Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Part 2: The Power of Myth

A review/analysis of Into the Wild by Sarah Beth Durst

(Go here for the Intro and links to Part I and beyond.)

As the back of the books says: "Beware the Wild - it bites..."

So, you know how I said in the last post that it would contain spoilers? That goes double for these next two. Seriously. I'm going to give away the two big twists, so DO NOT READ THIS UNTIL YOU'VE READ THE BOOK!

"You can't resist it," the fairy godmother said. "If you find a bear's house, you must eat their porridge. If you go to a ball, you must lose a slipper...."

The Wild that lives under Julie's bed is not just a fairy tale monster, it is the fairy tales - or rather the force that keeps them going. When a wish allows the Wild to escape and grow once more, the people that wander into it - or are swallowed up by it - act out the plots of various tales - over and over again. As Julie travels deeper into the Wild, various helpers explain to her that her mother managed to defeat the Wild before by somehow stopping this unending cycle. That is Julie's task - to follow in her mother's footsteps.

As I mentioned in Part 1, one of the main themes of Into the Wild is free will. The scariest thing that the Wild does is manipulate everyone's memory and personality, bit by bit, until they no longer know who they once were or even that they are repeating the same story over and over again.

"This is crazy," [Julie] said. "You're destroying people."

"On the contrary," it said. "I am giving them meaning."

One goes through most of the story not needing an answer as to why the Wild is doing this. It would be like asking why Julie's bicycle came alive; that's just the sort of thing that happens in fairy tales. Except, not. Because fairy tales and their cousins are full of symbolic meaning, so there must be some reason why the Wild is doing this particular thing.

The Wild acts the way it does because it's not only a metaphor for the stories themselves, it's also an allegory for how stories affect can us.

"Stay clear of stories. Especially Endings," Grandma hugged her quickly, and Julie tried to cling to her.

In the Wild, fairy tales are traps that Julie must avoid, for if she does she will forget herself and her mission. It took hundreds of cycles for the fairy tale characters to break free of the Wild the last time, and they did so at great cost. In order to do this they left clues for themselves so that when the next cycle started, they would remember what had happened before. As a general rule, the Wild does take away people's memories of the previous cycles. But it's not all-powerful, and Zel found a way to break free and encourage others to do the same. It was a chaotic and dangerous time.

Cindy gave [Julie] a sad smile. "Not many people know this, but my stepsisters didn't need the Wild to force them to be cruel. Every time they regained their memories, they hated me anew for their blinding. And I took it, all the work and all the hatred, because how could I blame them? After hundreds and thousands of cycles, there's no way to know what came first: how they treated me or how my birds pecked out their eyes."

In explaining itself to Julie, the Wild argues that "I give rewards to the good and punishment to the bad. I give order and sense to an otherwise arbitrary existence."

But Cinderella's confession, which comes only a handful of pages after the Wild's attempt to persuade Julie, reminds us that there is a dark side to all this order. Stories do give us meaning and order and sense, but they can also trap us into roles we'd be better off not fulfilling. Sisters pushed to violent jealousy. Brides married to men who only care that they are beautiful and silent. Wives desperate to give their husbands heirs. Stepmothers forced to compete with their own children for power and affection. Grandmothers left bitter by a world that does not value their power and wisdom.

In the chapters leading up to the Wild's escape, a large number of former fairy tale characters are presented. The personalities of each have some correlation to the tales they come from, but in many ways they no longer fit the role they once played. In taking parts of their memory and personality, the newly returned Wild transforms them into, at best, caricatures of themselves. The least lucky, such as Julie's grandmother, are consumed by their worst traits and doomed to constantly hurt the ones they love.

The why of the Wild is not the only important part of the metaphor, the how is vital as well. Not just the loss of free will, but the repetition of the stories - each time exactly like the last. For it is the lack of variation that turns real stories into traps, makes archetypes become stereotypes, and messes with our ability to make choices with our eyes wide open.

"Mom's not a hero," Julie said automatically. "She's Rapunzel."

Thankfully, there is another type of story being re-enacted in the Wild, and that is the story of how Julie's mother trapped it under her bed.

