick you won’t get any eggs. Before modern chicken farms, eggs were a luxury food item.

The Fireside Cookbook by James Beard. Illustrations by Alice and Martin Provensen. Simon and Schuster, 194, eggs
The Fireside Cookbook by James Beard. Illustrations by Alice and Martin Provensen. Simon and Schuster, 1949
Garrett Price (1896-1979) 1954 kitchen curried egg
Garrett Price (1896-1979) 1954

Symbolic Egg Associations

  • birth
  • hidden life
  • potent life force
  • immortality
  • new life and rebirth (Easter) — classic masculine mythic stories will include a rebirth. Keep an eye out for egg symbolism at this point.
  • pregnant bellies (in both shape and contents)
  • food
A-Ladybird-Easter-egg-by-Harry-Wingfield
A Ladybird Easter egg by Harry Wingfield

The World Egg

Roger Duvoisin. The World in the Candy Egg. Text by Alvin Tresselt

According to various mythologies, the universe is thought to have hatched from an egg. The egg origin story has been told by the Celts, Hindus, Egyptians, Greeks and Phoenicians among others. The details vary:

  • The egg comes from primeval waters, incubated by a bird
  • The bird is a goose (Hamsa) according to Hindu belief. The yolk becomes Heaven, the white becomes Earth.
  • The bird is a hen according to Japanese Shinto tradition. The heavier parts became the Earth, the lighter parts became Heaven.
  • The universe exists in a massive egg standing upright.

The Philosopher’s Egg

The egg is important to the ancient study of alchemy, the symbolic place where great transformation takes place. The egg is thought to contain the seed of spiritual life.

The Djinn

There are a number of origin stories relating to the Djinn (genies, but more complicated). One origin story is very much like that of Adam and Eve: God created the first male Djinn from burning wind, and only then created a mate because men require mates. Their union resulted in 30 eggs. Each egg released a different kind of Djinn.

Easter Eggs

A Victorian postcard

Easter started out as a celebration of the Goddess Eostre. (The hormone estrogen is related to this name.)

Christians now utilise this holiday to commemorate the death of Christ and resurrection. The symbolism crosses over: Both are about new life and hope.

Wordless picture book Up and Up by Shirley Hughes is an example of a carnivalesque story which features a surprising egg (as a fantasy portal).

Egg Superstition

According to an old Ozark superstition, if a young woman boils an egg, removes the yolk, fills the egg with salt, & eats it before bedtime, she will dream of her future husband bringing her water to quench her thirst.

Sarah Nour

British sailors believed that if you ate eggs, you needed to crush the shels. Otherwise witches or evil spirits could sail the seas inside the eggshells and sink ships with their magic.

Sarah Nour

Oversized Eggs

Storytellers seem to really enjoy the idea of massive eggs. There are of course many examples of children’s stories featuring oversized objects and exaggerations of differential scale, but perhaps a disproportionate number of massive eggs?

Tove Jansson (1914-2001)
Leonard Weisgard illustration from The Golden Egg Book, with text by Margaret Wise Brown
Leonard Weisgard illustration from The Golden Egg Book, with text by Margaret Wise Brown

Below, another book making use of the egg shape for frames in a story about chickens.

illustrator unknown, 1956
Busch, Wilhelm, Herach, 1908 Happy Easter
Busch, Wilhelm, Herach, 1908 Happy Easter

We may laugh at the cartoon above, in which a rabbit shits out the chocolate eggs, but that same year, a similar image appeared in an actual children’s book.

HASENBUCH (1908) K.F.E. von Freyhold

Here are more images from the same book.

Eggs in Fairy Tales

If we take anything from fairy tales at all it is this: Do not eat the food that they give you. You will be drawn irreversibly into a world that is not your own. For this reason, fairy tale spells often recommend something that is food adjacent. When it comes to eggs, rather than eating the egg itself (a luxury item), the spell might advise to eat the sweat of an egg.

Which Came First?

Augustus Leopold Egg – A Teasing Riddle

The chicken was in the egg and the egg was in the chicken

Angelus Silesius

Green Eggs and Ham by Dr Seuss draws more on the colour green as something unnatural than upon ancient ideas around eggs. Seuss was writing in a time when people commonly ate eggs and processed meats for their breakfast.

Egg Heads

Binette Schroeder (German, b.1939) - Aurora
Binette Schroeder (German, b.1939) – Aurora
Peter Sheaf Hersey Newell, (1862-1924) egg
Peter Sheaf Hersey Newell, (1862-1924)
The Sun Egg - by Elsa Beskow, 1932 Swedish
The Sun Egg – by Elsa Beskow, 1932 Swedish

The Poisonous Egg

Don’t you know that eggs are poison Poison to Nomes, Illustration by John R. Neill, Ozma of Oz

The Nome King had left his throne and pressed through his warriors to the front ranks, so he could see what was going on; but as he faced Ozma and her friends the Scarecrow, as if aroused to action by the valor of the private, drew one of Billina’s eggs from his right jacket pocket and hurled it straight at the little monarch’s head.It struck him squarely in his left eye, where the egg smashed and scattered, as eggs will, and covered his face and hair and beard with its sticky contents.”Help, help!” screamed the King, clawing with his fingers at the egg, in a struggle to remove it.”An egg! an egg! Run for your lives!” shouted the captain of the Nomes, in a voice of horror.And how they did run! The warriors fairly tumbled over one another in their efforts to escape the fatal poison of that awful egg, and those who could not rush down the winding stair fell off the balcony into the great cavern beneath, knocking over those who stood below them.Even while the King was still yelling for help his throne room became emptied of every one of his warriors, and before the monarch had managed to clear the egg away from his left eye the Scarecrow threw the second egg against his right eye, where it smashed and blinded him entirely. The King was unable to flee because he could not see which way to run; so he stood still and howled and shouted and screamed in abject fear.

L. Frank Baum; “Ozma of Oz”

Header illustration by Carlos Marchiori for Edith Fowke – Sally Go Round The Sun 300 Songs, Rhymes and Games of Canadian Children (1969).

Symbolism of Shoes, Feet and Footprints

The Modern Magic Shoes by Maxfield Parrish

Shoes and footwear contain plenty of symbolic meaning. Horse shoes are different again, but I’ll include horse shoes here for comparison.

Early Nancy Drew stories were high concept hooks which generally paired two disparate things which are nonetheless related in some obscure way. In The Clue of the Tapping Heels, those two things are tap dancing and morse code. Tap dancing is a ‘girl’ thing; Morse code is a detective thing. Both involve tapping, voila, there’s the basis for a story.

