Wednesday, 30 May 2007

Frustrating female feminism: missing the point

Before we can imagine a truly feminist hero on television, we must recognise
that she does not yet exist. Since the sexuality, makeup, and attire
of Xena, Nikita, and Buffy detract from their believability and highlight their
traditional femininity, should we not hope for heroic women for whom such
characteristics become incidental or celebratory rather than central
foci? Women who would fulfill more clearly feminist ideals of the
heroic would need not routinely bare their midriffs, would not be necessarily,
formatively, and violently linked to men, and would not suffer tormented lives
in a brutal world. A more laudable female hero, one whom feminist
viewers might celebrate without reservation, might build or affirm a world
without so much violence.
Magoulick, Mary, 'Frustrating female heroism: mixed messages in Xena, Nikita and Buffy', Journal of Popular Culture, 39:5 (2006), 729-755

The above quote comes from an article I read recently which seems to sum up the whole problem I have with feminist criticism of texts. Magoulick was arguing that three recent television shows, Xena: Warrior Princess, La Femme Nikita and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, all lauded by many feminists for having strong female heroes, were in fact not feminist at all because of the sexualised presentation of the main characters, designed to appeal to men with their image and acting submissively with regard to the male characters they interact with, and because of their continual resort to male-pattern violence as their means of solving the problems they encounter. I have never really watched either Xena or Nikita, but I did watch and love Buffy and feel strongly that Magoulick's article misses the point of the way Buffy works as a feminist text.

Many articles have been written about Buffy's feminism, all making solid points about strong female characters and the show's reinterpretation of the traditional 'pretty young blonde as helpless victim of monster' horror motif. The strength and importance of the female characters in the show is undeniable, but making a clear 'girls strong, guys weak' distinction is both difficult and unnecessary. Yes, there are many strong female characters, but strength and admirability is not the sole preserve of the female characters on the show. Giles represents wisdom and guidance, and is shown as having a hard streak which enables him to do what must be done even when Buffy herself relents (eg the killing of Ben at the end of season five). This is a character trait shared by the other main Watcher, Wesley, even in his early, buffoonish days, and developed strongly on the spin-off show Angel. Xander, despite his overt cowardice and constant desire to play the clown, is actually depicted time and time again as the heart of the operation, the one who sees, understands and is always there for his more obviously heroic friends (for which he is symbolically punished by losing an eye to Caleb in season seven). And Buffy's two vampire lovers, Angel and Spike, both undergo arduous journeys of redemption throughout the course of the show, so much so in Spike's case that his sacrificial death is the one thing which finally closes the Hellmouth in the show's cataclysmic finale. Put all this together with the weaknesses displayed by the overtly strong female characters (Buffy's struggle with herself in season six, Willow's addiction to magic and destructive revenge binge in the same season, Faith's own journey to the dark side and back again to redemption) and it is clear that this is not a show that worries about gender when developing character. Rather, each character is allowed to travel the journey that awaits them, with all consequences being fully explored. I agree with Magoulick, therefore, insofar as she argues that simply looking at the presentation of the characters is not is not enough to argue for Buffy's status as feminist or otherwise, and we must look more closely at the themes in order to come to some conclusion.

However, this is where Magoulick begins to miss the point of Buffy. As set out in the quote above, there are two main thrusts to her argument. The first is that the sexualised presentation of the main character undermines any feminist behaviour, and the second is that the choice of violence as the main weapon in the story's ongoing struggle is inherently masculine and therefore again undermines the idea that Buffy can be feminist. I will address each of these arguments in turn, and hope to show that Buffy is feminist in a very modern, inclusive sense, which I will go on to define.

The presentation of Buffy herself is important to the initial concept of the show. The creator, Joss Whedon, has stated time and time again that he came up with the idea "to invert the Hollywood formula of "the little blonde girl who goes into a dark alley and gets killed in every horror movie" (Wikipedia, Buffy the Vampire Slayer ). It is therefore necessary for this conceit that the hero should be portrayed in a conventionally attractive, relatively sexualised manner, otherwise there would be no expectations to subvert. To argue, as Magoulick does, that this very necessary image negates the intended feminist message, seems to me to be completely missing the point of the founding concept of the show.

Magoulick also has an issue with Buffy's relationships with men throughout the story. She argues that Buffy is always shown as submissive in her interactions with the main male characters and that she is shown to be formed by them, particularly Giles in his pseudo-father role and Angel as the (much) older first boyfriend. Again I feel her interpretation is simplistic. Buffy does relate to Giles for much of the story as a father figure. This relationship is even made explicit in Giles's dream sequence in the season four finale, Restless. But in season six his departure forces her to abandon this rather comforting role for herself, and in season seven she is shown as actively rejecting his advice when he allows himself to be drawn into Robin Wood's scheme to get rid of Spike, of whose importance to Buffy he is suspicious. (It is notable that Buffy is eventually proved right about Spike, not the previously all-knowing and wise Giles). If Buffy's relationship with Giles is anti-feminist, then surely this redresses the balance - she has grown to the point where she can assert herself even with the most formative of her male relationships. But I don't feel that there is an anti-feminist connotation to their relationship anyway. In what way is it anti-feminist for a young girl to have an older male figure (like a father) to look up to for advice and support? It is a healthy relationship to have, particularly for a teenage girl like Buffy whose own father is absent. It's not as if she doesn't have a good relationship with her mother, who, once she is enlightened as to her daughter's role and destiny, is every bit as supportive and loving to Buffy as Giles is.

Buffy's relationships with her lovers is more complex, but I would argue entirely realistic. Angel is her first love, and she is inevitably infatuated with him. But she still insists on being able to look after herself and hold her own in a fight, and is prepared to kill him when the loss of his soul and reversion to his cruel alter ego, Angelus, threatens those she loves and the world as a whole. Parker, her one-night stand when she starts at college, does use her in a manner unfortunately not unusual, and Buffy was naive in her trust of him. But the fact of her having been naive in this way does not mean she cannot be seen as a feminist role model. If anything, this (and the famous 'ultimate metaphor' of sleeping with a guy and having him turn into a monster) could be seen as warnings to young girls about the pitfalls of sexual relationships and trusting a man too much. Buffy's relationship with Riley, her serious (and only non-vampire) boyfriend in seasons four and five, falls apart because Riley can't handle Buffy's role as the Slayer (again, how is this anti-feminist?), and her final major relationship, with Spike, starts as Buffy using Spike (which she admitted when breaking it off) to 'make [her] feel' after her death and resurrection, and develops, during season seven, into a mutual respect and love where Spike remains Buffy's only true ally right to the end. Spike's attempted rape of Buffy has been much discussed, and used as an argument against Buffy's feminism, but in my view the rape is Spike's problem, not really caused by Buffy (except by her getting too close to what is still at that point essentially a soulless evil vampire, struggling with the changes his love of Buffy has wrought - this is the last point at which the evil side wins out before Spike goes in search of his soul), and thus also cannot really be construed as anti-feminist. If anything, it's anti-male, showing (again) the harm men can do to women.

A final point about Buffy's supposedly sexualised image. Why does femininity have to be seen as being in opposition to feminism? There is a certain extent to which women choose to and enjoy presenting themselves as attractive to men, just as men often choose to and enjoy presenting themselves as desirable to women. Such is the natural order of things, and evolutionarily this is not only natural but necessary. To berate female heroes (whether created by men or women - and these are all both because to create a character in a TV series requires a collaboration between the writer, director and actor) for wearing makeup or dressing in a sexually attractive manner is in fact to masculinise them - to say they can only be a hero if they do not present themselves as feminine. And again, male heroes (compare Hercules and Angel, as the direct counterparts of Xena and Buffy) are also presented in a conventionally attractive, sexualised manner in terms of their 'makeup' and attire, but they are not considered to be problematising their heroic nature in so doing. Incidentally, the sexuality, makeup and attire only ever seems to be considered the central focus by feminist critics who have a problem with it (and, interestingly, the only character within the show who has a problem with it is the misogynist acolyte of the First in season seven, Caleb). To the rest of us it is already incidental or celebratory, depending on context.

