Neil Gaiman’s “The Ocean at the End of the Lane” Part I: Furrows of Fabric in Jungian Cloth

This article will be presented in two parts: the first is an interpretation of Gaiman’s book; the second will be my commentary on the book in terms of the sacramental Christian worldview.

OCEAN

In The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaiman investigates the ways in which we interpret and assimilate events and memories, and how our ability to incorporate our past affects and determines our present understanding of our selves and the world around us. Gaiman re appropriates disparate myths and symbols in a complex manner; the unifying theme is Jungian psychology, brought to life through traditional symbols the author has synthesized. Reading Ocean is a bit like watching Christopher Nolan’s movie Memento, wherein the character and audience experience the events of his life in reverse, and each slide back into the past presents a different aspect of key events of the protagonist’s life, because we can only cope with the harsh realities of life when they are put into context with the present. In Ocean, though, we are left not solely with the conclusion to a specific story, but rather, the working out of a theory as to how our minds and memories adapt as we grow up and learn about evil in the world and the failings of those we love. It is a book about how we help ourselves understand the vagaries of existence.

The plot revolves around an unnamed artist’s return to his family home in the British countryside which jettisons us into a flashback; our artist is a bookish boy, aged 7, in the 1960s, alienated in his life with his parents and sister, none of whom are sympathetic to his sensitive, artistic nature. Not exactly original—but Gaiman uses the boy’s sense of disjointedness, of not belonging, to introduce the broader theme of the individual’s psychological journey into self integration. Carl Jung posits that the self can only become whole by assimilating past experiences with personal values and farmhousedesires. In Ocean, the artist must recall his past in order to incorporate his understanding of painful memories into who he is now. (Though the boy is only 7 years old, that number is probably symbolic; his internal conflicts are those of an adolescent who is trying to “complete” himself and come to an adult understanding of the world.) The book investigates the traumatic events which led to the boy’s entrance into adulthood, and therefore, full personhood, but ultimately, we learn that he has returned many times to the ocean; i.e., we all must go back to revisit our memories periodically if we are to continue the process of understanding who we are, and in order that we may make sense of our personal “worlds” within the context of our larger reality.

Ocean is a full blown myth which explores our subconscious and conscious motivations and memories; Gaiman questions the validity of our recollections while at the same time affirming the importance of them as the fabric by which we know ourselves. However–and this is the crucial conflict in the book–we cannot directly access ourURSULA painful experiences–the “raw” data–without experiencing a disintegration of the self; we can only accept and integrate major changes in our lives through symbols and archetypes,  which facilitate the integration of these occurrences and memories into the “self.”

Jung’s anima or animus is the vehicle through which experiences are sorted, interpreted, and assimilated into the self, and in Ocean, the Hempstock family, and particularly Lettie, play that role. The name Hempstock points the reader clearly in the direction of alternative understandings of reality, since the women, like a drug, help him access hidden recesses of the mind. If the boy allows them to, the Hempstock anima will lead him into fully integrating all of his experiences, both negative and positive. Lettie, her mother and grandmother are guides to the personal unconscious. As the young boy’s personal anima, Lettie is his Beatrice, his psychological guide.

The boy initially meets the Hempstock women because he and his father discover the body of a man they know who has committed suicide in their family car–down the lane. The three women take the boy through the perilous waters of coming adulthood, self-understanding and acceptance of reality. They give him safe harbor–a psychological safe “place” which is apart from his increasingly unpleasant and unacceptable home life. They feed him comfort food, a stark contrast to the “burned toast” of his home, and in their role as anima they bring maternal support, teaching him psychological boundaries, “dressing” him in the clothes of his anima— the feminine (opposite) side of his self which must be unearthed and appropriated in order for him to “find” himself.

