The Arrival by Shaun Tan: Musical Walls and Bridges

Attending the 2019 Congress of the International Research Society for Children’s Literature was an utterly amazing experience. Both Stockholm itself and the Congress located in Norra Latin—a historic high school now turned conference center in Norrmalm—offered me a continuous deluge of warm collegial camaraderie, stunning urban and riverside views beneath an overcast sky, scholarship that advocates for the marginalized in all its forms—and coffee, lots and lots of coffee… There were so many things about the trip that offered me a chance to feel at home. Yet, of course, I wasn’t home, and the trip also constantly reminded me of my foreignness, from pedestrian-car interactions (no stop signs!) to prices in krona, and from the sight of cathedrals and cobblestones and the letter “å” to the unremitting child-consciousness of Swedish culture. This is why for my first post-Stockholm post, I decided to explore a children’s book that deals more intensely with the concept of foreignness.

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The Arrival

by Shaun Tan

Hodder Children’s Books (2006)

Text: None! This is what one might call a wordless graphic novel, each page filled with pictures in various orientations. I had heard of this book before, though never read it, and then it came up in a keynote presentation on the second day. While browsing a book display during one of our frequent fika coffee breaks, I saw the recognizable cover picture accompanied by a single unexpected word, “Ankomsten”, the Swedish translation of “The Arrival”. For a moment I felt like the quizzical man on the cover, staring at a little alien creature, considering the odd mixture of familiar and unfamiliar that a foreign word can conjure.

Picture: The pictures are arresting, powerful, and intricate, rendered in muted tones and depicting a fantasy/futuristic setting that nevertheless references turn of the century America, specifically the experiences of immigrants passing through Ellis Island. The basic idea behind the book is that there is a man who leaves his family and travels to an entirely new metropolis, a place where absolutely everything is unfamiliar, strange, and foreign. He—and we as readers—struggle to make sense of this new place as the character seeks food, shelter, work, and above all human connection. Gradually and with the help of kind people he comes to understand the ways and codes of this place, reminding me of a George MacDonald quote from Lillith: “The only way to come to know where you are is to begin to make yourself at home.” It is a timely, challenging, and moving book, important for children and adults alike to engage with.

Music: This book entrenches readers in the complex and painful process of learning, specifically of learning to navigate through and within an unfamiliar culture. Music, as an expression and carrier of culture, appears twice in the book and vividly communicates this shift from confusion to understanding. The first picture below depicts the arriving man’s first encounter with this new world. 

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The man is confused at this point in the story, and we are thrust with him into the middle of an alien world. The invasive protocols of immigration services, the goings-on of bustling people in the streets, the appearance and behaviors of new animals, everything is overwhelming to his senses. The street musicians appear ominous: rendered in very dark hues with dower faces and surrounded by rat-like birds, the otherworldliness of the instruments they play—which include a space-age violin and an accordion with a serpentine tuba bell—is palpable. The concept of “noise” is useful here, as is an oft quoted definition by Anna Tsing: noise is the “awkward, unequal, unstable creative qualities of interconnection across difference” (Tsing 2004, 1). The oddity of the picture and the imagined music—some of which seems to be visibly shooting up out of the tuba bell into the sky—is meant to create a wall of noise. Unsettled by difference, the man has no opportunity to come to grips with its discomfiting significance.

[Aside: Tan’s imagined world of organological difference is actually remarkably similar to our own world. Modern western culture has a very limited notion of what instruments are “normal”, and in the margins of time and space lie instruments that display the human capacity for imaginative music- and/or noise-making. Below: A) a French piano accordion from 1880s on display in MIM Phoenix, B) John Matthias Augustus Stroh’s mechanically amplified Stroh violin invented in 1899, C) Adolph Sax’s trombone à pistons from 1876 on display in MIM Brussels, E) a ca. 1900 harp-guitar by Cesare Candi of Genoa, and F) Linda Manzer’s 42-string Pikasso guitar of 1984.]

The next musical encounter in The Arrival offers fresh possibilities for the newcomer on his journey towards musical and cultural understanding. After befriending a family and learning their own traumatic story, he is invited to dinner. Shared food, conversation, and laughter lead to an after-dinner musical concert, and a new relationship to this culture’s music. We see each member of the family happily contributing to this delightful Hausmusik experience. The father plays a miniature version of the street musician’s trumpet accordion, the mother plays a turnip-shaped ocarina with glowing orb of musical warmth, and the son sings—with his Pokémon lizard!—while strumming on a four-stringed circular guitar reminiscent of a Chinese ruan

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The newcomer’s relationship with this family offers him a bridge toward understanding the meanings of music in this foreign place. Within the safety of a warm domestic setting he is able to draw near enough and to sit still long enough to listen with open ears and to ask questions of the performers in order to approach understand. Tan’s two images of music in The Arrival illustrate the contextuality of whether we interpret something as noise or as music. Relationship opens the door.

