There are many glorious picture books published in Australia, and Once there was a boyis on of them. It’s a seemingly simple book that stays in the mind for a long time. It is by a wonderful artist, Dub Leffler, who is descended from the Bigambul and Mandandanji people of South-West Queensland, and who grew up in Quirindi, not far from Armidale. He has worked with luminaries such as Shaun Tan and Banksy, and in Once there was a boy, he has created a lovely piece of storytelling that recasts a whole lot of invasion narratives into a simple fable about a boy who lives alone on an island, and a girl who visits without invitation, eats his fruit, sleeps in his bed, and breaks his heart.
I’ve put this book on the syllabus for my summer class Introduction to Literature through Children’s Books, because I want to talk about how intertextuality, adaptation and retelling work in storytelling. Once there was a boy, in which I can see echoes of the myth of Pandora, the folktale of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Edgar Allen Poe’s The Telltale Heart, the Perrault recording of the Bluebeard story, and more. It’s a really clever book–simple, rich, and resonant., with exquisite artwork.
How far do we go with influence-chasing, however? It’s something I’ll be discussing with the class: intertextuality is appealing, but only if it’s meaningful, and one can end up down a rabbit-hole of references and parallels which go well beyond what the author intends, or wants to acknowledge.
That said, Once there was a boy offers a take on the Pandora myth that points to its place as a cautionary ‘don’t touch’ tale. A curious little girl, who has invited herself in to the boy’s island home, looks under the bed (despite being told not to), and deals with the consequences of her actions.
The original Pandora myth ends with the discovery of Hope, trapped in the famous box, operating as a balm for the ills of the world that have been released on first opening.
Where does Hope lie in Once there was a boy? I think it resides in the actions of the little girl, who reflects on what she has done, and makes a profound gesture in order to heal and reconcile, giving her own heart to the little boy. It’s possible to read this book as a reflection on colonisation, whereby the girl represents the naive intrusion of colonisers, and the boy represents the place and people they dislodge and disrupt. Once there was a boy has a strong resonance in relation to the power structures of post-colonial Australia. Leffler doesn’t dwell on the challenges and problematics of reconciliation and reparation, but the meaning is clear: for true reconciliation to occur, acts of reparation need to take place.
Scouring the UNE library shelves for inspiration last week, I came upon a copy of Harrius Potter et Philosophi Lapis, the Latin translation of . . . you know what. It belonged to an old friend, and so I checked it out, along with several other translations of children’s books, to think about what inspires us to translate our favourite books into our favourite languages.
As the great Wilfried Stroh explains (in Latin) there’s a long tradition of children’s books in Latin from Winnie ille Pu to Fabula de Jemima Anate-Aquatica. . . It’s no easy task to achieve, either. Anyway, here’s Peter Needham’s opening lines of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in Latin,
Puer Qui Vixit
Dominus et Domina Dursley, qui vivebant in aedibus Gestationius Ligustrorum numero quattuor signatis, no sine superbia dicebant se ratione ordinaria vivendi uti neque se paenitere illius rationis. in toto orbe terrarum vix credas quemquam esse minus deditum rebus novis et arcanis, quod ineptias tales omnino spernebant.
Harrius Potter et Philosophi Lapis, trans. Peter Needham (1)
Magic, eh! You can look up the English for yourselves.
In the meantime, some thoughts about Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, which I am teaching this summer as part of a unit introducing techniques of literary study through children’s books. The idea is that in seemingly simple texts such as Harry Potter, Charlotte’s Web, and other well-known kids’ books, we can explore different elements of literary technique and thought. Some of these books (such as Matilda and Once There Was a Boy) are highly intertextual and draw on myths, legends, and fairy tales, and so I’m exploring that aspect as well.
Harry Potter and the many allusions to Latin
Harry Potter and the Philospher’s Stone is full of allusions and intertexts. It’s a pastiche of styles and influences, and much of its success must surely come from the way in which Rowling tells a story that is familiar in concept and structure, but also original, imaginative, and new. Roald Dahl’s influence is clear in the horrible Dursleys–grotesque in shape and behaviour–contrasted with Harry’s innocence but also his ability to take vengeance when necessary. The battles of Star Wars, between Luke, a novice good-guy and Darth Vader, an overwhelmingly powerful bad-guy, complete with colour-coded technological swords, are another clear influence–if we swap Harry for Luke, and wands for light-sabres, the parallels are clearer still. The influence of the British school story, with competitions between student Houses, good, bad, and unfair teachers, is also clear: the Quidditch matches of Harry Potter are not unlike the obsession with rugby in Tom Brown’s Schooldays (and a host of imitators). And so on. There are books, articles, talks galore that dig out and enjoy the parallels.
