This post was originally published on the former Worrisome Words site on June 23, 2017
Sticking with the problematic portrayal of animals in children’s fiction, this week’s theory bite focuses on Derrida’s concept of l’animot. Elucidated in the posthumous 2008 collection, The Animal That Therefore I Am, l’animot is a term Derrida coined as an alternative to the anthropocentrically problematic singular term, “the animal”, which he denounces as a “word that men have given themselves the right to give” (Derrida 32). Derrida is concerned with the way in which language conveys upon the human subject an illusory sense of difference, separation, and uniqueness, used in this instance to “corral a large number of living beings within a single concept” (Derrida 32). In other words, the term “animal” overlooks the many differences and distinctions that make up the diversity of life on Earth, by simplifying life into a simple dichotomy of human v. non-human animal. In its place, l’animot as a term both suggests multiplicity in its evocation of the French plural form l’animaux, but also symbolically corrects the invisible power dynamics conferred by human language by incorporating the word itself, or “mot”. Ecocritic Dawn McCance further points out that for Derrida, l’animot suggests a hybridity in its entanglement of the human and the non-human, highlighting the fluidity of human subjectivity that has come to be a founding principle of posthumanism (more on this fascinating school of theory another time) (McCance 67).
So what? Well, this notion of hybridity, and of diversity, is one that has particular resonance in children’s fantasy fiction in particular. As Zoe Jaques explores in Children’s Literature and the Posthuman, the chimerical and morphous creatures of stories such as Alice in Wonderland (where rabbits wear gloves and mock turtles tell tales), The Tiger Who Came to Tea (where the tiger not only speaks but is unsettlingly beast-like), or The Hunger Games (where genetically-modified wasps are weapons and dead humans return as cyborg-like dogs called “mutts”) frequently call into question the dividing line between the human and the “animal” (Jaques 1-21).
An excellent example of this can be seen in the Harry Potter series; particularly in light of the recent release of the 2017 film Fantastic Beasts, the question of human ontology in a subjectivity-shattering magical environment is a central theme in the series. For the purposes of this discussion, it is illuminating to examine one characters in particular: the central antagonist of the original series, Lord Voldemort. The question of Voldemort’s humanity is brought up time and again in the series: from the first moment Harry hears of him, he is told that Voldemort survived the fatal curse that led to his downfall because there was not “enough human left in him to die” (The Philosopher’s Stone 46). At the very end of the series, the part of Voldemort’s soul that Harry encounters after his death is described as a “small, maimed creature” (The Deathly Hallows 567), a “raw-looking thing” (578, my italics). Voldemort is physiological and spiritually entangled with animals – especially snakes – in the series, who keep him alive and embodied when he is weak, symbolize his power, and even house a part of his soul. As the ending in Deathly Hallows suggests, the result is he becomes something less than human himself (suggesting that “being” is hierarchical, with humanity at the top).
In descriptions of Voldemort throughout the series, therefore, Rowling emphasizes his exclusion from what is human – an exclusion which is directly aligned with both the evil in nature, and his ontological cowardice. But, if not human – then what is he? He is clearly more than an animal in strict Cartesian terms: in The Chamber of Secrets, for example, it is Voldemort’s linguistic ability to speak the language of both humans and snakes that gives him power over both species, as well as the ability to name himself. As a “parselmouth”, Voldemort can command snakes to obey him (Chamber of Secrets 146), and this marks the start of his rise to power in the human world; it also significantly allows him to rename himself – from Tom Marvolo Riddle, he becomes Lord Voldemort – in a symbolic inversion of the Derridian l’animot. Voldemort, then, is a “monstrous hybrid” (Derrida 41) of the type described by Derrida as typifying l’animot, whose hybrid nature not only blurs the boundaries of human ontology, but also gives voice and power to the animals aligned with him. In the trajectory of the narrative, snakes not only confer power upon him but, through the erasure of his own boundaries of being, they also weaken him and the exploitation (of all creatures) that he stands for.
Voldemort’s story suggests that it is unsustainable, ultimately, to exploit for power that which is inherently a part of oneself. Like Derrida’s l’animot, the human and the animal cannot be easily distinguished through the power of language; where this linguistic separation is breached, the resulting hybridity calls for a radical re-evaluation of the place of humans within the wider power hierarchies of the environment.
Is this a message readers are likely to take away from an engagement with the series? It is difficult to say: the series is complex, and many other elements of this vast epic can be read as reinforcing traditional ontological hierarchies. However, it is interesting to note just how pervasively the issues identified by Derrida have crept into the story. In children’s literature, it seems, to human is just one of many powerful possibilities.
