Truth, Faith, and Goblins

Truth, Faith, and Goblins
Truth, Faith, and Goblins

A review of George MacDonald’s “The Princess and the Goblin” (Strahan & Co., 1872)

By Derek Newman-Stille

The Princess and the Goblin is a beautiful tale with contrasting imagery of light and darkness. It features a princess who is described as the embodiment of virtues (most of which problematically involve obedience) and honesty who is lost and encounters a figure claiming to be her great great great grandmother. This grandmotherly figure communicates with doves, spins spider webs into magic string, had a hearth made of roses that are also flames, is described as transcendently beautiful… and can only be seen by the princess. In contrast to this image of heavenly beauty are the goblins – a race that was tossed out of the kingdom in ages past and has lived under the mountain in darkness. They are described as horrendously ugly and misshapen. MacDonald’s tale interweaves these images of darkness and light, intersecting in the space of the mines, where human and goblin worlds collide.

MacDonald explores imagery of being lost, using this as an allegory for faith. It is when the princess is lost that she is able to find her grandmother, and it is only through faith that characters find each other. The princess’ grandmother spins a string for her that she must believe in and follow to find her way and that others must believe in to find the princess. MacDonald playa with ideas of faith as a solution for confusion and feeling lost, using areas like the mines as metaphors for the labrythine confusion of the human experience. Truth and fiction interplay in The Princess and the Goblin and MacDonald explores the idea that disbelief in someone is a form of insult and faith in someone’s word is an important marker of respect.

Like many fairy tale authors, MacDonald examines the complexities of interactions between adults and children, and, in particular, explores the theme of children being ignored and viewed as faulty witnesses. MacDonald challenges adults to believe in the stories of children instead of dismissing everything they say as idle fantasy. In The Princess and the Goblin, disbelief always causes harm to the characters, but it also causes harm to the relationships between people, and that harm is harder to overcome. As the princess says “When I tell you the truth, you say to me “Don’t tell stories”: it seems I must tell stories before you will believe me.” She tells others that she would have to lie to be believed and she refuses to lie.

MacDonald’s tale is one of belief and faith, involving truths that only some people can see and constant questions about the nature of reality. Characters are constantly asked to believe in things that they cannot see and to have faith in people who see things that others cannot. MacDonald tells his audience “Perhaps some people can see things other people can’t see”

Fairy Tale Autobiography?

Fairy Tale Autobiography?

A review of Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (Pandora Press, 1985).
By Derek Newman-Stille

In Oranges are Not the Only Fruit, Jeanette Winterson creates a complicated tale of intersecting narratives, mixing elements of fairy tale, legend, and biblical verse into autobiographic elements from her own life. As much as this is a tale about Winterson’s own upbringing in a Pentecostal evangelical household and discovery of her lesbian identity, it is also a narrative about the way that our lives are shaped by stories. Autobiography and fiction interweave in a conversation that at times is contradictory, but always revelatory. 

Winterson’s abrupt switches to fairy tale narrative in the middle of scenes of her own life shape the intrusive and yet complementary power of stories to inform us and shape our lives. She reveals the way that her own tale has been shaped by stories, largely those from her mother, who begins by telling her that she is special and has a significant role in the world to shape the lives and beliefs of others, and those of her church, which tells her that she needs to sell religion to others the same way as one would sell a used car, and later tells her that her attraction to women comes from demonic possession. Narratives from evangelical voices seek to shape who she is to become, trying to mould her and her identity into the narratives they want to tell. WInterson acknowledges this narrative influence through her focus on their stories about her life, weaving them into her autobiographical elements, but also by titling her chapters after the books of the Christian Bible, frequently paralleling her life narrative with the biblical titles. She begins with Genesis, telling her own origins and early memories, moves on to Exodus and her experience of seeing the world differently once she is able to attend school, and continues through Leviticus, Numbers, Dueteronomy, Joshua, Judges, and concluding with Ruth. 

Yet, throughout the autobiographic elements of her tale, up pop fairy tales to open new insights into her experiences, converting them from biography (an individual experience) into fairy tale (an archetypal quality defined by its relateability). Tales provide moments of insight, intruding like a spell into her life with the words “Once upon a time…”. Her tales vary, telling stories of princesses who learn from old hunchbacks the secrets of magic, but frequently don’t end in the typical fairy tale ending and instead resolve themselves in princesses living simple lives away from the complications of royalty and the expectations and controls that come with being special. These tales help to elucidate Winterson’s own exploration of selfhood and the narrative of exclusion and exultation that was applied to her early in her life. Fairy tales occur at transformative moments in her narrative, offering counterpoints to a singular narrative and pointing out the polyphony in any story. Rather than creating a sense of the heroic and transcendent, these tales evoke the power of resisting the sense of being special.

The complexity of fiction storytelling works as a counterpoint to Winterson’s mother’s simple binarisms of good/evil introducing the idea that story presents a complicated morality, that one needs the context of story to explore moral systems that can’t be easily dualistic. She uses fairy tales to disrupt ideas of a singular perfection, situating a prince’s search for the perfect, flawless bride into a philosophical discourse about whether perfection and flawlessness are mutually dependent. 

