Peter and the Wolf, Angela Carter and Mise-en-abyme

Burning Your Boats by Angela Carter

Peter and the Wolf is a Russian fairytale for children, with musical composition by Sergei Prokofiev. This fairytale is much newer than most it dates from 1936. This makes it far newer than the Grimm tales, which all predated the Grimm Brothers themselves and newer than the fairytales of Hans Christian Andersen. This one is unusual of its type, because it was written with a specific educational purpose: to introduce children to various instruments of an orchestra.

The copyright history of Peter and the Wolf makes for an interesting and frustrating read. In the middle of the 20th century, schools (and anyone else) were free to use this story and music as they saw fit either in remixes or as it is. Then in 2012 the American Supreme Court judged that previously copyright free works could, at a later date, become copyrighted. This big struggle had been going on for some time, at least since 1994.

None of this affected what Angela Carter did in her short story of the same name, regardless of what year she wrote it. Titles are not subject to copyright, and Carter’s is a completely different tale about a different Peter and a different kind of wolf altogether. The title encourages readers to consider that the Sergei Prokofiev story might have been different, but that’s where the analogy ends. The Wikipedia entry for the orchestral original offers a good summary of Prokofiev’s plot, for anyone interested in a closer comparison.

There’s also the 2009 short film which got in before the ruling, directed by Suzie Templeton, written for screen by Marianela Maldonado. In this version, the national enemies of the Russian original have been personified by a gang of street bullies. But the brutality of the duck murder is preserved, making for a story much darker than most Pixar-raised contemporary kids are used to. It disturbs my daughter no end, especially as the murder comes right after a slapstick scene which has a child audience giggling.

STORY STRUCTURE OF PETER AND THE WOLF BY ANGELA CARTER

SHORTCOMING

The clear main character of Angela Carter’s story remains Peter. She hasn’t switched the viewpoint over to the wolf, which would be another fine option for a re-visioning. She does switch our empathy, however she does something more difficult. Carter helps us to share it between Peter and The Wolf. This is another excellent option for any re-visioning, because the message is always this: Everyone has their reasons for doing what they do.

The original Peter, being a child, has the usual child shortcomings: He is reliant upon his caregiver (the grandfather) to care for him. Angela Carter, who famously translated the Charles Perrault fairytales into English, was undoubtedly influenced by him, even though she used him as a negative example for how to depict women, in particular. Here she goes the Perrault route, and in writing this fairytale she begins a generation beforehand. In order to understand an individual, it was once thought, we must first know who their parents and grandparents were. We no longer think that, culturally. Or, if we do, we keep it on the down-low. We like to think or to imagine that we are not held hostage by our genetics and our ancestry. That anyone can become anyone else, so long as they work hard and be good.

Carter does actually start with the Wolf girl, which might trick you into thinking the girl is the main character. I’ve written before that it’s not always easy determining who the main character is in a story. I always come back to this: Who has the revelation at the end? In other words, who gets the character arc? That’s your main character. The Wolf girl is interesting, she is necessary, and big things happen to her in this story, but the revelation belongs clearly to Peter. She aids him in this. Carter’s Peter and the Wolf is technically an example of The Female Maturity Formula, and I point that out because yes, even feminist writers use it my critique of this arc refers to the canon. Individual stories are absolved.

Peter is introduced in the fifth paragraph quite a way down, considering this is a short story. Peter is revealed to be smart good at deduction but what is his shortcoming? If in doubt, look at the revelation. HIs shortcoming is that he has been taught to fear the wilderness, and anything that cannot be tamed. Carter tells us clearly:

When the eldest grandson, Peter, reached his seventh summer, he was old enough to go up the mountain with his father, as the men did every year, to let the goats feed on the young grass. There Peter sat in the new sunlight, plaiting the straw for baskets, until he saw the thing he had been taught most to fear advancing silently along the lea of an outcrop of rock.

Peter and the Wolf, Angela Carter

Fair enough, we should all be wary of wolves. Maybe. But as the story progresses, and we see Peter’s reaction to the rescue and abduction of the Wolf girl. Fear of life, and of nature in general, far outsizes reason. Guilt and fear paralyse him.

What Angela Carter does so well across all of her stories is link woman to nature. This isn’t Carter’s invention she is drawing on a long, long history of misogyny, in which men are closer to God and women are closer to the Earth, and can never rise above. This is due to the unmistakable and harrowingly messy process of childbirth and reproductive cycles cycles which were far more visible until the twentieth century. If women are close to earth, only men can be close to God, and only men can run the entire show. For more on that sorry history, which spans the last 3000 years at least, Marilyn French wrote a comprehensive history of misogyny in her book Beyond Power. Also a feminist, living in the same era as Marilyn French, Angela Carter critiques that same history that women are to be considered abject because of our strong links to the Earth, and the cycle of life itself. She also makes the link between this view and organised religion, which in earlier times was inextricable from the rest of human thought.

DESIRE

Peter is a fairly passive character the viewpoint character, in fact. With a character who looks on and observes events, you’ll need the strong, obvious Desire to come from someone else. In this case it’s clearly the Wolf girl, who is captured, but wants to break free from the humans. This desire is so ferocious that she creates a violent big struggle scene in the house.

Afterwards, Peter is left with a desire of his own, but this desire is far more subtle. Wolf girl’s desire is on the surface; Peter’s is under. He doesn’t know himself what he wants. He wants to assuage his generalised anxieties.

