Bedrock by Annie Proulx Short Story Analysis

bedrock annie proulx

“Bedrock” is a short story from Annie Proulx’s collection Heart Songs, published 1999. This is a subversive feminist tale, which challenges the readers assumptions about ‘gold-digger’ women and especially those we dismiss as ‘rednecks’.

“Bedrock” makes a good mentor text if you:



  • Are writing a story in which the reader is asked to switch sympathies, or to question their sympathies after a reveal. Another story which does this is “Shut Up And Dance”, from season three of Black Mirror. Asking an audience to consider our empathies after revelation that a character is a sexual predator is especially subversive in the current political climate. While Annie Proulx is not well-known for being a feminist writer, this is a subversively feminist story (but only if you read until the end, which can be a problem). Proulx makes use of writing tricks to help us empathise with Perley more than Maureen in the beginning: He is old and perhaps incapable of maintaining his farm; he has a wife who doesn’t cook food he likes and who won’t touch him in bed; his previous wife died; his new wife is changing everything about what’s ‘rightfully’ his house; the reader is unlikely to ‘approve’ of the modifications, since her taste is grotesquely kitsch.
  • Related to that, this story is an excellent case study in how to make that transition between sympathetic and alienating character. Annie Proulx uses details — before we learn that Perley is a pedophile we are shown him on a pillow cover cross-stitched with Dutch girls, for instance.
  • If you are composing an opening sentence which you want to carry different meaning when the reader comes back to it a second time. This is probably because you’ve guided the reader into a new way of thinking by the final paragraph, and now they’re curious to re-read, wondering how on earth that happened. In short, subversive stories are especially well-suited to an opening sentence with a revised-different meaning.
  • Or if you’d like a model of how to create an opening paragraph which stands as a condensed, metaphorical version of the entire story.
  • Annie Proulx makes heavy use of something similar to a ‘transferred epithet’. I don’t think her descriptions count as that exactly because the epithets describe the objects as well as the humans (not instead 0of). We might instead call this technique a kind of pathetic fallacy. A flawed character looks through flawed glass (when it’s his vision of the world which is flawed).
  • Perhaps no more than many other of Proulx’s short stories, but this is another excellent example of a main character described as part of the landscape. In this case, an old farmer literally feels like he’s turning into stone. This ties in with the title — this is a story about beds and who we share them with. If we share our bed with the wrong person it feels hard as rock:

Atoms of this granite whirled in his body. Its stony, obdurate qualities passed up through the soil and into plant roots. Whenever he took potatoes from the heat-cracked bowl, his bones were hardened, his blood fortified. But Maureen, he knew, was shot through with some wild astral substance so hard and dense that granite powdered into dust beneath her blows.

  • ‘It was a very  sharp, clear day when he began to lose the farm’. This marks the transition from backstory to ‘frontstory’, which is a little similar to how picture book writers switch from iterative to singulative.
  • Proulx likes one-syllable words, which can be seen in the names she often picks for her characters (though not in this particular story so much). In a phonetic emulation of the hard, unforgiving landscape she uses words like ‘crump’ and ‘blat’, with their hard sounds that make them sound like curse words without actually being curse words. Notice, too, how ‘crump‘ and ‘blat‘ are being used as nouns. Some words are both verbs and nouns, but Proulx thinks nothing of turning a good-sounding verb into a noun as she sees fit.
  • Foreshadowing such as ‘The guilty scents of willow pollen and the river in spring flooded the room, the looming shape of the past was suddenly uncovered like a hand pulled away from a face. He seemed to feel drying mud beneath his nails.
  • Colour motifs — the colour blue is connected to Maureen, who likes a blue variety of potato which I believe Annie Proulx made up — ‘brute’ potatoes, perhaps a riff on ‘butte’? For more on fantasy food, listen to this podcast. Perley and Maureen get married in (cold, white and blue) winter, which contrasts against the first time he married, late summer, under a cast of yellow. Perley himself is connected to the colour yellow, which at first is presented to the reader as something happy (connected to summer and warmth), but the wonderful thing about the colour yellow is that it can be used both ways, and when something can be used for both positive reasons and negative, you can count on Annie Proulx making the most of that. Yellow also indicates old age and sickness. (Another example of Proulx using both sides of a word is in “Heart Songs“, in which a woman is sweet and fruity and delicious, but the blackberry is also an invasive weed, so that particular romance is naturally, fatalistically doomed.

CHARACTERS OF “BEDROCK”

Maureen

The story opens with Maureen, splitting wood in a bare yard surrounded by a circle of broken bark. This is a subtle way of setting her up as a witch. (According to witchcraft, a magic circle can protect you from harm.) The dark sky and lightning paint a picture that could come straight out of Sabrina.

The bark itself is broken — almost a transferred epithet, if the bark were not also broken, because later we learn that Maureen is herself broken. But she is wielding an axe. The broken will become breaker. This is a masterful opening scene, a nutshell version of the entire story.

Maureen is four years younger than Perley’s own daughter.

Like an archetypal witch, her weapon of choice is poison. We first learn of this when Perley detects a sugary taste under his denture.

Perley

Significantly, when we are first introduced to Perley, he is watching her. On a re-read, it is very creepy. This is how he preyed on her in the first instance — watching the girl as she worked. He’s watching her braid bouncing — long hair in a braid is a symbol of girlhood more than anything. Through Perley’s eyes we see her girlishness. This is what attracts him.

LILY

Perley’s daughter at first seems a wholly unsympathetic character. She is the classic unaccepting child, rejecting the new step-parent to the detriment of her father’s happiness, concerned only about inheritance. But by the end of the story it’s clear that there’s an entire backstory of Lily and her father, and she has good reason to reject him. In a small community, it’s impossible to think she doesn’t know about her father’s pedophilia.

One paragraph tells us that Lily identifies more with her mother than with her father. Lily knew why the mother had saved a poem — to put on the gravestone — whereas her father had no clue.

NETTA

The off-stage character — Perley’s widow. In close-third-person from Perley’s point of view, we learn that Netta had a ‘low, dry voice’, and that their conversation was functional but not companionable. She had houseplants.

SAMUEL

I’m not convinced Lily has married well. Samuel has empathy for his father-in-law and suggests the way to fix his loneliness is to marry again.

SELMA RUTH

A romantic potential for Perley, before Maureen comes along. But Perley can’t imagine cohabiting with a woman stuck with the task of bringing up her grandchildren rather than let the state take them. In short, although Perley wants a partner, he wants one without ‘baggage’, even though he himself has baggage, and women his own age are stuck in these caregiving roles and therefore, that in itself, makes them less attractive to same-aged men. Annie Proulx obviously sees this common late-life marriage issue for exactly what it is.

BOBHOT MACKIE

Maureen’s older brother and also an abuser, using his younger sister, who is already ‘damaged goods’, to take over the old man’s farm, despite knowing the sacrifice on his sister’s part.

STORYWORLD OF “BEDROCK”

Another regional critique embedded in Heart Songs sees Proulx swing to the opposite pole from New England’s conventional portrayals, balancing their romanticism not with realism but with impoverishment and grotesquerie as if to shock, rather than persuade, her readers into questioning what they may think they know about the region. In “Bedrock,” the ageing farmer Perley is finagled into marrying the much younger Maureen Mackie. Almost immediately, she takes over the operation of the farm and savagely beats Perley when he tries to object. The farm runs to ruin, and Perley spends less and less time in the house while Maureen sleeps with her brother in the bedroom. At the end of the story, we learn that this entire episode is the Mackies’ revenge for Perley’s having raped Maureen when she was a child. The physical and imaginative center of “Stone City” is the long-abandoned compound of the Stone family. As one character describes them,

They had all these shacks with broken-down rusty cars out front, piles of lumber and empty longnecks and pieces of machinery that might come in handy sometime, the weeds growin’ up all crazy through ’em everywhere. The Stone boys was all wild, jacked deer, trapped bear, dynamited trout pools, made snares, shot strange dogs wasn’t their own and knocked up every girl they could put it to. Yessir, they was some bunch.

Rural farmhouses, Proulx seems to be saying, can be facades for all manner of human perversity, and the pastoral hills breed horrifying social pathologies and violence. This is not the sort of thing that makes it into Vermont Life.

The Geographical Imagination of Annie Proulx: Rethinking Regionalism edited by Alex Hunt

This ‘facade’ of a pastoral idyll is also known as an ‘snail under the leaf setting’. Suburban areas of cities are often used as snail under the leaf settings, too.

While Proulx may attempt to reverse the polarity of Vermont from charming to chilling, it remains an exotic place apart, a screen upon which visitors can project their desires for a different and somehow more fulfilling life.

The Geographical Imagination of Annie Proulx: Rethinking Regionalism edited by Alex Hunt

For all their knowledge of the land and how to live on it, Proulx’s rural characters are not idealised as “nature’s noblemen.” They are not merely victims of a national market economy that has made their ways of earning a living obsolete, or of the intrusion of influences from outsiders and the media that has weakened and in some cases destroyed aspects of traditional culture. In these stories Proulx depicts the effects of years of poverty, backbreaking work, domestic violence, incest, rape, and anger that sometimes smoulders for decades before it erupts in acts of revenge. The stories often end with ironic twists of characters’ expectations, for which Proulx has prepared the careful reader with earlier clues.

Understanding Annie Proulx, Karen Lane Rood

STORY STRUCTURE OF “BEDROCK”

SHORTCOMING

Perley has a dangerous attraction to a young woman which has harmed her and now, in his old age, it will harm him.

DESIRE

He wants a wife to fill the hole of his dead one. If not a wife, then a sexual partner.

OPPONENT

Bobhot (a clear opponent) and Maureen (who presented at first, to a desperate old man as an ally).

PLAN

Perley asks his daughter to help him, but she won’t.

He watches the farm from nearby woods, as if he’s an outsider. We’re not told directly but are left to infer that he’s waiting for a chance to strike.

BIG STRUGGLE

When Bobhot is drunk, Perley attacks him in the kitchen with a pry bar.

ANAGNORISIS

Perley is well aware of his own voyeuristic tendencies, but now he realises it’s been reciprocated:

They must have seen him, too, in his warm woolen jacket, driving the shiny truck along the road with his little daughter beside him, the new freezer. They stared at the house every time they went past the farm.

NEW SITUATION

We don’t know if Bobhot and Maureen will return in the morning to finish their poison job on Perley, but there’s nothing in the text which suggests this will happen. More likely, in line with Proulx’s pessimistic view — the rich stay rich and the poor stay poor.

Baba Yaga: Witch or old woman?

Baba Yaga is a legendary Slavic witch, or a hag, who lives in a hut that stands on chicken legs and who flies through the air in a mortar, using the pestle as a rudder. The predatory Baba Yaga, who has a special liking for children, is a subcategory of crone. She’s also known as Old Hag Yaga. Her name is synonymous with ved’ma, which means witch in Russian.

Vladimir Panov ‘Russian fairy tales’ by A. Nechaev, 1959 Baba Yaga's house
Vladimir Panov ‘Russian fairy tales’ by A. Nechaev, 1959 Baba Yaga’s house

FEATURES OF BABA YAGA?

A BRIEF HISTORY OF BABA YAGA

The first extant mentions of Baba Yaga in text date to the 18th century.

Sometimes ‘Baba’ is translated into English as ‘Granny‘ but the word ‘baba’ contains no respect for age. A closer translation would be something like ‘crone‘, even though ‘baba’ is a shortening of the respectful ‘babushka‘ (grandmother). A minor insult is “Babka”, meaning a grumpy old woman.

She might be a chthonic goddess. (Chthonic means relating to or inhabiting the underworld.) Vladamir Propp proposed that her house on legs might serve as a cultural memory of initiation rituals.

Yaga‘ may be related to Slavic words for grudge or brawl, or to the Russian word for eating.

Baba Yaga may be a genius loci (protective spirit). On the other hand, she doesn’t appear to be a protectress of specific social groups. She’s not their enemy, either.

BABA YAGA’S BACK STORY

Femme coded monsters in general have backstories in which they become monsters because of masculine brutality and injustice.

BABA YAGA AND YOUNG PEOPLE

Cannibalism more generally is related to pregnancy, and our collective fear around it. (Before people had a good understanding of human anatomy, a pregnant woman appeared she had eaten someone.)

Baba Yaga is connected to children, first because she eats them, second because in some stories she has daughters (but never sons). Actually, though, in the classic Baba Yaga stories, she never actually eats the children. She threatens to. She also teaches the girls to do housework. She is a tool in a young person’s rite of passage into adulthood. In this way, Baba Yaga fulfils a specific cultural function: She teaches young people traditional values and rules of adult society so that they will grow up to be useful, functioning members of it. How does she select her victims? She preys upon those who deviate in this way.

She’s the slavic folktale equivalent of the Aunt Lydia character invented by Margaret Atwood in The Handmaid’s Tale, upholding the social norms of her own oppressors.

CONNECTION TO OTHER SUPERNATURAL CREATURES

In Russian imagination she is the aunt or mistress of all witches. She is sometimes compared to Hecate, the Greek goddess of magic, witchcraft, the night, moon, ghosts and necromancy.

Like your bog standard witch, Baba Yaga is cunning. She’s in control of natural and supernatural magic and above all of food supplies. She dispenses hospitality capriciously: Sometimes she’s welcoming, other times wants you to leave her the hell alone.

Here’s what Jack Zipes has to say about her:

[She is] not just a dangerous witch but also a maternal benefactress, probably related to a pagan goddess. [She] is inscrutable and so powerful that she does not ow allegiance to the Devil or God or even to her storytellers. In fact, she opposes all Judeo-Christian and Muslim deities and beliefs. She is her own woman, a pathogenetic mother, and she decides on a case-by-case basis whether she will help or kill the people who come to her hut that rotates on chicken legs.

Jack Zipes

(Pathogenetic: Pertaining to genetic cause of a disease or an abnormal condition.)

Sometimes she is said to be the mother of dragons.

BABA YAGA’S HOUSE

Her house is in the forest. More specifically than that, it’s in the land of the “thrice-nine kingdom“, the land of the living dead. This realm lies between the world of the living and the thrice-ten kingdom, the land of the truly dead.

Baba Yaga is unusually specific for a fairy tale character — she is often individuated. In fact there is something very specific and unusual about her: She lives in a woodland cottage that runs about on chicken legs.

She sets snapping teeth on her door for a lock, with hands to bolt it and human limbs to support it. Tiles are made of pancake, the walls of pies. A big oven blazes in the hearth where she sleeps at night.

Also, she fences her domain in the forest with the skulls and bones of her victims whose eyes glow by moonlight. (The skulls are used to decorate the pickets of the fence.)

HOW DOES SHE GET ABOUT?

