The carnival of realities in Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean’s children’s books

The carnivalesque, a theory of folk humour developed by Mikhail Bakhtin, is a time of collapse and overturning of conventional boundaries and norms of the world. It is essentially a licensed time of revelry and excitement which the ruling classes allow. Bakhtin’s theory presents a site of interchange and revelry; a licensed watershed for both adults and children to challenge each other’s ideas of the world. It includes the notions of grotesque realism and parodia sacra, ways of re-visioning the world to explore it with a different set of values, often popular and expressed in the vernacular

In this article, I will explore Bakhtin’s theory of the carnivalesque and some of its implications for our understanding of children’s literature in the current wave of rethinking responses to Jacqueline Rose’s theories. In The Case of Peter Pan, she argues that children’s literature is perhaps impossible since it is written by adults to return to a childlike world. She writes that it “sets up the child as an outsider to its own process, and then aims, unashamedly, to take the child ini. Kimberley Reynolds comments that Rose argues that children’s literature “reassures and stabilises the adult by refusing to disturb their views of childhood at the levels of form language, content… and form”ii. David Rudd has explored the role of language through the lens of Bakhtiniii to re-evaluate Rose’s work, equally challenging her view of the impossibility of children’s literature. The carnivalesque challenges Rose’s assertion that the children are an outsider to children’s fiction since the world since it creates a space for the child to exist and to develop their own understanding of the world.

Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean’s illustrated children’s books explore the world of the carnivalesqueiv, presenting parodic versions of the ideal family worlds. These worlds develop the ludic sense of the world which Lewis Carroll started with, rethinking how the world can be understood through the imagination. Through both words and illustrations, Gaiman and McKean encourage the reader to engage and challenge the ideal and make it their own. Unlike Carroll though, the books place a strong challenge to the notion that the carnivalesque is purely a licensed time of anarchy in their drawing in of the reader. Rather than the world being completely restored in the end of the book, there is a sense that the play can continue, that the world is not as stable as it was in the beginning.

Mikhail Bakhtin defines three stages of folk humour. Firstly, ritual spectacle or “comic shows of the market place”v; secondly, comic verbal compositions; and thirdly “various genres of billingsgate”vi which include oaths and curses. The graphic novels for children by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Dave McKean explore the first and second notions of the carnival in varying and developing stages from the publication of The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish in 1994vii to Crazy Hair in 2009. These creators explore ordinary events and situations rather than the higher, sacred festivals but their attention suggests that the ideal of the family is a replacement or a more immediate concern to the audience.

Bakhtin sees the carnival as a time for change and these novels reflect this using text and illustrations. Between the pages of the story, narratives of loss and recovery allow for the creation of a space for the child in which the child becomes more powerful than the adult, overturning the structures of the adult world. The nature of the overturning changes between the books. In The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish, a little boy decides to swap his father who is ignoring him. He creates his own space by removing the adult control which is restored by the Mother. This refusal of parental control is echoed in Mirrormask by Stephanie as she denies the Dark Queen’s desire to create the perfect family, following her own daughter’s escape from the world. In Crazy Hair, the daughter builds on the carnival world of The Wolves in the Walls where the child is ignored when she sees the wolves, and later elephants, in the walls of the house.

The boundaries of the world are challenged by the children, mainly from being ignored. Initially they are replaced by the adults and the initial relationships are restored, though altered. Increasingly this restoration has holes in it. The worlds are ostensibly recreated but the boundaries have holes in them. In The Wolves in the Walls the family are brought back into the house. Even though they are returned to their home, their daughter hears elephants in the walls but chooses not to tell the parents. It is a reversal of power and understanding where the children maintain control and are aware of the coming chaos even if their parents are not. When Lucy talks to the pig-puppet, it replies “I’m sure they’ll find out soon enough”viii. The exchange suggests that the adults are excluded from Lucy’ s imaginative perception of the world because they see the notions of animals in the interstitial spaces as absurd, so repeating their earlier expulsion from the house. In Crazy Hair, the reader is encouraged to climb into the jungle via the text and the chaotic images. As such both author and illustrator combine to transgress the traditional barriers between the allowed worlds.