The question of plot and the necessity of violence is more complex. These are modern versions of traditional hero tales (as in Joseph Campbell), and such tales and heroes are traditionally male, as discussed by Ursula LeGuin in her essay 'Revisioning Earthsea'. There is therefore inevitably a certain extent to which these stories can be considered masculine and the portrayal of a lone warrior is necessarily masculine in origin and brings with it masculine assumptions and overtones. The second you tell a tale of this kind, you are in traditionally masculine territory. Hence the violence and inherited male power structure, and also perhaps the aggressive female sexuality as it tries to assert itself within the confines of a male defined world. The central character therefore cannot really eschew violence in order to build a better world in a more traditionally feminine way. Other characters however can and do - Willow, for example. If you want to have a story like that, you need to recreate the very structure of the hero myth. This is possible, as for example Diana Wynne Jones did in Fire and Hemlock, however if you choose to follow the conventional warrior for good versus the forces of evil power struggle structure you have to have the violence. So to be feminist with it, you have to do as Buffy does, and kick against the male power structure (rebelling against the Council, transforming her relationship with Giles into a father-daughter one rather than master-student, and ultimately rejecting his help and advice, refusing to accept the source of her power from its cruel male origins, and using her femle friend to share that power with other girls and women, thus throwing off the shackles imposed by the male creators). Buffy is therefore as feminist as she can be within her confines - she has to be pretty and sexualised to expose the cliche, she has to be violent because of the world and story she is a part of, but she subverts that all the time, even, it could be argued, feminising the men around her (Xander, who embodies a lot of things which could be considered the preserve of women, his wisdom and love, and Spike, whose love for Buffy enables him to redeem himself). Plus, it is significant that in the end, the only character who does not reject Buffy's leadership (masculine in style...) is the one she has 'feminised' through love - Spike. All the people she has 'masculinised', such as the potentials (teaching them how to fight and kill) reject her and her leadership of them. Spike's love and support show her how to win in a feminine way, by sharing the power, and his love is what actually succeeds in defeating the First, not the violence with which Buffy, the Scoobies and the Potentials use to fight the ubervamps - they would doubtless eventually have been overrun.

In conclusion, Magoulick's arguments about the failure of Buffy as a feminist text seem to have missed the point of what the writers and creators of the show were trying to do. Within the confines of their initial conceit (subverting a masculine horror cliche) and their inherited story structure (male hero myth), they have created a set of characters (because the show isn't just about Buffy) who assert the full potential of the feminine and use it to defeat the masculine world they have inherited. It is a perfect example of what Angel himself tries to do on his show, bring down the system from within. Buffy's feminism is, as I said above, modern and inclusive in that it understands the practicalities of gender relationships and manages to maintain and celebrate the differences (her relationships with men, her self-image) without being either inferior or (equally importantly) superior. Women and the feminine are shown as powerful for what they can achieve working with the masculine as well as against it, and this seems to me to be the true nature of feminism - not anti-male but pro-female. Buffy celebrates this and is justifiably seen as a feminist text - to argue against, like Magoulick, is to miss the point both of what the writers are doing and of what feminism is and should be.

Monday, 28 May 2007

Harry Potter 7: Still to come...

Now that the publication date for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is getting closer, it seems like a good time to formulate my theories and speculations about what is to come into something coherent. Every aspect of the series so far has been pulled apart and examined minutely by so many people that I know I’m not really likely to add anything new, but on the other hand, the sheer quantity of theories bouncing around means that any attempt to make sense of what I actually think can’t be totally invalid.

So here, in no particular order, are my main musings…

The true motivation of Severus Snape is pretty universally accepted to be the burning question whose resolution will underpin the climax of the series itself. The first major Harry Potter conference in the UK, Accio 2005, held at the University of Reading, held a mock trial of Snape (link to: for delegates to debate, essentially, whether Snape was good or evil (interestingly, he was cleared of all charges, even the one about him being horrible to the pupils in his charge). The evidence for and against Snape being good or evil is summarised here (link to: in the Harry Potter Lexicon (link to:, and all the arguments, both ways, are solid and convincing, and Snape could quite easily and naturally turn out to be on either side, neither or both! However, I feel very strongly (along with many others) that the only satisfactory conclusion would be for Snape to be good, to be on Harry’s side and loyal to Dumbledore. Narratively, this is the only conclusion that would work for several reasons:
1. Harry’s overt hatred and distrust: This is so strong that the reader is pushed into believing the opposite – we are told so many times by our hero that Snape is evil, against what everyone else believes (others, such as Ron and Hermione, and even Sirius Black, dislike Snape, but trust in Dumbledore’s judgement of him) that we end up disagreeing with Harry in his stubbornness.
2. Dumbledore’s trust: Dumbledore is set up as the omniscient, almost godlike figure, and we are thus coerced into believing that he is infallible, even when in the later books we are shown signs of weakness and he himself tells us he isn’t always right. We are encouraged to question Dumbledore, but again, as with Harry’s hatred of Snape, this has the opposite effect. We need Dumbledore to be the all-knowing guide, the archetypal wise old man (link to: While displaying weakness and making mistakes is part of this archetypal character, in the big things we need him to be right. It would be too much of a shock, and overshadow the end of the Harry-Voldemort struggle, for Dumbledore to turn out to have been so badly mistaken. It is interesting though that Rowling seems to be trying to prepare us for this, having Dumbledore himself tell us that perhaps his judgement is not to be trusted as unquestioningly as we have assumed: “… as I have already proven to you, I make mistakes like the next man. In fact, being – forgive me – rather cleverer than most men, my mistakes tend to be correspondingly huger.” (HP6, p.187). Whether this is intended to point to a mistake as yet unknown by Dumbledore (Snape’s loyalty? The incident in the cave and his death?) or to something in his past we have yet to discover, is not clear. Whichever, despite authorial attempts to undermine it, Dumbledore’s wisdom is so ingrained and important to both Harry’s and the reader’s view of events, that to have him so wrong on so vital a point would just not ring true.
3. Snape’s actions: Without going over every piece of evidence of what Snape has said and done throughout the course of the series so far, it seems clear that most of his actions have been ‘good’, in that he has consistently protected Harry (even while protesting his hatred of him) and done what Dumbledore has asked of him. Of course, this impression could just be because we have only really seen Snape from the point of the view of the ‘good’ side – the only exception being his conversation with Narcissa Malfoy and Bellatrix Black at the beginning of The Half-Blood Prince. However, his answers here are ones a politician would be proud of, giving the women the impression he wants to but not actually saying anything we wouldn’t expect him to if he was, as Dumbledore says, acting as a spy for the Order of the Phoenix.
4. And finally: The narrative pattern, as shown on a small-scale in The Philosopher’s Stone. Snape appears to be a bad guy, does bad things, but ultimately Harry’s suspicions are proved wrong – Snape is on Dumbledore’s side. Our expectations, from this and from our understanding of the patterns of story and narrative in general, lead us to believe that Snape is good. Of course, this could be a red herring, a way of tricking readers and subverting their expectations, a sort of double-bluff…
All in all, we won’t know for sure until the end – Snape’s character and motivations are too complex and cleverly drawn. I feel Snape is a good guy, everything leads me to believe that, and that Harry and he will have to come to some kind of understanding and resolution of their difficult relationship – this is too important a part of Harry’s story to be denied us.