OPPONENT

The opponent is not the Wolf girl. Even in many orchestral versions, the Wolf and the Boy are pitted against each other, presented as equals at one point. In the 2009 short film, this is most clear when wolf and boy are each dangling from different ends of the same rope, eye to eye, each reliant upon the other for escape.

But it is enough to say that Peter is his own worst enemy? This never makes for a satisfying if that’s the only thing you’re doing, but it does work if there are other big struggles raging. You’re more likely to pull it off in a short story than in a novel, which can’t sustain that level of big struggle, unless it’s something like Fight Club, in which we are presented with a clear opponent, even if that opponent is revealed to be illusory.

Peter is his own opponent because he clings to a system of rituals which aren’t going to help him break free of his fears. You could say the church itself is his opponent, though it would be more accurate to say it’s the culture. Carter says ‘he had been taught’, passively, suggesting he’s learned this response from all sides. Again, church = culture, and culture = church in a setting such as this.

PLAN

Peter and Wolf girl are presented as diametric opposites consider them different sides of the same personality, in the same way the Winnie the Pooh characters can be considered different aspects of a child’s traits and emotions. Wolf girl models one possibility you can rage against the machine and take off to live your own life, literally in the wild, in her case. Or you can buckle down and be a good boy, doing everything expected of you and more.

Peter takes the latter route.

The boy became very pious, so much so that his family were startled and impressed.

Peter and the Wolf, Angela Carter

THE BIG STRUGGLE PHASE AND MISE-EN-ABYME

The big struggle scene in which the wolves come to rescue their girl is ‘a big struggle scene’ (better to call it a ‘fight scene’), but for plot purposes it is not The Battle Scene. This is a crucial distinction, and failure to see it can really muck up a story if you’re trying to write one. Peter’s Battle is far more quiet. The Wolf girl crouches before him, uninhibited by her nakedness.

It exercised an absolute fascination upon him.

Her lips opened up as she howled so that she offered hm, without her own intention or volition, a view of a set of Chinese boxes of whorled flesh that seemed to open one upon another into herself, drawing him into an inner, secret place in which destination perpetually receded before him, his first, devastating, vertiginous intimation of infinity.

Peter and the Wolf, Angela Carter

The word ‘devastating’ feels like it’s almost cull-able, but it’s not. This is Peter approaching his own kind of spiritual death. ‘Fascination’ is also important. Today, to be fascinated by something is a good thing we’ve probably achieved a pleasant ‘flow state’. But that’s not where the word comes from, and in re-visioned fairytales, it pays to consider the medieval meanings of contemporary words. In the 1590s ‘to fascinate’ meant to  bewitch or enchant. The word comes from Middle French, Latin and possibly from Greek as well. In any case, you didn’t want to be ‘fascinated’ by anybody in the 1500s, and you didn’t want to be accused of it, either, lest you end up burned for witchcraft.

An understanding of church teachings are necessary before understanding this story, and I think we all know it sex is sinful. It still is, according to the major religions, outside marriage. Even in (most, I’ll not say ‘dominant’) secular culture, sex is unacceptable outside mutual consent. There’s something icky about the one-sided viewing this is not consent, exactly. There is a single participant subject vs object. But Carter inverts the gender of the usual victim in such one-sided experiences. It is Peter who remains affected by it.

The piousness itself is also a near death experience, but literally:

In Lent, he fasted to the bone. On Good Friday, he lashed himself.

Peter and the Wolf, Angela Carter

If you’d like to drive your point home, make like Angela Carter and include but a psychological AND a literal near death experience, rammed home by the actual death of a few characters close to the main one. (Mother figures and male best friends are common victims.)

MISE-EN-ABYME IN STORYTELLING

Using Angela Carter’s excellent example, I’d like to look into the mise-en-abyme technique which I’ve been noticing for a while in various stories. Only a writer such as Carter would take the vulva and vaginal opening and turn that into a mise-en-abyme metaphor; others have found different analogies.

What is mise-en-abyme, exactly?
mise en abyme

I would describe myself as the kind of person who describes himself as the kind of person who would describe himself.

@Demetri Martin
  • In Western art history, mise-en-abyme is a formal technique in which an image contains a smaller copy of itself, in a sequence appearing to recur infinitely; “recursive” is another term for this.
  • In graphic art, it might be a painting of a painting, which has another painting inside itself.
  • Stand in a dressing room lined with mirrors and watch the mise en abyme effect. Do you remember the first time you did this? Or maybe you don’t remember the first time, but still recall standing as a child between two mirrors and marvelling at the effect? Did this get you thinking about some pretty bizarre stuff, bigger than yourself? How there might be more than one of you, or how far the little versions of you might extend? Was it this that got you considering the concept of infinity, by any chance? It’s a powerful effect. It distances us from ourself. Which one are we? Are we all?

The song Green & Gold by Lianne La Havas is about that moment of being a little kid, looking in ‘the mirror whirl’ and wondering if it goes on and on forever. As an adult she looks back on her six year old self she’s since had the revelation that ‘those eyes you gave to me’ let her see where she’s come from her own heritage. Possible subtext: She sees she’s part of one long chain of peoples, stretching in both directions. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qnogG7IMj8o

When used in storytelling, mise-en-abyme is regularly linked to a ‘vertiginous’ sensation (quoting Carter directly), which in turn starts this spiral of questioning the main character will probably see themselves as a very small part of something much larger. (Or they’ll remain blind to it, if you’re writing a tragedy. I wrote this kind of tragedy in our illustrated short story app, Midnight Feast.)