The Sacred Music of Harry Potter: The Hogwarts School Song

For the past decade my wife, Jess, and I have cultivated an evening ritual in which she prepares dinner while I read a book out loud: the sights, smells, and sounds of stir fry, enchiladas, soup, and barbecued kebabs mingling with spirited performances of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Madeline l'Engle, J.R.R. Tolkien, and George MacDonald. One author who has received special attention is J.K. Rowling. Her Harry Potter series has received no less than seven complete and enthusiastic renditions in ten years and we are currently knee deep in Book Four for the eighth time! The books are like old friends and have been a rich source of comfort, entertainment, thoughtfulness, and extemporaneous nonsense.

Unknown artist. Dumbledore  would  own a combustable bird...

Unknown artist. Dumbledore would own a combustable bird...

This year I've also been enjoying a podcast entitled "Harry Potter and the Sacred Text". The co-hosts Vanessa Zoltan and Casper ter Kuile, graduates of Harvard Divinity School, ask us to consider what might happen if we were to take the Harry Potter series and treat it with the same seriousness and devotion as when we read a sacred text. What might a piece of fiction reveal or teach, convict or inspire if we were to approach it with the expectation that by engaging with it we engage with something sacred? I find this project fascinating, whether or not I agree with their various readings, and it has inspired a whole new host of conversations at home.

For a while I have been interested in blogging about the role of music in the Harry Potter books. In the spirit of the Harry Potter and the Sacred Text podcast, I'm going to try this out by selecting a music-related excerpt from the books and reading it through the lens of a sacred reading technique. I'll be using lectio divina, an ancient Christian practice that follows a four-step process of reading, mediating, conversing, and praying to enter into a sacred text. I'll be using the altered format that is employed in the podcast along with my own additional step:

  1. Context: What is happening in the story when this excerpt occurs?
  2. Musicology [MINE]: What might this music sound like and what ideas are associated with it?
  3. Metaphor: What imagery or associations does this excerpt suggest?
  4. Personal: What personal memories does this excerpt recall?
  5. Action: What does this excerpt motivate you to do in your life?

Here goes!

You may recognize this first passage as that poster on the wall of every junior high band room.

"Ah, music," he said, wiping his eyes. "A magic beyond all we do here!"
Unknown artist. Anyone else discomfited by the thought of hot wax dripping from thousands of floating candles? I guess that's why you wear the pointed hats!

Unknown artist. Anyone else discomfited by the thought of hot wax dripping from thousands of floating candles? I guess that's why you wear the pointed hats!

1. Context

This quote appears in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (US version, page 128), Chapter Seven "The Sorting Hat" and is spoken by the headmaster, Albus Dumbledore. It is the start of another academic year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, the new students have been separated into their houses by the Sorting Hat and are sitting at their various House Tables in the enchantedly open-aired Great Hall. The customary feast that celebrates the start of term has been voraciously consumed, the golden plates magically cleaned, and Dumbledore has given out announcements both perfunctory and mysterious. As a benedictory gesture the headmaster leads the student body in a performance of the Hogwarts school song. Uniquely, the students were not taught the music to the song either by rote or by notation; after writing the words to the song in the air with a golden ribbon, Dumbledore declares, "Everyone pick their favorite tune and off we go!" Rowling continues, "Everybody finished the song at different times. At last, only the Weasley twins were left singing along to a very slow funeral march. Dumbledore conducted their last few lines with his wand and when they had finished, he was one of those who clapped loudest." After this Dumbledore delivers the excerpted quote and then excuses everyone to bed.

 

2. Musicology

Technically the musical event that Rowling describes is an instance of aleatoric polyphony. Polyphony is the simultaneous sounding of more than one distinct melody. For instance, in "Ihr aber seid nicht fleischlich" from Jesu, meine Freude by J.S. Bach (1685-1750) five different melodies vie for your attention, each entering one at a time with the same theme before doing their own thing. This type of texture is more challenging to listen to than, say, a song with a clear melody over a clear accompaniment, and you may need some practice for your ears to make sense of it all. The good new is that, in this instance, and likewise for countless other examples of polyphony written in a certain idiom (ie tonal music), the challenge of listening to individual voices simultaneously is lessened by the fact that everything occurs within a stable harmonic and metric framework. This means that the dense texture actually has a solid and carefully crafted harmony that controls the vertical aspect of the pitches and a solid and carefully crafted meter that controls the horizontal aspect of the rhythm. Put more simply, it all lines up.