The biggest question surrounding Snape though, is not who’s side is he on, but what is it that enables there to be any doubt? Why can he get away with being ambiguous, with both sides believing he is with them? No-one else is allowed this luxury (if it can be called such!) – this is after all a tale of good versus evil. You can be uninvolved, but if you are involved, you have to pick a side. But Snape has managed to convince both Dumbledore and Voldemort, the two greatest wizards alive, to trust him. This is what I really want to know – why? It can’t just be a case of him being good at occlumency – everyone knows he can do that and I can’t believe either Dumbledore or Voldemort would be foolish enough to trust his word alone. Dumbledore has been deliberately cagey about his reasons for trusting Snape, although everything we have heard so far has related to Snape’s turning away from the Death Eaters, and telling Dumbledore about the prophecy about Harry and Voldemort. But I don’t buy it, it’s too small a reason. There has to be something about Snape himself, his past and relationships with others, that Dumbledore is hiding. We have very little information about Snape’s relationship with Voldemort, and have never seen them together. Snape is referred to as Voldemort’s ‘favourite, his most trusted advisor’ (HP6, p.38). Why Snape, and especially why Snape in the light of the fact that Voldemort believed him to have left him forever (HP4, p.565 – this comment has to refer to Snape, as the other two living and unnamed Death Eaters he refers to must be Karkaroff and Barty Crouch Jr.). As you’d expect, there are numerous theories seeking to explain this mystery, postulating that Snape may have been in love with Lily Potter, or that it has something to do with his mother, possibly now concealed at Hogwarts as Irma Pince, the librarian (based on an anagram – Irma Pince = I’m a Prince – as well as a reflection of language used to describe both the librarian and Snape, and Dumbledore’s comment to Draco Malfoy about hiding his mother in their confrontation on the tower at the end of The Half-Blood Prince). My own, personal theory (which I am entirely prepared to be proved wrong!) is that it has something to do with the two major themes of the importance of love and blood. I have a nagging feeling that Voldemort may have a child, and if so, Snape is the prime candidate. It would explain why Voldemort has a blind spot where he’s concerned, and also why Dumbledore and Snape have something they are so keen to hide (which could include Eileen Prince quite feasibly here). A slightly wackier extension of this theory involves James Potter as another child-of-Voldemort, introducing a whole aspect of sibling rivalry and giving Harry a link to the lineage of Slytherin – it was stated quite clearly in Chamber of Secrets that only the heir of Slytherin, not just any parselmouth, could open the chamber, and Harry quite patently achieves this. But Rowling seems to have discredited this theory with her statement that she’s not going to do a Star Wars and also that the Potters aren’t actually that important. I don’t know. I like my theory, but I doubt it’s correct!

The identity and location of the remaining Horcruxes, and their destruction, is quite clearly the main thrust of the narrative of book seven. We know (or at least, Dumbledore is certain) that there are six Horcruxes in total, as follows:
1. The diary (destroyed)
2. The ring (destroyed)
3. Slytherin’s locket (stolen)
4. Hufflepuff’s cup
5. Nagini?
6. Something Ravenclaw or Gryffindor related? (But only one, based on the fact that Dumbledore is certain that the only remaining artefact of Gryffindor’s, the ruby-encrusted sword, is safely un-horcruxed)
It is unlikely to be as simple as this however, as this is relying on Dumbledore’s assumptions. It makes sense that Voldemort would have wanted to use artefacts of both Ravenclaw and Gryffindor, so if we assume that he got hold of something from Ravenclaw but couldn’t finish the job with Gryffindor’s sword, then he either had to use something else, never got round to making the sixth Horcrux, or made one accidentally – we don’t really know how exactly Horcruxes are made so we don’t know if this is possible. I’m not convinced by the idea of Nagini – she doesn’t seem important enough, and I doubt Voldemort would have used something living as mortality is the very thing he is trying to escape. The theory I most like (and which occurred to me after I’d read The Half-Blood Prince) is that Harry himself (or at least his scar) is a Horcrux. This argument is summarised well by Haas on the Harry Potter Lexicon (link to:, particularly dealing with the obvious objection that if Harry is a Horcrux, why does Voldemort keep trying to kill him? Another response to this problem, in addition to the one set out by Haas, is that Voldemort does not realise Harry is a Horcrux – if it is possible for Horcruxes to be made accidentally, or if Voldemort’s defeat and disembodiment caused the spell to go awry and fall on another target in Godric’s Hollow. I think the wording of the prophecy supports this theory as well: Neither can live while the other survives – Voldemort can’t live while Harry lives because his Horcrux is out of his control, and Harry can’t live while Voldemort lives because his life and body is not his own, polluted by a fragment of Voldemort’s soul. It does pose a very real threat to Harry’s survival however – would he be able to survive the destruction of the Horcrux within him?

The Deathly Hallows
The release of each book’s title brings with it a flurry of questions as to what it refers to. My initial reaction to Deathly Hallows was that it echoed the heroic pass through death stage of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth, as set out in The hero with a thousand faces, and therefore was a place Harry would need to go and survive before completing his quest. Alternatively, it could just be a poetic way of referring to the Horcruxes – certainly things which would be venerated by Voldemort and the Death Eaters and most definitely deathly. However I recently saw a theory I really like by Bandersnatch on the Harry Potter Lexicon (link to: (and can’t believe I didn’t make the connection myself!), that it refers to the remaining artefacts of the four founders, in the tradition of Grail mythology. This would be very nice and neat, although the fact of Gryffindor’s sword not being a Horcrux in all probability could throw a spanner in the works, unless the sword comes into it’s own as something Harry can use against the Horcruxes. It also throws up all sorts of possibilities of Harry Potter as a Grail text, which I haven’t thought about in sufficient depth yet, but which are intriguing.

Dumbledore’s past and Grindelwald
Throughout book six we received lots of hints that Dumbledore’s past may prove to be important, and recently Rowling has admitted that looking into Dumbledore’s family would be ‘profitable’. It seems fairly obvious that Harry is going to have an encounter with Dumbledore’s wayward brother Aberforth (link to: at some point in book seven – he may well be the person who has Slytherin’s locket, after he was seen being sold some things from 12 Grimmauld Place by Mundungus Fletcher and then walking away ‘[drawing] his cloak more tightly around his neck’ (HP6, p.230). I’m hoping Aberforth will have plenty to reveal about Dumbledore’s past, as really we actually know very little about him. In particular, the burning question relates to the episode in the cave at the end of Half-Blood Prince, when Dumbledore drinks the potion in which the Horcrux is concealed. It’s not clear what the potion is forcing Dumbledore to experience, or re-experience, but whatever it is it must be important. The most plausible idea is a kind of ‘essence of dementor’, something that forces you to relive your worst memory and thus incapacitates you, either that or it just produces such extreme pain that you react as if under torture and your deepest secrets come spilling out. What Dumbledore says hints at an unpleasant experience in his past: ‘Don’t hurt them, don’t hurt them, please, please, it’s my fault, hurt me instead…’ (HP6, p.535). The only thing we know about Dumbledore’s past is what is written on his Chocolate Frog card (link to: about him defeating the Dark Wizard Grindelwald in 1945. Could this memory be related to Grindelwald? Who was Grindelwald anyway? One interesting theory links Dumbledore and Grindelwald via Beowulf, remarking on the similarities of Dumbledore’s middle name Wulfric and Grindelwald to Beowulf and Grendel. What implications this all has for the storyline of book seven seems a mystery however.

Final thought…
Aunt Petunia knows a lot more than she’s letting on…


Accio 2005 (2005) ‘Professor Severus Snape to face trial by Accio grand jury’ [web page] Accessed 5th February 2007.

Bandersnatch (2006) ‘The Grail Hallows and Harry Potter’, Harry Potter Lexicon [web page] Accessed 5th February 2007

Campbell, Joseph (1949) The hero with a thousand faces, Fontana, 1993.

Haas, Stephen (2006) ‘Is Harry a Horcrux?’, Harry Potter Lexicon [web page] Accessed 5th February 2007.

