Tag Archives: Neil Gaiman

Socialization and Values for Fantasy Writing and Life: Neil Gaiman’s and Charles Vess’ book “Instructions”

[Spoilers the size of fairy tales]

“Trust the wolves, but do not tell them where you are going.”

“Trusts ghosts. Trust those that you have helped to help you in their turn. Trust dreams. Trust your heart, and trust your story.”

For my birthday this year, I wanted a copy of Instructions written by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Charles Vess. In the past, I’ve blogged about Gaiman and Vess’ book, The Blueberry Girl, which I adored, and has become my standard gift for baby showers for girls. The first one I gave away was my treasured hardback. It was a gift well given, although I still miss my original copy. (If you want to know more about The Blueberry Girl, you can follow this link to a blogpost by Neil Gaiman that includes a narrated version. It’s lovely.) As Neil Gaiman stated in his blog post, he wrote the poem for his friend Tori Amos at her request for her daughter, one month prior to her birth.

When I first read the book, I think wanted it to be The Blueberry Girl, again. Really, I wanted the same emotional experience that I had the first time I read it. I find this type of comparison is a way to ensure that I’ll never be satisfied with any artist’s next work. I did enjoy my first reading of Instructions, but it was actually the second reading that enchanted me. Now, for me as a writer, I think I prefer Instructions. Or they are both awesome in different ways.

The Blueberry Girl is a prayer, filled with hopes for a child; Instructions is a guidebook on how to actually live a good life, to go on a good journey. Normally, I don’t include dedications in my posts, but I loved these.  Both Vess and Gaiman dedicated this book to well-known writers. Based on this, I feel like the book is a “thank you” to all those who go on adventures into their fantasy worlds, risking danger and failure, to return with something amazing for the rest of us. It’s more than just returning with a lovely tale. Most folklore, fantasy stories, and fairy tales are instructive and have good life lessons: on what we should seek and what we should avoid.  (In fact, I’d argue this is true of most good stories including religious ones.) As I’ve discussed before, books are such an important agent of socialization. They teach us values and norms—and challenge them.

I think that you can read this book in a couple of different ways: as a writer preparing to create something to be shared and as a person trying to live a good life. Be cautious, but also, trust.  Back to the themes I’ve noticed in other works by Gaiman (see my posts here and here), the theme of avoiding greed is woven in. The character enters a house and is instructed: “[w]alk though the house. Take nothing. Eat nothing.” On the next page, “However, if any creature tells you that it hungers, feed it. If it tells you that it is dirty, clean it.  If it cries to you that it hurts, if you can, ease it’s pain.” In this scene, the cat adventurer picks up a small cat that then travels with it. Yet, later on “when you come back, return the way you came.  Favors will be returned, debts will be repaid.” You can give help and other times you accept help. Both are important to living a good life.

In terms of the art in this one, my favorite pages include an eagle soaring with the cat adventurer’s arms outstretched, with his cat companion sitting in front of him, looking as if he is enjoying the breeze. I loved the last page: “And then go home. Or make a home. Or rest.” In our efficiency-driven, constantly-streaming, multitasking society, I believe that we need it to be okay to live our lives how we choose. We might be producing something, including art, but sometimes, it’s okay to just be.

I highly recommend getting a cup of tea, or coffee, or whatever you prefer, sitting somewhere cozy with a blanket (mine pictured below), and giving this book a few reads. After that, you might want to check out the narrated version of Instructions that will open on YouTube.

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Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology

For months, I’ve been anticipating Neil Gaiman’s book, Norse Mythology. I’ve always loved Gaiman’s fiction relating to mythology like American Gods and The Ocean at the End of the Lane. (For my thoughts on The Ocean at the End of the Lane and Buddhism, you can view this post.) I don’t know much at all about Norse mythology beyond what I’ve picked up in comic book movies—so very little. For years, I’ve tried to pinpoint why Neil Gaiman is one of my favorite authors. After reading Norse Mythology, I can better articulate why. He notes in his introduction to the book:

As I retold these myths, I tried to imagine myself a long time ago, in the lands where these stories were first told, during the long winter nights perhaps, under the glow of the northern lights, or sitting outside in the small hours, awake in the unending daylight of midsummer, with an audience of people who wanted to know what else Thor did, and what the rainbow was, and how to live their lives, and where bad poetry comes from (15).