Why does the imagery of disembodied shoes with a life of their own intrigue us? Why does it work beautifully as horror comedy? There’s a long fairytale history of dancing shoes. Some of these stories end in genuine horror and are commonly dialled down for a young audience.

In fairytales, shoes come in a variety of types: ballet shoes, slippers (all Medieval shoes were like slippers), moccasins, clogs, sandals and other marvellous footwear. One example of marvellous footwear were seven league boots.

Seven League Boots

Tom Thumb in his Seven League Boots by Tenggren
Tom Thumb in his Seven League Boots by Tenggren

A league is an ancient measure of distance, equivalent to about 3 miles. Seven league boots come up frequently in fairy tales. These were boots which allowed the wearer to traverse vast distances in a single leap. The mythology clearly influenced the modern superhero narrative. In children’s literature, Roald Dahl‘s The BFG is also able to traverse vast distances. Ostensibly this is because the character is a giant and has very long legs, but the distances covered suggests he is aided by some kind of fairytale magic akin to the seven league boots of fairytale.

Monro Scott illustration of the witch from the story 'Sweetheart Roland' from the book 'Grimm's Fairy Tales' illustrated by Monro Scott Orr, 1919
Monro Scott illustration of the witch from the story ‘Sweetheart Roland’ from the book ‘Grimm’s Fairy Tales’ illustrated by Monro Scott Orr, 1919

More widely, then, shoes symbolise travel. This symbolic meaning precedes the era of quick and easy motorised transport. Your shoes were your vehicle.

Dugald Stewart Walker illustrator, Sara Teasdale (1884-1933) writer, 'Rainbow gold; poems old and new selected for boys and girls' 1922-6. Similar to seven league boots: winged feet.
Dugald Stewart Walker illustrator, Sara Teasdale (1884-1933) writer, ‘Rainbow gold; poems old and new selected for boys and girls’ 1922-6. Similar to seven league boots: winged feet.

In some Northern European territories (The Netherlands, Germany and Iceland) children leave shoes out instead of stockings. Father Christmas fills the shoes with gifts. The symbolism is two-fold:

  • Father Christmas has himself made an arduous journey
  • His gifts help children with their ‘journey’ over the coming year. (In The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, Father Christmas appears — weirdly — and gives the children gifts which are very clearly meant to help them on their journeys.)
J.C. Leyendecker- Christmas stocking

Boots which take you to faraway places very quickly go back further than fairytales, back to Greek and Roman legend. Hermes and Perseus have winged sandals, basically the mythological equivalent of flying shoes found in fairytales.

Shoes of Invisibility

In fairytale, certain shoes can also render one invisible. In fantasy, various garments are used in this way, commonly coats and cloaks, or a pelt if you’re a shepherd boy. Caps and hats are also common.

Uncomfortable Shoes

Iron shoes come up in fairy tales all the time. They’re sometimes a punishment, sometimes a trial to be endured, in order to achieve something or expiate some ill. Everything in fairy tales is both real and a metaphor. That’s the way that they work. In this case … (it’s) all the horrible poisonous narratives that women kind of have to drag around with them in order to navigate the world. Early on in this story, Tabitha is thinking about shoes and thinking about, isn’t it odd that in stories, the shoes that men get to wear make everything easier – their seven-league boots or their winged sandals – but the shoes women wear are made of glass or are iron shoes that are heated red hot? I definitely feel like there are two governing metaphors in this. These are two women who have very different lives. One of them is governed entirely by constraint. She can only survive if she holds completely still, and someone else has to constantly endure hardship. These are equal and opposite terrible situations.

Amal El-Mohtar
First Pair of Heels by Amos Sewell (1901-1983) The Saturday Evening Post cover March 1956
First Pair of Heels by Amos Sewell (1901-1983) The Saturday Evening Post cover March 1956
Clarence Coles Phillips (October 3, 1880 – June 13, 1927) shoes
Clarence Coles Phillips (October 3, 1880 – June 13, 1927)
Panic, Topor, City Lights, 1965 the first high heels
Panic, Topor, City Lights, 1965 the first high heels

Even more famous than the iron shoes of fairytales: The glass slipper dropped by Cinderella. Early versions of Cinderella have no glass slipper. It was an old European tradition that a potential suitor would show his sincerity by making a pair of fur boots for his potential wife. The word for ‘fur’ was vair. Scholars think that vair was confused with verre, meaning glass. The glass slipper may have started as a mistranslation but caught on because this is a beautifully resonant and unexpected detail.

Untitled 1936 Claude Cahun 1894-1954

There’s another similar tale from ancient Greece.

Rhodopis” is an ancient tale about a Greek slave girl who marries the king of Egypt. The story was first recorded by the Greek historian Strabo in the late first century BC or early first century AD and is considered the earliest known variant of the “Cinderella” story.

Wikipedia

In that tale, Psammetichos catches sight of Rhodopis’s sandal and basically becomes sexually aroused.

The Shoe As Sexual Symbol

Feet and footwear are traditionally linked to sexuality. Going back to the Cinderella example, the old word for fur happens to share its roots with a word meaning ‘sheath’.

Shoes and slippers are historically very sexualised in parts of China, where foot-binding practices occurred until late in the 20th century. In Northern China the word for ‘slipper’ and ‘mutual agreement’ are homophones, which is partly why slippers are given as wedding presents.

The Shoe As Status Symbol

Perhaps more than anything else worn on the body, shoes indicate how much money you have. While it’s always been possible to buy a cheaper coat or a cheaper dress, shoes have until very recently remained a major expense even for middle class families.

This is why shoes are a status symbol. Since slaves generally went barefoot, to wear shoes meant you were not a slave.

But going barefoot for free children equals more freedom.

The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes, an Easter story by Dubois Hayward with illustrations by Marjorie Flack (1939). Nowadays considered a feminist and anti-racist statement. Cottontail succeeds in a jack rabbit’s world, all while teaching her children to be useful and self-sufficient.

The gold shoes in this story function as seven league boots from classic fairytales.

In the fairytale “Puss In Boots“, the high boots worn by the cat are a caricature of pretended high social status. This is a classic example of ‘dress for the job you want, not for the job you have.’

Shoes As Ownership Of Territory

In many sacred places around the world visitors must remove shoes before entering. Why is that? It’s partly about dirt and wear-and-tear inside ancient buildings but there’s more to it than that. Why would the wearing of shoes offend the gods?

Symbolically, when you place your foot upon the ground, you are taking possession of the earth beneath it. This is why some people get so irrationally cranky about trespassers.

Territory at a holy site does not symbolically belong to humans. It belongs to the supernatural realm. This is the main reason why you take your shoes off. You are acknowledging to the gods that you are a visitor in this space and have no claim to sacred territory. The space really belongs to the gods.

