Monday, December 31, 2012

A Late Christmas Story

It's the end of the year! Here's a creative writing piece inspired by Enchanted Conversation's holiday Krampus contest (check out the winners here). It's been a long time since I've written any fiction but I hope you can still enjoy it (or at least, not hate it!). Happy new year!!


A Merriment and Melancholy

   There once were two children who lived in a quiet house near the edge of a dark forest. And they thought with all their heart that their mother loved them. 
    On the night they were born their mother had collapsed onto the floor and wept in despair. She was exhausted and beaten. She watched the children enter her world through a fog. The two boys wailed, the mother whimpered, and the family tears drowned the house in a solitude and quietness that it never forgot. Though she took care to feed and house them as they grew, the mother despised her children for what they were. She spent her time outside and away from them, walking forever along the edge of the woods. The two boys spent so much time with only each other that they never knew what other families were like or how different they and their mother were.
   One day the boys were out in the snow collecting sticks and leaves for a game they liked to play. It was a game their mother hated, but they did it every year. If they brought enough wood from the forest into their house and made it up in the shape of a grand tree, presents would appear below it the next morning. Every year their mother burned with a fierce anger as they opened their presents, but every year the children knew there was nothing she could do to stop it from happening.That night they made their way towards the house, laughing at their brilliance and cleverness. As always, their mother watched them from the edge of the forest, keeping one eye on the house where she raised the boys and one eye deep in the whitening wood. She stayed outside long after the boys ran inside. Her thoughts were bent on them. She thought about the stick tree and the presents. She thought about their pride and their greediness. She stood outside until the sun went down behind her and the snow fell all around her. She stood outside and in the cold, darkening world her heart hardened.
She made up her mind and walked into the forest at last.


 * * *

   The old man could not remember the last time somebody made a house call. His house sat in the middle of the wood, far away from wandering eyes. He was warm the night the snow fell down, and he was sitting in a large, comfortable chair staring away at a dying fire when he heard the woman knock on his front door. He knew who she was and why she came. He knew what her coming meant and so he did not rise to meet her.
   She knocked again, harder this time. The old man still did not move. He heard the door creak long and low as it was pushed opened. The woman stepped inside, pulled off her gloves and walked through the hallway. She stopped when she came to a large, warm room.
   He let her stand there for a long time, until the fire finally died away and the room darkened.
"This house is old," the man said. He was still facing away from her. "Older than you know and more ancient than you care to imagine. It does not welcome you."
The woman stiffened. "I don't need to be welcomed to make a request."
"And what is it you'd like to request?" the man slowly asked. The last word hung sourly in the air. "My work is nearly done for the year. Let the Winter's snow fall where it will and live out your days peacefully."
 She hesitated, but only for a moment. "Don't do it this year," she said blatantly. "They don't deserve it."
  Then the old man turned his head and laughed, looking suddenly young and fresh. He stood up and faced the mother. A surge of power rose throughout the house and throughout his voice. It was a magic that ran deep and filled the room with strange mix of a merriment and a melancholy. "I shall always do what I do," he said, and there was such power in his words that the mother trembled and backed away quickly.
  The man sat down in his chair and the magic draped around him like a cape. "You know who to see," the old man said, his voice once again crackled with old age and time. "You know who to see, if you really want it to stop. Go to Him, if he is not already on his way to meet you."
    The mother did not know what to do but walk to the door. She swung it open, turned her face towards the cold night air and stepped out.

  The wind had picked up while she was in the house and now the snow was blowing in all directions. She would find Him and He would punish them because she asked. She turned south and ran. He would understand. Southwards the wood was thick and dark. She knew the children were liars, thieves, and cheats. She ran faster. They were scoundrels and they were wicked. They were clever, so very clever, but they were naughty. She ran faster and faster until she lost her way completely. Was he near? She stopped running. A sudden fear paralyzed her. If he is not already on his way to meet you. The words rang in her head like a knell. The woods twisted in front of her. The white forest crashed all around her. The trees started calling to her: Krampus is coming. Her vision blurred and the snow enveloped her until she couldn't breathe. He was here, she knew now. He was here for her. The trees were screaming now, desperately trying to help, Krampus is coming, run. But they were too late. She fell down in the snow, her heart froze into ice, and she died.
  The snow fell down like a soft blanket over her open, empty eyes. Krampus stood over her and watched as the world tucked her in for the night. He gave the woman's body a mock bow. Your wish is my command, he thought amusingly. He took a deep breath of white air before dipping behind the trees and making his way towards the woman's house.