Derrida, Jacques. The Animal That Therefore I Am. Trans. David Wills. Fordham University Press, 2008.
Jaques, Zoe. Children’s Literature and the Posthuman: Animal, Environment, Cyborg. Routledge, 2015.
McCance, Dawn. Critical Animal Studies: A Introduction. State University of New York Press, 2013.
Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Bloomsbury, 1998.
Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Bloomsbury, 2007.
Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Bloomsbury, 1997.
This post was originally published on the former Worrisome Words site on June 9, 2017
Introducing … Theory Bites! In my last post of the semester, I promised “snippets of fun information and links to other great articles and resources over the summer months”: what I have come up with is Theory Bites. A tiny bit of theory, and some suggestions for children’s books to try it out on… enjoy!
This week’s theory bite focuses on the animal studies branch of ecocriticism, which I happen to be focusing on at the moment in my research. In the seminal introduction to ecocriticism, Ecocriticism, Greg Garrard describes allomorphism as an “avowal of the wondrous strangeness of animals” (167), an antidote to the often lamentable tendency to anthropocentrism in writing about animals. This quality is difficult to find in children’s literature especially; in an article I have returned to again and again this summer, Maria Nikolajeva writes that “Children’s literature is problematic, either oversimplifying purported non-human emotions, or ascribing human emotions to non-human beings, or both” (138). Children’s literature – especially as interpreted by the children’s film industry, tends towards depictions of animals as stereotypes – from the helpful forest creatures who keep Snow White company, to the hippogriffs who bend their wills so willingly to Harry Potter’s.
Three authors, however, are notable for their resistance to this trend; in their insistence on exploring the “wondrous strangeness” of the animals they write about, they have created stories that resonate deeply. Richard Adam’s Watership Down is a classic of children’s literature, telling the adventures of a group of rabbits as they cross the dangerous countryside in search of a new home. While there are elements of anthropocentrism in the way Adam’s creates a rabbit mythology and language modelled on primitive human creation stories, the book is nevertheless notable for the stark realism of the depiction of the relationship between rabbits and humans. The rabbits in Watership Down are not pets, not helpers, nor friends to animals. Humans are not only feared as other predators are, but they are also strange and unknown – the unseen force behind the fast-moving cars that mow them down, or who poison burrows with gas or snares, the unknown captors of a group of does in a hutch, and the companions of vicious dogs. Seen from a rabbits’-eye point of view, human-animal relationships in Watership Down are an undeniable and yet alien fact of life.
Similar to Adams’ insistence on the complexity of animal life is William Horwood’s exploration of Mole culture in his epic Duncton Woods series. Like Adams, Horwood cannot resist the urge to create a complex culture for his animal protagonists, reflecting medieval human culture. Whilst this conflation of animal sensibility with human history is problematic, Horwood excels – again like Adams – in defamiliarizing nature by presenting it from the perspective of these small, secretive, and fierce creatures. A long cry from the cute and civilized Mole of Wind in the Willows, Horwood’s moles experience predation, rape, murder, and infanticide, to name just a few of the realities of nature made explicit in these novels. Not only are these novels a thunderingly good read, but they are fascinating in the ways they explore the “otherness” or animals – and in the ways they stop short of forsaking anthropocentrism altogether.
My final example, and certainly my favorite, is Robert Westall’s Blitzcat. Set in Britain during World War II, Blitzcat tells the story of a cat called Lord Gore, who sets off across the countryside in search of a “master” who has been called to serve in the air force. Despite its acknowledgement of the undeniable bond formed between humans and their pets, this book refuses to give in to anthropocentrism: told entirely from Lord Gore’s perspective, the book reveals the cat’s indifference to human concerns, and illustrates the alien priorities, emotions, and perspectives that motivate her.
All three of these authors are perhaps less well-known in the United States than in Britain; nevertheless, for anyone interested in animal studies and the exploration of allomorphism, they are well worth exploring.
Adams, Richard. Watership Down. Scribner, 2005.
Garrard, Greg. Ecocriticism. Routledge, 2012.
Horwood, William. Duncton Wood. Arrow Books, 1985.
Nikolajeva, Maria. “Recent Trends in Children’s Literature Research: Return to the Body.” International Research in Children’s Literature, vol. 9, no. 2, 2016, pp. 132-145.
Westall, Robert. Blitzcat. Pan Macmillan, 2015.