Baba Yaga also has an unusual mode of flight. She ferries through the air in a pestle and mortar, sweeping her tracks with besom as she goes. (The pestle is the rudder.) Sometimes she travels in a flying cauldron. In her wake, tempests, hurricanes and tornadoes boil and roil.

RELATED TALES

This tale is a close cousin of the witch from Hansel and Gretel. Clever children are able to trick her.

Witch can have several meanings and exist on several axes. What’s the gender inverse of witch? Sometimes wizard (magic), sometimes ogre (gruesome).

She has witchy traits. When we say Baba Yaga is the equivalent of a witch, she’s the kind of witch who corresponds to the female ogre.

She can take shape of bird or cat (a sexist trope which predominates throughout all types of modern literature). This shows how very old is the tendency to link femininity to birds and to cats.

Sometimes, occasionally though, Baba Yaga is just a regular old woman, like the queen of Snow White.

"Baba Yaga" Russian folk tale Illustrator Nikolay Kochergin
“Baba Yaga” Russian folk tale Illustrator Nikolay Kochergin

THE DUALISTIC WOMAN

Baba Yaga is not always malignant. In fact, she is notoriously ambiguous, giving rise to the archetype of the dualistic woman. Her cottage can be considered a liminal space, functioning as a sort of portal between the light and the dark sides, or the border between life and death. She can swing in either direction.

One of the best-known and strangest characters (from a Western perspective) in Russian [Slavic] folk tales is a witch called Baba Yaga. According to Elizabeth Warner, there are two Baba Yagas, a good one and a bad one. Sometimes within a single narrative, Baba Yaga may display good and evil characteristics. She benignly feeds the hero in “little Ivan The Clever Young Man,” for example, and provides him with a “hot steam-bath,” but threatens to devour Vasilisa the Beautiful. Baba Yaga lives in a dense and dark forest in a cottage built on chicken’s legs that revolves on command. She is an aged, ugly crone and her nose and teeth are long and sharp. Not only is she emaciated like a skeleton, but the fence and gates of her house are built of human bones. According to Warner, “some scholars say” that Baba Yaga’s house guards the frontier between the mortal and spirit worlds.

Carolyn Davis, Voracious Children: Who Eats Whom In Children’s Literature
Baba Yaga Illustration of Yelena Polenova to the Russian folk tale "Son Filipko", 1890s
Baba Yaga Illustration of Yelena Polenova to the Russian folk tale “Son Filipko”, 1890s

SIMILARITIES TO HANSEL AND GRETEL

Baba Yaga, like Hansel and Gretel’s adversary, has a penchant for human flesh and kidnaps small children. Vasilisa escapes from Baba Yaga’s clutches because she has her “mother’s blessing” to help her, embodied in a doll which advises her and performs the tasks set her by the witch. When Baba Yaga finds out that Vasilisa has been blessed, she sends her home to her stepmother and stepsisters unharmed and with the light they had sent her to fetch. The light given to Vasilisa by the witch is contained in a skull stuck on a pole. The blazing eyes of the skull stare straight at the stepmother and her daughters. “They tried to hide but everywhere they went the eyes followed them. By morning they were shrivelled to a cinder and only Vasilisa was left”. Vasilisa subsequently takes a room with an old woman and waits for her father to return from his business trip. With the doll’s help, she spins a quantity of fine linen thread, weaves a cloth “so delicate it could be drawn through the eye of a needle” and sews twelve shirts for the Tsar. The Tsar is delighted with her work and invites the seamstress to his palace, falls in love with her and asks her to marry him. When Vasilisa’s father returns he is overjoyed to hear of the good fortune that has befallen his daughter. He and the old woman, with whom Vasilisa has been living, come to live in the palace.

The trajectory of the story of “Vasilisa the Beautiful” is similar to that of Hansel and Gretel in a number of ways. Just as they did, Vasilisa must come to terms with the dualistic nature of the mother figure and develop a meaningful relationship with her father/the symbolic order. Her stepmother expels her from the house and sends her into the forest, just as Hansel’s and Gretel’s did, and her stepmother and the witch figure also epitomize the bad breast/mother figure. For Vasilisa the doll embodies the blessing or loving and nurturing aspects of the mother, while the stepmother/witch again represents the evil, cannibalistic characteristics. Vasilisa is not lured into Baba Yaga’s house as Hansel and Gretel are, however. Instead, she recognizes the threat the house and the witch represent but must still approach and comply with Baba Yaga’s commands, fulfilling the onerous tasks she sets. Thus, Vasilisa must face up to the deal with that which she fears just as Maggie Kilgour suggests the infant must do in relation to the breast. The step/mother is again dealt with through matricide but Vasilisa retains the best parts of the mother figure in the body of the doll, which she carries “in her pocket until the day she dies”. Arguably Vasilisa has reconciled with her ambivalent feelings toward her mother who is then reclaimed in the figure of the old woman. Again in this story, economic wealth is associated with the paternal and provides a happy ever after ending.

The emphasis on the devouring aspects of these wicked witches is significant. Baba Yaga’s sharp teeth and the bones and skulls with which her house is constructed are described in oral sadistic terms as Campbell suggests. Vasilisa must enter the witch’s domain through gates made of human legs, with human hands for bolts and a mouth with sharp teeth for a lock. Freud discussed the significance of the teeth (in dreams) and proposed that they represented the female genitals, the lower part of the body being transposed to the upper so that “it is ost likely that the mouth refers to the vagina and the rows of teeth which open and close to a phantasy about castrating vaginal teeth”. The gateway to Baba Yaga’s house suggests some transposition of the lower body to the upper and certainly emphasizes the incorporative aspects of the maternal mouths. The devouring vagina mouth with teeth — the vagina dentata — is a symbol for the castrating and incorporating aspects of the cannibalistic female.

Carolyn Davis, Voracious Children: Who Eats Whom In Children’s Literature
Baba Yaga in a mortar Illustrator M. Alekseev, 1970s
Baba Yaga in a mortar Illustrator M. Alekseev, 1970s

BABA YAGA IN JAPAN

Being a bit of a Japanophile, I can’t help but notice how popular the tale of Baba Yaga is in Japan. Here in the West, I grew up without ever hearing of such a folktale, but in Japan you might see its influence all over the place.

It was Diana Wynne Jones (British) who wrote Howl’s Travelling Castle upon which the anime is based but I can’t help but think of Baba Yaga when I see Hayao Miyazaki’s version of it on the big screen.

Howl's Travelling Castle
Howl’s Travelling Castle as envisioned by Studio Ghibli

Miyazaki includes the character Baba Yaga in Mr Dough And The Egg Princess, which apparently you can only see screening at the Ghibli museum in Japan.

For more examples of houses on legs, see here.

Some people think that Baba Yaga equals the Yubaba in Spirited Away. I can see how they got there — Yubaba does fly away, after turning into a creepy crow. There is a good and an evil version of her. Interestingly, the proto-Slavic word for grandma ‘baba’ may simply be coincidentally phonetically similar to the Japanese ‘Baba’, which also comes from the native Japanese word for grandmother/old woman (obaasan). It’s important to note that Baba is a derogatory term. I believe it’s derogatory in both the Japanese and in the Slavic. But Baba is not a loanword in Japanese. In fact, it’s listed here, in a list of native Japanese words often thought to be from abroad. It may have been this very phonetic correspondence that spurred Hayao Miyazaki’s imagination when it came to the creation of Yubaba. It’s a false cognate, but in Japanese the word baba also refers to an old hag. The worst thing you could call a woman is a kusobaba — a ‘shit crone’.

There is no direct equivalent of Baba Yaga in Japanese folklore, but indeed, the Japanese do not need her because they have a lengthy list of weird folkloric creatures of their own. I can only deduce that Baba Yaga fits in well with the weirdness, hence Studio Ghibli’s fascination for her. Japan does have a fire breathing chicken type thing and ghosts that eat corpses. Then there’s the bird-demon created from the spirits of freshly dead corpses.

Here’s a more in depth look at some similarities between Slavic and Japanese folkloric old ‘hags’.

Mythological cannibals don’t seem to be all that common in other cultures. I expected the Wikipedia category to be much bigger in fact. Perhaps Russia and Japan are historically more similar than I’d thought?

Adrienne Segur, French (1901-1981) 'Baba Yaga's Cat.'
Adrienne Segur, French (1901-1981) ‘Baba Yaga’s Cat.’

Happy dreams. Once Upon A Blog Baba Yaga

Lemon girl young adult novella

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What is a fractured fairytale?

A fractured fairy tale is a story which makes use of a traditional fairy tale but restructures and reimagines, with the aim of greater nuance and with a contemporary sensibility in mind. The writer might be offering a critique of the ideas offered up in an earlier version. This makes some of them subversive. Fractured fairy tales are often aimed at an adult audience, though they’re common in children’s literature as well.

See this post on Postmodern Picturebooks. Fractured fairytales lend themselves to postmodern readings.

Sometimes called parodies or transformed tales, fractured tales are humorous or exaggerated imitations of an author, a particular traditional tale, or a style. Fractured tales are currently popular in picture book format. Beginning with The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs (1989). Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith began a trend that shows no sign of abating. Traditional tales from “Little Red Riding Hood” to the “Three Little Pigs” to “The House That Jack Built” have been retold in a humorous vein in picture book format. Picture book examples are The Dinosaur’s New Clothes (1999), illustrated by Diane Goode; Little Red Riding Hood: A New Fangled Prairie Tale (1995), illustrated by Lisa Campbell Ernst; The Little Red Hen Makes a Pizza (1999), illustrated by Amy Walrod: and Beauty and the Beaks: A Turkey’s Cautionary Tale (2007), illustrated by Mary Jane Auch.

A Picture Book Primer: Understanding and Using Picture Books By Denise I. Matulka

Another standout example of a fractured fairytale picture book, mentioned often by literature academics: The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales by Scieszka and Smith. The story’s aim is meta, drawing the reader’s attention to the fact that these are just stories, and whatever meaning they seem to imply should be interrogated. The ‘meaning’ of these ‘stupid tales’ is constructed by the reader.

Fractured Fairytales narrated by Edward Everett Horton
Fractured Fairytales narrated by Edward Everett Horton

When classic tales are revisioned to deliberately poke fun at the form, we call them ‘fractured’, but classic tales are always, forever undergoing evolution, even when the re-teller doesn’t intend any changes:

Retelling stories is about as old as storytelling itself. Each generation’s storytellers takes elements from stories they heard as children. They’ll mash those elements with their own ideas and suddenly the story becomes something completely new. No story has survived untouched throughout the ages — even the so-called “classic” fairy tales do this. If you’re familiar with the Greek story of Cupid and Psyche there are an awful lot of similar elements from that tale in the French story “Beauty and the Beast” as well as in “Cinderella.” And elements of “Beauty and the Beast” also turn up in the Norse tale “East of the Sun, West of the Moon.” Storytellers love to take familiar plots and give them a twist. When you take an existing story and adapt it for your own you are making a connection — a connection with every storyteller who told their own version of that story, and a connection with every audience that has loved some variation of that story. It allows the writer to create a kind of shorthand with the audience — if you like “x,” then you’ll find familiar things in this new version of the story. We take comfort in the familiar and relish the new that’s mixed in, and something fresh and original is created from that mixture.

Christina Henry

Fractured fairy tales can be of any genre, written for any demographic:

  • Fantasy — Most recently we’ve had a lot of dark fantasy
  • Horror — Horror has gone hand-in-hand with the dark fantasy. In horrors, villains such as witches don’t tend to have a back story — they serve as the evil force.
  • Dramatic musical
  • Thriller
  • Comedy (Parody)

Fractured fairy tales are very popular at the moment, for young adults and adults. In film and television there was a proliferation between 2010 and 2016, and many of these are available on Netflix, for example.

  • Into The Woods — a stage play running for two years from 2002 by Steven Sondheim which weaves Grimm and Perrault tales together; produced for screen during the ‘proliferation’ period.
  • Once Upon A Time
  • Grimm
  • Shrek — This franchise takes a classic monster from a fairytale (the ugly ogre) and turns him into a sympathetic character.
  • Descendents
  • Beastly — a retelling of the fairytale Beauty and the Beast and is set in modern-day New York City.
  • Maleficent —  a retelling of Sleeping Beauty from the evil fairy’s point of view.
  • Hansel and Gretel — horror
  • Witch Hunters — horror
  • Snow White and the Huntsmen — horror
  • Half Baked — horror

Three Types Of Fractured Fairytale

The Cross-over Narrative

Cross-over fractured fairytales intersect various fairy tales to create one big story. Examples are Into the Woods, Once Upon a Time and Grimm.

The Subversive

Subversive fractured fairy tales force the viewer to look at a familiar story from a unique perspective. Examples are Beastly and Maleficent. Often these subversive tales take on the narrative point of view from a different angle — perhaps the viewpoint character is the villain, recast as a sympathetic character. It’s rare for witches to have backstories in the traditional tales, but modern fractured retellings often give us the witch’s perspective.

Many tales which aim to be subversive nevertheless uphold traditional ideas:

  • Youth is beauty
  • Age is ugly and to be avoided
  • It’s not so bad being ugly, but your ugliness still prevents you from marrying someone beautiful (Shrek)

Moral relativism is the view that moral judgments are true or false only relative to some particular standpoint (for instance, that of a culture or a historical period) and that no standpoint is uniquely privileged over all others. Subversive fractured fairy tales tend to take this view. Sure, Maleficent is evil, but once we know her back story, the morality changes. A common technique in retelling old tales from different perspectives is to name previously unnamed characters.

Naming has primary importance as a way of determining a being’s subjectivity. [A character’s namelessness] reinforces his lack of an existence, his lack of agency.

Roberta Seelinger Trites, Waking Sleeping Beauty

So wicked witches are named, Cinderella is known to us by her more familiar name, Ella and so on. Subversive tales can be juxtaposed against another type of ‘re-visioning’, described by Jack Zipes:

There are literally hundreds of publishers who produce and market cheap versions of the Grimms’ tales as pretexts to conceal their profit-making motives. These duplications merely reinforce static nations of the nineteenth-century fairy tales and leave anachronistic values and tastes unquestioned. Whatever changes are made in these duplications—and changes are always made—they tend to be in the name of an ignorant conservatism that upholds arbitrary notions of propriety, for many people believe that there is such a thing as a “proper” Grimms’ fairy tale. In contrast, the reversions of the Grimms’ pre-texts, to use the terms coined by Stephens and McCallum, adulterate the Grimms’ tales by adding ingredients, taking away some elements, and reconstructing them to speak to contemporary audiences in different sociocultural contexts.

Jack Zipes, Sticks and Stones

The Inspired

Inspired fractured fairy tales are only loosely based on traditional stories. Examples are Hansel and Gretel (the film), Witch Hunters, Snow White and the Huntsman. 