* * *

Inside the house, the children were warm and waiting. The tree they had made looked brilliant. One of the mothers red scarves was wrapped around it for decoration and candles were placed underneath so that it shone throughout the whole house. But they weren't admiring it. They could only think of one thing. Tomorrow they would wake up to presents. Presents. Presents. Their minds reveled in the idea. They were good children. They did bad things sometimes, but they were good children who put up the tree. And that meant presents.
The boys sat and talked about everything they wanted tomorrow morning to be. Krampus was there, listening. The children talked and imagined their words were like wishes flying into the air, but Krampus saw the weight of their words and knew they were falling heavy to the floor.
Suddenly, the candles in the house went out.
The boys shivered.
And then Krampus was there, standing over the children, tall and wicked. With eyes like flaming embers and a long, flickering tongue he told them what their mother had done.

Horrified, sickened, the two boys wept in despair and shook in fear.
Their mother that loved them. Their mother. Their mother. 

Krampus looked at the weeping children. His work was done. Here was punishment for now and always. He left. The candles reignited and the stick tree stood and shone, illuminating the house for all to see.


Friday, December 21, 2012

For the Love of Diana Wynne Jones

      If you are a steady reader or writer of the fantasy genre, you have probably already come across at least one or two of Diana Wynne Jones' works (after all, there's over 40 of them). And if you have not yet read one of her novels, you should. Her writing is always great, her stories absurd, wonderful, satirical, and thoughtful. In all my fantasy reading and re-reading, I still believe her to be one of the most imaginative and unique writers of our time.
    Somehow, however her books always seem to stay out of the limelight. Maybe she's incredibly more popular in England, where she lived and wrote most of her novels. Maybe I happen to live in the part of San Francisco where nobody really talks about her. But in my experience (working in a bookstore, that is), children and young adult readers have never really heard of her, even if they are ardent readers and lovers of fantasy. I think the success of the Harry Potter series has oddly both helped and hindered her fame as a writer. On the one hand, Rowling's books created a burgeoning desire for fantasy books for young readers. At the height of Potter popularity some of Jones' books that were written as early as the 70's were brought back out and republished for a new crowd of readers. (I was certainly one of them: when I was roaming the bookshelves in true Potter withdrawal, I picked up Howl's Moving Castle. Right on the cover was the quote "Mad about Harry? Try Diana." A comparison. A challenge. Two things that Diana stood up to brilliantly.) 
   But on the other hand, the Potter series is a global and cultural phenomenon and has thus outshone her as one. The Potter series paved the way for new obsessions over new writers and new series, and somehow Diana Wynne Jones become more popular and more appreciated, but her fame never quite became that of upcoming writers of series like The Hunger Games, Percy Jackson, or Twilight. 
    So, in the case that any of you have never read her books, or in the case that some of you have read them long ago, liked them, and haven't re-read them since. Here are some of my favorite books from her. These are ones I've read when I was young, and all hold up for re-reads. Enjoy! 
(Book descriptions are from the back of the books.)

Read the first chapter
SOPHIE HAS THE great misfortune of being the eldest of three daughters, destined to fail miserably should she ever leave home to seek her fate. But when she unwittingly attracts the ire of the Witch of the Waste, Sophie finds herself under a horrid spell that transforms her into an old lady. Her only chance at breaking it lies in the ever-moving castle in the hills: the Wizard Howl's castle. To untangle the enchantment, Sophie must handle the heartless Howl, strike a bargain with a fire demon, and meet the Witch of the Waste head-on. Along the way, she discovers that there's far more to Howl—and herself—than first meets the eye

This is a romantic and magical book, and probably her most famous, as it was made into an anime several years ago. This is a good introduction to her writing style. 




IN THIS MULTIPLE parallel universes of the Twelve Related Worlds, only an enchanter with nine lives is powerful enough to control the rampant misuse of magic--and to hold the title Chrestomanci...
The Chants are a family strong in magic, but neither Christopher Chant nor Cat Chant can work even the simplest of spells. Who could have dreamed that both Christopher and Cat were born with nine lives--or that they could lose them so quickly?

The Chrestomanci series is some of her best stuff. This edition, a volume comprising of the first and second novel, is probably my favorite book to re-read. Christopher travels in between dream worlds. What gets better than that?



FOR FORTY YEARS, Wizard Derk's world has been devasted by Mr. Chesney's Pilgrim Parties- packaged excursions for tourists from the next universe in search of adventure. When mild-mannered Derk is chosen to play the role of this year's Dark Lord, he is forced by the sinister Mr. Chesney to turn his bucolic country estate into a labyrinthine castle lit by baleful fires, manifest himself as a nine-foot tall shadow with flaming red eyes, and lead his minions in a climatic battle against the Forces of Good. Can Derk find a way to put an end to the evil Mr. Chesney and his Pilgrim parties- once and for all?