Footprints

Мануйлов (Мануилов) Михаил Владимирович (1918–1980-е) «Следы дикаря» 1970
Мануйлов (Мануилов) Михаил Владимирович (1918–1980-е) «Следы дикаря» 1970

Famously, there’s a scene in Robinson Crusoe where the hero discovers a footprint. At this moment he realises he is not alone. Any scene in which one character discovers footprints will be reminiscent of this famous one.

Illustration by Louis Wain of Robinson Crusoe as a cat
Ernest Aris (English, 1882-1963) from Twinkletoes and Nibblenuts written by May Byron, 1915 footprints
Ernest Aris (English, 1882-1963) from Twinkletoes and Nibblenuts written by May Byron, 1915

There’s also a footprints sequence in The Wind In The Willows when Ratty goes searching for Mole, who has been attracted to the home of the mysterious Badger.

Oftentimes when we go somewhere, we may aim to leave nothing behind but we can’t help but leave footprints. Therefore, footprints are of use to characters in chase scenes, whether in detective stories, thrillers or Westerns. Footprint is a proxy for any sort of left-behind-evidence, especially in stories relying on easily recognisable tropes, such as picture books. The footprint is the ‘storybook forensic evidence’.

Virgil Finlay (1914 - 1971) 1939 illustration for Seven Footprints to Satan by A. Merritt
Virgil Finlay (1914 – 1971) 1939 illustration for Seven Footprints to Satan by A. Merritt

In the winter of 1855, after a heavy fall of snow, residents across a large area of the county of Devon, in the South West of the UK, awoke to find a mysterious trail of prints in the snow. Looking like an hoof, the single-file line of prints allegedly covered a distance of some 100 miles, ignoring obstructions in their path and continuing over high walls hayricks and even the roofs of houses. No satisfactory explanation has ever been given for the event, which became known as the Great Devon Mystery.

Although the case has been widely reported, interestingly it is not the only time that this has happened. Very similar lines of marks have been found in different parts of the world over the last 175 years or so. It’s just that the other cases are much more obscure.

The Folklore Podcast

Shoes As Amulets

As a child I was never allowed to put a new box of shoes on the table. If I ever did this, it elicited a cry of alarm from my superstitious parent. Depending on what you do with them, shoes can bring both bad luck and good luck.

Concealed shoes hidden in the fabric of a building have been discovered in many European countries, as well as in other parts of the world, since at least the early modern period. Independent researcher Brian Hoggard has observed that the locations in which these shoes are typically found – in chimneys, under floors, above ceilings, around doors and windows, in the roof – suggest that some may have been concealed as magical charms to protect the occupants of the building against evil influences such as demons, ghosts and witches. Others may have been intended to bestow fertility on a female member of the household, or been an offering to a household deity.

Wikipedia
Illustrator makes use of the concealed shoe in her illustration of Snow White's pregnant mother.
Illustrator makes use of the concealed shoe in her illustration of Snow White’s pregnant mother. Can you see it in the wall?

Cats … shoes … bottles … coins. At first glance these objects don’t seem to have much in common. But these, and many other objects, are all items which have been found concealed within the fabric of old buildings during renovations or other works. Why were they placed there?

Joining host Mark Norman on this episode of The Folklore Podcast is Dr Ceri Houlbrook, an historical ethnographer and archaeologist who works as research assistant on the Concealed Revealed project, which is asking just this question.

Abandoned Shoes

In many ways, shoes function the same as a coat. A pair of abandoned shoes, like a coat, suggests the presence of a person, even when the person is not there.

Wilhelm Trübner (German, 1851 - 1917) Balcony and Interior at Starnberg Lake, 1912
Wilhelm Trübner (German, 1851 – 1917) Balcony and Interior at Starnberg Lake, 1912

Horse Shoes

First, horse shoes may be older technology than you realise:

Writers and artists like Thomas Carlyle and John Ruskin popularized the image of the Middle Ages as an unmechanical, rustic arcadia. This latest revision has greatly influenced our own view of the Middle Ages, and has given rise to the idea that medieval society was both untechnological, and uninterested in technology.

This notion is altogether mistaken. The Middle Ages not only produced illuminated books, but also eyeglasses, not only the cathedral, but also the coal mine. Revolutionary changes occurred in both primary industry and manufacturing. The first recorded instance of mass production — of horse-shoes — occurred during the Middle Ages.

Home by Witold Rybczynski
Shoeing exhibited 1844 Sir Edwin Henry Landseer

Okay so horse shoes are technically also ‘footwear’ but the symbolism behind horse shoes has nothing to do with the symbolism behind human shoes. The symbolism of the horse shoe comes partly from its shape.

The horse shoe is shaped like an arc. The arc was one of the first sacred symbols to represent the vault of the Heavens.

Upside down, the horse shoe resembles the last letter in the Greek alphabet, the omega.

Turn it again. Now you have a crescent moon. Now the shape invokes the Moon Goddess. Added to that, it kind of reminds people of yoni (the womb). (Does everything end up reminding people of penises, breasts and wombs?)

Apart from that, the horse shoe is made of iron, a heavy, protective metal. This imbues the horse shoe with the apotropaic power of an amulet. The horse shoe is therefore a good luck charm. People nail them over doorways, give them to newlyweds as gifts.

No one can agree which way up the lucky horse shoe should go. I’ve been told to hold a wedding souvenir horseshoe as if it’s a vessel, so its imaginary luck can’t ‘tip out’. But in the pre-Christian era, it was meant to be held the other way so it resembles the sky (and also the womb, with a vaginal opening the right way down, presumably).

Also, iron was thought to repel fairies. That exaplains why horseshoes, nails and shears have all been used to keep travellers and newborns safe. Smiths and smithys, who worked with iron, were seen as magical places in former times, probably because their work was highly skilled and so important to humanity. On top of that, objects made of iron are clearly human constructions, and represent humans’ ability to dominate nature, with nature including evil fairies. In Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries, Evan-Wentz says that the fairies of Britian and Ireland were unable to make iron and that’s why they feared it. They may also be afraid of its magnetic properties (which is more a comment on human fear of magnetic properties: “What on earth are these two pieces of metal doing? They feel alive in my hands!.”)

Wynken, Blynken and Nod, Art by Emil Flohri
Wynken, Blynken and Nod, Art by Emil Flohri
Trygve Marentius Davidsen, Norwegian illustrator (1895) shoe
Trygve Marentius Davidsen, Norwegian illustrator (1895)

WEIRD FEET IN FOLK AND FAIRYTALE

Read a lot of fairytales and you’ll soon notice how many weird feet there are. Feet which are actually hooves, chicken feet, deformed feet…

John Bauer You rogue!
John Bauer You rogue!