Read it Again: Guest Post: Trends in Children’s Books and Young Adult Novels, by Bianca Schulze of The Children’s Book Review
This post was originally published on the former Worrisome Words site on April 24, 2017
Bianca Schulze is the founder of The Children’s Book Review, a resource devoted to children’s literature and recognized by the American Library Association as a ‘Great Website for Kids.’ She is a reader, reviewer, mother and children’s book lover. Combined with her love of books and experience as a children’s bookseller, Bianca’s goal is to share her passion to help grow readers. Born and raised in Sydney, Australia, she now lives with her husband and three children near Boulder, Colorado. You can visit her at http://www.thechildrensbookreview.com, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
The trends in kids and teen literature ebb and flow, telling the story of current and past reading fashions. Occasionally it can get really exciting when there is a total plot twist that makes a distinct shift to the trajectory of the “reading trends” story—such as the uptake of graphic novels when Scholastic introduced the Graphix imprint in 2005.
Thanks to the grassroots organization We Need Diverse Books™, one of the latest and greatest progressions to be seen is the inclusion of literature that reflects and honors the lives of all young people—this is certainly an onward and upward trend that must stay the course. Campaigns like “The Reading without Walls Challenge” from the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature Gene Leun Yang, and Simon & Schuster’s new imprint Salaam Reads, are helping solidify this as more than just a trend—inclusion and diversity are a necessity that should become a fundamental part of any publishing groups’ line-up of work.
Fantasy novels for teens had moved over for dystopian works and realistic fiction, but now it seems that fantasy is resurging in the young adult genre. While some trends come and go, others cycle in and out and back again. Below, is a list of what appears to be in vogue—only time will tell which trends are here to stay and which flavors of the month will be gone by 2018.
All Ages Book Trends
Picture Book Trends
Middle Grade Book Trends
Young Adult Book Trends
Read it Again: Guest Post: The Great Puzzle: Issues of Self-identity in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, by Jan Susina
This post was originally published on the former Worrisome Words site on April 10, 2017
The Great Puzzle: Issues of Self-identity in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
Early in the second chapter of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the protagonist becomes confused by her frequent physical changes in size, she asks herself the question, “Who in the world am I?”, but immediately adds, “Ah that’s is the great puzzle!” (17-8). The great puzzle, indeed. The question of self-identity and process by which an individual goes about deciding who they are, continues to attract child and adult readers to the Alice books. This is one of issues that draw philosophers to the Alice books. Certainly children, as well as adults, pose philosophical questions. Perhaps it is the questions that we ask ourselves, as children are some of the most difficult to answer. One might say the question of self-identity is a riddle without an answer, and yet it a question that we are persist in asking ourselves. This may also be why many adults return to “children’s” texts, be they fairy tales, fables, or novels such as E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, or Lewis Carroll’s Alice books. These books address profound and enduring questions and sometimes provide readers with methods of contemplating the solutions.
What interests me is the process by which Alice attempts to answer the question she has posed to herself: “Who in the world am I?” The text suggests that Alice began to consider all the children that she knew who were about the same as age as herself and began to consider if she might have changed into anyone of them. For Alice, her age remains the fixed, although her identify might have shifted. But for Carroll, age does not significantly change Alice’s identity. At the conclusion of Wonderland, after Alice’s older sister’s dream, Carroll explains that, “in the after-time, be herself a grown woman; and how she would keep, through all her riper years, the simple and loving hear of her childhood” (110). For Carroll, it seems that identity does not shift, or at least does not shift for Alice. Despite her initial confusion and disorientation, Alice clearly knows who she is, as she confidently announces to the Queen of Hearts, “My name is Alice, so please your Majesty” (Carroll 71).
Nor does Alice consider that she may have shifted gender. The other children that she contemplates that she might have become are all female. Even when the pigeon accuses her of being a serpent, Alice insists she is a little girl. For Alice, and perhaps for Carroll and many other Victorians, gender appears to be fixed. This is more fluid concept for many contemporary readers of the Alice books. Consider when Alice reads “Jabberwocky” in Through the Looking-Glass. While the poem mentions that a “beamish boy” as slain the Jabberwock (Carroll 132), readers after looking at John Tenniel’s illustration of the figure with long flowing hair, that does resemble Alice’s hair, have concluded that the slayer of the Jabberwock is none other than Alice herself. Alice, as she appears in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, his 2010 film adaptation, seems to be based on this reading of Tenniel’s illustration. In the film, Alice, played Mia Wasikowska, becomes a warrior princess and the destroyer of the Jabberwock.
In Carroll’s Wonderland, Alice considers her possible lost of self-identity, but only within the confines of her immediate social circle. She does not consider who she would be if she suddenly transformed into a child growing up in India, Africa, Australia, or any other part of the English Empire. But during her long trip down the rabbit-hole, she posits that she might have been transported to New Zealand, or Australia. While there some diversity in terms of social class among her companions, Alice’s self-identity is a bit more rigid that some readers might assume.
