Stardust as Allegorical Bildungsroman – Paula Brown


“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


The two Coralines: different versions of childhood – Myers


Touching on a topic that rather interests me, Lindsay Myers considers the way that fear is addressed in Henry Selick’s stop-motion film Coraline (2009). She writes:

CoralineFears about the welfare and safety of children have long dominated adult conceptions of childhood. Binary oppositions between innocence and experience, autonomy and dependency lie at the heart of modern definitions of childhood and adulthood, and attempts to break free from these essentialist dichotomies have always been fraught with difficulty. The last fifty years have witnessed major advances in the recognition of children’s rights throughout the Western world, and it is now widely acknowledged that depriving the young of their civil liberties renders them more susceptible to violence, exploitation, and abuse. Adult fears for child safety and child risk have not, however, dissipated over the course of the last few decades but rather have mutated and developed in accordance with modern advances and scientific progress (Buckingham; Beck; Best; James and Prout; Jenkins; Palmer) and concerns about the perceived menace of pedophilia, child abuse, child pornography, and childhood criminality have led to a veritable escalation in moral panic and anxiety. Progressive policies to empower the young have almost always been accompanied by discourses of protectionism that seek to control and regulate children’s lives in the service of what is perceived to be their “best interests,” and for many the process of managing and limiting child risk has become a valuable commodity (Buckingham).
CoralineThe extent to which these two parallel trends (increased autonomy on the one hand and increased regulation on the other) have impacted upon cultural representations of childhood has yet to be fully exploredAnalysis of the modern “family film” can, however, afford particularly revealing insights into this process as it necessarily unites both adult and child audiences, mediating between adult perceptions of childhood and [-p.246] a child’s understanding of adults. In contrast to children’s literature, which is predominantly author-driven, the family film is entirely market-led, a phenomenon that makes it a far more transparent portrayer of the dominant social and cultural climate than is its literary counterpart.” (pp.245-246)

“What […] are we to make [-p.247] of Selick’s creation? Is A. O. Scott of the New York Times correct when he asserts that Selick, like Gaiman, is interested in childhood, “not as a condition of sentimentalized, passive innocence but rather as an active, seething state of receptivity in which consciousness itself is a site of wondrous, at times unbearable drama”?” (pp.246-247)

Coraline - the graphic novelHaving acknowledged Gaiman’s warm reception of the film adaptation, Myers’s own reading of the two versions leads her to write: “Close comparison of the film and the book reveals that while the film initially appears to convey the “feel” of the original, underneath it is a radically conservative appropriation of the original source. Far from challenging dominant stereotypes and conventions, as does Gaiman’s literary masterpiece, Selick’s Coraline presents a fundamentally unprogressive vision of childhood, trading off the novel’s underlying theme of child empowerment for adult fears about child welfare. It constructs the child not as an autonomous protagonist but as a passive cipher, and it plays more to adult anxieties about child abuse than it does to the genuine fears and concerns of the child.
Gaiman’s Coraline is, at its heart, “a spooky, cautionary tale that works by playing on very real childhood fears” (Coats 86). It is a profoundly moving account of how one girl faces up to her deepest fears and desires, and it is, as David Rudd has observed, “centrally concerned with how one negotiates ones place in the world” (160).” (p.247) [this notion of ‘very real’ childhood fears is an interesting one, BTW]

Coraline - illustrated by Chris RiddellBy creating a long-standing kidnapping framework in which to position Coraline’s abduction, Selick not only removes the focus from Coraline but he also effectively [-p.249] renders his heroine powerless, pitting her from the outset against a devious serial killer. His recasting of Gaiman’s novel as an abduction story essentially transforms the heroine’s journey of empowerment into a panic-ridden battle against the evil “out there,” playing far more strongly to contemporary adult fears about child safety and “stranger danger” than it does to the fears and desires of the young.” (pp.248-249)

It is not only the characters and the settings that have been altered significantly in the transposition from book to film. Gaiman’s Coraline and Selick’s Coraline are also on entirely different missions. Gaiman’s Coraline is searching for self-knowledge, self-control, and agency. At the beginning of her adventures she only knows what she is not (she is not Caroline) but by the end of the novel she has learned a great deal about herself and the world. She has faced her deepest fears and desires and she has learned that you shouldn’t always get everything you ever wanted, just like that, without it meaning anything. Selick’s Coraline, on the other hand, is not particularly interested in finding her identity. It is quite clear from the highly individual nature of her attire at the beginning of the film (blue hair, blue nails, and a funky yellow Macintosh) that she has already, at least to some degree, discovered her “alterity,” and that she has no qualms in expressing this alternative “self” publicly. All Selick’s Coraline wants to do is to get away from the predatory Other Mother, and the film is far more about depriving the Other Mother of her power than it is about empowering its young heroine.” (p.250)

CoralineGaiman’s Coraline develops her increased sense of awareness by employing a combination of strategies: reflecting on past experiences, assimilating and employing previously acquired knowledge, and articulating her feelings to others (namely to the cat). Each of these techniques is foregrounded by Gaiman in order to ensure that his reader is fully aware of the complex processes behind his heroine’s development. Coraline’s decision to go back to the alternate realm to rescue her parents is born not from a sense of duty or selfishness but from a memory that she has of when her father heroically saved her from a swarm of bees, her understanding of the nature of identity derives from her challenging conversations with the cat, and the clever trick that she uses to lure the Other Mother to the abandoned well is a reenactment of the strategy of “protective coloration” a form of camouflage employed by animals to ward off predators in the wild of which the young girl became aware while watching nature programs on television. Selick’s Coraline, by contrast, does not learn from her adventures. She has very little opportunity to reflect on the consequences of her actions, since nearly all of her most significant actions having been excised from the plot.” (p.250)

