Allow me to sum up the current state of Autumn in Wisconsin with the following excerpt from a beloved classic:
Yup. Rain. And lots of it. Our sump pump is working, thank the Lord, but the extension hose attached to the pump outside came off. Heaven knows how long our sump pump dumped water right next to the house. I’m praying that I got it re-attached in time…and that it stays connected when I go to work at a nearby elementary school for a while.
So, um, my mind’s not exactly in a writerly place right now.
But let’s not fall into another panic attack. Let’s think on the lovely colors of fall (that will hopefully show up some time) and the literary celebration that is National Book Month.
I usually roll my eyes at “National ___ Day/Week/Month,” but this one’s got my attention, especially after working with kids of elementary age who still cannot read.
My heart chokes as I sit with children who cannot recognize letters, let alone words, and these kids are at least my sons’ age, if not older. These children want to read. They want to understand what those printed squiggles are with every picture. They want to know what all the signs say in the rooms, what the teacher sees when she reads to them. They want to know what the world is trying to share with them, to enter all the worlds that flourish around the illustrations on paper, to fill their imaginations with places and people never seen before.
They so badly want to know.
So this month, my friends, please take a moment to read to one who cannot. Share a story you love, or a story neither of you have ever seen before. Countless worlds await us in the bookshops and libraries, worlds of dragons and treasures and friendships and love, journeys of redemption and damnation and transformation and hope.
Let us bring those worlds to those who do not yet know their own written language. Let us share a cherished tale with those whose eyes can no longer hold words in place.
Let us celebrate this most precious gift: the gift of story.
Not sure what to read? Allow me to share a few books floating around my house.
What’s Blondie reading?
Blondie also had a go at some classics earlier this summer thanks to Bookpacks, a really cool combination of book and audio book to help kids focus on reading when there’s no pictures for context. Maybe your library has Bookpacks, too! Click here for more info.
I’m bringing a talk about familial villains to the table with an analysis of Black Maria–or Aunt Maria as it’s known in the States.
While I was also tempted to reread Something Wicked This Way Comes, I decided to try something new. I’m hoping there will be a lesson or two to share when I’m done.
Not gonna lie–my brain is addled by the overlapping schedules of six different school districts that can now call me at a moment’s notice to substitute. Time to read, let alone write, feels all but gone.
It’s at such a moment like this, when the world is soggy like forgotten cereal, the kids are screaming like so many banshees wielding stale banana chips as throwing stars, and the university asks for the presentation due a week ago, that I need to remember the gift of story.
The gift of escape.
Sweet, spooky escape. x
Any reading recommendations you’d like to share here among fellow book lovers? Please share it in the comments below!
To celebrate March Magics–and because I’ve final projects to grade and two novels to crack down upon–I’m sharing a previously unposted essay I wrote a couple years back when I was compiling all my Diana Wynne Jones posts into the collection Lessons Learned. Enjoy!
In “The Heroic Ideal: A Personal Odyssey,”Diana Wynne Jones discusses the place of the mythic hero in contemporary story-telling, especially her own. This particular essay in Reflections on the Magic of Writing struck me on epiphanical proportions. (Yes, new word. Doesn’t the fantasy genre allow for some language leniency?) In all the writing classes I had taken over the years, no one had ever broken down the echoes and inspirations between the modern and ultra-classic like that before. Jones details connections between her work and Chaucer, Spenser, and Homer, to name a few. Sure, that may sound like she’s tooting her own horn, but I don’t think so. Fire and Hemlock, one of her most critically revered novels, is so subtle with the fantastic you can literally blink and miss it. For instance, the first chapter is all about the protagonist Polly trying to remember something. Sounds dull, doesn’t it? Yet as we go further into the story, we learn Polly is fighting through the memories be-spelled upon her by the villain. The first chapter shares Polly’s initial success in remembering the true past.
