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