You don’t have to recognise the allusions to enjoy Harry Potter, of course, but it makes for a rich reading experience if you do. And for the classically-inclined (Rowling herself was a classics student), the novels are peppered with references to the ancient world, through names, mythical creatures, snatches of Latin, and classical precedents and parallels.
There are the names of important witches and wizards, for instance: Minerva McGonagall, the wise and wily deputy headmistress of Hogwarts, named after the Roman version of the goddess Athena (and, incidentally, Scotland’s weirdest poet, William McGonagall). Albus Dumbledore, headmaster and personification of goodness: where Albus means ‘white,’ or ‘shining’, and Dumbledore is a dialectal word for bumblebee. Rubeus Hagrid, his loyal sidekick, takes his first name from the Latin for red, a popular name in mediaeval times. Dedalus Diggle is one of the first wizards to celebrate the initial defeat of Voldemort: his name recalls the great inventor, father of Icarus, designer of the labyrinth. Severus Snape recalls the Roman Emperor Septimius Severus (193-211 AD), but more than that, his name means ‘severe, or serious’; Draco Malfoy is named after the Latin for dragon (as befits a proud member of Slytherin), and also the first lawmaker of the city-state of Athens, known for his harshness (such as giving the death penalty for minor crimes, like stealing a cabbage). Hermione Granger is named after the daughter of Menelaus and Helen of Troy, a spirited woman who fights to marry the man she wants, Orestes. Argus Filch, the grouchy janitor/groundskeeper, seems to be everywhere at once, like his namesake, the hundred-eyed guardian, Argus Panoptes, whose eyes ended up decorating the tail of Hera’s bird, the peacock.
These are only the names from the first book in the series. Throughout, Rowling is very clever with her use of names, balancing Latin and English, Old French, and dialects, and applying them meaningfully to major and minor characters alike. (I was delighted to see that Professor Sprout, the herbology teacher, rejoices in the first name, Pomona–the Roman goddess of apples and ‘fruitful abundance’) These names create a tapestry of additional meaning, supporting the sense that the Harry Potter books are set in a world like, but not quite like, our own, full of echoes and allusions.
Magical names are part of a magical world, and much of the appeal of the novels comes from the interweaving of magical creatures with everyday life. Rowling draws again on mythology: Harry Potter’s wand has the feather of a phoenix in it; so too, Dumbledore has a companion phoenix (Fawkes, named after Guido Fawkes, one of the gunpowder plot conspirators). Dragons feature, in names, in passwords (caput Draconis), and in an egg that Hagrid won off a guy down the pub. ‘Galloping Gorgons’ cries Hagrid when he remembers something he ought to have done, perhaps feed ‘Fluffy,’ the three-headed dog who guards a trapdoor to a secret underworld, much like his mythological counterpart Cerberus. And of course there are the centaurs, learned stargazers who live in the forest near the school and worry about the messages in the planets.
And into the clearing came–was it a man, or a horse? to the waist, a man, with red hair and beard, but below that was a horse’s gleaming chestnut body with a long, reddish tale. Harry and Hermione’s jaws dropped.
‘Oh it’s you, Ronan,’ said Hagrid in relief. ‘How are yeh?’
He walked forward and shook the centaur’s hand.
‘Good evening to you, Hagrid,’ said Ronan. He had a deep, sorrowful voice. ‘Were you going to shoot me?’
‘Can’t be too careful, Ronan,’ said Hagrid, patting his crossbow. ‘There’s summat bad loose in this forest. This is Harry Potter, an’ Hermione Granger, by the way. Students up at the school. An’ this is Ronan, you two. He’s a centaur.’
‘We’d noticed,’ said Hermione faintly.
(Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, 184)
The mythological creatures add depth and mystery to the novels–suggesting a pagan otherworldliness, or old magic, that is qualitatively different from the witches and wizards of modern faerie. They don’t participate much in the action, but come by occasionally, giving a sense that they’ve seen many a battle between good and evil. . .