Jane Campion’s The Piano is loosely inspired by “Bluebeard“, but is nonetheless obvious with the play-within-a-play structure. Robin Black’s short story “Pine” is even more loosely Bluebeard-ish, but still there. These things sit on a continuum.

Angela Carter often uses a title as clue to her inspiration, but then blows away the plot. Carter’s “Erl-King” is inspired by Goethe’s poem without adhering to the original beats.

Hello! Project’s Minimoni starred in a drama based on “The Musicians Of Bremen“. In Japanese it’s called Mini Moni.de Bremen no Ongakutai (Mini Moni’s Bremen Town Musicians). This adaptation goes backwards in time through three periods of Japanese history unveiling the story. The drama is inspired by the Bremen tale but does not have much in common with it.

A TAXONOMY OF FRACTURED FAIRYTALES

Kevin Paul Smith (2007) drew on French literary theorist Gerard Genette’s theories to identify eight categories of intertextual use of fairy tales:

  1. Authorised: Explicit reference to a fairytale in the title
  2. Writerly: Implicit reference to a fairytale in title
  3. Incorporation: Explicit reference to a fairytale within the text
  4. Allusion: Implicit reference to a fairytale within the text
  5. Re-vision: putting a new spin on an old tale
  6. Fabulation: crafting an original fairytale
  7. Metafictional: discussion of fairytales
  8. Architextual/Chronotopic: “Fairytale” setting/environment

STORIES WHICH MAKE USE OF FAIRYTALE SYMBOLISM

The term ‘fairytale’ is often used as an epithet—a fairytale setting, a fairytale ending—for a work that is not in itself a fairy tale, because it depends on elements of the form’s symbolic language. 

Marina Warner (2014) (xviii)

I have argued that Animal Kingdom (the American TV series) and Breaking Bad make heavy use of fairytale symbolism, but other viewers may not see it; meanwhile, other viewers may see fairytale symbolism in shows where I do not. Many stories have deep fairytale links, and it’s only a matter of making the connection.

You can find many examples of scholars who talk about fairytales in terms of symbolism and motif and the importance of fairytale archetypes to human psychology.

See for example Walter Rankin’s Grimm Pictures: Fairy Tale Archetypes in Eight Horror and Suspense Films (2007).

Though Grimm’s Fairy Tales was published about 200 years ago, the revered collection of folk stories remains one of the most iconic pieces of children’s literature and has had significant influence in modern pop culture.

This work examines the many ways that recent films have employed archetypal images, themes, symbols, and structural elements that originated in the most well-known Grimm fairy tales. The author draws similarities between the cannibalistic symbolism of the Grimm brothers’ Little Red Cap and the 1991 film The Silence of the Lambs and reveals Faustian parallels between Rumpelstiltskin and the 1968 film Rosemary’s Baby.

Each of eight chapters reveals a similar pairing, and film stills and illustrations are featured throughout the work.

Importantly, a narrative isn’t complete until it is interpreted by its audience. We might even say there’s no such thing as a symbolically fairytale text, only a symbolically fairytale reading of a text.

POTENTIAL PROBLEMS WITH FRACTURED FAIRYTALES

When writers take an old tale and subvert expectations, wonderful things can be done. Worldviews can be modified or even shattered. But because these stories are so powerful, they can also be unhelpful.

ALISON HALDERMAN: Science fiction likes to take traditional old fairy tales and magic and to explain them in a scientific context.

URSULA LE GUIN: I don’t like that at all. Things like Chariots of the Gods? [by Doris Lessing, 1979] really put me off. It’s not a real explanation. It seems to destroy the magic when people try to give scientific rationalisations. That’s different from taking an old myth and dressing it up in new metaphors.

The Last Interview

FREE EXAMPLES OF FRACTURED FAIRY TALES CREATIVE WRITING

Although “The Pied Piper of Hamelin” is a legend rather than a fairy tale, my feminist fractured take “The Magic Pipe” was longlisted for The Commonwealth Short Story Prize in 2019.

See also “Lotta: Red Riding Hood“, co-written with a friend of mine. We humanise Little Red Riding Hood by giving her a name.

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Why Are Witches Green?

girl witch green pot

We all know witches ride brooms and keep black cats for sidekick pets, but why the green witch? That tradition started quite recently, but we can also find links that stretch back to antiquity.

The history of witches is terrifying and sad and is basically the story of marginalised people. Worse, people around the contemporary world are still abused because of supernatural beliefs about their so-called witchcraft.

In children’s literature, however, witches are a useful trope.

We’re all familiar with the idea that witches ride brooms.

Eugene Grasset (1845-1917) Three women and three wolves (ca. 1900)
Eugene Grasset (1845-1917) Three women and three wolves (ca. 1900)

But when did witches become green?

The Anjana is a witch from Hispanic tradition. She often resembles an old woman to test out people’s charity towards her, but in her ‘true’ form she is a beautiful young woman who wears a tunic of flowers, silver stars and also green stockings. These green stockings apparently allude to the primitive forces of virgin nature. So green has been associated with witches for a very long time.

The Green Witch In The Wizard Of Oz

Before the film adaptation, the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz looked like this:

Wicked Witch of the West by original illustrator William Wallace Denslow
Anton Loeb illustration of the Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz

Then the film was made. If successful, a film changes a work permanently. Just as Disney has forever placed in our minds the names of the seven dwarfs (who were never named before that), the film starring Judy Garland forever left us with the image of the green Wicked Witch Of The West.

Margaret Hamilton in the 1939 film

The green-skinned crone is actually a relatively new incarnation of the evil witch – in fact, while the evil witch as a cultural narrative dates back millennia, the green skin dates precisely back to 1939 and the MGM film, The Wizard of Oz. Margaret Hamilton’s cackling and emerald-tinted portrayal of the Wicked Witch of the West, rendered in vivid Technicolor, is the only reason that anyone associates green skin with witches. As Professor Marion Gibson, associate professor of Renaissance and magical literatures at the University of Exeter and an expert in popular depictions of witches, explained, via email, “There are a few images of witches for instance, on Halloween postcards with odd coloured faces (usually red/orange, surprisingly) but MGM’s green-faced witch is the first to make a key feature of a completely non-human skin colour.”

Why Are Witches Green? from Boing Boing

There is a sad story of actor abuse behind Margaret Hamilton’s greenness.

On 23 December 1938, while filming the Wicked Witch’s exit from Munchkinland in a blaze of fire, Hamilton suffered first-degree burns on the right side of her face and second-degree burns on her right hand; the flames rose too soon, before she had descended below the stage. Hamilton’s green makeup was copper-based and potentially toxic, and had to be removed from her burned flesh with alcohol — an intensely painful process. She was not able to return to the movie until 10 February. When she did return, she wore green gloves, since her hand was not yet fully healed.

OzWikia

Soon, witches in picture books turned green under the influence of the Wizard of Oz.

Below is an illustration for the Charles Perrault’s 1961 depiction of Sleeping Beauty. The wicked fairy is depicted as an ugly green witch, to match her ugly personality.

La belle au bois dormant : The Sleeping Beauty and Other Stories, retold by Shirley Goulden; illustrated by Benvenuti, 1961

In the 1977 illustration below the skin is grey and sallow but the greenness is still there, in her gown. To make use of some very basic symbolism — the fairy is experiencing feelings of envy because she has not been invited to the party.

Sleeping Beauty grey green witch
Illustration by Sheilah Beckett, 1977

Gregory Maguire’s Wicked

There have been many, many retellings of The Wizard of Oz but the most culturally significant of those must be Wicked, in which Elphaba’s greenness is central.

[A] witch whose image was recently remade is Elphaba, from Wicked, who is also the Wicked Witch of the West in “The Wizard of Oz’. In Wicked, the witch retains her original appearance, “with her green skin, black clothes, and flying broom Elphaba matches our physical conception of a witch” (Boyd 99). Her personality, on the other hand, is completely different. She remains a bit rough around the edges, but this is more defensiveness and a lack of social skills than an actual evil. She is given a sympathetic back-story, and the best intentions. Overall, Elphaba is a good person, and remains that way throughout both the novel and the play, thus becoming a relatable protagonist, rather than a villain.

Socademia

Macbeth’s witches were not green in Shakespeare’s day. So we know this cartoon is post Wizard of Oz movie.

Why green, though?

Green skin makes a character unambiguously non-human, so there’s one reason for the green skin. But there are real-world illnesses which can give skin a greenish hue.

Physical damage of various sorts can cause greenish skin. These causes include infections, fungal attack, chemical damage, bruising, and gangrene, among others.

Holidappy

Witches tend to be green and sick looking when they are not sexualised. (Not sure if you can be sexualised AND green — I’m sure it can be done):

Witches in popular literature and media […] became sexual entities, conniving and disgraceful. […] “witches are accused of crimes similar to those which made the femme fatale of 19th-century novels and dramas such a menacing literary persona” […] Through their magic and their sensual nature, they would tempt people, and trick them into doing inherently evil things, or make them vulnerable. Thus, the witch was seen as a villain, and sexual women were seen as menacing as well. Through this process of othering, this characterisation of sexually deviant women as witches, “the witch became the incarnation of the sins of the flesh, of female sexual function”.

However, witches are not always represented as being overly feminine and sexual in nature. Sometimes, they sit on the other end of the spectrum, as masculine, hideous creatures; still outliers from society’s usual expectations for women. These witches, with green skin and crooked noses, match our typical descriptions of the Halloween monsters, cursing maidens and keeping black cats or crows as company.

Socademia
The Wizard Of Oz- 1944, illustration by Evelyn Copelman
The Wizard Of Oz 1944, illustration by Evelyn Copelman
Joseph Ratcliffe Skelton (1865 - 1927) 1909 Van Hunks and The Devil illustration for Romance Of Empire South Africa by Ian D. Colvin smoke
Joseph Ratcliffe Skelton (1865 – 1927) 1909 Van Hunks and The Devil illustration for Romance Of Empire South Africa by Ian D. Colvin smoke
House of the Darkest Death green

GREEN WITCHES AND… LITTLE GREEN MEN?

If I say ‘little green men’, you know I mean aliens, right?

Since when were aliens meant to be green? 1947 is when. The UFO sighting craze kicked off in America in 1941 with the Cape Girardeau flying saucer crash (which definitely happened), but get this, the guy who saw the alien thought it was grey. It was a reporter who made aliens green, in a seemingly off-the-cuff phrase.

Dunno about you, but I think that reporter had seen The Wizard of Oz on film. And I bet In 1946, Harold M. Sherman, who wrote a pulp science fiction book called The Green Man: A Visitor From Space had seen The Wizard of Oz, too. 

The Green Man

Either that or green as Other was in the air. No surprise that Day of the Triffids was published in 1951.

For more on that whole green alien history, listen to Alien Invasion: How Little Green Men Took Over from the Every Little Thing podcast.

IN VITRO (1987) by Marc Caro
IN VITRO (1987) by Marc Caro
'The Ogre's Mask' Cover illustrator unknown, 1955
‘The Ogre’s Mask’ Cover illustrator unknown, 1955
Robert McGinnis (b. 1926), American painter and illustrator, known for his book covers (over 1) and his posters of movies such as James Bond, Diamonds on couch and Barbarella. This look is achieved with use of black light. LED UV lighting is sometimes used at parties. These lights emit harmless (UV) light that is invisible to humans. Certain fluorescent substances absorb ultraviolet light and re-emit it at a different wavelength, making the light visible and the material appear to glow.
Kraper (Pierre Kramer & Paul Perenoud), 1932 Grock was a Swiss clown, composer and musician, 'King of Clowns'
by Kraper (Pierre Kramer & Paul Perenoud), 1932. The subject, Grock, was a Swiss clown, composer and musician, ‘King of Clowns’. Green is an interesting choice for the non-clown side of him.
Angelo Cesselon Italian release poster for The Third Man (1949) green
Angelo Cesselon Italian release poster for The Third Man (1949)

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Proulx’s Bunchgrass Edge Of The World Short Story Analysis

Farm Scene American Artist (1851–1899) perhaps built in a similar era to the farmhouse in Proulx's short story
Farm Scene American Artist (1851–1899), perhaps built in a similar era to the farmhouse in Proulx’s short story

This modern retelling of The Frog Prince by Annie Proulx was published in the November edition of The New Yorker in 1998 and included in her Close Range collection of short stories.

PROULX’S STORY STRUCTURE

If I hadn’t had it pointed out I probably wouldn’t have picked up, on first reading anyway, that this is a re-visioning of the fairytale The Frog Prince. But this is an Angela Carter kind of subversive re-visioning in which the woman comes up trumps, though not in the patriarchal ideal of ‘happily’ married and subdued, but having chosen her own man and inheriting a property which ordinarily would have passed down the male line. (This is called patrimony.)

In “The Bunchgrass Edge of the World” the frog prince gets substituted by a monstrous, talking tractor. Ironically, the broken down, hybrid tractor shows misogynous prejudice, as it forbids Ottaline to repair it, claiming that “‘It’s men that fixes tractors, not no woman.'”

Thy Truth Then Be Thy Dowry: Questions of Inheritance in American Women’s Literature, edited by Stéphanie Durrans

In common with “The Frog Prince” she’s outside the house, though unable to go very far. Something unexpected starts talking to her ‘at the bottom of the garden’. Both the tractor and the frog are pretty awful characters and you’d never want anything to do with them even if they did transmogrify into handsome princes, though I feel the original readers of Frog Prince fairytales weren’t meant to think so.

There are other fairytale elements to this story. The story starts two generations before the ‘princess’ gets her story. Modern retellers of fairytales don’t do this, but Charles Perrault did. In Perrault’s version of Rapunzel we hear all about her parents and how the mother craved some kind of parsley and sent the father off to steal it from the witch’s garden. This practice of establishing heritage helps to give a story a sense of history, even though short. It also contributes to that ‘deterministic’ feel — a word often used to describe the work of Annie Proulx and fairytales alike. The father is called Aladdin. There is a crop of almost magical wheat — seeded from Aladdin’s pants cuffs when he somersaulted off the porch, exuberant and playful before his new wife.

Even the setting seems alive to Ottaline:

The calfskin rug on the floor seemed to move, to hunch and crawl a fraction of an inch at a time. The dark frame of the mirror sank into the wall, a rectangular trench. From her bed she saw the moon-bleached grain elevator and behind it immeasurable range flecked with cows like small black seeds.

This is not quite magical realism, but through Ottaline’s eyes we get a sense of what it’s like to view a grimly realistic world in a magical way. Mirrors, moons and rugs which seem alive — these are all reminiscent of fairytale.

SHORTCOMING

The raw loneliness then, the silences of the day, the longing flesh led her to press her mouth into the crook of her own hot elbow. She pinched and pummeled her fat flanks, rolled on the bed, twisted, went to the window a dozen times, heels striking the floor until old Red in his pantry below called out, “What is it? You got a sailor up there?”