Mise-en-abyme and its link to Death

In No Go the Bogeyman, Marina Warner describes the macabre Medieval tradition of death art on church walls, and actual dead and decaying bodies within abbeys, as mise-en-abyme in nature. An example is The Hours of Simon Vostre, a text printed in Paris in the early sixteenth century. The text contains engraving of the danse macabre (Dance of Death) showing working women in various trades and working men. It was also customary for the spectre to wear a tatterdemalion (deliberately tattered) version of the costume of his prey and to imitate with grotesque exaggeration the victim’s usual activities. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YyknBTm_YyM

What’s all this for?

To show that Death is a double; each of us has our own death in the mirror. Death is oneself on the other side, beyond reach.  The macabre implicates us in mise-en-abyme, a hall of mirrors. And by means of its use of defamiliarization, it offers the capacity for self-examination. Many of the tombs in which the deceased was shown devoured by worms were actually commissioned and carved during the subject’s lifetime: thus, Archbishop Chichele, founder of All Souls, Oxford, may have contemplated the artistic progress of his own decomposing body not he tomb in Christ Church while he was still alive. These funerary monuments are designed not to engender memory in the narrow sense, nor prayer, but to provoke the pondering of self. It leads to the Anagnorisis phase of a story.

Mise-en-abyme in the Plot Structure

The story-within-a-story is a plot structure rather than a system of imagery, but might equally result in a mise-en-abyme effect for the reader. I’ve found good examples in children’s literature.

In Bye Bye Baby by Janet and Allan Ahlberg, the new mummy reads Baby a sad story with a happy ending, which describes the wrapper story itself. What if there’s another book within the book within the book?

Mise-en-abyme is sometimes used in comedy as a gag. SpongeBob and Patrick try to make money reselling chocolate bars but end up getting duped by a fish who first sells them bags for their chocolate bars, then sells them bags to carry their new bags. This is funny to us partly because the characters are stupid, but also partly because this could go on and on forever — hyperbole, in other words, without needing to go all the way. The SpongeBob example is also an example of character humour — most people can relate — we’ve all noticed that the more things we buy, the more things we need to buy for the bought things (new bookshelves for new books, a bigger garage for a new car). The purpose of this gag is the same as any other example of mise-en-abyme that I’ve seen: Its purpose is to get us to look inwards, stepping back, critiquing our own selves (and in this case, learning to laugh).

MISE EN ABYME AND PSYCHEDELICS

For reasons yet to be fully explored by science, a mise en abyme experience seems fairly common to those who take psychedelic drugs.

John Hayes, the psychotherapist, emerged [from a psychedelic experience] with “his sense of the concrete destabilised,” replaced by a conviction “that there’s a reality beneath the reality of ordinary perceptions. It informed my cosmologythat there is a world beyond this one”.

Another subject from Pollan’s book, Boothy, reminded me very much of Angela Carter’s description of the vulva:

This place in which I seem to find myself, already enormous, suddenly yawns open even further and the shapes that undulate before my eyes appear to explode with new and even more extravagant patterns. Over and over again I had the overwhelming sense of infinity being multiplied by another infinity. I joked to my wife as she drove me home that I felt as if I had been repeatedly sucked into the asshole of God.

Michael Pollan adds:

Boothby had what sounds very much like a classic mystical experience, though he may be the first in the long line of Western mystics to enter the divine realm through that particular aperture.

How to Change Your Mind by Michael Pollan
Other Terminology

This terminology isn’t always used by storytelling experts when talking about the same thing. Some people talk in terms of ‘miniatures‘. But it is the same thing. By presenting the reader with the very large and the very small, you as writer are encouraging The Overview Effect. This will lead directly to a Anagnorisis pertinent to the story at hand. What writers need to decide: What is this character going to realise after their near death experience?

ANAGNORISIS

So, Angela Carter’s Peter is basically disturbed by the infinite mise-en-abyme effect of a girl’s vulva/vagina. He doubles down to prove himself a good boy, according to his culture and church. (His Plan.)

Where does this get him? Well, nowhere good. Angela Carter’s ideology regarding church conformity is foreshadowed by imagery:

[The wolves] left behind a riotous stench in the house, and white tracks of flour everywhere.

Peter and the Wolf, Angela Carter

‘Stench’, or any kind of smell, in a story generally, refers equally to an emotional state. ‘Black sticks of dead wood’ are a pretty obvious clue that Peter has been through some kind of spiritual death. The grandmother’s bitten hand ‘festers’. Infections fester, but we also use the word to refer to inner states which we can’t shake. Then, there is a death. Not Peter’s, but his grandmother’s. Note: Peter loses a female caregiver in a direct reflection mise-en-abyme reflection of the Wolf girl, who lost her female wolf caregiver.

Hopefully the reader is undergoing a revelation at this point: Peter and the Wolf girl are different sides of the same wild coin. There’s a bit of wild in all of us, and it cannot be tamed. Peter’s comes next. (Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak is a picture book with a very similar revelation phase… and  therefore ‘theme‘.)

Rivers are often associated with revelations. This has a long history in the churches, and no doubt long, long before. Water literally makes a body clean, so the link between rivers and mental cleanliness is a natural one.

At the end of his first day’s travel, he reached a river that ran from the mountain into the valley. The nights were already chilly; he lit himself a fire, prayed, ate bread and cheese his mother had packed for him and slept as well as he could. In spite of his eagerness to plunge into the white world of penance and devotion that awaited him, he was anxious and troubled for reasons he could not explain to himself.

