THESIS – THE WRITING OF ‘MADAM PELE: A Contemporary Fantasy Novel’

What led me to write my novel ‘Madam Pele’, as a contemporary Mythical Fantasy novel – including discussions of both literary theory and influential authors of several genres.

For those of you who wish to view the complete Thesis, the following Link takes you directly to my Thesis page within the Edith Cowan University Repository.   Click on Madam Pele: novel and essay to open, then scroll and read the complete Thesis.

Below is a Synopsis laying out the format of the Thesis.


In this essay I cover contemporary theoretical considerations, such as Modernism, Postmodernism and Fantasy, and the influences of various authors’ writing techniques, descriptive language and narrative-plot genres, that led me to want to write my novel Madam Pele as a contemporary mythical fantasy.

Naturally, my personal experiences form the foundation of the novel, especially those in Hawaii which contribute to its scope, but writing style is of equal importance.  In order to demonstrate what has led me to this stage of style development and position of perceptions, my early reading history and an analysis of the influential authors is a necessity.

‘Travelogue’ novels.

My definition of a ‘travelogue’ novel is one that describes the details of a journey to another country or location, as the vehicle for the story which is often secondary to those details.  I discuss two influential ‘travelogue’ novels: A Pattern of Islands by Arthur Grimble, and Faraway by J B Priestley.

Crime novel plotting.

Having, over the years, accumulated an extensive library in Crime/Mystery fiction, with their often complex logical plots, I have learned not only to apply my analytical mind, by focussing on minutiae, but have gained a firm grounding in plot construction.

Analysis of influential authors.

Moving through the works of various authors I rejected many and was drawn closely to others.  I found that the novels that remained embedded in my mind contained the elements of satisfying plots, and mystery that was not always criminal, as I was drawn towards fantasy fiction.

Modern and Postmodern characteristics.

I discuss what characteristics constitute Modernism and Postmodernism, listing them as gleaned from my studies of Literary Theory, and reinforcing it with quotes from  Lewis and Moss.

Descriptive Language.

I define some literary terms, such as metaphor, simile, metonymy and synecdoche, and the specified or unspecified tenor of these language tropes which were often used figuratively.  They could all evoke an image that was instantly recognized, including the connotations of the chosen likenesses, and the baggage of intertextuality, the resultant image suggested – imagery contributing to the clarity of the wit, humour and landscape of the authors’ texts.

A particular knack with words.

Under this heading I deal with those authors whose works demonstrate this particular language use, plus aspects of literary theory that have been influential to my writing style.

Dylan Thomas:  I discuss Dylan Thomas’s use of evocative language in his prose, in some detail, referring to works such as Quite Early One Morning, HolidayMemory, and Under Milk Wood.  I love his prose.  It is easy, enjoyable, and engaging to read, written to be read aloud so that the music of the language can be heard.

P G Wodehouse:  While his plots and characters provide some comic nature to his stories, I believe the main contribution comes from his use of language, his surprising descriptive imagery, his use of metaphors and similes.  They engender chuckles that swell to gales of laughter.  I discuss this aspect of his writing, referring to Galahad at Blandings to illustrate my views.

Tim Winton:  Like P G Wodehouse, Tim Winton is a crafter of words, with the gift of creating evocative imagery.   I discuss his novel Lockie Leonard, HumanTorpedo, with its colloquial Australian language; followed by a detailed analysis of his novel The Riders and the Postmodern aspects of its text, including fantasy elements.

William Golding:  In his novel, Pincher Martin, Golding depicts the plight of a man lost at sea during the war, struggling to survive the elements while stranded on an isolated rock.  This novel demonstrates a Bakhtinian notion of ‘self’, as the protagonist strives to retain his identity without a reflected image or his view of himself as seen by others.


            After defining Fantasy, Imagery and the Imagination, arguing for the legitimacy of fantasy as a general product of the imagination in line with Coleridge, Tolkien, and Le Guin’s opinions, I indicate the different types of Fantasy – High Fantasy, Sci-Fi Fantasy, and Realistic Fantasy – pointing out that my novel, Madam Pele, falls between High Fantasy and Realistic Fantasy, containing as it does authentic mythology presented within a real setting.

Analysis of influential authors.

High Fantasy.

I discuss J R R Tolkien’s views expressed in his essay On Fairy Stories, using an extract from my Honours thesis most of which I have included as an Appendix.

Sci-Fi Fantasy.

Briefly I discuss the works of Julian May, and glanced at “the increasingly inaccurately named Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy trilogy” byDouglas Adams.

Realistic Fantasy.

            The authors under this heading constitute my main focus as they deal with the area that I have chosen for my own novel.  Each has its own area of fantasy that is relevant to my work as indicated.

William Golding:  one step outside reality in The Inheritors.

Patricia Wrightson:  re her rock character in The Nargun and the stars.

Daphne Du Maurier: her temporal slippage between medieval and current Cornwall in The House on the Strand.

Susan Cooper: re her detailed use of medieval myths and symbols to authenticate her Dark is Rising series

J K Rowling: re the compounding complexities of her wizard world narratives.

Contemporary Fantasy.

This refers to other authors using postmodern format for fantasy, who opened doors for me to future writing possibilities.

Madam Pele : the novel.

My goal was to recreate an authentic myth into a contemporary literary myth including sufficient elements of the realistic novel to provide access to modern readers.  This section illustrates the methods that I used to achieve this.

Madam Pele – outline.

This gives a brief synopsis of my narrative, covering both the Hawaiian holiday taken by Di and Paul, but also their present predicament in Perth and their interaction with Madam Pele.

The importance of Madam Pele.

I discuss the importance of the character of Madam Pele to my narrative, through which her own story interweaves.

Postmodern characteristics.

I relist these characteristics and discuss their relevance within my narrative.

Geometric plotline.

This explains my geometric way of looking at the plotline, and includes a diagram.


After defining the term, devices, I then discuss each device individually, showing how and why I have used it as a writing technique, under the subheadings: Dialogue; Non-essential descriptions; Patterns; Voices; Active Verbs; Free Verse; Inserts; ‘Travelogue’ nature.



I mention that I hope my demonstration was successful regarding my reasons for writing my novel, Madam Pele, as a contemporary mythical fantasy, and that it indeed stands up as such – the implausable becoming reality with the Pele myth incorporated into the contemporary world.


CINDERELLA:  Selected variants from different historical periods and the way in which stories reflect the culture out of which they arise.

Although hundreds of variants exist of the fairy tale, CINDERELLA, I have chosen, for expediency and as representative of four historical periods, the following versions (course hand-outs):  THE CHINESE CINDERELLA, 850 AD; Charles Perrault’s  CENDRILLON and d’Aulnoy’s FINETTE CENDRON, contrasting pair, late C17th; Grimm Bros.’ CINDERELLA, C19th; and Disney’s CINDERELLA, C20th. The pairing of the seventeenth century stories will provide a clearer picture of the culture of their era.

There were variants of THE CHINESE CINDERELLA story, but although the heroine’s name may change from Shih Chieh to Yeh-Shen, the components of the fish, magic bones, and slipper remained a constant.  There were many elements within the story  which disclosed historical cultural information to the reader, who was informed in the opening paragraph that the story was set in pre-dynastical times, among cave-dwelling country and island folk.  These were ruled by a chieftain, Shih Chieh’s father, while the more military and powerful of them are ruled directly by a king.

Culturally the reader learns that the status of women was very low in China at that time.  The women were under the control of the patriarch/father, or when he was no longer there – as in Shih Chieh’s case – the matriarch/step-mother, unquestioningly carrying out designated tasks.  The women were bound together in their subordination to the patriarchy, just as their feet were bound.

Thus in China, where the “lotus foot,” or tiny foot was such a sign of a woman’s worth that the custom of foot-binding developed, the Cinderella tale lays emphasis on an impossibly small slipper as a clue to   the heroine’s identity. (Yolen, 1977, p. 298)

The beauty of tiny feet was only in the eye of the male beholder.  And when a king decided to marry a woman – in this case, Shih Chieh – it was as good as done.  Chinese women were passive, and compliant:   “when he [the king] demanded to see her, she appeared ….” and “the king bore her away to his kingdom to be his wife.” (Hume, 1962, p. 2)  There was no suggestion of choice for Shih Chieh concerning her future.

Shih Chieh was depicted as “not only beautiful … [but] clever, as well, and always happy” (Hume, 1962, p. 1) – when her father was alive.  She showed herself to be obedient to her step-mother’s demands, no matter how unreasonable or dangerous.  Yet she was secretive  – she hid the fish in her room, then in the pond.  Later, when the bones had also been secretly buried, she decked herself in azure gown and gold slippers and, disobediently, followed her stepmother and stepsister to the festival.

Thus the reader sees that she was not completely passive, though obviously subordinate, economically, to her stepmother and step-sister.  However, her degree of self-help is founded on the aid rendered to her by the ‘magic’ fish and the ‘angelic’ male stranger who advised her.

Finally, Shih Chieh was incidental to the ending of the story, which was primarily about the fish and the slipper.  But her beauty, passivity and luck was rewarded by marriage to the king, who, due to greed, lost the magic bones.

In late seventeenth century France, Charles Perrault and Marie Catherine d’Aulnoy wrote their versions of the Cinderella story – Perrault’s being the most well-known.  At that time it was fashionable to take oral folk tales, previously and traditionally told by older women to young girls to prepare them for and assist them over the turbulent initiation into adulthood, and transcribe them to written tales for the entertainment and formal socialization of the aristocracy, and Bourgeoisie, both adults and children.

Perrault’s CENDRILLON/ CINDERELLA OR THE LITTLE GLASS SLIPPER was written tongue-in-cheek, not to be taken seriously,

primarily intended for adult reading, as [he] had made obvious; they were a reflection of the artificial world of court life, though each story was dutifully provided with a moral. (Whalley, 1980, p.141)

He introduced into the tale a godmother, an extra stepsister, animals, a magicked pumpkin, and a time limit set on Cinderella’s ball-attendance.  While the fish was omitted from the tale, he made much of the slipper motif.

Cinderella was shown as obedient, compliant, passive and beautiful, only able to get her prince with the assistance of her god-mother, and her magic.  Her beauty of face and nature were rewarded, including her forgiveness of her stepsisters’ unkindness and ill-treatment of her.

Cinderella was as good as she was beautiful and she brought her two sisters to live in the palace, and they were married on the self-same day to two great lords at the court. (Perrault, 1697, p. 100 – Hand/Out)

The characteristics of “gentility, grace, and selflessness” Perrault considered socially acceptable for “the well-bred seventeenth century female” (Yolen , 1977,p. 296), and he promoted these in his tales.  With the right attributes a woman could attain her highest reward – that of marriage, and financial security – essential for women in that insecure period.