Going deeper into storytelling and interextuality: as a hero story, the Harry Potter novels participate in all sorts of classical traditions. One can view them as a quest, in which Harry finds the resources (external and internal) to battle ultimate evil in the form of Voldemort. One can view them, as Vassiliki Panoussi does, as a foundation epic, in which Harry and his friends build an army to establish a brave new world. There are echoes of Greek tragedy, as Brett Rogers notes, in Rowling’s world view, especially where the tyranny of educators over students is concerned. Harry Potter, like much great fantasy literature, has richness, depth, and a profound morality, which drawing on classical parallels helps point to.
Harrius Potter and Our Mythical Childhood
The Our Mythical Childhood survey, of course, has entries on the world of Harry Potter. There’s entry 641 on Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, and entry 65 on Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. And while I didn’t grow up reading these books, and I’m not sure I have what it takes to be a member of Dumbledore’s Army, I am entranced by the mixture of Latin and magic, imagination and power that make the Harry Potter novels a mythical experience–in English, in Latin, or even in Ancient Greek .
In my family, my father and I are the ones who read and enjoy fantasy literature, and we share and discuss our favourites, when the others are not around. Here he reminisces about his time as a student at Oxford University, the home of three of Britain’s best-known and loved fantasy writers (C. S. Lewis, Lewis Carroll, and J. R. R. Tolkien).
I read bucket-loads of Lewis at school and
university. At school it was his books on religious belief. They were approved
of there. I was impressed by the Screwtape
Letters; their indirect technique, evil mentoring from a senior to a junior
devil, was new to me and to apologetics. At university, however, other forms of
belief and unbelief or doubt made more noise.
Lewis remained a presence at Oxford even after he had shifted (unfortunately
for me) to Cambridge. He had founded the Socratic Club, where belief and
unbelief were interrogated by a formally-appointed Socratic gadfly. (Like a
medieval disputation, as I later learnt.) I found that I couldn’t breathe its combative
atmosphere, and that Lewis’s pugnacity was uncongenial to serious thought about
faith. I had a friend, Martin, who enjoyed the religious works more than I did,
without being at all persuaded or
moved by them.
Martin preferred Till We Have Faces,
where Lewis retold the myth of Cupid and Psyche. Lewis set it in some far
country, beyond the edge of Greek or Roman territory, and told it from a
strange viewpoint, that of Psyche’s sister. I mention it because I liked it
too, for its deliberate strangeness. Well written, too, almost too well. Did writing
come too easily to Lewis?
not, in his self-life, Surprised by Joy.
He says that when he began writing fiction, he was astonished by how much
harder it was. To write about literature you just “switched on the motor at the
place where you had left off,” and carried on, whereas to write a story needed
a different power, the power which might or might not return— would just as
likely “leave a man as dry as a stone.” He liked to talk of “a man,”
generalizing in a bluff or hearty tone from his own experience.
or easy, I found him wonderful at almost everything he touched; but which of
his books did I read when? That did change. Nowadays I admire his works of
scholarship the most. Not the apologetics, nor the children’s tales, but works
on the scale of his Oxford (OHEL) volume English Literature in the Sixteenth
Century (but “excluding the drama,”
saddled for ever with its stuffy sub-title) which manages to be both objective
and personal, funny and austere. Or works where he expounded and expatiated, to
continual delight and enlightenment, like the Discarded Image and Studies
then, aged about 21, I was in some awe of his fiction, because he himself was
in awe of that kind of writing. It did come harder to him. He himself was in
awe of Tolkien, and the more difficult Charles Williams, and other Inklings.
Sort of meeting Lewis
I met him once back then, sort of. I dreamt that I met him. Like this: As a student at Christ Church, we had a tatty old common room with high window seats, on which you could look out at one of those secretive Alice gardens with high stone walls. Lewis Carroll’s former rooms were on the next floor up from this common room, in the corner of Tom Quad. In my dream, I was sitting with Lewis at that window. He said, “Got something to show you.” He rummaged in the baggy side-pocket of his old check sports-jacket, and carefully brought out a fairy, about three inches tall, wearing a pale green hazel-nut cap. End of dream. Waking up I recognized Lewis from his photograph, and the fairy from one of the Rupert books. The first one I had ever read, which I hadn’t re-read for many years, and nothing to do with Lewis. Well, no, maybe somehow it was. And how strange that the dream-encounter was set in Dodgson-land; underneath it, in fact. Allegories welcomed.