However, there are some extremely conflicted instances of polyphony, especially from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries (ie not tonal music), where this harmonic and metric framework is lacking. Chaos reigns supreme! Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) depicts pandemonium with a creepy polyphonic beginning to his Second Symphony with thirteen extremely independent voices, Elliott Carter (1908-2012) wrote his Third String Quartet to sound like two pairs of instruments that just happened to start playing completely different pieces in the same room at the same time, and Andrew Norman (b. 1979) musicalized the flamboyant Baroque architecture of Bernini in the "Teresa" movement of his The Companion Guide to Rome with extreme polyphonic madness.* However, I think the piece that gets us closest to the Hogwarts school song, remarkably, is from 1673: Battalia for ten string instruments by the surprisingly modernistic Baroque composer Heinrich Biber (1644-1704). The second section of this piece, entitled "Die liederliche Gesellschaft von allerley Humor," instrumentally depicts a mass of soldiers, perhaps inebriated, definitely enjoying themselves, singing ten different songs simultaneously. For each instrument, Biber composed a different song at different speeds, keys, and rhythms, ending on a triumphant cluster chord. Yikes! Check out this link and listen from 1:44 to 2:30

A page from Cage's Concert for Piano and Orchestra. 

A page from Cage's Concert for Piano and Orchestra. 

Yet, as dissonant as Biber's example is, all of these polyphonic examples fail to truly represent the chaos of the Hogwarts school song because none of them are aleatoric.** Aleatoric music is music in which some elements are intentionally left to chance and the performer chooses what to play in the moment of performance. The composer could, for instance, indicate that a melody is supposed to rise in an arc and come back down after a given amount of time, but not specify the pitches, rhythm, articulation, or character. Such music could hardly ever be played the same way twice and the whole idea blurs the line between composition and improvisation in a very avant-garde sort of way. John Cage (1912-1992) stated that in his Concert for Piano and Orchestra "The only thing I was being consistent to in this piece was that I did not need to be consistent." He leaves just about everything you can imagine to chance and choice, including melodies, textures, instrumentation, and duration. Here are three vastly different performances of the same aleatoric "work": 1) Orchestre Philharmonique de la Radio Flamande, 2) Orchestra Laboratorio del Conservatorio di Alessandria, and 3) Chironomids Outerspace Group.

The singing of the Hogwarts school song is a an extreme case of avant-garde chaosDepending on how you count, there could be as many as 300 to 2000 individual voices, each singing any melody, in any key, and at any tempo. This is not some stately rendition of a venerable alma mater. This is aleatoric polyphony at black hole density!*** Dumbledore obviously does not have the same ideas of institutional prestige as other Headmasters.


*My guess is that Dumbledore regularly listens to Elliott and Norman in his office, with his fingers lightly pressed together. His Chocolate Frog Card does specify that he enjoys chamber music!

**This is why the cut scene from the fourth Harry Potter movie by Warner Brothers (and I assume by the score composer Patrick Doyle) doesn't do Rowling justice. If you watch it, you'll notice that, while spirited and rather noisy, it's really only a canon. Polyphonic? Yes. But not even close to the chaos described!

***Can someone please attempt to recreate this event and record it?!?! Send me a video!!

 

3. Metaphor

I read the theme of participation in this excerpt.

First, the participation of the students. The start of term feast is full of identity formation. Students become Gryffindors or Slytherins or Ravenclaws or Hufflepuffs, four distinct Houses separated from the others by personality traits, founder histories, dormitory locations, eating arrangements, animal mascots, color schemes. Within those Houses there are other divisions based on your year, your academic abilities, your course schedule, your Quidditch skills. These various (polyphonic?) boundaries crisscross and obscure the inherent unity of these students as a whole, namely that they are all witches and wizards. The singing of the Hogwarts school song momentarily sweeps aside these divisions and unites each and every student through—not just song—but a musical act that is radically egalitarian, welcoming, and accepting. Think about what it would be like to be participating in this event: every student hums, chants, bellows, croons, raps, squawks, or sings-with-good-diaphragm-support-and-excellent-vowel-shapes, with again, any melody, in any key, and at any tempo! It's a musical experience that offers each and every student a chance to participate exactly as they are. And while there are no musical barriers to participation, it's almost as if there are no social barriers as well.

Second, Dumbledore's participation. (Spoiler Alert!) Dumbledore can't get enough of this experience. He sets it in motion, basks in the chaos of the event, vigorously applauds its conclusion, and feels so brimful that tears well up in his eyes as he places music above all learnéd magic. What do those tears mean? Is he actually moved by the musicality of the moment? Is he being sarcastic and pointing out the inherent senselessness of reality? I think neither. I think that his participation in this odd experience has meaning for him because of his troubled relationship to power; later in the books we find that tragic events in Dumbledore's past caused him to distrust himself with positions of authority and with intimate relationships. Hence his reticence to confront Grindelwald. His refusal to take up the Minister of Magic post. His seven-book-long secret-keeping from Harry. I would imagine all these withdrawals, and the remembered, familial trauma of which they are a constant reminder, would have been a source of deep pain for Dumbledore. When he spreads his arms in welcome to the room full of students, perhaps he simultaneously fears to get too close and risk hurting those he loves. But, when he participates in the school song, he has a moment of respite. As long as that chaotic riot of aleatoric polyphony rages, Dumbledore is embracing and embraced in an intimate family. For Dumbledore this unity is a magic beyond all that can be taught at Hogwarts because it is a magic that reunites him with the closeness that he has both longed for and feared for a lifetime.