[…]

Ottaline was dissolving. It was too far to anything. Someone had to come for her. There was not even the solace of television, for old Red dominated the controls, always choosing Westerns, calling out to the film horses in his broken voice, “Buck him off, kick his brains out!”

We naturally settle on Ottaline as the main character of this story, even though it’s really about an entire family. She’s the last to be introduced for starters, and there’s a certain power which comes with being the ultimate.

There aren’t many women in the Close Range collection — Annie Proulx was mainly writing about men at this time. Ottaline is the third and most hard-working child of this ranch family — in true fairytale style the last of three (usually sons) is rewarded. But first she is put through the mill:

Most of the women depicted by Proulx […] have low self-esteem and very few illusions about life, being used to isolation, abuse, heavy drinking, cheating, domestic violence, taboos, and unwanted pregancies. […] However, Proulx’s stories also bring to the foreground a few strong-willed women getting out of marriages gone sour, suggesting that if you can’t leave Wyoming, you can always leave an ill-suited husband. […] Ottaline’s mother also provides an example of resistance as she warns her father in law: “Keep your dirty old prong from my girls or I’ll pour boilin water on it.”

— Thy Truth Then Be Thy Dowry: Questions of Inheritance in American Women’s Literature, edited by Stéphanie Durrans

Ottaline’s problem is that she is heavy set and for both self-driven and culturally-driven reasons this puts her on the sidelines as far as the marriage market is concerned. This body weight acts in a modern story as a disfigurement or magic spell might in a fairytale — Snow White and Sleeping Beauty are unconscious; Cinderella and the heroine of Beauty and the Beast are poor (but their beauty eventually redeems them); Rapunzel is hidden away; witches are old and ugly. There’s always some reason in a fairytale why women can’t just go forth and find a man if they want one. Ottaline’s weight is presented as a kind of grotesque, represented in other narratives by gargoyles and chimeras. The grotesque is a feature of gothic literature.

As miserable Ottaline turns for company to her scanner, which allows her to capture disjointed bits of other people’s cell phone conversations, her eavesdropping similarly may point to Annie Proulx’s ventriloquist tales. As the writer explains, she herself is “a good eavesdropper,” who likes to “listen to ordinary people speaking with one another in bars and stores, in laundromats,” to “catch fragments of conversations and fill in the blanks. Indeed, her highly heteroglossic short stories feed on recuperated sociolects, myths, and discourses in a way that brings her readers to reflect upon the polyphony and intertextuality worked into her texts, and wonder at the artful recycling in her poetic yet violent and crude stories.

— Thy Truth Then Be Thy Dowry: Questions of Inheritance in American Women’s Literature, edited by Stéphanie Durrans

 

DESIRE

Annie Proulx doesn’t even want fairytale happy endings for her female characters and this has been foreshadowed earlier with Ottaline’s treatment of the tractor.

While crafting female characters nearly systematically doomed to a tragic downfall, Proulx deconstructs traditional fairy tales so as to pinpoint the noxious power of the Prince Charming and happy ending archetypes. Indeed, many of her short narratives may read as subversive rewriting of old folktales and fairy tales, showing awareness of the potency of storytelling. […] Like Ottaline conversing with the enamored talking tractor, Proulx’s fiction implies that one should be wary of false expectations inherited from stories passed on to little girls: “‘Are you like an enchanted thing? A damn story where some girl lets a warty old toad sleep in her shoe and in the morning the toad’s a good-looking dude making omelettes?'” The ironic, self-referential metalepsis draws attention to the patrimony of fairy tales and folktales which Proulx’s stories often tap into.

— Thy Truth Then Be Thy Dowry: Questions of Inheritance in American Women’s Literature, edited by Stéphanie Durrans

Metalepsis = a figure of speech in which a word or a phrase from figurative speech is used in a new context. This is an example metalepsis because the reader knows how things go in fairytales — the girl isn’t meant to expect a handsome prince. She’s meant to be disgusted by the frog and be utterly surprised later.

So Ottaline doesn’t want a fairytale romance. What does she want? Satisfying sex (not with the off-again, on-again farmhand), and a stable life.

Her only chance seemed the semiliterate, off-again, on-again hired man, Hal Bloom, tall legs like chopsticks, T-shirt emblazoned Aggressive by Nature, Cowboy by Choice. He worked for Aladdin in short bursts between rodeo roping, could not often be pried off his horse (for he cherished a vision of himself as an 1870s cowboy just in from an Oregon cattle drive). Ottaline had gone with him down into the willow a dozen times, to the damp soil and nests of stinging nettles, where he pulled a pale condom over his small, hard penis and crawled silently into her. His warm neck smelled of soap and horse.

Being a woman, she’s liable to be turfed out at some point if the handling of the farm turns to her wayward brother.

OPPONENT

The natural order of society stands in Ottaline’s way. Patrimony, societal (and internalised) rejection of her heft. But these things don’t make for interesting opponents in a fleshed out narrative.

Her father keeps her locked up in the rural equivalent of a castle:

It is implied that her father, only too happy that one of his two daughters should fill in for the son who has deserted the ranch, treacherously keeps her from going to town to get a job and fires Hal Bloom, “the semiliterate, off-again, on-again hired man” whom desperate Ottaline, in spite of her obvious lack of attraction to him, had perceived as her “only chance” to ever get away from the family ranch.

— Thy Truth Then Be Thy Dowry: Questions of Inheritance in American Women’s Literature, edited by Stéphanie Durrans

We have the farmhand who is an example of a man she could easily end up with — someone who coerces her into unsatisfying sex and who has no prospects.

Then we have the ‘monster’ (in the Courage The Cowardly Dog sense) who arrives suddenly from outside this established community — here it comes in the form of a talking tractor, though I read this tractor as Ottaline’s own awakening, perhaps provoked by her hobby of listening in on other people’s conversations on her scanner.

PLAN

Ottaline has an anti-plan in this ironic, subversive story. She will plant herself right where she is, thanks. There is a narrative reason for her heft. She is grounded to this land. Instead, when things happen to go her way, it’s luck. If she had any hand in things at all, it’s because she learned to put her foot down and not accept any crap from ‘the tractor’ (ie. men who treat her badly).

Luck is the thing. Proulx introduces the stochastic nature of things in the very first paragraph, a paragraph which looks at first glance like a simple description of setting:

The country appeared as empty ground, big sagebrush, intricate sky, flocks of small birds like packs of cards thrown up in the air, and a faint track drifting toward the red-walled horizon.

Ottaline’s plan thus far has been to shun feminine skills in favour of masculine ones, hoping to stay on the farm I guess:

With a physique approaching the size of a hundred-gallon propane tank,” grotesquely obese Ottaline in “The Bunchgrass Edge Of The World” quickly shuns feminine attires and house chores, opting instead for ranch work with her father, “manure-caked roper boots” and “big jeans”. As a result, she is tragically even more cut off from the rest of the world. 

— Thy Truth Then Be Thy Dowry: Questions of Inheritance in American Women’s Literature, edited by Stéphanie Durrans

BIG STRUGGLE

Ottaline’s internal big struggle with the patriarchy takes place astride the tractor:

Ottaline turns out to be one of Proulx’s subversive tools, as her rebellion against the wannabe prince turns the tables on gender stereotypes. Indeed, the scene in which Ottaline fixes the tractor contains innuendos pointing to the implicit subtext of sexual empowerment:

She had bought a can of penetrating oil with her and began to squirt it on studs, bolts and screws, to rap on the rested colts with a heavy wrench.

“You make a wrong move I might hurt you.”

“You know what? I was you I’d lay back and enjoy it.” Something Hal Bloom had said.

— Thy Truth Then Be Thy Dowry: Questions of Inheritance in American Women’s Literature, edited by Stéphanie Durrans

Ottaline is brought to her knees in terms of bad fortune when her father gets her to bring a buyer in for the cattle.

ANAGNORISIS

The ‘twist’ (revelation) for the reader comes when the cattle buyer’s son comes instead. There’s an instant connection (a ‘love at first sight’ fairytale trope?) and Ottaline marries the son, thereby keeping the cattle.

What’s the revelation? Luck can turn on a dime, but in both directions.

It turned the other way for Aladdin, who is killed instantly in his new plane.

NEW SITUATION

They ‘plant’ (bury) Aladdin on the farm and Ottaline runs the ranch with her new husband.

Like Charles Perrault did with his fairytales, Annie Proulx offers an extra bit to make sure the reader gets the point of the telling. Though unlike in those misogynistic, didactic tales, Proulx has a much less romanticised view on life:

That was it: stand around long enough you’d get to sit down.

 

COMPARE AND CONTRAST

“Tits Up In A Ditch” is another story by Annie Proulx conveying a deep disregard for fairy-tale romance. It starts a bit like a fairy tale but events for Dakotah turn tragic.

There are also strong parallels with “The Mud Below”:

Ottaline grows up on her parents’ ranch, “adrift on the high plain” where “the wind isolate[s] them from the rest of the world.” As she starts having conversations with an amorous talking John Deere tractor, the story suggests that pathetic Ottaline has gradually  been driven insane, out of line, by the “raw loneliness then, the silences of the day, the longing flesh”: “Ottaline was dissolving. It was too far for anything. Someone had to come for her.” For some of Proulx’s characters, marriage is definitely presented as the least worse off option, the only way to rise from “the mud below” as one of the short story titles has it.

— Thy Truth Then Be Thy Dowry: Questions of Inheritance in American Women’s Literature, edited by Stéphanie Durrans

Tractors must be a very real worry to farmers. Here in Australia, some groups are wanting the law to change around four-wheeler use in children. In fiction, too the tractor or farm vehicle is quite regularly used as a means of death. Reese Witherspoon’s debut film featured a death by tractor.

John Cheever wrote a magical realist story about someone listening in on other people’s conversations — “The Enormous Radio” — though this lead to a family’s downfall, not to a woman’s awakening.

Ottaline reminds me a little of Aunt Beryl from Katherine Mansfield’s best-known short stories (“Prelude”, “At The Bay”), but she really describes any unmarried woman from late 19th, early 20th century literature, enjoying fantasies in her own bedroom but due to failure in finding a marriage partner, can never become a fully-fledged member of society.

“The Bunchgrass End Of The World” reminded me at times of a documentary I watched once about men who fall in love, romantically and sexually, with cars. Because I’d seen that, I wondered if that’s where the story was going.

 

Kiki’s Delivery Service Symbolism and Story Structure

Kiki’s Delivery Service is a Studio Ghibli film released in 1989. This film was always popular in Japan but — though it’s hard to remember now — Studio Ghibli films didn’t take off in the West until 1997 with the release of Princess Mononoke.

Opening scene from Kiki's Delivery Service
Children’s books often begin with a child looking out a window, about to embark upon a journey. Kiki does something similar, but she gazes up into the sky.

BASED ON A POPULAR JAPANESE CHILDREN’S BOOK

Kiki’s Delivery Service is based on a novel published in 1985 by Eiko Kadono. Kiki’s Delivery Service is Kadono’s best known work. Like L. Frank Baum, she really only had this one big hit and wrote lesser known sequels which are lesser known. (There are 6 in the series altogether.) As of 2017, Kadono is 81 years old.

Hayao Miyazaki is 76. The film therefore has the combined sensibilities of a Japanese pair of artists born around the time of the World Wars. This affects both the setting and the sentiment.

“Just follow your heart and keep smiling,” advises the mother before Kiki sets off. This feels like not only a distinctly Japanese thing to say, but also an especially feminine aspiration, though probably applied to everyone in Japan born after the war.

SETTING OF KIKI’S DELIVERY SERVICE

photo of real landscape which inspired Kiki's Delivery Service

Visby is a town on the Swedish island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea. It’s known for its well-preserved town wall, a medieval fortification incorporating defensive towers. The town’s many churches include the grand, centuries-old St. Mary’s Cathedral and the medieval ruins of St. Nicolai and St. Karin. The main square, Stora Torget, has cobblestone streets lined with cafes and restaurants.

Where are these Miyazaki films set? Not in Japan but not in Europe, either. The utopian setting of Kiki’s Delivery Service (and several of the other Studio Ghibli films) has the trains, the hilly suburbs and the closeness of the sea but also has the cobbled streets and nooks and crannies of somewhere like Barcelona, with intratext on the signs looking a lot like English with a few flourishes reminiscent of kanji. We are to believe this is another world, a world where magic exists unobtrusively in the real world of the story.

[Studio Ghibli] shot 80 rolls of film in Stockholm and Visby, gathering location images as inspiration for the scenes in Koriko. For the most part, Koriko is composed of images of Stockholm. A side street in Stockholm’s old city, Gamla Stan, is one model. Sweden was the first foreign country Miyazaki ever visited.

Fictional Koriko is, however, much larger than Visby and features buildings and shops with the look of Stockholm.

PARATEXT

THE TITLE
Kiki's Delivery Service Japanese Book Cover
This early cover gives quite a different feel, doesn’t it?
Kiki's Delivery Service updated Japanese book cover
The series has since been reissued. This is number six. A completely different vibe again, with Kiki now looking coquettishly at the audience in a slightly self-conscious, sexualised pose.

The original Japanese title (both book and film) means ‘Witch’s Delivery Service’ which was personalised for the English film adaptation. I suspect this is because Western children have a slightly different set of expectations surrounding the witch trope. In the West, witches are the opponents and they are often genuinely scary and dangerous. This is a utopian story, and although Kiki is a witch, there’s not much witchy about her apart from her ability to fly on a broom. She is first and foremost a regular girl.

That said, Japanese mythology is not short on witches, oh far from it. But the scary woman Western children associate with the word ‘witch’ has most often got the word ‘baba’ in it (which loosely translates as ‘old hag’). For instance:

  • The amazake-babaa, who asks for sweet sake (mirin) and brings disease
  • The mikaribaba who has one eye — she visits your home and borrows sieves and also human eyes!
  • The Onibaba — a demonic hag from Adachigahara

Others are more benign and strangely specific:

  • Hikeshibaba extinguishes lanterns
  • Sunakake Baba sprinkles sand about

Also, I feel the creators did intend the Western version of the witch. At one point there is lampshading about why the crows are attacking her. Gigi points out that crows used to be witches’ allies. Kiki points out that “That was a long time ago!”

EPISODIC STRUCTURE IN KIKI’S DELIVERY SERVICE

The subtitle of Kiki’s Delivery Service means something like ‘Various Leapings’. This is an adventure story where Kiki undergoes a single, sustained character arc but it is also somewhat episodic, like Anne of Green Gables and other middle grade books for/starring girls.