Contrary to Perrault’s version was that of d’Aulnoy, FINETTE CENDRON, which incorporated elements of other tales, such as the Cyclops and Minotaur Greek myths, Hansel and Gretel, and Jack and the Beanstalk.  A much longer, more complex story than Perrault’s, it involved the journey, both actual and symbolic, of the heroine towards maturity (a right-of-passage story) and marital security.  As a female writer, d’Aulnoy presented a different picture of women at that time.  Her heroine, Finette Cendron, was “the best-hearted girl in the world” (d’Aulnoy in Zipes, 1989, p. 404), obliging, considerate, mindful of customs, loyal, virtuous, practical, grateful, not greedy, accepting of advice (by her godmother), secretive, gullible, vulnerable, resourceful, courageous, ingenious, lucky, obedient, forgiving, polite with good manners, possessed of common sense, (these attributes are supported throughout the text) and, finally, was able to recognize and use her power to restore her family’s fortune.

And when she told them the names of her father and mother, they recognized them as sovereigns of dominions they had conquered.  When they informed Finette of this fact, she immediately vowed that she would not consent to marry the prince until they had restored the estates of her father. (d’Aulnoy in Zipes, 1989,pp. 415 -416)

Finette was a multi-facetted, three-dimensional character, able to control not only her own destiny but that of her family, unlike Perrault’s Cendrillon who had few attributes/facets and was one-dimensional.

D’Aulnoy’s story was to be taken seriously, demonstrating to readers, paricularly girls, that they could control their own destinies, even if marriage and financial security was still the ultimate reward.  Her version touched on issues of subordination – women to men, younger to older, lower class to upper class – and that of abandonment, a common economical occurrence at that time.  She showed, through Finette, that women were actually far removed from the ideal that Perrault strove to enforce.

In the Grimm Bros.’ version of CINDERELLA the heroine was portrayed as passively submissive to the step-mother and step-sisters.  The idea of mother-protection was introduced into the story, in the form of a magic tree planted on her mother’s grave, with a little white bird that “threw down to her what she wished for” (Grimm,1975, p.122).  Cinderella was shown to be a little more human, weeping when sad, begging her step-mother to allow her to go to the festival, and endeavouring to complete the allotted tasks, no matter how impossible they seemed in order to do so.  The Grimm brothers also introduced the complicity of the birds, without whose assistance Cinderella would have remained in her subjugated position.

Cinderella was rescued from her degradation by the intervention of the King’s son who did not give up his search until he had found the true wearer of the shoe.  In this story the depiction of self-mutilation that the step-sisters undertook in order to get their prince, was a reflection, if perhaps an exaggeration, of the lengths a woman would, and should go to, to achieve married status.  The tale ended with reward for the heroine for her goodness, beauty, and patience, and with punishment for the step-sisters of blindness meted out by the birds.

Writing in the nineteenth century, the Grimm brothers wanted to use their tales to educated and socialize children, who were to take as their role models the heroes and heroines of the tales.  They were precursors for the perfect Aryan race, where all were blonde and blue-eyed, the women passive and domesticated, and the men strong, clever, and in control of society.  Their message of reward and punishment was just as important as that of the desired character traits for male and female children.

Disney’s story, CINDERELLA, was a composite of Perrault’s and the Grimms’ stories, with some twentieth century bowdlerization and romanticism added.  As Disney’s version was created visually simultaneously with the script, his illustrations depicted his notions of the perfect female character, as did the text.  His Cinderella was shown as “the sweetest and most beautiful girl in the world.” (Disney, 1965, p. 193)  She had blonde hair, and blue eyes, and a shapely figure under her tattered gown and apron.  Disney utilised the animal element, not merely for magical effect with the pumpkin, but as companions for Cinderella in her lonely kitchen and attic, to show just how loveable she was – even all the animals and birds loved her.  “She made little clothes for them, and gave them all names.” (Disney, 1965 p. 193)

In Disney’s version the stepsisters were portrayed as ugly, physically as well as in character – they were rude, sarcastic, lazy, and jealous of Cinderella’s beauty.  The step-mother’s cruelty was shown by the way she treated Cinderella as a servant, the way she spoke to her and locked her in the attic.  The only violence in Disney’s version was the scene where the sisters snatched the decorations from Cinderella’s first gown.  Sympathy for his heroine had to be established in the reader/viewer, but not at the expense of frightening the children/audience.

Disney retained the godmother, but made her a fairy to help explain her magic to a twentieth century audience.  He retained the slipper and its loss, and the search by the prince for the owner of the slipper.  He borrowed from Grimm the idea of the tasks to be completed before his heroine could have permission to attend the ball, although he updated them to house-cleaning tasks rather than the picking out of grains from the ashes.

Up the stairway she carried breakfast trays for her stepmother and her two lazy stepsisters.  And down she came with a basket of mending, some clothes to wash, and a long list of jobs to do for the day. (ibid, p. 195)

The ‘Happily ever after’ ending belonged entirely to Cinderella, and to any young girl who was as sweet of nature and beautiful of face and figure as she.  The message was clear – if a girl is prepared to be these things, and be patient and wait, then one day her prince would also come and reward her with marriage and security.  The message for boys was that

[t]he goal of every prince (every man) [was] fulfilled by a beautiful, long-haired young woman, with a fair complexion, especially if she is connected to a castle, money, and power. (Zipes, 1986, pp. 160 – 161)

Throughout the Cinderella versions the message has remained the same – except for d’Aulnoy’s version, which even so still ended in marriage and security.

In the early to mid-twentieth century women were still not in control of their own destinies.  They were considered subordinate to men and to each other, both economically and generationally.  A woman’s place was in the home, doing housework and taking care of the family – child-minding.  She was to be protected by her male/father/husband/son, and be patient, hard-working, uncomplaining, virtuous, sweet, loveable, and if possible as beautiful as cosmetics would make her.  Disney reflects and upholds these attributes with his version of Cinderella, although at the time he produced it he was merely reflecting the ‘normal’ society in which he lived.

All these versions have done just that, while retaining and modifying the original to suit the changes in their societies’ attitudes and their own particular views and biasses, regarding the behaviour of both sexes within these societies.  The authors

retained (or inserted) [various elements into their tales] because … [as] narrators, [they] instinctively or unconsciously, felt their literary ‘significance’. Even where a prohibition in a fairy story is guessed to be derived from some taboo practised long ago, it has been preserved in the later stages of the tale’s history because of the great mythical significance of prohibition.  (Tolkien, 1990,p. 142)

Despite its historical setting, the actual historical period and culture of the written tale is textually obvious.

(C) Jud House  19/08/2006 & 7/01/2013


Babbitt, N. (1970)  “Happy Endings?  Of Course, and Also Joy.’  in Haviland, V. Editor(1973)  CHILDREN  AND LITERATURE  Views and Reviews.  London:  The Bodley Head Ltd.

Buchan, J. (1931)  ‘The Novel and the Fairy Tale’.  in Haviland, V. Editor (1973) AND LITERATURE  Views and Reviews.  London:  The Bodley Head Ltd.

Butler, F. Editor. (1975)  CHILDREN’S LITERATURE VOL 4.  Philadelphia:  Temple University Press.

Gilbert, R. (1990)  ‘Endings’  in  MEANJIN  Vol. 49 (1990)

Haviland, V.  Editor. (1973)   ‘Folk Literature and Fantasy’  in  CHILDREN AND LITERA -TURE  Views and Reviews.  London:  The Bodley Head Ltd.

Le Guin, Ursula. (19   )  ‘This Fear of Dragons’  in  THE THORNY PARADISE: Writers  on Writing for Children.  Blishen, E. Editor.  Harmondsworth, UK: Kestrel Books

Lewis, C.S.  (1952)  ‘On Three Ways of Writing for Children.’  in  BOURNEMOUTH  CONFERENCE PAPERS AND DISCUSSION.  Library Association Proceedings.

Liberman, Anatoly. (1985)  ‘Between Myth and the Wondertale.’  in  MYTH IN LITERA-TURE. Kodjak, A., Pomorska, K., Rudy,S. Editors.  Columbia, Ohio: Slavica Publishers Inc.

Kegan, Paul  Editor.  (1975)  ‘The Six Swans.’  from  THE COMPLETE GRIMM’S FAIRY TALES.  London:  Routledge. (H/O)

Perrault, Charles. ‘Cendrillon.’  from Zipes, J. Editor (1989) BEAUTIES, BEASTS AND ENCHANTMENT.  Meridian:  Penguin.

Philip, Neil. (1989)  THE CINDERELLA STORY; The Origins and Variations of the Story known as Cinderella.  Penguin Books Ltd.

Shavit, Z. (1986)  ‘The Notion of Childhood and Texts for the Child.’  in  POETICS OF CHILDREN’S LITERATURE.  Athens & London: University of Georgia Press.

Tolkien, J.R.R.  (1964)  ON FAIRY-STORIES.  in  POEMS AND STORIES.  Williamson F.R. & Tolkien C.R. Editors.  London:  Harper Collins Publishers (1992)

Yolen, Jane. Editor. (1986)  FAVOURITE FOLKTALES FROM AROUND THE WORLD.Pantheon.

Zipes, Jack. Editor. (1993)  DON’T BET ON THE PRINCE; Contemporary FeministFairy Tales in North America and England.  U.K.: Scolar Press

Zipes, Jack. (1983)  FAIRY TALES AND THE ART OF SUBVERSION.  London: Heine-mann Educational Books Ltd.

Zipes, Jack.  (19  )  ‘On the Use and Abuse of Folk and Fairy Tales with Children.’  in BREAKING THE MAGIC SPELL: Radical Theories of Folk and Fairy Tales.  H/O London: Heinemann.

Zipes, Jack. (1986)  ‘Fairy Tale as Myth  Myth as Fairy Tale.’  in  THE BROTHERS GRIMM:  FROM ENCHANTED FORESTS TO THE MODERN WORLD.  New York  & London: Routledge.

* * * * *


My BA Honours thesis – The hybrid world of J R R Tolkien’s fiction: a study of The Lord of the Rings and other texts in the light of Mikhail Bakhtin’s essay ‘Epic and Novel’. – is published under this Category.

Here is a Link to the Thesis page, which can also be found under THESES in the drop-down Menu.

I hope you enjoy it and please feel free to comment.