FURTHER READING

The shoe in Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter is especially interesting.

The Elves and the Shoemaker isn’t really about shoe symbolism despite the story being full of shoes. But it is a very interesting example of a fairytale whose meaning changed pretty much permanently after the Grimm Brothers wrote a certain version down. If shoes are important in this story, it’s because they are highly desirable. Until just two or three generations ago, footwear was very expensive.

Jeanna Bauck (Swedish painter) 1840 - 1926, Madonnan Ger Spelmannen Sin ena Sko, 1915 for 'Spelmannen som fick Madonnans guldsko' by Emil Linders in 'Bland tomtar och troll' (Among Gnomes and Trolls)
Jeanna Bauck (Swedish painter) 1840 – 1926, Madonnan Ger Spelmannen Sin ena Sko, 1915 for ‘Spelmannen som fick Madonnans guldsko’ by Emil Linders in ‘Bland tomtar och troll’ (Among Gnomes and Trolls)

SCIENCE FICTION SHOES

City of the future c 1900
City of the future c 1900

SHOE RELATED WORDS

BUSKINS: (kothorni in Greek) Buskins is a Renaissance term for the laced boots worn by actors in ancient Greek tragedy. The buskins later became elevator shoes that made the actor wearing them unusually tall to emphasize the royal status or importance of the character.

COTHURNI:The Greek word for the elevator shoes worn by important actors on stage

Header illustration: The Modern Magic Shoes by Maxfield Parrish

What does liminal mean?

Charles Harold Davis - Outside the Village 1883

Liminal is all about the concepts of transition and shifting ambiguities, categorised by disorientation and a loss of belonging. You might be in a liminal space right now.

Key questions:

  1. Do you feel a sense of belonging?
  2. Are you uncomfortable? Anxious? Feel a sense of dread?
  3. Did you choose to be here?

The days between Christmas and New Years are liminal spaces, much like airport layovers. They aren’t real. Nothing matters. Get high at 10am. Watch all 3 Lord of the Ringses. You are your own god

Kate Leth (@kateleth) December 28, 2019

Liminality is all about between-ness. If you find yourself anxiously on the threshold of something, you may be in a liminal space.

liminal space is the time between the ‘what was’ and the ‘next.’ It is a place of transition, waiting, and not knowing. Liminal space is where all transformation takes place, if we learn to wait and let it form us.

Liminal Space

betwixt or between…in a period of transition between states … [where individuals] are neither one thing nor another; or may be both; or neither here nor there; or may even be nowhere

Victor Turner, anthropologist

If you’re on one side of a boundary, you could be in a liminal space. You might even be straddling it. Not just boundaries, either: borders, frontiers, no-man’s-land, the out-of-bounds area of the school playground.

Perhaps it’s dawn or dusk — on the border between night and day.

You’re crossing a river by bridge or by boat.

John Clayton Adams - The reed cutter's family
John Clayton Adams – The reed cutter’s family

You’re in some kind of transition. You’re between schools, between jobs, between friendships. You’re engaged to be married but haven’t set a date. You have a new partner but haven’t changed your socials status. Doubly liminal if you’re both sitting where land meets sea, contemplating ‘he loves me, he loves me not’ with a flower.

Young Dreams 1887 James Clarke Hook 1819-1907
Young Dreams 1887 James Clarke Hook 1819-1907

You’re waiting for what’s to come.

You’re where land meets water. Dark water. You don’t know what’s down there. You almost feel you’re a part of it.

Jules-Alexis Muenier - The Vagabonds 1896
Jules-Alexis Muenier — The Vagabonds 1896

You live on a docked house boat.

You’re climbing a fence. Or thinking about climbing a fence — in the preliminal phase of climbing a fence. You don’t know what’s in that thicket of trees on the other side.

Henry Towneley Green - A Sussex Glade
Henry Towneley Green – A Sussex Glade
The book of wonder, a chronicle of little adventures at the edge of the world ca.1915 by Lord Dunsany illustrated by Sidney Herbert Sime
The book of wonder, a chronicle of little adventures at the edge of the world ca.1915 by Lord Dunsany illustrated by Sidney Herbert Sime

You’re on the edge of a village, trees are getting thicker. You’re about to enter the forest… or your dark subconscious.

You live in outer suburbia, betwixt urban and rural worlds. Shaun Tan made a picture book compilation about that particular liminal space. “‘It opened into another room altogether… an impossible room somewhere between the others.”

by Shaun Tan

You live between cultures — one subculture at home, another at school.

You’re no longer a kid but haven’t yet launched as an adult. You have your learner’s permit but can’t yet drive on your own. You’ve outgrown the little chairs but you sit at the kids’ table over Christmas dinner.

You are passing through a place ‘of transit, not of residence’ (theorist James Clifford).

You’re moving to a new house — a popular way to open a children’s book. Perhaps you live in a caravan park, and have this deep-seated feeling you’re living situation is something between permanent and temporary. You might be in a “hotel, a station, airport terminal, hospital and so on: somewhere you pass through, where the encounters are fleeting, arbitrary’ (Clifford).

You’re more likely to be in a liminal space if you’re in a children’s book and that children’s book is set in the city. In children’s stories, cities are often transitional spaces, of transit rather than of residence.

Examples of these places in children’s literature are numerous: Felice Holman’s Slake’s Limbo uses both the New York subway and the Commodore Hotel as central images; in Kay Thompson’s Eloise, the Plaza Hotel becomes its own imaginative sphere for its young protagonist; in E.L. Konigsberg’s The Mixed-Up-Files of Basil E. Frankweiler, the Metropolitan Museum in New York becomes the site for exploration. Cities themselves in the modern, literary imagination are places defined by transit, ambiguity, and arbitrary interactions between random individuals. Often, liminal urban places may be perceived as symbolic microcosms of the cities where they are located.

Naomi Hamer

You’ve done something wrong, the community is throwing you out. You’re becoming an outcast. Your deputy principal is filling in the paperwork and you’re about to get expelled. You’re the black sheep of your family.

You are in the realm of the “thrice-nine kingdom”, the land of the living dead. This liminal realm lies between the world of the living and the thrice-ten kingdom, the land of the truly dead. (You’ll know you’re there because you’ll find a house on chicken legs.)

You’re not rich enough to afford a skiing holiday most of your friends are going on. But the poor kids think you’re rich.

You’re too beautiful to be human yet not quite a goddess. (Psyche had this same issue.)

You’re emigrating. This ship is your temporary home. (You’ve even brought your bird, with the birdcage functioning as symbol of a fully-contained house, in which you imagine you have all you could ever need.)