Tempting as it is to go in depth on Fire and Hemlock yet again, “The Heroic Ideal” contains Jones’ discussion of mythology’s inspiration F&H with far more depth and humor. Besides, she wrote two other novels that serve as marvelous examples. The first, Eight Days of Luke, is a touch more obvious than Fire and Hemlock if one knows a bit about Norse mythology. I’ll admit that I didn’t, at least not until the movie Thor came out and my father was as giddy as an eight-year-old. (It is a decent movie, for the record–and directed by Kenneth Branagh of all people!)
Granted, Marvel’s interpretation of Norse mythology is, um, loose, but you get some basics in there: the home of the gods, Thor and his dad being at odds, Loki the mischief maker, etc. Diana Wynne Jones has her own fun with these myths, and from her fun Eight Days of Luke is born.
David is stuck at home on school
holiday with his horrible relations. After being reminded how he’s a wretched,
ungrateful little orphan they don’t deserve to put up with, David skulks out
into the garden and starts pacing back and forth, muttering what he feels are
some really good curses—only, he doesn’t really know what he’s saying. The
garden wall cracks and out come some nasty snakes and a boy just David’s size.
His name is Luke.
By this point I’m sure you know who the title character Luke is—that’s right, Loki. David has somehow freed Luke from his prison (only Diana Wynne Jones would put a Norse god’s prison beneath a marrow garden in Ashbury) and Luke’s relations are coming down to get him: Mr. Chew (war god Tiu), the Frys (fertility gods Freyja and Freyr), and Mr. Wedding (Odin, chief of the gods). Thor comes along eventually when we learn why Luke’s in so much trouble, and what David can do to help him. (Thor’s rather the giveaway, so no fancy modern alias for him.)
One of the cool things about a quest story is that they are indeed timeless. David must outwit gods and mortals alike for the sake of his friend, just like any great hero of the distant past. Sure, folks like Perseus and Beowulf may not have had pinball or cricket, but they always had someone or something worth fighting for.
Jones’ The Game puts a girl at odds with horrible relations, too, only this novella is a bit more…hmm…nonlinear, would be the best way to say it. Hayley is sent to live with a bunch of aunts and cousins she’s never met before, and she quickly learns why her grandmother never liked them. She also learns just how much her grandfather bears on his shoulders—literally. Among many worldly matters, Haley’s grandfather takes great care of the mythosphere, a place where Hayley’s cousins secretly play The Game. Once Hayley begins playing The Game with them, reality and the mythosphere are both irrevocably changed. She discovers her grandfather’s true identity: Atlas the titan. The uncle who controls them all is none other than Jupiter. And she must…well. Needless to say, I learned some more mythology thanks to this book.
Bringing past gods into the present isn’t a unique idea; Rick Riordan’s made a mint off of his various “modern kids vs. ancient gods” series, Percy Jackson and the Olympiansbeing the first and, I believe, the most popular. (It’s the one I read, anyway.) And I give Riordan and Jones both credit for inspiring curiosity in young readers for the olden tales of heroes and gods, of the odysseys through time and beyond.
I know we all like to make that Ecclesiastic complaint that there is nothing new under the sun. Well, it’s one thing to copy, or plagiarize, but it’s another to truly reimagine. Jones proves time and again that one can look to the classics for inspiration. Even the most worn of roads will take you somewhere, if you let it.
Thanks so much for reading! If you have other grand (or not-so-grand) examples of reimaginings you’d like to discuss, please share them in the comments below.
I’m going to pause before I even begin in order to say how amazingly patient you all have been for enduring this 30-day blog-o-thon. I’ve been doing my damndest to catch up on reading your sites, but I have a feeling it’s going to take a month of NOT writing just to see all that you lovely folks have done during this cold, snowy month.
