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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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Live Long And Prosper

Although I planned to write something different today, I can’t stop thinking about the death of Leonard Nimoy. I’ve actually learned some new facts about him from this NYT piece. I’m usually reluctant to speak about the deaths of celebrities because I don’t actually know the person. But the character he played, as well as the movies he wrote and directed, played a huge role in my socialization and how I view the world today.

Many of my earliest memories include the crew of the original Starship Enterprise. My mother watched the show in the 1960s when it aired, and she recorded reruns on VHS in the 1980s and showed them to me. I was a young child, but I’m not even sure how old I actually was at the time. Mom stayed up late to record them. It was a treat to watch the shows. (In fact, she called me a few minutes ago to talk about Leonard Nimoy. I was happy to be able to share with her Nimoy’s last tweet.)

As a child, I loved the episodes with robots and Tribbles, as one might expect, but, even as a girl, I also appreciated the ones that developed the friendship between Spock, Kirk, and Bones. As I aged, I appreciated Spock more and more, and then, Leonard Nimoy, himself. There’s a danger of conflating a character with his (or her) actor. Leonard Nimoy was so much more than just one character on a TV show. Yet, for me, I’m feeling a loss right now that’s hard to articulate.

I feel the character of Spock is great example of a loving, masculine figure. The relationship between Spock and Kirk in the original series (and movies) looks more what a relationship between men should be like. Spock and Kirk were two people with considerably different philosophies and personalities, who taught each other and loved each other. Isn’t that what friendship between any two people should be like, including two men? Both men changed through interacting with one another. Furthermore, they both represented different aspects of masculinity and helped to bring more balance to the other. Spock embodies the traditional masculine roles of rationality and not showing much emotion, while Kirk embodies the dominant, brave, action-oriented side of masculinity.  Through their interactions, they both become less extreme, possibly displaying more traditionally feminine traits. I’d love to go back and watch some episodes to develop this idea further. This scene between them, right before Spock dies in “The Wrath of Khan,” is one of my all time favorite scenes. I don’t have the sense that these types of loving friendships are shown between men in our media today.  Even in the new Star Trek movies, I feel that there isn’t enough development of the loving nature of the relationship between Spock and Kirk. Nimoy played a huge role in shaping the character of Spock, and I’m grateful that I was able to grow up watching him. (And it appears from reading, that the character of Spock shaped him, too.)

I’m impressed by how the people who actually knew Nimoy as a person talk about him, and I think I may get a copy of his poetry to read as I didn’t know it existed before today. Leonard Nimoy’s last tweet is a treasure that we should always remember: “A life is like a garden. Perfect moments can be had, but not preserved, except in memory. LLAP.”

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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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In-groups, Out-groups, and Socialization in “Belle and Sebastian,” My Favorite 1980s Cartoon

While I enjoyed kindergarten, I longed to return home in the afternoons to watch the anime, Belle and Sebastian. It aired in the U.S. in 1984 on Nickelodeon, although the series originally aired in Japan during 1981. As a six year old, I identified with the problems that Sebastian faced: coping with bullies, longing for friendship, and a thirst for adventure. Sebastian travels over the Pyrenees Mountains from France to Spain to find his biological mother, as well as to help Belle, the maligned Great Pyrenees, survive. As a girl, I wondered if I’d ever get the chance to travel the world, meet new people, and see new places. I even loved the bread and cheese that Sebastian often ate, starting a life long love of cheese. (As a vegan now, I stick to plant based cheeses.) The show inspired my imagination, and I often thought of short plays based on it, even when I was an older child. Mom recorded all of the episodes for me on VHS, and over the years, I watched the show when I was home sick. The show comforted me.

I’ve used the show (and other cartoons) occasionally in my classes as an example of how media is an important agent of socialization. Agents of socialization teach us our culture, including norms and values. Belle and Sebastian taught me about being a good friend, defending those who might have less power than you, and being wary of those in authority.  Authority figures are not always correct, and it’s important to think for yourself.  In fact, I’ve been thinking a great deal about how I remember the show portraying violence.  Often, the adults using violence did not give the benefit of the doubt.  The show emphasized avoiding the abuse of power.

