Ghosts Of Romanticism In Neil Gaiman’s Children’s Fiction

Padma Jagannathan

Padma Jagannathan

From the point of view of childhood, modern Western society shows many parallels to the Romantic Age. While the industrial economy of the past caused rapid changes to the landscape and lives of children, forcing millions of them into labour, the informational economy we experience now is similarly having a tremendous impact on children’s lives. Never before has a generation found so much freedom in the virtual world while at the same time having real-life experiences so tightly controlled by parents and society. Some social scientists argue that kids in the West suffer from “Nature Deficit Disorder” and will grow up to be “Alone Together,” while others are starting movements for “Free Range Kids,” encouraging exploration of the physical world around them.

Tumultuous changes, like the ones during the Industrial Revolution, have always provided rich fodder for writers. If one traces the development of children’s literature one finds that an inflexion point happened during the Romantic period. A new aesthetic was born, wherein literature moved out of the realm of simple moralistic stories into the realm of fantasy and fairy tales. It was around the same time that Gothic fiction emerged, advocating reading for pleasure, a new concept in late eighteenth-century. Both fairy tales and Gothic fiction offered an escape mechanism, a public method of validating personal fears, helping to democratize reading and shift the balance of power in society. Given that today’s childhood is in its own way trapped in fears and anxieties, it is no wonder that leading authors who write for children follow the aesthetics of fairy tales and Gothic fiction, seeking to transport children to fantasy worlds. One of the leading artists of this genre is Neil Gaiman.

Three of Neil Gaiman’s works designed for children, ‘The Wolves in the Walls,’ ‘Coraline’ and ‘The Graveyard Book’ are written in the finest tradition of fairy tales and Gothic fiction, encouraging imaginative escapism through the simple act of reading for pleasure. Through these works, Neil Gaiman addresses very specific fears of childhood — abandonment, loneliness, not fitting in, the pressure to conform, and highlights the limitations placed on children’s creativity, physical space, and freedom to explore.

The Gothic tradition offers a template and Neil Gaiman effectively uses and adapts this template to get his message through to his readers. Spooky settings, an outsider hero, scary villains, locked down spaces with multiple realities, dreams, a dangerous but successful quest are just some of these elements we find in the three works. In this process, he leads kids into a different world, explores their fears, both real and imagined, and invites the reader to make meaning together. His tales are scary, but he uses fear to animate his readers and expand their imagination and creativity.

Just as the heroes of his tales find liberation from fear and oppression, he liberates his readers by shaking the balance of power between author and reader, adult and child, control and creativity, and ultimately, what is real or imaginary. In other words, Neil Gaiman’s modern Gothic novels offer rich psychoanalytic insights about children in modern Western society, and a pathway to the redemption of childhood, not an innocent one, but one “rich in adventure, and opportunities for self-exploration and self-determination.”

Before we delve into the three chosen works of Neil Gaiman, it is useful to outline some of the characteristics of Gothic fiction and set context around the Grimm’s fairy tales as they are two important influences seen in these three works. Gothic fiction first exploded onto the literary scene in the 1790s when Europe was reeling from the effects of the French and Industrial Revolution. Many scholars have argued that “Gothic fiction and drama performed important cultural work in these years by allowing British readers to satisfy private desires and anxieties while participating in collective narrative fantasy.” Publicly vilified for morally corrupting its readers and for combining history with supernaturalism, Gothic fiction was shunned by social conservatives but found a strong readership base among women and younger readers. Arriving at a time when women’s literacy was being strictly policed, Gothic fiction democratized reading by advocating reading for pleasure and escapism and became a “mediator between high art and mass culture.”

