Stranger Visitors

Five years ago we lost Maurice Sendak, or at least we lost his continuing ability to create. It was an amazing, richly endowed talent. In this post from BrainPickings, for instance, we are presented with his anarchic, triumphant pair, Jack and Guy – it was the eagle-eyed Mat who first pointed out the illustration of Trump Tower in it to me – whose carnival through the chaos of modern times has lots to tell us about how to live well. For me, it is his pictures of the outside breaking in – the Goblins and the menacing sunflowers in Outside Over There – that always make me wonder about the complexities of breaking-in from outside in stories. What is so bad about things breaking in?

Two texts, then, quickly, about monsters calling. The first is this:

The Strange Visitor I knew from my son’s telling of it, but here is the text from a general sharing site:

Once upon a time there was a house in the middle of a deep, dark forest, and in the middle of a deep, dark night, the only sound you could here was the creak of a rocking chair, and the clacking of knitting needles.

A woman sat in a rocking chair, knitting and rocking, rocking and knitting.

She was lonely.

“How I wish I had some company!”

And as she sat there, knitting and rocking, rocking and knitting, in came a pair of great big feet, which sat down by the fire.

The woman sat there, knitting and rocking, rocking and knitting, and in came a pair of skinny skinny legs, which sat down on the feet.  And as she sat there, knitting and rocking, rocking and knitting, in came a pair of great round knees, which sat down on the skinny skinny legs.  And as she sat there, knitting and rocking, rocking and knitting, in came a pair of thin thin thighs, which sat down on the great round knees.And as she sat there, knitting and rocking, rocking and knitting, in came a pair of huge huge hips, which sat down on the thin thin thighs.  And as she sat there, knitting and rocking, rocking and knitting, in came a teeny tiny waist, which sat down on the huge huge hips.

The old woman kept on knitting and rocking, rocking and knitting, and in came a pair of big broad shoulders, which sat down on the teeny tiny waist.  And as she sat there, knitting and rocking, rocking and knitting, in came a pair of teeny tiny arms, which sat down on the big broad shoulders.  And as she sat there, knitting and rocking, rocking and knitting, in came a pair of great big hands, which sat down on the teeny tiny arms.  Still, she sat there, knitting and rocking, rocking and knitting, and in came a pair of scrawny scrawny neck, which sat down on the big broad shoulders.  And as she sat there, knitting and rocking, rocking and knitting, in rolled a huge huge head, which sat down on the scrawny scrawny neck.

And the mysterious visitor sat there, and looked at the woman.

And the woman looked at her visitor, and then she said, “And how did you get such great big feet?”

Much tramping, much tramping

“And how did you get such skinny skinny legs?”

Too much water, not enough meat.

“And how did you get such great round knees?”

Much praying, much praying.

“And how did you get such thin thin thighs?”

Too much water, not enough meat.

“And how did you get such huge huge hips?”

Much sitting, much sitting.

“And how did you get such a teeny tiny waist?”

Too much water, not enough meat.

“And how did you get such broad broad shoulders?”

Much sweeping, much sweeping.

“And how did you get such small small arms?”

Too much water, not enough meat.

“And how did you get such huge huge hands?”

Much grabbing, much grabbing

“And how did you get such a small small neck?”

Too much water, not enough meat.

“And how did you get such a huge huge head?”

Much thinking, much thinking.

“And what have you come for?”

For you !

and the Tailypo, which occurs on a number of sites, but of these sites, this is perhaps the richest – certainly one I would treat with care, despite its name, if working with children.  I think this telling from the Galdones’ book, is the closest to my own version, because I got it from them! Both stories are real shockers, designed to scare: the uncanny interrupts the solitary life.

As Sarah Maitland vividly puts it in her essay in Arboreal, the demigod Pan is “seldom found in the bright courts of Olympus…”  – but she still places him “deep in the ancient wood [where] he will still drive even the innocent -hearted to irrational, senseless, panicked fear.”  But the question is, for me, what is the significance of the outside-coming-in motif from Tailypo and The Strange Visitor? It is again the Green Knight and Long Lankin: the challenge, the threat, Beware the Moss, Beware the Moor.  The breaking-in brings redemption for Gawain, but wholesale death in the folk tales I’m citing and in Long Lankin. What happens when we go out is our conscious exploration of the anything-may-happen world, but what does that imply for our own world? How comfortable do we want it to be? How comfortable can we keep it? These are the fundamentals of the current political debates in UK and US, the appeal of a controlled past of known certainties (if such a thing every really existed), of comfort and “meetable” challenge. The riddle – not exactly a new one –  is something like “How do we want our world? How should we live in it?” When we “attempt to unriddle the world” as Susan Cooper suggests, we often think in terms of quest, of going out, something I have written about here, but the quest in Gawain begins at home, the quest in A Monster Calls is about the breaking-in to the life-half-lived of chaos, with truth in its wake.  Is our dream of a comfortable life irrevocably gone? Or only to be bought at the price of strong and stable and (unacceptably conformist) control? What is the risk of letting in the dark and the dead? Learn or be destroyed?

So I’m ending on a different tack, another BrainPickings post, where we are greeted by other views from the genius Sendak. “Dipping into yourself” to find the wonder for children is important, as Sendak points out in his interview with Studs Terkel (linked in BrainPickings), being “foolish and silly…but you tell the truth in some way.” Even in 1970 he describes us as “ringed round by liars.” These monsters impinge to challenge or destroy perhaps: truth, “seeing what we shall see, hearing what we shall hear,” – even dressed in fantasy – is our way to conquer. And since this has turned into a sermon, let’s finish with the hymn that taught the 7-year-old me about how fantasy and life meet: When a Knight Won His Spurs. 

 

 

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