Harry Potter Lexicon (2000-2007) [web page] Accessed 5th February 2007

Harry Potter Lexicon (2000-2007) ‘Aberforth Dumbledore’ [web page] Accessed 5th February 2007

Harry Potter Lexicon (2000-2007) ‘Albus Dumbledore’ [web page] Accessed 5th February 2007

Harry Potter Lexicon (2000-2007) ‘Horcruxes’ [web page] Accessed 5th February 2007

Harry Potter Lexicon (2000-2007) ‘Severus Snape’ [web page] Accessed 5th February 2007

Rowling, J.K. (2000) Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, London : Bloomsbury

Rowling, J.K. (2005) Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, London : Bloomsbury

Wikipedia (2007) ‘Archetype’ [web page] Accessed 5th February 2007

Tuesday, 22 May 2007

The use of myth, legend and folklore in modern children's literature

The full text of my dissertation is now up on the web at:

I may post some more extracts on here separately, but if anyone's interested in the thing in its entirety, that's where you can find it!

Recreating myth in Narnia

This approach adds a second filter, that of a fictional world, and sets the mythic at a remove from the everyday world of the reader, encouraging them to go to the myth rather than have the myth brought to them. The impulse to create secondary worlds is as deeply rooted in the human psyche as the impulse to myth itself, and many authors have chosen to create explicitly alternative worlds for their stories rather than the equally alternative but on the surface congruent world of a story set in familiar surroundings. J.R.R. Tolkien is the acknowledged master of what he termed ‘the sub-creative art’ (Tolkien, 1938, p.53), and has been much imitated since the publication of The Lord of the Rings in the 1950s, by some more successfully than by others. Tolkien established the parameters for modern fantasy with his creation (or sub-creation), and I would argue, put myth centre-stage for this genre. The world of The Lord of the Rings only achieves the reality it does by Tolkien’s creation of the mythic history behind it, as described in The Silmarillion and his many other writings expounding the history of Middle Earth. He created a world that lived and breathed, that can almost be believed to be true as it hangs together consistently and therefore stands up in a way that many of the imitative ‘fantasylands’ (Jones, 1997, [web page]) cannot. I make this point to stress the influence of Tolkien’s work on modern children’s fantasies which are set in other worlds. Successfully realised, approaching Tolkien’s achievement, such ‘sub-creative acts’ can be seen as recreating myths, legends and folklore for an alternative world, reflecting them as our own world is reflected in the new one, and casting a new light on them in this way. To explore this further, I would like to look in particular at the sub-creative act of Tolkien’s fellow Inkling, C.S. Lewis, and the way he recreated myth in his new world of Narnia.

The story of Narnia is a tale that grew as the series went on, from relatively simple beginnings in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, where four children follow the pattern of the universal hero myth (see above) in travelling to another world, enduring a series of tests and trials, before helping to redeem it from the clutches of the evil White Witch and ruling it for many years, as prophesised. The five central (in chronological terms) books of the Chronicles fit nicely into the categories of reworkings or reusings as explored above, introducing such traditional motifs as the ‘once and future King’ (Prince Caspian) and the fairy-lover (The Silver Chair). However, with the last two books Lewis wrote, covering the beginning and the end of Narnia’s existence, The Magician’s Nephew and The Last Battle, the mythic nature of Narnia is brought into focus, and the horizons of the sequence expand accordingly.

Lewis’s Christianity informs his sub-creation as thoroughly as it did his life, so it is no surprise that when he recreated the creation and end of the world for Narnia he imbued them with Christian perceptions. As Wood (2001) puts it: ‘The Narnia series reinvents the narrative of Christian teleology while leaving the values untouched’ (p.256). The creation of Narnia, a magical sequence delayed until half way through the book, begins with light (the stars and then the sun), moves on to plants, then animals, then man, or at least, the Narnian equivalent of talking animals, selected two by two like Noah’s Ark. Man in the human sense is not overlooked in the creation of Narnia, but it is significant that this is the one thing Aslan does not create, at least, not literally. He does set the Cabby in the place of Adam, as the first man and King of Narnia, and brings his wife (reflecting Eve being created from Adam) from London to be the first woman and Queen, but they are transformed, not created:

But it was neither hair nor clothes that made them look so different from their
old selves. Their faces had a new expression, especially the
King’s. All the sharpness and cunning and quarrelsomeness which he
had picked up as a London cabby seemed to have been washed away, and the courage
and kindness which he had always had were easier to see. Perhaps it
was the air of the young world that had done it, or talking with Aslan, or both.

The Magician’s Nephew, p.154-155

Lewis also does not neglect the question of the Fall of Man, but, almost to preserve Narnia’s utopia, he has sin come into Narnia from outside, in the form of Jadis, later to become the White Witch. Her presence is necessary, both logically in terms of explaining the events of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and also theologically, in terms of sin being a necessary evil as the reverse side of good, the Jungian Shadow if you like. Narnia is utopian, at least in relation to our own world (standing in psychological terms as the ideal in the same way as Garner expressed the shadow with Elidor), but it is not, and cannot be, perfect. If Narnia were perfect, then there would be no need for the children to be brought there, and it would teach them, and all those who read it, nothing. Perfection is empty, two-dimensional. A fully realised sub-creation must reflect the original creation in both its good and bad aspects. Wood (2001) has discussed the implications of Lewis’s use of the Tree of Knowledge, and the motif of eating the forbidden fruit, in comparison with Philip Pullman’s treatment in the His Dark Materials trilogy. Pullman casts this episode in a solidly positive light – for him, Lyra and Will have to eat of the fruit in order to gain the mature self-knowledge and love upon which the whole of creation depends. Lewis remains true to the Bible in showing eating the fruit as an act which can only be regretted: ‘That is what happens to those who pluck and eat fruits at the wrong time and in the wrong way. The fruit is good, but they loathe it ever after’ (The Magician’s Nephew, p.162). Having Jadis eat the fruit also allows Lewis to cast her very early on as the Serpent or Devil, as she tries to persuade Digory to eat the apple he picks and not take it back to Aslan. This establishes an allegory which will persist into The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, where it is not just the White Witch who is defeated, but the Devil and sin itself (Aslan’s raid on the Witch’s house can be seen as Lewis’s version of the Harrowing of Hell). In the events of The Magician’s Nephew therefore, Lewis is creating a mythic history for Narnia which echoes and recreates a mythic history of our own world.

Having written a creation myth, Lewis then attempted an eschatological one in The Last Battle, which is the most overtly didactic of the Chronicles. Recreating the end of the world is unusual in children’s fiction, presumably because it is by its very nature an uncomfortable subject, and authors tend to prefer the process of creating a world to destroying it. I would argue that it is Lewis’s Christianity which allowed him to end his creation, as only a firm belief in a better life after the end of the world could enable an author to tackle this most difficult of topics and present it in an uplifting way for children. It is the epitome of Tolkien’s theory of the fantastic eucatastrophe, ‘a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.’ (Tolkien, 1938, p.69). This is precisely what Lewis achieves in the ending of Narnia – his characters face the possibility of defeat, but move beyond the world to the poignant joy of everlasting life in Aslan’s country. His intention is surely purely consolatory, as his final words indicate, to show his readers that death is not the end, that Narnia lives on even though he has destroyed it. His recreation has achieved its goal, reflecting and informing the Primary World through his use of the mythic in his sub-creation:

“There was a real railway accident,” said Aslan softly. “Your father and mother
and all of you are – as you used to call it in the Shadowlands – dead. The term
is over: the holidays have begun. The dream is ended, this is the morning.”