 

4. Personal

Owens Valley, We Love You.png

My mother actually composed my school song. For a good portion of our lives, my siblings and I attended Owens Valley Unified School District in Independence, California, a small K-12 school in a small desert town. And when I say small, I mean small. There were ten people in my graduating class. And it was an abnormally large class! I remember by mother, a singer and flutist, sketching out some words and melody on our electric keyboard in the back room. But it didn't just remain a sketch. Pretty soon we were all learning it in classes. And before you knew it we were singing it as a student body at assembly meetings and pep rallies in the gym! I've written it out below from what I can remember.

In many ways growing up in Independence was a lesson in scarcity. But it was also a place where, because of its small size, each person's individual contribution had great significance. My mother decided to write a school song and so we had one! We can easily lose that feeling of agency and importance in the larger picture of the world. I doubt that the song ist still sung at O.V. today. But I'd be interested to know if students from around my year still vaguely remember the birth and brief iteration of our very own school song, and whether they found any camaraderie in shouting "Orange and Black!" at the top of their lungs.

 

5. Action

Life seems pretty chaotic to me right now. I'm a dissertating graduate student, husband, father of a toddler and a newborn, with one car, living in an expensive city. It's aleatoric polyphony of calendaring and commuting and writing and cleaning and choosing and questioning and failing and rising and trying again. Often it feels heavy. But this passage of Dumbledore's has me thinking that chaos is a particularly rich moment to notice the magic of participation. I don't have to do these things. I choose to. I get to. And it's worth it. "A magic beyond all we do here." Where can you look for magic in the chaos of your life? Where can you sing connection and participation into your community?

I also find it significant that the sound-world that invites community and belonging through participation is decidedly avant-garde. Perhaps I can think of the chaos of life as the deployment of the avant-garde, the advance guard pushing forward into something new. Do we have our wits about us as we march forward into both the knowns and unknowns? Who do we bring with us on this mission? When and how do you rest? 


NEXT: Ghost music...

 

Medtner's Piano Quintet: Coloring Outside the Lines

Lately I have been enjoying some chamber music. Commuting to school or work in Santa Barbara rarely takes longer than 15 minutes, which is the perfect amount of time to listen to a favorite movement from an old standby or incrementally explore a new find.

Most recently the Piano Quintet in C Major of Nikolai Medtner has become something of an obsession. Even as I write this post there are fragments of melody spinning around in my head. I have been working my way through various piano quintets (for those unfamiliar, an ensemble usually involving piano + string quartet (2 violins, viola, and cello)). Perhaps in a later post I will share some thoughts on works by Schumann, Schubert, Shostakovich (hmm... I seem to be on a [sh] kick), Stanford, and Franck.

Nikolai Karlovich Medtner: 1880 (O.S. 1879) – 1951. Similar haircut to George Costanza in this photo. The similarity ends there.

Nikolai Karlovich Medtner: 1880 (O.S. 1879) – 1951. Similar haircut to George Costanza in this photo. The similarity ends there.

The Medtner stands out to me from these other examples because of his bold use of textures and colors. He has some very nice melodies (again, they are earworming my brain pretty strong right now), and I'm aware of some canonic or contrapuntal techniques, but the real interest lies in his textures, and especially in how he juxtaposes different sections.

Take a listen to the first minute of movement 1 below:

From the very first moments, the deep, arpeggiating piano punctuated by pizzicato strings has a striking effect. The oscillating harmony over a drone during this section has a modal quality that would make me want to use words like "epic" or "exotic" if my musicologist oath didn't prevent me. And just about when you get used to the sound, something different pops up: a descending figure in the piano, floating Zeus-like down on a cloudy bed of wavering strings. (To be fair, it is perhaps less Zeus-like than I thought a minute ago... If pressed, I think I'd change that to an Iris-like descent, the Greek rainbow goddess. Yeah, that fits. Nailed it! #hermeneutics)

After that interesting introduction (which comes back later, like at 6:44 and after, giving Iris a much more important role in the entire piece) the first real melody is passed around between some strings, building, subsiding, doing what a late-Romantic piece of music ought to. Then around 0:44 there is a sudden shift in harmony and the wavering strings come back in a moment that sounds like a fragment of a film score. The instruments seem unperturbed by this gravitational shift, and the piano takes up the opening melody.