Each delivery — and they tend to go a bit wrong — turns into an episode. I imagine these formed chapters in the original book. This affects pacing, of course, because the audience needs to see something’s at stake, and drama must escalate until the denouement. Eventually the ticking clock is used to amp up the tension — Kiki must make a delivery before Tombo comes to pick her up for the party at 6 o’clock. She doesn’t make it, and the audience is invited to share in Kiki’s pain.

MAGIC REALISM IN KIKI’S DELIVERY SERVICE

Magical realism, in other words. We first see Kiki as she prepares to take off for her one year stint away from home. Via backstory delivered by an old woman (the grandmother?) talking to the mother we learn that witches must spend a year away from home as part of their training. It’s tradition. Kiki is 13 — a transition age in literature as well as in life — and must wait for the right winds and a full moon before taking off. There’s something almost Amish about this tradition and, like many documentaries about Amish communities, we are left with a feeling of hygge.

A GENUINE UTOPIA

Some have suggested that Kiki’s red ribbon is a mark of puberty. Miyazaki himself has said that it also represents ‘the crowning of her achievements’.

The entire homestead is hygge, with healthy vines growing up the sides of a thatched roof house, and a vibrant, healthy garden. This is the dream house as described by Gaston Bachelard, with Kiki’s bedroom on the top floor — a gabled ceiling adding to the cosiness.

It’s the sort of film which inspires diorama enthusiasts to make scenes such as this:

You can even buy wall art like this:

The sign reads: “I do deliveries. Kiki.”

DESIRE AND SHORTCOMING

Kiki’s desire line is introduced right away as she rushes inside to tell her mother she’s leaving, having listened to the weather.

Next we get a small insight into her psychological shortcoming — she gazes at herself in a full-length mirror and is disappointed in her dress. Kiki is shown to be overly concerned about the colour of her black dress. This will  be her downfall. Modern believers in the nurture theory will also note with interest that the father treats his 13 year old daughter like a toddler — partly for old time’s sake, throwing her up in the air — but also calls her his ‘princess’ (at least in the English dub). Kiki has been nurtured in a way that makes her fussy about clothes.

Kiki also has a practical shortcoming — she isn’t that great at flying. This is a great shortcoming to have as it allows for plenty of nail-biting scenes as she loses control of her stick. It’s made even worse when the mother insists she take the old broom rather than the one she’s been practising on.

AN ODYSSEAN MYTHICAL STRUCTURE

There are three main types of mythic structures and Kiki is of the Odyssean kind, in which a hero (in this case a little girl rather than the usual man) leaves home, encounters a variety of characters, learns more about herself then returns home (or finds a new one). It’s a structure as old as the hills, and popular with audiences worldwide. This explains why this Japanese story is popular with other audiences.

THE CHARACTERS KIKI MEETS ON HER JOURNEY

A shortcoming of the Odyssean structure is that — at least to this modern viewer — it can feel like one damn opponent after another. Then, of course, there’s the big big struggle. It gets a bit ho-hum. Here’s the other thing: in a utopian children’s story there can’t really be any genuine opponents. What have we got instead?

The first opponent is a classic dynamic in a girls’ story — Kiki encounters the snooty, slightly older witch who rejects Kiki as being from the country.

This is swiftly followed by the weather, which the radio said was going to be perfect but turns into a storm. (Later in the story we have a heavy rain — the kind of rain that a Japanese audience is used to, as it rains like that every June during ‘rainy season’.)

The cows who lick Kiki’s foot at first might be angry but turn out to be benign (and humorous). By the way, this is a classic fairy tale trope — hiding in a haycart to escape. A maiden escapes her psychopathic groom in the Bluebeard tale collected by the Grimms — “The Castle Of Murder”. Obviously, this children’s tale is a lot more benign than that.

When Kiki reaches Koriko the townspeople are not friendly. They haven’t seen a witch in many years and don’t know what to make of her. They don’t flat out reject her, either. The overall hostile feeling is symbolised by the policeman, who tells her to be careful flying her broom otherwise it’s a traffic violation.

Tombo — making use of dramatic irony — is instantly attracted to Kiki but Kiki’s main psychological shortcoming comes to the fore and she rejects him as some sort of enemy. Tombo is actually an ally, but a romantic opponent. Middle grade stories often have a romantic subplot — this one is mirrored by the romance betwen Gigi and the white cat next to the bread shop. The ‘romance’ is based on the shared interest of flying, and is really just a deep friendship. The two will only get together after they have been shown to be equals.

It is only after making Kiki suffer through all of this opposition that she gets a lucky break and meets the pregnant owner of a bread shop who takes Kiki under her wing as a not-quite-mother figure (the mythical mentor, to use Joseph Campbell’s terminology). Asono is in danger of becoming a bit too ingratiating, telling Tombo not to phone back (even though Kiki secretly wants him to), but we find out in a subsequent scene that in fact Asono has Kiki’s number — she orchestrates them getting together in the end.

Asono’s husband is a huge, strong man who doesn’t say a word and at first we might wonder if he is an opponent. We first see him from Kiki’s viewpoint as she tries to exit the outhouse one morning. Here’s a bit of Japanese culture worth mentioning: In Japan (with women, for sure), when you’re in the toilet cubicle you are anonymous. No talking to your friends between stalls in malls or any of that business. Don’t try to talk to someone who’s sitting on the can. This scene with Kiki makes more sense if you understand it’s embarrassing for a girl to be seen by a man exiting a toilet. (Girls don’t poop, or something.) However, we soon see this guy wink at Gigi, showing off about how well he can spin buns on a tray. He makes  that sign for Kiki’s business — a beautiful creation made of glazed bread. This is a laconic giant with a heart of gold.

Some of the delivery recipients are nice; others are haughty. There is a direct correlation between rich, ostentatious houses and haughty, ungrateful people — another moral lesson. The dopey dog turns out to be an unwitting ally — and a great comic character. (Both horror baddies and comical characters are robotic, acting as if they’re not allowed to deviate from some script. When the big dog delivers Gigi safely outside it’s because he’s been told to and he has no real choice.)

Kiki’s confidante turns out to be a slightly older woman, living on her own, sketching by day. She is more confident than Kiki, both sexually and otherwise. She doesn’t appear to be so friendly at first, making Kiki wait while she finishes her sketch before Kiki can finish her mission. But sometimes people who are not overly friendly turn out to be the best of friends (in romantic plots as well as in friendship ones). It is indeed this older friend who leads Kiki to have her own anagnorisis. After a speech about needing inspiration in order to create, Kiki says, “Maybe I have to find my own inspiration.” There we have it, the character arc. Now she just needs to make good with Tombo.

The snobby, well-dressed girls are mostly opponents inside Kiki’s imagination, as she feels she is not as pretty as they are. Also, they are spending time with Tombo. She wishes she were them, in some ways.

The mentor friend

TOMBO

Kiki wonders why she can’t just tell a boy she likes him.

Tombo is probably a nickname, because in Japanese it means ‘dragonfly’. Dragonflies are a common sight in a Japanese summer and if you watch a lot of anime you’ll already have noticed that for a Japanese audience the dragonfly is strongly associated with summer, and laidback atmospheres.

The dragonfly has the most impressive flying mechanics found in all of nature, and human technology has not yet been able to replicate its ability to duck and dive — the tombo has the most exquisite control.

GIGI THE CAT

When Kiki ‘loses her magic’ she has really lost her ability to listen to herself. Here she sits in despair. It is mandatory, even in a utopian children’s story, to do the worst to your main character.

The cat character serves three main purposes:

  1. His sardonic tone moderates what might otherwise be a saccharine story.
  2. The romantic subplot, which is mirrored by Kiki and Tombo
  3. Symbolically, Gigi is Kiki’s inner voice. We hear via Gigi what Kiki is really thinking even as she tries to remain upbeat and ‘keeping on smiling’, as advised by her witch mother. This explains why Kiki loses the ability to understand Gigi. She has lost a part of herself, in turmoil, unable to express her liking for Tombo, hindered by her own pride (a psychological shortcoming reminiscent of Pride And Prejudice*, in fact).
*Also like in a Jane Austen novel, the heavy rain gives Kiki a cold, which sends her to her (psychological death) bed.

WORK HARD IN ORDER TO FIND YOURSELF

This is the particularly Japanese principle underlying Kiki’s Delivery Service, one which Hayao Miyazaki must like, because he used it in Spirited Away (after pulling himself out of ‘retirement’ to make it… This says something about Miyazaki’s work ethic).

Kiki helps out at every opportunity. She lends a hand in the bakery, she goes above and beyond to help the old woman cook a herring pot pie for her ungrateful granddaughter, and she will go to the ends of the earth before disappointing someone by failing to make a delivery, even when the rewards are little.

This is closely related to the Japanese concept of omotenashi, which basically means ‘hospitality’, but goes much further than that. It refers to the specifically Japanese virtue of paying such close attention to your guest that they want for nothing, all the while expecting nothing in return. (I guess this is related to a Buddhist aspiration to be neither overly happy nor overly sad however things turn out.)

THE SYMBOLISM OF FLIGHT

Flight is very popular in children’s stories and most fantasy will include a spell in the air, through whatever means. In fact, the closer you look, the more likely you will conclude that a successful utopia requires flight.

Here, flight obviously represents freedom. But as in all symbols, the ability to fly can also be symbolic of ‘failure to fly’, or failure to take advantage of one’s freedom. (If anyone flies or falls for too long, Icarus and his imaginary cousins are probably being invoked.)

THE FINAL BIG STRUGGLE

There are a number of battles, culminating in Kiki’s rescuing Tombo as he hangs suspended from the dirigible, which crashes into the clock tower.

This is a welcome girl friendly message — not many Hollywood children’s films star girls, and girl stars don’t often come to the rescue of boys. In Tombo we also have a bit of a ‘manic pixie dream girl’, which is also a change for a Western audience.

The rescue scene follows a ‘riding bitch’ scene which Miyazaki seems to have a penchant for; you know, the bit where the girl gets on the back of a bike and the boy leads the way.

These two scenes combined show us that Tombo and Kiki are equals — they both love flying, each have a lot more to learn about it, each find themselves in perilous situations occasionally, and if only Kiki can admit to herself that she likes Tombo, they’re equally cheerful and fun.

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Which Witch’s Wand Works by Poly Bernatene Analysis

Which Witch’s Wand Works? is a 2004 carnivalesque picture book in which two sister witches are the stand-ins for children.

Which Witch's Wand Works cover

Alliteration features strongly in this story — not only do we have the title of the book (and of the fictional TV show they argue over), but also the names of the main characters, Rattle, Ricket and Rum. The original characters are named ‘Paca’, ‘Poca’ and ‘Espantoso’, which means ‘Dreadful’. So I feel something has been lost in the translation from Spanish to English. The cat’s name in Spanish is obviously ironic, as the cat is harmless. I wonder at the translator’s decision to name him ‘Rum’?

In these two sisters you have the tall skinny one and the short, fat one. This same duo can be seen in Kate DiCamillo’s Mercy pig series, in which the short fat one seems like she has a developmental disability while the taller skinny one acts as ‘Mother’, and is no fun at all. We don’t have that dynamic going on here, though; both of the sisters are equally childlike.

STORY STRUCTURE OF WHICH WITCH’S WAND WORKS?

SHORTCOMING

Rattle ‘has trouble flying in very strong winds’.

Ricket ‘has trouble flying at all’.

Rum ‘would rather walk’.

In this way, we are told directly what is wrong with each of the main characters as we are introduced on the first page. These witch characters are looking out of the page at us as if they’ve been caught ‘in the act’. One is stuck up a tree; another is on the floor of the living room and the cat laughs.

These shortcomings are specific incidents; overall, we see that although they are witches, they are not good at their jobs.

DESIRE

On page two we learn that each sister would like to prove herself superior to the other.

OPPONENT

The other sister.

PLAN

They start a contest to see who can do better magic with her wand.

BIG STRUGGLE

The spells they cast on each other get them into silly positions. Eventually one of them inadvertently disappears down the road in the back of a dustcart. ‘Rattle jumped on her broomstick and flew out the window in hot pursuit’. She unglamorously lands on the windscreen of the dustcart and rescues the cat.

The struggle sequence in a picturebook often occupies a large portion of the book and is often paced just as this one is:

  1. First incident (witch turns into ‘frog’ – actually a green witch)
  2. Second witch is supposed to shrink (but actually blows up into a balloon and flies around)
  3. First witch makes her sister disappear (but actually she’s outside clinging to a flagpole)
  4. And after those three incidents (note the rule of threes), we have a double spread of multiple incidents, speeding up the pace. ‘The witches carried on and the spells flew back and forth.’ This speeds up the pace and we understand this big struggle went on for a while.
  5. The worst thing happens overleaf. Because we’ve just had an entire sequence of mayhem depicted on the same double spread, this single event occupying a single double spread is emphasised.

ANAGNORISIS

There is no self revelation, but they are overjoyed to get their cat back, and decide to have a party.

NEW SITUATION

The book conspicuously ends ‘back where we started’, in their carnivalesque house, where no one has any more self knowledge, leaving plenty of room for this pair of hopeless witches to get into further trouble later.

When Witches' Wands Won't Work

NOTES ON THE ILLUSTRATION

Witches are characters from medieval times, so a story starring witches lends itself well to some illustrative techniques of yore. In this book we have a very modern style — full colour, opacity variations, blurred silhouettes which mimic the effect of a modern SLR camera, texture overlays, expressive caricature, and many different ‘camera angles’ — but we also have these full colour illustrations contrasted against black and white line drawings. Before the modern printing era, this was often done in books to reduce printing costs, but these days it has a different function. There’s the effect of making the book seem older, but I don’t think it’s just that. The black and white illustrations convey information, but they are not designed for the eye to linger upon.

For instance, in the double spread where we see the cat crying out from the back of the dust truck, the black and white witch looks on in horror. We are not meant to focus on the witch; we are meant to follow her gaze. The cat, of course, is in full colour. We are to focus on the cat and the misery of being taken away from home to goodness knows where.

NOTES ON THE NARRATION

This picturebook makes use of an interesting technique: regular parenthesis. It’s a form of authorial ‘intrusion’, of course, but this is the unseen narrator guiding the young reader through the story with a wink wink, nudge nudge.

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The History of Hansel and Gretel

Sheilah-Beckett-Hansel-and-Gretel-gingerbread-house

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. Later, Neil Gaiman and Lorenzo Matotti created an even darker version.

‘Sweetened’ Versions of Hansel and Gretel

Ladybird Hansel and Gretel

My kid does not like the Anthony Browne version of Hansel and Gretel. For them it is too scary. They don’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

Japanese Story With Similar Plot Points

There is a Japanese folktale called ‘The Three Brothers and the Oni‘ that is similar to the German tale known as Hansel and Gretel. In the Japanese tale, a mother who couldn’t afford to feed her three children takes them deep into the woods and asks them to wait while she goes to hunt for food. The three boys soon realised that she was not coming back. The two youngest boys began to cry, but the older boy (who was only seven years old) suggested they climb up a nearby tree to see if they could find anywhere that they could sleep for the night. In the distance they noticed a little house and so they set off and wandered through the woods towards it. By the time they arrived at the house it was already dark.

