Showing posts with label labyrinth. Show all posts
Showing posts with label labyrinth. Show all posts

5.12.2012

Outside Over There (1981)

Written and Illustrated by Maurice Sendak

Harper Collins


Well, as everyone knows, Maurice Sendak is no more - at least in physical form. Two years ago I wrote a column for The Critical Masses about three Sendak books which are - perhaps - not as well known as some of his others. I thought I would reproduce them here, one at a time, beginning with one of my absolute favorite picture books of all time, Outside Over There (1981).

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Outside Over There has a lot in common with a certain major cult film of yesteryear. It was in the back of my mind the first time I read it, years ago: I know this story. I’ve read this before. (This is a very common thought to have while reading children’s literature).
The elements of the book are these:
A young girl, Ida by name, forced to tend her unwanted and unwelcome baby sister.
The goblins, who sneak in through the rear window, carting off with baby sister and leaving – in her place – a changeling made of ice, melting slowly and hideously.
Armed only with her Mama’s yellow rain cloak and a golden hornpipe, Ida must find and retrieve said baby sister before the young one is married off in a wretched goblin ceremony.
Outside Over There was published a full five years before the Jim Henson film, Labyrinth. There are no shifting corridors in the Sendak tale, no immersive M.C. Escher environments, no pop singers in fright wigs and spandex, but the two share both plot-points and also tone.
In neither is there the usual grappling with the fantastic, but rather a matter-of-fact acceptance which somehow makes it all the more appalling. Ida, gripping the dripping remains of her sister’s changeling, immediately knows the score. She seems to have a pre-cognition of the rules of the game. Yes, the goblins came and will marry her sister off. Yes, the hornpipe must be blown. These are not presented as fantastic elements, but a part of the very real world which Ida seems to be inexplicably aware. Normally, we expect to identify with the main character, but when we realize that Ida knows more about this world than we do, she suddenly becomes as mysterious and other as the goblins themselves.
Is that too much? Have I overstated the case?
When I showed the book to Arlo, he immediately balked. “That looks dumb,” is how he put it.
I didn’t blame him. The cover shows Ida wearing a blue nightgown, holding hands with her baby sister. They are standing in the arbor of a garden, and the baby is reaching out a pink, pudgy hand toward a blooming sunflower, a look of wonder upon her face. Surely a charming, pastoral tale which I would most likely not want to get within a hundred feet of, were I a four-year old boy.
“Come on!” I prodded, opening the book. “Give it a chance!”
The title page is quite similar: Ida is now helping the baby take her first steps. Behind them is the white fence, nearly overgrown with majestic blooming sunflowers.
And off to the left-hand side, sitting hunched with knees drawn to its chest, sits a small, hooded figure, its face obscured by shadow.
Arlo stared at this image for a long time.
Then, “Read it,” he said.
The next page intensifies the scenario. We are still standing in front of the sunflower-strewn arbor. But now Ida clutches her baby sister to her more tightly, looking in wide-eyed concern as the seated goblin has now stood and three more identically hooded figures are approaching from stage right. One carries a ladder. One carries a hornpipe.
The story doesn’t properly begin until the following page:
“When Papa was away at sea, and Mama in the arbor, Ida played her wonder horn to rock the baby still – but never watched. So the goblins came.”
One clue that this is a Sendak book is the way he likes to spread out his sentences. Those opening two sentences are broken up into chunks and spread out over the course of 6 gorgeous, full color paintings which cram narrative information galore.
In these opening pages, a full day has passed. The sun has risen over a rocky coast, at which old, mighty ships are moored. Ida and her mother and baby sister stand with their backs to us, dresses rippling.
Next we are at the arbor, in which Ida’s mother sits with dark lines beneath her eyes, a dead look about her, not caring that her baby is now screaming in anguish, writhing in Ida’s arms. Papa has gone to sea – we can still see the boat in the background – and his absence has destroyed this family.
Off to the side, goblins scurry, still clutching their ladder.
Later that evening, Ida stands by her window, playing her horn as the sunflowers creep into her room. The baby nearly leaps out of her crib in joy, but that joy is short-lived. The goblins have pushed open the window, and as darkness falls, the baby is carted away, screaming in terror.
An entire world of story is contained within these drawings. Again, the narrative is simply this:
“When Papa was away at sea, and Mama in the arbor, Ida played her wonder horn to rock the baby still – but never watched. So the goblins came.”
Indeed.
Sendak considered this to be the third volume of a trilogy that began with Where the Wild Things Are(1963) and continuing with In the Night Kitchen (1970). They may not at first seem to have a great deal in common, but he says that they are all about moments in which a parent has turned their back and in that moment, the child must make a decision by themselves.
If you own the former two, you owe it to yourself to pick up this one as well. You may find that it casts Max and his wild things in a new light. And the next time you watch Labyrinth, look for it displayed prominently on Jennifer Connelly’s bookshelf near the beginning of the film.



11.19.2010

Theseus and the Minotaur (1988)

Theseus and the Minotaur by Lenoard Everett FisherRetold and Illustrated by Leonard Everett Fisher


Fisher begins with a map of the part of the world in which our story unfolds. Ancient Greece is the locale, and we very clearly shown the passage from Athens to Crete, from Crete to Naxos, and lastly, the tragic final voyage from Naxos back to Athens.