The Last Battle, p.171
Jones, Diana Wynne (1997) ‘Inventing the Middle Ages’ [web page] <> Accessed 20th October 2004

Lewis, C.S. The Chronicles of Narnia:
--- (1950) The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, London : Collins, 1987
--- (1951) Prince Caspian, London : Collins, 1987
--- (1952) The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, London : Collins, 1987
--- (1953) The Silver Chair, London : Collins, 1980
--- (1954) The Horse and his Boy, London : Collins, 1980
--- (1955) The Magician’s Nephew, London : Penguin, 1963
--- (1956) The Last Battle, London : Collins, 1980
Pullman, Philip, His Dark Materials:
--- (1995) Northern Lights, London : Scholastic, 1998
--- (1997) The Subtle Knife, London : Scholastic, 1998
--- (2000) The Amber Spyglass, London : Scholastic, 2001
Tolkien, J.R.R. (1938) ‘On fairy stories’, in Tree and Leaf, London : HarperCollins, 2001
--- (1968) The Lord of the Rings, London : HarperCollins, 1995
--- (1977) The Silmarillion, London : HarperCollins, 1999
Wood, Naomi (2001) ‘Paradise lost and found: obedience, disobedience, and storytelling in C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman’, Children’s literature in education, v.32:no.4 (December 2001), pp.237-259

Friday, 18 May 2007

Reusing myths in children's literature

This could be viewed as the ‘pick and mix’ approach to rewriting traditional material for a modern audience, and refers to the way in which authors ‘borrow’ or introduce mythic story elements into their work. The list of authors who do this, to a greater or lesser extent, is extensive, and the ways in which they use the material is as varied as the material they borrow, but there are three main ways in which mythic elements are used by modern authors: transposed directly in their original form, translated to suit the story, or as archetypes. I would like to illustrate these three approaches by considering the ways in which modern authors have used mythic characters, before studying a work which makes use of all sorts of mythic elements in all three ways, namely Elidor by Alan Garner.

Characters from myth, legend and folktale can be used by modern authors as individuals, as stock characters or as archetypes. The first of these ways is least common as it can have a Verfremdungseffekt[1], introducing something alien into the story, and requiring an effort on the part of the author to assimilate this character into their world. This is what Diana Wynne Jones does in The Homeward Bounders, explaining the presence of legendary characters such as Prometheus, the Flying Dutchman and the Wandering Jew by making them exiles (‘homeward bounders’) in the same way as her main characters, and by extension, re-explaining their roles in their own stories by recasting them in this new light:

Have you heard of the Flying Dutchman? No? Nor of the
Wandering Jew? Well, it doesn’t matter, I’ll tell you about them in
the right place; and about Helen and Joris, Adam and Konstam, and Vanessa, the
sister Adam wanted to sell as a slave. They were all Homeward
Bounders like me.

The effort required to assimilate mythic characters leads to them more usually being used as stock characters or archetypes, where the character can be altered as necessary to fit the modern story. So in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Cerberus becomes Fluffy, guarding the trapdoor to the ‘underworld’ where Dumbledore has hidden the stone to keep it from Voldemort. This gives an added resonance to Harry’s trip through the trapdoor, casting it in terms of the heroic pass through death (as described by Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces). However, often characters are used merely to add colour to a narrative, to give it the flavour of a fantasy tale, as in The Chronicles of Narnia, where Lewis peopled his world with all the creatures of classical mythology, Dryads and Naiads, fauns, centaurs and satyrs. Most of these have no function in the narrative, much as their equivalents often don’t in the Harry Potter books, where in both for example the seer nature of centaurs is useful (Glenstorm and Roonwit in Prince Caspian and The Last Battle respectively and Firenze in Harry Potter), but hardly essential, and their function could arguably be fulfilled by some other means. It is interesting that this is one of the main criticisms levelled at the Harry Potter books by Pennington (2002):

Rowling also seems to purchase her marvellous assorted creatures from the Sears
catalogue of fantasy clichés: poltergeists, longing ghosts, dragons,
hippogriffs, giants, humongous spiders, vampires, werewolves, trolls, unicorns,
a sphinx, sirens, Pegasus horses (and I am certain that I have missed
some). With such a menagerie, Rowling is unable to develop any of
the fantastical creatures; in fact, she seems to expect the readers to bring
that magic to her creations, a dubious technique at best.
Pennington, 2002, p.82

I would dispute that this is a ‘dubious technique’ and argue instead that expecting readers to bring magic to such creations is a perfectly valid use of this sort of stock mythical character. That is precisely the reason they are there, to help readers experience the magic by the associative process of recognising them. From a very young age children are able to pick up on these stock characters and so the authorial use of them helps to create the parameters within which the story will be received and interpreted. A book chock-full of centaurs and dragons is asserting its identity as a mythic fantasy, much like wearing a badge or a uniform. This is not to say that it is necessary to create the desired ambience, merely that it is one way of doing so.

The use of archetypal characters is far more subtle, and not restricted to this kind of fiction, but as a function of the human psyche can be found in all literature. Archetypes underpin myth in the most fundamental way, due to their prevalence in human thought, and therefore are taken up most enthusiastically by mythic writers. A full discussion of the Jungian interpretations of children’s fantasy fiction is too wide a topic to explore here, and one which has been considered in some depth by many critics (see for example Mills (2003) and Cech (1992)). I wish merely to stress that as characters in myths are often as much archetypes as fully-fledged personalities, so too are their equivalents when used by modern authors attempting to harness the power of myth in their work. The adult fantasy author David Eddings referred to his conscious use of archetypes in writing The Belgariad as ‘mythic fishhooks’, designed to ‘catch’ the reader (Eddings, 1998, p.12). He may be unusual in using archetypes so deliberately, but most authors of modern mythic fiction, particularly that written for children or ‘genre fantasy’ for adults, do so to a more or less conscious extent. The use of archetypes lends psychological depth to a work, and the mythic and archetypal are inextricably entwined in any consideration of the role and value of literature which seeks to be built on such foundations. Authors often play with archetypes, twisting and subverting them, as for example Diana Wynne Jones having her heroine transformed into an old woman in Howl’s Moving Castle, undermining the received picture of the Old Woman as a threatening character in hundreds of fairy tales, but maintaining the archetype itself in the background.

Alan Garner’s Elidor is a very heavily mythic book, possibly the most weighted in this sense of any of his works. It is packed full of borrowings from myth, legend and folklore, assimilated to a greater or lesser extent. At its most basic level, it is an almost bare but very atmospheric story about four children who find themselves taken into a parallel world, dark and wasted, where they are prompted by a mysterious guide, Malebron, into retrieving four ‘treasures’ from a mound. They are then chased from Elidor by shadows and return to their own world, where they hide the treasures, but continue to be pursued by shadows until eventually a unicorn, which they’d been told by Malebron had to sing before Elidor could be redeemed, breaks through and is killed, at which point the children are able to get one last glimpse of the light returning to Elidor as they throw the treasures back. However, this surface story belies its inner complexity as it is deeply layered with mythic resonances that work on both a symbolic and an archetypal level.

On a symbolic level, Elidor can be read as a Grail story, with numerous references to Grail mythology. Malebron, the mysterious fiddler who calls the children into the other world, is Garner’s version of the Fisher King, the ‘maimed king’ (Elidor, p.38) of a wasted land, awaiting the arrival of a boy who will save him and his world. His name even echoes that of the Fisher King in Robert de Boron – Bron. Roland is Perceval, in the same way, the naïve boy who does not understand what he has to do the first time he comes to the ‘Grail Castle’, and has to leave and travel elsewhere for a long time before he understands and can return. The treasures, despite their more straightforward mythic correspondence with the treasures of the Celtic Tuatha Dé Danann[2], also equate with the ‘treasures’ of the Grail legend – the bleeding spear, the stone (the form the Grail takes in Wolfram von Eschenbach’s version), and of course the cauldron, the most common form the Grail takes. The Biblical aspect of the Grail legend is reflected in the climax of the book where Findhorn, the unicorn (the unicorn being a medieval symbol for Christ) is stabbed in the side by the spear from Elidor (the bleeding spear associated with the Grail in medieval legend was said to be the spear of Longinus which pierced the side of Christ on the cross) and is comforted in his death by Helen, who carried the cauldron, remembering the Grail as the cup in which the blood of Christ was collected by Mary Magdalene. And of course, it is Findhorn’s death which saves Elidor and cleanses it of its ‘sin’. Such potent use of mythological symbols endows the story of Elidor’s redemption with much more meaning than it might otherwise have. When taken in conjunction with an archetypal reading, this depth of meaning increases yet further to transform Elidor into a universal tale of redemption.

