A Review of “The Snow Child” by Eowyn Ivey

There is a special kind of emptiness in a marriage, when both the partners long for a child without success. Their private moments change from solitude to loneliness: intimate chatter degenerates into monosyllables before ultimately descending into dark silence. The carefree laughter of a child, the picture of a smiling cherubic face, or the pitter-patter of small feet on the road all become exquisite torture – reminders of some esoteric happiness forever out of reach.

I know… I have been there.

It must be (at least in part) to tackle this anxiety creatively that fairy-tales use the trope of the childless couple quite frequently. The story is quite formulaic: there will be an old couple (mostly on the edge of a wood) who would have been longing for a child without success for ages. Finally out of desperation, the woman (or in some cases, both the partners together) would fashion a child’s likeness out of some unlikely object such as wood or mud, treat it like a human child for one night, and – hey presto! – it would become human overnight. The overjoyed couple would raise it as their own, but the story would usually end badly, with the breaking of some taboo resulting in the child going away.

“Snegurochka” (Snow Maiden) is a Russian fairy tale where the child is fashioned out of snow by a childless woodcutter and his wife, and subsequently brought to life by Father Frost, the spirit of the winter, who takes pity on them. The snow maiden lives with her foster parents quite happily until she falls for a human boy against the express admonitions of Father Frost – the warmth inside melts her, and she fades away bringing spring to the countryside in the process.

From myths.e2bn.org:
sneg-teachAs the snow maiden faded away, spring spread over the land: the frost retreated and the small flowers of the fields began to bloom. Everyone was cheered by the return of spring. Everyone that is except, the young shepherd who felt desolate and cold, despite the warmth of the sun.

As for the old couple, they felt their loss deeply but, in their hearts, they had always known the magic could not last. They were just thankful for the beautiful snow maiden who had brought such warmth and joy to their lives and given them hope in the depths of winter.

But what of the snow maiden? Well, it is said that, as she melted away, her spirit was caught by Father Frost who retreated to far lands with the advance of Mother Spring. He took the spirit of his daughter across the stars to the frozen lands of the north, where she again took the form of a beautiful young woman. Here she plays all through the summer – on the frozen seas.

But, each year in winter, on the first day of the New Year, Father Frost and the Snow Maiden return to Russia in their troika (sleigh). And they continue to work their magic, as they did long ago for the woodcutter and his wife, for those who are good and kind, particularly the children, bringing them small gifts and helping to make their dreams come true.
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Eowyn Ivey has taken this bittersweet story, transplanted it to the rural Alaska of 1920’s, and woven a tale which is every bit as magical as the original. Her protagonists are Mabel and Jack, who are trying to make a living on their farm, fighting against the unforgiving climate as well as life, which has given them only the memory of a stillborn child to live on. The couple are slowly moving apart, and Mabel is on the verge of suicide when, in one blustery night of mad gaiety they a fashion a girl out of snow in front of their cabin. Next day, the child is gone – and a wild girl starts visiting them, clandestinely at first, then more and more openly.

The girl, Faina, is more or less adopted by the couple soon. Their close friends George and Esther initially consider the unseen girl as a hallucination conjured up by Mabel, but after the initial shock of meeting her in person, comes to accept her as she is. Their youngest son, Garrett, a boy of the forest himself is initially antagonistic. Well, as so often happens, antagonism changes to fascination, mutual attraction and love… and the story moves towards its expected climax (and no, this is not a spoiler!).

The beauty of this novel is that it does not follow the trope of the fairy tale blindly. Faina (the child) has a mysterious past as the daughter of an eccentric trapper who died in the forest. She lives off the wild, hunting and eating animals in a strangely feral manner. It is left to us to decide whether Faina is real or a phantasm. While such a style could easily become contrived, Ivey walks the tightrope expertly. There are times when we feel that the novelist is slipping into the realms of fantasy, but every time she pulls back just in time.