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Throughout the book, Lettie Hempstock asserts that she will keep the boy safe, and it is only when he lets go of her hand while traveling on her land that his foot is invaded by the “wormhole” that allows Ursula Monkton into his world. A cursory reading might seem to  indicate that Ursula is evil personified, but that is not the case: several times, Lettie and her relatives state that Ursula must be “contained,”and “sent home,” not destroyed. She must be “put in her place”–categorized and restrained– but the women will not confirm that she is evil, and even assert that she is just doing what she was created to do. When the boy lets go of Lettie’s hand during their initial confrontation with Ursula, he is allowing his raw memories to invade his consciousness; this is why he asserts over and over that it is “his fault” that Ursula has appeared. His recollections will only be put into context when Old Mrs. Hempstock is able to take a needle, dig deeply into his foot, extract the invader, and close the hole up–after which Ursula will soon lose her power. Whatever ways in which he has ignored his anima,  the “other side” of his soul, have caused destructive, unprocessed memories to invade and poison him. Only through excising such raw memories can he/we have unity and understanding of “self.”

While Lettie’s farm contains the friendly pond she calls an ocean, and it is a place of solace, the boy’s home down the lane is inhabited by a family that expresses no love, and presents meals of burned toast which his father alone cooks.  In his home, water becomes a force of destruction when his father, in a rage, nearly drowns the boy in the bathtub in reaction to his son’s lack of acceptance of Ursula as nanny and apparently, as the father’s lover. This 30gaimanDevent may or may not have occurred, but the symbolism of it is key: the boy’s emotional break with his father, his realization that his father is fallible, signifies the boy’s entrance into the adult world. He has been “baptized” in the painful waters of recognizing that his parents, who have been his refuge, are imperfect, and will not always be able to guide and protect him. The “fabric” of his childhood has been ripped apart, leaving him afraid and vulnerable, but in accepting the help of the Hempstocks, he will eventually come to terms with reality.

When Lettie first takes the boy for a walk on her farm, they meet the piece of ugly canvas fabric which is Ursula, waiting to be “set free” to enter the boy’s world. Because he lets go of Lettie’s hand, the fabric is able to enter into the sole of his foot. Lettie has used a divining rod, and the two of them have found “something brown and furry, but flat, like a huge rug, flapping and curling at the edges, and, at the front of the rug, a mouth, filled with dozens of tiny sharp teeth, facing down” (38). They immediately see a manta wolf, and Lettie says they have “gone too far out”–they are past the bounds where the boy’s psyche can integrate the dangerous events into his memory safely. This is when he lets go of Lettie’s hand, and the fabric of Ursula reveals herself and invades him and his world.

The middle section of the book consists of Ursula’s ripping apart the fabric of his family in a series of gripping and painful events that leave the reader drained as Ursula emotionally abuses the boy and locks him in his room. As he writes after seeing Ursula and his father embracing, “My parents were a unit, inviolate . . . the train of my life had jumped the rails and headed off across the fields and was coming down the lane with me, then” (80). He escapes down the drainpipe and makes it to the Hempstock farm–to the safe “place” in his mind–and there his anima (the Hempstocks) treats him to a warm bath–a stark contrast to the life-threatening, cold dunking his father has just given him. It is at this time that Old Mrs. Hempstock pulls the wormhole out of him.

But we soon discover that part of the path Ursula has used has inexplicably gone to his chest–he can feel it there. This never leaves him, even when Ursula is banished, because the blithe innocence of his childhood cannot return. Instead, he must learn as he grows to adjust his view of reality by incorporating aspects of the painful until they no longer dominate him.

The last section of the book is a battle wherein Ursula attempts to stay, and the boy must decide to choose whether or not to live in the protection of the “fairy ring” of self-assimilation. It’s worth a read to find out the conclusion, if you like myths, and Neil Gaiman. Not recommended for children.