I'm in the middle of re-reading this right now. As is the case with her other novels, this is a page turner that does not rely upon just action to drive the story. Its a satirical look at the traditional fantasy genre (it's not nearly as ironic as her Tough Guide to Fantasyland), and still holds up its own as a magical and lively fantasy novel. 


   
Lastly, this is a collection of her own critical essays and thoughts of what it means to be a writer. As a writer of fantasy for over 40 years, and a (literal) student of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, she has a lot of wonderful things to say: 

"Various threads run through this collection, but by far the strongest is that of the need for fantasy in all its many facets and its value for children and adults alike." 
-DWJ



Diana Wynne Jones' worlds are deep and unique. Her characters are rich. Her magic lurks in the background, half-expected and always extraordinary. 





Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Christmas Ring Structure in Harry Potter


       Over at the Hogs Head, there have been some excellent posts on Christmas in the Harry Potter series; from recent ideas on the different types of gifts (from the 'groaners' to the 'glorious') to the not so recent- but very wonderful- thoughts on the mythic space of Christmas. In a similar spirit, I'd like to look closely at some of the Christmas scenes in the Potter series, this time with a particular focus on the story's ring structure.
        For any that might be new to ring composition in literature, it's pretty much what it sounds like: the story comes around "full circle" and the ending echoes the beginning. However, it's also certainly more complex than it at first sounds- especially when Rowling is involved. For an exploration of the rings within rings, parallels and chiasmus structure in the Potter series, check out what John Granger has to say on the matter. For now, a simple explanation of ring structure in the Potter series essentially is that the Sorcerer's Stone (the beginning) and the Deathly Hallows (the end) meet and echo one another. Chamber of Secrets and Half Blood Prince, do the same. As does Prisoner of Azkaban and Order of the Phoenix. Goblet of Fire, as the fourth and very middle of the series, has elements that echoes all 6 other books and many more elements that parallel the first and last novel. You can think of the series in terms of a circle:

         7    1
      6    4    2      
         5    3

So, looking through the ring cycle lens, let's take a look at how the Christmas chapters in the Harry Potter series connect, what they mean, and how they bring the story together as a whole.

Christmas in Sorcerer's Stone and Deathly Hallows

    Christmas in the Sorcerer's Stone takes place during one of the most memorable chapters in the whole book: The Mirror of Erised. You'll remember it's Christmas morning when Harry mysteriously receives his father's invisibility cloak. He spends a "happy afternoon" (204) with Ron and his family and enjoys an intimate and magical dinner with some of the Hogwarts staff and the Weasleys. Later that night, Harry puts on his invisibility cloak: "he had to try it, now....his father's cloak- he felt that this time-" (205). After a failed attempt to sneak a peek into the books in the library's restricted section, Harry stumbles onto the Mirror of Erised, where he not only sees his parents for the first time, but some of his more distant family as well. Christmas in SS is all about Harry feeling free and at home. Hogwarts becomes more comfortable than ever: he is not threatened by Malfoy (who is gone for the holidays), there's no homework to worry about, and the invisibility cloak even temporarily liberates him from the school's rules. Harry's run-in with the Mirror is a bit eerie, but the overall atmosphere is light and joyful. 
  In Deathly Hallows, Harry spends his Christmas with Hermione and ventures into Grodic's Hollow, the home to Harry's and Dumbledore's past and the final resting place of Harry's parents. Where Harry saw his parents in the first novel as "smiling at him and waving" (208), here Harry visits his parents by standing over their grave, feeling a "grief that had actually weighed on his heart and lungs" (328). He imagines not their smiling faces but their " moldering remains...bones now surely, or dust" (329). As he does in front of the Mirror, Harry becomes so entranced with the thought of his parents in front of him that he almost "forgets to live" (SS, 214) and becomes "close to wishing, at this moment, that he was sleeping under the snow with [his parents]" (329). 
      Christmas during the Deathly Hallows does not have any of the simple enjoyments of Harry's first christmas at Hogwarts. But it echoes Harry's connection to his home and family. Harry visits what was once his family home; he visits his parents grave; he even comes across the graves of his ancestors, the Peverrel brothers, who passed down the Invisibility cloak to him (a further connection with the Christmas in SS). In both Christmases Harry feels at home, even if it's in a different way. The graveyard scene amplifies the eerie feeling of the Mirror and Harry's homecoming is ultimately a more somber and gothic affair. Nonetheless, there are undeniable connections between the two scenes. 


