Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Fantastical Heroes Explained through Into the Woods

As children, we delight in fantastical literature. The Little Red Hen asks her barnyard friends for help, but they refuse until she’s baked the bread. A Poky Little Puppy must listen to his mother’s corrections, and Santa calls out to his flying reindeer as he delivers gifts round the world.

As we age, many of us are no longer willing to suspend disbelief. With our feet firmly on the ground, we expect authors to deliver realistic portrayals of the human experience. Others still delight in fantasy. Each of the top three comics sold 75.9 million copies in 2014. Marvel’s comic characters deliver blockbuster earnings when those characters come to life on film. Clearly, many grown-ups still enjoy a dose of fantasy.

One of the primary reasons is not talking animals--although Babe and Wilbur charm the older breast as much as the young one. A key reason is the hero.

Heroes in fantastical literature are often unassuming, even unprepared for the role they must play. The Baker in Sondheim’s Into the Woods is a prime example. He sallies forth to retrieve four unusual objects for a witch who’s promised to reverse a spell she placed upon the Baker’s house.

Photo by Connye Griffin

The Baker is blameless. He didn't earn or deserve a curse. He did not climb into the witch’s garden to steal rampion for a pregnant wife. He did not desert his son after life hammered the man's tender heart.

The Baker cherishes his wife, would like to be a father, and bears the burden of his father’s curse with stoicism. If he must venture into the woods to remove the curse of barrenness upon his house, then venture he will.

The Baker is not tough though. He challenges his wife for spinning a tale about magic beans when she barters with Jack for a cow the color of milk, the first of four unusual objects required. He grabs Little Red Riding Hood’s cloak the color of blood, but returns it when she pouts and cries. When a giant appears, his first instinct is to run.

After the witch’s demands have been met, the Baker finds new resolve and courage. He holds a newborn son in his arms, and he intends to uphold his paternal duties, to be there for his child until he learns that his wife has not survived the temptations of the woods. Then, as it did his father, grief threatens to resurrect self-absorption, a trait that most adults set aside as they care for others. The Baker nearly abandons his own child as his father abandoned him, but the needs of others win the day and supersede his own sorrow. Cinderella needs a safe harbor. Jack needs help to survive a giant’s desire for vengeance, and Little Red Riding Hood needs a home.

The once barren Baker now has a family. He has become the patriarch and provider for two children, Little Red and Jack. He will also have Cinderella’s help caring for his infant son, and we’re told, she no longer desires the dreamy, if insincere, Prince. She wants something in between the nightmarish life she led under her stepmother’s rule and the fa├žade presented by a glib Prince. We hope the Baker is that in between.

The Baker moved from hard worker to hero by choosing wisely. He had no superpower; he only needed to be brave when danger approached, clever when the path was uncertain, and kind when hostility was easier. He is the hero that resides in every human heart. He is the hero we long to be when we are forced into a pathless wood.

Reading Challenge:


Writing Challenge:

The Baker has no superpower; Buffy does. Is one more fantastical than the other? Is one more satisfying than the other? Explain your answers.

Connye Griffin writes My Writing and Editing Coach

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Into the Woods, A Lesson in Literature Fantastical and Practical

I’ve been a fan of Steven Sondheim’s Tony-award winning musicalInto the Woods, for decades so I was excited to be in the theater to experience it again as a film. Though different from the staged musical, Rob Marshall’s adaptation for Disney still delights. I left the theater feeling light of heart in spite and because of the somber lessons delivered through music and action.

One reason for my delight is the intellectual delight of the story. Sondheim has entered into fairy tales with which we are familiar and imagined them anew. He has also woven several separate tales into one. Rapunzel, Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, and Jack and the Beanstalk are residents of the same village, and each takes a walk into the woods, a metaphor for the paths of our lives, for the world wider than our hometowns.