The core of the carnivalesque is the notion of the parodia sacra, the parody of the sacred, which Bakhtin sees as the way that the demotic, popular sphere parodies the higher, sacred sphere. For Bakhtin, the carnivalesque parodies the sacred sphere and its rituals but for Neil Gaiman, the sphere which is parodied is the domestic one, in particular the relationships between children and adults. The family relations do change as the over the span of the books’ publications.

Out of this parody arises the idea of grotesque realism with its essential principle of “lowering of all that is high, spiritual, ideal, abstract; … a transfer to the material world, to the sphere of earth and body”ix. Although Susan Vice glosses this grotesque realism within the prisms of genderx, Gaiman and McKean move away from this towards the prism of child and adult imaginations. Although the majority of their central protagonists are female, this is due to their own children being female. The only one who is male is the unnamed narrator of the The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish who was inspired by Gaiman’s son, Michael, and his own relationship with his sister.

They take the ideal of family situations, such as the family dinner, sibling relationships and adult control, and invert them presenting them as less idealised and far more chaotic. As such they make them accessible and more like the world that their readers might inhabit so making the ideal real.

Baktin argues that there is a genre of medieval literature which acts as a parodia sacra, ‘sacred parody’, which was tolerated by the Church. He continues that the medieval epic parodies “deal with heroic deeds, epic heroes …, and knightly tales”xi which were created using the vernacular. The parodic literature is a popular form, created by and for the common person rather than the authorities and is written in the vernacular. The text and illustrations act as narratives that can be reinterpreted by the reader.

Gaiman and McKean’s works, using both text and illustration, are intended for children and they become more anarchic and chaotic through their publication. They encourage the participation of the child reader in the world, allowing for them to begin to see and adapt the world to their own ends. Whilst the events themselves can be explained, there is a lack of understood meaning between child and adult. McKean’s illustrations bring to life a different way of visually understanding the world. The boundary of the world is transcended by the image in that it sticks in the mind. The text and illustrations simultaneously act as a language which can be interpreted by the reader at their own level, creating its own vernacular form. It could be interpreted that the barrier to entry is somehow lower in these books, yet they require the reader’s imaginative participation in the world for the book to work. It empowers the reader to remake the world of the text but the effects of this change as the books were published. In the first book, The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish and the Wolves in the Walls, the imaginative overturned worlds are restored. However in Crazy Hair, but literally reaches out and draws the reader inside the world and suggest that it is safe despite the apparent terror. They offer the reader a chance to bring their own interpretation of the world.

In The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish, the game of swapping items between children becomes something greater. The children’s notion of swapping things that are apparently useless is changed when the narrator’s father is involved in the swap. When Nathan, the initial link in the chain of exchange, is offered the father he says “That’s not a fair swap… I’ve got two goldfish and you’ve only got one father”xii though he is appeased when he finds that the father can swim. Despite the apparent sense of the reasoning, it undermines the adult reasoning and allows the upside down world to appear.

The notion of parental authority is parodied through its apparent absence in the swapping. The father conspicuously does not complain or even have a voice about the enterprise and appears to contentedly go along with the children placing him in awkward positions whilst he reads his newspaper. The paper acts as a barrier to block out the real world around him since it does not appear in the adult organ which validates the “real” world and becomes a parody of the notion of it reporting important events. McKean never illustrates the face of the father so he does not attain an identity and we only hear the mother’s reported voice rather than see her.