John Charles Dollman - The Immigrant's Ship
John Charles Dollman – The Immigrant’s Ship

You’re having a rough time lately, alternating between hope and hopelessness.

You’re trying to read something interesting, but your mind keeps wandering as the text makes you think of related and tangential things. Things that upset you a little, or a lot.

You’re pregnant with your first baby. People are treating you like a mother but you’re not a mother yet. You actually have no idea how that’s going to feel.

You’re walking through fog.

You’re on an international flight and you haven’t readjusted your circadian rhythms yet and lunch arrives at a weird time. Between time zones, you’re neither here nor there. Doubly liminal if the world below is about to collapse due to an eco-crisis, as in this Helen Simpson short story.

You’re in the bathroom, standing in front of a mirror. You’ll never be able to touch one half of that space between you and your mirror-self. It creeps you out. Perhaps you’re a character in a horror movie.

You’re somewhere between wake and sleep, between consciousness and unconsciousness, fantasy and reality, or slipping from consensus reality to non-consensus reality. (You’re losing your grip.)

You’re flying high in the sky, where Heaven meets Earth. Perhaps you’re An Enormous Man With Enormous Wings in a magical realist short story by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

You exist between the sacred realm and the profane (non-sacred). Tricksters exist here, as mythic projections of the magician archetype.

You’re transgender, gender fluid, in a quasi-romantic relationship, intersex, gender non-binary, queer, androgynous or somehow betwixt and between.

You see fairies. Fairies take many forms. They exist at any point on the spectrum of morality. But they tend to appear in liminal spaces, the inbetween spaces, when you’re on the cusp of something: manhood, giving birth, death.

Fairies are also ‘inbetween’ because people from antiquity neither believe in them nor disbelieve. Fairies (and related fantasy creatures) stand for what can never be truly known.

You’re a character in a portal fantasy, going through the portal (which is a liminal space).

RELATED WORDS

  • Liminoid — Another similar adjective to liminal. The liminoid has the characteristics of the liminal. But liminoid experiences are optional and don’t involve some kind of personal crisis. Graduation ceremony: liminal. Rock concert: liminoid.
  • Preliminal, liminal, postliminal — the stages of transition
  • Limen — a threshold below which a stimulus is not perceived or is not distinguished from another e.g. existing in the limen between X and Y
  • Double liminality — Purgatory is a liminal space in its own right, but many people don’t believe in it, making it doubly liminal.
  • Paracosmic realm — that space behind the big red curtain where you like to read. (Your name is Jane Eyre.)

WHY DO WE NEED THE WORD ‘LIMINAL’?

Why not just say ‘between’ or ‘border’ or any number of similar words plucked out of a thesaurus?

For starters, liminality contains layers, e.g. the doubly liminal concept of Purgatory. It’s hard to convey this layered-ness using other, more concrete words.

The painting below might depict a doubly liminal space — a train transports passengers from one side to another and it is also sunset.

John Osborn Brown - Belah Viaduct
John Osborn Brown – Belah Viaduct

Not everything that seems liminal is necessarily so. In a story, a beach may be depicted as a liminal space or, in contrast, it might be a place where the characters have fun and feel a sense of belonging. In that case, the beach is not being used in a liminal way.

Liminal space is special.

Liminality is all about ambiguity, discomfort, anxiety. A liminal space or a liminal creature is both familiar and unfamiliar — uncanny. (The dead can also be described in this way.)

Liminal situations are fluid, malleable and multi-layered.

  1. Social hierarchies can reverse, as in a carnivalesque story.
  2. Something feels weird here, but it’s never seen, never named and never known. People wouldn’t believe you if you told them about it. This is the epitome of ‘liminal’.
  3. If you’re in a liminal space you’re basically facing a moral dilemma. Your circumstance allows you to question social constructs. Which world do you want to be a part of? Once you’re in that liminal space you can choose to progress or retract, to take hold of freedom or remain in a state of metaphorical slavery.
  4. In stories, this is the bit where the main character has a Anagnorisis, or makes a moral decision.

Liminal Parts Of A Home

The parts of a home which connect to the outside are traditionally thought to be entry points for unwanted spirits and demons: windows, doors and chimneys.

Byron Crabbe - Concept Art For King Kong, 1933
Byron Crabbe – Concept Art For King Kong, 1933. Even in modern stories, the fear of liminal spaces of the home is evident.

Times Of Year

In Early Modern English these times were known as the ‘reathes of the year’.

  • Hallowe’en or May Eve
  • Yuletide (the 12 days from Christmas to January 6th)
  • On the eve of any major feast
  • New Year’s Eve
  • The eve of your birthday

Liminal Stages of Life

The following are major social or physical transitions:

  • birth
  • adolescence
  • betrothal
  • defloration/copulation
  • death
  • burial

Four life stages are especially important for women. Notice that female writers such as Alice Munro and Carol Shields focus on main woman characters at the following junctures:

  • maturing from a girl into a woman
  • development of a sexual or intimate relationship with a partner, usually a man
  • entering into matrimony
  • conception and giving birth

Often at these liminal junctures main characters feel separated and develop a self-awareness about what they’re giving up. This makes use of crossroads symbolism; by taking one path, she cuts off others.

FURTHER READING

liminal deity is a god or goddess in mythology who presides over thresholds, gates, or doorways; “a crosser of boundaries”, from Wikipedia

Sheila Egoff writes about a genre of children’s literature known as enchanted realism (similar to magical realism/fabulism) in which the child character explores an arena which is neither part of the real world nor part of the fantasy world. This might be a garden (Tom’s Midnight Garden), a wood (Enid Blyton’s The Enchanted Wood), an old house or similarly familiar space.

Header painting: Charles Harold Davis – Outside the Village 1883

The Symbolism of Crossroads

Albert Ludovici - Mr. Pecksniff Leaves for London

Crossroads in storytelling often indicated the place/time of decision. A anagnorisis occurs after the decision has been made. Character arc or penance follows. The ur-crossroads story features a character with special skills, who has supposedly traded his soul with the devil.

One such story, attached to an actual person, is the story of Robert Johnson, who was so good at guitar no one could believe he’d practised to get that expert. Robert Johnson helped the mythology along by writing a song called Crossroad.

But the mythology of the Father of Jazz goes back much further. In African folklore a deity called Esu was the guardian of the crossroads. Christianity turned this figure into the devil, feared and reviled.

Hecate was known as Queen of the Witches. She was also known as Goddess of the Crossroads, depicted in triple form.

In Celtic mythology, the corpses of people thought to be unholy were often buried at crossroads. The thinking behind this: Crossroads were the gate to the other world, so their bad souls would have no trouble departing Earth (where no one wanted them).