My criticism of Hutton's version of the story was that I felt he spent too much time explaining the entire circumstances behind the existence of the minotaur and the nature of the tribute, and not enough time wandering through the bowels of the labyrinth in search of monstrous prey. Fisher exacerbates this, but also manages to give a more satisfying end battle sequence.

We begin with the birth of Theseus, and are told that, "at the moment of his birth, his father, King Ageus of Athens, buried his favorite gold-hilted sword and sandals under a great rock."

When Theseus is big and strong enough to move the rock, my sword and my sandals will be his. Then and only then will Theseus be my heir and successor!

I tried doing something similar to this when Arlo was born, but Melinda didn't go for it.

At first glance, this set-up appears to be a direct precursor to the Sword in the Stone from the King Arthur legends. On the next page, Theseus has indeed grown to such a stature that he is easily able to lift the rock and retrieve the hidden items. Now he must travel to find his father, who has since remarried and had another child. Along the way, Theseus must battle a giant named Procrustes and two robbers named Scinis and Sciron. Word of his battles spreads and he is able to return to his father's court, a hero!

But the joyous reunion is short lived. His father tells him of tale of the King Minos, of his labyrinth, and of the beast that lives there. "Its dark passages are endless and confusing. No one escapes the labyrinth, not even the Minotaur. Soon I must send the fourteen. Pity them, and pity us to have to bear such burdens."

Theseus knows what he must do.

I like the way Fisher paints the interior of the labyrinth. Very dark, very foreboding. Though there are no forking paths, it appears to be only one singular and gloomy passageway. It only gets one painting, too, for with a turn of the page later, Theseus has found his prey. I know the whole conceit of Ariadne's ball of thread is that he does not have to get lost, but can find the Minotaur straight away, but still, the child in me lusts after a truly terrifying sequence of a man lost in the bowels of the maze. Isn't that what you think of when you imagine the labyrinth?

Fisher's minotaur resembles a tall, strong man wearing an oversized bull mask, but he does manage to make him look terrifyingly enraged, and I love the description of their battle:

Quickly he backed away from the beast, holding his sword straight out before him. Again the snorting Minotaur attacked. It lowered its head and charged, hoping to pin Theseus to one of its great horns. But Theseus dodged the attack and came up behind the huge beast, chopping a blow that drew blood from the Minotaur's shoulder.

It goes on for several more sentences, in this way, and I could really imagine the fight the two of them must have had.

Finally, since this is the story of Theseus and the Minotaur, we know that things can not end happily. Ariadne and the rest of the prisoners are rescued, but that night the god Dionysus appears to Theseus in a dream, and commands him to leave Ariadne behind on Naxos so that he can marry her. Theseus does as he is told, which is slightly different than how Hutton interpreted the tale. Fisher's Theseus seems to be a real hero when it comes to giants and beasts, but at the first call of the gods, he cowers and asks no questions. His cowardice then indirectly results in the death of his father, who runs to the edge of the cliff and throws himself into the sea at the sight of the black sail on the returning vessel.

11.05.2010

Theseus and the Minotaur (1989)

Theseus and the Minotaur Retold and Illustrated by Warwick Hutton

Margaret K. McElderry

This is one of the most downbeat of adventures, and Hutton doesn't do much to up-play it. He has a very dry, straightforward way of telling a story, which can comes across as unemotional. "Every nine years," he begins, "the people of Athens had to make a dreadful payment in tribute to Minos, king of Crete, because one of his sons had been killed in Athens." And that's the narrative tone for the story.

I was disappointed that the labyrinth gets such short shrift. I love seeing how different artists portray it, and love imagining victims lost within its passages. Instead, we spend most of the story watching Theseus journey across the seas and falling in love with the lovely Ariadne.

Finally, midway through, there are two pages of Theseus traversing the labyrinth. Thanks to Ariadne's ball of string, however, he has no problem finding the snoozing minotaur. The battle takes place in a single sentence: "Despite the thick stench and deep, wild roars, Theseus bravely cut and struck with the sword until the monster half-man lay dead."

A quick off-page rescue later, and Theseus, Ariadne and the other captives are racing to their boat. Hutton really enjoys these nautical sequences. I get the feeling he wishes the whole story could have just been comprised of people sailing in ships. So, Theseus has slain the beast, Ariadne is his forever, and everyone lives happily ever after!

No. Theseus strands Ariadne on the island of Naxos while she has fallen asleep. She awakens and realizes she has been abandoned. The sly Dionysus then appears out of nowhere and marries her in a brief ceremony.

Meanwhile, Theseus is still headed for Crete when he realizes, Wait! What happened to that beautiful woman I just rescued? Wasn't she just here a moment ago? He's so distraught that he forgets to hoist the white sail, like he told his father he would.

There was great joy and happiness among his companions when they landed on their own shore, but Theseus knew from the way people looked at him that something was wrong. "You said if you were safe you would hoist the white sail! Did you forget?" the people asked. "Your father, King Aegeus, watched and watched from the clifftop for your ship to come back. When at last he saw it far out in the distance with its black sail still up, he thought you must be dead. He stumbled, weeping, to his feet, and then fell from the cliff to the sea below. Theseus, you father is dead. You are now our king."

Way to go, Theseus!

More picture books based on Theseus and the Minotaur!

More picture books based on Greek Mythology

My favorite adaptation of the Minotaur legend, from Jim Henson's amazing series, The Storyteller.


Information about the prolific Warwick Hutton is very hard to come by. The best I could do is this wikipedia entry.

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