Alice first contemplates that she might have become Ada, but rejects the notion given that, “her hair goes in such long ringlets, and mine doesn’t go in ringlets at all” (Carroll 18). For Alice, at least, identity might be based on physical appearance. While contemporary readers often assume a one-to-one correspondence between Alice Liddell and the protagonist of Wonderland, Carroll’s photographs of Alice Liddell and her sisters make it clear that dark-haired girl with the short hair looks nothing like the girl featured in Tenniel’s illustrations. Carroll’s rough illustrations of Alice in Alice’s Adventures Under Ground are much more Pre-Raphaelite with Alice sporting abundant long hair are also different from the Alice of Tenniel’s illustrations. Alice’s questioning of self-identity might reflect the changing nature of her appearance in the various versions of the girl who became the inspiration and model for Carroll’s protagonist. Physical appearance is shown be a questionable method to judge self-identity.
Alice then considers that she might have been transformed into Mabel, but she quickly rejects this possibility since, “I know all sorts of things, and she, oh, she knows such a very little!” (Carroll 18). Here Alice suggests that identity has to do what you know: you are what you know. Many of us use a similar approach when identifying ourselves, or by identifying others. What is your major? What do you do for a living? Who are your favorite authors? But when Alice attempts to prove her self-identity by recalling what she knows, she runs into problems. When she attempts to recite Isaac Watts’s “Against Idleness and Mischief,” it becomes “How Doth the Little Crocodile.” So self-identity based on self-knowledge, proves to be ineffective.
Frustrated with her inability to remember what she once knew, Alice resigns herself to having been transformed into Mabel and laments that she will have to live in “that poky little house, and have next to no toys to play with, and oh, ever so many lessons to learn!” (Carroll 19). Another way that Alice thinks about self-identity is social class and economic status: you are what you own. Alice reveals herself to be a bit of snob, and she looks down on Mabel, who has far fewer material objects. Alice’s attitude reflects that of Carroll, who was very concerned with social status and upward mobility. Just as Alice delights with the opportunity to play croquet with the Queen of Hearts, Carroll often attempted to photograph the royal family when they visited Oxford. Carroll also assumed that Wonderland, “isn’t a book poor children would much care for” (Carroll, Letters 667) Both Carroll and Alice’s self-identity is very much tied up with being members of the upper-middle class and reflect the privileged and insular world of Oxford.
After finding these various ways of defining her self-identity unsatisfactory, Alice decides to allow others to define her. She declares that she will stay where she is and wait until other call out for her. Then she will, “only look up and say, `Who am I, then? Tell me that first, and then, if I like being that person, I’ll come up. If not; I’ll stay down here till I’m somebody else. “ (Carroll 19). Alice contemplates allowing others to decide and define who she is.
The issue of self-identity reappears when Alice meets the Caterpillar who pointedly asks her, “Who are you?” (Carroll 40). Due to her previous bout of self-questioning, Alice is more effective and honest in responding to the Caterpillar’s question. She responds, “I–I hardly know, Sir, just at present—at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.” (Carroll 41). In attempting to explain herself, Alice tries to suggest her transformation will be similar to the metamorphosis that the Caterpillar will undergo from chrysalis into a butterfly. Alice seems to have accepted that change, although it occasionally feels “a little queer” (Carroll 41), is all part of the process and that physical change does not necessarily change one’s self-identity.
Despite the frequent and sometimes aggressive questioning by the creatures of Wonderland, Alice never loses her head, or forgets who she is. At the trial, which concludes Wonderland, Alice provides evidence, which proves that she is, and always has been, Alice. Her adventures have all been a part of her curious dream and she has always been in control. Throughout her adventures, Carroll provides hints that despite Alice’s momentary uncertainty and self-doubts, Alice has always been in control. This occurs when, she wishes that she could open up like a telescope and moment later discovers, “I must be shutting up like a telescope!” (Carroll 14). Alice comes to realization through her adventures that self-identity while evolving is fixed. Although Alice, like Carroll, was “fond of pretending to be two people” (Carroll 14), she remains a respectable and self-assured young girl throughout her adventures in Wonderland.
Alice in Wonderland. Dir. Tim Burton. Per. Mia Wasikowksa and Johnny Depp. Disney. 2010.
Carroll, Lewis. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. Ed. Hugh Haughton. New York: Penguin. 1998.
Carroll, Lewis. The Letters of Lewis Carroll. Ed. Morton Cohen. 2 vols. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.