There are many ways in which Elidor can be seen to reflect archetypes, but two of the archetypal readings are particularly pertinent, that is, Roland’s story as a hero myth, and Elidor’s relation to our own world as its dark shadow. Joseph Campbell, in his work The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949), describes how the universal hero, as found in myths, legends and stories of all kinds the world over, shares fundamental characteristics and follows the same pattern in their quest, whatever their goal may be. As such, this can be applied to the heroes of all the books I am discussing, and David Colbert, for example, has described how Harry Potter fits the description of the universal hero (Colbert, 2001, p.155-166), but in the context of examining the universality of Elidor it is worth comparing Roland’s story to this fundamental blueprint.

Campbell summarises the heroic adventure as follows:

The mythological hero, setting forth from his commonday hut or castle, is lured,
carried away, or else voluntarily proceeds, to the threshold of
adventure. There he encounters a shadow presence that guards the
passage. The hero may defeat or conciliate this power and go alive
into the kingdom of the dark […] or be slain by the opponent and descend in
death. Beyond the threshold, then, the hero journeys through a world
of unfamiliar yet strangely intimate forces, some of which severely threaten him
(tests), some of which give him magical aid (helpers). When he
arrives at the nadir of the mythological round, he undergoes a supreme ordeal
and gains his reward. The triumph may be represented as the hero’s
sexual union with the goddess mother of the world (sacred marriage), his
recognition by the father-creator (father atonement), his own divinisation
(apotheosis), or again – if the powers have remained unfriendly to him – his
theft of the boon he came to gain (bride-theft, fire-theft); intrinsically it is
an expansion of consciousness and therewith of being (illumination,
transfiguration, freedom). The final work is that of the
return. If the powers have blessed the hero, he now sets forth under
their protection (emissary); if not, he flees and is pursued (transformation
flight, obstacle flight). At the return threshold the transcendental
powers must remain behind; the hero re-emerges from the kingdom of dread
(return, resurrection). The boon that he brings restores the world
Campbell, 1949, p.245-246

Roland is ‘called to adventure’ (Campbell, 1949, p.58) by the chance of finding Thursday Street and the abandoned church, and ‘crosses the threshold’ into Elidor, which is the ‘zone unknown, the fateful region of both treasure and danger’ (p.58). His journey through Elidor, for example the dead forest of Mondrum and his entry into a tumulus, equates to the heroic pass through death. Roland then faces the trials of the stone circle, entry into the Mound of Vandwy and the temptation of the branch of apple blossom, before he and his brothers and sister achieve the treasures. They are then able to return to their own world, having succeeded in the quest, or at least the first part of it. For Garner doubles the hero quest, in much the same way as medieval Arthurian romances did, by forcing his hero to pass through a dual cycle where at first he achieves what he initially set out to do but does not resolve the problem, and must continue to wander before finally gaining the knowledge to complete the quest in the second cycle. This is what Roland must do once he has returned to his own world. He has the treasures, now he must learn about them, and Elidor, so that when the moment comes, when Findhorn breaks through, he will know what must be done to save Elidor and fulfil his prophesised role.

Structurally therefore, Elidor follows the pattern of the universal hero myth. Garner’s use of this pattern (although to what extent this was or could have been a conscious decision is debatable – Campbell’s point is that in writing of heroes and the heroic, this is the pattern that the story will take) makes Roland’s story relevant to everyone, everywhere. Heroes are there ‘as scapegoat[s] […] [having] to do the suffering for everyone’, and reading about them ‘gives you this sense of something other and better, […] a sort of blueprint of how to manage’ (Jones, 1992). This is why both authors and readers are drawn to the idea of the universal hero, and why it is one of the most fundamental ways in which myth informs modern literature.

If Roland is a universal hero, undertaking a universal quest, then his goal must also be universal. And this is where a Jungian interpretation of the land of Elidor and its relationship to our world comes in. One of the interesting features about Elidor in Garner’s work is its non-presence. ‘Garner has been criticised for creating a new world and then abandoning it (only five of the twenty chapters are set in Elidor), but he is essentially interested in Elidor as an idea rather than as a reality. Elidor’s value is as a point of reference by which we may understand the emptiness and futility of our own world’ (Philip, 1981, p.45-46). I would go further and say that Elidor actually represents the Jungian Shadow, the dark obverse of our world. Cech (1992) has discussed Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea as a ‘dramatization of one young person’s discovery of and reconciliation with his own shadow’ (Cech, 1992, p.84), a reconciliation which, according to von Franz, ‘is the beginning of individuation, the lifelong process of coming to know our own unconscious and its “regulating center”, the Self. The shadow represents “those qualities and impulses [an individual] denies in himself but can plainly see in other people”’ (von Franz, The process of individuation, quoted in Cech, 1992, p.83). The childrens’ journey into Elidor and attempts to come to terms with this shadowy land that they were shown and which increasingly impinges on their own world can be seen as Garner’s attempt to achieve reconciliation with the shadow aspects of the modern world. The importance of attempting this reconciliation, of facing the shadow, was described by Le Guin in terms strikingly similar to the scenes in Elidor where the shadows break through:

The less you look at it […] the stronger it grows, until it can become a menace,
an intolerable load, a threat within the soul.
Le Guin, 1979, p.64

Again Roland felt the charge as abruptly as if it had been switched on, and he
arranged everybody in a tight group on the lawn facing the spot where the
shadows had appeared. […]
“Watch the rose bed. And keep
watching,” said Roland. […]
The two shadows stood on the rose bed. […]
this one of your hallucinations, eh?” said Roland, and tried to turn his head to
see how Nicholas was reacting. But his neck muscles were
locked. The shadows darkened.

Elidor, p.148-149

The children had to face the shadows in order to shift them from being a threat to being a physical presence and therefore able to play their part in the ultimate redemption of Elidor through Findhorn’s death. In Jungian terms then, through the children being made aware of Elidor, our world’s shadow, recognition and understanding is made possible for all those living in our world, and Elidor becomes a universal hero myth. Garner’s work shows therefore how the use of mythic elements, in various ways and to various extents, gives a modern story additional depth and resonance. Many of the authors of such mythically based stories which fall into this category, would I’m sure agree with Diana Wynne Jones’s aim ‘to write fantasy that might resonate on all levels, from the deep hidden ones, to the most mundane and everyday.’ (Jones,1992, [web page]). This multilevelled resonance might not always be completely achieved, but even an imperfect achievement is significantly more satisfying for the reader than one which ignores the deeper levels of the human psyche. The use of mythic elements in modern stories allows authors to come closer to achieving this than they would be able to on their own.
[1] Effect of distancing or alienation
[2] ‘Their former homes were four magical cities, Falias, Findias, Gorias, and Murias. From them they take their principle treasures: from Falias Fál or Lia Fáil, the stone of destiny, which cries out under a lawful king; from Findias the sword of Nuadu, which allows no one to escape; from Gorias Gáe Assail, the spear of Lug Lámfota, which guarantees victory; from Murias the cauldron of the Dagda, which leaves everyone satisfied.’ The Oxford dictionary of Celtic mythology, p.415. Garner also uses the names of the cities as the names of the four castles in Elidor.
Campbell, Joseph (1949) The hero with a thousand faces, London : Fontana, 1993
Cech, John (1992) ‘Shadows in the classroom: teaching children’s literature from a Jungian perspective’, in Sadler, Glenn (ed.) Teaching children’s literature: issues, pedagogy, resources, New York : Modern Language Association of America, pp.80-88
Colbert, David (2001) The magical worlds of Harry Potter: a treasury of myths, legends and fascinating facts, London : Penguin.
Eddings, David; Eddings, Leigh (1998) The Rivan Codex, London : HarperCollins
Garner, Alan (1965) Elidor, London : Collins, 1974

