The Rule Of Oversized Moons In Picturebooks

There is a rule that moons in picture books must be bigger than the look in real life, from anywhere on Earth. I didn’t fully realise this was a rule until a beta reader for Midnight Feast asked me why my moon was so small. In fact, the moon was the ‘correct’ size, but then I realised why he had asked the question: Every single picture book I looked at had an oversize moon.

Why is this? I believe it’s because picturebooks don’t happen in the real world. They happen inside this other reality, in which size is all out of whack. Children can behave autonomously as adults; adults can behave as children.

For the record, the moon at the end of Midnight Feast is now oversized. I did change it. And yeah, it does look better.

final scene from Midnight Feast
final scene from Midnight Feast

There is also an oversized moon in The Artifacts, but because it’s in a picture book, it doesn’t look big, does it?

The Artifacts sheep moon

Why is the moon so important in literature?

  • A (large) moon can infuse your story with magical powers, even when the story is not of the fantasy genre per se.
  • The moon is a physical manifestation of fate.
  • A moon can be seen from everybody, anywhere on Earth and therefore makes a story feel universal, much like a myth.
  • The moon can lend a feminine feel to a story, since it is connected to the menstrual cycle.
  • The moon is comforting, since it waxes and wanes predictably.
  • In picturebooks, for practical purposes, the moon provides a great source of light, making night scenes glow.

The Moon ‘Incorporated’

Sometimes illustrators emphasise the importance of the moon by incorporating the celestial object into the design in a way that makes the moon seem part of the earthly landscape.

On the cover of Slinky Malinki it’s done subtly, with the glow from the moon providing an illuminating frame for the title.

Slinky Malinki cover

Which Witch’s Wand Works? by Poly Bernatene

Which Witch's Wand Works01 Which Witch's Wand Works02

Kay Nielson’s illustrations incorporate the moon more fully into the story, as the story requires:

East of the Sun and West of the Moon, 1914 Kay Nielson
East of the Sun and West of the Moon, 1914 Kay Nielson

This is a crystal ball, but we’re lead to associate the crystal ball with the moon.

Red Magic, 1930, Kay Nielson
Red Magic, 1930, Kay Nielson
In Powder and Crinoline, 1912 Kay Nielson moon incorporated
In Powder and Crinoline, 1912 Kay Nielson

Exception

In her illustrations of Beauty and the Beast, Schroder creates a fantastical moon which is actually smaller than a real moon.

Here's the Beast, looking very much like Beauty's little dog. He is depicted in this story as a chimera. Even more terrifyingly, his castle is full of chimeras -- most startlingly, the table with leopard legs.
Here’s the Beast, looking very much like Beauty’s little dog. He is depicted in this story as a chimera. Even more terrifyingly, his castle is full of chimeras — most startlingly, the table with leopard legs.

Massive Moons On Book Covers

There’s a graphic design advantage to huge moons as covers — the moon provides a light-coloured circle upon which to showcase the title.

Pitschi

The Moonday Cover moon is massive.
This story was based on the author/illustrator’s dream.

dragon rider

Oversized Moons In Books For Adults

This design feature isn’t limited to kidlit. Adults and teens are also drawn to oversized moons.

Hansel and Gretel by Anthony Browne

Hansel and Gretel is one of the best-known fairytales. Almost everybody knows the basic story but, more than that, this tale is the ur-story for many seemingly unrelated modern ones. For example, whenever a character meets a character in a ‘forest’ (whether the forest is symbolic or not), the audience is put in mind of wicked cannibalistic witches.

Let’s face it: The tale itself is basically terrifying. Anthony Browne, with his postmodern approach to its retelling, does not shy away from the terror.

‘Sweetened’ Versions of Hansel and Gretel

Ladybird Hansel and Gretel

The truth is, my daughter does not like the Anthony Browne version of Hansel and Gretel. For her it is too scary. She doesn’t like the dark version illustrated by Lorenzo Mattoti, either, preferring the cheap Ladybird edition with its brighter colours. This might explain why many illustrators of Hansel and Gretel — and there have been many — are not interested in what the story is really about, because the original is just too horrible.

The sweetening of this tale started with the Grimm brothers, who needed to make money to support their collection hobby, so they rewrote some of the horrible tales into versions they considered appropriate for middle class children.

in the dark woods

The Grimm Brothers Made It Worse, As Usual

By that I mean, they made it horribly patriarchal. And we’ve been using their version ever since, sweetening it up a little, but the basic patriarchal message is the same:

The Grimm brothers rewrote and refined their version of the tale before it was published in 1857. It bears little resemblance to the original oral tale told to Wilhelm in 1810. While the mother figure is clearly demonized in this story, the father’s involvement in abandoning his children is carefully downplayed.

— from Carolyn Daniel’s book Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature

The main differences in the oral version:

  • The opponent was originally a mother, not a stepmother. The Grimm brothers obviously thought that having your blood mother turn on you was too scary. They did retain the shortened form of ‘mother’ in some passages though.
  • The mother/stepmother grows harsher.
  • The father grows more introspective and milder.
  • Wilhelm made the tale more dramatic, more literary, and more sentimental. For example, the children’s escape from the sinister woods across a large body of water, one at a time, on the back of a duck. In the original they simply run home.