This post was originally published on the former Worrisome Words site on March 20, 2017
Professor Jack Zipes is Professor Emeritus of German and Comparative Literature at the University of Minnesota. His most recent book is: Grimm Legacies: The Magic Power of the Grimms’ Folk and Fairy Tales (2015), and he received an NEH fellowship for his work on the origins of European fairy tales. Professor Zipes is also the author of the influential analysis of Children’s Literature, Sticks and Stones: The Troublesome Success of Children’s Literature from Slovenly Peter to Harry Potter. This post is based on a talk exploring some of the most interesting themes in his upcoming book, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice: An Anthology of Magical Tales, published by Princeton University Press in April 2017.
Warping “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” or How Little People Are Belittled in Fairy Tales Twisted Against Them, by Jack Zipes
One of the most disturbing features in the development of children’s literature involves warping. For instance, “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” is a fascinating example of how a particular tale type has been changed over time and warped by filmmakers, publishers, and writers to humiliate children instead of encouraging them to be curious and develop their imagination and critical thinking.
This tale has generally been associated with the title “The Magician and his Pupil,” ATU 325, in Uther’s The Types of International Folktales. The focus in most of the variants of this tale type is on the competition between an apprentice and his master. The type is somewhat related to other tales about shape-shifters, except here the master/apprentice conflict is the determining factor in the plot. Generally speaking there are three phases to the plot. A poor family seeks to apprentice their son to a magician/ogre/devil so that he can successfully learn an “art,” which will enable him to earn a living; once the apprenticeship is concluded in the sorcerer’s house, the father must be able to recognize his son from other apprentices, often transformed into animals or birds if the powerful sorcerer will allow the young man to return to the family; thanks to the advice or help of a mysterious stranger or the son himself, the father is successful, and upon the boy’s return to the family, he makes money by using his art of transformation, but out of jealousy and revenge, the magician captures him and seeks to kill him. However, the apprentice escapes and triumphs in a battle to death with the magician. The apprentice, transformed as fox/cat/tiger bites off the head of the sorcerer transformed as rooster/chicken.
Folklorists have traced the origins of the tale type to similar motifs in stories from the ancient Mongolian Siddhi Kür, the Turkish History of the Forty Vezirs, Hesiod’s Catalogues of Women’s Fragments, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and “The Second Kalendar’s Story” in The Arabian Nights. For the most part, the European oral and literary tales depict a young man who seeks to liberate himself from an older man who has taught him the art of transformation and stealing. The apprentice often receives some help from the magician’s daughter or a princess. The oral and literary dissemination of the tale type throughout Europe, the Middle East, and Asia was great and included a well-known Grimms’ tale, “The Nimble Thief and his Master.” The other variants that circulated in practically all European countries share many similar features that reflect not only a generational struggle but also a conflict that countless young people experienced either as apprentices or journeymen. The conditions throughout Europe under which young boys worked in the nineteenth century were difficult and exploitative, and these tales indicate that learning a trade also meant learning how to survive and assume an identity by obtaining knowledge (magic) that would surpass that of the master.
However, survival also meant in other versions learning how to submit to the magic power of tyrants and other authorities as can be seen in a minor variant of tale type ATU 325. In two excellent studies, Graham Anderson’s Fairytale in the Ancient World (2000) and William Hansen’s Aradne’s Thread (2002), the authors both cite Lucian’s comic Philopseudes (The Lover of Lies, c. CE 150) as one of the main sources of the offshoot of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” which I call “The Humiliated Apprentice”; Anderson summarizes the tale type as follows:
A young Greek called Eucrates is touring Egypt and in the course of a trip on the Nile encounters Pancrates, an amazing magician, to whom he is apprenticed; the latter does not require any domestic servant, but instead enchants household objects, a broom and a pestle, to undertake domestic tasks on their own. Eucrates overhears the spell and in the sorcerer’s absence is able to activate the magical servant. Unfortunately he is also unable to stop its activities once started, having only overheard the first half of the spell; splitting the animated pestle with an axe only divides it into two servants instead of one. Only the returned sorcerer can put a stop to the now three magical servants, and having done so he disappears. Eucrates still knows his half of the spell, but dare not use it for fear of the consequences. Thereafter, he travels on to Memphis, and the great stone colossi of Memnon delivers him an oracle. (Anderson, p. 104).
It is impossible to determine how this short satirical tale, which is not as popular as “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” spread over the next several centuries either through oral tradition or print. By the time some version had reached the great German writer Johann von Goethe, he published a brief poem called “Der Zauberlehrling,” (“The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” 1797), which is a simplistic imitation of Lucian’s more comical story. Here the apprentice is the speaker of the poem which deals with his desperation and frustration when he calls forth ghosts who flood the absent sorcerer’s house. When the sorcerer returns, he calmly banishes the ghosts. This poem, which is not particularly interesting, was translated into English a few times in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and was somewhat popular in Germany and the rest of Europe, where other similar prose versions were disseminated.