Japan also has a god of the crossroads, known as Chimata-no-kami (岐の神). Japanese god origin stories tend to be a bit whacky. According to the Kojiki, Chimata-no-kami was born when the god Izanagi threw away his trousers to wash himself after returning from Yomi. Crossroad symbolism works a bit differently in Japan — crossroads symbolise joining rather than division, and crossroads are therefore connected to fertility.

Edward Hopper (1882–1967) - Railroad Crossing II
Edward Hopper (1882–1967) – Railroad Crossing II

Crossroad symbolism can be seen in European fairy tale:

So the retinue was increased, and now [the twin brothers] came to a crossroad, where they said, “We’ve got to separate here, and one of us should go to the right, and the other should head off to the left.”

“Johannes Waterspring and Caspar Waterspring”, a tale from the first Grimm collection

In folk magic and myth, crossroads are magical places. All sorts of supernatural and paranormal things were thought to take place at crossroads.

In other words, crossroads are a visual representation of a moral dilemma.

Examples From Children’s Literature

"Alice asked the Cheshire Cat, who was sitting in a tree, "What road do I take?”
The cat asked, "Where do you want to go?”
"I don’t know,” Alice answered.
"Then,” said the cat, “it really doesn’t matter, does it?”
― Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures In Wonderland
“Alice asked the Cheshire Cat, who was sitting in a tree, “What road do I take?”
The cat asked, “Where do you want to go?”
“I don’t know,” Alice answered.
“Then,” said the cat, “it really doesn’t matter, does it?”
― Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland
Illustration by John Tenniel, hand coloured later

Beatrix Potter’s illustration below suggests there are three ways home. I guess the owl, symbol of wisdom, is sitting on the sign pointing to the right way.

Beatrix Potter illustration for Wee Wee Wee I Can't Find My Way Home

In 101 Dalmatians, a chase scene includes a crossroads shot, indicating that there are various possible routes. We don’t know if the villain will find the puppies because this is a maze-like world. It’s easy to get lost in this snowy landscape.

crossroads 101 Dalmatians

I made use of crossroads myself in our 2011 picture book app The Artifacts, to end the story, but also to create an aperture ending, which encourages the reader to extrapolate what happens next. After filling his mind with knowledge, there’s more than one path this young man could have taken in life. Armed with knowledge after a lifetime of reading, more than one choice opens before him.

The Artifacts sheep moon
The Artifacts, Slap Happy Larry, 2011.

We also see symbolic crossroads in:

Thomas Edwin Mostyn - Which Way to Bushey
Thomas Edwin Mostyn – Which Way to Bushey

CROSSROADS AND INNS

In Medieval Europe you’d often find an inn at crossroads for the simple reason that crossroads have excellent foot traffic.

These inns mostly catered to travellers, not to locals. Bread and beer could be bought by locals, but villages wouldn’t have other sources of prepared foods. Meals were normally cooked at home. (Medieval people ate a lot of lentils and onions. They didn’t use recipe books for the simple reason that most people couldn’t read.)

Crossroads in Utopia

Crossroads also present opportunity for new beginnings and exciting adventures, so it’s worth pointing out that in Arcadian settings crossroads still exist.

Brian Paterson (1949) Foxwood Tales

FURTHER READING

The crossroads shot from North By Northwest
The crossroads shot from North By Northwest

THE ROAD NOT TAKEN BY ROBERT FROST

Illustration (1969) by Saul Steinberg
Illustration (1969) by Saul Steinberg

The famous poem by Robert Frost is often read at graduation ceremonies. One common interpretation: Take the lesser trod path because that’s the one that will lead you to success.

Another interpretation: Until further notice no path taken seems like our choice at this moment.

This is why “The Road Not Taken” is said to be the most misread poem in America. However, works of art change their meanings as culture changes, and it’s fully expected that in a culture of individualism, where people are considered to have full control over their lives (and success), that Frost’s poem would be freshly interpreted.

This isn’t to deny Frost’s intent. He lived in a different time.

The poem’s speaker tells us he shall be telling,” at some point in the future, of how he took the road less traveled by, yet he has already admitted that the two paths “equally lay / In leaves” and “the passing there / Had worn them really about the same.” So the road he will later call less traveled is actually the road equally traveled. The two roads are interchangeable.

According to this reading, then, the speaker will be claiming “ages and ages hence” that his decision made “all the difference” only because this is the kind of claim we make when we want to comfort or blame ourselves by assuming that our current position is the product of our own choices (as opposed to what was chosen for us or allotted to us by chance). The poem isn’t a salute to can-do individualism; it’s a commentary on the self-deception we practice when constructing the story of our own lives. 

The Paris Review

These days we have a word to describe this cognitive bias: Choice supportive bias or Post-purchase rationalisation, when applied to consumerism.

The Paris Review article mentions a Ford commercial from my own country of New Zealand. The American writer expresses surprise that a New Zealand audience would know a classic poem from a country 8000 miles away, completely underestimating, as usual, the influence that America exacts upon the rest of the Western world, for better and for worse.

DOORS AS INTERIOR CROSSROADS

William McGregor Paxton - The Other Door, 1917
William McGregor Paxton – The Other Door, 1917

When a character is faced with a choice or a moral dilemma, they are often depicted outside standing near a crossroad or at a diverging path but if they are inside a building, two doors side by side can function in the same way. Perhaps crossroads align more with stories about people who go out on a journey (mythic structure) whereas the doors here suggest domesticity. Domestic stories tend to be circular in structure. The gender of the subject in the above painting is no accident, as women and girls align with domesticity.

Header painting: Albert Ludovici – Mr. Pecksniff Leaves for London

A Run of Bad Luck by Annie Proulx

a run of bad luck

“A Run of Bad Luck” is a short story by Annie Proulx, first published in 1987, collected in Heart Songs, 1999.

  • I find this story interesting for its themes around the problematic concept of luck, and the role of decision-making in making one’s own ‘luck’.
  • The opening paragraphs describing the mother in the kitchen is an excellent example of how kitchen work provides opportunities for highly symbolic body language beats. ‘She sawed the loaf of bread into thick slices and stacked them on a plate, set out a pound of butter already hacked and scored by knife blades.’
  • Proulx treats the house like a stage, introducing first the mother in the kitchen, next the husband enters, followed by the sons all coming in for something to eat. Larry McMurtry did the same in the opening of Lonesome Dove.
  • ‘hung up the wool jackets that held the shapes of their shoulders, the bend of their arms’
  • When the point of view switches to Haylett’s after the kitchen scene, sticklers for ‘head hopping’ might complain, but this is a good example of a writer gently leading us towards a bigger change in point of view. The ‘camera’ focuses on Haylett even before the double line break. (The double line break is for the change in time — next morning — as much as for the change in point of view.)
  • Proulx doesn’t care if a verb is transitive or intransitive. She uses it as she sees fit: ‘Something outside, the garbage can cover, hurled along, stuttering metal.’ Hurl is a transitive verb — it takes an object — but she’s using it as an intransitive verb. This has the effect of making the environment sound like it is alive.