Keep listening to that first movement and notice the constant shifts, especially those where the piano or strings or both lapse into shimmering filagree.

I want to highlight one more moment where the cool and calm of the piece is disrupted by a moment of utter perturbation and how the instruments find their way out of the problem. Start around 4:30 where an ecstatic and energetic chorale puts the piece in the height of self-possession. The melody starts to evaporate, flickering out with a tremolo until you are left in a rather uncomfortable silence at 4:57. The strings try to feel their way in the aural dark by striking some pizzicato matches. (It worked before in the introduction!) But this effort only rouses the piano, which strikes out in brutal gestures from the low register! The strings, giddy with fear, echo back the piano's declamation. It's hard to imagine how the music will recover from this derailment.

And then, BAM! a piercing shaft of light at 5:30! It's a brilliant moment of ornamental energy, completely shifting the harmony, reigniting the instrumentalists' focus, and returning to them their sense of unity as each take their place and set out anew. From there its pretty smooth sailing through glorious melodies until the pizzicato-punctuated ending.

For an interesting music-literature pairing, I suggest George MacDonald's  The Golden Key .  Light and dark and rainbows and opening doors. Illustrated here by Ruth Sanderson.

For an interesting music-literature pairing, I suggest George MacDonald's The Golden Key.  Light and dark and rainbows and opening doors. Illustrated here by Ruth Sanderson.

Very nice piece. I especially love "Musica Viva's" rendition here. Check out the other two movements when you have the time. Or take a 25 minute commute somewhere (down to Ventura to visit either of their two Target locations, perhaps?) and hear all three.

Enjoy!

Herder's Field of Flowers

“What I would call the third natural method is to leave every flower in place and to scrutinize it there just as it is, according to era and form, from the root to the crown. The most humble genius hates ranking and comparison, and would rather rank first in the village than second behind Caesar. Lichen, moss, fern and the richest spice plant: each flourishes in its own position in the divine order.” (emphasis mine)

—Johann Gottfried Herder (1797) 

Herder here is talking about poetry.

The above quote is taken from the essay Results of a Comparison of Different Peoples’ Poetry in Ancient and Modern Times (for the full text of this short work, click here). In his day poetry was judged against either ancient Greek/Roman or 18th-century French models. However Herder argues that, as cultural products, poetry is created by human beings existing in unique contexts, and therefore reflects those particularities: “Poetry is a Proteus among the peoples.” Therefore the art’s forms, genres, and types will differ from nation to nation, language to language, and history to history.

Claude Monet c.1873 "Poppy Field near Argenteuill" For some reason I feel impelled to yell "Watch out for bees!"

Claude Monet c.1873 "Poppy Field near Argenteuill" For some reason I feel impelled to yell "Watch out for bees!"

But how is one to make sense of this all this confusing, won't-stand-still, lost-in-translation difference?

Herder would argue (and modern cognitive scientists would agree with him) that our natural mode of evaluation tends to stack the deck in our favor, ensuring that our own interests come out on top. “Everybody assesses and ranks poets according to his favorite notions, according to the fashion in which he got to know them, according to the impression that one or another has made on him.” The trouble begins when mere personal preferences turn into totalizing value judgements that build institutional and cultural hierarchies that perpetuate “the classics” at the expense of “the little people”.

What can we do to avoid this poetic confirmation bias? Here are my thoughts on what Herder (with a little help from George MacDonald and J.R.R. Tolkien) brings to the table.

1. Leave every flower in its place

Perhaps we should not be so fast to uproot our favorite flowers and build institutional, hierarchical canons around them. Perhaps we should not be so hasty to pull up what we consider weeds for the upkeep of those systems. Perhaps we should allow for some breathing room that focuses more on savoring and less on judgement. In The Princess and the Goblin George MacDonald explains that upon finding a primrose blossom Princess Irene “would clap her hands with gladness, and unlike some children I know, instead of pulling it, would touch it as tenderly as if it had been a new baby, and, having made its acquaintance, would leave it as happy as she found it... She would go down on her hands and knees beside one and say: ‘Good morning! Are you all smelling very sweet this morning? Good-bye!’ and then she would to to another... There were many flowers up and down, and she loved them all, but the primroses were her favourites.”

2. Scrutinize it just where it is

Analysis should always attempt to be emic, that is, from the point of view of the subject, rather than an etic approach that applies outside, objective standards. This requires much more effort on our parts; in some cases learning a new language, extensive background reading, or living in a foreign country are required before we can begin to understand our subject. (The metaphor of marriage or a different, close relationship would come in handy right here.) Some might say that Herder is here an “isolationist” who would have us view each flower in a vacuum. I would say that this emic effort, rather than tossing out interconnectivity, gives us the time and space to come as close as possible to understanding something before we draw any comparisons or conclusions.