CoralineSelick’s film appears to suggest that childhood “innocence” and security can only be restored if the corrupt and fallen adult world is miraculously redeemed by the child (a trope that has recently become a common staple of many recent film adaptations of children’s classics). The figure of the child in this film comes to symbolize, as in so many nineteenth-century novels, both adult hope and adult guilt. Coraline’s task is not to find her place in the world but to save the adult world from inevitable degeneration, and it is her selfless generosity and goodness that are foregrounded rather than her self-reliance, agency, and autonomy (the qualities emphasized in the book).” (p.251)

“Although the book can be read either as an exciting adventure or as the story of a child in
trouble, the film undeniably prioritizes the latter. It does little to empower its child viewer, eliminating the child’s perspective almost entirely, perpetuating victim stereotypes and fetishizing childhood innocence.” (p.254)

“In contrast to Gaiman’s text, which teaches its heroine (and by extension its reader) that “perfect” parents are neither possible nor desirable, Selick’s film is highly critical of Coraline’s Real Parents. It goes so far as to suggest that Coraline’s vulnerability was the direct result [-p.255] of parental shortcomings, and it is especially critical of modern mothers who do not have time to tend to their children’s needs due to work commitments (Parsons, Sawers, and McInally).” (pp.254-255)

CoralineI found Myers’s analysis of the two Coralines interesting (and well-argued), but I do wonder at her definition of genres in this analysis, as in her definition of the family film in contrast with children’s literature (above, p.246), or when she writes:

“The reasons why Selick adapted Gaiman’s source text in such a radical manner surely lie in the very different cultural contexts in which the works [-p.252] are respectively positioned. Whereas Gaiman’s novel is a sophisticated literary work that consciously engages with a rich, textual heritage, Selick’s Coraline is a modern, audio-visual construct, a consumer-driven product whose success depends entirely upon its ability to tap into popular trends and desires.
coraline dollGaiman’s novel deploys, as many scholars have demonstrated, two main frames of reference—the literary fairy tale and the fantasy—both of which can be said to hold a particular affinity for the young. The split mother, the locked room, the deceptive lure, the magical talisman, and the fear of being eaten are all common fairy-tale tropes, while the eccentric cat and the magical wardrobe are indirect allusions to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, two iconic children’s fantasies, which Gaiman, himself, has admitted exerted a considerable influence over him as a child (Austin). The main influence on Selick’s Coraline, however, is the Hollywood horror film, a genre, which until recently, was the exclusive domain of adults.” (pp.251-252)

Ref: (emphases in blue bold, mine) Lindsay Myers (2012) Whose Fear Is It Anyway?: Moral Panics and “Stranger Danger” in Henry Selick’s Coraline. The Lion and the Unicorn 36, 245–257

The study of comics/graphic novels


Tidying up my computer… found an article that looks interesting and has obvious relevance to the study of genre fiction: P.L. Thomas writes:

“While some argue about classifying comic books/graphic novels as genre or medium, the impact of comic books/graphic novels on students’ and all readers’ perceptions of what counts as reading, what counts as text, and what counts as genre (or medium) is a key reason to embrace comic books/graphic novels as powerful texts and as powerful entry
points for critical literacy.” (p.187)

“Comics/graphic novels as a medium are much more than superhero comic books, the type of work most people associate with the medium. And, while I remain convinced that sequential art is a valuable medium for its own reasons, many educators and scholars balk at the medium still. Using connections between what has already been established as quality text […] and comics allows both teachers and students the opportunity to examine comics as a medium while not straying too far from recognized works and traditional views of ‘text’. I am hard pressed to imagine a more powerful experience for students than a challenging look at Blake, Moore, Amos and Gaiman as an adventure in genre/text that rivals the adventures we tend to associate with the world of the comic book.” (p.198)

“Reconsidering text, reading and genre through comic books and graphic novels – texts often associated with those children’s worlds – is a step toward honouring more nuanced and sophisticated perceptions of text – perceptions that children and adults alike have already embraced beyond the walls of school.” (p.199)

ABSTRACT: “Historically, comics and graphic novels have been marginalized as quality texts and significant mediums for study. However, in the past decade comics have found their place in educational establishments. This essay offers a brief literature review of attitudes toward comics/graphic novels as a medium and then explores the use of comics/graphic novels within multigenre units of study that challenge student’s assumptions about genre and text. These unit examples include interrelated works by William Blake and Alan Moore and by Tori Amos and Neil Gaiman. The piece ends by examining the range of subgenres within comics/graphic novels, including traditional views of genre literature (mystery, western, etc.) and considerations of text as adaptation (graphic novel adaptations of traditional literature, film adaptations, etc.).” (p.187)

Ref: P.L. Thomas (2011): Adventures in genre!: rethinking genre through comics/graphic novels , Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics, 2:2, 187-201