Neil Gaiman:

Neil-Gaiman-3-Sm

(Picture of Ursula is from facebook.com/LinkLovesColouring)

Cindy C. Lange, MA
http://www.integritasacademy.com

Sharman’s Legacy

book-coffee-Sharman grew into womanhood with the grace so characteristic of her; it was a given that nature would beautify those startling cheeks and bestow regal assurance upon her tall, intelligent personage. I recall the first time I ever met her: poised eagerly over a first edition of Bleak House, china teacup in hand, she expounded upon the glories of British literature, pausing periodically to brush a curtain of light brown hair away from her face or to replenish her chronically empty cup. A hold-over from the romantic sixties, she was–the 1860s, that is. Having just returned to college from a six week tour of Europe, she was full of Dickens, Stratford-upon-Avon, the Tower of London–anything English. Yes, Italy and France were there–in Italy the men pinched, in France the waiters were rude–but England, ah, England LIVED! Her adoration was infectious, and my own latent anglophilia stirred and expanded, giving me a love for literature–and life–that I had never before known.

Her energy came in spurts and died as quickly as it began. She never seemed to notice how unusual her impulsive behavior was; one minute we might be engrossed in the Victorian essayists, the next we were driving miles to find the perfect hill from which to observe a winter sunset. Once home she would find herself exhausted and spent, and invariably would excuse herself to go and rest. She existed in a rich, overflowing, yet separate sphere, and when she withdrew, it was as if she closed the pages of the book and said, “No more for now.” I always let the cover fall without interference so that she would open the book again. We often took walks in the hills to relieve the strain of studying, and Sharman walked with her entire being. She hungrily absorbed the world around her, taking the birds, flowers and sky unto herself in the manner of a beggar at a feast. Her capacity for appreciation was infinite. Yet, her mood swings were dramatic. I never knew how I would find her–on one occasion, with no apparent provocation, she began contemplating the harshness of life Sharman-Woolf-bagand the injustices of the world, then just as quickly fell into an ecstasy over a recording of Bach fugues we overheard while leaving our rooms.

The entire time I knew her, Sharman never once wore a pair of pants. At first she wore the long “Victorian” dresses popular at the time; she would often place a fresh flower in her long, wavy hair. As time went on, she replaced these items with soft silky blouses and elegant skirts and dresses, and one momentous day the flowing hair vanished; a stylish above-the-shoulders cut had taken its place. From that day on, her perceptive grey eyes became even more intriguing and her confident, knowledgeable lips became alluring and sophisticated.

Sharman often made weekend trips of unknown purpose: to me she would explain that she had decided to fly home at the last minute; curiously, towards others she was more silent. There was something mysterious about her flurried journeys, and she was even more a focus of interest in our little dormitory when she was gone than when she was present. But I defended, excused and protected her extravagant absences; I guarded her privacy as fiercely as she did and although I too wondered where she went (and why), I set that aside in favor of the greater wonder of knowing her friendship.

MCHAPELy final vision of Sharman remains intact: in front of the small, white wooden chapel she stands, clasping her treasured bookbag–the one displaying Virginia Woolf’s stark, lonely face. Her expressive body leans against the wisteria covered picket fence and that radiant smile emanates, so knowing and self-confident. None of us knew then that she was dying–but she did, of course. That her life was so brief is still unfathomable and that she died on the day she was to have been married was characteristic. She left her vivid legacy with those of us who were graced by her evanescent and memorable life. She is with me yet, her soul touching mine, and when I open a book I feel her presence and see her–teacup in hand, eyes alight–reaching for her own copy, which is most assuredly a first edition.

Cindy C. Lange
http://www.integritasacademy.com

Beloved Crone

(Originally published in the May, 2011 Epistula, Veritas Press Publishing Company)

We all know the following Mother Goose rhyme: Jack be nimble / Jack be quick / Jack jump over the moon. Wait! Something’s wrong here. Wasn’t it the cow that jumped over the moon? Indeed, nursery rhymes sound the depths of our childhood experiences, but they serve as far more than fond memories. The nursery rhyme has been a training ground for English speaking children for the past 400 years or perhaps longer. Mother Goose was the first “holistic educator,” because nursery rhymes teach to every aspect of a child’s nature: sensory, physical, cognitive, and moral. We can say with assurance that Mother Goose was far ahead of her time.

