The Fluidity of World and Form
in Children’s Literature
by Ada Fetters
In children’s stories, the space between worlds is relatively permeable and easy to cross. Stepping through the wardrobe to Narnia or through the looking-glass into Wonderland is simple compared to the convoluted steps an adult must take to cross worlds, even in a fantasy novel.
Bromberg maintains in his “Standing in the Spaces” that we all have myriad psychological spaces or identities within ourselves but that adults are rarely aware of them, let alone aware of crossing the boundary from one demesne of their mind to another. In children’s literature, however, it is commonplace not only to pass from the “real world” to a magical one, but also to change (or forget) one’s identity while there and even to change one’s shape and back again with ease.
In this paper, I will explore the relative fluidity of the psychological “spaces” of childhood as it relates to theories of the unconscious mind from a psychodynamic perspective.
All sorts of magic in a child’s world tends to come relatively easily, especially that of crossing from one world to another. Examples of this abound. Four children step through a wardrobe into Narnia but, when an adult attempts the trip in The Magician’s Nephew, things are exponentially complicated.
A little girl can simply fall down the rabbit hole or pass through a mirror to access magical realms in Lewis Carroll’s books. In L. Frank Baum’s series, the young Dorothy practically had dual citizenship in the U.S. and Oz.
By the end of childhood, however, the shift is more difficult: Peter Beagle’s main character in The Unicorn Sonata, thirteen-year old Josephine, works much harder to discover and cross the boundary between our world and the magical world of Shei’rah. The border between worlds in this story intended for those on the outer edge of childhood is also time-sensitive, something fleeting, in danger of slipping away forever.
C. S. Lewis apparently felt the same way. The older his main characters became, the more difficult it was for them to go back to Narnia. The teenaged Susan could not go back at all, the significance of which has been hotly contested by Lewis’s fans and detractors.
In adult fantasy and science fiction, characters also travel to other worlds, but the transition tends to be more difficult and come at a higher price. This is true for shifts in physical form as well. We see sex-changers and even shape-shifters in Iain Banks’s Culture novels, Consider Phlebas, for example.
But while the interstellar Culture itself sees sex changes as a sort of holiday, the Culture as a whole is perceived as decadent and amoral by other interstellar civilizations. Even within the famously open-minded Culture, true shape-shifters — called Changers — are viewed with deep suspicion. Why should this be? Psychological theory can offer an interpretation of this long-standing trope.
One of Jung’s most intriguing concepts is that of “shadow selves,” which he describes as “consisting not just of little weaknesses and foibles but of a positively demonic dynamism. The individual seldom knows anything of this; to him, as an individual, it is incredible that he should ever in any circumstances go beyond himself” (1912, p. 35).
Yet Jung contends that if we allow these shadows a voice, they will offer wisdom about a person’s true desires or frustrated potentials. For adults, this is not easy. We tend to see these voices of the unconscious mind as frightening or even shameful, which is often why we divorce them from consciousness in the first place; that is, class them as “beyond the self” or “another self.”
Jung himself chose the example of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to illustrate his principle of shadow selves (Stevens, Jung p. 50). In adult literature, changes in physical form are often seen as dangerous to the self and to others. They also carry connotations of mental instability.
For adults, it is all too easy to lose one’s identity while stepping between the spaces of the self. Horza, the Changer character in Consider Phlebas, exhibits subtler versions of these issues as well. By the end of the book, Horza is unable to recall his own name. The galaxy-wide war of ideologies taking place during the book dealt him trauma after trauma, both physical and psychical, culminating in Horza’s death.
It is certainly possible to find literature in which adults shift their shapes and pass through worlds without psychic consequences, but these are relatively few. The view of shape-changers as untrustworthy and unstable is a long-standing one. Even in early mythology, shape-changer gods such as Loki and Coyote are antagonists at worst and tricksters at best.
Children do not typically meet with this sort of complication. In The Sword in the Stone, a very young Arthur is magically turned into not just one but a variety of animal shapes by the wizard Merlyn. Each shape is a way for Arthur to face a part of himself or of mankind, often an unpleasant or undesirable part, at that.
When turned into a merlin hunting bird and placed in the castle mews, for example, Arthur must face the cognitive dissonance of living in a culture that appears to bless the meek while actually giving power to the strongest and boldest. Timor mortis exultat me — “Fear of death thrills me,” the hunting birds chant in unison (White, 1938, p. 106), which is a reversal of the humble phrase Timor mortis conturbat me — “Fear of death troubles me,” commonly found in medieval poetry as well as in Matins and the Office of the Dead.