In 1896-97, Goethe’s poem was transformed into a symphonic poem by the French composer Paul Dukas with the title The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and with the subtitle “Scherzo based on a ballad by Goethe.” This adaptation was highly significant because Walt Disney used Dukas’s music in his animated version of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” in 1940. It was a key part of the film Fantasia and part of Disney’s effort to resurrect the popularity of the scrawny Mickey Mouse that had declined during the 1930s. In this film, which soon became a popular picture book in the 1940s, Mickey is portrayed as a powerful wizard’s servant, sweet, cuddly, and silly, who must do menial tasks like sweeping floors, chopping wood, and carrying water from the well to scrub the floors. When the sorcerer has to leave the house, Mickey takes his hat and puts it on his head. He soon begins to command the broom to do all his chores, and at one point he rests, falls asleep, and dreams that he is the greatest sorcerer in the world while the broom keeps carrying water from the well and floods the house. Desperately Mickey tries to stop the broom by chopping it with an axe. However, he only creates more brooms and a huge flood. When the sorcerer returns, he immediately restores everything with one command. Angrily he swats Mickey with the broom and sends him off to work. In the Disney picture book, the ending is slightly different; he frowns and says, “Don’t start what you can’t finish.” Then Mickey trudges off to work like a slave.
The Disney film and book are significant in the oral and written tradition of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” because this variant warps and infantalizes the tale type. By this I mean the major current of storytelling that depicted a smart apprentice triumphing over an evil despot and that had been primarily intended for adults, including Goethe’s poem, was transformed into a children’s warning story about a young apprentice’s submission to a wizard who keeps the secrets of knowledge and power to himself. The ideological message, already apparent in Lucian’s story, is reinforced by Disney’s version: young people are to obey omnipotent people, and if they try to use the knowledge and power of their mentors before they have been fully formed by these magicians, they will bring demons into the world and create chaos.
Following the release of Disney’s Fantasia in 1940 and then thousands of picture books that singled out “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” over the years as a charming story for children, there was some controversy at first. For instance, upon leaving the theater after watching Fantasia in 1940, the well-known journalist Dorothy Thompson felt that she had been brutalized by the film and drew a comparison with the Nazi terror in Europe. Neil Gaber writes, “Thompson’s complaint was that Disney and Stokowski seemed to extol the savagery of nature at the expense of man. (What Thompson missed was that Walt was extolling not so much nature as his own power to re-create the savagery on screen.) In Thompson’s eyes, Disney’s nature was so overwhelming that man had no choice but to succumb” (Gabler, p. 343). From another more contemporary perspective, Nicholas Sammond points out that the sorcerer’s name in the film is announced as Yen Sid, which is Disney spelled backward, and he argues that Disney projects himself as the manager of miracles and the socialization of children throughout “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”: “Applied to Mickey, this magic of management, and the sorcerer’s private amusement at the mouse’s attempt at mastery, suggested the humanization of developmental regimes. Likewise, the seeming horror of the child’s failure at mastery was ultimately resolved through the timely intervention of the parental figure. Where the movie-going parent might feel anxiety at the social weight placed on the act of child-rearing, Disney offered up the figure of Walt and the ‘Disney magic’ as a resource in the process” (Sammond, pp. 177-178).
Given the time period in which the “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” was produced as the key segment of Fantasia, there are ample parallels that one could draw to demonstrate that this little film that became a picture book celebrated the authoritarianism of political dictators like Hitler; the popular need for strong political leaders like Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin; the narcissism of powerful filmmakers like Disney; the use and control of miraculous technology by arrogant technocrats, and so on. However, what has been neglected in the studies of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” is Disney’s warping of a tradition of storytelling that celebrated the contention and rebellion of young people faced with tyrannical holders of power/magic and their murderous ways. Moreover, it has rarely been noticed that Disney’s film and children’s picture book influenced publishers and writers to continue to foster authoritarianism and child abuse consciously and unconsciously as can be seen in such books as Richard Rostron’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (1941), illustrated by Frank Lieberman, Marianna Mayer’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice: A Greek Fable (1989), illustrated by David Wiesner, and Nancy Willard’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (1993), illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon, and in numerous other books. All of them carry the same demeaning message to belittle children who seek knowledge of magic and want to experiment with it. What is disturbing and questionable is the portrayal of the sorcerer as godlike and the possessor of absolute knowledge. From an ideological perspective most of the tales depict wizards, who “own” total knowledge of magic, and are male benefactors whose power is unquestionable. They are to be obeyed without question while the apprentices, mainly boys, are humiliated if they try to learn by themselves. The struggle between master and pupil is always won by the master in this tale type. Fortunately, the major tale type of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” still holds sway in children’s and adult literature such as the Harry Potter novels, numerous other stories that deal with wizards and sorcerers, and political protests throughout the world in which young people question and contest the power of absolute dictators. What “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” as wise and age-old fairy tale wants to continually to remind us is that, in the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Hegel’s brutal antagonistic dialectic of master/slave, young slaves will persist and use knowledge to create more humane conditions and do away with the cruel power of dictators.