Implicitly though, the adult world authorises the swapping in its lack of challenging the children’s actions and allowing the father to be traded as a good for items and family pets. In the moment, the adult world, representing the official sphere, is swept aside and gives credence to the argument that the child’s world is paramount. This is enhanced by the sister’s voice who asserts a moral authority. She constantly warns the narrator, her brother, that the swapping is a bad idea when she says “You’ll get into big trouble when Mummy comes home”xiii. In the immediate aftermath, the mother attempts to assert an authority through telling the narrator off and chastising him but it is the sister who acts as a moral balance, like the cricket in Pinnochio. Despite her inability to directly influence the events, she can follow him around as he undoes his events. It is the children who restore order at the behest of the adults. Despite the mother’s voice’s apparent inability to restore the order itself, it does begin the restoration. It is unable to follow the chain of events as it is not distinctly part of that world, another site of the impotence of adult power in this world.

The boundary of the adult and child’s worlds, indeed the author and reader’s worlds, are broken in Crazy Hair. The story, which began as a poem, encourages the reader to enter the text itself and to join in the chaotic world. Where The Wolves in the Walls and The Day I Swapped My Daddy allows for the return, if somewhat shaky, of adult authority, Crazy Hair overturns this. Indeed the authorial voice constantly acts against the supposed safe authority of the narrative voice. The idea of the wild hair, an untamed forest where a calvalcade of animals exist and play much in the same way as the Wolves do in the walls.

Gaiman exposes a Carrollian sense of the author consistently undermining its supposed authority. The use of the voice to directly address the reader and to involve them in the story with its descriptions of the carnival world. Where hair is normally a layer of dead skin and hair, the waves are transformed into a place of fun and potential danger. Though Bakhtin’s carnival and terror is made from and into laughter, the hands appearing from the hair dragging the girl into the hair reminds us that laughter and terror are related.

Gaiman places the carnivalesque into a wider context of Lewis Carroll’s worlds in the Alice books where the Alice is sometimes terrified by the changes that she finds her self undertaking. The reader’s expectations are defeated by the author and the second life overtakes the first or perhaps it is the crazy hair world is in fact the way that the world is. He suggests that this controlled, paler world can and should be replaced by the playful, chaotic one in opposition to the suggested normal world where we are. Using the laughter Gaiman questions the notion of the grotesque and its use in this book, moving away from notions of distorted bodies.

Instead his notion of the grotesque comes from a clash of ideas and expectations. The imagery of hair as forest populated by gorillas and animals jars the expectations. Rather than using the Lovecraftian notion of the grotesque through distortion, he magnifies and expands on Carroll’s comic imagery with an underlying tension created from uncertainty and lack of clear resolution. In The Day I Swapped My Daddy and Wolves in the Walls there are clear resolutions and possible endings, even if these are undermined. In Crazy Hair, there is no clear ending as the reader finds it difficult to find a purpose in the joy. The certainty of the resolution, the ending of the narrative carnival is abandoned in the taking of the child when “one huge arm reached out of there pulled her in my crazy hair”xiv. Our expectation that Bonnie has been devoured is changed as it is revealed that she is having the finest time “finding hunters, losing moons, playing with the pretty birds, teaching parrots naughty words”; she is having fun and enjoying herself as she is “safe inside my crazy hair”xv. Unlike the two children in The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish, the narrator says that Bonnie is safe, still playing and in the overturned worlds. The returned world is denied by the world itself.

The inverted world becomes the site of a grotesque reality which Gaiman expands on Bakhtin never defines what a grotesque reality is. Susan Vice argues that it is a site of interchange and interorientation and a textual approach to the world, as opposed to the demotic slang and parodic composition. Bakhtin appears to see the grotesque as a degradation of the body though not in a gender sense, rather he sees it as about the physical body. The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish maintains the physical bodies of the central characters and their perceptions through out the novel.