Anthony Browne’s Hansel and Gretel

Hansel and Gretel Anthony Browne book cover

Anthony Browne is one writer/illustrator who does understand what this tale is really about, though he does go with something more like the Grimm modification rather than the original, oral tale.

This is no sweetened version. The fact that this is a modern setting, with a TV and a step-mother who smokes cigarettes, and that they live in a brownstone detached house mean that the child reader can no longer pretend abandonment and famine happen only in ‘fairytale land’.

dining room table
The mother does not consider herself a part of the family, based on her refusal to sit at the dinner table. Instead she gazes into the TV.

walking into the woods

Here’s the thing Browne underscores the most:

The mother and the witch are the same person.

In Hansel and Gretel, the mother figure is split … and clearly has cannibalistic desires.

— from Carolyn Daniel’s book Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature

Daniels further explains the double/duplicitous/split nature of the (step)mother/witch with the help of some 20th C psychoanalysis:

The witch locks Hansel up in a cage and wakes Gretel up by yelling: “Get up you lazybones! I want you to fetch some water and cook your brother something nice. He’s sitting outside in a pen, and we’ve got to fatten him up. Then, when he’s fat enough, I’m going to eat him.”

This is a portrait of a powerful cannibalistic woman, the bad mother, who is directly juxtaposed with the good mother figure. Two facets of the mother figure are represented in this fairy tale: the evil, threatening, cannibalistic one embodied by the witch/stepmother and the comforting, feeding persona initially presented by the old woman to lure the children. The link between the stepmother and the witch is made explicitly — they both wake the children with the phrase “Get up, you lazybones” and they are both dead by the end of the story: the stepmother is the facet of the bad mother/breast who denies the children nourishment and abandons them; the witch is the mother/breast who threatens to retaliate. The duplicitousness of the bad mother is also emphasized: in her manifestation as the stepmother she pretends to be as pleased when the children find their way home; as the witch she pretends to be a kind, generous, good mother in order to lure the children into her house.

stepmother and shadow
The mother equals the witch. The clue is in the way her shadow is cast, and the way the curtains form a witch’s hat in the perfect position.

Oral Aggression?

Bruno Bettelheim [who was a total asshole, by the way — I can’t write about him without slipping that in there] considers “Hansel and Gretel” to be a tale about a child’s inappropriate oral aggression, that “gives body to the anxieties and learning tasks of the young child who must overcome and sublimate his primitive incorporative and thus destructive desires.” But it is noteworthy that in this tale the children are orally nonaggressive. They do break off pieces of the house and “nibble” them but then they are about to “perish of hunger and exhaustion” (Grimms.) It is the witch who is aggressive and cannibalistic, but Bettelheim does not discuss this.

— Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature

the cottage made of sweets

Hansel and Gretel and Child Development

killing the witch
When children defeat a witch in a fairy tale this signifies separation from mother — a necessary stage in psychic development.

 

I’m no Freudian, but here’s some quoted psychoanalysis if you like.

freud's_psychosexual_stages

It is interesting to consider the ending of the tale in terms of psychoanalytic notions of child development. The children’s task is to escape the clutches of the devouring mother and to proceed from the oral phase to the oedipal stage and a meaningful relationship with their father. They live in her house for a month while she feeds Hansel on “the very best food” and waits for him to get fatter. Hansel, then, partakes of the good breast while Gretel, who “got nothing but grab shells” to eat, is denied it. They are clearly in the oral, pre-oedipal phase. By threatening to eat Hansel, the witch/bad mother clearly intends to incorporate and psychically obliterate him. Gretel kills the witch/bad mother by pushing her into the oven so that she is “miserably burned to death”. The threat of incorporation she poses is thus neutralized.

Since the children have now successfully separated from the witch/mother, they are able to reenter her house/domain “since they no longer had anything to fear.” There are children find “chests filled with pearls and jewels all over the place” and they fill pockets and apron with this treasure before leaving the house for good. Tracy Willard contends that while the good mother is not reclaimed literally or explicitly in this tale, she is symbolically reclaimed through the treasure the children find in her house. I suggest that this tale illustrates the process whereby children reconcile themselves to the duality of the mother; her presence and absence, her giving and withholding of food, and the gratification and frustration that result. The children in the tale not only kill off the bad mother but they also leave behind the oral phase. When they arrive at the house in the forest, all they are interested in is food (gratification from a maternal source), but when they leave the house/maternal domain they take treasure (economic wealth associated with the father) with them which enriches their lives, so that they can enter the paternal oedipal domain, and live with their father in “utmost joy”.