The blinded hawks sitting in their mews at night sing a predator-shadow’s chant of bloodshed.
Strength to the strong and the lordly and lonely.
Timor mortis exultat me.
Shame to the slothful and woe to the weak one,
Death to the dreadful who turn to flee.
Blood to the tearing, the talon’d, the beaked one.
Timor mortis exultat me (p. 106).
Jung wrote that “The hero’s main feat is to overcome the monster of darkness: it is the long-hoped-for and expected triumph of consciousness over the unconscious” (1940, p.284). In a display of Jungian heroism, Arthur must learn to integrate this shadow without being destroyed by it or taking on its lust for blood and power. To complete his Ordeal, he must literally stand in the space next to madness itself in the form of an old, crazed goshawk (White, 1938, pp. 106 - 108).
Frightening as this is, the child Arthur is eager for more when he awakens restored to his human form the next morning. He views it as a privilege and at one point asks the wizard Merlyn why his older, adoptive sibling Kay is never turned into an animal. Indeed, while Arthur faced the “talon’d” shadow of the unconscious, Kay’s Ordeal of Knighthood will be much tamer. Kay will take a bath and receive a dry lecture (pp. 225 - 226). Indeed, for Jung, the shadow “represents the true spirit of life as against the arid scholar” (Jung, 1983, p. 262).
One might argue that throughout his shape-changing adventures, Arthur always has the benefit of knowing his identity. His outward form changes, but unlike Iain Banks’s Horza, Arthur is never in any doubt of who he is. This is important, because an adult ideological shape-shifter — that is, a man who changes his identity often — is typically met with both fascination and revulsion.
The legendary Odysseus, famed for his polytropos or ability to be many different things in rapid succession, is called “dire Odysseus,” “lying Odysseus” and “Odysseus who makes things up” (Odysseus ficti fandor) by the Romans. His very name can be translated as “a pain,” either to those around him or to himself. His name may also be translated as “wanderer.” Odysseus the identity-shifter is unsettled physically and psychologically, a personality viewed by Romans as both deceptive and defective.
Thus for a very different, magical look at identity suspension, consider the child Alice on her way in Through the Looking-Glass. Alice’s journey takes her through “the wood... where things have no names” (Carroll, p. 203). Despite a great deal of trying, neither she nor the talking fawn that she meets can remember who or what they are. More strikingly, they do not remember their places in the world either. They are puzzled but not upset.
Alice puts her arms around the fawn’s neck and they journey through the woods together. The two share a peaceful interlude which is shattered when they reach the end of the wood, when:
“the Fawn gave a sudden bound into the air, and shook itself free from Alice’s arms. ‘I’m a Fawn!’ it cried out in a voice of delight. ‘And, dear me, you’re a human child!’ A sudden look of alarm came into its beautiful brown eyes, and in another moment it had darted away at full speed” (Carroll, p. 204).
Convention reasserts itself, and the fawn remembers not only who it is, but also who it should not associate with. In children’s books, the suspension of convention and societal boundaries that help to make up our identities is often seen as a sort of magical freedom, not an ideological death. Adult characters such as Odysseus or Horza may view themselves as free but must contend with the existential anxiety arising from a sense of anomie, or “lack of name.”
Of course, much of Alice’s security in this instance comes from her assumption that the wood where things have no names is a finite space. All she must do is cross it and she will return to a more conventional identity (Carroll, p. 204).
However, her initial reaction to changing shape and size is one of distress. During her journey through Wonderland, Alice’s body and her perception of it begin to distort in a way that most people would find alarming. Her head floats away from her feet such that she feels she can no longer take care of them (Carroll, p. 12), and as her shape changes, her very Alice-ness is called into question as well (Carroll, pp. 14 - 16).
However, her disorientation and tears last only until she is able to solve the puzzle of how the situation came about. Soon Alice can and does change herself whenever she deems it convenient. She takes this in stride but, like young Arthur, Alice walks through the land of the mad. After all, “We’re all mad here,” the Cheshire Cat informs her. “I’m mad, you’re mad” (Carroll, p 56). Alice must negotiate madness, survive it, and integrate her experiences without becoming lost or consumed.
This may seem strange from the vantage point of adulthood, but the human personality is far more complex and pliable than early psychologists were inclined to believe. In contrast to the early psychoanalytic perspective, which argued that personality was the result of experiences buried in long-term memory that remained in the unconscious intact and unchanging until a therapist unearthed and interpreted them, the personality is now understood by most psychologists to be ever-changing and multifaceted.