3. Each flourishes in its own position in the divine order

What would it be like if a divine order, a Creator, had made all the world including us humans? What if this Creator looked upon his creation with grace and patience, declaring that “he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (according to Herder’s context of European Christianity)? How might that leveling, egalitarian idea change the way we wield our power of human order upon our own sub-creations (to use a term of Tolkien’s from On Fairy Stories)? Perhaps we would feel less pressure to so blind-sightedly uphold our personal canons. Perhaps we would feel less of a need to keep the unknown at arm’s length. By all means we should study, do research, be critical, make judgements, argue passionately for what we believe in. But the concept of a divine order simply reminds us of our own mortal limitations, of our need for humility in the midst of zealousness, and of our ability to both use and misuse our powers.

Rackham,  Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens  (1906)

Rackham, Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens (1906)

Lastly, Herder is not just talking about poetry.

He is talking about humanity (Humanität). For him poetry’s use of language makes manifest the very souls of a people. In the end Herder’s ideas translate into a worldview of patience, grace, and empathy. 

Sources:

MacDonald, George. The Princess and the Goblin. London: Puffin, 2011.
Tolkien, J.R.R. "On Fairy Stories" in The Tolkien Reader. New York: Ballantine Books, 1966. 

Sumer is icumen in!

Happy summer everyone!

Rackham perfectly capturing the feeling of making it through finals...

Rackham perfectly capturing the feeling of making it through finals...

Graduate school gives summer an extra feeling of arrival and victory. As of today, all grades have been finalized, all papers have been turned in, all boxes have been checked. Now is when we finally have the opportunity to turn to those things which we haven't had the time, mental energy and spiritual fortitude to enjoy. Here's what I'm excited about this summer:

  • Reading more George MacDonald just for fun
  • Playing more piano and chamber music with some friends
  • Actually visiting the beach, and improving my freestyle stroke
  • Meeting up with friends more often
  • Make new friends to improve German and French skills
  • Take naps!

This summer feels even more different from previous ones because not only is my wife no longer working in a job that had her busy the whole summer, but we just moved to a new house! It is such a beautiful, small, functional building with a wonderful landlord who lives on the property. Everything feels so full of life!

What are you doing this summer?

Crying Wolf

Even while school activities have continued to mount (classes starting at Westmont, finals nearing for UCSB summer session) I've continued to ride the sweet, sweet wave of fairy tale criticism that has been become nothing short of a hungry passion. This has been expressed particularly through interaction with the research-collaboration-project blog Subverting Laughter, a truly wonderful chapter-by-chapter exploration of MacDonald's Light Princess from a variety of angles and approaches. I've also been reading Jack Zipes' Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion which is challenging and thought-provoking at every page. I originally picked this one up for it's chapter on George MacDonald, but, now that I'm going through it from the start, it's amazing to consider the broader, cultural ramifications of fairy tales in terms of how they "civilize" people, or teach them to acceptably integrate themselves into society.

Doré's illustration for Perrault's  Le petit chaperon rouge . 

Doré's illustration for Perrault's Le petit chaperon rouge

One of the themes that has jumped out at my through these activities is the symbolism of the wolf, its uses as a villain, as moral watch-dog, as devil, as splanchnon, and as a symbol for ravenous, devouring hunger. Here are some thought-provokers from this past week:

 

Zipes, Chapter 2: Setting Standards for Civilization through Fairy Tales: Charles Perrault and his Associates:

  • (Talking about "Red Riding Hood" in its earliest, oral, folk tale manifestation, before Perrault used it for his own cultural purposes.) The brave little peasant girl, who can fend for herself and shows qualities of courage and cleverness... proves that she is mature and strong enough to replace her grandmother. This specific tradition is connected to the general archaic belief about witches and wolves as crucial for self-understanding. Hans Peter Duerr has demonstrated that "in the archaic mentality, the fence, the hedge, which separated the realm of wilderness from that of civilization did not represent limits which were insurpassable. On the contrary, this fence was even torn down at certain times. People who wanted to live within the fence with awareness had to leave this enclosure at least once in their lifetime. They had to have roamed the woods as wolves or 'wild persons'. That is, to put it in more modern terms: they had to have experienced the wildness in themselves, their animal nature. For their 'cultural nature' was only one side of their being, bound by fate to the animallike fylgja, which became visible to those people who went beyond the fence and abandoned themselves to their 'second face'." In facing the werewolf and temporarily abandoning herself to him, the little girl sees the animal side of her self. She crosses the border between civilization and wilderness, goes beyond the dividing line to face death in order to live. Her return home is a more forward as a whole person. She is a wo/man, self-aware, ready to integrate herself in society with awareness.