Willard […] sees the children’s home (or mother’s body) as a place that becomes hostile to them, expelling them into the forest and denying them food. They try to return but are rejected and thrust out to fend for themselves. The children find a house in the woods that appears to offer them what they desire (a return to the mother’s body) but it turns out to be a trap. Thus “the dangers of returning home are clearly outlined.” The children, Willard argues, must deal with the image of the split mother so that they can attain “a fully integrated image of the mother”. They do this by committing matricide, an act which Kristeva argues is the clearest path to autonomy. By killing the witch/bad mother, the children are free to return to their father, but they take with them the “best parts” of the split mother figure, symbolically represented by the jewels. […] The symbolism of food and the theme of eating (including cannabilism) in the story have profound psychic resonances with infantile anxieties relating to the mother which is arguably why the story continues to be popular.

— Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature

The Role Of The Father and ‘Mothers In Fridges’?

But what of the role of the father in this tale? The Grimm brothers’ version celebrates the oedipal complex and reinforces patriarchal hegemony. As Zipes argues, this story twice demonizes the omnipotent mother figure but it also, significantly, was rewritten by the Grimms in order to rationalize the abandonment of the children by their father and to bolster phallocentric discourses.Hansel and Gretel must, Zipes argues, “seek solace and security in a father, who becomes their ultimate authority figure” while the mother is conveniently killed off. This situation marries with Jessica Benjamin’s theorization of object relations whereby the child identifies with the mother and maternal power and turns to the father for help in order to overcome the perceived negative aspects of the mother. However, once his help/authority has been accepted the father figure remains in control, continues to dictate the child’s life, and can be “benevolent or sadistic”. Patriarchal hegemony and phallocentric logic are thus reinforced in the Grimms’ narrative and the outcome is rendered natural or rational.

— Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature

reunited with dad

water from the well

SYMBOLISM IN “HANSEL AND GRETEL”

The Red Shoes

witch shape in curtains

What do you associate red shoes with? Perhaps you associate them with the film version of The Wizard of Oz, in which the bad witch is squished under the house, her ruby slippers poking out?

Ruby Slippers Oz

The Red Shoes is a fairytale by Hans Christian Andersen, so not of the Grimm variety, but ‘fairytale’ enough for readers to get the possible meaning in the picture above, in which red shoes sit next to the mirrored wardrobe door.

A peasant girl named Karen is adopted by a rich old lady after her mother’s death and grows up vain and spoiled. Before her adoption, Karen had a rough pair of red shoes; now she has her adoptive mother buy her a pair of red shoes fit for a princess. After Karen repeatedly wears them to church, they begin to move by themselves, but she is able to get them off. One day, when her adoptive mother becomes ill, Karen goes to a party in her red shoes. A mysterious soldier appears and makes strange remarks about what beautiful dancing shoes Karen has. Soon after, Karen’s shoes begin to move by themselves again, but this time they can’t come off. The shoes continue to dance, night and day, rain or shine, through fields and meadows, and through brambles and briers that tear at Karen’s limbs. She can’t even attend her adoptive mother’s funeral. An angel appears to her, bearing a sword, and condemns her to dance even after she dies, as a warning to vain children everywhere. Karen begs for mercy but the red shoes take her away before she hears the angel’s reply. Karen finds an executioner and asks him to chop off her feet. He does so but the shoes continue to dance, even with Karen’s amputated feet inside them. The executioner gives her a pair of wooden feet and crutches, and teaches her the criminals’ psalm. Thinking that she has suffered enough for the red shoes, Karen decides to go to church so people can see her. Yet her amputated feet, still in the red shoes, dance before her, barring the way. The following Sunday she tries again, thinking she is at least as good as the others in church, but again the dancing red shoes bar the way. Karen gets a job as a maid in the parsonage, but when Sunday comes she dares not go to church. Instead she sits alone at home and prays to God for help. The angel reappears, now bearing a spray of roses, and gives Karen the mercy she asked for: her heart becomes so filled with sunshine, peace, and joy that it bursts. Her soul flies on sunshine to Heaven, where no one mentions the red shoes.

— Wikipedia summary

pink fripperies

The pink fripperies spilling out of the dresser drawers suggest several things about this step-mother:

  1. She is not a good housewife (when the implication is that a good housewife is also a good mother, and that being a good housekeeper is the job of the woman.
  2. That women who are over-the-top feminine — look at all the feminine accoutrements, signified by the colour pink — are over-the-top vain. The mirror adds to the impression of vanity, and we will subconsciously conjure up Snow White and the magic mirror in that tale.

Note that the step-mother has not one but two mirrors in her bedroom, which is considered excessively vain, but apart from that, there’s the whole ‘witch/mother’ mirroring going on.

CANNIBALISM

10 Historic Famines That Caused Cannibalism

Repulsive as it sounds in times of plenty, cannibalism in times of famine isn’t all that unusual.

George Devereaux, citing “Multatuli (1868),” pseudonym of novelist Edward Douwes Dekker, reports that during medieval famines and “even during the great postrevolutionary famine in Russia” the “actual eating of one’s children or the marketing of their flesh” occurred. He concludes that “the eating of children in times of food shortage is far from rare.”

— Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature

Maria Tatar argues that although mothers did eat their children, it was generally only due to mental derangement caused by her own starvation. In medical/legal documents it was always a baby who was eaten rather than an older child.

In modern literature, there is a horrific scene in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road in which the main characters happen across a baby being roasted on a spit. It seems McCarthy, also, understands that babies are more likely to be eaten than older children in times of famine.