I rewatched the first episode recently, and I realized that the show illustrates concepts like in-groups and out-groups.  In the first episode, Sebastian is being bullied by the other boys.  They were from the village; whereas, he was from a farm.  People make fun of Sebastian because he doesn’t have a mother; he was different, in other words.  Belle, the dog, is in a similar situation.  People are afraid of her so they assume that she is harmful.  In fact, the humans, with their guns, are actually much more dangerous than Belle is. Yet, they perceive themselves as protecting their community from a menace. Sebastian meets Belle and because he isn’t predisposed to be afraid of her, he develops a friendship with her.

This reminds me a bit of the stigma attached to dog breeds in the U.S. today like pit bulls and german shepherds.  From this Salon article, “pit bulls are the most frequently abused, tortured, abandoned, and euthanized bred of dog in the United States…Because of their stigma, they’re often difficult to adopt out; a ride to the shelter is almost always a one-way trip for pities.”  The article mentions how pit bulls were actually used as nannies for children in the past and this discussion gets at the social construction of beliefs surrounding dog breeds and their meaning in society.  “The media seems to feed off the idea of monster dogs—it makes great copy.”  Belle and Sebastian was dealing with the negative view of Belle; she’s thought of as a monster and dangerous.  The show teaches tolerance and appreciation of diversity.

In terms of tolerance and diversity, Sebastian’s mother, is a traveling “gypsy”, and I’m really curious to see during my viewing if she is treated respectfully by the anime.  There is a great deal of stigmatization and vilification of Romani persons in the media.  (I’m having a terrible flashback to the second Sherlock Holmes movie.  I almost walked out of it due to the discriminatory portrayal of Romani individuals.) Sebastian is adopted by Cecil, who is essentially his grandfather.  Cecil’s granddaughter, Anne-Marie, mothers Sebastian, although she is relatively young.  I was shocked to see Anne-Marie’s actions border on abusive.  I didn’t remember this as a part of the show.

I’m planning to watch all 52 episodes again and plan to blog about ones that are particularly relevant in some way.  I’m really curious as to how cartoons and anime for children are functioning as agents of socialization today, but I really don’t know what shows are out there.  My sense is that modern television focuses more on a dominant masculinity and violence, but I haven’t actually watched any or read any academic articles to know for sure.  I’d love to hear of examples, if you know of any, and how it might be socializing children.

  • What television shows impacted you growing up?  What did you learn from them?
  • What shows do you think are helpful or harmful for children today? Why?

  

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Science, Environmentalism, and Religion in “Invisible Earth”

[Spoiler]

One of the gems of the Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill area is Paperhand Puppet Intervention, and I just got home from an amazing performance at the North Carolina Museum of Art.  Ari Picker, from the local band, Lost in the Trees, composed the music. For all ages, the production, “Invisible Earth,” included the historic naturalist Charles Darwin as a narrator. When Darwin wrote “The Origin of Species,” it was quite controversial.  This controversy is still present today in the debates about what should be taught in schools in terms of evolution versus creationism.   Moving from science to social science, Robin Williams, the sociologist, not the comedian, discussed various American values.  According to him, one of the values of United States society is science.  (Of course, we could critique this idea with the rise of anti-intellectualism, but I’ll save that for another day.)

In the performance tonight, the puppeteers walked the audience through the history of the Earth.  This included a look at the Earth before life, as single-celled organisms arose, as multicellular organisms arose, eventually leading to life as we know it.  The puppets also got more complex to reflect the complexity of life, as noted by my spouse.  For a moment, I really reflected on the fact that at some point, some being took the very first breathe on the planet!

Eventually, the story turned to the fact that we might destroy the Earth.  It even discussed the carbon cycle!  “Invisible Earth” acted as an agent of socialization, targeting both children and adults.  It taught lessons about the world, science, and also the views of religion about the creation of the world over time. As an example, one of the pictures shown was of the world turtle that bears the weight of the world.  There was one scene in which God created humans.  The puppets in that section were amazing!