Jud House  30/12/2012

* * * * *


Angela Carter claimed that heroic optimism was an important element in fairy stories, the principle which sustained the idea of a happy ending whatever the odds.  The ability of the hero/heroine (protagonist) to remain hopeful while enduring their respective trials and torments impels the reader to continue to hope that the inevitable resolution will be a happy one.  In most fairy-tales the happy ending is an essential consequence of the journey, actual and physical, of the protagonist through the tale.  Natalie Babbitt defined ‘The Happy Ending’ as:

something which goes much deeper [than a simple ‘happily ever after’], something which turns a story ultimately toward hope rather than resignation…” (Babbitt in Haviland, (1973) p. 158)

As a result of this hope, Babbitt said that

Wilbur can escape an early death, Cinderella can be Queen, Bilbo can outwit the dragon, and the ugly duckling can become a swan.  Not without pain, not without violence, not without grief; but in the end, somehow, everything will always by all right.” (Ibid, p. 159)

Apart from a few exceptional tales, the storyteller’s audience (usually young girls), and the text’s readers, are able to anticipate, while enduring the hardships as the protagonist goes through them, the resolution of these difficulties in a positive and happy way – in other words a consolation, for all participants, for the rigours thus endured.  Tolkien refers to:

[this] consolation of fairy stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe [eucatastrophe], the sudden joyous ‘turn’ … this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially ‘escapist’ or fugitive’.  In its fairy-tale – or otherworld-setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur.  It does not deny the existence of the dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of joy, joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief. (Tolkien, (1964) p. 60; (1992) p. 175)

The notion that “this joy is not essentially ‘escapist’ or ‘fugitive’ “ leads us back to his idea that the world of ‘faerie’ is ‘otherworld’, or of a secondary world of the author’s devising.  The fact that the reader suspends belief in the real world to enter this secondary world does not mean that he/she is running away from the former.  After all, upon reaching the conclusion (hopeful happy ending) of the ‘otherworld’ story, the real world must be re-entered.  The fact that the reader does so, armed with hope and joy, is a bonus, an advantage for him/her to help deal with the problems encountered there.  As Tolkien was a highly religious man, he saw this joy linked to the joy of holy miracles, of faith and belief in the after-life, and the joy he believed would be the reward when finally united with God in Heaven – thus his use of the word ‘evangelium’.

Tolkien added:

It is the mark of a good fairy-story, of the higher or more complete kind, that however wild its events, however fantastic or terrible the adventures, it can give the child or man that hears it, when the ‘turn’ comes, a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears, as keen as that given by any form of literary art, and having a peculiar quality. (Tolkien, (1992) p. 175 – 176)

I have personally experienced this ‘turn’ when reading Tolkien’s own works – a little for THE HOBBIT but many times, very strongly for THE LORD OF THE RINGS.  It is a tangible ‘turn’, which no doubt young readers of fairy-tales would experience.  My belief that Tolkien is the ultimate authority on fairy-stories was backed up by my research – most reference material I studied quoted the above statement by Tolkien, in part or in full, to illustrate and support their particular theories.

In my selected fairy tales: DONKEY-SKIN (H/O), THE SIX SWANS (H/O), and PRINCE AMILEC (Zipes, pp 48 – 54), there was a point in each story when a joyous ‘turn’ of events occurred – when the story moved from trials and sorrow to happiness and reward for the protagonists.

In DONKEY SKIN, by Perrault, the princess first had to go through the sorrow of leaving her home to escape the incestuous attentions of her father; the trials of  wearing the donkey-skin and toiling as a scullion in the kitchen of a farmhouse; and the derision and harassment from the servants; before being eligible for the joy and glory of winning her prince.  Of course she required the assistance of her fairy godmother to achieve her escape from home, and the acquisition, not only of the three beautiful gowns (the colour of the sky, the moon, and the sun), but also of the donkey-skin, with which she disguised herself.

Throughout her trials Donkey-Skin did not give up hope of deliverance from her menial situation.  This was evident by her ritual cleansing and dressing in her gowns on Sundays, and when having seen the prince from a distance

[she] admired him with a tender look.  Thanks to her courage, she realized that she still had the heart of a princess beneath her dirt and rags. ( Ibid, p. 71)

This equates with heroic oprimism – appearing to propel the tale towards its happy ending.

I believe that there were several places in the text where the joyous ‘turn’ of events occurred.  The first was when the prince saw Donkey-Skin, dressed in all her finery, through the key-hole.

[T]he prince kept peeking at her, scarcely breathing because he was filled with such pleasure. …. Three times he was on the verge of entering her room because of the ardor that over-whelmed him, but three times he refrained out of respect for the seemingly divine creature he was beholding. (Zipes, (1989) p. 71)

While this was a joyous event for the prince, the reader knows that it was also a turning point in the tale for Donkey-Skin.  The next joyous event occurred when Donkey-Skin put the ring on her finger, dressed in her finest gown, and entered the court.  Once again the tale focussed on her beautiful gown, her physical beauty and her majestic bearing, and on the reactions of the courtisans, King, Queen and prince rather than on the princess’s happiness (which the reader is left to assume).  Finally, at the wedding, the bride’s father,

who had purified the criminal and odious fires that had ignited his spirit in the past, [and] the flame that was left in his soul had been transformed into devoted paternal love, (Ibid, p. 74)

also had a joyous moment when reunited with his daughter.  “Weeping with joy, he embraced her tenderly.” (Ibid, p. 74)  Once again everyone shared his moment, even the fairy godmother, who “told the entire story … [which] culminated in Donkey-Skin’s glory.” (Ibid, p. 74)  However, I believe that Perrault deflated the joy of the happy ending by his over-abundance of moralizing.

In THE SIX SWANS, by the Grimm brothers, the sister of the swan-brothers undertook a difficult task in order to free them from their step-mother’s spell.  Her brothers told her that, to achieve this:

For six years you may neither speak nor laugh, and in that time you must sew together six little shirts of starwort for us.  If one single word falls from your lips, all your work will be lost. (Grimm, (1975) p. 234)

It was considered a trial indeed for a female (that loquacious creature) not to speak or laugh.  It also meant that Donkey-Skin had no means of either explaining her identity to the King, or defending herself against the false accusations of her mother-in-law.  She suffered sorrow at the separation from her father and her brothers, and grief at the loss of her babies.  Our hope is kept alive by the King’s defence of his wife:

She is too pious and good to do anything of that kind; if she were not dumb, and could defend herself, her innocence would come to light. (Ibid, p. 236)

But it is dashed again when even he had to deliver her to justice, after the disappearance of the third baby.

In this tale we are given concrete evidence of her joy, the ‘turn’ occurring as she stood at the stake with the shirts over her arm.

S]he looked around and six swans came flying through the air towards her.  Then she saw that her deliverance was near, and her heart leapt with joy.” (Ibid, p. 236)

The reader moves with her from this point onwards as she freed her brothers, who embraced her, then finally was able ot speak for herself.  Her children were returned to her, the wicked mother-in-law was punished, and the happy ending was completed with the final sentence:

[T]he King and Queen with her six brothers lived many years in happiness and peace.” (Ibid, p. 237)

In  PRINCE AMILEC by Tanith Lee, it was the hero, Amilec, who had to undertake difficult tasks in order to win his chosen princess.  From the outset the character of this princess is exposed to the reader, but not to Amilec, who fell in love with her portrait.  He was blind to her rudeness, to the page’s warning that she was frightful and that he should go home, and was determined to attempt the tasks no matter how impossible they seemed.  However, upon succeeding to fulfill them, with the aid of a pretty witch and her bat, Basil, encountered not the princess’s love and gratitude, but a royal tantrum.

The reader has recognized almost immediately that the witch is far more suitable a bride for Amilec, and must wait in frustration until the ‘turn’ occurs, when he will realize this for himself.  Hope is raised when the princess demanded a wedding dress:

By this time Amilec was getting a bit fed up with her tantrums, but he thought that, of all her demands, this was the most reasonable.  ( Zipes, (1986) p. 53)

When the witch delivered the dress, wearing it to display its beauty, he was stunned – ‘the scales fell from his eyes’.  In front of the court he declared:

“How can I have been so blind!  You are the most beautiful girl I have ever met.  You are also the kindest.  May I humbly ask you to be my wife?  I promise to look after Basil, and I’ll live in the cave, if it will make things easier.”  (Ibid, p. 54)

To say that the hero was optomistic in this tale would be untrue.  However, he was determined, in the face of seemingly impossible odds, to persist till the end.  Having formed an alliance with the witch, who completed his task for him, he was able to face each subsequent task more hopefully, looking after Basil and collecting seaweed while she did so.  Thus, the hope of the happy ending was sustained throughout the tale.

The joy of the happy ending is not as remote from the reader in this tale, due to the involvement of that reader throughout the tale.  Not only did Amilec and the witch live happily ever after, but the princess was happily allowed to travel, leading the story to begin its cycle once again.  The reader knows that she also will suceed, if the tale follows it pattern truly.

In conclusion, I reiterate that the hope held by the protagonist of the tale, prepares the way for the happy ending, and is an essential component of the fairy tale, whether the trials be insignificant or enormous.  Tales that have no joyous ‘turn’, no happy ending, are unsatisfying, providing no consolation for the reader.  As Tolkien said, in his ‘Epilogue’ to ON FAIRY-STORIES:

The peculiar quality of the ‘joy’ in successful Fantasy [fairy-stories] can thus be explained as a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth.  It is not only a ‘consolation’ for the sorrow of this world, but  a satisfaction, an answer to [that truth].” (Tolkien, (1992) p. 178)

(C) Jud House  28/08/2005


Babbitt, N. (1970)  “Happy Endings?  Of Course, and Also Joy.’  in Haviland, V. Editor 1973)  CHILDREN  AND LITERATURE  Views and Reviews.  London:  The Bodley Head Ltd.

Buchan, J. (1931)  ‘The Novel and the Fairy Tale’.  in Haviland, V. Editor (1973)CHILDREN AND LITERATURE  Views and Reviews.  London:  The Bodley Head Ltd.

Butler, F. Editor. (1975)  CHILDREN’S LITERATURE VOL 4.  Philadelphia:  Temple  University Press.

Gilbert, R. (1990)  ‘Endings’  in  MEANJIN  Vol. 49 (1990)

Haviland, V.  Editor. (1973)   ‘Folk Literature and Fantasy’  in  CHILDREN AND LITERATURE  Views and Reviews.  London:  The Bodley Head Ltd.

Le Guin, Ursula. (19   )  ‘This Fear of Dragons’  in  THE THORNY PARADISE: Writers on Writing for Children.  Blishen, E. Editor.  Harmondsworth, UK: Kestrel Books

Lewis, C.S.  (1952)  ‘On Three Ways of Writing for Children.’  in  BOURNEMOUTH CONFERENCE PAPERS AND DISCUSSION.  Library Association Proceedings.