Damasio, currently one of the chief researchers on the emergence of consciousness, wrote that “We use our minds not to discover facts but to hide them. One of the things the screen hides most effectively is the body, by which I mean, the ins and outs of it, its interiors” (1999, p. 28). We are all on a continuum of fragmentation. We may be unaware of a “forbidden” aspect of our identity, or of our unconscious reaction to societal pressure, or an unfulfilled longing, any of which can cause significant problems until they are integrated with the conscious mind (Bromberg 2001, Stern 1983, Gendlin 1964, 1974).
Extreme cases of non-integration may be pathological, for at these extremes, cognition itself begins to fragment or dissociate. This is seen in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Dissociative Identity Disorder. Yet to exist on this continuum, inhabiting many different spaces, is one of the primary tenets of humanity. Even the highest-functioning human brain does not achieve complete cerebral agreement. Every self-aware human being contains an unconscious comprised of many aspects within themselves that they are not aware of.
I contend that in this respect, Alice’s identity shifts are more in keeping with Bromberg’s theories about inner spaces than Jung’s. In contrast to Jung, who emphasized the power and hypnotic danger of the unaccepted, unconscious shadow-self, Bromberg contends that a shift between mental states does not have to be an ordeal. Indeed, Gendlin went so far as to redefine the unconscious as an “incomplete process” (1964, p. 138), where thoughts, desires for the future and the ever-rewritten narratives of one’s past percolate until they are ready to be brought forward into the conscious part of the mind.
According to contemporary psychodynamic theory, the unconscious self is a difficult-to-access place where a person is capable of holding a hazy, unformulated sense that the world or self may transform, but the person may be unable to verbalize this because “it has not yet attained a form in which consciousness can grasp it” (Stern, 1983, p. 73).
Little Alice complains of exactly this sort of fluidity while in a Looking-Glass shop “full of all manner of curious things, but the oddest part of it all was, that whenever she looked hard at any shelf, to make out exactly what it had on it, that particular shelf was always quite empty: though others round it were crowded as full as it could hold” (Carroll, pp. 226 - 227). She is aware that there are all sorts of magical things in the shop but cannot get them to come into focus. Stern goes on to say that these unformulated concepts often exist in a state of “creative disorder” which can be transformative for the person if carried forward from the depths, into the surface consciousness and given words.
Alice experiences this sort of unconscious shadow-magic but is unable to put a name to it as she pursues “a large bright thing, that looked sometimes like a doll and sometimes like a work-box, and was always on the shelf next above the one she was looking at” (Carroll, pp. 227 - 228). This can be read as a beautiful illustration of the preverbal unconscious. This sort of chasing after an unformed desire is not a “demonic dynamism” but an unformed image, part of the unstructured, half-formed “creative disorder” far below the tip of the iceberg that is the conscious brain.
According to Bromberg (1998), every person encompasses a plethora of self-states. He agrees with Gendlin and Stern that the unconscious is not pathological in and of itself, then goes a step further. Bromberg offers “the view that for any human being, feeling differently at different moments about the same thing... represents a shift to a state of consciousness with its own internal integrity, its own reality, and sometimes its own ‘truth’” (pp. 254 - 255). In other words, each person is capable of holding very different ‘truths’ from one moment to the next, even when these ‘truths’ have gone from parataxic to clearly verbalized black-and-white prose.
Adults tend to be wary of these different truths. Perhaps we feel as humans as if we have many forms, many internal spaces and aspects, yet if we showed them to others — or changed our physical situation — we would be shamed or might lose ourselves. In this way even a sense of creative possibility can be perceived as dangerous if it conflicts sharply enough with a person’s previously-established identity.
Again, adults have a long tradition of looking at an overtly identity-shifting figure such as Odysseus or Horza with suspicion: how much more distressing would it be to acknowledge these different spaces in ourselves? How would most adults react to inhabiting spaces quite close to the unconscious, defined variously as “demonic dynamism,” “creative disorder,” or even madness?
There are many ways to understand “The brain of man, that strange gray iceberg of conscious and unconscious life” (Eiseley, 1969, p. 37), but all of these diverse theorists agree that passing from one state to another is difficult in some way.
Perhaps Alice should be congratulated for being able to see such things at all, and to allow them their polymorphing existence at the corner of her eyes. Part of the magic of childhood is an acceptance of transformative self-states, though among adults these childhood transformations are often viewed as commonplace, a mere expectation, i.e., “She’ll grow out of it” or “He is going through a phase,” and such tolerance does not typically extend to adult polymorphs. In fact, children show a willingness to integrate strange experiences into an ever-changing self, even when this means walking lightly through the spaces of cultural madness.
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Copyright © 2016 by Ada Fetters