Jane Austen parodied the popularity of ‘The Mysteries of Udolpho,’ and the high-browed critical reactions to Gothic novels, in her novel ‘Northanger Abbey.’ Her heroine, Catherine Morland is an unabashed fan of Ann Radcliffe and is not sure if Henry Tilney shares her taste as she believed “gentlemen read better books.” Henry Tilney, on the other hand, defends the Gothic novel when he replies “The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid. I have read all Mrs Ann Radcliffe’s works and most of them with great pleasure. ‘The Mysteries of Udolpho,’ when I had once begun it, I could not lay down again.” Reviewers of Ann Radcliffe’s works like ‘The Romance of the Forest’ helped define some of the critical elements of this genre. “We have the ruined abbey, a supposed ghost, the skeleton of a man scarcely murdered, with all the horrid train of images which such scenes and circumstances may be supposed to produce” was how the Critical, reviewed the novel. Comic books and graphic novels have had a similar reception in the twenty-first century.

Comic books especially have long been “decried for fostering illiteracy” and like Gothic fiction found little favour among conservatives and critics while appealing to children and a small segment of adults. Neil Gaiman is a strong advocate of comics and fiction and calls them the “gateway drug to reading. The drive to know what happens next, to turn the page, the need to keep going… that is a real drive.” He argues that “well-meaning adults can destroy a child’s love of reading: stop them reading what they enjoy, or give them worthy-but-dull books… the twenty-first-century equivalents of Victorian improving literature.” This defence from Neil Gaiman could just as well have been written in the eighteenth-century in support of Ann Radcliffe’s novels.

The second influence in Neil Gaiman’s works are the Grimm’s fairy tales. The Romantic era was known for its glorification of the common folk, their lives and stories. The emphasis was around senses and “nature” as opposed to rational or well-defined ideas. In this context, the Brothers Grimm’s collection of common folklore lends credibility to the knowledge and wisdom seen in the average man and is often viewed as an important work of the Romantic era. Despite the gloom and grimness associated with these tales, they have become widely popular because their tales were “precise and striking. Transformation and diversity were needed to disclose the truths that the tales conveyed.” Jack David Zipes believes that some of the best modern interpreters of Grimm tended to “share a feminist perspective, tend to be politically more secular or multicultural, are artistically experimental, and endeavor to address contemporary socio-political problems in light of the deleterious changes… that have occurred throughout the world.”

Neil Gaiman’s stories borrow a number of ideas from these tales, but unlike the modern day sugar-coated versions, he retains the dark elements. His stories are considered too scary for his audience, namely young children. His protagonists are often forced into positions of powerlessness that can be extremely scary especially for a young child. Neil Gaiman, in the tradition of the Grimm brothers, does not shy away from exploring these fears. The darkness is an essential ingredient even though it leads to traumatic confrontations for their protagonists because, in that catharsis, both the reader and the protagonist expand their imagination and creativity.

Although the three chosen works are each targeted at a slightly different audience within the age group of five to twelve, and each is unique in format (picture book, graphic novel, full-length novel) there are some common themes to consider. The three protagonists, Lucy (‘The Wolves in the Wall’), Coraline (‘Coraline’) and Bod (‘The Graveyard Book’) are knowingly or unknowingly put in risky situations by the adults in their lives, very much in the tradition of the Grimm’s fairy tales. According to Zipes, “more than seventy-five percent of Grimm’s tales involve the manipulation and exploitation of young people whose lives are put at risk because of their parents or other adults.”

Neil Gaiman’s stories are no different. Lucy’s mother in ‘The Wolves in the Walls’ is busy “putting homemade jam into pots” and makes light of her concern about wolves in the walls. Her father who spends more time with his tuba than with his family does not heed her warnings either and claims that Lucy has “an overactive imagination” instead. Coraline’s parents are depicted in the graphic novel in front of their computers, physically present but mentally absent which seems to be a commentary on parenthood today where most parents are unable to sever the connection to their devices and their work. Coraline is often asked to “go away,” “draw something,” “read a book, watch a video,” or “count all the doors and windows” so that her parents can get on with their work. Bod, in ‘The Graveyard Book,’ of course, has a more traumatic childhood as his parents are brutally murdered at the start of the book, and his adoptive parents are ghosts of the graveyard, not “normal” parents by any means.

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