It hints at the way that young children see the world as a more superficial place rather than as a site of transformation. In the Wolves in the Walls, when Lucy is disempowered through the actions of both human and wolf adults, she creeps into the walls. After her parents ignoring her through their refusal to accept the transformed world and to help her recover her toy pig, she creeps into the interstitial space between the walls to recover the toy. She is mistaken by the wolves for being some making ready to attack them, resulting in the changing of the phrase used to instil fear. Mentally she becomes the idea of the thing that the wolves, themselves nightmarish figures, are afraid of even though she herself remains a human. Transformation is not merely a physical act but also a perceptual one. Even in the carnivalesque world, natural laws are maintained but the fear is created through the repetition of the phrase and also the creation of nightmare. Even when the wolves are evicted when Lucy crashes through the wall, she hears elephants in it but elects not to tell her parents. Instead she appears to have accepted the notion of the changing world and that it is not something to be afraid of; she appears ready for their appearance, so lessening the result of their actions.

The Wolves in the Walls extends the notion of the overthrowing of the adult world from the swapping of a parent to banishing the family entirely from the house. Lucy, the young narrator, warns the parents of the scrabbling inside the walls. She is told by her mother and father that “when the wolves come out of the walls, it is all over”xvi. The parents use the phrase to remind Lucy that it is all over but the “it” is never defined. Instead the phrase is uses to assert an authority without defining the consequences, the saying itself being a parodic composition of the idea of warnings. This sense of the parody is enhanced by the Wolves slightly changed repetition of this when they hear Lucy scrambling in the walls and say “when the humans come out of the wall, its all over”xvii. The repetition of the phrase demonstrates the way that the demotic slang phrases adapt the official, sacred phrases and resolve them for their own world. It is used to instil fear and authority, to control the listener, but the change renders the original worthless in its demonstrable mutability.

The attempt at creation of authority creates a sense of terror and nightmare. As the scrabbling gains pace and develops, a sense of anticipated terror is created but it is a slightly carnivalesque one. The wolves do not attempt to kill or maim the human inhabitants of the house but instead make themselves at home, creating their own community. The dominant image is that of the wolves eating jam, wearing clothes and hoovering the house in a parody of the family. This undermines the fear that is built up through the notion of the world coming to an end and the fleeing of both parties when their opposite appears. Each body creates an Other which is used to maintain a sense of authority. Perhaps the real fear occurs when the authority is broken as the Other is shown to be similar to the community telling the story.

The parodia sacra of the family meal is created in both Coraline and Mirrormask. Gaiman presents two versions of the family meal in Coraline; each side of the mirror is represented. On the side of the real world, the Jones family sit down and Coraline complains that her father has “made a recipe” again. Despite the chaotic nature of the world the Jones family meal is a place where each member of the family can come together and to act together. It is a place of laughter and many levels of communication. In counterpoint the Other Mother prepares the family meal with all of Coraline’s favourite foods. Her perfection and attention to detail creates a parody of the idea of the meal where the mother creates and serves the food. The Dark Queen in Mirrormask also creates a parodic meal when she claims that Helena is her daughter. The meal serves as a forum for the continued closure of Helena’s world through the language, or lack thereof, used. The Queen uses the meal to limit Helena’s options and to define control through terror. Helena, the narrator, reminisces that “[f]amily dining was incredibly important to the Dark Queen. She sat at one of end of the table and lectured me on etiquette, and I sat at the other, and I ate and said “Sorry, Mama”, when I’d done something wrong”xviii. Her attempts at control leave the meal as a grotesque version of the family meal, where the carnival fails to turn into laughter except at the darkest level. The terror and laughter come through the language used by the parties: between Helena and the Dark Queen and Helena and Valentine. When Helena tries to help the Dark Queen to find her daughter, the Queen tells her that she will “not talk to me like that”xix. Like Lucy’s parents, the Queen uses the utterance to assert her authority though it is far more direct than Lucy’s family. The meal becomes a parody of an ideal family life which the Queen is trying to impose on Helena after the escape of her own daughter.