Anderson, Graham. Fairytale in the Ancient World (London: Routledge, 2000).
Gabler, Neal. Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination (New York: Random house, 2006).
Sammond, Nicholas. Babes in Tomorrowland: Walt Disney and the Making of the American Child, 1930-1960 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005).
This post was originally published on the former Worrisome Words site on February 13, 2017.
One of the books I have tackled this month for review on the Children’s Book Review has been Renée Watson’s Piecing Me Together. The novel tells the story of a young African-American girl from a disadvantages neighborhood, whose intelligence and talent have presented her with opportunities for “escaping”, but whose varied experiences leave her ambivalent about the implied acculturation that underlies these “opportunities”. The narrative provides a critical and honest examination of the problem of race in the United States; important as this subtext is, however, it is the richness of Watson’s narrative voice and dialogue which impressed me most about the novel.
A first-person narrative is one of the most effective strategies employed in children’s literature: by speaking directly to the reader, the novel elicits greater control of the way in which an implied reader is constructed. In other words, in addition to the crafted dialogues contained within the narrative, a second dialogue is created between the narrator and the implied reader. This second dialogue plays a subtle role in shaping the interpretations of that reader, both by eliciting empathy and identification, and by controlling the reader’s identity as “other”. Elsass and Biglow demonstrate the importance of this dual function when they define dialogue as “a mode of discourse that emphasizes identifying and suspending assumptions in order to gain deeper and more nuanced understandings of our own and other’s experiences and belief” (Elsass and Biglow 32). By entering into a dialogue with the reader, therefore, the narrator invites that reader to lay aside expectations and assumptions, and instead to re-imagine the “other”. While a third-person narrative can be distant and monologic, establishing the narrator’s authority in relation to an implied rather than actual reader, first-person narration is more dialogic in nature, inviting the participation of the reader – whether implied or actual, or a little bit of both.
In a narrative such as Piecing me Together, where the issue of race makes the question of “otherness” a crucial consideration, the narrator-reader dialogue can be seen as encouraging readers to question their assumptions about racial and cultural identity. The following passage is a good example of this works in the narrative: “I think about Mrs. Parker. How she has a black son-in-law smiling at me from a frame. How proud she is of her free passes to Winterhawks games. How she wants me to have a mentor. How she’s always ready to give me an opportunity, a gift. Like what she’s telling me is she comes in peace” (Watson 26).
Jade, the narrator is reflecting on her exchange with the guidance counselor who wants her to enroll in a mentoring program. The dialogue between child and teacher has been guarded, carefully polite and yet fraught with tension. It is only in this concluding statement to the reader that Jade reveals her true thoughts about Mrs. Parker, and about the “opportunity” she is offering. Far from being monologic, this passage first establishes common ground: any school-age reader is likely to relate to and empathize with Jade’s feeling of alienation from this helpful but clueless adult authority. However, the deeper issues of race and culture that Jade then explores, expressing her own doubts and confusions, reassert the reader’s “otherness” and challenge the reader to question the hierarchies that mark them as different from Jade. Mickūnas writes that, “the dialogical encounter allows one to have a position and its limitation. Moreover, monological positions tend to define others in such a way, that the others accept such definitions and become part of a specific monologue” (Mickūnas 3). The value of this type of dialogic narrative, therefore, is that it challenges rather than reinforcing identities and social hierarchies. Watson’s masterful use of this technique not only creates a character who practically breathes with life and personality, but which also encourages readers to challenge the ways in which they define themselves and others.
Elsass, P., and Bigelow, B. “Learning to Engage with Multiple Perspectives: The Use of Dialogue in the Classroom.” Currents in Teaching and Learning, vol. 8, no. 2, 2016, pp. 32-40.
Mickūnas, A. “The Different Other and Dialogue.” Coactivity / Santalka, vol. 24, no. 1, 2016, pp. 3-13.
Watson, R. Piecing me Together. Bloomsbury Children’s Books, 2017.