Curious Ordinary

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 by Anthony Browne cover
Hansel and Gretel by Anthony Browne 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

Anthony Browne Hansel and Gretel pushing witch into oven
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 re-enter 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 cannibalism) 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” BY ANTHONY BROWNE

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?

The Red Shoes” is a fairy tale 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.

Hansel and Gretel wicked witch for a Grimm Collection, illustrated by Jessie Wilcox Smith
Hansel and Gretel wicked witch for a Grimm Collection, illustrated by Jessie Wilcox Smith

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.

Anthony Browne wasn’t the first to take two separate women from “Hansel and Gretel” and merge them together as one. In her short story “Angel Maker” (1996), Sara Maitland Maitland rewrites ”Hansel and Gretel” from the perspective of the witch. Over her adult lifetime, Gretel regularly visits the witch for abortions. At the age of 38 she now wishes to become pregnant, and this time visits the witch for a different reason. The witch and Gretel are the same person.

Anthony Browne’s compositions remind me of the version below, illustrated by Frank Adams.

Many fairy tales have their roots in a much darker past, but these origins are watered down to make the tales more wholesome or moral. But did the story of Hansel and Gretel really stem from a case of entrepreneurial intrigue and murder in 17th century Germany? And did the Grimm Brothers know more than they were letting on it their version of the story? Why do the illustrations in their book look so similar to modern day locations? In this episode of The Folklore Podcast, creator and host Mark Norman examines a case to which their is certainly more than it seems at first glance.

Gaiman and Matotti’s Hansel and Gretel

One of the best ways to retell a familiar story is to add plenty of minor detail. The trick is to make this detail seem both unexpected and surprising. There are things I really like about Gaiman’s retelling of Hansel and Gretel:

1. In earlier retellings, it is Hansel who has all the bright ideas. Hansel realises what the parents/step-mother has done to them — abandoned them in the woods. By comparison, Gretel seems naiive and even stupid. In this retelling, Gaiman offsets this interpretation by making Hansel — but not Gretel — privy to an overheard midnight conversation between the  mother and the father.

2. So often in fairytale retellings, it is a step-mother rather than a birth mother who is evil. It is generally thought that a story with an evil mother is too terrible for a young reader to contemplate. If there are unwritten rules in children’s literature (and indeed, there must be few these days, if we include young adult literature), it is that mothers must love their children unconditionally, even if they themselves are too screwed up to care for them properly. If you went looking for terrible mothers in children’s literature you’d be hard pressed to count the evil ones on one hand. But Neil Gaiman does not shy away from the reality that some women do indeed lack mothering instincts, just as many men lack fathering instincts.

3. Not only that, Neil Gaiman portrays gut-wrenching emotion in the father. Counterintuitively, this is what makes this story feminist — a story in which women are not put on a pedestal as mothers, where women have only one representation: self-sacrificing and emotional. In stories, men are often allowed to be just men, even when they have children. They are not judged so much on how effective they are as fathers. In this story, however, the father is the parent with the nurturing instinct, and is at the mercy of his wife’s terrible decisions rather than the other way around. We won’t have gender equality until we have as many bad mothers as there are bad fathers, I guess.

Food In Fairytales

Carolyn Daniel writes in Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature:

The woodcutter’s family is poor and they “did not have much food around the house, and when a great famine devastated the entire country, [the woodcutter] could no longer provide enough for his family’s daily meals”. At the suggestion of their stepmother, Hansel and Gretel are abandoned in the woods. The hungry children come across a house made, in the Grimm version, of “bread” with “cake for a roof and pure sugar for windows”. Cane sugar was a very costly commodity and had been imported from India or Arabia since the eleventh century. It was used for making marzipan and other sweetmeats. Sugar would only have been available to rich nobles and not to woodcutters and their families. The house made of sweet food represents something exotic, very rich, and beyond the reach of the peasantry. When your diet is poor and monotonous, a story featuring plentiful, appetizing food is bound to have appeal, but I believe this fantasy goes beyond the desire to alleviate hunger: it also represents economic desire. The exoticism and richness of the sugary food in the fantasy represent not only the riches of the nobility but also their ability to avoid the hunger and drudgery of the peasants’ daily life. The Grimm version ends with the children filling apron and pockets with the pearls and jewels they have found in the witch’s house and taking them home to their father. “[In] the meantime” their stepmother has died and so “Now all their troubles were over, and they lived together in utmost joy”. Their future is secured by the wealth with which, like the nobility, they can now live in relative ease and luxury. Unlike the magic porridge pot that merely alleviated hunger, the jewels provide the woodcutter’s family with riches and instant freedom from their menial existence.

NOTES ON THE ILLUSTRATIONS IN HANSEL AND GRETEL BY GAIMAN AND MATOTTI

I knew before picking this book up that the illustrations were in black and white, but what I didn’t expect was that many of the illustrations would be — literally — black and white, with basically no greys, just #FFFFFF and #000000. There is a little green on the cover, but not within the pages. Mattotti does not always paint in black and white. In fact, a lot of his work has quite interesting use of colour. Note all the different colours in the shadow of the ping-pong table — the shadow is as alive as the foliage. The woman’s blonde hair turns to red as it blends into her dress. The green of the table reflects onto the yellow t-shirt. Colour or no colour, there’s something ‘creepy’ about Mattotti’s people. Here they have no faces, and their profiles are uncompromisingly angular, as are the elbows. Body proportion is slightly morphed, with an unusually long-waisted man.

Lorenzo Mattotti New Yorker Cover
Lorenzo Mattotti New Yorker Cover

For Hansel and Gretel, the choice was made to leave out any colour. It is extraordinarily difficult to paint detailed scenes using only the whitest white and the blackest black, unless you’re working with black outlines on white paper, of course, but these illustrations are filled in with blocks of black and we still know what the scenes are. This is quite a magic trick.

Lorenzo Mattotti Hansel and Gretel
Lorenzo Mattotti Hansel and Gretel
Lorenzo Mattotti Hansel and Gretel house in distance
Lorenzo Mattotti Hansel and Gretel house in distance
Why the absence of colour?

Of David Macaulay’s book Unbuilding, Perry Nodelman writes in Words About Pictures:

In black and white, [the drawings] achieve the tongue-in-cheek pseudoconviction of fairy tales, that characteristically matter-of-fact reporting of utterly nonfactual events.

Is that partly what’s going on here, too, when the publishers decided to employ an artist who would work in black and white? I suspect the ‘documentary realism’ is part of it; added to that is the universal fear of darkness, most dramatically rendered in black. Nodelman says that although some artists achieve a sense of reality by imitating and thus evoking our conventional expectations of conventionally realistic depictions/photographs and artists’ sketches

in other circumstances, black-and-white drawing is not necessarily a good medium for the representational depiction of the way the world looks. It shows us less of the visual world than our eyes do—shades, but no hues—and forces us to fill in what is not actually shown. Perhaps that explains why black-and-white documentary seems so truthful and serious—it demands our mental activity, so that we cannot just sit back and soak it in. But since black-and-white pictures are, in fact, less complete than those in colour, they actually reveal less of surfaces, of physical objects and facial characteristics.

Furthermore, colour, placed in between the lines that represent objects, fills in shapes and gives the objects solidity; so without colour, the lines become more obvious, and without the solidifying qualities of weightiness and bulk they can more forcefully depict motion. Generally speaking, and unlike the work of Van Allsburg and Macaulay, most of the black and white drawing in picture books is cartooning and caricature, and most of it emphasizes action over appearance-not how objects look but what they do.

This focus also explains why black-and-white illustrations seem so much more appropriate in longer books than in picture books. Picture books emphasise showing as much as telling, and their pictures often fill in the details of emotion and of setting that their words leave out and that color seems most suited to convey. But in longer books, words can convey at least some of those details, and pictures in color seem superfluous when they merely duplicate information the text itself communicates. On the other hand, good black-and-white pictures that emphasize line over shape can add energy to long books in which details of emotion and of setting might otherwise retard the action.

As examples, Nodelman offers the work of Garth Williams (Charlotte’s Web), Tenniel (Alice In Wonderland) and Shepherd (Winnie the Pooh). All three examples emphasize line over shape. Even the blackest of spaces retains evidence of crosshatching in small bits of un-inked white, but not in the work of Mattotti. Mattotti’s pictures are without cross-hatching or other traditional methods of rendering form.

STORY SPECS

At 54 pages, this is longer than a picturebook for preschoolers. This is more of an ‘illustrated short story’ for older children and adults.
 
Published October 28th 2014

This book was released in a ‘Standard Edition’ and in an ‘Oversized Deluxe Edition (A Toon Graphic)‘. In the deluxe edition the pages are larger (9.125″ x 12.625″), there is a die cut in the front cover, and some of the after matter is missing.  Due to the larger size, there is more white space around the text. This raises interesting questions about what a ‘deluxe’ version of a picture book should include over the standard version. There is also a collector’s edition, which is signed and includes a screen-printed box and artist print.

Juliet Blake has the rights to turn this version of Hansel and Gretel into a film. (See Juliet Blake at IMDb, in which we learn the film stars Josh Hutcherson and Elle Fanning.)

from Hansel & Gretel, Susan Jeffers- illustrator, pub. 1980
from Hansel & Gretel, Susan Jeffers- illustrator, pub. 1980

COMPARE WITH

For A Similar Art Style

Wanda Gag (1893-1946) illustrated the children’s book Millions of Cats (1928), and pioneered the double-page book spread, using both pages for one illustration that furthered the story. In Millions Of Cats there is use of bright colour, but a lot of her work is high-contrast black-and-white. This is achieved via lithography, whereas Mattotti uses a paint brush.

The billowing tree and off-kilter palings of the foreground fence remind me of similar techniques used by Mattotti in Hansel and Gretel. This way of drawing makes for a creepy vibe.

Perry Nodelman in Words About Pictures finds the curved forms comforting as much as creepy, and speaks of the comfort of a predictable, oft-told tale:

[Not all] artists in black and white focus on the energies of line. Some, like Wanda Gag, use black-and-white’s potential for heavy contrast to create more restfully decorative effects. Even though there’s must use of line to create shadow in Gag’s Millions of Cats, the heavy contrasts between light areas and dark ones orient the pictures toward pattern rather than toward action. In techniques like block printing, in which the ink is not laid down on the paper by the line of a pen, the blocks of black and white tend to operate more like colors, creating solid shapes rather than energetic lines. Furthermore, such a technique associates these pictures with the static conventions of folk art, which tends to be more oriented to pattern than to action. Not surprisingly, Gag’s story also focuses more on pattern than on movement, on repetition rather than on forward movement. While a lot happens in Millions of Cats, the story tends to offer more pleasure to those who have heard it before than to those who are hearing it for the first time. It is comfortingly predictable rather than threatening or even very exciting.

But if Millions of Cats is comfortingly secure, it is not just because it emphasizes shape over line, pattern over energy; it is also because the shapes happen to be primarily rounded and curved ones—the sort of shapes we associate with softness and yielding. Such associations have an obvious effect on our attitudes to pictures.

Nodelman then mentions the art of Tim Burton, which has been replicated by subsequent animators in films such as Paranorman.

I would also compare the art of Manttotti to that of Armin Greeder, who has illustrated The Great Bear and The Island in a style which you’re more likely to find in an unsettling art exhibition than a book for children:

When a fairytale is republished for the modern reader, the new story may function as several different things: Is it a comfort read, ideally suited to pre-bedtime reading? Or is the very familiarity of the tale a great bedrock upon which to branch out with unsettling art, creating something brand new?

For Another Re-visioned Classic Fairytale For Older Readers

Shameless plug: Compare with our own retelling of a classic fairytale, Lotta: Red Riding Hood. Of course, there are many other modern retellings of fairytales, and like ours, many of them are written for young adults and above, as were the original tales. (I mean pre-Grimm. The Grimm brothers needed to raise money, so published old tales as children’s stories, because children’s stories are what sold.)

WRITE YOUR OWN

Is there a classic tale from your childhood which feel to you like some parts are missing? Perhaps one character doesn’t get a fair deal. I often feel that way about female characters in fairytales when retold by Perrault and Grimm; in the Victorian era, women were ideally stupid and innocent. Around this time step-mothers started to become most vilified. Beautiful people are portrayed to be good; ugly people are bad.

What might an ameliorated, more socially just version of your tale look like? Like Gaiman’s Hansel and Gretel, it may be quite similar to the classic version, but with a few details altered.

SEE ALSO

Maria Popova of Brainpickings links to some videos of Gaiman talking about fairy tales.

American author Robert Coover wrote a short story called ‘The Gingerbread House’ and it can be found in his collection Pricksongs and Descants. It’s Angela Carter style, if you’re familiar with those.

Lemon girl young adult novella

READ AT MY OTHER BLOG

Home » witches » Page 2

Header illustration by Sheilah Beckett.

Witches In Children’s Literature

The Weirdness Of Using Witches In Modern Entertainment

Witches are female equivalent of storybook pirates in that the character is based on something very real and disturbing. I’d like to append ‘in our past’ but very disturbingly, It’s 2013 And They’re Burning Witches (from The Global Mail). See also: Woman Brutally Murdered in Papua New Guinea After Being Accused of Sorcery, from The Friendly Atheist. Then there’s Children Accused of Witchcraft. And why are there no female magicians? MAYBE BECAUSE WE BURNED THEM ALL TO DEATH (from Jezebel). There are also witch hunts in modern Saudi Arabia. Witches have stuff to do with women’s health.

With that, it feels somehow wrong to launch into a blog post about witch stories.

Which I usually love.

So let me first make a distinction between (1) real life hocus pocus which causes real harm to real women in various parts of the world, and (2) the witches of pure fantasy — the Wizard of Oz type characters around whom a good story is inevitable, since magical abilities lend much to a fantasy. There seems to be a third option in there: Some women are embracing Wicca as a lifestyle/religion and are perfectly okay with it. I consider this more like an interest in fortune telling and astrology than like the very serious supernatural fears in other and earlier cultures.