During one pre-dawn hour set aside for morning coffee and blog reading, I came across an old book review by the amazing Chris Lovegrove. His closing nails the very topic I wish to discuss today:
I felt a little cheated by the end. The lack of resolution for one character felt manipulative. Increasingly, fantasies these days are clearly labelled Book One of a spellbinding new series or The first volume of such-and-such saga; it wasn’t till near the end that I realised that this wasn’t a standalone novel but that I would have to invest time and maybe more money in the sequel.
Indeed, what has happened to the standalone story? We are an audience of franchises and serieseseses to the point where filmmakers will divvy up a book and spread its material so thinly that a single story is transformed into a film trilogy. (cough cough HOBBIT cough cough)
When I study Diana Wynne Jones’ library (as every good and proper fantasy fan should do), I see 25 stand-alone stories. 2 duologies, 1 trilogy, 1 quartet (quartology?), and the octology of Chrestomanci. (I’m just making up number words at this point.) We won’t even get into the short fiction stuff here, or plays, or whatever else. Strictly novels. (If I missed any, let me know!)
If you go through all these novels, not one ends with a cliffhanger. Correct me if I’m wrong, but DWJ was one to practice what she preached:
My feeling is that the best stories leave the reader trying to imagine what happened after the story stopped.
As far as DWJ was concerned, the story she needed to tell began and ended in one volume. Even the DWJ stories considered sequels or parts of a series are only considered such because they’re in the same universe, NOT because they’re picking up where the previous plot left off. Look at the Howl trilogy: Howl and Sophie go from primary characters in the first book to making cameo appearances in the second. In the third book they appear halfway through the novel with some importance, but still, they are not the primary protagonists. One of the primary characters of Deep Secret returns in The Merlin Conspiracy, but again, he is not the main character. DWJ utilized the same universe for multiple stories, not necessarily the same characters. Heck, Chrestomanci’s rarely a main character in his own series! (But I already wrote about that.)
I started paging through other Young Adult Fantasy stories read from my bookshelf or local library to see which stories end on a cliffhanger, and which are capable of standing alone.
Celine Kiernan’s The Poison Throne:She was travelling at a good pace, though, and it was not long before she disappeared up the winding path, to be swallowed into the treacherous depths of the bandit-laden forest and the company of wolves.
Cliffhanger. The protagonist’s clearly beginning another journey. Not only is the primary antagonist of the story is still in power, but we learn our protagonist is entering yet another enemy’s territory.
Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games: Out of the corner of my eye, I see Peeta extend his hand. I look at him, unsure. “One more time? For the audience?” he says. His voice isn’t angry. It’s hollow, which is worse. Already the boy with the bread is slipping away from me.
I take his hand, holding on tightly, preparing for the cameras, and dreading the moment when I will finally have to let go.
Both. This one’s a bit grey to me. On the one hand, the protagonist has survived the Hunger Games. The primary conflict of the story has come to a close. However, we read here that the protagonist’s personal journey is not over, so there is, in a sense, a cliffhanger, just not like the life-or-death situation the protagonist’s been in for much of the book.
Stephenie Meyers’ Twilight:I touched his face. “Look,” I said. “I love you more than everything else in the world combined. Isn’t that enough?”
“Yes, it is enough,” he answered, smiling. “Enough for forever.”
And he leaned down to press his cold lips once more to my throat.
Standalone. You read right. Yes, I’ve read the whole series, so yes, I know there are more books after this. But I’ll give Meyers credit for giving this novel an ending that feels like an ending. As far as everyone knows, the last of the bad vampires has left the region and the girl’s got the guy. All’s right with the world.
JK Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone(hush, I’m an American, THAT’S the title here): Harry hung back for a last word with Ron and Hermione.
“See you over summer, then.”
“Hope you have–er–a good holiday,” said Hermione, looking uncertainly after Uncle Vernon, shocked that anyone could be so unpleasant.