Peter and the Wolf, Angela Carter

Sometimes revelations happen while bathing in the river less obvious is when they come after. The river does nothing for Peter. The ‘liquid’ is described as ‘cloudy’. No, he requires the wild Wolf girl to aid him in his embrace of his baser self she is his (extreme) model for how to live a good life. So he sees her once more this is some years later and again we have the whole mise-en-abyme / reflection imagery going on, because that’s not finished until the Anagnorisis phase is finished. (Writing note: If you start a strong system of imagery, take it to its conclusion. Don’t abandon it partway.)

She could never have acknowledged that the reflection beneath her in the river was that of herself. She did not know she had a face; she had never known she had a face and so her face itself was the mirror of a different kind of consciousness than ours is, just as her nakedness without innocence or display, was that of our first parents, before the Fall.

Peter and the Wolf, Angela Carter

The Wolf girl is innocent to the extreme, animalistic degree Peter watches her and realises that he, too, is innocent. By bearing witness to the violent episode of his youth, he has done nothing wrong, and needn’t spend the rest of his life paying penance.

Carter finishes off her system of imagery with this:

For now he knew there was nothing to be afraid of. / He experienced the vertigo of freedom.

Peter and the Wolf, Angela Carter

In this particular story, the mise-en-abyme effect = a glimpse into possible freedom.

Related and interesting: Carter’s Peter and the Wolf is basically a Being-toward-death revelation, seen often in young adult stories.

And if we still haven’t got it:

The birds woke up and sang.

Peter and the Wolf, Angela Carter

Carter is, of course, satirising fairytale conventions she uses pathetic fallacy and bombastic onomatopoeia with intent. These birds are a form of pathetic fallacy a technique in which the environment around a character emulates their own inner state. But it works. When the character arc is a bit under the surface, a bit unusual when your theme and ideology isn’t the expected one, it’s not a bad idea to go the super obvious, slightly satirical route. Otherwise a huge chunk of readers won’t pick anything up at all.

NEW SITUATION

Angela Carter also finishes off in classic fairytale fashion, with a nudge towards the metafictive:

Then he determinedly set his face towards the town and tramped onwards, into a different story.

Peter and the Wolf, Angela Carter

As the Grimm brothers wrote, for instance, the narrator often likes to sign off by reminding the audience that this is a story, separate from the logic of real life. But the word ‘story’ is also used in contemporary English to refer to phases of real life, which is why I call it a tiny and subtle ‘nudge’. Carter does something clever with her final line:

‘If I look back again,’ he thought with a last gasp of superstitious terror, ‘I shall turn into a pillar of salt’.

Peter and the Wolf, Angela Carter

She thus avoids a big character arc, which readers have less time for: People do change after experiences, but a little at a time. Peter has entered the very initial stages of questioning certain ideas conveyed by the church, but there’s no way he’ll shuck it all off and become an actual Wolf man. He must find his own balance.

MORE

Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk Novel Study

Wolf Hollow cover with night sky and a huge yellow moon

Wolf Hollow (2016) is a middle grade novel by Lauren Wolk. This mid-20th century story is chock-full of symbolism which makes it great for a novel study. Here I focus instead on the writing techniques, for writers of middle grade.

Though moons tend to be massive in children’s books, the moon on this cover would have to be the most massive I’ve seen in a while!

I have previously taken a close look at a lesser-known picturebook called Wolf Comes To Town. Wolf Hollow is the literary, middle-grade version of that book in some ways.

Word count of Wolf Hollow is 60,000. Originally written as an adult book, marketed and edited as a children’s book.

Continue reading “Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk Novel Study”

Garth Pig And The Ice Cream Lady By Mary Rayner

Garth Pig and the Ice Cream Lady is a British picture book written and illustrated by Mary Rayner in 1977. The story is part fairytale, part 1977 modernity.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mary Rayner was born in 1933 in Mandalay, Burma of British parents. She was 8 years old when Japanese troops invaded Burma. Her mother and two siblings walked over the mountains into India. Her father had joined the army and was killed.

After the war, the Rayner family returned to the UK from India.

The sense of a family pulling together in dire circumstances is conveyed, though comically, in this story.

The illustrations are very much of England.

That’s because after a degree in English in England, Mary Rayner joined the publishing industry. Her first book was The Witch-Finder in 1976. This one came the year after, along with Mr and Mrs Pig’s Evening Out. She wrote and illustrated the pig books for her own three children, though by the time she’d finished them they’d themselves grown too old for them.

All of her children grew up to be writers themselves.

SETTING OF GARTH PIG AND THE ICE CREAM LADY

Fairytale Land

This is very much a fairytale world, borrowing elements from:

The depiction of the village is very much a fairytale one, and decidedly English.

storybook-village_1000x1295

Whoosh Ice Creams

I wonder if British English readers will know what a Whoosh ice cream is? I certainly can’t find out from my Internet research, though I thought it might be an abbreviation of the Whoosh! Cecil flavour. Apparently that is chocolate ice cream with salted caramel and cashews, but I doubt that’s what’s intended here because when the pigs finally get their whooshes they’re holding a rainbow coloured ice block type of thing.

(I believe the Whoosh! Cecil is American anyway, but even in 1977, English children were very much influenced by American culture. We see that in the second scene in fact, where all the brothers and sisters are playing cowboys and Indians.)

eating-whooshes-mother-sleeping

Apparent Utopia of Garth Pig and the Ice Cream Lady

This is an snail under the leaf setting, in which everything looks homely and safe but in fact a child can be abducted by a stranger at any time. Fairytale worlds have always had the function of scaring children about strangers, and neglecting the cover the more sobering fact that adults most likely to hurt you are those you love and trust.