Victor Ambrus

Good vs. Evil

Witch storylines, and that clear delineation between good and evil, are so solid that these storylines are still regularly used even when the thing in question isn’t actually your typical witch. It might be Smurfette, for example:

In the follow-up, we get a new origin story for Smurfette, voiced again by Katy Perry. You see, she’s a got a dark past and it is revealed that within her Smurfness resides some pretty Smurfin’ great power. And she must choose whether to use her Smurf-powers for the purposes of good, as Papa Smurf has taught her, or fall under the dark spell of the evil wizard Gargamel.

from a review of Smurfs 2, which saves me from ever seeing that film.
A SHORT LIST OF GOOD WITCHES FOR KIDS WHO ARE SCARED OF WITCHES
  • Polly and Buster series
  • The Sweetest Witch Around by Alison McGhee
  • Titchy Witch
  • Dorrie the Little Witch series by Patricia Coombs
  • The Witch Who Was Afraid of Witches
  • Meg and Mog
  • Winnie the Witch picture books
  • Kiki’s Delivery Service (anime film)
  • Isadora Moon
  • The Worst Witch
  • The Witch in the Cherry Tree by Margaret Mahy
  • The Boy With Two Shadows by Margaret Mahy
The Teeny, Tiny Witches, written by Jan Wahl, illustrated by Margot Tomers, and published in 1979 as part of Putnam's Weekly Reader series
The Teeny, Tiny Witches, written by Jan Wahl, illustrated by Margot Tomers, and published in 1979 as part of Putnam’s Weekly Reader series

But There Aren’t All That Many Other Roles For Women (Outside Mother, Daughter, Sister)

Here’s a bit about witches, in a chapter about the limited roles of women, from Marjery Hourihan’s book Deconstructing The Hero:

The text book of the witch hunters, the Malleus Maleficarum (“Hammer of the Witches’), the work of two German divines, Heinrich Kramer and Jakob Sprenger, was first published in 1486. Although there had been witch hunts in the earlier years of the fifteenth century it was this work, endorsed by Pope Innocent VIII, which fuelled the craze and established the definitive concept of the ‘witch’. It proclaimed magisterially that:

It must not be omitted that certain wicked women perverted by Satan and seduced by the illusions and phantasms of devils, believe and profess that they ride in the night hours on certain beasts with Diana, the heathen goddess, or with Herodias, and with a countless number of women, and that in the untimely silence of the night they travel over great distances of land.

(Malleus Maleficarum, in Otten 1986:108)

Although the authors insist that the witches’ claims to fly and consort with Diana are ‘altogether false’ (p. 108), illusions perpetrated by Satan, the image persisted in the popular imagination, along with claims that witches had sexual intercourse with devils. One William West of the Inner Temple in a work called Symbolaeographic [1594] said of witches that they:

shake the air with lightning and thunder, to cause Hail and tempests, to remove green corn and trees to an other place, to be carried of her familiar which hath taken upon him the deceitful shape of a goat, swine, or calf etc. into some mountain…And sometimes to fly upon a staff or fork, or some other instrument.

(Quoted in Bradbrook 1951)

Here is the witch of children’s literature, flying on her broomstick, casting spells, and accompanied by her black cat. It is her sexuality, her irrationality, her links with nature and with the powers of evil that make her the binary opposite of the hero in a range of traditional and modern stories. The power of satires and stereotypes is evident in the fact that during the two hundred years from the late fifteenth to the late seventeenth century in Europe and Britain thousands of women were tortured, burned or hanged as witches, and many thousands more were persecuted and brought to trial though they escaped execution.

The witch is a traditionally monstrous female character featured both in contemporary (adult) horror stories and in children’s fairy tales.

Children During The Witch Craze Were Not Sheltered From Witches In Their Stories

Floating Witch

The illustration above is from an 1831 picture book of “The Three Bears” written by Eleanor Mure as a gift for her nephew. This is the first written version we have of that story. ‘Goldilocks’ was an old woman before she was bowderlised as a little girl.

Though witch burning was no longer happening in England in 1831, children were obviously schooled up on what witches were supposed to do and be. Their grandparents were certainly old enough to remember actual witch burnings, and grandparents have always passed stories down to their children and grandchildren.

How many young contemporary readers could look at that illustration and know that because the old woman floats, that means she’s a witch? Our witch trope has evolved over the 19th and 29th centuries, and continues to do so. Now, fictional witches are far more likely to be empowered.

An archetypal kindly storybook witch, illustrated by Peter De Sève (b.1958), American artist.

Akata Witch transports the reader to a magical place where nothing is quite as it seems. Born in New York, but living in Aba, Nigeria, twelve-year old Sunny is understandably a little lost. She is albino and thus, incredibly sensitive to the sun. All Sunny wants to do is be able to play football and get through another day of school without being bullied. But once she befriends Orlu and Chichi, Sunny is plunged in to the world of the Leopard People, where your worst defect becomes your greatest asset. Together, Sunny, Orlu, Chichi and Sasha form the youngest ever Oha Coven. Their mission is to track down Black Hat Otokoto, the man responsible for kidnapping and maiming children. Will Sunny be able to overcome the killer with powers stronger than her own, or will the future she saw in the flames become reality?

Witches = Bad Mothers

  • Joseph Campbell argues that women were first attributed with magical powers because of their mysterious abilities to create life.
  • Barbara Creed argues that woman was perceived as the source of an especially powerful form of magic during pregnancy.
  • A woman’s curse was thought to be far more dangerous than a man’s. A mother’s curse meant certain death.
  • In the 14th century the Catholic church deemed witchcraft heresy. Services performed by witches, including midwifery, were labeled as crimes. Many of their crimes were allegedly sexual in nature. (Copulating with the devil, causing male impotence, stealing men’s penises etc.)
  • Women were thought to be less intelligent, less spiritual, more like children — more intuitive, less cerebral — and therefore more prone to being witches.
  • A witch is antithetical to the symbolic order. She unsettles boundaries between the rational and irrational.
  • Evil witches are associated with abjection, cannibalism, castration — the embodiment of the ‘bad breast’.
  • Whenever woman is represented as monstrous it is almost always in relation to her mothering and reproductive functions.
  • The threat she exudes is usually related to consumption. She will threaten to devour her victims, consume or destroy them. (Metaphorical castration.) For example, the witch in Hansel and Gretel has cannibalistic desires. (The Grimms’ version is a much watered down of Wilhelm’s earlier one.) The food the witch gives the children is sweet and rich (standing in for breast milk.)

Lady Monsters Are Always Single

From witches to gorgons, the scary ladies of literature are usually dried up old spinsters. Or they’re single and sexual, but too sexual, and they’re going to use their womanly wiles to devour men whole. Or they’re going to prey on children, because any woman without children of her own is apparently a threat to the entire concept. Even the wicked stepmother only shows her true colors once her husband is out of the picture. What makes these ladies terrifying is not merely that they’re sharp-toothed or half-dead or evil, it’s that they’re living outside the cultural norm. A woman functioning without male supervision is, it seems, the scariest thing of all.

We may think that our fear of the traditional witch archetype is safely in the past, and yet single, older women in possession of cats are still fair game for public derision. Childless women and queer women and gender non-conforming people who have “failed” to “find a man” still face judgment for living outside of the norm. The dried up witch-woman and her sister, the sultry siren, are still alive, lurking around in the back of our minds, where they’ve managed to survive for the last several thousand years.

Bustle
Jean Dulieu (Jan van Oort, 1921-2006), Dutch illustrator. The little gnome Paulus de Boskabouter and his enemy the witch Eucalypta, published in Eva 42,1957
Jean Dulieu (Jan van Oort, 1921-2006), Dutch illustrator. The little gnome Paulus de Boskabouter and his enemy the witch Eucalypta, published in Eva 42,1957

1. TRADITIONAL FAIRY TALE: HANSEL AND GRETEL

Like Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel is an ur-story upon which many others draw upon in an intertextual way.

Also from Hourihan’s book:

The literary home of the wicked witch is the fairy tale of which the simple story ‘Hansel and Gretel’ is typical. As in most hero tales the opposition between home and the wilderness, or the forest, is central but in this story home is not safe for the young hero and his sister because it is dominated by their wicked stepmother whose alter ego is the witch who lives in the forest. The children are abandoned in the forest because their stepmother insists there is not enough food to feed them, and after wandering for three days, facing death by starvation, they are led by a white bird to the house of the witch. This house is made of bread, cake and clear sugar, so they are able to satisfy their hunger. The witch takes them in, pretending to be loving and benevolent, a representative of the safe domestic world. She provides them with a delicious meal and comfortable beds but then reveals her true aim which is to eat them both. They eventually escape when Gretel is able to push the witch into the oven, and they fill their pockets with the jewels they find in the house. On their homeward journey they are assisted by a white duck who bears them across a river on her back, and they are finally welcomed by their father who had never been a willing participant in their abandonment. The stepmother has died, so father and children are able to live happily and prosperously on the proceeds of the jewels.

Marjery Hourihan
from a 1981 version of Hansel and Gretel illustrated by Anthony Browne

Hourihan points out the way in which Browne depicts the stepmother as a witch, with the dark gap between the curtains forming a witch’s hat for the stepmother’s shadow.

The story itself invites this conflation insofar as the deaths of the witch and the stepmother coincide and both try to bring about the children’s deaths. Like most fairy tales, ‘Hansel and Gretel’ has several layers of signficance, but the witch and her malevolence is crucial to all of them.

2. MIDDLE GRADE FICTION: THE WITCHES BY ROALD DAHL

When my standard one (year 3) teacher read this book to us I was sitting on the mat with all my classmates and I still remember the mischievous look on Mrs Baker’s face as she described what a witch looks like according to Roald Dahl: blue spit, gloves, square toes, an itchy scalp due to wearing a wig… “Who knows, maybe your teacher might even be a witch,” she read. I’m sure I wasn’t the only child at that moment scrutinising my teacher for signs of witchery. I concluded that she couldn’t be a witch, because our teacher didn’t wear gloves. She should totally have worn gloves that day, and eaten a blue gobstopper beforehand.

I read this book over and over again as a child and it only seemed to improve upon subsequent readings. I grew up before the film version, and when that came out of course it didn’t seem to live up to the story which had been playing in my head. So many people say this about film adaptations of their favourite stories, but I will acknowledge that the film is very well done. It just wasn’t my version of The Witches. In my head, the atmosphere is far more sinister and dark.

Looking back with my feminist-tinted glasses on, I really do wonder how Roald Dahl felt about women. (Edit: then I read Treglown’s biography, which cleared that right up.)

To change the topic entirely, I’m reminded of something said about a far more recent film with witches in it. Oz (2013) is not something I intend on paying good money to sit through — I have read too many negative reviews from people I trust — but one problem feminist reviewers have pointed out with the storyline is that in Oz, nobody knows who the witch is, and so therefore every woman is possibly a witch.

This very same thing could also be said about Roald Dahl’s The Witches. The story scared the bejeesus out of me, in the most spine-chilling, delightful kind of way imaginable, but I DID go through several months of my childhood thinking that any slightly odd woman might be a witch, especially if she looked to be wearing a wig. (In the 80s, with all those perms, every woman looked like she could be wearing a wig.)

I’m not quite sure how I feel about that. I’m still processing it.

3. PICTUREBOOK: ROOM ON THE BROOM BY JULIA DONALDSON

Room_on_the_Broom

This is one of about five picturebooks which my four-year-old requests over and over again, and one of an even smaller select groups which I don’t mind reading. Julia Donaldson really is a master of craft when it comes to rhyme, repetition and cohesive storytelling. The illustrations by Axel Scheffler are great.

4. ANIMATED FILM: KIKI’S DELIVERY SERVICE

It’s so wonderful that teams of Japanese men can produce kids’ films starring girl main characters, based on a book about a girl — a book which was in turn written by a woman — without compromising their masculinity… or something. I know, I’m beginning to sound like a broken record but Hollywood really does have a lot it could learn from Studio Ghibli.

Kiki is a thirteen-year-old girl who sets off on her own to spend a year away from her parents learning the art of witchcraft. Like several others of the Studio Ghibli films (Porco Rosso springs to mind) this one is set in a Japanese inspired post-war sort of utopian village with bread shops and steam trains and dirigibles and attics, in which the characters kind of look Japanese but don’t bow to one another. So it’s set in an entirely fantastical alternative reality. Unlike Porco Rosso, Western audiences can enjoy this Japanese film without feeling as if we’re in a completely foreign land. At least, no more than the Japanese themselves would feel.

It must be tricky to convey adolescence in film. That’s my conclusion, because so often it’s done badly. I don’t think it’s helpful to pretend that adolescent kids are always asexual, but Hollywood errs on the side of  hypersexualisation when depicting characters still young enough to be enjoying their childhood. A romantic subplot is not always necessary. In this case, Kiki’s subplot is around the relationship between Kiki and the pregnant owner of the bread shop. (Another feminist triumph: a pregnant woman, pregnant just because people are sometimes pregnant, not because some harrowing birth scene is about to become important to the storyline.)

Even in American children’s films I really enjoy, such as Monster House and the producers feel compelled to include a love interest. This is almost always two boys — one the relatable protagonist, the other a friend who offers comedic lines and slapstick — with a girl arriving on the scene, in which case the comedian friend will fall haplessly in love with the girl, but the girl ends up with the protagonist.

When the girl is the main character, this tired old plot naturally takes a different turn. In Kiki’s Delivery Service, she makes a friend, who happens to be a boy, but his interest isn’t in Kiki per se — he has an existing passion of his own: turning his bicycle into a flying machine, and his interest in Kiki is because she is already able to fly, on her broomstick, and he feels he has something to learn. Boys jeer from the other side of the street, reading more into the relationship than exists, and it would be easy for audiences to do the same. If this were a Hollywood plot, the rather geeky boy would prove himself a man by eventually helping the strong female character out of difficulty. But in this case it’s Kiki who rescues the boy from falling. She is far better on her broomstick than he is in midair, and it’s only fitting that the girl helps the boy. For a non-Hollywoodified audience, this is satisfying, fitting and sufficient. I feel that both Kiki and Tombo (Japanese for ‘dragonfly’) are wonderful characters and that Tombo would make a great friend. That’s all we really need in the way of ‘romantic subplot’ in kids’ films. At the risk of overlapping with the fundamentalist Christian community, I feel that in films we should let kids be kids. Those who are looking for a romantic story will see the potential. Otherwise, we don’t need outward expressions of ‘whoas’ and ‘Ooh, she likes yous’ in a story for adolescent and pre-adolescent children. The resident four-year-old loves this film, and I’m just a little bit in love with it too.

MIDDLE GRADE NOVEL: WISE CHILD BY MONICA FURLONG

In short, this is one of the best witch stories for children, because the witch is presented as a kind, well-rounded human being. A good antidote to the common trope.