Into the Woods in Winter
Photo by Al Griffin
The actions of the baker’s father impact the baker and his wife who has a soft spot for Little Red who’s rescued from the Wolf’s belly by the baker who’s on a quest to find four special objects that will transform the witch from whom the baker’s father stole rampion to satisfy the baker’s mother’s cravings while pregnant with the baker who also trades Jack five beans for a cow the color of milk and wins the cape the color of blood after rescuing Red. The baker’s wife claims Rapunzel’s hair the color of corn and chases Cinderella to claim the shoe of gold. Well, you see, it’s complicated and tightly woven. I admire that kind of vision and delight in the story’s fresh twists and turns.

Another reason that the filmed version of the story delights is the nature of fairy tales. They are fantastical. Ordinary folk confront the consequences of their own actions, and often those consequences are supersized beasts or shape-shifters. Animals sometimes speak, witches appear and disappear, and quests begin and end, usually with those ordinary folk having demonstrated some measure of heroism or wit. In other words, ordinary people grow and triumph, proving once more that humans can be spectacular.

A final reason the story delights is found in overall meanings. Jack, Cinderella, the baker, and Red learn that family has more to do with loyalty and shared purpose than with biology. Rapunzel and her Prince learn more than most of us would like to know about treachery and betrayal, but their love conquers all. They ride off to live happily ever after, we assume. 

Cinderella learns that a Prince Charming may not be the man of anyone’s dreams. As he admits, he was raised to be charming, not sincere. Cinderella’s vain stepsisters learn that Nature’s judgment can be harsh while the Baker’s wife discovers the woods may lead one astray, a lesson that Little Red learns as well. Many of the characters, especially the baker, feel Regret’s sting and vow to live in a manner that averts it. Every character must face Grief, a central figure in the human experience.

To revisit these truths in song is a delight. To experience the special effects and the fine performances delights. To laugh at Prince Charming’s vanity and gasp as the giant searches for Jack are delightful. To wonder with Cinderella whether her nightmare childhood or dream marriage is better delights. So see the film or watch the entire stage play on YouTube. You will be delighted.

Reading Challenge:

Read Into the Woods.

Writing Challenge:

Write a brief narrative telling the story developed through a fantastical work of literature such as Into the Woods or a fairy tale or E. B. White’s Charlotte's Web.

Connye Griffin writes My Writing and Editing Coach 

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The Power of Place to Imprison Character

F. Scott Fitzgerald knew well the South, Hollywood, Paris, and New York. He wrote about these places and the people thereon. He conveyed how much place shapes character. In “The Ice Palace,” Fitzgerald revealed how strong the hold that place has upon us. The Southern girl and Northern boy cannot live happily ever after because the climates and rhythms of their youth will not unravel to admit a new thread.

In “The Jelly-Bean,” Fitzgerald once again explores the power of place. His protagonist once lived among the landed gentry, but his father’s love affair with alcohol cost the family their dignity and all they possessed. Now Jim, the Jelly-bean, shoots dice and lives above a garage in exchange for occasional mechanical work. His friends still live without the dire consequences of bad decisions and poverty while the Jelly-bean, inconsequential, soft in the middle, has surrendered to his.

Nancy re-enters Jim’s life and tempts him to dream once more. We're told she “had a mouth like a remembered kiss and shadowy eyes and blue-black hair” ("The Jelly-Bean." The Short Stores of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Ed. Matthew J. Bruccoli. Macmillan: New York, 1989. 145. Print.); she drew to her Jim and men in general. She drew them with purpose and sometimes malice aforethought. Jim cannot imagine deserving her, cannot envision a time when she would turn to him, but she's a modern girl who will not be held by social norms. Like Jim, she gambles with dice, but when her touch on the dice fails her, Jim intercedes, using the only armor he possesses, his own skill with the dice, and he wins for her.

