“The Wizard in the Tree”: When the Lessons Feel a Little Too Clunky

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Lloyd Alexander is not famous for subtle narratives. His style is to address fear, selfhood, and growing up in very plain language. Taran wanders through the world in search of a pool of water to show him his fate, and instead finds a plain pool of water showing his reflection. A cloth is woven by the fates but chosen by the ones who live their lives. To return home is to find that one has changed.

Sometimes this works, and when it works it works. The Chronicles of Prydain are incredible novels, classics of children’s literature. But sometimes this doesn’t work, as in “The Wizard in the Tree.”

Maybe it’s just that Alexander doesn’t earn his anvils, the way he earns them in “Prydain.” The characters aren’t as strong and interesting, the world isn’t compelling, the narrative possibilities are textbook-perfect but fall flat. A trope is nicely subverted, as a sleeping wizard proves to be complaining and useless. But when the quotes work best out of context, instead of in context, you know there’s a problem:

“Nothing ends as it does in fairy tales. I did love them so, and I did believe them. I’m sorry they aren’t true.”

“Not true?” cried Arbican. “Of course they’re true! As true as you’ll ever find.”

“But you told me–”

“I never said such a thing! How could you have misunderstood me? Those tales of yours–yes, you people amde them up. They aren’t tales about us, though you may pretend they are. They’re tales about yourselves, or at least the best parts of yourselves. They’re not true in the outside world, mine or any other. But in the inside, yes, indeed.”

 

If Arbican weren’t largely defined by his uselessness, and Mallory by her helplessness, then this all may have hit home a lot better.

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“Wizard’s Hall” Not Quite Together

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Jane Yolen is a very good and very successful writer. But anyone who’s written more than one hundred books is bound to have a few not-so-great-ones in there. “Wizard’s Hall” is among them.

In fairness, her basic aim seems to have been “write a narrative where the hero is just someone who tries.” And she achieved that. But the narrative itself feels haphazard, the characters dull, the plot rushed. The adult characters are useless, magic itself is pointless, and the ending includes sudden and shocking violence that is completely out of tone from the rest of the book.

But Yolen is still a great writer, and there are little touches where her strength shines through. The star map on the ceiling of every student’s room. The great witch, shrunk to parrot size and kept in a cage, unable to speak except to a blind man. A beast made of quilt patches that used to be people.

These little things are great, and I think that with some more time and revision the whole thing would have fit together. But as it is, the book is intensely underwhelming.

Bridge to Terabithia, Little Women, and Becoming What We Love–Who We Want to Be

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Everyone sees the world a little differently. The way Leslie sees the world in “Terabithia” is so magical that Jess falls in love with it. Jess wants to be like her, to see the world she sees, but when she dies it is as if the world she saw dies too.

But he does not want that world to die. He wants it to live on. And so he must become her, in a sense. He can change the world he sees, too, and by doing that she will live on in him.

We all have our own self-image. We all believe certain things about ourselves to be true, and understand that certain behaviors are more true to our selves than others. But when we love someone who behaves differently, who has a different image of themselves and the world, sometimes we decide we want to change. We want to become what we love.

15796908In this way, death becomes a limited thing. In “Bridge to Terabithia,” Leslie’s death forces Jess to change, makes her a part of him in a way he isn’t even aware of. In “Little Women,” when Beth dies, Jo consciously shapes herself to act and be more like her dead sister.

What is loved cannot die. Not as long as we love it.

Skeleton Man and the Borders of Myth

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It’s one of the central problems of childhood that, no matter how sure you are of something, at the slightest hint of falsehood people will dismiss everything you say. That’s the problem at the center of “Skeleton Man,” in which no one believes that Molly is telling the truth, though she knows that she is a captive and in serious danger. But such things are so far outside the realm of the ordinary that everyone is much more willing to believe her captor.

When Molly finds herself off the beaten path, the protagonist does the only thing she can think of: she retreats into stories. She finds strength in her heritage. She knows somewhere deep in her blood that she is a captive of a Skeleton Man, and she finds the strength within herself to defeat him.

Myth is Molly’s ally in this. Myth gives her a framework in which to make sense of what is happening to her. And myth empowers her to be a heroine. The borders between dream and reality grown thin in “Skeleton Man,” and it is in the realm of myth that the protagonist can find her power. As the myth gains strength in the real world, so does she. And in myths, someone always defeats the monsters.

The Reluctant Dragon: Everybody Wants to be a Figure from a Tale

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A dragon’s job is to terrorize the countryside, and a dragon slayer’s job is to defeat it in single combat, right?

But what happens if the dragon doesn’t much like terrorizing the countryside? What is he’s a homebody, or if he decides he wants to enter society?