Winterston complicates the assumed easy divide between fairy tale and real life, illustrating that our real lives are made up of tales told by us and about us. She complicates ideas of history, pointing out that history is also constructed as a truth narrative, but is changeable, shifting, and uncertain. She invites questions about her own life through Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, pointing out the narratological slipperiness of our lives and the shifting, unstable, and transformative aspects of identity. Like the fairy tales she includes in her narrative, life itself is able to contain a spark of transformative magic and the stories we tell ourselves about who we are constantly move and change. 

Winterson resists calling her book autobiography, listing it as fiction despite its close parallel to the events of her life to disrupt the easy binarism and duality of truth/fiction, real/fairy tale, history/story. Her personal narrative has already been shaped by simple dualities that others have tried to impose on her, attempting to fit her into simple boxes of saint/sinner, saviour/demon, good/evil, inside/outside of the church she grew up in. 

To discover more about Janette WInterson, visit http://www.jeanettewinterson.com

To read more about Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, visit http://www.jeanettewinterson.com/book/oranges-are-not-the-only-fruit/ 

Consumable Folklore

Consumable Folklore

A review of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods (William Morrow premium printing, 2016).

By Derek Newman-Stille

Neil Gaiman’s American Gods begins with a quote by folklorist Richard Dorson exploring ideas of immigration and the tales that people bring with them when they migrate. Dorson states “one question that has always intrigued me is what happens to demonic beings when immigrants move from their homelands”, and Gaiman answers this inquiry in the form of a story, the perfect response to a question of how stories change as people migrate. This sense of migratory folklore suffuses the book, and Gaiman’s writing is as much a philosophical dissertation on the nature of storytelling as it is a fictional story about a human encounter with the gods. 

Gaiman explores the idea that America is a space where gods are swallowed up, forgotten as they are digested in a capitalist rush toward the newest, best thing. In order to emphasize this rapid change of gods, Gaiman introduces new modern gods born of capitalism, a god of Media, Dot Com Start Up gods, and gods of commerce.

Gaiman focuses his tale primarily on gods and the myths that surround them, but brings in elements of folklore as disperate as conspiracy theories, tales of aliens, urban legends, vyrkolas, fairies, and even the lies people tell to make themselves seem more interesting. These all meld and blend together through the power of Story, something that is invested with belief, disbelief, and fascination all at once. 

Gaiman even explores the myth of nations, the communities formed through a loose shared belief that a group of people deserve to occupy a certain geography and the stories and institutions they create to belong there. This myth seems to hold the most sway for Gaiman since his gods seem to be bound by national boundaries and other versions of those gods exist in different nations. Gaiman’s text delves problematically into areas influenced by colonial rhetoric as he explores different migrations to this ‘new world’, and although he does acknowledge that indigenous beings have a presence on the landscape, he frequently puts these beings into the categories of defeated old spirits and suggests that they don’t occupy the same standing as gods. Gaiman identifies indigenous spirits with the landscape rather than with the people, and the Buffalo spirit that visits his protagonist, Shadow, tells him, for example, that it is a creature of geography rather than a god. This problematically continues images of aboriginal people associated with the land and portrayed as fading in waves of colonialism. Gaiman structures his text around waves of immigration, portraying American as a land of immigrants rather than an invaded land that has original occupants that still remain on it, though oppressed. Indeed, the character Wednesday (who is a god) suggests “Nobody’s American. Not originally” erasing the aboriginal inhabitation on the American landscape and their claims of original occupancy. 

Gaiman explores the myth of progress and how this has made Americans forgetful, particularly as they rewrite their own history and forge their nation out of the history they want to believe occurred. He reminds readers that we are in a constant process of creating new stories that we tell ourselves in order to understand our place in the world, continually revising our folklore to make it relevant to us, or abandoning it in favour of new tales.

Yet American Gods is suffused with magic. Every page reads like an invocation to ancient and new gods that haunt the shadowy places of our imagination, reminding us that we need stories to survive… and that our stories need us to survive. He reminds us of the magic of metaphor, the way that metaphors are creative acts that give birth to new gods of the imagination, new ideas seeking a form. His gods are physical manifestations of ideas, embodied stories, or, as the character Jesus suggests in the story, that gods are memes. He asks us “Have you thought about what it means to be a god? IT means you give up your mortal existence to become a meme: something that lives forever in people’s minds, like the tune of a nursery rhyme. It means that everyone gets to recreate you in their own minds. You barely have your own identity any more. Instead you’re a thousand aspects of what people need you to be. And everyone wants something different from you. Nothing is fixed, nothing is stable.” For Gaiman’s Jesus character, being a god is being a fluid creation of the human imagination. Gaiman puts a huge burden on storytellers, the burden of creating new gods, of building new myths for us to live by and understand ourselves through. 

Gaiman’s America is a place where ideas are constantly clashing and reforming, a place where ideas from multiple people melt together and pour themselves into the moulds that are needed at the time only to be reforged again. 

To discover more about American Gods, visit http://www.neilgaiman.com/works/Books/American+Gods/ 

To find out more about Neil Gaiman, visit http://www.neilgaiman.com