Despite the fun worlds of the earlier books, Mirrormask hints at a darker version of the carnival. The attack of the wolves during the night and the bear reaching out from the hair become transformative acts. They transform the world into the imaginative world and become agents of change but in Mirrormask, the transformation becomes one of terror rather than laughter. Perhaps this arises from the reversal of the intrusion of the imagination into the narrator’s world. In Mirrormask, Helena moves into the Dark Queen’s world, firmly into her imaginativre reality and not Helena’s own. Her world is not one of transformation through laughter of the ideal of the family relationship but through fear. Through this both Gaiman and McKean explore the edges of the carnival and terror, creating a parody which has been created by the authorities rather than the populace. Thus it is a parody of the parody. As such it fails to be a demotic place because it has been created by the hierarchy. As such it cannot express the same imaginative freedom and acts as an instrument of control.

Despite the fact that Helena has created the world of the book and acts as the narrator, like Coraline in Coraline, she finds her world has been subverted by a mother who needs to maintain control. Laughter is lacking and freedom of expression are limited towards a directed version. Rather than being a time of collapse or renewal, the Dark Queen’s palace becomes a place of reinforcing an ideal of the family. McKean’s illustrations show Helena dressed like the Queen herself rather than wearing her own clothes. Her appearance is being controlled as well as her language, her body defined by the parody of her mother. The controlling world goes far beyond the Other Mother’s world through the door.

Gaiman and McKean explore ideals of the carnival in their work, moving from the self-expression which encourages the imaginative world for the reader. The books are ostensibly narrated by the children rather than an adult, giving the illusion of them controlling their world and expressing the narrative in their own language.

The notion of ending is important to the carnival since the time of revelry is ostensibly licensed by the authorities. The use of the first person and the child’s voice as the narrator begins to remove the first of these boundaries. The perspective sidelines the adult and removes them from the focus of the book. That encourages the narrator to take control of the text itself through language and to define the world around them. They are not the “pure point of origin” that Jacqueline Rose assumes but become aware that words and actions have consequences. Helena, the oldest of Gaiman and McKean’s protagonists goes far beyond this though when she opens Mirrormask with “[t]his is my story about what happened to me last year … and I had my weird dream.”xx. She uses the text to articulate in words a world that she sees in the abstract world of dreams and illustrations and claims it for herself. As she discovers, words can be used to either express or limit expression.

Secondly the text and illustrations work to encourage the reader to create the story in their minds through words and vibrant images. Whilst the earlier books see the restoration of the authoritative adult worlds, the later ones demonstrate the fragility of these walls even going beyond them and providing safety in the playful worlds. The parody can and does provide safety and the encouragement of expression.

It is important though, as Mirrormask shows, that this world is created by the narrator rather than an authority figure. Terror for Bakhtin in the parodic worlds should be allied with laughter, either through the risible pronunciations of Lucy’s family, to the notion of swapping a father. When the world is not of their design, it tips into horror and terror. The authority can use the world to limit the reader, even if it is their narrative, and thus becomes the antithesis of the carnival and borders on the horrific edge of the fantastic.

Although defined against the grotesque, the carnival offers an opposing view to the limiting thesis of Jacqueline Rose. Rather than being a way of adults returning to a childlike world, Gaiman and McKean clearly show that literature is in fact offering a way of understanding and defining the world. Through active engagement with the world they are able to challenge and change matters even if it does involve chaos initially. Through overcoming these tribulations, the reader understands that problems can be overcome.