It was some time after that dream that I met Lewis’s children’s stories. The Voyage of the Dawn-Treader, borrowed from the Oxford Public Library just up the road. (A distinctively Victorian library, that one. Loved it.) I was thrilled by the Dawn-Treader! I felt Lewis had embodied his own love of Die Ferne, which he vents a lot in Surprised by Joy. Like Odysseus, too. And Norse myths of sailing to the farthermost end of the sea. In Reepicheep, the mighty-mouse idea blended with that lovely poem by Christopher Smart, about the mouse which challenged the cat which has seized his mate. (Set to music by Benjamin Britten in Jubilate Agno.) These off-centre works radiate a different joy from the plodding ones of much fiction, including workaday fantasies which show their construction.
A brush with Tolkien
I had more time for random reading that summer (1959). I was grappling with philosophy reading, logic, which took me one hour per page. I had to read something else. I tried Dawn-Treader. Also in May 1959 I heard of Tolkien. I had heard tell of how one day, marking examination papers, he had written onto one of the scripts, “In a hole in the ground lived a hobbit.” An act of release, frustration, rebellion, who knows? He had fame outside his own subject because of it. I liked the break-out. And he was a buddy of Lewis. Lewis was “Jack,” Tolkien was “Tollers.” To each other, I mean, when meeting at the pub on Tuesdays to drink deep and debate their fictions.
So, when Tolkien gave his final lecture, I
packed in with hundreds of other people to Merton Hall. That one time, I “sort
of” met him too. It was filled full, gallery and all. I had got there late, so
stood at the back of the gallery. I could hear every word, then! The lecture
ran for well over an hour. It consisted, entirely, of a defence of the Oxford
English syllabus. Which did and must for ever start with Old English
(compulsory), stopping at Jane Austen!
This did need some defending. It disappointed me. Anyhow, I was present only
to hear anecdotes or indiscretions about hobbit-making.
How curious, in hindsight, to learn that
some scholars (such as my Otago colleague Alan Horsman) judged that Tolkien
should have spent his last 30 years at Oxford on his scholarship; following up
his edition of Sir Gawain and the Green
Knight. Instead, Tolkien published little except fantasy once he started
with the Hobbit. Hobbitry took up more and more of his energies. And his jingly
verse and philological whimsying. I have some sympathy for Alan in this! I was
bored by the valedictory, couldn’t see what the fuss was about this in-house
stuff, since I was studying a different subject. And, holding those views about
the syllabus, wouldn’t it have been more consistent to publish scholarship?
Better still, like Lewis, to divide his writing time between his two very great
Hobbit or Homer?
the record, before going back to Lewis:: from reading the Hobbit, I remember only Gollum, and “My precious.” And from a year
later, reading the Rings, how Gollum’s
fixation and identity are finally disclosed. If I remember rightly, he is a
former hobbit, who has lost his skin and eyesight, and his right wits, by
hunting through too many caverns for long dark ages for the lost ring of power.
A moral tale, ending in metamorphosis, somewhat resembling the evolutionary
pattern of species like flightless birds, or bats. Call me Philistine, but the
imagination at work here does not impress me all that much.
Much greater power is to be found in Homer understated, back near the beginning of recoverable fiction. When the suitors are slain by the bow of Odysseus, their spirits flee away like bats in flight, squeaking, trizontes. They are flitting off in a colourless half-life to Hades, where even the greatest spirits —like Achilles, who has spoken with Odysseus during the Nekuia, the book where he travels to consult the dead—loathe to be, only partly alive after their vibrant lives of earth. The mythological imagination coheres, and convinces. Is it because we have gone back to its wellspring, the oral composition and bardic performance?
Kindly but not cosy—Lewis
A little later, 1962 I think, I tried Tolkien’s long tale. Thrilled at first, I read the Rings late into the night in order to finish, despite this being the week of final exams. An imprudence! Was I growing up or eegressing? That was the high watermark of my liking and enjoyment. Lewis’s tales have lasted better. Or I haven’t binged on them. He undertakes secondary epic more lightly, at less portentous length, and with a different kind of density. He has the same philological density. Spirits that glint sidelong in the bright air are eldila, singular being eldil. And in other ways the secondary epic is thought through with less sweating over it than Tolkien. Lewis more lightly touches it in, to the depth required in each moment of his story— as it intensifies towards the end in Dawntreader It was always a sport. Tolkien turned professional after being enjoyed as an amateur.