“Oh, I will,” said Harry, and they were surprised at the grin that was spreading over his face. “They don’t know we’re not allowed to use magic at home. I’m going to have a lot of fun with Dudley this summer…”
Standalone. When you consider the primary conflict (protecting the Sorcerer’s Stone from Voldemort) that conflict officially ends in this book. Yes, Voldemort gets away, but his plot’s been thwarted. Even the other school-friendly subplots of making friends, succeeding in a wizarding school with a muggle’s childhood, and so on are wrapped up. The Voldemort conflict does not start creating cliffhangers until the third book, Prisoner of Azkaban.
Cassandra Clare’s Clockwork Angel:Magnus reached behind himself and locked the parlor door. “Very well,” he said. “Why don’t you tell me what the problem is?”
Cliffhanger. Any time a story ends with a question, it’s an automatic cliffhanger–especially when that question pertains to a protagonist’s “problem.”
Peadar Ó Guilín’s The Call:Early in the new year, she tells her parents that she has to leave again.
“The Nation must survive,” she says. “I can help with that.”
She sits alone on the bus, her suitcase propped up on the seat beside her so she can pretend it’s Megan sitting there instead. And off she goes through the snowy roads, Agnes and Ferg waving her away, hugging each other, their pride so fierce it burns.
Standalone. The protagonist has survived her three minutes. The fight goes on, and so will she, determined to leave her parents and teach other children how to survive the dark land of the Sidhe. By this story’s rules, she cannot be summoned back into the Sidhe realm for another hunt, so again, by this story’s rules, our protagonist is officially free. Of course, Peadar totally subverts these expectations in The Invasion, but I appreciate how he made this novel self-contained. Had this remained a standalone, it’d still be awesome.
Off the top of my head…
Other good examples of what I feel could be considered standalone novels whether or not they’re in a series: Court of Thorns and Roses, Uprooted, Neverwhere, Chronicles of Narnia
Know any others? Let me know!
Other good examples of what I feel are cliffhanger novels:Cruel Prince, Mortal Instruments, Fallen Princeborn: Stolen
Ibid on the knowing and the letting of me knowing
Hey, what’s my own book doing there?
Yes, I must plead guilty. I was in a similar situation as JRR Tolkien; as you know, LOTR is one HUGE tome broken into three books for readability’s sake. The same thing happened with Stolen–my publisher kindly pointed out that people aren’t necessarily going to be drawn to a debut novel 650 pages long. Two novels, though, would split that length into readable installments. The result?
Her head nestles against Liam’s knee. The Voice in her heart sighs, too exhausted to notice a pounding, a drumming rising from deep, deep in the Pits.
So what makes a cliffhanger tolerable and not infuriating?
Somewhere along the way, SOMEthing must be resolved.
A series is bound to have many plot threads, and that’s fine. But if a few hundred pages cannot tie off a single thread, readers are going to get pissed.
Rightfully so, too. In a way it comes back to those expectations and payoffs: the patience of a reader lasts for only so long. The more you build, and build, and build, yet never follow through, the more readers will feel lost, disengaged, or both. Why spend time in a world that’s constantly tangled with characters never decently understood?
So sure, maybe the antagonist is still free at the end of Book 1. Maybe the hero’s journey has only just begun. Was a battle fought and one? Was an internal conflict resolved? Did a relationship come to fruition or destruction? So long as SOMEthing has been brought to a close, a cliffhanger ending will still bring some satisfaction to the reader.
Resolve nothing in that first book, and readers will resolve not to invest time in the second.
Tie a thread or two, and hold your world–your series–together.
Breakfast: Biff and Bash enjoy peanut butter waffles, pineapples, and bananas. I do my darndest not to lick the peanut butter off the knife.
Bash: Starscream’s going to attack your Wall-E!
Biff: No he’s not. Activitate Starscream Destructo Ray! Wooosh!
Bash: Nuh uh. Starscream’s a ghost. It goes right through him.
Biff: Activate Starscream Ghost Ray! Wooosh!
Bash: Nuh uh! Starscream’s a super ghost!