MIDDLE GRADE NOVEL: A WIZARD OF EARTHSEA BY URSULA LE GUIN (1968)

I haven’t read this yet. According to Hourihan this story ‘conforms to the type in that she is dark-haired and deceitful, but she is a more subtle creation than most of her kind. The text hints that, although she has given herself tot he service of evil as a means to power, she has done so only because she can see no other way for a woman to achieve self-realization. All the wizards in Earthsea are men. Le Guin’s imaginary world is similar to mediaeval Europe in many ways including the exclusion of women from access to higher learning and Serret’s situation mirrors that of many actual women in former times who turned to witchcraft as the only source of knowledge accessible to them. Although women are marginalized in this tale, as in most hero stories, simplistic stereotyping is avoided, and the reader is invited to share the pity which the hero, Ged, the focalizing character, feels for Sereet’s lonely exile in her enchanted castle.

MIDDLE GRADE NOVEL: I AM SUSANNAH BY LIBBY GLEESON (1987)

This book is showing its age, and will probably feel to the modern reader what it felt like reading The Pigman by Paul Zindel in 1992: Retro. This is not a story about a witch; rather it’s a good kicking-off point to start thinking about the witch archetype and how fiction can train us to regard a certain sort of woman (unmarried, grey, untamed hair, untidy clothing). This is an 80s feminist book with the message for adolescent girls that you don’t have to kiss boys at parties to be liked; you don’t have to get married. You can stay single and follow your artistic dreams if you like, and you won’t actually go mad.

HAMMER OF WITCHES BY SHANA MLAWSKI

Hammer of Witches, by Shana Mlawski. Historical fantasy set during the first journey of Columbus to the Americas.

This story is notable for being not all about white people.

FURTHER READING ON WITCHES 

  1. The Education Of A Witch, a short story from Ellen Klages
  2. Lilith is a female demon from Jewish mythology. She has her own opinions, passions and desires. She’s sexually dominant, unafraid to protect her interests and is the mother of all kinds of creatures which are dangerous because they are independent and free-thinking.
  3. Witchcraft Trade, Skin Cancer Pose Serious Threats to Albinos in Tanzania
  4. A New Children’s Book Explains What “Witch” Really Means from Bitch Magazine
  5. Lists of books about witches at Goodreads
  6. A list of books about witches in the Miami University database
  7. And here’s the one with stepmothers, which are a different outworking of the witch trope, afterall.
  8. From Circe to Clinton: why powerful women are cast as witches from The Guardian
Weeny Witch Party Book
Weeny Witch Party Book
Arthur Rackham The Entrance to the Witches' Castle
Arthur Rackham The Entrance to the Witches’ Castle
The Great Sea Horse 1909 by Isabel Anderson witch black cat
The Great Sea Horse 1909 by Isabel Anderson witch black cat
John Patience - The Little Mermaid sea witch
John Patience – The Little Mermaid sea witch
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Thirteen O’Clock by Enid Blyton Analysis

I have conflicted views about Enid Blyton, but Thirteen O’Clock story is relatively free of the problems I (and many others) have taken issue with in these slightly more enlightened times. We still have a story in which a young patriarch-in-training helps an older female character out by tending to her minor injury and finding a lost cat, which some may read more generously as an example of feminine caring.

Thirteen O'Clock cover

All that aside, this was one of my most favourite books as a preschooler — that lady sure knew how to tell a tale to children. Mine is the 1974 version illustrated by Tom Barling in very 70s style. The story itself may have been written much earlier, though Enid Blyton was writing right up until 1975, and it’s not easy to find the years in which specific short stories were published.


WONDERFULNESS OF THIRTEEN O’CLOCK

Enid Blyton was well-schooled in a kind of superstitious mysticism which she made great use of in her fantasy stories. Fairies, goblins, pixies, brownies, witches, portals into other lands… In this story, she makes use of a very old superstition surrounding the number 13. What’s the basic back story of this unlucky number?

  • Oddly, superstition around the number 13 derives from various unrelated cultures around the world, not just one. This may have something to do with lunar-solar calenders, in which there are 12 point something ‘months’ per solar year. This gives a culture 12 ‘months’ plus a bit of a month (the thirteenth) per year.
  • The number 13 may rather disturbingly be linked to a form of ancient misogyny: In ancient cultures, the number 13 represented femininity, because it corresponded to the number of lunar (menstrual) cycles in a year (13 x 28 = 364 days). The theory is that, as the solar calendar triumphed over the lunar, the number thirteen became anathema, because (obv!) periods are evil.
  • In modern times, even people who actively avoid the number 13 probably don’t really think of that reason, but superstitious types still manage to find reasons to believe that there is something inherently wrong about the number.

Other authors have taken the number 13 and used it in a plot device for genres such as thriller and horror, but Blyton, in writing for children, pairs this rather sinister tradition with the childlike tradition of blowing dandelion ‘clocks’ in order to tell the time. (Blyton had no significant qualms about refusing to use literature as a conduit to a rounded scientific education.) In Blyton’s story, ‘once in a blue moon’ means that the moon literally turns blue.

photo by Yvonne Gorman
photo by Yvonne Gorman
Now That Days Are Colder by Aileen Fisher, Designed & Illustrated by Gordon Laite, Lettering by Paul Taylor (1973), also featuring the childhood play of blowing seeds.
Eileen Alice Soper (Enfield, Middlesex, 26 March 1905 - 18 March 1990; England) dandelion clock
Eileen Alice Soper (Enfield, Middlesex, 26 March 1905 – 18 March 1990; England) dandelion clock
Ernst Kreidolf dandelions (Swiss, 1863-1956) dandelion clock
Ernst Kreidolf dandelions (Swiss, 1863-1956)

The thing I loved most about this book was the thing I also loved about the Faraway Tree series, in which Blyton’s wood whispers ‘Wisha wisha’ as the wind blows through the trees. This phrase gave me a deliciously thrilling feeling as a young reader. In Thirteen O’Clock, Blyton not only encourages word play with phrases such as ‘Hoona-looki-allo-pie’ but has created another marvellous phrase of frisson: ‘The witches are coming! The witches are coming!’ This had me hiding under my blankets.


NOTES ON THE ILLUSTRATION OF THIRTEEN O’CLOCK

What makes the illustrations in this book seem distinctively 1970s? The 1970s was a decade wedged between a time of great printing advancements, with the widespread introduction of colour printing in the 1960s, and the beginning of digital illustration used (at least for some parts of the process) by many illustrators working today. Illustrators were working in colour, but they were also drawing and painting by hand.

ILLUSTRATIONS OF THE 1970S

It was in the 1960s that a new type of picture book emerged — those in which illustrations dominated the text. This particular book isn’t one such example — in fact, this book is more accurately a richly illustrated short story, since the story can exist in its own right (and indeed does, inside various anthologies) without these pictures.

One thing that makes Tom Barling’s illustrations seem specifically 1970s is the strong use of line. Another illustrator working around this time was Pat Hutchins, who published Rosie’s Walk in 1968, just a few years earlier. In Rosie’s Walk, too, the influence of folk art is strong; line exists not only to add form and shadow to objects but also to act as a decoration in its own right. In Thirteen O’Clock, likewise, there is no attempt made at any kind of aerial perspective; leaves on a tree in the distance are depicted in detail, even though the unseen viewer is too far away from that tree to realistically perceive anything more than a green clump.

To provide some rest for the eyes, Barling was making good use of white space — as modern illustrators are still doing today — the roads and the sky are white, and there is an area of blank reserved for the text on every double spread.

Here the table is white, to offset a highly ornamental kitchen background.
Here the table is white, to offset a highly ornamental kitchen background.

ILLUSTRATING CLOTHING

Tom Barling has of course dressed Sandy in 1970s fashion, with tight jeans that flare at the bottom and a wide belt. He wears his hair long (which happens to be in fashion again for adolescent boys, but isn’t always). It’s interesting to look at how various illustrators of children’s books deal with fashions of the day; if we dress our characters in clothing specific to the year or decade, this will place our stories firmly inside that decade even if the story itself is more universal than that. Is there an ‘unmarked’ wardrobe illustrators can use to avoid decade-placement as much as possible? Certainly, some illustrators rely upon stock clothing for their characters. Mercer Mayer is a good example of that. Though he has illustrated the Little Critter books over decades, his Mother Critter still wears a long dress and apron; the main character is still wearing pyjamas with an unbuttonable backside in them. Mayer’s characters are in fact middle class, 1950s, white America, and sometimes even stretch to Amish (for the mum) but for some reason a disproportionate number of illustrators hold onto lesser versions of this same milieu when illustrating modern books for children. I think it’s because we tend to idolise the era. (Hence Mad Men, which cleverly subverted our expectations.)

Just Shopping With Mom cover
The mother is dressed in a prairie dress, the main character wears overalls, and little sister has a big bow on her head. It is still very common to designate female children as ‘other’ by plonking a big bow on their heads.

Is there a normcore fashion for picture books? Even Shirley Hughes, who places no value in creating Pinterest-worthy interiors or youthful faces (even in children) or dressing her characters up in high-fashion places her characters in a specific era: as Frances Spufford said of her Alfie series, the mother ‘is a frizzy-haired CND-supporting social worker from about 1985’. Though Spufford also points out that child readers won’t assume this about her. In fact, non-British readers — and readers who were ourselves children in the 1980s — probably won’t know this about her — I had to look up CND — fyi, it stands for Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, which picked up in the 1980s as a backlash to the Thatcher years.)

alfie's mother reading

ILLUSTRATING WITCHES

The historical view of witches is that they are not quite women.

You should be women,

And yet your beards forbid me to interpret

That you are so. (Macbeth, Act 1, Scene 3)

In art history, many witches are genuinely unattractive in a reproductive sense, either because they’re very old or because they make no effort to present themselves as alluring, and probably both.

Francisco Goya's depiction of witches going to Sabbath on a broomstick
Francisco Goya’s depiction of witches going to Sabbath on a broomstick, 1798.

By the 1970s, the nature of folkloric witches in the West had evolved to the point where witches were often depicted as feminine women, but the grotesque mismatch between unattractive essential witchiness is made more stark by their feminine style choices. Barling’s witches might also grace the pages of Dahl’s chapter book, The Witches, published about a decade later; their faces are asymmetrical and their noses and chins are masculine (transgressing gender expectations), but Barling’s witches wear lipstick and earrings, and have their hair styled into layered bobs.

Barling's witches
Barling’s witches
Illustration for The Broomstick Train or The Return of the Witches by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Color Edition published by Houghton Mifflin 1905 by Howard Pyle
Illustration for The Broomstick Train or The Return of the Witches by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Color Edition published by Houghton Mifflin 1905 by Howard Pyle

Though these witches are standard in any illustration of witches in picture books, I recently happen to have read Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity by Julia Serano, in which the author points out the extent to which femininity (and here, feminine accoutrements) is seen as an untrustworthy artifice, which is problematic for anyone presenting as feminine, but is especially problematic for transgender women. (I’m sure someone has done a study on witches and femininity in picture books. I’m guessing the witches of picture books are more feminine than scary due to the age of the target readership.)

Extratextual musings aside, Blyton’s imaginary world has no layers; everyone is exactly how they appear.

“I’m going to be nice to her. Besides she’s got a friendly face, rather like my granny’s — I’m sure she isn’t a bad witch.”

Indeed, the witches of this story are not nasty at all:

“You’re the cleverest, kindest boy I’ve ever met!” said the witch. “Most people are afraid of witches because they think we will change them into blackbeetles or something—but that’s an old-fashioned idea. Nowadays we witches are gentle folk, making magic spells that will do no one any harm.”

So there you have it: an anti-bigotry moral from an author who was quite well-known for her xenophobia.

THAT PESKY GUTTER

It’s clear reading this book in 2015 that publishers of picture books sometimes had a few lessons to learn in this new era of double-page colour spreads. It’s hard to find a professionally produced book these days in which the illustrator has been schooled in avoiding placing characters’ faces right where the gutter goes.

This is probably the worst example of gutter problem I’ve seen…

STORY SPECS OF THIRTEEN O’CLOCK

Thirteen O’Clock appeared in a number of different Enid Blyton anthologies, and is the title story of this one, which demonstrates its popularity:

Thirteen O'Clock and other stories

Illustrator Tom Barling was born in 1936, and illustrated a few of Enid Blyton’s stories over his career. He had a varied creative life as author of eleven crime novels about gangsters. Tom Barling is also well-known as a comic illustrator and an animator on the 1973 TV series of The Addams Family. If you look for books hoping to find more of his illustrations, though, you’ll find most of them seem to be out of print.

However, did you know that Bananas in Pyjamas is not just an irritating but super popular Australian children’s show but was originally a book written by Enid’s nephew, Carey? That was also illustrated by Tom Barling.

Bananas In Pyjamas Tom Barling who also illustrated Thirteen O'Clock

Barling also illustrated in an art noir style when required:

Frankenstein Tom Barling

Comic book illustrators are required to draw from a variety of different, extreme perspectives. We see this skill a little bit in Thirteen O’Clock with a low-angle view of Sandy:


COMPARE AND CONTRAST WITH THIRTEEN O’CLOCK

There are many fantasy picture books (and chapter books) in which the child character goes off for an adventure, finds him or herself in a magical world, then goes back to the main parent (usually the mother) and is told that whatever happened is nonsense. But the reader is let in on the secret. Blyton’s authorial voice comes through clearly in the final paragraph:

“Eat up your lunch and don’t talk nonsense!”

But it wasn’t nonsense, was it? Sandy always puffs the time on all the dandelion clocks he sees now — perhaps one day it will be thirteen o’clock again!

The message here: Children, cling on to childhood, because the world of adults is devoid of magic.

This sort of plot might be contrasted with a book for children written by Richard Dawkins. The Magic of Reality is presumably an antidote to stories such as these.

The Magic of Reality is a fantastic book and I wish every child in the world would read it as they embark upon the study of high school science. But I think there is room for fantasy; clearly, some forms of fantasy are simply better done than others — fantasy which tells readers something about the real-world is the most valuable, and fantasy which urges children to believe in fairies even after the story is over is perhaps the laziest way of ending a story. However, Blyton was nothing if not prolific, and her stories were written in the oral tradition. It is therefore up to the adult co-reader to read this story with a nudge and a wink.


WRITE YOUR OWN

If fantasy stories for children are to do anything other than entertain — and pure entertainment is a satisfactory goal, no mistake — we must aim to pull readers out of a fantasy world with something to ponder. An io9 article outlines how reading Harry Potter has been shown to make readers better people.

…because Potter is continually in contact with stigmatized groups. The “muggles” get no respect in the wizarding world as they lack any magical ability. The “half-bloods,” or “mud-bloods” – wizards and witches descended from only one magical parent – don’t fare much better, while the Lord Voldemort character believes that power should only be held by “pure-blood” wizards. He’s Hitler in a cloak.

Robbie Gonzalez

Is this partly what makes the Potter books so popular, even though scholars of children’s literature struggle to put their finger on exactly why H.P. took off while many recent ancestors of the series which seem just as adeptly written muddle along with middling sales?

How to leave the preschool reader a better person by making use of fantasy in a picture book? That’s your ultimate challenge.

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