The Tale of Despereaux and the Narrative Voice

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The fourth wall is what stands between the audience and the story. The fourth wall is itself the narrator in most books, and it often comments on the story before it. The narrator mediates the world of the story to us, but it does not speak to us.

Except when it does. In “The Tale of Despereaux ,” the fourth wall is as friendly to the audience as it is to the characters in the story. To read “The Tale of Despereaux ” is not just to get the joy of a delightful story, to watch the rise of an underdog, the rescue of a princess, the creation of a perfect villain. To read “The Tale of Despereaux ” is to make a friend. The narrator is telling you the story, and the narrator is kind to you. The narrator is your friend, and thus the story is more real and true.

Five Children and It: Stepping outside the Self

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Children, according to JM Barrie, are fundamentally selfish and heartless. He’s not exactly wrong: children in general are selfish, careless of the future, impulsive, and lacking in self-awareness.

So what would happen if you gave four selfish, careless, impulsive, and un-self-aware children one wish each day? That’s the premise of “Five Children and It,” and the results are brilliant. Of course, first the children wish for beauty. But to be beautiful is to no longer be themselves, and they can’t even go home because they’re not recognized. Luckily, the wishes go away at sunset. Then they wish for wealth, but no one believes they didn’t steal it. They figure they should have wished for specific denominations of cash, but never get around to doing it.

Then they make the mistake of wishing that they can make a wish anywhere, instead of talking directly to their grumpy genie creature. This is when the impulsiveness gets really bad, and they make assorted inadvertent wishes and have all sorts of trouble dealing with the consequences.

Only when one of the children can finally step out of herself enough to wonder what It’s feelings are that the shenanigans stop. She asks It how It feels, and what It wants. By doing this, she is able to at last befriend It, and to undo the bad consequences of their wishes once and for all.

It’s a masterful story, a perfect example of how some of the true masters of Story can say things without actually having to say them.

“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.

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.

The Secret of Platform 13: Is it Bad If You See the End a Mile Off?

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I knew what was going to happen in this book pretty fast. It wasn’t hard to see: the good little boy was secretly the prince, the bad little boy was secretly normal. Good guys get good things and bad guys get bad things, you see. That’s how Ibbotson novels work: everyone gets what they deserve.

That’s not to say that the plot twist wasn’t original. I can’t remember ever reading a book where a prince was both stolen, then switched. It’s two fairy tale tropes, combined neatly with the “servant is secretly royal” trope, and it had never been done before.

Not only that, but the various magical creatures are all striking twists. A Fae who chats with the fruit on her head, an ogre spelled for invisibility but whose one eye has to be exempt, so he either appears as a floating eye or closes it. A little hag who can’t for the life of her be anything but normal. A bodyguard whose weapon of choice is her knitting needle.

The end of the journey may be utterly known, but that does not diminish the value of the journey itself. There is a lot of joy in “The Secret of Platform 13,” and there are many surprises. Just not the sort you might expect.

 

“The Ogre Downstairs” and Magic Across the Street

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Diana Wynne Jones once said that, in her first novel, she was trying to integrate the epic and mythical with the everyday, so that an ordinary child might feel that the world was full of the extraordinary–and might recognize his or herself in the story.

“The Ogre Downstairs” is a fantastically well-constructed novel, in which Jones succeeded in achieving and surpassing her earlier goal. What if a couple of kids got a hold of a magic chemistry set? Hijinks would ensue, of course. The kids have their own lives to deal with, their own problems, their own personalities and ways of coping. Throw magic into the mix, and you’ve got a boy learning empathy through body-swapping, toffees come to life and melting themselves, and the occasional marooned-on-the-roof incident.

The characters in “The Ogre Downstairs” aren’t really much larger than life, as most book characters are. They’re ordinary people, living ordinary lives. And magic comes to those lives. Incredible magic–that could be happening right across the street from you. Right now.