I don’t know whether I prefer Lewis because he enlivened tales which were his own with assorted myth, not only classical, or because Tolkien stood closer to a different body of myth which he knew better and then aped. But Lewis’s characterizations engage actual growing-up feelings better. Myths help: Argonautic voyaging rather than clunky sword-fighting (taken ad absurdum in those movies). Lewis is kindly but not cosy, unlike Tolkien.
does let it down, for me, is the metaphysics, in a word, Aslan. Tolkien does
the opposite, beneficially: no benign spirit presiding and intervenes, and
instead a supernatural of evil, as if evil not good was the ruling norm. The
metaphysic you get in Henry James. Rather than either of them, leave the tale-telling
to Robert Louis Stevenson.
All in all, nonetheless, Lewis is the great all-rounder of English letters in his century.
Anna Mik is a PhD student at the University of Warsaw’s Faculty of “Artes Liberales”, completing her thesis on the representation of mythical creatures in literature for children and young adults–especially on the ethical conundrums they present for young minds to think about. Here, she talks about Dobby, the house-elf famously freed by Harry Potter (with advice and encouragement from his friend Hermione Granger). Could it be that Dobby is a Spartacus of the Wizarding World?
This paper is an extract from a paper she delivered at “Our Mythical History: Children’s and Young Adults’ Culture in Response to the Heritage of Ancient Greece and Rome,” a Conference held at the Faculty of “Artes Liberales,” May 22-26, 2019.)
or death” – those three words are famously
inscribed in popular culture and associated with the historical figure of
Spartacus. This seemingly simple and concise combination of words defining the
basic privilege of every creature and the final moment of its existence,
reflects the tragedy of struggle for eleutheria (liberty), a goal beyond
which there is nothing but death.
almost always comes with the ultimate price. In antiquity, with its own
variations and differences, slaves were treated as objects and their masters’
property. Although the vision of ancient slavery seems distant, until
recently this phenomenon was very close to our times, both in Europe and in the
United States (of course, in different than ancient forms). People of African
descent were treated as objects or animals as well, and had to fight for their
rights which still are not respected in some parts of the world. The echoes of
its presence can still be heard today, including, maybe surprisingly, the
literature for our youngest readers.
Take the Harry Potter
novels, for example. To some extent J. K. Rowling explores slavery through her
presentation of creatures placed very low in the wizarding hierarchy. House-elves
inhabiting the world of Harry Potter have one function assigned to them: to
serve wizards without payment or any kind of appreciation. They wear the worst
kind of rag they can find and do not own any property. The major schoolbook History
of Hogwarts does not even mention the existence of the house-elves, even
though: “Elf enslavement goes back in centuries”, Rowling, 2000:
198); They are evidently excluded from the main discourse, as their presence is
not appropriately acknowledged, in wizarding education nor in their political
How to liberate an elf
Nevertheless, there is a way to liberate the house-elf: by giving them a piece of clothing. Usually they consider this act the worst tragedy—emphasizing the fear that can come with freedom. But in the second book of the series, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (1998) Harry develops a significant connection to one of the house-elves. He is named Dobby, and is the only of his kind that dreams of eleutheria and despises his wizard master (the snobbish Lucius Malfoy). After defeating Lord Voldemort once more, Harry gives the elf a sock and finally Dobby is free!. From now on the creature openly admires the boy, and even though he is now freed of any obligations towards wizards, he promises to stand by Potter’s side at all costs.
Elves’ connection to enslavement and clothing brings us back to the fairy-tale tradition, where those creatures served humans, in exchange for clothing or food. Such depictions are common in many folk-tales (also in Poland) but probably the most popular one would be the version by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm: The Elves and the Shoemaker (first trans. to English by Margaret Hunt in 1884 as: The Elves). In this tale the elves make shoes for a Shoemaker at night, to a point when (depending on the version) the man frees them by giving the creatures a piece of clothing. The Shoemaker does that to pay his debt, which might make us wonder–does Harry do the same thing?