Biff: Activate Starscream Super Ghost Ray! Wooosh!
Bash: Nuh uh, it goes right through him cuz he’s a super DUPER ghost!
Biff: Activate Starscream Super Duper Ghost Ray! Wooosh!
~Boistrous battle breaks between Bash and Biff with blocks & busted blue markers.
Boo-boos blessedly bypassed.~
Pardon, folks, but my brain’s a touch fried from grading and preparing a presentation for my university’s literary festival. I’m a keynote speaker this month!
The theme is “Worlds Beyond: Exploration and Imagination.” I’m compiling some Diana Wynne Jones and Donald Maass quotes while mixing up some of my own photos for a discussion on finding inspiration for world-building in the everyday world around you. (Yes, I’m going to plug my novel. I ain’t missin’ this opportunity!) Here’s hoping people don’t mind a touch of the silly during a gathering of intellectual creatives. I mean, come on–I HAVE to quote Jones’ The Tough Guide to Fantasylandfor examples of world-building tropes people take seriously far too often.
FOREST OF DOOM. This is usually the home of mobile and prehensile trees. There will be giant spiders too, and Dwellers near the centre who will want to sacrifice any stranger to their God. It is best to avoid the place if possible. But the Management usually insists on sending you there.
ALLEYS are the most frequent type of road in a city or town. They are always narrow and dark and squishy, and they frequently dead-end. You will escape along them when pursued and also be ambushed there.
MAYOR. The head of the town council and usually a bumbling idiot. Quite often he is a minion of the Dark Lord, but only a minor one. Keep out of his way.
So while I work on this presentation, here’s a Whole30 recipe that’s actually good.
You heard me. This diet does actually have some yummy meals that DON’T require expensive fare found only in health food stores. Many of these ingredients are probably in your pantry already. Give this one a go, and let me know how you like it!
(PS: If you need help with the clarified butter, I can ask Bo how he does it. It’s actually not that hard of a process.)
Banger Sausage Patties with Sweet Potato Mash and Caramelized Onions
2 medium sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into large dice
4 tablespoon ghee or clarified butter
½ cup full-fat coconut milk
1 onion, thinly sliced
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon black pepper
PREHEAT the oven to 350°F. Bring 4 cups water to a boil in a medium pot over medium-high heat. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
PREPARE THE SAUSAGE: In a large mixing bowl, mix all the sausage ingredients. Form into 8 equal patties. Place on a plate and chill in the freezer for 10 to 15 minutes while starting the sweet potato mash.
COOK the sweet potatoes in the boiling water until fork tender, 10 to 15 minutes. Drain and return the potatoes to the pot. Add 1 tablespoon of the ghee and coconut milk. Using a potato masher, immersion blender, or large kitchen fork, mash and mix the sweet potatoes with the ghee and coconut milk. Cover the pot to keep warm and set aside.
REMOVE the sausage from the freezer and place on the parchment paper–lined baking sheet. Bake the sausage patties in the oven for 12 to 15 minutes, until the internal temperature reaches 145°F, and no pink remains in the middle of the patty.
MEANWHILE, heat the remaining 3 tablespoons of ghee in a large skillet over medium heat, swirling to coat the bottom of the pan. When the ghee is hot, add the onion and cook for 15 minutes, turning them periodically as they begin to brown and caramelize. (Do not rush this step—the browner the color, the more concentrated the flavor will be.)
TRANSFER the mashed sweet potatoes to a bowl or serving dish and top with the caramelized onions. Season with salt and pepper and stir to combine. Serve with the sausage patties.
While I try to sound like I know what I’m talking about, how about having a go at my novel? It’s full of, you know, smartness! Full of fun, at least…and some nasty monsters and lots of battles and the occasional quiet moment where trauma’s faced and a girl plays piano to find peace in a strange, strange land.