Neil Gaiman is a writer who understands that stories are a process across time and weaves them accordingly.  “That’s the joy of myths. The fun comes in telling them yourself—something I warmly encourage you to do, you person reading this. Read the stories in this book, then make them your own…” (16).  He absorbs stories from the past and, as a member of the current zeitgeist, he then transmutes them with his own distinctive style.

Specifically, in this volume, he weaves together various stories of the Norse Gods into a narrative. The idea of Ragnarok, or the apocalypse of the world, is a fascinating one. In the end, while there are epic levels of destruction of gods, men, and the world, some survive, humans are created again.  Gaiman ends the book with chess pieces, and the last line of the book is: “And the game begins anew.”

Someone dear to me died two weeks ago, and I’ve been contemplating life and death so the book’s arrival was a bit synchronous for me.  Life and death are a process. And stories help us think about these processes. Storytellers played (and continue to play) an important role in the socialization of a culture, passing on ethical values from one generation to the next while also playing an entertainment role.

I don’t want to say too much about the specific stories: you should read them for yourself.  However, I loved Gaiman’s style when it comes to characterizing the other gods’ reactions to Loki’s trickery.  Loki is frustrating if he’s working against you, but he can be a very compelling ally—until he’s not anymore. One of my favorite stories, as a writer, was “The Mead of Poets,” where poetry comes from. The ending of it made me laugh.  The stories include the gamut of human emotions and experiences. The book was delightful, and I can see myself returning to read it again in a few years.

 

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Fairy Tales and Feminist Themes in Neil Gaiman’s “The Sleeper and the Spindle”

[Kingdom shattering spoilers ahead. Beware.]

The queen felt something stirring in her heart. She remembered her stepmother, then. Her stepmother liked to be adored. Learning how to be strong, to feel her own emotions and not another’s, had been hard; but once you learned the trick of it, you did not forget. And she did not wish to rule continents (Gaiman 59).

The Sleeper and the Spindle, Neil Gaiman’s refreshing, modern take on fairy tales illustrates at least two massively important feminist messages: (1) women must first discover that their own emotions belong to them, and (2) women must learn to make choices based on their own feelings, not to please their families, lovers, or society. Before I discuss my thoughts on the importance of the book, I have to state how much I loved the process of experiencing the book. The translucent dust jacket is a work of art, in and of itself, etched with black roses and golden vines, which are relevant to the plot. The sleeping woman on the cover looks slightly out of focus, perhaps as if she is behind glass.  However, if you remove the jacket, she comes into focus. In fact, this mirrors what happens in the book since the sleeping “princess” is revealed to be the power hungry witch. The illustrator, Chris Riddell’s, attention to detail is amazing, and I reread the book to specifically appreciate the art. For example, I noticed the detail that the queen, the hero of the story, has a comforter on her bed with golden skulls. However, the reason I picked the book up in the first place was that I adore Neil Gaiman’s fairy tales from Stardust to Coraline to The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Fairy tales are important and relevant for society.

Due to the fact that I write fiction, I have read many of Gaiman’s thoughts on storytelling, including his thoughts on fairy tales. This piece he wrote for the Guardian on Stardust discusses a bit of the history of fairy tales: why they are loved, why they fell out of favor with adults, and their return.  I feel that Neil Gaiman’s works have, in concert with the works of others, led to a revival and renaissance of fairy tales, as discussed in this recent interview of Gaiman by Gaby Woods. I personally loved fairy tales well before reading Stardust. As a girl, I discovered a book at my grandmother’s house that included many fairy stories. I adored The Light Princess. Every time I visited my grandmother, all through my teens and twenties, I read the story. Now, the old, tattered green book is a part of my own collection.

I love fairy tales because they help us make sense of our world, our society, and the dangers (and magnificence) inherent in being alive. Potentially, they play a role in socializing and entertaining both children and adults. This means it’s imperative to have fairy tales written for and reflecting the age that we live in. We live in an uncertain age of anomie, or a breaking down of norms and stability. We’re dealing with globalization, changes in technology, greed, thirst for power, war, changing gender roles, and unobtainable beauty standards, just to name a few. Gaiman included this G.K. Chesterton quote in Coraline, “Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”  We need to understand the dangers we face, the potential solutions to those dangers, and that we have the agency to make choices to help. In this time period and in the future, how should individuals act?  How should communities act? What are our responsibilities to ourselves and to one another? Fairy tales allow us to consider these questions.