Is it possible that
Harry frees Dobby out of guilt for the pain that wizard society caused the
house-elves? We do not read about such a motive in the book, nonetheless, it
might have been one of the options. Or maybe – which is most likely – he only did it out of pure sympathy towards
Dobby, combinded with a need of revange on Malfoy house. Either way, one more
question remains – why onlyDobby was freed, why not other elves,
who also suffer from slavery and wizards’
Hierarchy and relationships among magical species
Dobby’s humble attitude towards the wizard reflects the hierarchy and relationships between magical species – elf-servants and wizard-masters. Even though house-elves have a great magical power, they cannot use it without their owner’s permission (Rowling, 1998: 27). The system of supremacy is also supported by the notion that only wealthy families with long wizardry tradition have house-elves, as a form of luxury and legitimacy of authority (Rowling, 1998: 28). This fact also reflects the well-known historical concept of enslavement, a privilege of the rich and mighty.
The only advocate
among wizards and witches that stands for the elves and wants to include them
in the social discourse is Hermione Granger. Mocked by her friends, despised by
elves for destroying the status quo, she is convinced that changing
their work conditions will serve all members of the wizarding community. She is
the first one who actually acknowledges their subservient position and openly
defines their status as slavery (Rowling, 2000: 112). While others think that
house elves like to be “bossed around”
and are “not supposed to have fun”, Hermione believes
in the potential of elfish revolution.
At the end of the series Dobby dies while rescuing his hero, Harry Potter. On the stone of an improvised grave, the wizard carves the words: Here lies Dobby, a Free Elf. (Rowling, 2007: 389). A consolation for this sad moment could have been the words of Spartacus from Stanley Kubrick’s production: “When a free man dies, he loses the pleasure of life. A slave loses his pain. Death is the only freedom a slave knows. That’s why he’s not afraid of it. That’s why we’ll win.” Dobby might be the next embodiment of Spartacus’ spirit, eleutheria in pure form, a creature, who, in order to achieve such state, had to die.
The long way ahead …
There are some parts in Rowling’s Potter-writting where the allusions to the real-life slavery are very clear and obvious. However, what is a little bit worrying, is that Rowling does not push this issue further: we do not know if the revolution of house-elves ever takes place, whether there are any more creatures inspired by Dobby’s thought, or whether there are some other wizards or witches besides Hermione that actually recognise the problem of elf-slavery. It might be possible that Rowling believes in her readers more than in her characters, and that the house-elves will influence young minds – to be aware of social patterns threatening the freedom of less privileged creatures – not only humans.
Probably there is a
long way ahead for the other house-elves to gain freedom and sustain democratic
order in the wizarding world. Yet, it is not far from impossible. As Michel Foucault reminds us:
“Liberty is a practice… The liberty of men is never assured by the institutions of law that are intended to guarantee them. This is why almost all of these laws and institutions are quite capable of being turned around. Not because they are ambiguous, but simply because ‘liberty’ is what must be exercised… […] The guarantee of freedom is freedom.” (Rainbow 1984: 245)
Miriam Riverlea writes about a French animation for tweens that explores how to handle negative emotions, with the help of superheroes, mythology and more . . .
Miraculous Ladybug . . .
Recently my children have become quite obsessed with an animated cartoon, Miraculous: Tales of Ladybug and Cat Noir. Currently being shown on ABC3, a children’s channel in Australia, the show first screened in South Korea in 2015, and has since been distributed in several western countries including the United States, Britain and Ireland. It is a cross-cultural production by French animation companies Zagtoon and Method Animation, collaborating with studios in Japan, Italy and South Korea.
Set in Paris, the story revolves
around teenager Marinette Dupain-Cheng. She
is artistic, pretty, and a kind and loyal friend, yet gets comically awkward in
the company of her classmate, Adrien Agreste.
Marinette has a secret crush on Adrien, and has another secret besides. With the help of her ‘kwami’ Tiki, a tiny,
magic creature who lives inside her handbag, Marinette can transform into the
superhero Ladybug. Resplendent in red
and black, she is lithe and vivacious, and has a steadfast sense of justice. In stark contrast to Marinette, Ladybug is
confident and self-assured. In addition
to superb fighting skills, her special yoyo allows her to soar between roof
tops, and she can call upon a magic lucky charm to supply her with a special object
to counter her enemies’ powers.