Christmas in Chamber of Secrets and Half Blood Prince

     The major connection between these two novels is Harry's obsession with what he thinks Draco is up to. In Chamber of Secrets, Harry, Hermione, and Ron enjoy another magical, intimate Christmas feast. But instead of retiring to the Gryffindor common room, they add the finishing touches to their polyjuice potion and transform into Crabbe and Goyle (and half-cat in Hermione's case) in order to investigate Malfoy. The trio are so convinced that Malfoy is the Heir of Slytherin that even Hermione agrees to break the rules to brew a dangerously advanced potion. Harry and Ron eventually find out that Malfoy is not heir of Slytherin, even though he does wish to "help them" (223). Prejudices between families also plays an important part in this scene. Harry not only finds out the password to the Slytherin dormitories is "Pure Blood", but witnesses Draco's prejudices against "mudbloods" like Hermione and watches as Draco relishes in the muggle loving Weasley family troubles.
On a smaller note, Ron's brother Percy also makes an unexpected appearance in this chapter, acting pretty pleasantly enough, though certainly secretive.

    In Half Blood Prince, the issue of blood and prejudices (if the title of the novel didn't make it obvious enough) is an important issue. Come Christmas time, Harry spends the holiday at the Burrow instead of Hogwarts but he is once again obsessed with figuring what Draco is up to. The chapter opens up with Harry telling Ron the overheard conversation between Snape and Draco: "'Snape was offering to help him!" said Harry. 'He said he'd promised Malfoy's mother to protect him, that he'd made an unbreakable oath or something-' " (325). Later on he takes the issue up with Lupin and Arthur, and even though it's hard to deny the fact that Draco's up to something, they insist that Harry might have "inherited an old prejudice" against Snape from his father. Like the prejudices handed down to Draco from his father Lucius (and the prejudices that the Slytherin house promotes), Harry struggles with his own types of judgements and prejudices. Interestingly, Percy makes another unexpected appearance and is secretive of any real reason he is there. 
   Thus, father-son prejudices and the identity of unknown person (who is the Heir of Slytherin? Who is the Half Blood Prince?) are at the heart of both of these Christmas chapters. 

Christmas in Prisoner of Azkaban and Order of the Phoenix

        In both Prisoner of Azkaban and Order of the Phoenix Christmas begins with a lot of tension. In each of the chapters prior to these, Harry experiences something shocking and traumatic. In Prisoner of Azkaban, this happens when Harry overhears the conversation about Sirius and his parents in The Three Broomsticks: "' Black betrayed them?' " breathed Madam Rosmerta.
"He did indeed...he seems to have planned this for the moment of the Potters death'" (206).

After hearing this, Harry spends the time leading up to Christmas in a fog. He hardly notices the holidays approaching and only snaps out of it by visiting Hagrid and agreeing to help him win Buckbeak's trial. Harry's Christmas at Hogwarts once again involves a wonderful feast with the Hogwarts staff (this time with Trelawney eating among them) and a priceless gift given by someone unknown (this time, a firebolt from Sirius). But the tension does not lessen: Hermione and Ron keep arguing over Scabbers and Crookshanks, and Harry and Hermione begin to fight over the Firebolt's confiscation. Christmas in Prisoner of Azkaban is a tense, stifling affair.

       In Order of the Phoenix the tension at Christmas time is ten times worse. Harry has just visited Voldemort/ Nagini in a dream and witnessed the snake attack on Arthur Weasley. Arthur is rushed to St. Mungos and is luckily saved. But Harry not only believes that he is at fault for the attack, but that he also might be being possessed by Voldemort. Like he was when he heard of Sirius's 'betrayal' in PoA Harry closes himself off from his friends and isn't revived until 1) He actually speaks to his friends and 2) He is moved by someone else's suffering instead of his own. In Prisoner of Azkaban, hearing Hagrid's suffering for his beloved Buckbeark not only distracts Harry, but gives him something to pour all his anger and anxiety into. His visit to St. Mungos in Order of the Pheonix, does the same. There, Harry sees Neville and, for the first time, his mentally abused parents. He is moved by Neville's suffering: he "could not remember feeling sorrier for anyone" (513) and "did not think he'd ever found anything less funny in his life" (515).
Throughout these Christmas chapters, there is a threat of attack (from Sirius or from Nagini/Harry), and there is frustration with what the adults think is the best for Harry (McGonagall's taking of the Firebolt and Dumbledore's infuriatingly vague orders to "Stay where you are" (495). Ultimately, however, these chapters are about tension, suffering, and pity. 

Christmas in The Goblet of Fire

       As part of the novel that binds the series together as a whole, the Christmas chapter in Goblet in Fire is all about bringing everyone together. By its nature, the Triwizard Tournament brings together foreign witches and wizards. We certainly see a lot of that in this chapter: Fleur Delacour and Victor Krum develop romantic relationships with Hogwarts students, and, despite growing up in different parts of the country, Hagrid and Madame Maxim share a bond by belonging to the same race (though Maxime denies it). 