It’s a delightful idea, and Kenneth Grahame does an amazing job with it. The three characters of his story–the boy, the dragon, and St George the dragonslayer–are all playing with the narrative of “dragon=evil,” and the result is a story in which a wound is faked, a feast is had, and everyone goes home happy.

The little novella is sort of an anti-Fairy Tale, in which there are no villains and the little boy has to do everything for the dragon and the Saint. The familiar story is turned on its head, and laughter ensues.

Out of My Mind and the Power of a Single Story, a Single Voice

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When you look at someone in a wheelchair, someone who cannot talk, someone who cannot control their bodily functions, a narrative comes to mind. “This person is disabled.” “This person is retarded.” “This person will never really be a person.” It’s an old idea, that the body is a mirror of the mind. A useless body must mean a useless mind.

Because so many of these people are helpless, unable to speak or move or eat independently, it is hard for them to challenge that narrative. It is hard for them to express themselves. They are trapped in their own heads, with all their knowledge and personality.

No person contains only a single story. The maid spends her free time reading astronomy textbooks. The murderer on death row is also a loving father. The lady at the tupperware party is a world-famous psychiatrist. It is hard to accept this about the people around us, and harder to process it, so most people avoid it if possible. But the people I mentioned above each have a voice of their own with which to tell their stories. People with disabilities like the protagonist of “Out of My Mind” are voiceless.

From the very beginning, Sharon Draper sets out to tell a story that tears apart of the idea of a “single story.” Her first-person narrator loves words, but has never spoken a word in her life. She can remember a thousand facts, but cannot say any of them without the help of a computer.

Melody is a powerful, brilliant, delightful character. From the earliest part of her life, people try to fit her into a box. They try to confine her to a single story, without paying attention to all the other stories that might be true. They see her, and they think “stupid,” no matter how smart she is.

And Melody must learn what so many people learn: that a happy life is largely about how you respond to it. You cannot choose what people do to you, and often you cannot change what people think of you. But you can, to a certain extent, choose how you respond to it. And to laugh is always better than to cry.

The Many Probems of Maggie Stiefvater’s “The Raven Cycle,” Part 3

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This one is just miscellaneous complaints

The A Couple

Ronan and Adam as the B couple works, but Gansey and Blue as the A couple is terrible. From the very beginning he is her “true love,” but neither of them is anything resembling a good match for the other. They have completely different personalities, different ways of viewing the world, different attitudes, different desires. They are not in love with one another. Gansey is in love with the world of 300 Fox Way, and Blue is in love with the idea of an expanded world that Gansey represents. If not for the “true love” moniker, this would be an acceptably realistic depiction, but without Gansey dying to elevate the whole thing, it’s hollow and flat.

Women

Women are not the point of this story. It’s a story about men. Women are the good bits–the characters of Blue, Persephone, and Calla are among the best in the book–but really it’s a story about boys becoming men. Blue has her moment to shine in the third book, but she is only an instrument herself, not an actor as the boys are.

Beginning Vs. End

The beginning of a story is often the best part. I strongly suspect that the real reason for this is that writer’s spend tons of time writing and re-writing the beginning, and less time playing with the ending.

The first book was awesome. Sure, there were problems–even then, the characters sometimes felt flat–but there was a feeling that something big, something fated, was starting. But whatever vague, glorious destiny seemed to be beginning, it ended in anticlimax.

The quest for Glendower should have ended in the third book. It is absent from almost all of the fourth book, and if placed in the third book, the fourth book could have dealt with the ramifications of finding nothing. Instead the quest was artificially extended and felt like a waste of time.

Setups are easy. 6:21 appearing on clocks, again and again, is frightening. But when that time turns out to be the moment a forgettable villain is killed by wasps, there is no payoff. Payoffs are hard, and while each individual book has a good payoff (particularly the first), the final book in no way feels satisfying enough to justify being the “close of a cycle

History Falls Flat

It feels, in that first book, as if something historic is taking place. As if something big and important happened long ago, and is still happening. As if events are unfolding that will swallow the fragile lives of the characters.

But the history of Glendower and Wales proves completely irrelevant. Cabeswater is not ancient, it’s new. The ley line is too vague and battery-like to feel particularly compelling as a symbol of eternity. The characters most connected to history (Gwynllian and Professor Malory) have no relevance to the plot. There is nothing particularly significant or event-triggering about the identity of Blue’s father.

In the end, the most American thing about it all is that history is pointless, is in fact a creation of the present (as when Noah saves Gansey in the past). The events are taking place in a vacuum, and feel empty for the loss of that historical weight.