Jones, Diana Wynne (1981) The Homeward Bounders, London : HarperCollins, 2000
--- (1986) Howl’s Moving Castle, London : HarperCollins, 2000
--- (1992) ‘Heroes’ [web page] <> Accessed 20th October 2004
Le Guin, Ursula (1968) A Wizard of Earthsea, London : Penguin, 1993
Lewis, C.S. The Chronicles of Narnia:
--- (1950) The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, London : Collins, 1987
--- (1951) Prince Caspian, London : Collins, 1987
--- (1952) The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, London : Collins, 1987
--- (1953) The Silver Chair, London : Collins, 1980
--- (1954) The Horse and his Boy, London : Collins, 1980
--- (1955) The Magician’s Nephew, London : Penguin, 1963
--- (1956) The Last Battle, London : Collins, 1980
MacKillop, James (2004) Oxford dictionary of Celtic mythology, Oxford : Oxford University Press
Mills, Alice (2003) ‘Archetypes and the unconscious in Harry Potter and Diana Wynne Jones’s Fire and Hemlock and Dogsbody’, in: Anatol, Giselle Liza (ed.), Reading Harry Potter: critical essays, Westport ; London : Praeger, pp.3-13
Pennington, John (2002) ‘From Elfland to Hogwarts, or the aesthetic trouble with Harry Potter’, The Lion and the unicorn, v.26:no.1, pp.78-97

Philip, Neil (1981) A fine anger: a critical introduction to the work of Alan Garner, London : Collins
Rowling, J.K. (1997) Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, London : Bloomsbury
--- (1998) Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, London : Bloomsbury
--- (1999) Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, London : Bloomsbury
--- (2000) Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, London : Bloomsbury
--- (2003) Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, London : Bloomsbury
--- (2005) Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, London : Bloomsbury

Reworking myths for children

Reworkings of mythic stories are a complex and subtle way of passing on traditional tales, offering a challenge for author and reader alike. It is not surprising that this technique is attractive to many authors, who have attempted to create new stories using old ones, retaining their structure and meaning but grafting events and characters of their own on to them, adding new flesh to old bones.

Several authors have commented on what they see as the importance of reworking mythic stories rather than just retelling them, and it is interesting to consider why they hold this view. It shows a level of consciousness to their art, as they are deliberately remoulding one story into another, intentionally recasting an old story for a new generation for some purpose or another. Prior to moving into reworking traditional tales in his Arthur trilogy, Kevin Crossley-Holland had concentrated on straight retelling in many works for both adults and children. He describes his departure from straight retelling into reworking with his Arthur trilogy as ‘the bigger discovery for me’ as he found he ‘could actually relate legends to elements in Arthur’s life’ (Kevin Crossley-Holland, Interview with Write Away! [web page], 2002):

I never visualised it like this. First, I wrote an Arthurian novel
for adults based on the life of Sir Thomas Malory but was unable to complete
it. Then one day I was about to go and have supper with a
publisher friend, Judith Elliott, and explain why I still hadn’t started doing
the retellings of the Arthurian legend for her. And the reason was
that I had realised that the last thing I wanted to do was another set of
retellings. I was sitting at my desk looking dismally at a large
hunk of obsidian and I caught sight of my reflection, and I thought that’s it –
it’s the seeing stone – it’s between worlds – it’s the crossing
place! And at once I knew I had solved the problem in a simple way.

Kevin Crossley-Holland, Interview with Write Away!, 2002

The Arthur trilogy is not a complete reworking however. Rather it combines a retelling of the main events of Arthurian legend with a reflection and reworking of them in the story of the Arthur of the title, a young boy growing up in a medieval manor on the Welsh-English border at the end of the 12th century. However, the additional material brings the retelling into sharp focus for the reader, as the events of Arthurian myth are related to Arthur’s everyday life, and by extension, brought into the life of the reader. Arthur may be living several centuries before the readers, but he is a very real hero, easily identifiable with, and as he learns about his life through watching his namesake’s adventures in the seeing stone, so too can the readers take heed of the lessons the stone portrays. ‘What Arthur is seeing is a series of models, the whole gamut of human experience’ (Kevin Crossley-Holland, Interview with Write Away!, 2002). The reader sees this too, with the extra dimension of Arthur as interpreter and as a second series of models. The books thus retain the clarity of a straight retelling, passing on the Arthurian legend in an unadulterated form, with the complexity of a secondary story filter, bringing the traditional tale to life and relevance, which is the main strength of a good reworking.

Most reworkings are more subtle than the Arthur trilogy. They may make their source material explicit, such as with the frequent references to the Mabinogion and the story of Math ab Mathonwy in Alan Garner’s The Owl Service, or the quotes from Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer heading the chapters in Diana Wynne Jones’s Fire and Hemlock, but this is more in the nature of the writer leaving clues, and the writer seems more concerned to weave the old material into the new seamlessly, absorbing it fully into their story. In this way the traditional story becomes something new and different, as the modern author highlights, pulls out or submerges various aspects to suit their work. In the hands of different authors therefore the same tale can take on entirely different characters. Charles Butler (2001) has discussed this with reference to the ballad of Tam Lin, in particular looking at the unusual way it was handled by Alan Garner in Red Shift in comparison to Catherine Storr’s novel Thursday. I would like to expand on his comments, referring also to Diana Wynne Jones’s treatment of the ballad in Fire and Hemlock, in order to show how reworkings can alter the transmission of traditional material.

Butler (2001) points out that the main way in which Garner’s treatment of the Tam Lin story differs from most other modern interpretations is in its male focus. He puts the Tam character centre stage in the person of his three male protagonists, Macey, Thomas and Tom, with the various Janet characters as supporting roles, in contrast to other authors who have dealt with the tale from a female perspective. This brings out different aspects of the ballad, such as the effect of the ‘possession’ (here cast in terms of fits, epilepsy or going beserk) on the possessed himself, and emphasising the need of the Tam character to have a Janet who will hold on to him, as in the ballad, through all his shape-shifting (usually expressed by modern writers by shifts in character or personality). It is significant that ‘the story of Jan and Tom is the only one of the book’s three narratives to lack the ballad’s happy resolution’ (Butler, 2001, [web page]) as this is the only one where the Janet character stops holding on to her Tam.

Jan’s failure to ‘save’ Tom is usually understood as Garner’s bleak comment on
the spiritual sterility of modern times, and as far as Tom’s own condition is
concerned that is probably right. Jan’s story can be read more
positively, however. She is a young woman with her own ambitions,
and a proper sense of her existence as a person beyond Tom’s clawing emotional
needs. Moreover, in refusing to tolerate Tom’s parasitic and
increasingly violent behaviour indefinitely (“There’s a limit to debasement”
(p.183)), she shows a self-respect that is surely wholly healthy.
Jan’s incipient feminism helps her to survive, even though it is one aspect of
the very modernity that has made life intolerable to Tom. […] Ironically Red
Shift’s tragic reversal of the outcome of the Tam Lin myth may also be its most
striking feminist gesture.