Paternal cannibalism is of a different nature and can be seen in The Juniper Tree (sometimes called The Almond Tree). In cases where the father eats his child in a fairytale, Tatar sees it as an expression of ‘biological ownership through incorporation’. The child can (in a strange sort of way) live on via being made into the father’s own body. The father in the Juniper Tree is not cast as good or evil in the same way fairy tale mothers are.

COMPARE AND CONTRAST WITH HANSEL AND GRETEL

Other fairytales that start in a time of famine:

  • Tom Thumb
  • The Knapsack, the Hat, and the Horn
  • God’s Food
  • The Sweet Porridge — better known in English speaking countries as The (Magic) Porridge Pot
  • The Children of Famine — exemplifies the plight of families unable to feed their kids. The mother becomes unhinged and desperate when she is unable to feed her own children.
  • Little Red Riding Hood also has cannibalistic elements which are sometimes sanitised. This tale is pretty much the only European tale in which a good — a good girl no less — is involved in cannibalism.

Intertextuality of Into The Forest by Anthony Browne

Into The Forest by Anthony Browne is story book, part ‘toy book’. Young readers learn to look at pictures and search for intertextuality, as each illustration links to a well-known fairytale. This makes the book popular for classroom use, along with the Shrek films and modern stories with fairytales as ur-texts.

Anthony Browne writes postmodern picturebooks and Into The Forest is an excellent example of intertextuality.

WHAT IS INTERTEXTUALITY?

The relationship ‘between texts’.

No work of literature stands entirely alone. Readers bring a lot to a story, including their entire lives until that point, but also every story they’ve ever been exposed to. When an author points the reader’s attention to another text, this technique is known as ‘intertextuality’.

Continue reading “Intertextuality of Into The Forest by Anthony Browne”

The Symbolism Of Cardinal Direction

The cardinal directions have quite different associations in Asia and in each culture around the world — the post focuses on the Western literary tradition, which is heavily inspired by the Bible. One thing all ancient cultures have in common: cardinal directions are in some way sacred.

 no.5 witch weathervane!!—1924 john martin’s magazine halloween cover (by finsbry)

Not all cultures have those same four basic points of north, east, south and west. The Zuni tradition has six points — ours plus one above and another one below. Eastern cultures associate animals of the zodiac to their cardinal directions: Rat for north, rabbit for east, horse for south, rooster for west. By coincidence, the Christian tradition also uses the rooster on weather vanes, not because of any particular association with the west, but because Pope Gregory I said that the cock (rooster) “was the most suitable emblem of Christianity”, being “the emblem of St Peter”. (And Saint Peter is the patron saint of travellers, who need direction to bring them home.)

In the Bible, the cardinal directions tend to have both good and evil associations. This is apparently to do with the idea that you find evil everywhere, all over the place.

THE SYMBOLISM OF THE NORTH

We often orient ourselves by facing north. North = orientation, knowing where you’re going, having a firm plan.

North = permanence/eternity. The polar stars were permanently visible in the sky. It is the place of God’s celestial dwelling.

North = disaster, represented by the left hand. (North came from an ancient European language with a term that meant “left”.)

In the Bible, the enemy of God’s people come from the north, bringing destruction. False kings come from the north.

North = cold, wintry, inhospitable.

Whenever The Dark Lord rises to gather his armies and bring destruction upon the lands of men, elves, dwarves and the race of funny midgets, he always, always, always does this from a stronghold built in the most frigid, dark, frigid, remote, frigid, cold, benighted corner of the wasteland that in most cases is simply called “the North”.This trope may stem from how generally inhospitable the North often is to human (and other) life (at least in the Northern hemisphere). While a gentle cover of snow can imply romance, and snow can often be used to create an incredibly beautiful and peaceful otherworldly air, when taken to blizzard-level extremes it becomes an icy hell.

— TV Tropes, Grim Up North

It seems quite common in fantasy worlds to have an arctic or temperate climate in the northern hemisphere, and a tropical climate in the southern hemisphere, i.e., a cold north and a hot south.In reality, it doesn’t quite works this way. You have a cold north… and a cold south. The only “hot” part is in the middle. This representation probably comes from the fact that 90% of of the world’s population lives in the Northern Hemisphere, where that trope seems true.

— TV Tropes, North is Cold, South Is Hot

As someone from the Southern Hemisphere, I can confirm that we are well-used to this norm and hardly even think about it. But it did take my daughter until she was about five or six before she stopped hoping for snow at Christmas in Australia.

The North In Britain

Northern England. To those of the metropolitan southeast in particular, a strange and alien place full of salt-of-the-earth lower-class types who talk funny, notable only for football, pop music and flat caps. To some Londoners, this is anywhere north of the M25, the motorway surrounding Greater London, forgetting about The Midlandsnote . Geographically, the North is usually classed as Cheshire, Greater Manchester, Yorkshire,Merseyside, Lancashire, Durham, Tyne & Wear, Northumberland, Cumbria and parts of Lincolnshire and Derbyshire.It’s less crowded than southern England, but not half as rich or full of TV bosses. The media sometimes portray a stereotypical place of urban deprivation, coal mines and men in flat caps. Expect stories about working-class struggle, unemployment, crime, alcoholism, and old men having humorous adventures. There may well be trouble at t’mill. The setting of many a Kitchen Sink Drama.