In any fairytale land you need a forest right next to the village/town. We have one here, and that’s where the wolf drives off to. It doesn’t matter for the purposes of a fairytale that there have been no forests in England since 1086 at the latest.

See also: Symbolism Of The Forest In Storytelling

Technology In Garth Pig and the Ice Cream Lady

It’s fitting that the wolf drives a Volkswagen Kombi because those things were always breaking down.

broken-down-kombi

STORY STRUCTURE OF GARTH PIG AND THE ICE CREAM LADY

SHORTCOMING

It’s interesting that Garth Pig and the Ice Cream Lady opens with the mother pig scrubbing the floor because she is not the main character. We see her overleaf very much not coping with her ten children — she has her head buried in her hands. Most mothers in picture books are coping very nicely, in their aprons and clean, middle class homes, so it’s interesting to see this variation of motherhood. I wonder why the author decided to open with the mother — perhaps she’s saying that while the mother is busy with housework the children will get up to mischief.

mother-pig-scrubbing-floor_1000x1306

DESIRE

The main character of Garth Pig and the Ice Cream Lady is Garth. He wants an ice cream. Not only does he want an ice cream, he wants an upgraded ice cream. While all the siblings are happy with whooshes, Garth hopes there will be enough change to buy himself a double cone with flakes coming out of it. This is obviously the luxury choice of the setting. At first it looks as if Garth is punished for being so greedy. But he gets his upgraded cone in the end, because the mother feels sorry for him after his ordeal. It is therefore left to the young reader to decide if being greedy was all worth it.

There is a problem with the plot in my opinion: It is decided that Garth, alone, will go to the ice-cream truck and get 10 ice creams for his brothers and sisters. But there is no way in hell a person with hands let alone a pig with hoofs could carry back the ice creams alone. Haha. This is what Hitchcock would have called a refrigerator moment.

While a good measure of suspended disbelief is necessary to enjoy picture books, this is one step too far. In real life I’m guessing children will be familiar with the difficulties of carrying multiple ice creams without help, and there is no good reason why several of the little pigs wouldn’t go along to help Garth. It’s necessary for the plot, however; Garth is vulnerable precisely because he is alone.

OPPONENT

The wolf dressed as a nice lady.

Garth Pig buys and ice cream

Perhaps the wolf really is a female wolf — she remains ungendered. But the evil wolf dressing up as ‘grandma’ obviously has its roots in Little Red Riding Hood. I believe therefore that most readers will read the wolf as male underneath. (In cases where a female is revealed to be a male, this is playing on an instinctive human fear of mistaking something for something else. This trope continues today and is damaging to the trans community. See Julia Serano’s book Whipping Girl.)

ice cream van with ice cream horns in garth pig
The ice cream decorations on the roof look almost like horns.

PLAN

Just as happens in Dr Seuss’s And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street, this story makes use of symbolic crossroads. When the ice cream trail runs out at the crossroads, the pigs are forced to change their plan from ‘following the trail’ to actively searching for Garth.

Meanwhile, in the van, Garth hears the wolf singing about chops and realises someone’s not quite right.

Even an abducted and therefore quite helpless child character must not be passive. We enjoy watching Garth try to get himself out of this difficulty of partly his own making. (If he hadn’t been so greedy about counting the money to see if he could upgrade his ice cream he might have noticed, as well all did, that the ice cream vendor was a wolf.)

Garth Pig gets himself out of difficulty

BIG STRUGGLE

There is a fairly lengthy action scene in which the reader enjoys seeing the wolf try to control a bicycle built for ten as it careens downhill. This eventually ends with him being thrown into the river.

chase scene in garth pig

Next there is a shot to Garth inside the van, realising he’s in trouble. The van breaks down. Garth breaks free.

rolling down the hill in garth pig
downhill calamity in garth pig
wolf-falls-into-river

ANAGNORISIS

In this comic tale there is no groundbreaking soulsearching revelation. Instead, the pigs — who live in fairytale land, after all — realise that they still haven’t had their ice creams, and that they can just go up the hill and get some for themselves now that the evil wolf has been taken care of.

All is fair in this story, because the mother points out that she’s already paid for them, after all. (There’ll be no promotion of thievery in picture books, thanks very much.)

NEW SITUATION

It’s fitting that the final image we see is of the wolf’s old straw hat, caught in the branches which hang into the river.

In stories, hats have a special significance of denoting power or otherwise. A father will give his son a baseball cap, for instance, or a king will give a prince his crown to symbolise a transfer of power. Without the hat as disguise, the wolf is now rendered completely powerless. We can extrapolate from this image that he won’t be bothering this village again.

new situation in garth pig
Instead of dead bodies we sometimes see discarded items in picture books to accompany the disappearance of a baddie.

Wolf Children Japanese Anime

Wolf Children movie poster

The Japanese anime Wolf Children is an inspiring and engaging film for miniature nature lovers. I have recommended this film to people completely forgetting that it is basically a very sad story though, so consider yourself warned!

I wonder if the author of Wolf Children was inspired by the story of Amala and Kamala, two “feral girls” from Bengal who are alleged to have been raised by wolves.