Liberman, Anatoly. (1985)  ‘Between Myth and the Wondertale.’  in  MYTH IN LITERA-TURE. Kodjak, A., Pomorska, K., Rudy,S. Editors.  Columbia, Ohio: Slavica Publishers Inc.

Kegan, Paul  Editor.  (1975)  ‘The Six Swans.’  from  THE COMPLETE GRIMM’S FAIRY TALES.  London:  Routledge. (H/O)

Perrault, Charles. ‘Donkey-Skin.’  from Zipes, J. Editor (1989) BEAUTIES, BEASTS AND ENCHANTMENT.  Meridian:  Penguin.

Philip, Neil. (1989)  THE CINDERELLA STORY; The Origins and Variations of the Story known as Cinderella.   Penguin Books Ltd.

Shavit, Z. (1986)  ‘The Notion of Childhood and Texts for the Child.’  in  POETICS OF CHILDREN’S LITERATURE.  Athens & London: University of Georgia Press.

Tolkien, J.R.R.  (1964)  ON FAIRY-STORIES.  in  POEMS AND STORIES.  Williamson  F.R. & Tolkien C.R. Editors.  London:  Harper Collins Publishers (1992)

Yolen, Jane. Editor. (1986)  FAVOURITE FOLKTALES FROM AROUND THE WORLD.  Pantheon.

Zipes, Jack. Editor. (1993)  DON’T BET ON THE PRINCE; Contemporary Feminist Fairy Tales in North America and England.  U.K.: Scolar Press

Zipes, Jack. (1983)  FAIRY TALES AND THE ART OF SUBVERSION.  London: Heinemann Educational Books Ltd.

Zipes, Jack.  (19  )  ‘On the Use and Abuse of Folk and Fairy Tales with Children.’  in BREAKING THE MAGIC SPELL: Radical Theories of Folk and Fairy Tales.  H/O London: Heinemann.

Zipes, Jack. (1986)  ‘Fairy Tale as Myth  Myth as Fairy Tale.’  in  THE BROTHERS GRIMM:  FROM ENCHANTED FORESTS TO THE MODERN WORLD.  New York  & London: Routledge.

* * * * *



What are the chief characteristics, the significance and function of allegory in Medieval Literature?

To be an ‘allegory’ a poem must as a whole, and with
fair consistency, describe in other terms some event or process; its entire narrative and all its significant details should cohere and work together to this end. …. But an allegorical description of an event does not make that
event itself allegorical. (Tolkien, 1995, p. 8)

Tolkien’s definition describes succinctly the requirements necessary for a work to be considered allegorical.  As the “mode of expression” (Lewis, 1958, p. 48), allegory is the vehicle used to convey the event or process, usually in a narrative form. While he refers to a poem, this definition applies to both prose or verse narratives, though the latter were the common form in Medieval literature.  “There is nothing ‘mystical’ or mysterious about medieval allegory; the poets know quite clearly what they are about and are well aware that the figures which they present to us are fictions.” (ibid, p. 48)  These fictional figures enable the poets to isolate and clarify abstractions, and put them into narrative action that conveys a moral message to their audience.  And this could not be achieved if the characters lacked a connection with reality.

According to Paul Piehler: “Allegory proper pleases by the appropriateness, ingenuity and wit displayed in the translation of the basic material into allegorical form.” (Piehler, 1971, p. 10)  The conception of allegory as the unification of psychological and moral qualities motivated the poets, directing the action of their narratives. And according to Stone, Packer and Hoopes in their introduction to The Short Story, and to the section on ‘Fable, Parable, Exemplum, and Allegory’ “[e]arly stories were vehicles of assertion” (Stone, Packer & Hoopes, 1983, p. 2), where, in allegory,

everything stands for something else, everything is sym- bolic, so the reader is inevitably involved in a process of discovery and interpretation.  It is a clever device, since it relieves the reader of the feeling that he is being preached at; instead he is participating in the story. (ibid, p. 39)

In the allegorical universe, everything is a reflection of something else.  Everything has a physical reality that corresponds to a spiritual reality – an organic relationship between the physical and spiritual that enables spiritual narrative to be conveyed in physical terms.

The function or role of medieval allegory was as a vehicle for moral lessons disguised as tales – homilies, both oral and written.  To understand the reason behind the moral lessons, it is necessary to understand the role religion played in the lives of medieval people. The medieval world had a clear idea of the Universe/Cosmos – what it meant, and man’s place in it. Their belief in God’s power was unquestioning.

Almighty God was acknowledged as the Source of all life; the world was God’s world, and Christians were God’s people.  The workings of God were recognized in everyday life, and any unusual or striking events, whether storms and comets, victories and recoveries of health were regarded as signs of his direct intervention in human affairs …. (Shirley-Price, 1978, p. 29)

He created the world in which they lived transient lives, in whatever class, noble or peasant, into which they were born.  It was necessary that they accept their lot in life, however base it may be, and work through prayer towards salvation in the next life after death.  Thus the moral lessons were intended to keep the population on the narrow path to salvation by condemning all sins and discouraging free-thinking. For example, in Piers the Plowman the two ‘covetous’ men, Worldly Wisdom and Cunning, are described by Conscience to Reason:

They don’t give a straw for God – “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”  These men, I tell you, would do more
for a horse-load of oats or a dozen chickens, than for all
the love of our Lord and His blessed Saints. (Langland/Goodridge,  1959, p. 94)

The inference or lesson is that Worldly Wisdom and Cunning are to be shunned by all right thinking men, if they are to follow the safe path to salvation.

Allegory permeates fables by Aesop, such as The Fox and the Crow, with its moral rhyme at the end – “The Flatterer doth rob by stealth,/ His victim, both of Wit and Wealth.” ((Stone, Packer & Hoopes, 1983, p. 39)  If it was only a story about a fox and crow in their animal form, the narrative would not qualify as allegory.  By giving them human speech and high-lighting their human qualities of greed, vanity, cunning, and flattery, the whole narrative tells a quite different tale, representing those qualities – “everything stands for something else” (ibid, p. 39) – with the resulting moral as a homily for humans.  An Exemplum is a sermon containing an allegorical narrative in order to drive home the moral – for example, “greed is the root of all evil” (ibid, p. 38) conveyed through the story of a priestly con-man fleecing his congregation.  A parable is a shorter exemplum “pithier … with a more or less clear-cut allegorical twist” (ibid, p. 39) – like the stories of the five wise and foolish virgins, and the servants and the talents.  Both were narratives that, by the example of the lessons learnt by their protagonists, conveyed these lessons to the audience in order to prepare them and/or modify their behaviour.

In the Exeter Book, a tenth century manuscript collection of Old English poetry (source: The Norton Anthology of Poetry), poems, The Wife’s Lament and The Seafarer, are narratives with an underlying allegorical meaning quite different from the surface tale.  The story of a woman separated from her husband and lamenting the fact, The Wife’s Lament allegedly can mean the protagonist “represents either the soul or the children of Israel during the Babylonian captivity”. (Norton, 1983, p. 8)  In lines 5 – 8:

I ever suffered grief through banishment.
For since my lord departed from this people

Over the sea, each dawn have I had care

Wondering where my lord may be on land.
(ibid, p.9)

the ambiguity as to which lord the wife refers, her husband or God, is highlighted.  This double meaning which permeates the whole poem, defines the allegorical nature of the narrative – one meaning is the event/process, that of a lonely wife, while the other is the vehicle/mode of expression, the allegorical allusion to the Jews in Babylon.  With either meaning, the notion of separation, loss, exile, and helplessness prevails.  “Grief must always be / For him who yearning longs for his beloved.” (ibid, p. 10)

In The Seafarer, the shift from a narrative about the hardships and pleasures of “a seafaring life” to a Christian homily, suggests that “it is an allegory in which life is represented as a difficult journey over rough seas toward the harbor of heaven.” (ibid, p. 10)  In the narrative, the seafarer recalls his physical life, then moves to his spiritual: “Because the joys of God mean more to me / Than this dead transitory life on land.” (ibid, p. 11)  As already explained, this attitude typifies that held by the medieval society.  Not only does the seafarer extol his own attitudes but exhorts his audience to

  … control himself
With strength of mind, and firmly hold to that,
True to his pledges, pure in all his ways.
With moderation should each man behave
In all his dealings with both friend and foe ….
Let us think where we have our real home,
And then consider how we may come thither;
(ibid, p.12)

As the whole can be read as the physical sea-faring journey to land at a safe harbour, or the spiritual journey through life to Salvation in death, the real home is both physically Earth, and allegorically Heaven.  And by the use of the above characteristics man may face his difficult physical and spiritual hardships on his journey to this real home.

In Piers the Plowman, “a long religious, social and political allegory” (ibid, p. 58), the author, Langland, used the dream-vision, “ a popular genre during the Middle Ages in which the author presents a story as the dream of the main character” (ibid, p. 58), in this case, William, as a vehicle for his homily.  His dream, including its own protagonist, an imaginary vagrant, Piers, introduces allegorical figures, personifications of abstractions, such as Truth, Falsehood, Lucre, Theology, Chastity, Charity, Gluttony etc, and of the institution of Holy Church.  As a “fundamental … expression for the Middle Ages for realities beyond the world of matter”, (Wrenn, 1967, p. 31) this personification of the abstract traits could be used today in a Postmodern text, and, if in a narrative verse form, would bring Literature full circle.

The allegoric method which seemed necessary and natural to Langland had been used by the Anglo-Saxons: and indeed some of its devices, such as the dream-vision and the personification of objects had been magnificently employed …. Langland’s more profound spiritual quality is integral (Wrenn, 1967, p. 31)

to his theme of Salvation.

According to Goodridge, the form of moral allegory allowed the poet to present his tales linked together freely by the personifications, mixing “realism with fantasy in whatever proportion he chose” (Goodridge, 1959, p. 12), and introducing into the narrative a variety of discourses from the religious philosophical dialogue to the “gossip of the street or tavern.” (ibid, p. 12)  He had the freedom to introduce any characters from all classes who would suit the subject matter of the story.  The personifications revealed the moral qualities that were usually hidden by the conventions of society, by focussing the one trait, either good or bad, in one character, e.g., Love, or Conscience; Sloth or Fraud.  It was a medieval form of stereotyping, intentionally practised to stress the moral point of the tale.

The primary medieval audience for the oral and written homilies were the literate clergy and nobility (although not all the nobility were literate), who then read or told the tales to the illiterate masses.  The peasant class of serfs and free-men had the tales read to them by the priests, either travelling from village to village, or in church.  The merchants, and towns-people heard them in the taverns and churches; the knights, lords, and kings heard them in courts, churches or cathedrals.