Turning specifically to Gaiman’s work, The Sleeper and the Spindle, he states in an interview, “‘You don’t need princes to save you…I don’t have a lot of patience for stories in which women are rescued by men.”  The main character, the queen, lived in one kingdom and was running her affairs of state, including getting married in a week. In the past, she had defeated her abusive stepmother. Her friends, the dwarves, traveled to the neighboring kingdom to get her a proper gift. While in the neighboring kingdom, they discover that a sleep spell is taking over and spreading. They return to their queen and inform her of the danger.  She decided to go investigate the situation herself due to her experience with sleep spells, temporarily putting off her marriage and placing her responsibilities in capable hands of her first minister. Eventually, she and the dwarves make it to the castle where the spell is emanating from, and they eventually get inside. They find a beautiful woman they believe is the bespelled princess.  However, this woman is actually a witch who had been stealing the life and dreams of the actual princess, who had become quite elderly.

Reading The Sleeper and the Spindle led me to reflect on gender roles. Often, girls are taught that their own emotions, especially of anger, are invalid. They are expected to be exactly what their caregivers need them to be. For children dealing with a narcissistic caregiver, it is an incredibly powerful moment to realize that your emotions are your own.  If you do not learn the lesson, then your entire life, your entire thread, will be co-opted and corrupted by someone else. The true danger that this fairy tale warns us of is giving away our power to make choices for our own lives.

The heroic queen woke up from a spell that her stepmother had placed on her at a young age prior to the beginning of this story.  Although she escaped her stepmother, she was still living life the way society expected her to—running a kingdom and getting married. This despite the fact that she didn’t seem to have major inclinations to do either thing. So many people get caught up in these traps: fulfilling cultural or parental expectations instead of venturing onto the new paths for themselves. In the end, the dwarf says to the queen:

“And your wedding will be late, but it will happen soon after your return, and the people will celebrate, and there will be joy unbounded through the kingdom…”

…There are choices, she thought, when she had sat long enough. There are always choices.

She made one…

…They walked to the east, all four of them, away from the sunset and the lands they knew, and into the night (66).

It is a difficult balance to strike between the needs we have as individual people and the needs of the community.  However, for young (and not so young) women, we need to learn the lesson that our lives belong to us: not to our parents, not to our teachers, and not to our lovers. This lesson is hard when you’ve been taught your whole life that being a woman requires giving to others all the time. The concept in sociology of supermom is relevant here. A “good” woman in the United States is supposed to be a perfect giver in all the arenas she participates including work, family, volunteer organizations, etc. These norms are slowly changing as women are starting, through hard work (and possibly therapy) to see that they deserve to be be a whole person, not just one who only fulfills others needs.

The queen had to learn how to feel her own emotions first.  Once she learned that lesson, she could then go on to realize that she could make her own choices based on how she felt. In Arlie Hochschild’s book, The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling, she posits that when we ignore our emotional systems for our workplaces that we can be harmed.  Our emotions are valuable: they allow us to know when we are being mistreated or when something is (or isn’t) right for us. If you are divorced from your emotional system for long enough, you can start to feel numb, alienated, and at distance from yourself, as if in a deep sleep, like the fairy tales often allude to.

The queen attempts to wake up the princess like men do with a kiss, but it turns out that the witch was actually the one sleeping.  She had cast a spell and stolen the youth of the princess via her dreams and sleep.  In the end, the princess, stabs the witch with the spindle that had been stealing the princess’ life force. I think this is a powerful metaphor. An older woman was stealing the life of a young person by stealing her dreams. And we need to be cautious to avoid becoming like the witch in this tale.  We shouldn’t seek power, beauty, and youth as the main goals of our lives. Again, Gaiman warns against craving, as I discuss in this previous post on Buddhism in The Ocean at the End of the Lane. One of the major dangers of our time is the craving for unobtainable things: youth, beauty, and power.

We need to be teaching young women that they own their emotions and that they are in control of their own lives. This doesn’t mean that women have no responsibility to community, quite the contrary. I get the sense that the queen was going adventuring to help other people. But she was going to help people on her own terms, not the one’s her society had forced on her.  She also gave up the chance to become the witch, to dominate the will of her society, just because of her title. We need to trail blaze new paths.