Transgression

By Western standards, this film feels transgressive in parts. For example, the bedroom scene between a human and a dog (kissing). It’s one thing to read in a novel about a young woman in love with a werewolf type creature, but I note with interest that Bella Swan never once kisses Jacob while he’s in his wolf form, at least not in the film adaptations. Imagine interspecies romantic scenes getting through in Hollywood.

Likewise, there is a conspicuous absence of nipples and breastfeeding in Western children’s stories. Why on earth don’t we see nipples in every single picture book about getting a new little baby brother or sister? If you want to normalise breastfeeding for your kids and expose them to cartoon nipples that are also not pornographic, to Japan you must go.

breastfeeding wolf children

Storyteller As Narrator

The film is narrated by a nostalgic ‘character as storyteller‘.

For more about the advantages of characters as storytellers, see The Role Of Storytellers In Fiction.

The vast majority of stories make use of an unseen, omniscient narrator, but Yuki makes a good storyteller since she likes school (presumably making her good at words) and lives in the human world as an adult.

Wolf Children As An Allegory For Autism?

The director made this film to explore parenthood, and motherhood in particular. But this story is interesting to consider as a possible metaphor for having an invisible neurological difference such as autism. I can’t find anyone else who has come up with the same conjecture in English, but I did find someone in Japanese.

I wonder what she'll grow up to be
  • Reading all you can about the condition
  • Having to give up your part-time job and study, having no time to take care of yourself.
  • Having neighbours judge your children without understanding the reasons behind it
no pets in the city
  • Wanting to shield your children from the outside, judgmental world.
  • Navigating the medical system: “Should I take her to a paediatrician or a vet?” (“To a paediatrician or a psychologist?”)
vet or pediatrician
  • Watching a group of other mothers laughing in the park, hiding behind a tree, thinking what it must be like to be ‘normal’.
  • Having weird interests and collections. (Nightmare fetishist)
strange collections
  • “That brat of yours needs a muzzle.”
  • Being keenly aware of negative depictions of your children in children’s books so steering your children away from them, curating to the point where you even feel like you need to write your own.
  • Deciding who to disclose and not disclose to.
long shot of neighbours
  • Having your child notice: “Everybody’s always mean to [wolves]. Because of that I don’t want to be a [wolf].” (I just want to be normal.)
Why is the wolf always bad
  • Seeing your daughter struggle with the complex social world of girls: “I didn’t know how girls were supposed to act. All I knew is I was doing it all wrong.”
upset at being different
  • The transmogrification into a wolf body as a metaphor for meltdowns
  • Ame is bullied at school. (Loners are freaks.)
  • The feeling that you don’t fit in anywhere
  • Feeling more attracted to the animal/natural world than to the human one, which seems impossible to navigate without the regular levels of intuition
  • Letting go of your children to make their own decisions even though you feel they’re still too naive to navigate the world. (Though they’re adults in terms of years they may be younger psychologically, which is hard for a parent to deal with.)
  • The city is a metaphor for isolation. So is the country, but by surrounding ourselves with just a few people who are genuinely caring it’s no longer isolating at all.

Wolf Children, being a classic coming-of-age story, is also an allegory for growing up in general, and making the decision to be one thing or another, all the while realising that if you choose one path, the other is closing over.

Chimera

Like a lot of anime, including many of the popular Hayao Miyazaki, this one is about transmogrification. The European tradition won’t find this particular transformation foreign: It’s basically a werewolf tale.

Beast and Beauty Trope

22 STEPS — Plot Structure Of Wolf Children

Note on the plot structure: In the city Hana is isolated. The opponent/ally character web is set up only after she moves to the country. (Later than in most movies.)

Though the director says the story is about all three in this family, the main character is Hana. The focus is on her internal growth between the ages of 19 and 32, particularly her growth into motherhood. In order to work out which character is the main one, ask which changes the most, psychologically, not in circumstance. The mother goes from loner to living as part of a community, whereas the children simply grow up and become who they really are, so I make an argument for Hana as main character.

This is unusual in a story which is essentially for children/young adults.

wolf children with mum
In anime it’s common to make a distinction between two characters by making one wear red and the other wear blue. But by the end of the movie this colour coding has been reversed. Perhaps because Ame is now the wild one and Yuki is the tame, calm one.

Anagnorisis, need, desire

Hana needs to learn how to deal with isolation.

She also needs to learn how to live in nature rather than learning entirely from books, which is what served her in the city. Hana is a bookish City Mouse.

Hana’s Name

hana surrounded by flowers

Written as ‘flower’ in Japanese, Hana is basically learning to get in touch with nature, and since flowers are a part of nature, her name suggests that this aspect is an inherent aspect of her true self.

wolf children library

A ‘city mouse’ in a story is most often female. This is a version of the Fish Out Of Water Story. Generally, the advice to writers is:

[I]f establishing a pre-existing norm isn’t absolutely vital, skip it. Leave it out altogether, if you possibly can. Instead, start in médias res. In general practice, that means starting your actual narrative just before, or even during, the first major conflict or confrontation: the point at which things start to get serious, when they start moving toward final crisis.

Specifically, that means starting a short story just before the main crisis which will provide the story’s resolution. Start a novel during the first crisis, because you’ll have time to draw back and explain how things got that way later in the first chapter, or even in chapter two.

Don’t tell how the protagonist decided to go out and buy fireworks, how much they cost, how he brought them home, how he stored them, what his wife said. Begin when the fuse is lit and the reader sees a bang coming any minute.

Ansen Dibell

But certain genres demand the establishment of a norm, e.g. The fish out of water story. (A fish has to be ‘in water’ before s/he can be out of it.)

the city equals books

Hana’s apartment is full of books.