In the last section, we were told that we need to take responsibility for changing our habitat.  They began with using the beaver and the creation of dams as a metaphor and moved into how unsustainable our cities are.  They noted that we’re between stories right now.  What will come next?  These words resonated with me.  Not only is our future in terms of the health of the Earth and our own surival a mystery, but in terms of our culture, we are also lost at sea.  Changes are happening at such a rapid pace, what will we become?

In any event, there’s one more showing tomorrow at the North Carolina Museum of Art, and I hope that if you’re living in this area, you’ll check it out!

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Socialization in Children’s Literature and Graphic Novels: The Owly Series and “The Blueberry Girl”

“Grant her the wisdom to choose her right path, free from unkindness and fear.” (Gaiman, “The Blueberry Girl”)

With the unfortunate myriad of social problems impacting the world today, I often think about the topic of socialization.  According to the textbook, “You May Ask Yourself,” socialization is “the process by which individuals internalize the values, beliefs, and norms of a given society and learn to function as members of that society” (Conley 114).  One of my favorite assignments that I created for my introduction to sociology class is one on children’s books and socialization.  The students have to learn about many different psychological and sociological theories relating to the stages of socialization.  I make the argument that children often learn a great deal from the media that they are exposed to like children’s books.  It’s both educational and fun for adults to go back and look at some of their childhood favorites like “Green Eggs and Ham” and “Where the Wild Things Are” to evaluate what norms and values are being taught to children in this society.

One of my closest friends started dating Andy Runton, the author of the Owly graphic novel series, years ago so I began reading his series due to their relationship.  Now, I’m hooked.  Although I’m likely biased, I think Owly and his friends have a great deal to add to the socialization of children (and adults).  The art is lovely, and the characters communicate through symbols.  In fact, one of my favorite symbols in the series is now the compact florescent light bulb used to convey one of the characters having an idea.  The main characters is an owl named Owly, who slowly makes friends through the series.  The series usually explores feelings of loneliness, friendship, and building community.   In terms of sociology, I think one of the strengths of Owly is that it deals with topics like stigmatization, in-groups, and out-groups.  It shows how we have to move past our stereotypes to see how the people (or in this case animals) that belong to other groups can be our friends.   In-groups are “social group toward which a member feels respect and loyalty” while out-groups are “a social group toward which a person feels a sense of competition or opposition” (Macionis 124).  Often, in-groups may become powerful and a negative label, called stigma, may be attached to the out-group.  This may lead to stereotyping about the other group or discrimination towards the other group.

For example, in Runton’s most recent book, “Bright Lights and Starry Nights,” Owly and his friend, Wormy, get a new telescope in the mail.  Along the way, they face challenges to using the telescope, partially due to their fears of the unknown visitors in the woods that they can hear.  The unknown visitors turn out to be a friendly bat population.  They help Owly and Wormy learn to use their telescope, although Owly and especially Wormy are afraid of the other at the beginning.  I believe that this piece is all about being willing to trust others, even when we’re afraid.  In this case, the bats were an out-group, meaning they were seen as an other that was perceived as frightening and potentially threatening.   Certainly, children and adults in our culture need to be taught that strangers do not necessarily mean them harm, and individuals from another culture may help us get past group think.  Diverse view points can help with problem solving.

Another book I read recently that might at first glance appear to be a children’s story is by Neil Gaiman.  This link to Gainman’s blog explains where “The Blueberry Girl” came from.  The poem begins as a prayer for a blueberry girl.  The art by Charles Vess fits the mood of the poem perfectly.  And I can imagine that if I were to ever raise a daughter, that I would want for her exactly what is mentioned in the book.

I love the idea of the child having an adventurous life full of physical activity and travels.  Part of the prayer states, “[h]elp her to help herself, help her to stand, help her to lose and to find.”  The reason that I love these ideas is that they acknowledge that a girl and a woman’s role in this world should be more than subscribed traditional gender roles.  And the book also mentions the pitfalls that many modern girls and women find themselves facing, like “false friends at fifteen” or ““bad husbands at thirty.”

Children’s literature and graphic novels can be an important part of the development of individuals with integrity in our society.  When I picked up Maus as a freshman in college more than a decade ago, I realized the importance of graphic novels and art as an important medium to convey important societal ideas.  The important questions for us as a society become how can we socialize people to value both community and the individual simultaneously.

 

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