If that sounds like a fun weekend read to you, then you can snatch it up for less than a buck! If you like what you read, please let me know in a review. Those book reviews on Amazon can mean life or death for the indie author!
One of the reasons I love Wisconsin so much is its wild places.
–Wisconsin photos by photographer and friend Emily Ebelingand myself–
For all the suburbs decimating the farmland, for all the whacky tourist traps and tailored nature, there are still large swatches of wilderness that cluster together in defiance of farm and town alike. You can see these swatches set off by corn, wheat and soy, or perhaps by a state road, or even by the great Wisconsin River. These barriers keep us apart, we people and the bears, coyotes, wolves, and whatever else hunts and hides among the verdant life.
It is about such barriers I’d like to speak.
Prue of Colin Meloy’s Wildwood lives near a place modern society has ignored for centuries. It’s not that no one sees it; in fact, this place is on any map of Portland:
As long as Prue could remember, every map she had ever seen of Portland and the surrounding countryside had been blotted with a large, dark green patch in the center, like a growth of moss from the northwest corner to the southwest and labeled with the mysterious initials “I.W.” (13).
When Prue asks her father about the “Impassable Wilderness” and why no one lives there, he likens it to Siberia—too inhospitable a land for people, so people simply leave it alone. End of story. Adults never talk about it, kids occasionally tease about it, but otherwise the Impassable Wilderness is simply a place no one enters, like the spooky house at the end of your street. It’s there, you know it’s there, you want to know what’s in there, but like heck are you going in to find out. It reminds me of two other books I’ve studied this year: Annihilationand Enchanted Glass. Both stories have settings outside of our perception of normal, and the settings of these stories can be seen in some capacity by those outside it.
The barrier, however, is another matter. In Enchanted Glass, Aidan and Andrew have to feel out the boundary of Andrew’s field-of-care by walking; there’s a sort of buzz in their feet to let them know when they’re on the boundary, and when they go off-track. In Annihilation, the biologist and others are hypnotized to pass through the barrier, but on either side of the barrier, there’s nothing to see. Scientists even drive animals into the barrier at one point just to mark its location. Where do they know the barrier lies? Where animals vanish completely into silence.
Unlike Enchanted Glass and Annihilation, the barrier described between Prue’s town of St. Johns and the Impassable Wilderness is quite, quite visible:
Here at the eastern side of the Willamette River was a natural border between the tight-knit community of St. Johns and the riverbank, a three-mile length of cliff simply called the bluff…The crows had cleared the precipice and were funneling skyward like a shivering black twister cloud, framed by the rising smoke from the many smelters and smokestacks of the Industrial Wastes, a veritable no-man’s-land on the other side of the river, long ago claimed by the local industrial barons and transformed into a forbidding landscape of smoke and steel. Just beyond the Wastes, through the haze, lay a rolling expanse of deeply forested hills, stretching out as far as the eye could see. (11-12)
Meloy’s taken two extremes—Industrialization, Nature—and slams them next to one another for the clearest possible contrast between what society is familiar with, and the unknown. Like Prue, we see the height of man’s victory over land, as well as his defeat. The special touch comes with the name “Wastes”: for all of man’s business and industry, he can not maintain it. Now all that’s left is rotten, disused, worthless. It’s a sort of wasteland we as everyday readers can understand; we pass such rotting structures all the time in real life.
But what we don’t often see is a murder of crows kidnap a baby, which is what happens to Prue in the first line of Wildwood:
How five crows managed to lift a twenty-pound baby boy into the air was beyond Prue, but that was certainly the least of her worries. (first line)
Those crows flying over the Wastes are the ones carrying her brother, and like the twister clouds, those vicious forces of nature, Prue can’t stop the “black twister cloud” carrying her brother from crossing over the Wastes and entering the Impassable Wilderness.