Ladybug is supported by another superhero, Cat Noir. As his name suggests, he cuts a svelte figure in his sleek black cat costume, and is able to summon the earthshattering force of a cataclysm. He is devoted to Ladybug, but she spurns his affections, which seems a bit foolish, given that Cat Noir is actually Adrien in disguise. The characters remain ignorant of what is patently obvious to viewers, and much of the fun of the show derives from the comedy of errors of unfulfilled romance and hidden identities. I’ve been enjoying watching my children cringe and giggle as they witness sexual tension for the first time.
Mythological mashups. . .
But there is another reason I am
enamoured with this cartoon. Amid the
melodrama, Miraculous borrows from
the world of mythology, folktale, and popular culture, particularly in the
formulation of the supervillains whom Ladybug and Cat Noir must combat each
episode. The show’s villain is Hawk Moth, a sinister
masked figure who preys on people experiencing negative emotions.
Watching over Paris from his stark
lair, he transforms a white butterfly into a dark purple ‘akuma’, and releases
it into the city to find its vulnerable target.
This person becomes ‘evilised’ or ‘akumatised’, a process which exaggerates
an element of what they are feeling into special powers. Using telepathy, Hawk Moth endows them with a
new name, and charges them with the task of stealing Ladybug and Cat Noir’s miraculous,
the special talisman that gives them their magic powers. (In another twist, Hawk Moth is actually
Adrien’s father, the successful but reclusive fashion designer Gabriel
Each episode runs to the same
formula. Someone in Marinette’s life, a
classmate, family member, or member of the local community, is transformed into
a villain bent on causing destruction as they seek to achieving their
goals. A number of these characters draw
on mythology. In Dark Cupid, a boy becomes a malevolent version of Eros, shooting
arrows that transform positive feelings of love and friendship into hate. In the episode Syren, Ondine a talented swimmer becomes an evil mermaid who wants
to build an exclusive underwater kingdom with the boy she likes. One villain takes the form of a huge spider,
drawing upon the African folktale figure Anansi, in another, an ancient
historian becomes the Pharoah, using the powers of the Egyptian gods to
resurrect Queen Nefertiti. And from what
I’ve read, previous holders of the Ladybug miraculous apparently include
Hippolyta the Amazon and Joan of Arc. In
this way, the show’s creators have developed their own kind of Miraculous
universe that simultaneously celebrates French culture (Paris’ food, iconic
architecture and landmarks play a big part in the setting), Oriental traditions
(Marinette is guided by Master Wang Fu, the immortal guardian of the miraculouses,
which resemble the animals of the Chinese zodiac), as well as ancient mythology
from the classical and other traditions.
It’s not necessary to be familiar with particular mythic figures to appreciate these storylines, in fact, subjecting them to rigorous scrutiny isn’t particularly constructive. Rather, what this kind of wholesale borrowing from the world of mythology or folktales highlights is that it these characters have come to function in our contemporary world as a kind of treasure trove of material for telling new stories. In the episode Heroes’ Day, Hawk Moth simultaneously akumatises lots of his supervillains, who come together to fight Ladybug and Cat Noir at the spiritual centre of Paris, the Eifel Tower. It is a mash up not only of all the evil characters from previous episodes, but also one which brings together diverse figures from myth, folktale and popular culture.
Handling negative emotions
Central to this show is the power
of emotions, and the destructive impact of negative feelings. It is revealed that Marinette’s optimistic
personality renders her less susceptible to being evilised. There are other times when the series seems
to engage with psychoanalytic themes of desire, projection, and self-perception. In Weredad,
Marinette’s father, the baker, becomes akumatised. He is determined to protect his beloved
daughter from being heartbroken, and like a fairy tale giant, seeks to trap her
within a thorny prison that resembles Jack’s beanstalk and like Sleeping
Beauty’s enchanted castle. Helping
children to manage their emotions is a key aspect of children’s texts, and
these stories, with their predictable, repetitive formula, play out scenarios
that are both familiar and fantastical.
Once Ladybug has captured the akuma transformed it to its original white colour, she uses her special power to return everything to the way it was. There’s something very comforting about this resolution. A swarm of red and black creatures flurries across the city, repairing the damage of the fighting and returning the person who was evilised back to their normal self. They often seem a bit sheepish about what they have done, and Ladybug offers them absolution for their crimes. Ladybug and Cat Noir transform back into their everyday teenage selves, with their secret identities safe for another day, another episode.