Stardust as Allegorical Bildungsroman – Paula Brown

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“Stardust is very intentionally a fairy tale, but I didn’t want to set it in a sort of never-never historical period. It’s very solidly set in Victorian England, actually in a period after fairy tales were done with, but it’s a fantasy in the tradition of Dunsany or Hope Mirrlees. (Neil 66)”

“In defining the genre of Stardust,” Paula Brown writes (in reference to the above quote), “Neil Gaiman’s own input is invaluable, though unfortunately incomplete. Gaiman defines Stardust both as fairy tale and fantasy, yet sets it off ironically with a quotation from John Donne’s “Song,” a poem skeptical of idealistic quests after “strange sights” (line 9), a succinct plot description of either of Gaiman’s chosen genres. This ironic framework, suggesting the raised eyebrow and the self-conscious pose of a post-modern perspective, allows the novel to transcend the category of Victorian pastiche. That is, the strategic placement of Donne’s poem suggests the metafictional intent of the tale, questioning the perspective from which the typical postmodern reader views the fantastic quest. The implicit question is whether the reader of the present day can overcome any more successfully than Donne could in the seventeenth century a culturally entrenched cynicism for idealistic pilgrimages and female chastity.” (p.216)

“Additionally,” Brown continues, “the placement of the poem emphasizes the quality of poetry, something Gaiman closely associated with his own novel as well as with the [-p.217] fantasy tradition of Dunsany and Hope Mirrlees. Stardust is, in Gaiman’s own words, “probably the most poetic book I’ve written” (67). It is poetic not merely in its language but in its allegorical structure. If one defines a fairy tale as Stephen Prickett does in Victorian Fantasy, as having a picaresque, “loose episodic structure and fantastic events” (175), then Stardust is something of an anomaly. Its allegorical plot, like a poem, emphasizes the elements of image and symbol. The allegory has idealistic designs: in Prickett’s words it is “constructed around a sense of a larger whole in which it is suggested that there is a hidden order permeating all existence, and that the growth of [the hero] is achieved both through its guidance and eventually, by discovery of it” (185). Prickett is referring here to the tradition of the Bildungsroman, demonstrating the degree to which a foreign poetisch novel at odds with a dominant realistic fiction influenced the development of the British fantasy novel. It is this lineage to which Stardust belongs.” (pp.216-217)

Stardust challenges the assumption that the quality of sentiment, still commonly associated with the fantasy genre as well as with a Victorian ethos, is necessarily an outmoded trait. Tristran’s quest to find his heart’s desire, ostensibly an old-fashioned fairy tale, has many qualities readers associate with post-modern fiction: a framing structure that provides a skeptical attitude towards the fairy tale action; an imperfect rather than heroic protagonist who does not recognize his own heart’s desire and who must discover or refine it as the plot proceeds at a breakneck speed; and finally an ambiguous take both on Victorian values such as sentimentality or “true love” and modern naturalist definitions of human nature.” (p.217)

“[The protagonist,] Tristran’s problem is not his belief in heroism and true love but his inflated rhetoric and lack of understanding. The word for this sort of emotional trap, sentimentality, may be defined as an “invitation to unexamined response, indulgence of inappropriate emotion” (Swerden 747).” (p.222)

Note that her discussion of Tristran’s two loves, their (mutual) objectification and development into authentic beings (pp.222-223) is really interesting…, it’s just not what I’m working on right now…

“In the Victorian world of Gaiman’s text, the villains of the novel, the witches and the princes, operate from the same assumption as the Modernists, that reality abides within the material object. Yet this materialism appears to be deconstructed as perverted idealism. The witches worship at a black altar that mirrors a beauty without substance and reality.
The world of Stardust insists on parallel rather than hierarchical significations, undermining the reader’s certainty about reality. In the world of Faerie the star is alive, whereas in the “real” world on the other side of the wall she is dead. The living being is represented as a more persuasive entity, however, whereas the dead “reality” appears to be desecration of a luminous, ethereal soul, an interpretive act just as cruel as the murder the witches look forward to so viciously.” (p.224)

Stardust makes the ancient conflict between the angelic and human strange and new by positing a fantasy world in which the natural basis of reality is non-materialistic.” (p.224)

Not incidentally, the love of a star has a long history in Western literature. The Petrarchan tradition of poetry customarily represents a doomed passion of a courtier for a maid who cannot ever succumb to his charms. Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella tells the tale most famously, perhaps, recounting the sad passion of the poet Astrophil for a beloved woman, Stella (or star), impossibly remote, inconceivably perfect, who is, alas, ultimately unattainable. Nevertheless, the expended passion is not represented as something wasted because physical consummation is not the primary object of interest. The interest is metaphysical: tucked inside what is “true” in the expression true love; which is precisely the object of attention in Stardust.” (p.228)

Ref: (italics in original, emphases in blue bold, mine) Paula Brown (2010) Stardust as Allegorical Bildungsroman: An Apology for Platonic idealism. extrapolation 51(2); pp.216-234

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