Faded Glory
Photo by Al Griffin
Jim’s mistake lay in thinking that winning for her could transform his life. He thinks about leaving that room above the garage and moving in with his uncle to earn and learn a work ethic. He would return to claim the lovely Nancy, but she’s already moved on. Jim resigns himself to stay, his marred past in that place nevertheless holds him there:

The street was hot at three and hotter still at four, the April dust seeming to enmesh the sun and give it forth again as a world-old joke forever played on an eternity of afternoons. But at half past four a first layer of quiet fell and the shades lengthened under the awnings and heavy foliaged trees. In this heat nothing mattered. All life was weather, a waiting through the hot where events had no significance for the cool that was soft and caressing, like a woman’s hand on a tired forehead. Down in Georgia there is a feeling--perhaps inarticulate--that this is the greatest wisdom of the South--so after a while the Jelly-bean turned into a poolhall on Jackson Street where he was sure to find a congenial crowd who would make all the old jokes--the ones he knew. ("The Jelly-Bean." The Short Stores of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Ed. Matthew J. Bruccoli. Macmillan: New York, 1989. 158. Print.) 

Fitzgerald’s description of place suggests how oppressive the light of day in the South can be. It also reveals how comforting are the shadowy places. The Jelly-bean will endure the light waiting for the shade, hoping for little more, little else.

Reading Challenge:

Read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Jelly-Bean.”

Writing Challenge:

Write of a place and its power.

Connye Griffin writes My Writing and Editing Coach

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Another Lesson from All the Light We Cannot See

Anthony Doerr writes beautifully. I’ve celebrated his prose before. I’ve also used his novel, All the Light We Cannot See, for another lesson about showing and telling. Today’s lesson is also from Doerr’s novel.

Photo by Al Griffin
As we begin, read to identify writing rules broken. Read also to recognize the wonderful style that Doerr employs.

From “Bigger Faster Brighter” (Doerr, Anthony. “Key Pound.” All the Light We Cannot See: A Novel. Kindle ed. New York: Scribner, 2014. 695. Print.)

“Membership in the State Youth becomes mandatory. The boys in Werner’s Kameradschaften are taught parade maneuvers and quizzed on fitness standards and required to run sixty meters in twelve seconds. Everything is glory and country and competition and sacrifice.

Live faithfully, the boys sing as they troop past the edges of the colony. Fight bravely and die laughing.

Schoolwork, chores, exercise. Werner stays up late listening to his radio or driving himself through the complicated math he copied out of The Principles of Mechanics before it was confiscated. He yawns at meals, is short-termpered with the younger children. ‘Are you feeling okay?’ ask Frau Elena, peering into his face, and Werner looks away saying ‘Fine.’”

Broken Rules

The chapter opens with a state-of-being verb, becomes; we're often taught to prefer active verbs.
The second sentence of the first paragraph uses passive voice verbs.
Paragraph 3 opens with a fragment.
Dialogue is not set apart as its own paragraph, but instead appears inside paragraph 3.

Writing Delights

Natural alliterative touches adding emphasis; e.g., Membership/mandatory; required/run; sixty/seconds; math/Mechanics; Frau/face/Fin
Specific and concrete detail reveals the physical prowess the boys must demonstrate. They must be good at parade maneuvers, meet fitness standards, and run sixty meters in twelve seconds. The reader infers that academic prowess is not in vogue.
Juxtaposition of life and death in the boys’ song. They must live faithfully and die laughing, a sad song for mere boys to sing.
Juxtaposition of the boys’ life experience. They learn that “Everything is glory and country and competition and sacrifice,” but their actual experience is “Schoolwork, chores, exercise.”

Effective writers are not slaves to rules. They deftly handle language without sacrificing clarity.

Reading Challenge:

Read Anthony Doerr’s beautiful novel, All the Light We Cannot See, in order to admire the story and learn about the use of language.

Writing Challenge:

Use the passage quoted above. Imitate its word order and grammar with a subject of your own.

Connye Griffin writes My Writing and Editing Coach