   But for all the coming together of foreign peoples, there is even more merging between the students already at Hogwarts. Contrary to any other Christmas at Hogwarts, almost all of the students stay at school for this holiday to attend the Yule Ball. As a result, students of different houses, genders, and years to come together. Harry even unexpectedly spends his Christmas morning not just with his fellow roommates, but with Dobby, someone from an entirely different race. Students like Ginny and Neville, along with Ron, Harry, and the Pavarti sisters, come together as different genders, different school years, and different houses. Most of all, Cedric, despite competing against Harry in the Triwizard cup and belonging to a different house, offers Harry a tip with the second task of the Tournament: "Take a bath, and -er- take the egg with you....use the prefect's bathroom" (431). Finally, instead of breaking them apart, Ron and Hermione's arguments throughout the night do more to bring to light their feelings towards each other, rather than the other way around. Christmas in the fourth and binding novel, then, ultimately works to bring everyone together.


[ EDIT: This is now cross-posted over at the Hog's Head here. I feel very honored to be included with such encouraging and insightful Potter pundits :) ]

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Propps.

I've been working on a new, unexpectedly long post. I like where it's headed. In the meantime, here is a really cool chart on folktale structure from Vladimir Propp:


From Mugglenet

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Peter Pan imagery in "Moonrise Kingdom"

     If you've read Peter Pan (or are at all familiar with the story) it's hard to watch Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom without thinking about all the Pan imagery going on. The film is not trying to be an adaptation of J.M. Barrie's work- its quite magical and artful all on its own- and it doesn't have any explicit references to Pan. But there are many moments that play homage to the story. Whether fully intentional or completely coincidental, the stories echo each other in lots of ways and I find all of them interesting.
By Nadir Quinto
    Take what is probably the most obvious and most basic connection between the two: the plot. Both works open with a young girl (the oldest of multiple brothers) and follow her as she leaves her house in pursuit of adventure with a young orphaned boy. Suzy and Sam of Moonrise Kingdom develop an intimate relationship, and though it's always one of a romantic, rather than maternal love, it fuels the plot and actions of the story.
Moonrise Kingom
   Next is the setting. There may be little in common between a 1960's boy scout camp (the film name for the program is the Khaki Scouts) and the magical world of Neverland, but let's take a look at some of the similarities:

  •  Both are outside. More specifically, the boy scout/ lost boy camp is in the wilderness. In the midst of trees, lakes, and forests the boys must rely upon their own skills and nature's resources to survive and thrive. 
  • Both are male dominated societies and both get shook up after a young lady comes into the picture. 
  • Both settings have an indian/ native american flavor. The Khaki scout camp in Kingdom is located near an old Native American trail, one that young Sam takes a particular interest in and ends up following with Suzy once they start their adventure.
  • There are no Pirates in Kingdom and the adults are a far reach from the adult antagonists in Peter Pan. But simply as adults, they still represent (at least to Sam and Susie) the child-like feeling of being misunderstood, or not understood at all. 
Overall, the setting of both works stands in contrast to their opening, which centers indoors with a family-oriented, domesticated lifestyle.


Next is a list of some similar imagery between the two works.

Flight and Height Imagery

 The adventure of Peter Pan begins when Peter, Wendy, Michael and John fly out the Darling window, turn right at the second star, and fly their way to Neverland. There is no flying in Kingdom, but there is a lot of flight and height imagery.



  • The first time Sam meets Suzy she is dressed as a raven for the church's production of Noah's Flood. His first words to her are, "What kind of bird are you?"
  • The treehouse the Khaki boys build is absurdly high and inexplicably supported by a thin and sparse tree. The camp director asks the obvious question, "Why is it so high? Someone falls from there that's a guaranteed death."
  • At the film's climax, Suszy and Sam climb the full height of the church's tower, intending to jump off to flee the adults that are pursuing them. (Here the end of the film echoes the beginning scene right above: the children climb up to a great height- and do fall- but thanks to the adult that was looking out for them, do not get a "guaranteed death" but hang instead from his rope until they make a safe landing.)
  • Finally, at the film's end Sam leaves Suzy's house in true Peter fashion- through her window.


Random Points of Comparison:

  • Adventure is an explicit aspiration in both works, and is raised particularly when the protagonists are close to the sea. (On a rock in the sea, a tremor ran through Peter " like a shudder passing over the sea but on the sea one shudder follows another till there are hundreds of them; and Peter felt just the one. Next moment he was standing erect on the rock again, with that smile on his face and a drum beating within him. It was saying, 'To die would be a an awfully big adventure'").
  • Children in animal costumes appear.
  • Stories are read aloud by Suzy. First only to Sam, then later to whole "lost boy"group while they listen intently. 
  • There are secret ins and outs of the houses and camps.
  • The khaki boys shoot an arrow at Suzy and miss. This echoes the moment when the lost boys who, mistaking Wendy as a bird (remember Suzy as a Raven?) shoot her down and injure her. 