MacDonald, Photogen and Nyctaris:
 

  • Watho: There was once a witch who desired to know everything. But the wiser a witch is, the harder she knocks her head against the wall when she comes to it. Her name was Watho, and she had a wolf in her mind. She cared for nothing in itself -- only for knowing it. She was not naturally cruel, but the wolf had made her cruel. She was tall and graceful, with a white skin, red hair, and black eyes, which had a red fire in them. She was straight and strong, but now and then would fall bent together, shudder, and sit for a moment with her head turned over her shoulder, as if the wolf had got out of her mind onto her back.

Padel, In and Out of the Mind: Greek Images of the Tragic Self:
 

  • In darkness we see what we cannot see in light. Darkness is the unknown... Darkness is where we are most likely to encounter gods. And where we meet their prophets... Fundamental to Greek ideas of prophecy, and of the mind, is the idea that knowledge can be found in, and from, darkness... Like the Sirens' song, passion is destructive but illuminating.


And just because it sprang to mind, Mumford and Sons, Whispers in the Dark:

  • You hold your truth so purely,
  • Swerve not through the minds of men
  • This lie is dead
  •  
  • This cup of yours tastes holy
  • But a brush with the devil can clear your mind
  • And strengthen your spine
  •  
  • Fingers tap into what you were once
  • And I'm worried that I blew my only chance
Van Gogh's The Starry Night  (1889) —all a swirl.

Van Gogh's The Starry Night (1889)—all a swirl.

 

The way of talking about the wolf in these contexts reminds me of Ruth Padel's investigation of the splanchnon: as a place of blackness; the embodiment of emotions, hunger, personality; the crossroads between beast and god... I feel like we don't have characters like this anymore... Maybe Gollum, or Severus Snape... There is a contradictory loss of innocence and gain of awareness and strength... And the witch Watho consumed and lost to the wolf within herself... the awakening of hunger and power, but the need to overcome it... Jack Zipes continues to show how fairy tales, from Perrault to Disney, have continued to try to downplay the presence of the wolf, the need to contend with it, favoring instead a wholesale suppression of all that could potentially ruin us and threaten society's stability... Our culture continually downplays psychological therapy, one of the few remaining arenas where we are given room to contend with our inner wolves... Paul Angone in 101 Secrets for Your Twenties points out that those who don't deal with their wolves and grow out of them, tend to grow into them... With Watho-like results?...

And how is music wolf-like? St. Augustine explores music's discomfiting and otherworldly beauty, "a certain sound of joy without words, the expression of a mind poured forth in joy..." Does/can/should music also be poured forth in the emotion of the wolf? Can music provide a relatively safe place to explore these realms? And what music?

What do you think?

Apples Falling From the Baum

Amidst TAing an “Enjoyment of Music” summer session at UCSB and preparing to teach “Survey of Western Music” at Westmont beginning next week, I’ve been getting in a little last-minute reading. This summer has been an enthusiastic adventure through a variety of books concerning fairy tales: from Propp’s morphological theorizing and Todorov’s definition of the “fantastic” to bios of George MacDonald to fascinating contes by seventeenth-century, female, French writers like d'Aulnoy and l’Héritier, and E.T.A. Hoffmann’s bizarre Der goldene Topf. I recently finished a book entitled Out of the Woods: The Origins of the Literary Fairy Tale in Italy and France, a collection of essays by prominent fairytale scholars, which gives a wide swath of perspectives and analytical positions to consider and apply in my own thinking. I’m having fun!

With this exploratory thought-lust in mind, I’ve made some preliminary observations concerning one of our read-out-loud-while-my-amazing-wife-prepares-dinner books: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Since I’m currently diving into a chapter entitled "Inverting and Subverting the World with Hope: The Fairy Tales of George MacDonald, Oscar Wilde and L. Frank Baum" by Jack Zipes, which is sure to give me a lot to think about, I’d better get out my initial perspective out now before anything else happens.

Illustration by W.W. Denislow

Illustration by W.W. Denislow

What initially struck me was Baum's introduction, a short one-page disclaimer in which he advocates for fairy tale modernization (particularly doing away with old European motifs, characters, and gruesome scenes) and aims at creating stories of pure, juvenile entertainment (Dorothy's innocence is a constant theme throughout the book). This strikes me a a pretty gutsy and bravura move and it brings a lot of questions to mind:

1. Does Baum succeed in divorcing himself from European tradition? His narrative structure seems particularly Proppian; his characters, though packaged differently, function much like those from a stock fairy tale; and the amount of gruesomeness tends to rival that found in some Grimm stories, for instance Dorothy viewing a decomposing corpse upon entry to the Land of Oz, as well as frequent and well-nigh habitual decapitation and dismemberment by the Tin Woodman's axe. Even as I write this, however, I wonder if there is a symbolic gesture involved in the violence. What if the Wicked Witches of the East and West somehow stand in for European tradition itself, something that Dorothy's purity must somehow (effectively yet simultaneously innocently) eradicate, both by the fall of the house (building something new over old foundations?) and through the cleansing power of water...