Butler, 2001

It is interesting to consider this and Garner’s use of three time-strands in this novel in the light of his comments about reworking myth in general. In his 1975 lecture ‘Inner Time’, he refers to ‘relevancy’ as ‘the myth [choosing] the form for its clearest expression at any given moment. In doing so, elements may be revealed and materials used that earlier versions obscured or did not need’ (Garner, 1997, p.110). The three ‘expressions’ (to use Garner’s term) of the myth found in Red Shift can be seen as the three ‘relevancies’ for the three different periods of time, and their different emphases and outcomes can be explained in this way. The interpretation about the ‘spiritual sterility of modern times’ and Butler’s feminist interpretation are therefore both applicable to the story of Tom and Jan. A 1970s expression of Tam Lin, according to Garner, cannot end happily if the only way to achieve a happy ending is by the subordination of the female partner’s needs.

According to Butler (2001), ‘it is surely not a coincidence that [most of the writers who have reworked the ballad of Tam Lin] are female, for Tam Lin can easily be seen as a proto-feminist text.’ The character of Janet has proved extremely attractive to modern authors, as so many traditional tales have weak, stereotypical or subordinate female characters. I will not discuss the issue of gender roles in traditional tales and modern interpretations at length here, but it warrants mentioning with reference to Diana Wynne Jones’s Fire and Hemlock, another reworking of Tam Lin.

Jones discusses the creative process of writing Fire and Hemlock in her 1988 essay The heroic ideal – a personal Odyssey, which she begins by describing her life-long search for the female hero. Her desire ‘to have a real female hero’ is what led her to choose Tam Lin as the base for the novel ‘because that had a real female hero, one of the few Britomart-like heroes in folklore’ (Jones, 1988, p.134). Fire and Hemlock is therefore a more traditional ‘expression’ of Tam Lin than Red Shift, focussing as it does on the experience of the Janet character, Polly, whose determination to hold on to her Tam, again called Tom here, is presented as a battle against his possession by the Queen of the Fairies. Jones’s depiction of Tom’s possession is more literal than Garner’s – Tom Lynn is not ‘away with the fairies’ in a metaphorical sense like Garner’s Tams. But this is merely a matter of atmosphere, and masks a more profound similarity. The key to Jones’s intepretation of Tam’s possession is a Frazerian view of the ballad’s tithe to hell – she makes this explicit by having Tom give Polly a copy of The Golden Bough to read at a central point in the narrative, Polly’s nightmarish trip to Bristol where the threat of the Leroys (the ‘fairy folk’) becomes clearest and Polly’s abandonment by her family most stark. Those taken by the Queen of the Fairies must be sacrificed in order that her consort may have immortality (‘Kings killed at the end of a fixed term’, Frazer, p.274), and this is the fate which Polly must save Tom from. The tithe to hell seems at first glance to have been submerged in Garner’s interpretation, although Butler (2001) points out that ‘one way of viewing Tam Lin is […] as a hero who contrives to let someone else suffer the punishment originally intended for him’ and that ‘Red Shift makes the question of infernal substitution explicit’ at the end with Jan’s accusation to Tom that ‘Other people have to go to hell to find words for you!’ (Red Shift, p.187).

The greatest similarity between Garner’s and Jones’s reworkings of Tam Lin is however in their treatment of the ‘holding on’ aspect of the ballad. I have already discussed the significance of Jan’s decision to stop holding on to Tom in the contemporary narrative thread of Red Shift, but this is also the choice Jones has her Janet make. In fact, Polly does this twice. Once when her jealous spying gives Laurel (the Queen of the Fairies) the opportunity to make her forget Tom, and then at the end when she marches down to Tom ‘hanging, swaying, […] on the very edge of the trench […] to take everything away, and do it now’ (p.334), to reject him completely, and in this way, to save him. ‘The only way to turn that wild strength of the horse to Tom’s advantage was to deprive him of it completely’ (p.334). In the same way, the only way to turn the strength of Tom and Polly’s love to his advantage was to deprive him of that completely, for Polly to stop holding on to him. In both Fire and Hemlock and Red Shift, the importance of holding on from the original ballad is twisted so that the books’ climaxes come from letting go instead. The only difference is that in Fire and Hemlock, the ‘chilly logic’ of Laurel means that by letting go, Polly does save Tom – for her, holding on would mean losing him.

In looking at these two authors’ treatment of the same traditional material it can be seen that reworkings reinterpret their source material in a very profound way, unique to each author and story. Something entirely new is created each time an author digs up the mythic bones of the past and rebuilds them in the present. This gives a good reworking a life that few other interpretations of traditional material can have; as Garner says: ‘retellings are stuffed trophies on the wall, whereas I have to bring them back alive’ (1997, p.111).

It has to be said, however, that this kind of profound reworking is not easily achieved. Red Shift and Fire and Hemlock are both extraordinarily difficult and complex books, and make demands of their readers above that of almost all other books published for young adults. Various critics have questioned Red Shift’s status as a children’s book – the review in the Times Literary Supplement called it ‘probably the most difficult book ever to be published on a children’s list’ (quoted in Philip, 1981, p.87) and it has to be wondered whether it was published as a children’s book purely because all Alan Garner’s previous books had been so. Nonetheless, it does have adolescent protagonists, at least in the most modern of the three story strands, and deals with the quest for the self which is a feature of so many young adult novels, so that I would classify it as such, as a book, like Fire and Hemlock, which is demanding but satisfying for intelligent adolescent readers. Many reworkings are complex and demanding in this way, at least those that fully assimilate their source material and turn it into something new, rather than a simple allegory or retelling in a different setting, such as C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe or Diana Wynne Jones’s Eight Days of Luke where she translates the Norse story of Loki into the present day. Simple reworkings such as these (and Kevin Crossley-Holland’s Arthur trilogy, which in its reworking parts is a fairly simple one-to-one correspondence, lifted into another time and place) seem more formulaic, less inspired, more an exercise of the author to see how they can fit the old to the new rather than a creative act producing something entirely new but equally powerful. As Diana Wynne Jones says, ‘the immense and meaningful weight of all myths and most folktales could drag a more fragile, modern story out of shape’ (1997 [web page]). It is a rare thing for an author to achieve a story which is strong enough to carry the weight and retain its own shape, casting its shadow back on the myth as much as the myth casts its shadow over the story. This, I would argue, is the reason for the complexity of the reworkings which have achieved this. They have to be strong, to resist the pull of their traditional shape.


Butler, Charles (2001) ‘Alan Garner’s Red Shift and the shifting ballad of Tam Lin’, Children’s Literature Association Quarterly, Summer 2001. Also web page: <> Accessed 27th October 2004

Crossley-Holland, Kevin (2001) Arthur: the Seeing Stone, London : Orion

--- (2001) Arthur: at the crossing-places, London : Orion, 2002

--- (2003) Arthur: King of the Middle March, London : Orion, 2004

Frazer, Sir James (1922) The Golden Bough: a study in magic and religion, Ware : Wordsworth, 1993

Garner, Alan (1967) The Owl Service, London : Collins, 1973

--- (1973) Red Shift, London : HarperCollins, 2002

--- (1997) The voice that thunders, London : Harvill

Jones, Diana Wynne (1975) Eight days of Luke, London : HarperCollins, 2000

--- (1985) Fire and Hemlock, London : Mammoth, 1993

--- (1988) ‘The heroic ideal – a personal Odyssey’, The Lion and the Unicorn, v.13:no.1 (June 1989) pp.129-140

--- (1997) ‘The profession of science fiction: answers to some questions’, Foundation, no.70 (Summer 1997), also [web page] <> Accessed 7th December 2004

Lewis, C.S. (1950) The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, London : Collins, 1987

Philip, Neil (1981) A fine anger: a critical introduction to the work of Alan Garner, London : Collins

Sunday, 13 May 2007

A new side to nowhere!

Welcome to the new location for Two Sides to Nowhere - my blog for extended musings and essays. I'll be posting here from now on and will be transferring the old posts from the old location over the next couple of weeks.