Throughout the film, Suzy and Sam are emotionally earnest and raw in a way that Peter Pan and Wendy never are. They act much older than they are and don't really have any desires to stay children forever. But, that after all, is the film's job. It is a film about the naiveté, precociousness, and wildness of young adults - and no matter what our current age is, Moonrise Kingdom awakens the Pans in all of us. 

Friday, November 30, 2012

Belief and Marvel in C.S. Lewis and J.R.R Tolkien Criticism

“It is at any rate essential to a genuine fairy story...that it should be presented as true”                 - J.R.R Tolkien, On Fairy Stories



 Largely an essay on the origin, qualifications, and readership of fairy stories, J.R.R. Tolkien's On Fairy Stories argues for the legitimacy of fairy stories being read and enjoyed by people of all ages. Yet understanding what Tolkien means by “true” in On Fairy Stories and how the element of truth ultimately makes for a good fairy story, is crucial. Not only is this a key issue in his own essay, but it connects with C.S. Lewis' argument in On Stories, an essay exploring the joy of reading a story. If, as Lewis states, “belief at best is irrelevant” (Lewis, 13), then in order to understand what makes a good and believable story, it is best to understand what similar distinctions are being made by each author between belief and truth.
     For both Lewis and Tolkien a story's truth does not depend on whether or not the events are credible, or as Tolkien states, if “a thing exists or can happen in the real (primary) world” (131). Such belief is unnecessary, not because marvelous or fantastic events should not be believed or are simply not plausible, but rather because a good story does not call for its readers to believe that its events can happen in what Tolkien calls our “primary” world. Mistaking this as the story's purpose can lead to a common misconception: that marvelous or fantastic stories are only enjoyed by children, because after all, it is children that believe that such things are possible. When Lewis frankly states, “Good stories often introduce the marvelous or supernatural, and nothing about Story has been so often misunderstood as this” (13) he refers to the mistake of thinking that it is children's inexperience or ignorance of our world that leads them to more easily believe, and thus enjoy the events of a fantastic story. Children are far from being the majority of those who like being told of impossible things or like reading of the magic of other-worlds. They are also, as Tolkien points out, not even the only type of person with the capability or desire believe in such things (132). For Tolkien and Lewis there is another, greater quality that a good fairy story demands if it is to be enjoyed: that of truth.
 
     It is belief of a marvelous, but true world that makes reading stories, especially one of fantasy or fairy enjoyable. In order to write a believable fantastical story, it must be drawn upon our own real world to produce the effect of plausibility. The creation of a “Secondary World” (132) as Tolkien calls it, is by its nature based upon the primary world, and can never be wholly distinct from it. But as a creation, a secondary world allows, if not invites, the extraordinary. In order to enjoy entering this new and marvelous world, the reader must be able to believe that it “accords with the laws of that world” (131). Thus it is not the childish belief in the the possibility of the secondary world that the reader takes joy in, but the plausibility that makes entering the story- and staying there- possible. A successfully “true” fairy story will make the act of belief effortless.     It is this effortless belief in a story that Lewis likewise attributes not to childish ignorance, but to the writer's craftsmanship and willingness to “draw from the only real 'other world' we know, that of the spirt” (12). Although more ambiguous than Tolkien's definition of the primary world as simply our real world, Lewis' 'other world' is not wholly distinct from Tolkien's primary world. It recalls the human spirit, certainty a very real sentiment and primary element from our own world that writers must draw upon in order to create “plausible and moving” (12) stories. It is in this spirit and vitality of humanity that writers both draw from and emulate, and in such spirit the reader in turn enjoys the story.

In looking at Lewis' and Tolkien's similar views on the believability of marvelous stories we come out with perhaps the most important and interesting understanding of why, after all, it is important for these secondary worlds to be read. Both Lewis and Tolkien believe strongly and vehemently in the transformative effect that stories have over readers. Most particularly the effect of taking from and placing in reality, the fantastical. For, in creating the most plausible and fantastic world, the writer has based it upon real world objects, events, and routines, but has placed these in a marvelous setting, what Tolkien describes as “simplicities [that] are made all the more luminous by their setting” (147). When the reader is truly immersed in such a world, he absorbs these simplicities in splendor, and thus once out of the world his opinion on ordinary events and objects transforms from the mundane into the marvelous, something Lewis describes as helping “strengthen our relish for life” (15). This is ultimately the imaginative and creative power of reading a story that is both marvelous and true. Through similar arguments Lewis and Tolkien not only to defend fairy stories, but legitimize fantasy stories as illuminating and imaginative fiction.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Hogwarts Sorting Hat: the Struggle of Family Bloodline and Personal Identity in the Chamber of Secrets


      It's no news that the sorting hat in the Harry Potter series is far from perfect. At the very least, it's a considerably more complicated system than what is at first suggested. As it's introduced to us in the Sorcerer's Stone, the sorting hat seemingly- and very clearly- sets the parameters of good and evil. By the end of Deathly Hallows Dumbledore reflects, "perhaps we sort too soon," but 19 years later the hat is still being used to sort new coming students into separate houses. 
What, then, is the larger purpose of the sorting hat? And what can we learn from Harry's experiences with it in one of his most pivotal years at Hogwarts?