2. What about the dialectic between childish entertainment and moralizing symbolism? Baum's self-conscious story advocates for the former, but his pugnacious introduction, seemingly directed at adult purchasers/readers complicates matters. It makes me critical of the fantastic elements in the story as I attempt to understand their potential purpose and position. It seems like the fantasy can act in at least three ways:
     A. As pure childish fancy: primary colors, glittering objects (so much you have to wear protective eye-wear), wondrous exoticisms, delicious fruits, soft sheets... in effect anything that gives a sense of delightfulness and potency as wonder-inducing symbols for youth. Seen in this light, it would seem that Baum's choices are nearly random. Does it matter that the Munchkins like blue and the Winkies like yellow? Why a Stork? Why Wolves and Bees? Why this appearance of symbolism, of potential? Why does unmasking the power structure (the Wizard as a humbug) accomplish so little in the paradigm of the story?
     B. As cultural critique: I read somewhere that Baum may have had a "yellow-brick road = money power structures" vendetta. Maybe also an American/democratic, anti-monarchical message? But in the end, despite the Wizard's banishment, the Scarecrow, Tin Woodman, and Lion all become monarchs... I don't have any biographical knowledge that could enrich this idea as of yet, plus ideological application is so tricky.
     C. As a tongue-in-cheek, adult-directed message: the brainless Scarecrow a great thinker, the heartless Tin Woodman constantly crying and sighing, the frightened Lion facing death to protect his friends. Where is Propp's Lack? Where is the real problem that must be fixed? Also, the use of "magic" seems extremely complicated: sometimes mere smoke-and-mirrors; sometimes, genuinely borrowed from Europe (Dorothy's silver slippers and petit Poucet's seven-league boots); and sometimes so random as to appear ridiculous (the Good Witch of the North balancing her pointed hat on her nose and counting to three, as it turns into a writing tablet)... Does magic exist here or not? Is it powerful or not? Does it matter? Who makes things happen? Who has power?

3. Lastly, why has it become such a powerful American cultural symbol? The MGM movie, The Wiz musical, Wicked the book and the musical? Does it contain something potent after all it's deconstruction?

What do you think? What pops out at you when you experience this story? What do you like, dislike, not understand? Why did they change the color of her slippers in the movie!?!?

Reading Parallel Texts

Lately I've found a wealth of encouragement from this Every Day Language Learner post, Language Learning Tip: Using Parallel Texts. I have several books of this type, mostly German (Grimm Märchen, poetry anthologies and collections by Goethe and Rilke), but also a Gàidhlig collection of folk tales and Robert Henryson's The Testament of Cresseid in Middle Scots. Moreover the internet is chalk full of ways to synthesize the concept. In the past, when faced with an intimidating swath of foreign language, I've taken the machete-through-the-jungle approach, with minimal glances at my mother-tongue translation, convinced that the effort of immersion should be assuaged by English as little as possible.

Anne Anderson's princess from  The Golden Bird  doesn't judge a book by its cover.

Anne Anderson's princess from The Golden Bird doesn't judge a book by its cover.

According to Aaron's post, this is not the best way to go about it. He suggests first reading a portion of the text (as much as a single sentence to a whole chapter) in your native language, gaining an understanding of its meaning, and only then taking on a chunk of the target language. This way you spend little if no time looking up individual vocabulary words and have much more contextual or narrative meaning to assign. It also helps clear up idiomatic difficulties and generally keeps you going further longer. This concept has already been at work when I've read sections of the Bible, Harry Potter, or any of the Narnia stories because of my background knowledge.

Since reading this article, in addition to feeling good about being placed in the "Intermediate" category, I've barreled through no less than four Grimm stories with an extremely high comprehension and retention. I've discovered that this method is much more difficult with poetry given the high level of abstraction and grammatical anomalies (although my dreams seem to be haunted by Klopstock's Das Rosenband). My greatest joy has now been to read Friedrich Motte Fouqué's Undine in English, a fairy tale greatly admired by George MacDonald. I had bought the little yellow copy of the story in German while in Leipzig last year, but have always felt as if I should be much further along in vocabulary before I stumbled through it. Now, having read it once over in my mother tongue, to great satisfaction and joy, I am well equipped to take a stab at it in the original. I hope to use this same idea to get through my languishing copies of stories by Kafka, Ende's Neverending Story, and Goethe's Young Werther.

Happy reading!