The significance of allegory therefore lies in its ability to inform its audience of acceptable social, political and religious behaviour.  Allegory was used satirically as a parody of society, to point out its sins, crimes, corruption.  When Liar fled from the Court’s Officer, the Pardoners took him in and

sent him on Sundays to the churches with seals, selling pounds-worth of Pardons,  Then the doctors were annoyed, and sent [for] him … to help them analyse urine.  And the grocers also sought his help … for he knew something of their trade…. [S]ome minstrels and messengers kept him …. [till] finally the Friars lured him away and disguised him in their own habit.” (ibid, p.82)

Liar is seen in this way to have infiltrated all these areas of society, which could therefore not be trusted to deal with people truthfully. What appears to the modern reader as sanctimonious preaching, would be deeply understood and appreciated by the fourteenth century audience as necessary guidance for their achievement of salvation.  Recognized by them, the satirical attacks on particular institutions, political and clerical, and on particular individuals within their society, are lost through time for modern readers.  In fact, according to critics of Langland’s Piers the Plowman, the inside knowledge was lost to the literary critics of the following century.

Dressed in allegory, Langland’s homily revealed the social conditions of the Ages, e.g. exposure of the legal system, with its ducking stools and pillories, of the huge influence of the Church over the king and country, and the corruption of both.  For example, the character Lady Lucre, Falsehood’s daughter, aided by Fraud, Flattery and Guile, first beguiles Father Simony and Lord Civil Law, and then bribes the members of the King’s court – the Clergy, Counsellors, a Friar, the Mayor, with a variety of gold and silver coins, jewels, titles, seats in the Bishop’s court, stained glass windows and donations of funds.  When the King, in an attempt to reform her, suggests she marry Conscience, she complies hurriedly.  But Conscience wants nothing to do with her, and is backed in his judgements of her by Reason, who finally sways the King with his arguments.  By her actions Lucre represents “another kind of payment … which men grasp at – the bribes they get for supporting evil-doers” (Goodridge/Langland, 1959, p. 89), rather than money “which labourers receive from their master … [as] … a fair wage.  Nor is there any lucre in trading with goods”. (ibid, p. 89)

This personification of characteristics is obviously allegorical, used to bring home the message of corruption within the systems, caused by the Seven Deadly Sins, and to offer an alternative way of life involving prayer.  Lady Holy Church, the daughter of God, representing the heavenly Church, talks with the dreamer, William, when she comes to interpret his dream.  “[H]e bows before her and asks the crucial question from which the action of the poem springs: ‘Tell me, O Lady whom men call Holy, … How may I save my soul?’” (ibid, p. 17 & 72)  He also asks her: “…show me some way by which I can recognize Falsehood” (ibid, p. 76) illuminating another theme that flows through the narrative.

The marriage, trial and downfall of Lady Lucre, Falsehood’s daughter follows as examples of recognizable falsehood and evil.  The Seven Deadly sins confess and Piers the Plowman appears to lead the crowd on a physical journey of their spiritual quest to find Truth.  During this narrative phase their mode of social life is exposed, via their coarse behaviour, and colloquial language – with the use of similes like “Dead as a door nail”/ (ibid, p. 75)”as ded as a dore-tree” (Passus I, Line 185 – Skeat, 1958, p. 14), and humour, such as, Crime “shall sit in [the] stocks till his dying day …. [and] make sure he never sees his feet for years.” (ibid, pp. 96 & 95)    Stereotypical characters such as inn-keepers, and blacksmiths are mainly seen in relation to the allegorical personifications, and to the converted pious Piers himself.  In his work, Langland used personification of abstractions and institutions to achieve an interaction between them and individuals within the community.  Also his use of real places, intertwining reality with the imaginary, generates an authenticity within the narrative – “the numerous allusions to London, are taken as facts in someone’s life”. (Tolkien, 1995, p. 11)

Another form of allegory was achieved by the use of symbolism, often in conjunction with personifications.  While, as already mentioned, “allegory is a mode of expression [which] belongs to the form of poetry, more than to its content … [s]ymbolism is a mode of thought…” Lewis, 1958, p. 48)  Allegory while incorporating it in creative action, can be “distinguished from symbolism, whose ancient and profound images are less readily interpretable in rational terms.” (Piehler, 1971, p 11)  Symbols are used to represent things rather than events, for example a dove representing peace symbolizes it in a narrative (or painting) about war. It is important to understand that “…we are dealing with a period when …. their waking imagination was strongly moved by symbols and the figures of allegory, and filled vividly with the pictures evoked by the scriptures, directly or through the wealth of medieval art.” (Tolkien, 1995, p. 10)  Dream-visions were accepted as signs from God, and particularly believable when experienced and recorded by a poet in “great bereavement and trouble in spirit” (ibid, p. 10), as was the author of Pearl.

The narrative poem, Pearl, was an example of this symbolic allegory – using symbolism juxtaposed with personification.  As a symbol of purity and innocence, a pearl represents the author’s daughter, named Pearl (Margaret or Marguerite), who dies as an innocent child, two years of age. The author, in Pearl, “enlarged his vision of his dead daughter among the blessed to an allegory of the Divine generosity…” (ibid, p. 3)  She returns as a young maiden, the bride of Christ (one of many), dressed in white embellished with pearls, in a dream-vision to visit her grieving father as he sleeps by her grave.  Once again the overall theme is one of salvation – Pearl is essentially

an argument on salvation …. aris[ing] directly from the grief, which imparts deep feeling and urgency to the whole discussion …. the debate represents a long process of thought and mental struggle, an experience as real as the first blind grief of bereavement. (ibid, p. 13)

The author, in his role of bereaved father argues with his daughter initially for her return to him, and then for permission to cross the river and join her in Heaven.  When he tries to do so the vision vanishes and he is left alone by her grave.

I woke in that garden as before,
My head upon that mound was laid
Where once to earth my pearl had strayed….
And I cried aloud then piteously:
‘O Pearl, renowned beyond compare!
How dear was all that you said to me,
That vision true while I did share. (ibid, pp. 126-7)

By her revelation of the city of Heaven, and her blissful sanctified position as Christ’s bride there, despite her infancy and because of her innocence, she allays her father’s fears for her and lays his grief to rest.  Allegorically the fears of the poem’s audience are reassured of the attainment of salvation by all who are pure and innocent, whether baptized or not.  Mourners should get over their grief and move on with life in a manner that could lead to their re-union in Heaven later.

It is important to understand the importance of the first-person narrator in these medieval allegorical tales. According to Tolkien in his Introduction to his translation of the poem,  “… in Pearl…. the ‘I’ of the dreamer remained the eyewitness, the author, and facts that he referred to outside the dream … were on a different plane, meant to be taken as literally true …”. (ibid, pp. 10-11)  This imaginary narrator, in reality the author, acted as an eyewitness to the events of the tale as they unfolded – “[t]ales of the past required their grave authorities, and tales of new things at least an eyewitness…”. (ibid, p.10)  Tolkien knew that the Middle Ages was a time when men believed that dreams, though confused and unreliable, held “visions of truth”.

This was one of the reasons for the popularity of visions: they allowed marvels to be placed within the real world, linking them with a person, a place, a time, while providing them with an explanation in the phantasies of sleep …. So even explicit allegory was usually presented as a thing seen in sleep.” (ibid, pp. 9-10)

I have quoted Tolkien at length here because he explains the phenomenon of the dream-vision as allegorical vehicle with clarity.  And both works, Piers the Plowman, and Pearl, rely on the dream-vision to convey their important moral message to their audience. Tolkien believed that “the narrated vision in the more serious medieval writing [like Piers the Plowman, and Pearl] represented, if not an actual dream at least a real process of thought culminating in some resolution or turning-point of the interior life …”. (Tolkien, 1995, pp. 10-11)  William experiences this turning point at the end of Piers’ search for Truth, and Pearl’s father experiences it upon waking by the grave.  As a narrative vehicle, the dream-vision allowed the author/ poet great flexibility of material and character within this thought process that created the forms of allegory – moral, religious, social and political.

(C) Jud House  30/04/1998


Piers the Plowman

Langland, W. (1377) Piers the Plowman.  Edited by Skeat, Rev. W W (1869)Edition: (1958)  Oxford:  Clarendon Press.

Langland, W. (1377) Piers the Ploughman.  Edited by Rieu, E V  Translation by Goodridge (1959)  Harmondsworth:  Penguin Classics, Penguin Books.


Tolkien, J R R (1995)  Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, and Sir Orfeo.  London:  Harper Collins Publishers

General Texts

Arnold, R. (1963)  Kings, Bishops, Knights and Pawns – Life in a Feudal Society.  London: Constable Young Books Ltd.

Brooke, C. (1971)  The Structure of Medieval Society. London:  Thames and Hudson Ltd.

Lewis, C S (1936)  The Allegory of Love – A Study of Medieval Tradi-tion.  New York: A Galaxy Book, Oxford University Press 1958.

Ker, W P (1896, 1908) Epic and Romance – Essays on Medieval Literature.  New York:  Dover Publications, Inc. 1957.

Paxson, J J (1994)  The poetics of personification  Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press.

Piehler, P (1971)  The Visionary Landscape – A Study in Medieval Allegory.  London:  Edward Arnold (Publishers) Ltd.

Sherley-Price, Leo (1978) (Translator: 1955, 1968) Bede – A History of the English Church and People  Harmondsworth:  Penguin Classics, Penguin Books

Stone, Packer & Hoopes (1983)  The Short Story – An Introduction.  New York:  McGraw-Hill, Inc.

PART 1.  BEGINNINGS: FORMS OF EARLY STORIES – Myth and Legend;  Fable, Parable, Exemplum, and Allegory – pp 1 – 67.

Wrenn, C L (1967)  A Study of Old English Literature.  London:  George G Harrap & Co. Ltd. 1970.


Allison, Barrows, Blake, Carr, Eastman, & English Jnr; + Stallworthy (essay) (1983)  The Norton Anthology of Poetry 3rd Edition.   New York:  W W Norton & Company.  Pp 3 – 83

* * * * *


In their novels The Scarecrows and Dangerous Spaces Westall and Mahy wish to persuade us that ‘fantasy’ is a very real dimension of our actual world.  J R R Tolkien defines ‘fantasy’ as that:

which combines with its … use as an equivalent of Imagina-

tion the derived notions of ‘unreality’…, of freedom from the

domination of observed ‘fact’ … with … things that are not

only ‘not actually present’, but which are indeed not to be

found in our primary world at all, or are generally believed

not to be found there. (Tolkien, 1990, p. 156)

To succeed in persuading readers that ‘fantasy’ is a very real dimension of our actual world, authors must convince them to ‘willingly suspend their disbelief’ (a Tolkienism) in the narrative as a contrived text and become involved with it as ‘true’.  The ‘fantasy’ dimension can encompass the supernatural, the surreal, the occult, the extra-terrestrial, in fact anything that is incredible, ‘unexplainable’. As the reality of the inner self, ‘fantasy’, via the imagination, can also be a great instrument of moral good.

