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Archive for March, 2011

In re-reading some of Campbell today, I realized that Sophie-as-hero crosses the threshold to adventure the moment she stuffs that mushroom-pleated hat in the wastebasket.

She’s already told the hats she’s sick of them, that “you certainly aren’t doing me a scrap of good.” She’s already thought the unthinkable thought: “Someone has to do this or there will be no hats at all to sell…. Does it matter if there are no hats to sell?” [24] And she’s just gone and broken the unbreakable law of retailers everywhere, namely that the customer is always right:

The rule was: Lose your temper, lose a customer. She had just proven that rule. It troubled her to realize how very enjoyable it had been. [25]

Without quite realizing it, Sophie has just done for the family business. Without taking a step, she has left the life she has always known and crossed into the Unknown.

And right on cue, the sea-monster/ogre/dragon/sphinx that always guards the threshold entrance appears, in the form of the Witch of the Waste.

Campbell writes,

One had better not challenge the watcher of the established bounds. And yet — it is only by advancing beyond those bounds, provoking the distructive other aspect of the same power, that the individual passes, either alive or in death, into a new zone of experience….

The adventure is always and everywhere a passage beyond the veil of the known into the unknown; the powers that watch at the boundary are dangerous; to deal with them is risky…. [Hero, 82]

Though she is not at first aware whom she is dealing with, Sophie “sees” well enough magically to known that the elegant, “carefully beautiful” woman who just came breezing is not as young as she seems, and that the sad, terrified little person who follows her in like a whimpering puppy is “clearly younger than the lady…. Perhaps the lady was his mother.” [24-25]

“I hear you sell the most heavenly hats,” said the lady. “Show me.”

Sophie did not trust herself to answer in her present mood. She went and got out hats…. She followed Fanny’s advice and got out the wrongest first.

The lady began rejecting the hats instantly. “Dimples,” she said to the pink bonnet, and “Youth” to the caterpillar green one…. “Mysterous allure. How very obvious. What else have you?”

Sophie got out [a] modish black-and-white, which was the only hat even remotely likely to interest this lady.

The lady looked at it with contempt. “This one doesn’t do anything for anybody. [Of course it doesn’t; Sophie had made it quite clear to that hat that it wasn’t doing her a scrap of good!] You’re wasting my time, Miss Hatter.” [26]

Sophie is still boiling from her earlier encounter with the customer who returned the mushroom number, and she’s boiling now. Is there no end to these people with their expectations and their demands? “Only because you came in and asked for hats,” she snaps back. [26]

Sophie believes the lady is dissing her hats, when in reality she is dissing Sophie’s spells. The Witch thinks Sophie is some other Miss Hatter who has set herself up in competition to the Witch, a Miss Hatter who is “meddling with things that belong to me.” [27]

And, in what is probably the most famous scene in the novel, the Witch delivers the curse that turns Sophie into an old woman, then breezes out.

“By the way, you won’t be able to tell anyone you’re under a spell,” she said. The shop door tolled like a funeral bell as she left.

Sophie put her hands to her face…[and] felt soft, leathery wrinkles…. She pulled her gray skirt against her legs and looked down at skinny, decrepit ankles and feet which had made her shoes all knobbly. They were the legs of someone about ninety and they seemed to be real. [27]

They are real. And this Witch is a really nasty piece of work: a human woman who has enjoyed the privilege of an unnaturally prolonged life-span, willfully shortening another woman’s life by at least half a century. But why kill her victim outright, when instead the Witch can torment her by robbing her of her youth, her beauty, any love she might have known, any children she might have had, all the potential opportunities and satisfactions of her life, not to mention her health?

For a young woman who was vain and invested in her own looks and talents, this would be a funeral bell tolling indeed. Sophie, however, is a very different sort of young woman, and the Witch should have done her homework a little better.

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No sooner has the disappointed hat buyer stormed out of the shop when even bigger trouble walks in.

Sophie had no time to recover. There was the sound of wheels and horse hoofs and a carriage darkened the window. The shop bell clanged and the grandest customer she had ever seen sailed in, with a sable wrap drooping from her elbows and diamonds winking all over her dense black dress…. The lady’s face was carefully beautiful. The chestnut-brown hair made her seem young, but… [25]

Firstly, what is she doing in Market Chipping, such a long way from the Waste (which is not where the anime locates it, in the hills above Sophie’s home town)? And how did she manage it? Her altered appearance must be consuming enormous amounts of energy; by my calculations she’s about 150 years old. Is she like Sauron (on a much reduced time scale), nursing her ancient grudges while years turn into decades? Did she lose a Ring of Power somewhere out there, which likewise has been regrouping its own strength, desiring to return to its mistress? On the other hand, she’s a mortal, not a Maia, yet she seems to be getting stronger and more powerful instead of growing “thin, sort of stretched,” like Bilbo Baggins. [LotR, Book 1, Chapter I]

Clearly there is some force on the loose in Ingary that confers suprahuman power. The Witch is not herself that force, but she has apparently succeeded in hooking up with it. In this she reminds me of another, lesser-known mortal character in The Lord of the Rings:

The rider was robed all in black, and black was his lofty helm; yet this was no Ringwraith but a living man. The Lieutenant of the Tower of Barad-dur he was, and his name is remembered in no tale; for he himself had forgotten it, and he said: ‘I am the Mouth of Sauron.’ [LotR, Book 5*, Chapter X]

We never learn the Witch of the Waste’s name, either. I have seen her given one in fanfictions, but I like the namelessness. It shows the depth and width of her self-recruitment into physical and spiritual servitude to some greater, evil other. And it’s a good example of DWJ’s use of allusion to illuminate her very economically-written characters.