— TV Tropes, Oop North

There’s a separate entry for North East England.

The North In America

The American counterpart of Oop North is  Ap Nort, which is a parody of the dialect spoken in the Twin Cities.

Alaska

Alaska

But the real American north is Alaska, America’s modern frontier. It is by far the least populated state of America.

Most people who live there aren’t actually born in Alaska. (It’s about 40 per cent who were born there.) It’s a place where people go, or escape to. Much of the population is transitory.

Useful Notes On Alaska from TV Tropes.

In children’s literature, Alaska is where the Cullens go to hunt in Twilight. Jack London’s stories were set there, as was Julie of the Wolves. In all three cases, there is hunting and wildness, and the environment brings the wildness out of the characters.

 

THE SYMBOLISM OF THE EAST

East of Eden book cover
The novel explores themes of depravity, beneficence, love, and the struggle for acceptance, greatness, and the capacity for self-destruction and especially of guilt and freedom. It ties these themes together with references to and many parallels with the biblical Book of Genesis (especially Genesis Chapter 4, the story of Cain and Abel).

The Sun rises in the East everywhere on the earth. Sometimes a little north of east, sometimes a little south of east, but always east. It’s likely that the word East came from a word that means ‘shining’.

East = Beginnings. Because that’s where the new day begins. Metaphorically, east = an awakening, vision, ascension.

In the ancient world the point of orientation was east. The east was before them, the west behind, the south to the right, and the north to the left.

The importance of the east as the main point of orientation may be related to the rising of the sun and its importance in the religions of the ancient Near East. In the Bible its symbolism emerges for the first time in Genesis. The Garden of Eden was placed in the East and its entrance faced the east.

After sinning, Adam and Eve left the garden and went toward the east.

This eastward movement continued with Cain and culminated in the movement of the human race toward the east.

The east is symbolically ambivalent. The garden placed there symbolized safety and security. After sin, when it was the direction of the exile, it represented a condition of alienation from God. It was also the place of the wilderness, from which destructive winds came, threatening life.

To the prophets the east was a symbol of Babylonian exile and the saving presence of God. He traveled to Babylon and ultimately redeemed His people. The east became a place where God intervened on behalf of His people, bringing them salvation.

From The Sleeper and The Spindle by Neil Gaiman and Chris Riddell
From The Sleeper and The Spindle by Neil Gaiman and Chris Riddell
Hordes From The East

“The East” comes from the typical placement of the “others” in Real LifeWestern Europe. The usual candidates for the hordes include Mongols, Muslims, Huns, Hungarians, Scythians, or Russians, or Fantasy Counterpart Cultures of them. Like several of these cultures, they’re likely to have been Born in the Saddle. They’ll sometimes look stereotypically Asian, but they aren’t criminal masterminds like the Yellow Peril – they’re just a mass of Mooks born to be mooks.A culture can even be on both sides of the trope. Russians are a source of Hordes for Western Europe, but they themselves endured Mongol control for some centuries – it’s a popular trope in Russian folk tales.The Hordes from the East will often act like The Horde, but they don’t have to. Hordes from the East will always be presented as a feared foreign danger, but their behavior can vary. There’s a chance that they don’t pillage at all, or that they use clever strategies in battle instead of just brute force.Some cultures have their own tropes involving attacks from a particular direction. For example, an attack would have always come from the North/West in China, from the North-West in India, and from the North in Rome. Another variant is to have hordes from up north, Vikings or Norse barbarians.

TV Tropes

The East vs West In America

New York and New Orleans have symbolic significance as “gateways” to America. Most of our American forefathers entered the new world of America through the eastern gateway of New York and then entered into the heart of America through the southern gateway of New Orleans. In this sense, one could say that New York represents the gateway to America while New Orleans represents the gateway to the “heart” of America. True to general east-west American symbolism, the cities of the east represent the old and traditional values of America while those of the west represent the new.

Symbolism of Place

The Wizard Of Oz/Wicked — Case Study

Since Elphaba is The Wicked Witch Of The West, why did Maguire choose to have her born in the East? Elphaba gradually makes her way West over the course of Wicked.

Did Maguire make use of the symbolism generally associated with cardinal directions? I believe he is influenced by directions as portrayed in Judeo-Christian thinking:

The sun rises in the east. It makes sense that in a work of fantasy, East = birth. The Garden Of Eden was in the East. And remember, it was only when Adam and Eve left Eden that everything turned terrible for us humans, according to the Bible.

In the Bible false kings come from the North. This is where Elphaba goes to university. Though she was presumably ostricised at school, too, this is where we see it. She is frozen out of Galinda’s social circle, relegated to the lunchtable with the Munchkin (the beta-male). Since most of the world lives in the Northern Hemisphere, the North is seen as cold. In Wicked, North is emotionally cold.