Contrasted with Faina are Mabel and Jack, who are very real. Mabel, with her cultured upbringing and artistic tendencies, is the bridge that links the gritty and unromantic world of rural America to the poesy of the snowy slopes of the far north. In fact, the story is almost self-referential in the sense that Mabel owns a book telling the story of the snow maiden, which her father (a literature professor) used to read to her: however, she learns as an adult that he only pretended to read, because the tale is in Russian! Only the pictures make sense, including the terrifying last one of the melted maiden.

We follow the characters with bated breath as they move along their pre-ordained paths – but the end, when it comes, is refreshingly different from yet absolutely faithful to the original. I will leave it at that.

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From myths.e2bn.org:
vasnetsov-snegurochka-teach

In countries that had long harsh winters, the coming of spring was also an immensely important event, particularly to the poor for whom the winters could be extremely harsh. The Russian story of the Snow Maiden sees the battle between the eternal forces of nature (Father Frost and Mother Spring) for warmth to return to the land. And for spring to return, winter has to die. The theme and the interaction of these mythical characters with mortal people like Kupava and Mizgir through the character of the Snow Maiden, would have been very meaningful to people, who longed for and celebrated the return of spring.

Birth, death, rebirth – these are the themes of ageless tales. There are no full stops in life, but an endless cycle of seasons through which we eke out our existence – brief candles, whose flames are ephemeral yet eternal at some level.

(All images courtesy myths.e2bn.org)

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Fantasy and Allegory – A New Reading of a Timeless Favourite

Narnia1I don’t think there will be many who do not know the story of The Chronicles of Narnia, even if they have not actually read the books. The stories of the four Pevensie children who discover the magical land of Narnia through the back of a wardrobe is the stuff of legend in literary circles – a land which they rule over as kings and queens after freeing it from the enchantment of the White Witch, under the benign yet firm supervision of Aslan the lion.

As fantasies for children go, this is a terrific universe filled with possibilities. There are talking animals, magical creatures from Greek mythology and English fairy-lore, and suitably satisfying and mysterious landscape worthy of exploration again and again. So one feels that if only the author in C. S. Lewis had let himself go he could have produced something similar to the The Lord of the Rings.

Unfortunately, he does not do that. The author sublimates himself to the Christian, so that the story becomes allegory – and mostly allegory. The spirit of gung-ho adventure is coated over with sickly-sweet preachiness which becomes so cloying towards the end that one almost feels like throwing up.

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The edition I read contained all the novels in the chronological order as regards the story:

1. The Magician’s Nephew
2. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
3. The Horse and His Boy
4. Prince Caspian
5. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
6. The Silver Chair
7. The Last Battle

However, the actual order in which the books were published is:

1. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
2. Prince Caspian
3. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
4. The Silver Chair
5. The Magician’s Nephew
6. The Horse and His Boy
7. The Last Battle

It seems that there is a hot dispute going on about the order in which the books should be read. After reading them in the chronological sequence, I would advise reading them in the sequence of publication. In my personal opinion, the last two – The Horse and His Boy, and The Last Battle – are better left unread, especially the last one. More about that later.

Aslan2005Aslan the Lion is Christ – this becomes evident in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe itself. The White Witch (and later, the Queen of the Underworld) are embodiments of Evil with a capital E.

(I was a bit surprised that there was no sign of the gentleman with the horns and the forked tail. Evil is entirely feminine – that too, with a perverse sort of sexual attractiveness. It seems Lewis was genuinely frightened of woman’s sexuality: Susan becomes a “non-friend of Narnia” the moment she becomes a nubile young woman. Lewis’s protagonists, like that of Lewis Carroll, are prepubescent girls.)

The Christian world view is evident from the word go – for example, the animals and birds can all be killed and eaten, provided that they are not “talking animals”! (They have been specially blessed as such by Aslan, we are told, in the story of the creation of Narnia in The Magician’s Nephew.) This evidently comes from the Bible where Man is given dominion over every living thing on earth. In case we don’t get it, Aslan continuously addresses the boys as “Sons of Adam” and the girls as “Daughters of Eve” and says that only they can rule over Narnia. As the story progresses, it becomes more prevalent – and now racism and intolerance of the heathens also come into play.