Before she ventures into the Wild, Julie not only arms herself with magical talismans from the linen closet, she also heads to the folklore section of the local library. Knowing that fairy tales are real, and knowing that her mother defeated the Wild once before, but having no idea how, Julie logically assumes the tale must be written down somewhere. But alas, having only happened once before, it is a rare tale - the librarian informs Julie that the tome she needs is out on interlibrary loan. So, in the end, Julie's quest is not just to defeat the Wild, but to uncover the other story about her mother.

Julie realized her mouth was hanging open. She shut it. Her mother was in a battle? She pictured Mom with scissors in one hand and a curl brush in the other riding a griffin. "You're joking."

At first glance, Into the Wild appears to be another fractured fairy tale. But not long into the story, one realizes that is is also a story about fractured fairy tales.

Stories do not just give us order and meaning, they also give us hope. Julie willingly braves the danger of the Wild for the sake of the people she loves, but like any new hero, she's often reluctant and uncertain. But unlike Luke or Frodo, Julie has no Obi Wan or Gandalf urging her on and giving her advice. Instead, she has stories of her mother. Throughout her journey in the Wild, Julie slowly learns more and more about her mother's bravery, determination, and cleverness. Whenever she despairs of defeating the Wild, the knowledge that it must be possible gives Julie the strength she needs to carry on.

It's no coincidence that the wide old man archetype most often becomes the narrator in theatrical versions of stories. In many ways that is their true role in myths, to make sure that the new heroes know the tales of the previous heroes. This is the positive power of stories, to give us hope and show us possibilities.

Her eyes flew open, wide awake, as the idea came to her. Instead of trying to escape the stories, she should be trying to live them.

Yes, that was the way to win: follow the tales to the happily ever after of her mother's rescue tale - and avoid the role of evil step-sister who spits toads and has her eyelids pecked out by talking birds. She may not be able to avoid being in the tales altogether, but she could try to be in the right one.

At one point, after seeing her nemesis from school acting out a role in the tale of the Swan Princes, she comes to the realization that she is in a unique position to avoid being captured. Unlike her classmate, she knows the stories and is able to recognize them before they can capture her. And while her mother, grandmother, and their friends are quickly trapped into the same roles they had before, Julie does not belong to a particular story yet.

Julie, in fact, gets to write her own story, just as her mother learned to do.

"Oh, I don't blame them.,"The first dwarf said. "In fact, I envy them. To have always known who you are, to be able to change who you are, to shape your fate, to make your own story...." He nodded at Julie in reference.

The stories themselves become Julie's guide. Rather than becoming trapped by them, she is able to choose among them. But in order to do this she needs to realize that she has the ability to do so and she needs to have a variety of stories to choose from.

The librarian knows this, and this is why she made the wish that set the Wild free. When we first meet Linda she comes across as opinionated and narrow-minded. She lectures Zel on the importance of stories and Zel ignores her because she knows how harmful stories can be. The identity of the wish-maker is kept a secret until the epilogue (although clever readers will guess the answer earlier) and it is assumed that whoever did so was foolish and reckless. But Linda is neither, and though outspoken, she is most definitely not narrow-minded. It's important to remember that when she extols the virtues of the fairy tales, she concludes with "I tell, you, a fresh influx of stories could solve most of the world's problems."

Linda the librarian at first comes across as a traditional gatekeeper, a defender of the status quo - or worse, someone who yearns to turn back the clock. But again she is neither. Linda does not accidentally set the Wild free, nor does she wish to return to the Dark Ages. Instead she wishes for, and gets, an influx of new stories to guide her young charges. Linda knows exactly what she is doing, she trusts Julie to find her way out of the Wild and back into the outside world. Yet another story metaphor, this time about trusting children to both understand the difference between fact and fiction and to be clever enough to take meaning and hope from stories, while avoiding the pitfalls of harmful stereotypes.

In the end, Julie accomplishes what she sets out to do, and, in doing so, she gives the librarian - and her other charges - the inspiration they so desperately need.

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