Biblically, the south is primarily a negative symbol. It is negative because to the south of Israel was the wilderness, a region where life does not prosper.

The word for west likely comes from another word meaning ‘to go down’. The West is also the place of darkness because that’s where the sun sets. In other words, the West symbolises a green girl’s descent into evil.

Through Wicked, Maguire narrates the story of the Wicked Witch of the West, and her life and experiences in Oz — which is not a fairytale place of happiness and joy, but a dark, oppressive police state full of political machinations. It’s a land where Animals, who are sentient and have voices, souls and minds, are persecuted and exiled. It’s a place where you are wicked if you are different; if you tell the truth.

[…]

Oz’ politics is as complex and often as ludicrous as it is in our world. The same is true of Oz’ religions and belief systems. The religion of the Un-named God, the pleasure-seekers, the followers of the time dragon, education, the different social and political causes — each has its zealous followers who have their own tenets of Right and Wrong, about Good and Evil.

Inkscrawl

THE SYMBOLISM OF THE SOUTH

Okay, so here’s the general rule: whether it’s Italy or Greece or Africa or Malaysia or Vietnam, when writers send characters south, it’s so they can run amok. The effects can be tragic or comic, but they generally follow the same pattern. We might add, if we’re being generous, that they run amok because they are having direct, raw encounters with the subconscious.

— Thomas C. Foster, How To Read Literature Like A Professor

Foster makes reference to:

  • Lawrence’s searchers
  • Hemingway’s hunters
  • Kerouac’s hipsters
  • Paul Bowles’s down-and-outers and seekers
  • Forster’s tourists
  • Durrell’s libertines
The Road front and back cover
In Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, father and son travel south ostensibly because it is warmer there, leading to more chance of survival. Metaphorically, however, the reason for going south in the book is slightly different.

 

South derives from a word meaning sun, alluding to warmer parts of the world.

Biblically, the south is primarily a negative symbol. It is negative because to the south of Israel was the wilderness, a region where life does not prosper.

To the south was Egypt, which opposed God’s power and oppressed His people. But the south was also the place where the Lord appeared to Moses, went with Him to Egypt, liberated His people, and appeared to them on Mount Sinai.

But the fact that it is represented by the right hand makes it also a positive one.

The American South

The Savage South

If you thought the north was bad, you haven’t seen the south. Down there, everyone is crude, their language indecipherable and their mannerisms are barbaric. The land is an inhospitable jungle full of wild beasts, barren desert, or nasty swamps full of crocodiles (sometimes it has all of the above). Also, don’t go swimming: there are sharks, or worse.The Savage South is when a southern area is seen as more barbaric than its northern counterpart. This shows up frequently in westerns, fantasy settings, horror films, and many other works and takes many forms. In milder versions, the area’s just unpleasant with rude, poorly groomed people. At worst, the people are hostile to any outsiders and the land itself is a nightmare realm just waiting to kill unlucky travelers.

— TV Tropes

The Deep South

The Deep South: home of fat redneck sheriffs, hillbillies, moonshiners, The Klan, tobacco-chawin’ Good Ol’ Boys missing half their teeth, and all other manner of Corrupt Hicks, not to mention fire-and-brimstone preachers, iron-bound matriarchs, white-suited plantation owners, Southern Belles in flouncy gowns or short-shorts with crop tops, and possums. Some Kissing Cousins could also be in the mix somewhere.Although the real mid-Southern and Southeastern United States has a far wider range of locales and settings, the Deep South as it appears on TV is usually one tiny rural town after another, separated by miles of farmland or steep, forested mountainsides. Its inhabitants always seem to be about fifty years behind the times, at least as far as social issues are concerned

TV Tropes

(If the South is looking decayed, misty and/or possibly undead, then it’s Southern Gothic instead.)

THE SYMBOLISM OF THE WEST

The word for West likely comes from another word meaning ‘to go down’.

Five Children and It cover

Edith Nesbit must have been a stickler for detail when she wrote:

And the sun was sinking slowly in the west. (I must say it was in the west, because it is usual in books to say so, for fear careless people should think it was setting in the east. In point of fact, it was not exactly in the west either – but that’s near enough.)

— E. Nesbit, Five Children and It

(In New Zealand, where I come from, the sun rises in the East but sets more in the North.)

According to the Bible, the Israelites crossed the Jordan River westward into the Promised Land. Note that the sea lies to the West. In fact, in the Bible, the term “sea” often referred to the west.

The West is also the place of darkness because that’s where the sun sets.

West = evil and death.

But the West also pointed toward restored unity with God — a return to the Garden of Eden. For example, when the Israelites traveled to and worshipped in the Temple they faced West to have the rising sun behind them.

King Arthur

Upon his release, Joseph gathers his in-laws and other followers and travels to the west, and founds a dynasty of Grail keepers that eventually includes Perceval.