This encounter is going to push Sophie right past the Threshold and out the door, and I will have much more to say about it. I think I won’t try saying it tonight, however; after a bad insomniac spell last night, I’m feeling pretty thin and stretched myself.

~~~

(*There are so many editions of LotR out there that when citing it I generally default to Tolkien’s original division of the entire work into six “Books.” Thus Book 5 is the first half of The Return of the King.)

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The first Herald of the Quest which Sophie cannot now refuse is small-scale, purely local, yet important all the same.

As with the mayor’s wife’s caterpillar green hat that “makes her look like a stunning schoolgirl,” [21] the brilliant success of Jane Farrier’s hat has not gone unnoticed. There has been at least one order for another just like it, which came in a week before May Day. [11]

Two weeks later, Sophie sits alone in the shop, wageless and more discontented than ever.

A very plain young woman customer stormed in, whirling a pleated mushroom bonnet by its ribbons. “Look at this!” the young lady shrieked. “You told me this was the same as the bonnet Jane Farrier was wearing when she met the Count. And you lied. Nothing has happened to me at all!” [24]

Did Sophie actually tell her that? I doubt it. The girl’s expectations, although justified somewhat by the local buzz, were the product of her own need. She was not as lucky as Jane, though. Instead of casting a spell of beauty and allure over it, Sophie, exhausted and depleted, tried the girl’s hat on herself and concluded that it made her look “Like an old maid!” [12] No wonder the poor young lady has failed to snag a nobleman, or anybody else! The reader fervently hopes that the old-maidness stays with the hat and not with the girl who had such hopes for it when she bought it.

Sophie, meanwhile, has had it up to there, and she lets fly at the girl:

“I’m not surprised,” Sophie said, before she had caught up with herself. “If you’re fool enough to wear that bonnet with a face like that, you wouldn’t have the wit to spot the King himself if he came begging — if he hadn’t turned to stone first just at the sight of you.”

The customer glared. Then she threw the bonnet at Sophie and stormed out of the shop. Sophie carefully crammed the bonnet into the wastebasket, panting rather. [25]

Meowtch! Is this the kind of behavior one expects from a hero-in-training?

Of course, says Jones:

[Heroes] have enormous individuality and a larger-than-life personality – not always a very nice one. They sulk, they stamp, they throw racquets and they insult the umpires and the linesmen. But then, very few heroes are like Sir Galahad. Achilles sulked worse than a tennis star – he was also vengeful and whined to his mother. Theseus made unscrupulous use of Ariadne (whom he left on an island where Bacchus later found her – I always think that really meant she took to drink, poor girl) and Jason made similar use of Medea…. [“Heroes,” linked at right]

Sophie’s talent and hard work are the lightbulb that’s allowed every other dame in town to bask in rosy radiance. Her energy, both physical and psychic, is the battery everybody else draws on as they strut and prance on May Day. Sophie, meanwhile, is exhausted, she’s frustrated, and she knows that this is just all wrong.

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By now, Sophie’s gloom is profound. Fanny has apparently blown off her request for a raise, there’s nobody to talk to, and the hats just keep on coming:

She looked round the assembled hats, on stands or waiting in a heap to be trimmed. “What good are you all?” she asked them. “You certainly aren’t doing me a scrap of good.”

And she was within an ace of leaving the house and setting out to seek her fortune, until she remembered she was the eldest and there was no point. [24]

But business as usual is no longer as helpful to Sophie as it was a week ago, before she ventured out into Market Square on May Day to learn that her sisters and her stepmother were not the people she had believed them to be — and to encounter a raging force of nature in her reaction to a polite young man in a blue and silver suit.

Once again I find myself reaching for my copy of Hero With A Thousand Faces. Leafing through it, I find entire paragraphs which Campbell might have written just about Sophie:

That which has to be faced, and is somehow profoundly familiar to the unconscious — though unknown, surprising, and even frightening to the conscious personality — makes itself known; and what formerly was meaningful may become strangely emptied of value…. Thereafter, even though the hero returns for a while to his familiar occupations, they may be found unfruitful. A series of signs of increasing force then will become visible, until…the summons can no longer be ignored. [Hero, 55-56]

In critical discussions of a creative work, there is always one person in the room who wants to know if the author/artist/composer puts all this stuff in “on purpose.” Jones’s own answer to that question is so good and so profound that I quote it every chance I get:

[O]nce I had conceived the idea of founding the story [of Fire and Hemlock] on that of Tam Lin, about ninety other myths and folktales proceeded to manifest, in and out all the time, like fish in dark water. The beauty of such tales is that the weight they carry is only to be grasped intuitively. They cause readers to grasp far more than the surface meaning, but they combine with that surface meaning more easily and successfully than anything else, even for those who do not know the story in question. [In “The Practice of Science Fiction,” linked at right]