Image by DraconisAsh28 on pottermore
    The four houses of Hogwarts come to represent a variety of witch and wizard character traits, but one of the first things Harry learns in the Sorcerer's Stone is to associate certain houses with certain type of people.  Before even stepping foot in a magical community Hagrid tells Harry, “There's not a single witch or wizard who went bad who wasn't in Slytherin. You-Know-Who was one” (Stone 80). Later on, Hermione likewise states that Gryffindor “sounds by far the best; I hear Dumbledore himself was in it” (Stone 106). The houses are set up as an antithesis of good and evil- a system by which to measure to the very best and the worst of wizarding kind. This is also gives interesting insight into how the wizarding community regards Hogwarts Houses: the Sorting process extends far beyond a witch or wizard's school days. It is not a one time judgement of character, but a continual sign of status that is clearly both shaped by and helps shape reputations of witches and wizards. Because despite graduating Hogwarts long ago, Voldemort and Dumbledore's standing connection to their Hogwarts house show Harry the long term, real world effects of sorting, and gives Harry clear examples of evil and good.

      The house Sorting gets more complicated in The Chamber of Secrets as the role of magical bloodline begins to play a more important and more visible role. The threat of Slytherin's Heir throughout the second novel links bloodline with Hogwarts houses and thus prompts Harry to question how much weight family blood has when it comes to the Housing sorting. Even a quick look at the Weasley family for instance, suggests that family blood and houses are very connected. All the Weasley children are placed in Gryffindor and even the extended Weasley family members (excepting a mysterious Lancelot who "nobody talks about") are as well.  Similarly Just as Draco and his father share the “same pale, pointed face, and identical cold, gray eyes” (50), so too do they share similar Slytherin values. Draco's menacing shout of “ Enemies of the Heir, Beware! You'll be next, Mudbloods”(139) is both a word for word echo of the Slytherin Heir's writing on the wall, as well as an echo of his fathers earlier sentiments of how terrible it is that “wizarding blood is counting for less” (52). Although family blood does not ensure placement in a particular House, Harry believes it has a significant bearing, convincing Hermione, “look at [Draco's] family...the whole lot of them have been in Slytherin; They could easily be Slytherin's descendents. His father's definitely evil enough” (158).

Image from the pensieve
       Harry, however, is unable to learn his family history, so when he discovers he shares the unique talent of speaking Parseltongue with Salazar Slytherin and Voldemort,  he struggles over the Sorting Hat's decision to place him in Gryffindor. Harry questions himself thinking, “Could he be a descendent of Salazar Slytherin? He didn't know anything about his father's family, after all” (197). Harry's fears are fueled by the amount of weight given to wizarding blood this school year and leads him to forget that there is something far more important in determining where he belongs than the hat: his individual choices. Thoughout the whole novel, Harry seems to forget the simple fact that he doesn't want to be in Slyhterin. Instead, Harry's fears of being attached to Slytherin deepen and his very Gryffindor-like actions go unnoticed. Of course, we remember that the only reason Harry discovers he is a parsletongue is because he was trying to save Justin (it doesn't get much more Gryffindor than that). But Harry overlooks this just like he overlooks one of the most obvious things that distinguishes him from the Slytherin: his choices in friends. Apart from Hermione in the Sorcerer's Stone, Harry spends his time in Chamber of Secrets befriending a host of magical beings that many Slytherins would never accept as proper wizards, much less as friends. Harry does so, going out of his way to keep them happy, even if it means offering an awfully loud Dobby a seat at the Dursely household, or attending a Deathday Party despite a growling stomach and the alluring annual Halloween feast. Harry consistatnly makes choices to treat others with empathy and equality; qualities clearly lost on the prejudiced Slytherin's. 

    Harry spends a lot of time in the second book worrying about being "Slytherin". But even when Harry is at his most Slytherin (using Parsletongue, or his polyjuice-induced literal transformation into a Slyhterin) he is also at his most Gryffindor.  For instance, after witnessing Draco sneering at Percy, Harry-as- Goyle “almost said something apologetic to Percy but caught himself just in time” (220). Throughout the series, and most particularly in Chamber of Secrets, Harry also exclusively uses Parseltongue for very Gryffindor-like reasons, not only stopping the snake from attacking Justin, but using it to enter the chamber of secrets and ultimately save Ginny.