The mythical figure of Mother Goose is usually depicted as a crone who presides over the treasury of English nursery rhymes which has evolved over past centuries. The earliest reference to her is in a collection of French stories in 1650, but the name came into its current usage in 1780 after a British publisher adopted it in reference to a “compilation of traditional English nonsense songs and rhymes.”[i] The tradition of Mother Goose was MOTHE READINGcarried across the pond to the American colonies, where she has steadfastly remained the reigning denizen of early childhood literature. There are several reasons for the unwavering popularity of her verse; investigating them gives insight not only into the poems, but into the nature of children, and more specifically, into the ways in which children can and should develop.

The first and most important function of the rhymes is that their insistent sing-song rhythms immerse the very young in the cadences of the English language. The rhymes prepare inexperienced ears to recognize not only specific words, but entire phrases, laying down the neural pathways for children to aurally receive, process, and finally, organize the more detailed, chaotic information which will soon bombard them as they grow past toddlerhood and move into the world of cognition and reason. Take the well-known Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush—this ditty repeats the phrase “the mulberry bush” three times within four lines, with each repetition varying the tune and pitch slightly. Why? By retaining the same words while slightly altering the tune and placement on the musical scale, the MulberryBush_Rackham (2)phrase takes the child incrementally from the “known” to the “unknown”—this is foundational to the way that we learn. As they chant, the children run around an object, developing physical abilities in tandem with tonal memory. The content of this rhyme is irrelevant, but the repetitive nature of the words, with their sing-song lilt, provides children with a now-familiar milieu in which to learn; their auditory world becomes a known haven which yields a sense of security through its limited phraseology and repetition, while acting as a vehicle through which they refine their ability to distinguish differences in sounds.

The rhymes also provide children with information about the world around them. Mother Goose “educates” by creating touchstones for their expanding minds. For instance, many are about foods in the household. “Pat-a-cake” explains the baker’s wares; “Little Jack Horner” glorifies the Christmas plum pudding (and Jack’s thumb!); silly Jack Sprat and his wife exemplify fat and lean; the “little piggies” go to market looking for roast beef, etc.  Nursery rhymes also familiarize children with commonplace items in an entertaining manner. A cat plays a fiddle, a cow jumps over the moon, dishes and forks run away together . . . amazingly, this simple technique causes children to begin to make connections between and among objects, developing their analytical processes through the use of the furnishings of their everyday world.

Additionally, nursery rhymes serve to help children learn and appreciate humor, as in Sing a Song of Sixpence, wherein the king is served a blackbird pie in which the still-alive birds pop out of the crust singing. (Blackbirds were eaten as a gourmet item in earlier times.)

PUMPKIN EATER

Or take Peter, Peter, Pumpkin-eater, in which Peter cannot “keep” his wife until he places her in a pumpkin shell (!). Learning humor is a crucial aspect of developing critical thinking, and helps children to learn to differentiate between various aspects of the world around them, as they note the contrast between the joke-rhyme and the real world it supposedly reflects.

Mother Goose rhymes also inculcate morals and rules in children by using a form which they will easily remember, as in this sardonic scolding of a child for his tardiness:  A dillar, a dollar, a ten o’clock scholar! / What makes you come so soon? / You used to come at ten o’clock / But now you come at noon.  Or this one: Seesaw, Margery Daw / Sold her bed / And laid upon straw. And we all know about what happened to Jack and Jill when they ran up the hill, and it wasn’t pretty! While some lessons Mother Goose teaches might seem grim to us (Ladybird, Ladybird, fly away home / Your house is on fire, your children all gone!) they were necessary helps to children of previous generations, who lived in a harsher environment where these admonitions were necessary. However, There’s a Neat Little Clock is charming even to the 21st century mind: There’s a neat little clock- /  In the classroom it stands- / And it points to the time /  With its two little hands. / And may we, like the clock, / Keep a face clean and bright, /  With hands ever ready / To do what is right.