In America: The Western Genre and ‘Manifest Destiny’

The Theme Park Version of the old west is a land of Indians, grizzled prospectors, scenic bluffs, Conestoga wagons, tough, shotgun-toting pioneers and buxom, be-feathered dance-hall girls. Also home to very lucrative sugar glass and balsa-wood chair industries, judging by the number of bar brawls which occur during a single episode of a typical western series. Bad guys and anti-heroes wear black hats, good guys and sheriffs wear white hats, shootouts on Main Street occur with the frequency of at least one an hour—with the sun at high noon each time—and everyone drinks sarsaparilla or whiskey.The real Old West was nothing like The Theme Park Version (which was originally the creation of 19th-century “dime novels”). There weren’t any huge shootouts, quickdraw duels were rare, and gun duels and violent gun-wielding criminals weren’t exclusive to desert-like “western” areas. Plus, since many guns were very inaccurate in those days, they sometimes tended to happen in significantly closer quarters than they do in fiction.

— TV Tropes, The Western

 

I was entering a land of drifters: dreamers, losers, vagrants, crazy people – they all always go west in America. They all have this hopeless idea that they will get to the coast and make a fortune as a movie star or rock musician or game show contestant or something. And if things don’t work out they can always become a serial murderer. It’s strange that no-one ever goes east, that you never encounter anyone hitch-hiking to New York in pursuit of some wild and crazy dream to be a certified public accountant or make a killing in leveraged buy-outs.

– Bill Bryson, The Lost Continent

 

The Western is the national myth of the United States [just as the King Arthur story is the national myth of England]. The Western is the last of the great creation myths, because the American West was the last liveable frontier on earth. This story form is the national myth of America and has been written and rewritten thousands of times. So it has a highly metaphorical symbol web. The Western is the story of millions of individuals journeying west, taming the wilderness, and building a home. They are led by a lone-warrior hero who can defeat the barbarians and make it safe for the pioneers to form a village. Like Moses, this warrior can lead his people to the Promised Land but not enter it himself. He is doomed to remain unmarried and alone, forever traveling the wilderness until he and it are gone.

— John Truby, Anatomy of Story

 

The Great Gatsby penguin edition

In American literature (e.g. in The Great Gatsby) moving West has sometimes symbolized gaining freedom, perhaps as an association with the settling of the Old West (see also Manifest Destiny).

— Wikipedia

What is ‘Manifest Destiny?’

In the 19th century, manifest destiny was a widely held belief in the United States that its settlers were destined to expand across North America.

Anti-Westerns

These days you don’t find genuine Westerns being made. Everything ‘Western’ the 1960s has been an anti-western (aka ‘revisionist Western), in which the audience is encouraged to believe that expanding West is actually a grim and dangerous affair rather than a heroic one. The one exception is Shane, which is a straight Western, using all of the Western symbolism without irony.

Watch out for references to moving West when watching gangster films, too:

There are several gangster films in which a member of the gang says he’s got his eye on a farm or ranch out west, where he plans to get married and settle down. Anyone familiar with gangster films knows upon hearing this speech that this character will be dead before the story is over. Once you’re in the gang, you’re trapped, even if you’re its leader. Perhaps especially if you’re its leader.

— Howard Suber, The Power of Film

Midwestern Values

These days you get a lot of American stories set somewhere in the non-specific ‘mid-west’ — and that’s all we need to know about the place. For those of us who are not American, what does this mean, exactly?

What are Midwestern Values? is a question asked and answered on Quora.

Westerns and Children’s Literature

theadventuresofhuckleberryfinn

When it comes to Westerns and children’s literature, there was nothing for children at the time. Nothing excellent, anyway. Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn came along and changed that. (At the end of Huck Finn, Huck declares that he is quite glad to be done writing his story, and despite Sally’s plans to adopt and civilize him, he intends to flee west to Indian Territory.)

Weird West — A New Genre

Weird West is a type of urban fantasy. It uses lots of Western tropes but makes use of magical realism/supernatural features. Westworld is a great example of Weird West.

For more see: Why The Weird West Works

 For anyone interested in literature from WESTERN AUSTRALIA in particular, more here, from The Book Show.

Oliver by Birgitta Sif

Birgitta Sif is a picture book illustrator originally from Iceland, now living in England. So far she has produced four books. Oliver was first published by Walker Books 2012.

Oliver cover

A nice touch is that the opening page says ‘This adventure belongs to’, where most books say ‘This book belongs to’, leaving space for the child owner’s name. This already feels a lot more exciting. Perhaps this is something Walker books has decided to do with all of their publications recently?

THIS ADVENTURE BELONGS TO

That said, this story is not what I would call an ‘Adventure story’ in the technical definition of the genre. This is a mythic journey: The (male) hero leaves home and goes on a journey to find himself, meeting people and changing in the process. Still, that’s not what most people think of when they think of a mythic picture book, so it’s probably best the opening page doesn’t say ‘This myth belongs to…’.

It’s not unusual these days to find picture books with this few words, but even so, this stands out for its brevity — more than half of the story by far is told by the pictures. My reading of the story is that Oliver is on the autistic spectrum, though readers will bring their own interpretations, I’m sure. He may just be a highly imaginative little kid with some social anxiety issues. Since we don’t hear any dialogue, it’s possible that Oliver does not speak.