   Harry's second year at Hogwarts introduces us to the complicated prejudices and animosities between houses, wizarding blood, and magical creatures. Yet at the end of the novel, despite knowing the eerie similarities between himself and Voldemort, Harry knows he is not destined to be anything like him- not merely because he is in a different Hogwarts house, but because he is more aware of his own actions and choices. When Dumbledore offers Godric Gryffindor's sword to Harry as “proof ...that you belong in Gryffindor” (333), Dumbledore is not just comforting Harry's one time accomplishment of being sorted into Gryffindor, but comforting Harry that is it his consistent “choices ...more than our abilities” (333) that continues to shape who he is. Although Slytherin and Gryffindor respectfully remain representative of evil and good, Harry's struggle within the Chamber of Secrets ultimately broadens our understanding of houses, preparing us for the surprises and betrayals in the likes of Sirius, Regulus, Peter Pettigrew, and Snape in the following novels. 




Citations:

Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. New York: Scholastic Press. 1997. Print.
- - Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. New York: Scholastic Press. 1999. Print. 

Friday, June 15, 2012

John Connolly and The Little Red Riding Hood Project

I just finished The Book of Lost Things by John Conolly. It is brimming with everything that makes a good novel: affection, loss, imagination and of course, fairy tales. Connolly rewrites some of the best known fairy tales with a distinct flavor, somehow managing to be both darkly twisted and compelling cute. Besides the fact that the protagonist, David is a young boy, this must be one of the reasons it is popular among (and marketed to) both the young adult and adult reading crowd. If nothing else, Connolly shows us why this is true of fairy tales themselves. These stories would not stay alive in our imaginations if they were not capable of simple, yet profound messages.

16 different versions of Little Red Riding Hood  (dating back to the 18th century!) can be found here

...They also have a cinderella project that is equally as interesting.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Gothic Tradition

The Monk, Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, Frankenstein, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and... the Harry Potter series!?


 Gothic stories almost always include what Travis Prinzi calls the “superficial trappings” of ghosts, castles, and candles. In Harry Potter’s Bookshelf, John Granger states, “Gothic stories are usually set - obviously enough - in a Gothic manor or castle…probably a ghost or two will show up eventually” (74). The Hogwarts castle is abound with touches of this Gothic scenery. In fact, Harry’s contact with the Gothic happens almost simultaneously with his first arrival at the school. When Harry approaches Hogwarts he sees a “vast castle with many turrets and towers” (SS 111). Once inside, he notices that its “stone walls were lit with flaming torches” (SS 113). Only moments later, “pearly-white and slightly transparent” (SS 115) ghosts glide through the walls of the Great Hall to greet Harry. These traditional features of the Gothic permeate throughout Harry’s time at Hogwarts.
Gothic touches such as these are meant to foster what scholar Ann Tracy calls, “nameless fears” and “familiar anxieties” (Bookshelf, 73). A large, poorly lit castle may not be a frightening aspect in and of itself. But such a setting is perfect for producing the essential atmosphere of fear in a Gothic novel. This is a type of fear that is distinguished from something merely momentarily scary. A loud noise in an otherwise quiet moment for instance, produces only a brief moment of fear followed by a sigh of relief. Instead, fear in the Gothic tradition is centered on the unknown. It is something that, as Granger states, “heightens all of your senses, makes you aware of who you are and what you’re all about” (Granger Ch. location 687, par. 30). This type of terror plays a significant role throughout the Harry Potter series. For example, even as early as the first novel, Harry has an extremely Gothic encounter when he meets Voldemort in the Forbidden Forest:

Harry had taken one step toward it when a slithering sound made him freeze where he stood. A bush on the edge of the clearing quivered…Then, out of the shadows, a hooded figure came crawling across the found like some stalking beast. Harry, Malfoy, and Fang stood transfixed. The cloaked figure reached the unicorn, lowered its head over the wound in the animal’s side, and began to drink its blood. (SS 256)

This is exactly the type of nameless fear that the Gothic is all about. Harry becomes paralyzed and completely aware of his surroundings as he watches an enigmatic- but deeply frightening- scene unfold. The dead unicorn and the beastly, yet human-like figure drinking its blood evoke subtle, familiar anxieties of death, dehumanization, and purity. 

This is a part of my graduate paper written May 2012: When Gothic Meets Comic: Exploring the Ghosts of Hogwarts Castle  [EDIT] Which I am now presenting at Leakycon Portland 2013!!