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Musings on Anger, Art, and Social Justice: A Response to Neil Gaiman’s Guardian Piece on Terry Pratchett

“Damn it Bones, you’re a doctor. You know that pain and guilt can’t be taken away with the wave of a magic wand. They’re the things we carry with us, the things that make us who we are. If we lose them, we lose ourselves. [to Sybok] I don’t want my pain taken away! I need my pain!” Captain Kirk

“I rage at the imminent loss of my friend. And I think, ‘What would Terry do with this anger?’ Then I pick up my pen, and I start to write.” Neil Gaiman

My spouse has always liked the sentiment behind the above quote by Captain Kirk from Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. I’d argue that we don’t just need our pain; we need our anger, too.  Our anger is valuable and should be respected. Yet, it also needs to be tempered.

One of the points that Arlie Hochschild makes in her book, The Managed Heart: The Commercialization of Feeling, is that societies have rules for feeling. In certain situations, we’re expected to feel a particular way and, at times, our feelings actually violate those rules. In the case of the workplace, the expectation is that we ignore (and express) certain emotions for our wages. This is called emotional labor.

Hochschild studied flight attendants, who were expected to express emotions like happiness, even when they were being treated poorly. They were supposed to ignore their real feelings of anger or sadness. Hochschild posits that this can lead to negative outcomes for people like alienation, or estrangement. (The last time I researched this topic, researchers had found support both for and against various harms relating to emotional labor.)

Often, people fear anger because they view it as inherently destructive. We’re told to repress or not display it, especially if we’re women in the United States. Women who fail to follow the norm are often seen as deviant and are often subjected to name calling or worse.

People often misunderstand and blame the emotion itself instead of the action a person takes. Our society teaches men, as a part of masculinity, for example, that they should act out violently when they experience anger. There is a great video from 2001 called Tough Guise that looks at how the media has played a role in intensifying violent masculinity in the United States. (There is a sequel that I haven’t seen yet called Tough Guise 2.)

This blog post was inspired by Neil Gaiman’s article in The Guardian yesterday called “Neil Gaiman: Terry Pratchett isn’t jolly.  He’s angry.’” According to Gaiman, Terry Pratchett is well aware of his anger. And he chooses to channel it into something constructive.

Anger just is.  When we’re angry, we have choices about how to act (or not act.) When we experience certain emotions, we can turn to our tool box of skills to decide how to proceed.  Perhaps, in some moments, the right response is to sit with our anger and not act. But when it comes to social justice, I believe the correct response is to learn more about inequality, to teach others about inequality, and to protest inequality, by whatever skills we possess. A fantastic fiction writer like Terry Pratchett uses his anger and writing skills to expose the problems of his society through fantasy. A social activist like Martin Luther King, Jr. used his anger for speech writing and leading protest to gain equality. His “Letter from Birmingham Jail” calls out the people and institutions he found infuriating and disappointing.

Yet, sometimes, our anger can be misleading. Often, privileged individuals feel a sense of anger or indignation when they learn about the point of view of disadvantaged individuals, or when the disadvantaged are fighting for their rights. It’s really important as an actor who cares about equality to ask ourselves, is my anger justified?  Am I angry because of injustice?  Or am I angry because my own privilege is being challenged? Am I angry because I think that someone from the disadvantaged category doesn’t like me, instead of actively listening to the other person?

Of course, this position assumes that equality is an worthy goal as a cultural value. Anger on the behalf of the less powerful can be a great motivator to raise awareness and advocate for equality. The reason why I love Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series is that he actually takes time to explore stratification. I’ve been slowly savoring the series, and I’m about half way through it. His art helps me to reflect on identity and inequality. Both his Guards series and his Witches series cover these important topics.

One of my favorite Discworld characters is Granny Weatherwax, who is angry about injustice. (I even named my car after the character years ago.) She states: “And sin, young man is when we treat people as things. Including yourself. That’s what sin is.” Although I read this book years ago, I’m still using this quote when chatting with people about materialism and inequality. This is the power of literature. This is the power of the author, in this case Terry Pratchett. Although I have no personal connection to Terry Pratchett, I will miss his insightful commentary and his great wit. (I wrote a blog post on “Maskerade” and identity back in 2013, if you want to read it.)

One of the reasons that I value art of all kinds so much is that it allows us to engage our emotions, even the ones seen as less “valuable” by society. It allows us to experience the world through many different lenses. We need writers like Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman, and so many others to help us feel the emotions that our society might tell us to keep locked away. We need researchers, journalists, and social activists like Naomi Klein, Sarah Jaffe, and Jackson Katz using their anger to push for structural social change.

Yet, the efforts public figures are not enough. We need individuals to challenge their family, friends, students, and others when injustice is occurring.

How will you best use your anger?

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