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.

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“Uprooted,” The Fairy Tale, and Making the Old Into Something New

“Genre fiction, as Terry Pratchett pointed out, is a stew. You take stuff out of the pot, you put stuff back. The stew bubbles on.”

The premise of “Uprooted” isn’t original. A girl is locked in a tower on the edge of a magical forest, imprisoned by a strange and powerful figure. In the kingdom outside, a queen has gone missing and the prince is searching for her.

Novik does not battle her reader’s expectations, like many writers trying to be original do now (*cough*GeorgeRRMartin*cough*). The girl escapes her tower, but not before falling in love with her captor. The queen is saved by the heroics of her prince. The forces of evil are defeated, and the forces of good triumph. She knows what she has promised the reader, and she does not scruple to give satisfaction.

But, to continue Sir Pratchett’s metaphor, there are strange spices in this particular bowl of stew. Victories are not what they appear at first (or second, or third). Every story is resolved, but no one is moving towards a destination they could have foreseen. There is more than one Beauty, more than one Beast, and with so many of them about other paths become necessary than the familiar.

The story is laced throughout with elements taken from fairy tales–not just Western ones, but often from Eastern European stories. Baba Yaga is a hugely important figure. The forest is a place of danger, and children get lost in it. There are heroic sacrifices and old-fashioned sieges.

But Novik has done something special in “Uprooted.” She has not drawn something new from the old stories–she has taken them and used them to create something different. A lot of the old stories she draws from are about the clash between civilization and nature, the order of the human word and the chaos of the natural one. Novik even uses her two main characters to represent those forces, her Dragon a person who values beauty, elegance, and order, her heroine Anieshka in constant disarray and literally unable fit nd into the carefully categorized world.

These two forces are in apparently straightforward conflict for the early parts of the story, just as short little fairy tales present the world in terms of black and white. But they soon bleed into one another, taking deep root. What exactly is human and what is not are unclear. Good people do terrible and foolish things. And at the heart of the story is a secret which obliterates the idea of pure, implacable evil altogether.

 

 

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.

George MacDonald and Originality

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I pride myself on having read a lot. I’ve dabbled in just about every genre, I know narrative structure and standard plot devices well enough that I am not often surprised by stories anymore. So, when I opened George MacDonald’s 1897 novella “The Light Princess,” I was not expecting something fresh or surprising. I was expecting an old-fashioned fairy tale.

I was wrong. I’ve never read anything quite like “The Light Princess.” MacDonald’s voice is completely original. His depictions of the prince and princess of a fairy tale are paradoxically (given the title) down-to-earth, normal people to whom fantastical events happen. And his idea–what if a princess were born who weighed nothing at all, and ran a real risk of blowing away in the wind–is both poetic and hilarious.

Nothing is quite like the stories George MacDonald wrote more than one hundred years ago. Nothing will ever be quite like them. And there are always surprises to be found between the covers of books.

The Golem and the Jinni and the Psychology of the Unreal

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Inhuman creatures are a staple of fantasy. That’s a pretty obvious point. They play all sorts of roles in the fantastic narratives of fairy tales and novels. They exist off in worlds of their own.

It’s not common to delve deeper into these creatures. “The Golem and the Jinni” is, in a way, a thought experiment designed to examine the “truth” of these non-humans. What if a Golem and a Jinni (he trapped in human form) were trying to get by in turn-of-the-century New York? How would they feel? How would they act?

And, of course, one of the central totems of the best scifi and fantasy is to a new light upon our own world by seeing it from other eyes. Usually this is about the great acts of human history. But in this novel, the world being thrown into new light is utterly ordinary. These creatures, who are anything but ordinary, are faced with leading ordinary lives. What would they feel? How can they come to terms with just being ordinary?

How can any of us come to terms with being ordinary?

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“The Night Gardener”: How is THIS for kids?

How was THIS for children?

 

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I read this whole book in one sitting, and it scared the life out of me. From the ominous noises, to the fairy-tale secret at the heart of the haunted house (I love a good haunted house). The flowers that grow only by night. And a thousand more little details–this book is unbelievable.

And it’s terrifying. The revelations that make it so come slow, careful. The effect on the characters (who are wonderful) is uncloaked bit by bit. The fear creeps and creeps until it overwhelms.

How is this for kids? In true fairy-tale fashion, I’m left wondering why the scariest stories are always for children.

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The Magic City and Childhood

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I love reading children’s books. I love them for their apparent simplicity, and the depth hidden just beneath. I love them for their touch of myth, of greatness (for doesn’t every child think their life is the stuff of myths?). I love them for their power, their pure emotional truth and strength.

Very rarely do I love a novel because it makes me feel like I am a child again (in the best way possible). But The Magic City…E Nesbit turned me back into a child.

When you read this book, you remember things. You remember how a few odds and ends could be a mighty civilization. You remember the house you dreamed for yourself, the pets and friends you created. You remember a world where everything was both something else and itself, all at the same time.

As I read this adventure, I remembered my own adventures as a child. The worlds I had created, and long since forgotten. And a believed, just for a moment here and there–that somehow, somewhere, it was all real.

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