The Calormenes – dark-skinned foreigners who worship a savage god Tash, wear turbans and carry scimitar-like swords – are an Englishman’s fantasy of the bloodthirsty and lecherous Turk. In their country, young girls are routinely married off to old codgers, and they wage war on the free countries like Narnia to rape and pillage. Their God Tash, however, is a pagan deity who is loosely associated with the gentleman I mentioned earlier – the guy with horns.

The unlikeable brat Eustace Scrubb is the son of liberal parents who are pacifists and vegetarians. He studies in a school which does not have corporal punishment and which does not teach the Bible – and is therefore full of bullies who are encouraged by the Principal! However, Eustace reforms after a visit to Narnia, and returns back to the school and hammers the living daylights out of the bullies. The Principal is removed from the school and ultimately becomes a Member of Parliament, where she lives happily ever after (note the point: M. P. ‘s are failed schoolteachers who fail to put the fear of God into children).

It is in the last book that Lewis outdoes himself. There is an ape who presents a donkey as Aslan. The ape is part of a conspiracy with the Caloremenes who present their God Tash and Aslan as the same, but don’t believe in either. Also, the ending is patently silly and for me, it was disgusting.

But…

If you can ignore the allegory and the preachiness, there are some pretty interesting adventures here. The first three books are rather well-written (although a bit simplistic) and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is your classic sea adventure. The Magician’s Nephew is extremely funny in parts. One advice to prospective readers though – please give the last book a miss.

A Review of “The Ocean at the End of the Lane” by Neil Gaiman

Ocean_at_the_End_of_the_Lane_US_CoverI have seen a lot of contemptuous reviews of Gaiman’s books, by reviewers I respect. What is so great about them? They ask. All of them are simplistic stories using the same motifs again and again – trite fantasies about little children up against mythical monsters. Enjoyable, sure, enough to while away a holiday afternoon, maybe… But great? Come on guys, aren’t you exaggerating a bit?

As a fan of Gaiman’s prose, there was a time I would have been furious with them. How can you not see the poetry of language? I would have asked. How can you not see the richness of the imagination? How can you not sense the profoundness of what Gaiman is saying? But not anymore – because now I understand that it is a fundamental difference of perception: one you can’t explain or substantiate, like the taste of a particular curry one loves and another hates.

The unnamed narrator of this novel says:

…the patterns in the headboard of the bed at my grandmother’s house, which, if I looked at them wrongly in the moonlight, showed me an old man with his mouth open wide, as if he were screaming.

I know what he means, oh yes: I similarly saw the face of an old hag in a dead leaf when I was two or three (reading this passage jogged my memory, and I suddenly recalled this long-forgotten terrifying incident), and had a very difficult time explaining it to my parents (they still don’t know).

It is a fact: only some can see with the eyes of a child.

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The country of childhood is a strange and exhilarating and (yes!) frightening place.

Adults follow paths. Children explore. Adults are content to walk the same way, hundreds of times, or thousands; perhaps it never occurs to adults to step off the paths, to creep beneath the rhododendrons, to find the spaces between the fences.

It is on this path, off the beaten track, that Gaiman takes you in this novel (as in many others), as you accompany the seven-year-old protagonist on a frightening and exhilarating journey to the end of the lane, where three generations of female Hempstocks (who are perhaps older than time itself) live in their farmhouse – a farmhouse which also houses a duck-pond which is really an ocean. You watch with bated breath as he battles an evil out of time which appears in the guise of an ordinary governess, and pray for him as the hunger birds descend upon him ravenously. Of course, you do this if you can enjoy the story for what it is, without trying to find the meanings hidden between the words.

I liked myths. They weren’t adult stories and they weren’t children’s stories. They were better than that. They just were.

YES.

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As a shy and socially backward youngster, I found refuge in books at a very early age. As I grew up, the stories changed, but a bit of the boy who lost himself between the pages of a novel stayed.

I thought about adults. I wondered if that was true: if they were all really children wrapped in adult bodies, like children’s books hidden in the middle of dull, long books. The kind with no pictures or conversations.

I do not know about all adults, but I definitely fit the bill. If you think you do too, please take some time to visit the ocean at the end of the lane.

I guarantee that you won’t be disappointed.