Narrative ‘fantasy’ has various forms: High Fantasy – J R R Tolkien’s completely self-contained secondary world, Middle Earth, and its resident creatures; Sci Fi Fantasy – set on alien planets in space:- Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed; set on Earth with alien invasions:- Julian May’s Intervention; and a humorous combination:-    Douglas Adams five part trilogy The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy; and Realistic Fantasy – using temporal and spatial alterations in the same ‘real’ location, usually on Earth, incorporating ghosts, psychic phenomena, and dreams: Daphne du Maurier’s The House on the StrandThe Scarecrows and Dangerous Spaces fall into the last category.

In The Scarecrows Robert Westall used a combination of ghosts and intense emotions to create a blend of realism and ‘fantasy’. Simon’s devils that he released “like a fire-breathing dragon” (Westall, 1995, p. 11) in the first chapter, introduced into an apparently realistic story of his seemingly safe ordered life, the ‘fantasy’ element that steadily grew in dimension, intrusion and reality as his struggle with the devils progressed.

Whether the scarecrows at Mill House were the ghosts of the miller, Henshaw, his wife, Josie Cragg, and employee, Ray Starkey, come to life, or the personification, objectification placed outside of himself of Simon’s hate, jealousy, and desire to be rid of his stepfather, and to have his mother to himself again, was left to interpretation. Voluble, easy-going Joe not only rivalled Simon’s cold uptight father, but also inarticulate Simon himself.  Simon felt alone, “how Father must have felt … Father hadn’t really been lonely.  He’d simply been alone.” (ibid , p. 155)

A means of frightening away real predators, the scarecrows were nevertheless phoney; imitations of real people, attired with real, people’s clothes – those of Henshaw, Cragg, and Starkey, who embodied jealousy taken to extreme.  As phoney embodiments of his hate, the scarecrows exorcised Simon’s emotions, which he confronted when he faced them.  “Head straight for what you’re scared of, Simon.  It’ll usually run away, if you do.  If not, you’re no worse off …” (ibid, p. 155)   Doing so, Simon defused his devils.

During the monster game that seemed to get out of hand, the reader was led to believe that the scarecrows/ghosts of Henshaw, Cragg, and Starkey had invaded the house.  Even as: “a deep voice shouted, “I will be maister in my own house!”  A deep voice, like Joe’s.  But not Joe’s [Simon admitted that he] disliked having any strange man in the house near his mother.” (ibid, p. 153)  Immediately, confusion as to the identity of the ‘strange man’ was created.  Was it really the miller in the house, or just Simon’s paranoia about his stepfather, Joe?

Simon, the controller of his devils – the emotions of rage, envy, parental dislike – had to encounter, overcome and learn to live with them.  Westall believed that everyone needs ‘tracks’ based on security to keep the chaos out of their lives.  “The child’s track [was] … represented by a triangle … [of home], school and the neighbourhood gang”. (Westall, 1978, p. 7)  Simon’s old tracks, those of his idolized father (alive and with his mother), the old family car and house, had been obliterated.  He desperately needed to forge new tracks in order to keep out the chaos that manifested itself as his jealousy of Joe, as his violent devils that were almost beyond his control.

Symbolic of these tracks was the path across the turnip field, initially hidden by the crop, then remade by Simon’s family when they went to the mill to rescue the cat and her kittens, and by the media people and vehicles.  “There was a motorway of mashed turnip-pulp where the old path had been… Devastation everywhere, except where the scarecrows stood.  They held their ground defiantly, unscathed.” (Westall, 1995, p. 146)  To Tris they represented “the opposition” (ibid, p. 133), and the path represented “the yellow brick road” (ibid, p. 135) from The Wizard of Oz, a path to follow to “the Wizard’s Castle” (ibid, p. 135), alias the mill.

Relieving the tensions throughout the book, Tris, and later Mr Mercyfull who added necessary background information about the trio from the mill, moved from comic to vital characters for Simon’s understanding of his situation and his subsequent ability to deal with it.  Unaffected by the threat of the scarecrows, and the inherent danger of the mill, Tris represented normality, there to help Simon to defuse his devils.  Thus, as Simon came to terms with his emotions, via his engineered fall of the mill and destruction of the scarecrows, fantasy and realism came together.

In Dangerous Spaces Margaret Mahy used a combination of ghosts and dreams to access an alternate world, an ‘imaginative’, ‘magic’, ‘wonderful’, ‘secret’ space, temporally independent and inhabiting the same site.  Initially there seemed to be clear boundaries between dream and reality, but gradually these blurred, until it was hard to discern whether there was any difference between them.

While Tolkien believed that dreams were not real ‘fantasy’ – not a secondary world – Mahy succeeded in creating ‘fantasy’ by allowing her dream-world, Viridian, based on a combination of the stereoscope cards of different scenes where:  “two flat pictures fused into one deep one….filling out with a space that did not really exist”, (Mahy, 1992, p. 20) to permeate, to intrude into her real world. Viridian was there, the land all around the farm, within its boundaries and within the farmhouse walls.

[Flora] … padded out into the hall …[which] was complete-

ly dark …The familiar hall smell … was gone.  She could

smell earth.  She could smell wetness…. Flora put out her

hand in the darkness and immediately touched something

hard and cold and clammy. (ibid, p.45)

The card-world of Viridian, categorised by Flora as nature, ancient monuments, and war, was like a surrealist landscape through which Anthea, Griff, and finally Flora and Leo travelled.  At first, while alone following the road, taking in the ‘wonderful space’ to which she could escape at night, Anthea enjoyed her exploration. “It was dangerous … but still it was something of her own in a house where there was so little space for her” (ibid, p. 79)  Mahy thoroughly explored the idea of personal space – the need to belong, yet to maintain a space of one’s own, a comfort zone, a place of privacy.  For Anthea this space was first to be found in Viridian.

Joined by Griff, the agenda changed – a sense of urgency came into the journey, which itself turned into a quest for the island, and the space began to become hostile, more restrictive and Griff more demanding.  According to Leo, Anthea was “[i]n a dangerous space.  In dangerous company.” (ibid, p. 75)  Simultaneously, Anthea noticed that her real space was expanding, as life in her new home became more interesting and sympathetic – she shared laughter with Flora; helped to plant a forest; the dog, Zeppelin, had pups; and Flora showed some understanding of her situation.  When Molly hugged her, her need for the ‘secret’ space grew less – Anthea said as they embraced:

‘But I can’t be the best one to you.  Not really best.’

‘Right this moment you are the best one,’ Molly whispered.

‘You’re the best one now because you need to be best.’….

[Then] Anthea found there was plenty of space around

her … not the non-existent space of the stereoscope …

This space was real, and it was all her own.” (ibid, pp. 98 & 99)

The fact that Flora began to move into her cousin, Anthea’s dream world also added credulity to Viridian’s existence.  She did so with the assistance of Leo, the ghost of her grandfather Lionel, but as a young lad.  Like Anthea, whose assistant was the ghost of dead Henry, Griff, Flora could not enter Viridian without an ally, albeit a reluctant one.  The sapling ‘forest’ they planted in a corner of the farm, intruded in dual form – saplings and old tall trees – into Griff’s coliseum landscape created from one of the stereoscope cards.  Only by using the ‘magic’ of “Tiggy tiggy touchwood” and saying aloud the scientific equivalent of abracadabra, “Photosynthesis” while “fixing her eyes on Anthea and laying her hand on the living tree” (ibid, p. 78) was Flora first able to release Anthea from Griff’s clutches.

Via her preferred medium, the family in its many permutations, and the ‘fantasy’ elements, Mahy allowed the dual narratives to merge.  Not only was it a story of an orphaned girl, Anthea, coming to terms with her grief and loss of her parents, and trying to fit into an alien household where there seemed to be no space for her, but also a story of ghosts who refused to move on, one for lack of company, the other from an unwillingness to desert the home he built.  In other words “she is able to combine elements of fantasy with a treatment of family life which recognises the darker side of humanity that it may reveal as well as the comfort it can bestow.” (Gibbons, 1994, p. 11)

As an outsider, unable to accept her new noisy messy family, Anthea retreated from the real world into fantasy, similar to Simon’s withdrawal at his inability to accept his stepfather, Joe, and all he represented socially, authoratively, and as a marital betrayal by his mother of his ‘soldier’ father.  In both novels “much of the tension revolves around family relationships, and the supernatural plays an important part in the resolution of the conflict.” (ibid, p. 18)

Both novels include sibling rivalry  – between Anthea and Flora:- Anthea of Flora’s luck in being part of a unit no matter how tumultuous; and Flora of not only having to allow for her cousin’s preferential treatment, but of her being “too romantic … what with having long hair and being an orphan and sleepwalking.” (Mahy, 1992, p. 18) – and between Simon and Jane:- he felt she had betrayed him and the father she never knew – “little traitor” (Westall, 1995, p.72); and she tried to manipulate him into loving Joe.  To Simon, Jane “was irrelevant.  He thought of all the nasty tricks she’d ever pulled; all the tales she’d told.  Little blackmailer…” (ibid, p. 131)

Simon and Jane were not siblings who were allies.  However, Flora and Anthea were reluctant allies, drawn together in the real world by their shared humour and their love for the dog, Zeppelin, and her pups, the Gelerts.  In the dream-world, as they tried to atone for harsh words spoken to each other in the real world, they combined forces with mutual admiration as their fight for freedom climaxed.  Both girls had “very powerful fantasy [lives], and [according to Mahy in an interview with Judith Ridge] to write about that sort of character without their fantasy life would be to reduce the realism.” (Ridge, 1994, p. 21)

As a reader of both The Scarecrows and Dangerous Spaces, I found no difficulty in believing in the alternate ‘fantasy’ dimensions created by the authors in order to help convey the tensions of their narratives.  Both were credible, natural elements within their realistic settings.  I had no trouble suspending my disbelief in both the real and ‘fantasy’ dimensions, and sharing the protagonists’ fears, worries, terror, and final relief and acceptance of their respective new worlds

(C) Jud House  26/10/1997


Tolkien, J R R (1964) ‘On Fairy-Stories’  in Poems and Stories (1992 ed.)  London:  Harper Collins Publishers.

Mahy, M. (1992 ed.) Dangerous Spaces  London:  Puffin Books, Penguin Group.

Westall, R. (1995 ed.)  The Scarecrows  London:  Puffin Books, Penguin Group.