The grotesque reality that Bakhtin identifies is turned into a demotic form of expression as the inverted world becomes a watershed, a space where the competing worlds of adult and child might interact and learn from each other. It does this through its own language, here of the narrator’s developing expression rather than Bakhtin’s billingsgate oaths and images. The parodic world allows both views to come together and to test their preconceptions of the world. From these rites, the narrator is able to move on. Gaiman and McKean allow their worlds to become sites of challenge to the established order, their humour and invention instead turn the world upside down and leave it inverted to some extent. Rather than being a desired adult return to the child’s world, these books show that children’s literature can be about the child’s view of the world through text and illustration. What they create is a fiction that can be ‘owned’ and experienced by children so the books become children’s fiction through the licensed time of the carnival and even go so far to to challenge the idea of the license and the assumed adult control of it. Rather than working within Rose’s perceived constraints, Gaiman and McKean follow and relate a progressive view of childrn’s fiction that can be truly children’s fiction where adults become the least powerful entities and that the child’s view of the world can have a legitimate voice and presence.

i The Case of Peter Pan or the Impossibilty of Children’s Fiction, Jacqueline Rose (University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 1993), p 2

iiRadical Children’s Literature: Future Visions and Aesthetic Transformations in Juvenile Fiction, Kimberley Reynolds (Macmillan, London, 2006), p 5

iii‘Children’s Literature and the Return to Rose’ from Working Papers on the Web, Sheffield Hallam University, Volume 7, accessed 1 March 2010

iv The pair have worked together on several comics and graphic novels, some of which explore similar issues but they are more aimed at an adult audience

vRabelais and His World, Mikhail Bakhtin (Hélène Iswolsky (trans.)), (Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 1984), p 5

viRabelais and His World, Mikhail Bakhtin (Hélène Iswolsky (trans.)), (Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 1984), p 5

vii Originally published by White Wolf publishing in 1994, I refer to the 2004 reprint by Harper Collins and Bloomsbury in 2004 as it contains an extra afterword not in the first publication

viiiThe Wolves in the Walls, Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean (Bloomsbury, London, 2003), no page numbers

ixRabelais and His World, Mikhail Bakhtin (Hélène Iswolsky (trans.)), (Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 1984), p 19

xIntroducing Bakhtin, Susan Vice (Manchester University Press, Manchester, 2008 reprint), pp 155-156

xiRabelais and His World, Mikhail Bakhtin (Hélène Iswolsky (trans.)), (Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 1984), p 14

xiiThe Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish, Neil Gaiman (Bloomsbury, London, 2004), no page numbers

xiii The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish, Neil Gaiman (Bloomsbury, London, 2004), no page numbers

xivCrazy Hair, Neil Gaiman (Bloomsbury, London, 2009) no page number

xvCrazy Hair, Neil Gaiman (Bloomsbury, London, 2009) no page number

xviThe Wolves in the Walls, Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean (Bloomsbury, London, 2003), no page numbers

xvii The Wolves in the Walls, Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean (Bloomsbury, London, 2003), no page numbers

xviiiMirrormask, Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean (Bloomsbury, London, 2005), no page numbers

xixMirrormask, Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean (Bloomsbury, London, 2005), no page numbers

xxMirrormask, Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean (Bloomsbury, London, 2005), no page numbers

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5 Responses to The carnival of realities in Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean’s children’s books

  1. kevin king says:

    Very well written and interesting blog, thanks for sharing 🙂

  2. Iain says:

    You’re welcome and glad you liked it.

  3. Owen says:

    Hi Iain
    Excellent article.
    I am a student at Plymouth University, UK. I am writing a 4000 word essay on Neil Gaiman and would like to quote from your blog. Is this ok and if so please could you send me your surname so I can put you in the reference list?
    Thank you.

  4. Iain says:

    Owen, Sure. I’ll send via email. What are you writing on? Iain

  5. Javier says:

    Unsettling is a perfect dpircsetion for this one as it is that and it works very well. Gaiman tells a story that is both creepy and adventurous and works for kids and adults. He is very, very good and doing that sort of thing. I would recommend seeing the film. It is different on some levels, especially with the added character who is essentially there for Coraline to talk to since in the book she is essentially on her own and that wouldn’t work in the film. But I don’t think it takes away anything and the film is lovely and so obviously cares about the source material and is extremely well crafted. You can tell folks with real passion made it.

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