Ghost (a.k.a. backstory)

Hana’s father is dead (as can be seen in the photo on the book shelf) and her mother isn’t mentioned — Hana is a slightly exaggerated version of an isolated person.

Setting

The Contrast Between Urban and Rural

The choice of story arenas here are linked closely to Hana’s psychological development. Ironically, when surrounded by people, Hana is completely alone. It is only by paring down the noise of crowds that she is able to ‘find her people’.

Initial Setting: Tokyo, 1980s or 1990s

a Tokyo 'mountain' scenery with buildings instead of landforms
a Tokyo ‘mountain’ scenery with buildings instead of landforms

Compared to other, Western fish-out-of-water stories such as Crocodile Dundee, Big and 40-year-old Virgin, Wolf Children affords Hana a significant amount of time in the city. This is not a true fish-out-of-water story — this is the story of a city girl who learns to live in the country — a backwards version, perhaps. A better fit is perhaps the trope of the Naive Newcomer. This type of story is popular in the speculative fiction genres. When Hana gets in touch with nature, the audience goes along with her since we, too, are new to the country village and would have no idea how to survive there alone.

Here Hana sits in a park in Tokyo, wondering what's beyond those trees. But the city is still there, evidenced by the power pylon punctuating the horizon.
Here Hana sits in a park in Tokyo, wondering what’s beyond those trees. But the city is still there, evidenced by the power pylon punctuating the horizon.

The city — as evidenced by all the time Hana spends around books — is a place of book learning.

wolf children university

The university where Hana and Wolf man meet is modelled on Hitotsubashi University. This is an arts university, so naturally the students of a slightly earlier era are spending a lot of time around books.

Hitotsubashi Daigaku

The university is in this part of Tokyo:

Hachioji

A lot of the scenes in the animation can be seen in and around the area of Hitotsubashi University. This coffee shop actually exists:

coffee cake shop
coffee shop wolf children

This dry-cleaning store also exists:

dry cleaners
City Apartment

Hana’s apartment is just big enough for one to comfortably live. At one point Hana and Wolf Man are shown dipping their kebabs into the same glass of sauce.

kebab dipping
apartment living wolf children

Someone even made a top-down view of the apartment layout, here. With its legless chairs and Japanese appliances and uniquely Japanese crockery, this is an authentic looking Tokyo apartment dwelling.

But even in the cozy apartment, there is danger for baby wolves.

danger inside an apartment

The apartment is a haven but turns into a prison.

apartment also a prison
Symbolism of the Bridge

Wolf Man’s initial revelation (that he is a wolf) almost happens on the bridge – but he’s standing too far away from Hana and is unable to tell her in words. The location of the bridge is obviously symbolic: ‘a bridging of two species/minds’

He later dies in the canal below the very same bridge, and because we accept that this bridge is near their apartment, we don’t mind the heavy coincidence.

Seasons

The seasons are super important to Japanese culture and this film includes shots that linger on scenery to show the changing of seasons and therefore the passing of time.

Tokyo at Christmas time
Tokyo at Christmas time
Leaves falling in autumn
Leaves falling in autumn

This rural homestead is also based on a real house. (It’s in Kamiichi, Toyama.)

Subsequent Setting: The Rural Village In The Mountains

Hana takes her children to an old-style Japanese homestead, a la My Neighbour Totoro, Summer Wars and various other Japanese feature-length anime, in which this way of living induces a feeling of nostalgia in a Japanese audience, and also exists for symbolic contrast against the cramped and crowded but convenient life of most Japanese people today. This traditional Japanese sink seems to have particularly evocative associations for a Japanese audience. The same kind of sink can be seen in the old house of My Neighbour Totoro:

traditional sink

This type of beautiful setting is so often used in Studio Ghibli films that it is referred to as Ghibli Hills.

In most anime, especially with ones trying to deliver a message, this speaks to the nostalgia of many older directors for the traditional Japanese countryside that largely no longer exists because of urbanization. One historical western equivalent is Merry England for historical settings. Other times the pristineness is explained by alternate history, particularly the avoidance of major conflict or wars which lets people concentrate on improving themselves.

The house is very cheap to rent but the surrounding area is ‘not viable as farmland’ because “animals come down and eat all the crops and have pushed humans out. In most places it’s the other way around.”

Shortcoming & Need (Problem)

Psychological Shortcoming: Hana is lonely. In my adult, slightly world-weary view of this relationship, Hana puts up with Wolf man’s shit, smiling stupidly when he turns up late, chasing after him even though he brushes her off rudely. Though it’s now an overused phrase, she really is a bit of a pixie dream girl (without the mania, so much). But this is not the intended reading, I’m sure. Hana is the perfect Japanese girlfriend. She turns into an apron-wearing housewifely figure even before she’s pregnant. (Hey, maybe she shouldn’t have worn that apron…)

Hana’s shortcoming is that she isn’t in touch with her wild side.

She needs to find her place in the world where she can thrive.

Inciting Incident

Hana notices a good-looking young man in her lecture. She’s instantly fascinated by him.

Wolf Man is gruff and his body language suggests he doesn’t want to be bothered. This is the All Girls Want Bad Boys trope in action.

Mystery

Why does this guy come to lectures as an auditor student without bothering to fill out an attendance card?

Desire

To get to know the mysterious good-looking guy in her lectures who never comes with the right gear but who appears to be bookish.