Gibbons, J. (1994)  ‘Family relationships in the stories of Margaret Mahy’  in Papers 5:1.

Ridge, J (1994) ‘Interview with Margaret Mahy’  in Viewpoint, Vol 2, 4.

Westall, R. (1978) ‘The chaos and the track’ in Signal Vol 28, January


Bawden, N (1980) ‘Emotional realism in books for young people’ in Horn book magazin.e  56, 1, 17-33.

Burch, R (1970)  ‘The new realism’ in Horn book magazine. 47, 3, 257-264.

Edmund, M (1987) ‘Interview with Margaret Mahy’.

Hollindale, P (1994) ‘Westall’s Kingdom’ in Children’s literature in education, Vol 25 (3) 147-157.

Mahy, M (1987) ‘Joining the network’  in Signal Vol 54, September. 34-36.

Westall, R (1979) ‘How real do you want your realism’ in Signal, Vol 28, January, 3-11.

Westall, R (1981) ‘The hunt for evil’ in Signal, Vol 30, 3-13.

* * * * *



In C S Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising, both authors have made use of the mythic and legendary – the mythic being fictional characters believed in by the ancients, like Greek gods and heroes; the legendary being based on real characters doing fictional deeds, like King Arthur.  These figures, creatures and flora, with associated names, paraphernalia, and magical properties, have been used by untold authors over the centuries, and are used in these novels by Lewis blatantly, and Cooper subtly.

Both authors, when using these mythic and legendary sources for their novels were attempting to provide an ancient authenticity to their narrative.  I believe that Susan Cooper achieved this aim, albeit to a possibly culturally illiterate juvenile audience (and now a growing adult audience), with her use of Celtic and Arthurian legends, and Anglo-Saxon poems that include Beowulf.  On the other hand, C S Lewis’s mixed bag of mythic source material includes mythical Greek creatures, Nordic dwarfs, Andersen’s Snow Queen, fairy tale giants, talking animals and the traditional cultural legendary figure, Father Christmas.  Rather than creating a coherency, they meld uneasily to delineate Narnia’s fantastic ‘other-worldness’.

* * *

To children of Lewis’s time, to whom the Greek legends would be known – stories like The Golden Fleece – the various mythical Greek creatures: Centaurs, Satyrs, Nymphs, Dryads, and Minotaurs, with their accompanying characteristics of playfulness, mischief, allure, and blind-rage, would be recognized as ‘not real’, mythical.  And as a result of the animated version of Hercules, today’s children may also recognize them as belonging to a mythical time.  Even his use of anthropomorphized animals, a la Aesop fables, is consistent regionally, though of another time.  If Lewis had stayed with these creatures as his source material then his Narnian background would have been consistent.

That is not to say that the books are not successful. The moral theme of the battle between good and evil, subtly underpinned with Biblical symbolism, both for the adult reader, and for children to understand the Christian redemption/salvation story in a familiar and less-frightening mode, carries the narrative effectively.  The plot is well-constructed, with the use of the wardrobe as access between the parallel worlds, and the narrative quite gripping, especially to a child.  At the end of his first chapter Lewis introduces the Faun, Tumnus, a creature straight out of Greek mythology, who “[f]rom the waist upwards … was like a man, but his legs were shaped like a goat’s … [with] goat’s hoofs … [and] a tail”. (Lewis, 1988, p. 15)  Simultaneously, by Tumnus, addressing the protagonist, Lucy, as a ‘Daughter of Eve’, Lewis introduces the underlying Christian theme.  These two, the mythic/pagan and Christian, are used in juxtaposition throughout the narrative, complementing and supporting each other in Lewis’s construction of allegorical redemption fantasy.

Definitely, it is fantasy, and accepted as such by its audience.  But with the diversity of mythic characters, to an adult reader, the glaring intrusion of the inconsistent – like Father Christmas – mars the serious nature of the narrative.  If the White Witch had been based on the Greek goddess, Medusa, with her ability to turn the living to stone, she would have belonged with the other mythic creatures, in the warm climate of the Mediterranean.  This mythic Greek background is established by the titles of Tumnus’s books, “The Life and Letters of Silenus or Nymphs and Their Ways or Men, Monks and Gamekeepers: a Study in Popular Legend or Is Man a Myth?” (ibid, p. 19) and by the stories he tells, of Nymphs, Dryads, the wish-giving milk-white stag, wild Red Dwarfs, “old Silenus on his fat donkey” (ibid, p. 21) and Bacchus (the God of Wine).

However, based on Hans Christian Andersen’s Snow Queen, representing cold heartless evil, the White Witch, with her plan to keep Narnia “[a]lways in winter and never Christmas” (ibid, p. 23), belongs to the far northern regions of Scandinavia.  Britain, where the ‘real’ world is set, could by its similar northern setting and weather readily accept her as its antagonist.  But then the warm-climate Greek creatures would have to go, and Lewis would be left with the “Cruels and Hags and Incubuses, Wraiths, Horrors, Efreets, Sprites, Orknies, Wooses, and Ettins” (ibid, p. 138). Most of these originate in the pagan Celtic and Anglo-Saxon mythology favoured in the Middle Ages.  Narnia could then be medieval as it appears in the last chapter of the novel, currently at variance with the Greek creatures.  With the prophecy of Cair Paravel “that when two Sons of Adam and two Daughters of Eve sit on those four thrones, then it will be the end not only of the White Witch’s reign but of her life”. (ibid, p. 77) combined with the adventure of facing and defeating evil, adds a medieval quest theme to Lewis’s narrative.  The White Witch is also identified as being descended from Adam’s first wife, Lilith, who “was one of the Jinn” (ibid, p. 76) and from the giants on the other side.  So Christian evil is linked with pagan mythical evil, maintaining Lewis’s use of religious allegory – a medieval construct.

Using a Robin Red-Breast – “good birds in all the stories” (ibid, p. 59) – who understands what the children say, to introduce the animal world, Lewis anthropomorphizes the animals in his story.  Mr and Mrs Beaver, a la Wind in the Willows, give support and nourishment to the children, and reinforce Christianity by also referring to them as ‘Sons of Adam, Daughters of Eve’.  The African lion, Aslan, as King of Beasts is an archetypal symbol of Kingship, a metaphor for courage, leadership, strength, and good – with legendary links to the medieval king, Richard the Lionheart, who epitomized bravery and fairness. If Narnia was modified to be northern, then as the lion of the British crest, Aslan would belong, and his majesty would not be undermined by the mythical inconsistencies.

In fairytale terms Aslan represents the fairy Godmother who counteracts with good magic the evil magic of the villain.  In religious terms he represents Christ/saviour, especially when he willingly sacrifices himself for the redemption of the traitorous Edmund.  In pagan terms Aslan represents “the Deep Magic …. [from] further back, into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned”. (ibid, p. 148)  With his arrival in Narnia comes spring, thawing the snow of the Witch’s cheerless winter, with Father Christmas close behind.  A British cultural figure, the traditional bearer of joy, Father Christmas is also “a mythical and fantastical character made “holy” … his gifts … are either tools with which others are to be served or armor for the battle against evil.” (Filmer, 1984, p. 18)  He also refers to the children as ‘Sons of Adam, Daughters of Eve’.  Out of place in Greece, he fits in well in the northern land of Narnia.

When Aslan finally enters the narrative, at a place with a Druid altar, the Stone Table, and medieval pennanted pavilion, he does so surrounded by mythic creatures, which include four giant centaurs, “a unicorn, and a bull with the head of a man, and a pelican, and an eagle, and a great Dog … and two leopards.” (Lewis, 1988, p. 115)  While half of these are Greek in origin, the others are consistent with the medieval theme.  The unicorn, belonging to multiple mythologies – ancient Chinese, Greek, Roman, and Biblical – came to the height of its popularity throughout Europe in the Middle Ages, where it was used symbolically and allegorically.  It was “connected with the idea of strength, virility … and a certain arrogance …. [while] … embod[ying] gentleness and a desire for solitude” (Bradley, 1980, p. 9)  An eagle is traditionally powerful, and keen-sighted, with an ability to soar to and dive from great heights, and destroy with its talons.  Often aligned neutrally or with the side of good in the fight against evil, it symbolizes the neutrality of truth and justice.

Lewis calls upon other fairytale creatures, such as giants, dwarfs, dragons to join the mythical Greek winged horse, Pegasus, in his catalogue of mythic creatures. Aligned on the side of evil with the Minotaurs (Greek bull-headed men), and Spectres, was a “flurry of foul wings and a blackness of vultures and giant bats” (Lewis, 1988, p. 142), the vultures eaters of carrion/harbingers of death, and the bats legendary bloodsuckers. As Chief of Police, the huge wolf, Maugrim, traditionally medieval by name, with a wolf’s vicious reputation belongs on the side of evil.  Turned to stone by the White Witch for telling her that Father Christmas has arrived in Narnia, the group of Christmas revellers – a squirrel family, two satyrs, a dwarf and a dog-fox – is a typical example of Lewis’s mixing of his mythical sources.

Calling upon traditionally and symbolically evil characters from the mythical past to highlight the nature of evil, and its power, Lewis  creates a sharp distinction between good and evil.  By his use of the traditionally and symbolically good characters to overpower the evil ones, he shows his readers that through perseverance ‘Good’ will prevail.  He deals with themes of trust and betrayal, and his protagonists, and hopefully his readers, learn respect for nature, responsibility for their behaviour and actions, and that all actions have consequences.  With his sacrifice and resurrection of Aslan, Lewis illustrates the Christian theme of hope and salvation – that death is not necessarily final.

* * *

Cooper’s use of the mythical and legendary, unlike Lewis’s mixed bag of characters, was based upon the Celtic and Anglo-Saxon Old English, pre Christian poems and legends of Beowulf, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and the persona of King Alfred, and the medieval Middle English tales of King Arthur, Merlin and Herne the Hunter. The Celtic cross, the circle of continuity quartered by the pathways or elements of life, was one of the symbols and artifacts Cooper used to authenticate the magic and fantasy of her parallel worlds.

Cooper is here … weaving a tapestry of Anglo-Saxon

history and culture around historical or literary individuals

who, like Alfred and Arthur, are described as “Lords of

the Light”.  These individuals are connected to each

other through genealogy and culture. …. Alfred … is

parallel to … Arthur…. [Both] held off violent invaders as

cycles of invasions, defense, conquest, and assimilation

[we]re repeated.” (Drout, 1997, pp. 242 & 234-5) 

Influenced by J R R Tolkien and by C S Lewis, whose lectures she was fortunate enough to attend, her narrative followed the fantasy hero quest pattern.