Professor Oakes is a Professor of English at Furman University, teaching Early Modern literature and Humanities courses. Her specialty is 16th and 17th century British poetry, and her research interests currently focus on Milton, Shakespeare, Margaret Cavendish, seventeenth century book frontispiece portraits, early modern humanist education, the history of scientific writing, Reformation theology, British detective fiction, and children’s fantasy literature.
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix contains a storyline with some of the more enigmatic characters in the series: the centaurs. They have rejected the appellation of “Being” placed on them by the Ministry of Magic and thus are not included in the governance of the Ministry (the Centaur Liaison Office is a lonely place). They actually prefer being classified as “Beasts,” defined in the Harry Potter Wiki as “a magical creature that does not have sufficient intelligence to understand the laws of the magical community nor bear part of the responsibility in shaping those laws,” and this despite the fact that they clearly are highly intelligent creatures.
This example reflects the difficulty of applying a notion such as “posthumanism” to a magical world, and not just this one, but any mythopoeic universe that includes non-human individuals that possess some elements that we consider part of “humanness.” Those elements may include human subjectivity, creativity, judgment and decision making abilities, or power over one’s environment (including through technology), among other things. Many entities that are not human (wizard or Muggle) in Rowling’s series display one of these elements. But these entities cannot be classified as posthuman, in the sense that they are seen to be developed by humans, controlling humans, or replacing humans (either in anatomical parts or as a species). The dystopic feature of much of posthumanism is not present in these types of fictional universes. So what kind of creature is a centaur, that doesn’t want to control or replace humans, that doesn’t even care whether humans think about them or not? This world contains many other half or whole, real or fictional animals that possess qualities that are greater than we usually attribute to animals: owls that willingly convey messages, talking snakes, flying horses. But what about normally inanimate objects that have similarly higher abilities: how do we categorize the existence of plants that scream, books that bite, buildings that move, mirrors that don’t reflect their reflection, brooms that hover and throw off humans that attempt to hold onto them?
Like human technology, the power harnessed by wizards is the result of study, practice, and research; it is no accident that the pivotal event of the series is an invitation to come to school, and that much of the action of the overarching plot and internal stories of the series hinges on the correct and ethical practice of magic learned in that education. But that is where the similarity to humanly created technology, and its attendant problems, ends. None of these entities – animal, vegetable, or mineral -- have been created by humans, so transhumanism, and AI are not concerns here: none of the “technology out of our control” that is a frequent underlying theme in science fiction. I have argued elsewhere that wizards do not need technology because they have other, organic ways to understand and control their environments. Ontological schemes not based or in or in opposition to a foundational notion of human subjectivity seem to be in order to understand the range and nature of magical power that does not neatly fit into concepts of posthumanism.
Space forbids a thorough discussion of the philosophical scheme of Herman Dooyeweerd, except to say that his system of “aspects” allows non-human entities to function somehow through certain inherent qualities. I would propose that the arrogance of humanness, human subjectivity, or human biological and cognitive functions is too limiting. The eastern idea of “sentience” is informative, which endows all beings with subjective consciousness as the regulatory element of determining how individuals interact with each other, create power relationships, and understand the widely varying abilities of others. The Ministry of Magic seems to make this error in its dealings with the centaurs when the only measure of the centaurs’ worth is in how they fit into the Minstry’s plan of political organization. Another of many examples from the series include the mandrakes in Chamber of Secrets. The standard mythology of mandrakes is that their scream when uprooted will kill a human; Rowling takes this one step further and has them raised by the students as crying babies and obnoxious, sulky teenagers. The entire basis of the Care of Magical Creatures class is that the creatures encountered by wizards can have a heightened sense of consciousness: almost any living thing or inanimate object (the Mirror of Erised, the Whomping Willow) can be considered something which may have to be treated as an equal, a partner, or an adversary in some way, with diplomacy and respect. (I for one have great respect for poison ivy, but not because it can kill me by hitting me). The unpredictable, unreliable nature of objects in the magical world are caused by the actions and reactions of consciousness over which wizards have no control, but for very different reasons than with human technology. Magic, available to any entity, creates a parallel existence for non-human agency rather than one that will eventually overcome human existence.
Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Scholastic, 2003.
---. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Scholastic, 1999.
Oakes, Margaret. “Flying Cars, Floo Powder, and Flaming Torches: The Hi-Tech, Lo-Tech World of Harry Potter.” Reading Harry Potter: Critical Essays. Ed. Giselle Anatol. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2003.
The Dooyeweerd Pages. http://kgsvr.net/dooy/index.html
Jen is an Instructor of English at East Stroudsburg University. Views and opinions expressed here are her own, and not those of the University or any other organization.