Wolf man is a similar character is Jess in Gilmore girls. (Troubled but cute.)

Ally/Allies

Wolf Man is duplicitous by his supernature, so is Hana’s ally (as a loyal provider and boyfriend) as well as her opponent (by turning into a wolf occasionally and being reckless.)

Once the setting switches to the country, the character web widens to include more complex relationships:

Fake opponent: The grumpy old man who is horribly judgemental about the vegetable growing but ends up helping with his advice. (Jerk with a heart of gold.)

grumpy old man
“Nature just killed your tomato vines. What do you think of that?”

Opponent

In the country, the generic middle-aged neighbour is Hana’s friend but because she’s a regular woman and Hana doesn’t trust her, she is also someone Hana needs to hide her children from. This woman stands for a lot of the people Hana would meet in that environment — very friendly but possibly too sheltered to welcome diversity into the area.

Fake-ally opponent

In a minor way: the two old men who do try to help Hana end up bickering among themselves and offer conflicting advice which is no real use to Hana at all. They stand in contrast to the contrasty old man who is nevertheless useful: “Not all useful advice comes coated in sugar.” (That’s not an actual idiom, but I’m sure there’d be something similar in the history of East Asian thought.)

Attack by ally

Constant jibes from the old man about Hana’s lack of gardening ability.

Changed desire and motive

Hana just wanted to study before but now she wants to know who this fascinating man is.

First revelation and decision

“Hana. Look at me. Tell me what you see.” Fascinating guy turns into a wolf.

Plan

To live as a human couple in the city. Wolf Man will buckle down as a human and get a job as a delivery truck driver. Hana will wear an apron and prepare meals.

Opponent’s plan and main counterattack

Presumably due to Wolf man’s irrepressible wild side, she becomes pregnant.

Drive

Now they will bring up a child while hunkering down. Their plan to couple and nest is basically solidified by the news of pregnancy.

Apparent defeat

Wolf man dies in the canal. How can Hana live as a single parent in an expensive city, with two wolf children? All he had in his wallet was 2000 yen (about 30 dollars.) He’s actually left a bit more than that, but we get the idea it’s not much.

Obsessive drive, changed drive, and motive

Hana will stay in the apartment but live a secret live, concealing her children’s true identity from everyone.

Second revelation and decision

When neighbours send the child protection authorities to the house Hana realizes Tokyo is no place for wolf children. So she decides to move to the country, despite having no money and no job prospects there. Hana wants her children to have the choice between being children and being wolves.

Third revelation and decision

Rather than learning all about gardening and wolves from books, Hana decides to ditch the books. She diligently and humbly takes advice from the crotchety old man neighbour. When Yuki is upset that all the wolves in books are baddies and end up dead, she further shies away from book knowledge. From now on she’ll learn from the natural world itself. (A common response to adversity in Japanese stories is that in order to grow and get out of trouble, the character just has to be humble and work hard. Spirited Away is another example well known in the West.)

Audience revelation

Much later, the audience realizes when Souhei and Yuki are stuck at school debating how they’re going to survive if nobody ever comes to pick them up that this is a replay of Hana and Wolf Man when they were living in Tokyo, trying to work out how to survive alone. Someone comes to check the building is empty: “Hey, what were we hiding for?”

locked in at school

Gate, gauntlet, visit to death

The first visit to death is symbolised by the play in the snow in which they all end up as snow angels, looking up at the sky. After this, Ame is catching a bird and almost drowns in the freezing cold river. This creates a juxtaposition between extreme joy and extreme fear.

Battle

There are three big struggle scenes in this epic. The  big struggle between brother and sister is foreshadowed by the big struggle at school in which Yuki bites the new boy’s ear. Next we have man against nature, which is what all the big struggles have been about all along.

Some years later, as adolescent hormones course through her body, Yuki loses her temper at school and bites a new boy. He’s not being mean when he asks if she has a dog at home but she perceives it as being mean, since he says she smells like one.

Next is a literal big struggle scene, rolling around on the floor, noisy big struggle between brother and sister after they make different decisions about going to school (and not). This is an outworking of the psychological turmoil each is having on the inside.

arguing on opposite sides of the table

The third big struggle is the one between Ame and nature. The rain storm that closes the school. Ame takes off into the mountains to look after his secret animal business. Meanwhile, Yuki waits in school for her mother to pick her up, while Hana’s off looking for her son. She comes face to face with a bear and is terrified. (The Bears Are Bad News trope.) But then two bear cubs turn up and she sees the ‘humanity’ in the fearsome wild animals. She falls down a cut bank and is knocked out briefly.

brother and sister big struggle

Anagnorisis

I figured out why you made me plant so much. We’re all in that together.

She tells her dead wolf husband that she was wrong about moving to the whop whops because it’s isolated – in the rural area she is surrounded by more people. But it was a good decision.

There is another talk to the drivers’ licence altar when she realises her children are starting to make their own decisions.

Moral decision

After meeting the fox sensei Hana decides to let her own children make their decisions about whether they’ll live the rest of their lives as human or as wolves.

New situation

Yuki takes the human course, though she’s not happy about it and wishes her brother would do the same. But the more introverted Ame has met a fox who he uses as his animal mentor and has fallen in love with the beautiful scenery of the mountains, so decides to live out the rest of his life as a wolf. He answers a ‘call of the wild’ to be the guardian of the mountains. (A classic call-to-adventure, which we don’t actually see all that much of in modern stories — usually, shit happens, characters respond reluctantly and end up growing psychologically.)