Here is the opening double spread, in which we are told that ‘Oliver felt a bit different’. In each of the illustrations we’ll see just how different. Continue reading “Oliver by Birgitta Sif”

Slinky Malinki by Lynley Dodd

Slinky Malinki is a picture book by New Zealand author illustrator Lynley Dodd.

Slinky Malinki cover

A BRIEF HISTORY OF CATS IN CHILDREN’S LITERATURE

Sometimes it is difficult not to resent their apparent success, and they are good or evil according to their creator’s feelings. […] Perhaps Kipling was right, and cats are neither for nor against us, but both or neither, as they wish or feel*. As characters they have great possibilities and depths that few writers, with the possible exception of Paul Gallico, have made use of. Their long history of connection with witchcraft has suggested tales of magic cats such as Barbara Sleigh’s Carbonel, 1955, or, in a more down to earth setting, Rosemary Weir’s Pyewacket, 1967; and their urbanised versatility (dog stories are more usually about country life) is categorised unforgettably in T.S. Eliot.

— Margaret Blount, Animal Land

* When creating the character of Slinky Malinki Lynley Dodd absolutely makes use of this historical duplicitousness: Slinky is one thing during the day, another thing altogether come nightfall. The werecat, in other words.

Continue reading “Slinky Malinki by Lynley Dodd”

The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Charlotte Perkins Gilman
This photo was taken when Charlotte Perkins Gilman was about 40 years old.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman; July 3, 1860 – August 17, 1935) was a prominent American feminist, sociologist, novelist, writer of short stories, poetry, and nonfiction, and a lecturer for social reform. She was a utopian feminist during a time when her accomplishments were exceptional for women, and she served as a role model for future generations of feminists because of her unorthodox concepts and lifestyle. Her best remembered work today is her semi-autobiographical short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” which she wrote after a severe bout of postpartum psychosis.

— Wikipedia

Read the story online here. 

Also important to know: Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell, a pioneer in the study of nervous conditions, urged Charlotte Perkins Gilman to treat her ‘hysteria’ by abstaining from her work as a writer, and to “never touch a pen, brush or pencil,” as long as she lived. Continue reading “The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman”

Homes and Symbolism In Film and Literature

sunny home literature film

Homes are an outworking of the characters who live inside. Sometimes, in fiction, the house even seems to come alive in its own right.

There exist sunny houses in which, at all seasons, it is summer, houses that are all windows.

— Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space

For my notes after reading Gaston Bachelard, see Symbolism of the Dream House.
Continue reading “Homes and Symbolism In Film and Literature”

The Cosy House In Winter

Isn’t it true that a pleasant house makes winter more poetic, and doesn’t winter add to the poetry of a house? The white cottage sat at the end of a little valley, shut in by rather high mountains; and it seemed to be swathed in shrubs.

Baudelaire, French poet

This cosiness is exploited in full in the horror genre for all ages. Take Misery, in which Stephen King goes out of his way to create a cosy, loving shelter after a brutal car accident, before inverting the cosiness to invoke terror.

In The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard makes some related points:

  • The reason we feel warm is precisely because it’s cold outside.
  • Dreamers tend to love winter. More time to dream.
  • Edgar Allan Poe had a thing about big, heavy curtains. When the curtains are dark, the snow outside seems even whiter. It’s all about juxtaposition and contrast.
  • ‘Everything comes alive when contradictions accumulate’.
  • When snow covers everything outside, the outside world is pretty much obliterated. There is no longer any struggle between the house and the environment. The whole universe has a single, unifying colour. ‘The winter cosmos is a simplified cosmos.’
  • ‘Winter is by far the oldest of the seasons. … On snowy days, the house too is old.’

Misery film poster

In Blackdog we also have a cosy house (on the inside) but it is snowing outside. In this house, ‘everything may be differentiated and multiplied’ (Bachelard).

Black Dog by Levi Pinfold, book jacket

In the film adaptation of 101 Dalmatians, snow makes a chase scene more treacherous, not least because of the ability to track paw prints. But when the camera pans to this cosy village, the audience is reminded that although a treacherous journey taking place, there is comfort to be found at the edges.

cosy village in winter

The Role Of The Chimera In Storytelling

Before science took hold, when humans were still trying to classify everything we saw around us, people really did believe in the chimera. Take the example of the Scoter duck. No one could decide whether this bird was a bird or a fish. he Abbe of Vallemont even took it out of the bird category and put it in the fish category, and in the 19th century Catholics were allowed to eat Scoter duck on Fridays in lieu of fish if they wanted.

If people thought this duck were a fish, you can imagine how the platypus confused them.
If people thought this duck were a fish, you can imagine how the platypus confused them.

The chimera is important in the horror and speculative fiction/sci-fi genres.

The term chimera may be about to undergo a renaissance in modern parlance, because scientists are using the word to describe a single organism composed of cells from different zygotes. Animal chimeras are produced by the merger of multiple fertilized eggs.

WHAT IS A CHIMERA?

The Ancient East and Its Story by James Baikie.c.1920. Artist – Constance N. Baikie. “Farewell to the Enchanted Island”

Continue reading “The Role Of The Chimera In Storytelling”