WHAT HAPPENS IN “A RUN OF BAD LUCK”

CHARACTERS

Mae — mother of four sons. Not a big part of the story, though the narration opens on Mae in the kitchen and her one-sided conversation with the dog, which allows a bit of backstory about the family. “tall and stooped with smooth, wood-colored skin that made Haylett say “Indian” to her.’ This is an old-fashioned family with simple needs — Mae and Haylett are impressed by such things as an electric kettle. Before we know that Ray is sleeping with Julia, Mae tells us that she likes Julia and encourages her son to get back with her if he can. Amando has obviously given up on the relationship though. The detail of the electric kettle, picked by Julia and Amando, and how Mae kept the green paper with silver bells on it suggests that maybe Mae is incapable of looking beneath surface niceties. By focusing on that gift she’s not delving into the real interpersonal issues playing out all around her.

Haylett — father of four sons, husband of Mae and dismissive of her. As a form of meditation (we deduce), he has the practice of writing the daily weather in a notebook. The point of view switches to Haylett’s after the kitchen scene. He likes to get up real early in the morning and start the fire, ‘He liked turning the dark chill away’.

Clover — son of Haylett. Clover is superstitious and believes that by talking about something in advance (e.g. hunting) you can ruin your luck. Clover might say something like, “Don’t count your chickens before they hatch.” He asks his mother for brown bread because “brown bread brings me good luck”. He also gives a reasonable scientific reason for this — it doesn’t flash white like a deer’s tail, making him a little less likely to become target. Clover has asked Amando to give him his collection of antlers when he died.

Phil — son of Haylett. Does not have the same relationship to ‘counting chickens’ as Clover. Clover and Phil exist as viewpoint characters while Ray and Amando are ‘main characters‘ in the sense that the drama of the story concerns them.

Ray — son of Haylett, though we don’t see him. The reveal is that he is having an affair with his brother’s wife, Julia. We are not told much about him but know he drinks a lot.

Amando — son of Haylett, good hunter, owner of many antlers. This son is presented as the sympathetic son owing to the way he treats his mother (with respect) and for his principles, refusing to tolerate his younger brother’s making mock of everyone and everything.The other sons, accepting modelling by their father, are demanding of her and don’t look her in the eye. Amando is also spoken about in the kitchen before he is introduced. When he does come on-stage: ‘They watched him pull the knitted cap off his sand-colored hair, tight round curls like a drawing; like a drawing too, his heavy lids and amber irises so pale they seemed the color of bog water The narrow handsome face was marked with fine lines’. (Proulx rarely describes characters who are handsome or beautiful. Beauty doesn’t seem to interest her. Even when characters are good-looking, they are rendered more interesting with the introduction of age.) Amando’s relationship to luck: “All this year I’ve had bad luck with everything I touch.” He cites his teeth, the heater in his truck and now the job which will end up costing them money.

Julia — Amando’s (ex-)wife, off-the-page. Lives in a trailer. The plot reveal is that Julia has left Amando because she’s started a relationship with his brother, Ray.

Mero — “Don’t forget to leave Mero’s check for your mother so she can make the skidder payment and work out the wages.” Is Mero the same Mero from “The Half-skinned Steer“? In that story, an 83-year-old man drives from Massachussets to Wyoming, where he grew up. Before he set out, did he have some work done by this family? I could be on completely the wrong track here. In any case, the two stories are thematically linked. That may be the extent of it in Proulx’s mind.

THE PLOT

“A Run of Bad Luck”…examines the life of a family on the eve and early morning of the first day of deer-hunting season. Despite their father’s advice to the contrary, two of the four brothers, Amando and Ray, have botched a road repair because they were in a hurry, and now the country has handed Amando a bill for redoing the job that equals the family’s whole profit from the original work. Amando, whose wife, Julia, has decided to divorce him, concludes that the reason for all his misfortunes is bad luck.

Later his father, Haylett, and two other brothers, Clover and Phil, discover what Amando has known already: Ray is having an affair with Amando’s wife, who still retains Amando’s collection of deer antlers. Amando, who has shot a deer each year since he was twelve, once told Clover that he wanted to be buried with those antlers, and Clover had imagined them buried on top of Amando “pressing him down into the yielding soil until hunter and trophies all descended to the core of the earth” — a fitting image for a cuckold.

As Clover and Phil sit in the truck with their father after discovering Ray’s affair with Julia, Clover refers to Amando’s bad luck, but his father says luck is not involved: “It’s the way his life is turning out, and he don’t know it yet”. Sparked by his father’s expression of fatalism, “Clover saw that Haylett, in begetting Amando, had created this snow-filled morning in a silent truck. A sense of the mysterious force of generation rushed in on him. Throughout the story, however, there are suggestions that Amando’s own decisions have also played a role in his destiny. Whatever social and economic forces shape and limit his life, it is his failure to adhere to the old ways of proper road building that has prompted the bill from the county. Yet, Amando is also one of many Proulx characters who is losing touch with old ways without connecting with the new, stuck between two cultures and benefitting from neither.

Understanding Annie Proulx by Karen Lane Rood

STORY STRUCTURE OF “A RUN OF BAD LUCK”

Although Amando is central to the ‘drama’ (I don’t mean in a storytelling sense) it’s not Amando who has the anagnorisis. This is the story of an entire family.

SHORTCOMING

I believe the toxic kind of patriarchal masculinity presented by Annie Proulx in the kitchen scene, with a son requiring brown bread and with the men being waited on by the mother despite her having a paid job is presented as the shortcoming of this family. The antlers are an obvious symbol of ‘successful’ masculinity. Amando is the clear ‘winner’ of the masculinity contest between the men in this family, being a natural at hunting and owner of many antlers.

DESIRE

When Clover asks for these antlers ‘when he dies’ he’s wanting in on this form of prestige. But it’s not just Clover who wants masculine prestige — Ray emasculates Amando in the most humiliating way possible. I doubt Ray wants Julia in particular — he wants to cuckold his brother. By doing that, he wants to shake up the brotherly hierarchy, placing himself at the top, in a sick kind of way.