Now if a twelve-year-old girl is to make it into the Impassable Wilderness (and therefore give us a story), then the barrier itself can’t be impassable. It doesn’t need to appear and disappear in different places like the windows and fairy doors in Peadar Ó Guilín’s The Call—that feels too complicated for Meloy’s universe. Crossing the barrier to rescue a baby is a serious business, so using Jones’ humor of taking Aidan and Andrew through a manure-addled pasture and a home’s loo doesn’t feel appropriate. And making a barrier erase anything that vanishes through it like Jeff VanderMeer’s Area X would be too damn terrifying—imagine being a kid and seeing a baby, already being flown off by crows, now vanish in midair. Why would Prue think the kid alive at that point?
Meloy successfully utilizes elements to create a barrier that is eerie without causing young readers to freak out:
The only thing beyond the bluff that was exposed above the bank of clouds was the imposing iron lattice of the Railroad Bridge. It seemed to float, unmoored, on the river mist. Prue dismounted her bike and walked it south along the bluff toward an area where the cliff side sloped down into the clouds. The world around her dimmed to white as she descended.
When the ground below Prue’s feet finally evened out, she found she was standing in an alien landscape. The mist clung to everything, casting the world in a ghostly sheen. A slight wind was buffeting through the gorge, and the mist occasionally shifted to reveal the distant shapes of desiccated, wind-blown trees. The ground was covered in a dead yellow grass. (33)
I love the ghostly element of the “unmoored” iron Railroad Bridge—there’s a sort of River Styxian moment here, especially with words like “alien,” “mist,” and “ghostly sheen.” Nothing thrives: trees are grass alike are dried out and shriveled to nothing.
In utilizing a smart mix of sensory details and man’s thirst for industry, Meloy succeeds in creating a barrier that imposes, haunts, and intimidates his heroine. This early encounter with danger—and bravery—assures readers that they walk with a hero worthy of attention, and that they begin a journey so full of action the challenges begin before the hero’s even out the door.
Who says crossing the threshold can’t be its own adventure?
A common writing topic among my adult learners is an argument for better mentor programs among urban and rural youth. The majority of my students have lived many chapters before school: military service, lost jobs, parenthood, health problems, jail time. And in those chapters they had one adult who was there for them while their own loved ones wouldn’t, or couldn’t, support them. Time and again, their stories testify to the power one good grown heart can have in an uncertain life.
Such is the power of a Mentor, an amazing presence one can have in real life, as well as in fiction.
Sometimes it’s not a bad idea to refuse a Call until you’ve had time to prepare for the “zone unknown” that lies ahead. In mythology and folklore that preparation might be done with the help of the wise, protective figure of the Mentor, whose many services to the hero include protecting, guiding, teaching, training, and providing magical gifts….Meeting with the Mentor is the stage of the Hero’s Journey in which the hero gains the supplies, knowledge, and confidence needed to overcome fear and commence the adventure. -Christopher Vogler, The Writer’s Journey
One element irks me about this Mentor business, though: these characters often don’t get much time to grow. Adults so often come pre-set in Young Adult and Middle Grade: they represent all that’s wrong with the story’s universe, or they’re created soley for cannon fodder to inflict emotional damage on the young hero. Of course those that mentor will provide and guide as Vogler mentions, but when it comes time to act, the Mentor either cannot help, or will not. Even Dumbledore, one of THE Mentors in the fantasy genre spanning Middle Grade and Young Adult, admits in Order of the Phoenix to purposefully withholding information from Harry so he could be a kid for a little longer. Well, that withholding led to Harry dragging his friends into an ambush and Sirius Black getting killed off. So I guess Dumbledore does grow, but it takes, you know, FIVE BOOKS for that to happen.
Why not give the Mentor a chance to grow throughout the plot, right there alongside the Hero?
Diana Wynne Jones’ Enchanted Glassshows not only the power of the Mentor/Hero relationship, but the strength of a story that allows both characters to develop.