The riddle-rhymes push the envelope further: My favorite is As I Was Going to St. Ives, which is often used in first grade readers because it incorporates logic with arithmetic (or so it would appear):

As I was going to St. Ives I met a man with seven wives, Each wife had seven sacks, each sack had seven cats,
Each cat had seven kits: kit, cats, sacks and wives,
How many were going to St. Ives?    

stives

Do you know the answer? Actually, it is unclear. Perhaps only one person was going to St. Ives, since the speaker states in the beginning that he is going there. Or perhaps everyone is headed that way, including the animals. Then there would be 2,802—talk about a traffic jam! It’s even possible that the last line of the riddle is only asking how many of the party he met were going, and doesn’t mean to include him in the question, in which case it is possible that zero could be the answer. This rhyme is actually a form of a riddle from 1650, BC called The Papyrus Rind[ii]–what better way to introduce children to the vagaries of language than that of a timeless logic problem hidden in a nursery rhyme?

Mother Goose has remained with us these many centuries because she is worthy of the honor; she is a teacher par excellence, an iconic and insightful culture-bearer who inculcates deep lessons into our Western heritage.  Let us adopt her and say wholeheartedly: Welcome, Thou Beloved Crone!

Cindy C. Lange, MA
http://www.integritasacademy.com

[i] http://www.rhymes.org.uk/as_i_was_going_to_st_ives.htm.
[ii] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/As_I_was_going_to_St_Ives.

Sources:
Briggs, Raymond, The Mother Goose Treasury. Coward-McCann, Inc. New York: 1966.
http://www.rhymes.org.uk/as_i_was_going_to_st_ives.htm.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/As_I_was_going_to_St_Ives.
Mother Goose Anniversary Edition, The. Scholastic Inc. New York: 1916.

Fresh-firecoal: Making Up Words~ Part I

Fresh-firecoal, for any who don’t know, is a word created by the poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and found in his poem “Pied Beauty”:

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Glory be to God for dappled things –
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;
And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
 Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
 With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
                                Praise him.

I love people who invent words–especially Hopkins, whose poetry embodies his dictum that “the poetical language of an age should be the current language heightened.”  If Christ is the Word Made Flesh, and we are imago dei, then writing has the possibility of imago_dei_detailbecoming a sacramental act as we wrestle with language. Like Jacob after the angelic visitation, we may walk away with a limp, but we will better know ourselves and God for our struggle. A seraph touched Isaiah’s lips with the flaming coal and his guilt was purged, his speech sanctified; perhaps in appropriating words as best we can, we too will engage the angelic realm and in so doing, touch the heart of God.

As with Adam’s naming of the animals, we have the privilege of inventing words, and in the case of writing, or creating art, or building, or a myriad of other activities, the experience of creating the “thing” that the word represents is a sacramental act inasmuch as we “partner” with God in bringing forth a new creation out of the materials we have ADAMbeen given. And when we beget a new “thing” that is carelessly fashioned or negates the reality of the spiritual world, we align with the spiritual powers that have broken this world because we contribute to its fallen state. We have this “treasure in earthen vessels”–embodying the soul-stopping truth that the biblical pronouncement that we are “co-inheritors with God” is literal, and pertains not only the heavenly realm, but to the world we now inhabit.  We aren’t presented with just two choices: align with God’s fatalistic “plan” or give in to the dark side; rather, the rich feast of choice spread before us stretches far and wide, reaching into the future,  expanding in a fulgent tapestry, woven in the imagination. I think that Coleridge caught it when he defined the imagination:

The primary IMAGINATION I hold to be the living Power and prime Agent of all human Perception, and as a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM. The secondary Imagination I consider as an echo of the former, co-existing with the conscious will, yet still as identical with the primary in the kind of its agency, and differing only in degree, and in the mode of operation. It dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to recreate; or where this process is rendered impossible, yet still at all events it struggles to idealize and unify. It is essentially vital, even as all objects (as objects) are essentially fixed and dead.

Surely the imago dei lies within the depths of the human ability to create and to label with words that which we have conceived of and brought forth.

Cindy C. Lange, MA
http://www.integritasacademy.com