OPPONENT

The brothers are in a constant, mostly subtle, dominance game. I believe it’s no accident that there’s a dog in this story, in the shadows, feeling guilty whenever there’s shouting. This is how dogs behave in packs. This is a human dog pack.

PLAN

The men plan to go hunting in bad weather. This is pretty much the most manly thing they can do. Mae encourages them to just stay in bed if the weather looks so bad — they can’t do that, of course. They are men. Mae represents all that is feminine. Staying home would be a girlish thing to do.

The plan to ‘hunt’ is a proxy for their plan to play dominance games between themselves. Sure, they do want the meat. They’ve been eating nothing but pork for three weeks and would like a change in diet. But the symbolism of hunting as raw masculinity and power is clear.

BIG STRUGGLE

When Haylett’s truck gets stuck in snow this is a proxy big struggle scene. The big struggle is between man and nature. The narrative drive is increased with the ticking clock technique of Amando about to drive down this very road and (as far as we know), make a horrible discovery.

The Battle scene, as we’re coming out of it, as underscored with a brief, disturbing flash back of the bee-sting incident in which a little boy dies.

Some writers think in terms of a four-part Battle scene and this story — short though it is — provides an example of that:

  1. The run-up to the climactic moment (last-minute maneuvering to put the pieces in their final positions) [Notice how right before the discovery of Ray’s pick-up Clover is talking about who’s got Amando’s antlers. This is Proulx putting the final piece into place.]
  2. The main character’s moment of truth (the inner journey point toward which the whole story has been moving) [Though we can’t think in terms of ‘main character’ for this particular story, the ‘moment of truth’ = the revelation that one son is sleeping with another son’s wife.]
  3. The climactic moment itself (in which the hero directly affects the outcome) [Again, we can’t think in terms of ‘hero’ in this instance, but this would be the frantic actions of trying to get the truck out of the snow.]
  4. The immediate results of the climactic moment (the villain might be vanquished, but the roof is still collapsing). [The immediate results are that the brothers and father fail in their mission to persuade Amando nothing is wrong.]

— Writer’s Digest

ANAGNORISIS

The Anagnorisis is not that Julia is sleeping with Ray. That is a plot related revelation for the reader. The Anagnorisis for Haylett and for the younger two brothers (at least, I assume they’re younger), is that ‘What’s happening now was already happening this morning and I couldn’t see it’, from Clover’s point of view, but also applied to Phil and Haylett.

Clover saw that Haylett, in begetting Amando, had created this snow-filled morning in a silent truck. A sense of the mysterious force of generation rushed in on him.

What does that mean, exactly? My interpretation: Clover, presented as the least mature of the brothers all the way until now, has suddenly grown up a little when he is able to empathise with his father right at this minute, imagining how the old man must be affected, given that he is part of this big family problem because he created these men (if for no other reason besides).

There’s another trick writers use for Anagnorisiss, utilised often by Annie Proulx: the Anagnorisis phase is accompanied by a description of light and bright colour:

The trees behind them filled with light, and then the rear window flared yellow.

This sentence has a dual purpose, though — the reader is meant to wonder if Amando has killed his brother with his shotgun. Unless the light is connected to the world/plot of the story, it will feel too obvious in a ‘And then he saw the light!’ kind of way.

NEW SITUATION

Karen Lane Rood avoids coming down either way on whether Amando did kill his brother/wife. You might be able to argue it both ways, but I don’t think he did.

The rear window flaring yellow was probably imagined by the men in the truck, all on edge. The sun is coming up at this time, filtered through trees. Or the yellow could be the writer’s metaphor to accompany the Anagnorisis, as I mention above. They don’t hear the gun, though they try to. And if Amando already knew of the affair, wouldn’t he have shot the pair already, if he was of that nature? Proulx mentions a ‘piston knocking’ which is a stand-in for the gun, but actually refers to the mechanics of the truck. Note: Once again, in this phase of the story, Proulx has linked trucks with death by comparing the sound of a truck to the sound of a gun.

EXTRAPOLATED ENDING

Clover will forever associate trucks with tragedy.

ON THE THEME OF LUCK

Luck can mean various things, depending on context. It’s a volatile word. Some languages — like Japanese — have a concept of ‘luck’ but you wouldn’t say, “Oh, aren’t you lucky!” to a child after receiving a much-wanted birthday gift. That particular idiomatic phrase doesn’t exist. (Japanese speakers are often telling each other to ‘work hard’, ‘try your best’, which sits in direct opposition, I feel.)

Scientists don’t do much with the concept of luck, but then how to explain the fortune of being born in a body which fits your environment, allowing you to thrive? What’s that if not good luck? Well, there’s a scientific word for that, and if more people knew it, it might save some arguments:

The word dates from the 1660s, comes from Greek and originally meant “pertaining to conjecture.” Today it’s used in the adjectival form, mostly in a phrase like ‘stochastic variable/outcome/process/model’. It’s an essential concept in anything quantum, too, because no one can explain why some photons pass straight through the window while others bounce back to give us a partial reflection. Stochastic processes are at work. And if the entire world is made out of atoms, quarks and whatnot, then I believe the entire world is built on a stochastic process.

In layman’s terms, you might well call it a kind of ‘luck’.

Like the characters in Proulx’s story, I have found the concept of ‘luck’ problematic in conversation.

Clover refers to Amando’s bad luck, but his father says luck is not involved: “It’s the way his life is turning out, and he don’t know it yet”.

I know people with fundamentalist Christian backgrounds who insist, vehemently, that ‘There’s no such thing as luck.’ The implication, from what I can understand, is that God manages everything exactly how he wishes, giving humans autonomy to make their own bad decisions. Ergo, if bad things happen to you, it’s not luck — it’s bad decisions on your part. This worldview partly explains the strong link between Christian fundamentalism and right-wing, TEA party politics — worship God, God will look after you. Make good decisions and you, personally, will lead a good, upright, cherished and bountiful life. But this thinking is not limited to those with a religious mindset. Others will claim there’s no such thing as luck because everything is down to hard work and personal sacrifice.

I find this line of thinking hugely problematic in a world with so much inequality. It’s an attitude exploited by politicians who are entirely lacking in human compassion themselves, out to build their own family fortunes at the expense of everyone standing in their way. If there’s no such thing as luck, then people with terrible lives are there because they’ve made their own bad decisions, right?

On the other hand, I can’t dismiss the role of hard work and sensible decisions entirely out of hand. Luck and hard work are all part of a big, messy network in which decisions are never made in a vacuum. How far to take this last line? How fatalistic are the stories of Annie Proulx? This is a fascinating topic with realworld implications in everything, from how we vote to how we live our lives.

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Slap Happy Larry Stories

I put this analysis into practice when writing my own short stories.