Now being a Middle Grade fantasy, the book’s blurb will of course talk about the child character, Aidan:
Aidan Cain has had the worst week of his life. Creepy, sinister beings want him dead. What’s a boy to do?
When you open to the first page of the story, however, you don’t hear about Aidan at all:
When Jocelyn Brandon died–at a great old age, as magicians tend to do–he left his house and his field-of-care to his grandson, Andrew Brandon Hope. Andrew himself was in his thirties.
Say what? Why are we meeting this guy first?
Jones spins the Hero’s Journey round and round and upside down and settles it just the way she wants. In a way, Andrew and Aidan are both heroes, even though Andrew ticks a lot of the boxes for Mentor: he takes Aidan into his home, helps him cope with the loss of his family, protects him from the sinister, teaches him about magic and the curious lives hiding about the town, such as the giant who comes to the shed to eat overgrown vegetables every night.
At the same time, Andrew has to grow, too. When we meet him, he is very quiet and mild. This softie-sort of demeanor makes the grandfather’s staff think they can boss Andrew around.
“And I do hope you’ll continue to work for me just as you did for my grandfather,” he said.
To which she retorted, “I don’t know what you’d do if I didn’t. You live in a world of your own, being a professor.”
“I’m not a professor,” he pointed out mildly.
Mrs. Stock took no notice of this.
They couldn’t be clearer of their opinions of Andrew than in their actions. Heck, Mrs. Stock won’t even let Andrew move the furniture around. Every time he redoes the living room, she spends the whole day moving it back, pissed to blazes at him for taking the piano out of its “hallowed corner” and the chairs and lamps away from their “traditional places.” She punishes him with terrible casseroles, but Andrew just ignores them.
Ignoring isn’t the same as growing, though. We start to see his spine stiffen as he deals with the gardener Mr. Stock (no relation). Mr. Stock is obsessed with growing the best veg for the summer fête, and he uses Andrew’s garden to do it while ignoring the lawn, flowers, trees, etc. If Andrew dares ask Mr. Stock to see about the flowers or lawn, Mr. Stock takes to dumping veg rejects in the kitchen, kicking the stained glass door as he goes, rattling glass panes everyone knows to be exceedingly old…and, as it happens, magical.
The magic in the glass is just one of the many things Andrew does not remember. He needs his own Mentor (found in another gardener, no less) to help him sift through the past for all the vital magic lessons from his grandfather, plus learn about the odd bits and pieces about the field-of-care, like the curious counter-parts, and the strange Mr. Brown who’s taken over a chunk of Andrew’s land.
The climax comes with serious growth in bothhero and mentor: Aidan’s able to tap his inner magic to create a fire no invader could penetrate, and Andrew remembers enough of his grandfather’s teaching to summon the powers of his enchanted glass to send the Fairy King back to his own home. Only now, with this success, is Andrew seen as someone to respect, as Mr. Stock admits (to himself, anyway):
He picked up the great marrow and seemed about to hand it to Andrew. Then it clearly struck him that Andrew was too importantly powerful now to carry produce about.
But this victory wasn’t just Andrew’s power, or Aidan’s. It’s a team effort between Hero and Mentor to deal with the Fairy King and his little minions from the get-go until the final thunderclap of magic and acorn flood.
Such is the growth I strive to create in my own characters populating Fallen Princeborn. The protagonists have their own valleys of struggle to walk through, but so does their mentor. He’s forgotten what hope is, and has given up on any sort of change to heal his world. When my heroine arrives, however, and brings a storm of chaos with her, he begins to feel hope again. Experiences hope again. And in that hope, he starts to find the old courage and strength that once held him fast against the enemy.
Even good grown hearts know pain and doubt. They deserve a chance to heal and grow, just like a hero. Heroes of any age want to look up to someone, but they need to relate to someone, too. The Hero’s Journey needn’t be completed by the Hero alone. Let readers walk the Mentor’s Journey, too, and experience a path through the story-world so often left unknown.