The mythic and legendary incorporates the historical, both Christian and pagan.  Because of this Cooper was able to utilise, within her Dark is Rising narrative, historical factors, such as the ring-giving by kings, and historical pagan beliefs, such as the possession of magical (as well as healing) properties/powers by magicians, trees and plants, birds, animals, bells, colours, gems, stone and pathways.  The narrative contains many symbolic elements.  On the tapestries in the Hall of Time, Will saw “a silver unicorn, a field of red roses, a glowing golden sun” (Cooper, 1976, p. 43), symbols of magic/peace, blood/royalty, and Light/God.  Later he saw “the brightest image of all: a masked man with a human face, the head of a stag [magic], the eyes of an owl [wisdom], the ears of a wolf [intuition] and the body of a horse [strength].” (ibid, pp 55)  In small ways she incorporated these legendary notions to create an authentic atmosphere.  Her protagonist, Will Stanton, is not just an eleven year old boy who is the last of the Old Ones to be born into and thus complete the circle.  Nor is his quest to find and link the signs of Light, based on the Celtic cross, to be undertaken solely in a modern environment.

By her use of ‘co-existing’ time, Cooper has Will move back into the Middle Ages, with all its trappings – tapestries on the walls, huge carved wooden doors, forests that “swallow up whole villages and hamlets” (Cooper, 1976, p. 65) and the use of candles, not just for light but as a symbol of pure/divine protection.  In fact her novel is sign-posted throughout with these medieval minor details that validate the major characters and events, like the presence of Merlin in the form of Merriman, Herne the Hunter who chases the Dark away, the Rider and the Walker, and the Anglo-Saxon burial ship that surfaces at a crucial time in the narrative.  While the latter is a substantiating detail, it is important to note that it provides more than just a location for the acquisition of a sign.  Aligned with the Sutton Hoo find – of a

ship-burial of a king of East Anglia late in the seventh

century on the Suffolk coast …. with cultural monuments

…. ceremonial and symbolic treasures …. nearly a century

before the composition of Beowulf …. [in which] the first

Danish king Scyld Scefing … [of] the fifth century (Wrenn,

1970, pp. 4 & 3)

was borne on a funeral-ship out to sea – Cooper’s ship carries with it, to the privileged reader, knowledge that enhances the narrative.  When it is carried off by the flood waters of the swollen Thames, this reader equates it with the usual fate of a dead king being cast adrift in his ship, sometimes aflame as a pyre.  Her mentor, Tolkien also used this motif in his Lord of the Rings trilogy, as no doubt have many other writers through the ages.

          Cooper’s use of this ship illustrates her careful and detailed use of legendary material to provide historical reality to her narrative.  Although the king in the Sutton Hoo find was absent from his ship – he had been buried with Christian ceremony while the pagan ritual of the ship-burial had occurred in his honour – Cooper described him as lying in state, as an illusion.  According to Merriman, “[o]n any other night of the year … he would be dust”. (Cooper, 1976, p. 236)  She dressed him in the accoutrements of his time, of the Sutton Hoo time, the fifth century.

The mailed figure lay … with sword and shield at his side

 and treasure piled round him in glittering mounds.  He wore

…. a great engraved helmet … of a long-snouted animal … a

wild boar. No lesser man could have merited the silver dishes and jewelled purses, the great shield of bronze and iron, the ornate scabbard, the gold-rimmed drinking horns, and the heaps of ornaments. (ibid, p.235)

The only things she omitted were the Byzantine silver spoons found in the Sutton Hoo ship.

With both Sutton Hoo, and Beowulf there is “a blending of pagan and Christian ceremony and sacrament … [a] Christian use of essentially pagan material; … conserving pagan tradition with progressive Christian adaptation … an essential and most characteristic feature of Anglo-Saxon culture” (Wrenn,1970, p. 4)  and Cooper’s narrative.  Gillian Spraggs has accused Cooper of showing her Old Ones as more potent than any Christian theology.  She is concerned about the novel’s message, that the ‘good’ side may perform any action, whether morally wrong or inhumane, in the cause for world freedom from the Dark/evil, equated with world peace.

I disagree with Spraggs’ stance.  I believe that by Cooper’s blending of the pagan with the Christian she authenticates her forays into the Middle Ages, while retaining the integrity of Will’s present.  An example of this integration between the cultures occurs with Merriman’s warning to Will.

Through all this midwinter season [the Dark’s] power will

be waxing very strong, with the Old Magic [pagan] able to

keep it at a distance only on Christmas Eve [Christian].  And

even past Christmas it will grow, not losing its high force until

the Twelfth Day, the Twelfth Night – which once was Christ-

mas Day [medieval Christian], and once before that, long ago, was the high winter festival of our old year [pagan]. (Cooper, 1976, p. 57)

 * * *

As a result of the mythic and legendary material used, both novels carry the notions of heroic quest adventure, which includes fierce battles against and final success over evil often symbolised by darkness.  Both contain a degree of medieval chivalry, elements of wizardry and magic, and the unreality of fantasy.  In the Lewis series, there is a distinction between the fantasy land, Narnia, and the real world, with a specific point of entry between them.  But in Cooper’s series, fantasy occurs as an extra dimension intermingling with the real world, enhancing and challenging the reader’s perception of reality.  “Cooper allows the intrusion of myth and magic into the fictionalised mundane world, and like Lewis, resurrects Logres, the spiritual Britain of the legendary King Arthur, to influence matters in the present day. (Filmer, 1992, p. 120)

Ideologically, both novels champion the fight for what is right and good, and the suppression or defeat of evil in all its forms – including personal behaviour.  Both use religion, Christian and pagan, as vehicles for their message of heroic endeavour in the face of one’s fears.  As backdrop for her tale, a part of the accepted reality of life, Cooper “is sceptical of traditional religion, but articulates hope in and through the caring and commitment of human beings …. emphasising [that] the power of love [is] greater even than the “High Magic””.(ibid, p. 120)  Lewis allows religion to intrude into his narrative in allegorical form – Aslan as Christ figure – to carry notions of Christian redemption and salvation.

While I have argued that Lewis has been inconsistent with his over-use and mixture of the mythic and legendary, there are those who believe that as a fantasy creation, anything goes – especially when the fantasy is aimed at a child audience.  This is a valid point-of-view, but I believe that children are entitled to the nonsensical or unreality of fantasy having an intrinsic logic.  This I believe Cooper’s novel has, and is consequently more ‘believable’, more thrilling, ideologically more successful, and more relevant to today’s reader.

(C) Jud House  4/09/2005

Both these novels have been made into extremely credible movies, using the latest SFX and CG characters and backgrounds to provide integrity and authenticity to their narratives.  Both are worth seeing.   6/10/2012


Bradley, J  (1980)  In Pursuit of the Unicorn  California: Pomegranate Artbooks.

 Cooper, S (1976)  The Dark is Rising  London:  Puffin Books, Penguin Books Ltd.

 Drout, M (1997)  ‘Reading the Signs of Light: Anglo-Saxonism, Education and Obedience in Susan Cooper’s ‘The Dark is Rising’’,  The Lion and the Unicorn, Vol. 21: pp. 230-250.

 Filmer, K. (1984)  ‘Speaking in Parables’,  Mythlore, Vol. 40, Autumn: pp. 15-20.

 Filmer, K. (1990) ‘Transcending Time and Space: Fantasy for Children’, in Scepticism and Hope in Twentieth Century Fantasy Literature  (pp. 107-126),  Bowling Green:  Bowling Green State University Popular Press.

Lewis, C S  (1988)  The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe  London:  Lions, HarperCollins Publishers Ltd.

 Wrenn, C L (1970)  A Study of Old English Literature  London:  George G Harrap & Co. Ltd.


 The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1951):

 Crago, H. (1994) ‘Such was Charn, That Great City’, Children’s Literature Association Quarterly, Vol. 19: pp. 41-45.

 Gough, J. (1977)  ‘C S Lewis and the Problem of David Holbrook’, Children’s Literature in Education, Vol. 8(2): pp. 51-62.

 Higgins, J E (1969) ‘A Letter from C S Lewis’. In Field, E W (ed.) Horn Book Reflections (pp. 230-237)  Boston: Horn Book.

 Lewis, C S  (1969) ‘On Three Ways of Writing for Children’, in Egoff, S, Stubbs, G & Ashley, L (eds.) Only Connect (pp. 207-220)  Oxford: Oford University Press.

 Smith, L (1963)  ‘News from Narnia’, Horn Book Magazine, Vol. 40, October: pp. 225-229.

 The Dark is Rising (1975):

 Cooper, S (1976) ‘Newbery Award Acceptance’, Horn Book Magazine, Vol. 52(4), August: pp. 361-372.

 Cooper, S (1990) ‘Fantasy in the Real World’, Horn Book Magazine, Vol. 66(3), May/June: pp. 304-315.

 Evans, G (1990) ‘Three Modern Views of Merlin’, Mythlore, Vol. 62, Summer: pp. 17-22.

Philip. N (1981) ‘Fantasy: Double Cream or Instant Whip?’, Signal, Vol. 35: pp. 82-90.

 Spivack, C (1987) ‘Susan Cooper’, in Merlin’s Daughters (pp. 35-49) Connecticut:
Greenwood Press.


 Alexander, L. (1971) ‘High Fantasy and Heroic Romance’, Horn Book Magazine, Vol. 48(6), December: 577-584.

 Bettelheim, B. (1976) ‘Fantasy, Recovery, Escape, and Consolation’, in The Uses of Enchantment (143-156), New York: A. Knopf.

 Hughes, T. (1970) ‘Myth and Education’, Children’s Literature in Education, Vol.1, March: 55-70.

 Molson, F (1982) ‘Ethical Fantasy for Children’, in Schlobin, R (ed.) The Aesthetics of Fantasy Literature and Art  (pp. 82-104)  Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press.

 Saltman, J (ed.) (1985) ‘Thresholds and Frontiers: Fantasy and Science Fiction’, in The Riverside Anthology of Children’s Literature (6th ed.)  (pp. 807-813)  Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

 Sandor, A (1991) ‘Myths and the Fantastic’, in New Literary History, Vol. 22(2), Spring: pp. 339-358.

 Saxby, M. (1997)  ‘Fantasy: Beyond the Rim of Reality’, in Books in the Life of a Child: Bridges to Literature and Learning  (231-247), Melbourne:  MacMillan.

Tymn, M., Zahorski, K. & Boyer, R.J. (eds) (1979) ‘On Fantasy’, in Fantasy Literature (3-38), New York: Bowker & Co.

 Wrightson, P. (1977) ‘The Nature of Fantasy’, in Robinson, M. (ed.) Readings in Children’s Literature (220-243),  Melbourne: Frankston State College.

 * * * * *