Sophie has been clinging like mad to the eldest child trope in order to keep refusing her personal quest. This cannot go on much longer; as Martha told her, “You’re far too clever and nice to be stuck in that shop for the rest of your life.” [20] But there is still hope:

Not all who hesitate are lost. The psyche has many secrets in reserve. And these are not disclosed unless required. So it is that sometimes the predicament following an obstinate refusal of the call proves to be the occasion of a providential revelation of some unsuspected principle of release. [Hero, 63-64]

That “principle of release” is about to walk in the hat shop door in the form of two very difficult customers.

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Now that Diana Wynne Jones has left us, I will return to book-blogging Howl’s Moving Castle with a sadness and heaviness that wasn’t there before. May she rest in peace, and may her children and grandchildren, to whom she was devoted, find comfort in their sorrow.

And may her fame continue to grow. She is a remarkable writer: not as accessible as many, because her plots are dreamlike and convoluted, often with characters that morph freely through time and space (Ann/Vierran in Hexwood and Tom Lynn in Fire and Hemlock, for example).

Yet her ability to look into the heart and soul of a troubled child is matched by no other writer’s, in my opinion. And (heh heh) she gives no quarter whatsoever to negligent, abusive adults. (Polly’s mother in F & H? Yikes!) I’m an adult and a parent, and sure, the job isn’t easy. But I was a child once, too, and I haven’t forgotten how it feels to be mown over and cast aside by people who have no sense of your reality. Jones never forgot it, either.

In fact, as I go on thinking about Fanny Hatter, I find the sympathy with which Jones portrays her to be unusual, but in keeping with the theme of the novel. (I know I’m getting ahead of the story here, but we are taking time out to mourn for Diana and to think about her legacy.) One important aspect of maturation is learning to read people correctly, to see past their outsides into their hearts. HMC’s main characters are all on the cusp of maturity in a world in which appearances not only might be but ARE deceptive. Among them we will find at least one genuinely mature, card-carrying adult: Mrs. Pentstemmon. Thoughtless, careless youth breaks on that lady like waves against a cliff. Are there any others? Mrs. Fairfax? Ben Sullivan? The King? The Witch of the Waste is old enough and then some, but did she ever really grow up? And should I clarify my assumptions about what being “grown up” really entails? Probably. Of course. Absolutely.

And who’s playing the role of an adult but hasn’t quite grown up yet? What about Justin? Miss Angorian? (Does she even count?) Or (*shudder*) Megan? Now I think of it, the King may fit in this latter group as well. I don’t know. I’ll have to think some more about that one. And about Fanny. Fanny’s grown quite a bit in my estimation, just during the past week. I fully expect other characters to do the same. The more you read DWJ, the deeper you go, and the more you bring back.

So, onward, and again, a thousand thanks to you, Miss Jones, for all you have given us!

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Rest in peace. I hope your fame and your following continue to grow.

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Is there anything to add to this past week’s postings about Sophie’s reluctance to do something about herself, while Martha, Lettie, and Fanny are all making big changes to their lives? If there is, I trust anybody out there reading this (and there are a few of you, or so my stats indicate) will let me know.

Unless, of course, you’re all weird spam-links from Mars, which is what accounted for my best-viewed week so far. And which is really rather off-putting. WordPress has a filter in place for spam comments that is so good it would not let your great-aunt Ruby who went into the convent in 1957 in the door, yet any site of ill-repute out there can generate some kind of bogus linkage.

I don’t understand it. That must be because I’m the eldest of two.

~~~

Hair-color is a theme not only in HMC, but in anime as well: in general, blondes are tricksters, the grey-haired are not merely wise but supernatural, brunettes are everyman or everygirl. There is some discussion here: http://www.umich.edu/~anime/info_haircolor.html

Which leads to this poem. It has been rattling around in my head ever since I wrote about Martha’s quest to know whether her true love loves her for herself alone, and not her borrowed Lettie-beauty. Here we go:

For Anne Gregory
by William Butler Yeats

“Never shall a young man
Thrown into despair
By those great honey-coloured
Ramparts at your ear,
Love you for yourself alone
And not your yellow hair.”

“But I can get a hair-dye
And set such colour there,
Brown, or black, or carrot,
Than young men in despair
May love me for myself alone
And not my yellow hair.”

“I heard an old religious man
But yesternight declare
That he had found a text to prove
That only God, my dear,
Could love you for yourself alone
And not your yellow hair.”

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