WORDS, WORDS, powerful WORDS!

“Don’t ever diminish the power of words. Words move hearts and hearts move limbs.”
-Hamza Yusuf

Words are powerful.  And they are especially powerful in influencing and impacting young children, who have often not fully developed discerning critical thinking skills and are easily convinced that Santa is real, or eating carrots will make them see in the dark. Prevalent themes and topics in children’s literature are constantly changing – How these themes develop and change over time and how authors adapt to this transformation can be observed both in the progression of their individual works, as well as the progression of all literary works. The words about these themes and topics have the power to significantly influence people, not only about things trivial, or specific opinions, but also about beliefs, ideas, ways of thinking and how to be a human.

“Handle them carefully, for words have more power than atom bombs.”
-Pearl Strachan Hurd

Some consistently common topics and themes are those of obedience and questioning the traditional, looking beyond appearances, and envisioning and exploring the possibility of a better future.  While these overarching ideas have remained fairly stable in their appearance, associated opinions and perspectives regarding these portrayals are always in flux. With the power of words, the authors of children’s literature can spread awareness of current issues, encourage and develop new and modern viewpoints, and impact readers in a variety of ways.

“All I need is a sheet of paper and something to write with, and then I can turn the world upside down.”
-Friedrich Nietzsche

Historically, viewpoints on obedience and tradition have been more positive and encouraging of these values.  Today, strict obedience is more and more frequently depicted as undesirable, and the questioning and challenging of the traditional is depicted as more acceptable -thank goodness! We need a little healthy rebellion in our lives every now and then in order to fight for the creation and development of positive advances and an altogether better world. Literary characters question their reality by choosing alternative paths and practice critical thinking about the world around them, especially in regards to appearances. Frequently, characters that look beautiful, are, in fact, villains, and those with physical or emotional differences or defects prove to be heroes or redeemably praiseworthy. Even words can be misjudged based on their appearance. Interpretation is already subjective, and even when an author’s intent seems clear, language exists in such a way that they may actually be saying something entirely different!

“The pen is mightier than the sword”
– Edward Bulwer-Lytton

The protagonist of Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials series, Lyra, is often disobedient and rebellious, and grows to be suspicious of beautiful and/or powerful people, but these behavior patterns are not depicted as inherently negative, and are actually regularly rewarded.  Many of Ursula Le Guin’s characters rebel in similar way against traditional societal behaviors, those of their constructed literary world, as well as those of the world outside the books.  The dragons even reject gender at all! Fantastic! Let us all be more open-minded, like dragons! Through these consistent rebellions and questions, (now) standard fantasy characters develop unique identities and supply valuable contributions to develop and enrich their worlds. In this way, authors can influence readers to aspire to similar identity development and enriching contributions. Powerful. And hopeful.

“Raise your words, not your voice. It is rain that grows flowers, not thunder.”
– Rumi

It was initially a bit disheartening to read Ursula Le Guin’s intro of ‘Earthsea Revisited,’ just because it is sadly still so relevant that “women are seen in relation to heroes: as mother, wife, seducer, beloved, victim, or rescuable maiden” (1). She wrote this in 1999, and even today it is depressingly very applicable to the majority of ‘heroes’ in literature, film, and REAL LIFE!  It was really interesting to see how Le Guin herself was aware of society’s impact on her own writing choices in terms of female roles and limitations: “I simply lacked the courage to make my heroine doubly Other” (2).  Even when she included powerful female characters, they were not necessarily defined as typical heroes.  While Earthsea has a male-dominated society and emphasis, her series seems to develop over time in complexity and grow more organically inclusive.

“Words are, in my not-so-humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic. Capable of both inflicting injury, and remedying it.”
– Albus Dumbledore

Through the convincing and compelling enrichments of fantasy worlds, the outside world can be enriched simultaneously through new developments and insights.  The words used in the exploration of possible peaceful and harmonious futures can encourage peaceful and harmonious futures for modern society.  Even exploring dismal futures can inspire change, also encouraging a future of peace and harmony. Le Guin’s dominating theme of her first trilogy was “the quest for inner harmony and personal wholeness” (Marek Oziewicz, Rediscovering harmony: Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea sequence”), a thematic quest idea that is congruent with the search for a better future.  “Le Guin’s vision is neither Utopian nor dystopian, but rather what may be called ‘melioristic,’ meaning tending to betterment through human effort – or maybe through the opening of human hearts.” (Lenz, 2001, pp.77) Through the encouragement of the development of personal peace and harmony, in literary works as well as reflections upon those works, perhaps a future of real peace and harmony can be achieved.

That’d be hella sweet.

“No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world.”
– John Keating

I dunno… he’s telling me with words…. should I believe him?

… wait… I’m using words… Am I influencing YOU? Do I mean what I am saying? What message am I even communicating!!?

WORDCEPTION.

Ella Enchanted and Being an Ordinary Hero

One of my ultimate favorite fantasy books as a child, and still today, is the reworked fairy tale, “Ella Enchanted” by Gail Carson Levine.  It retells the classic literary fairy tale of Cinderella with some new twists: Ella is, in fact, under a fairy’s gift (curse) to always be obedient.  The tale is a familiar one, but provides more depth and detail about the protagonist and her own journey to discover herself and break the curse herself.  In addition, it answers that question that was always infuriating to me about the size of Cinderella’s feet – surely there was more than one girl in the kingdom whose feet could fit the glass slipper!  Well, in this story, Ella has fairy ancestry, and fairies have significantly smaller-than-average sized feet, so THERE!  Levine’s attention to details such as these really grounded the story and made it more believable to me – it was definitely logical and made sense within the framework she created and expanded upon. While it certainly shares many patterns and characteristics with both more traditional fairy tales as well as reworked fairy tales, this is by far my favorite retelling of Cinderella.  I like that it addresses the real-life issues of the importance of being strong by making your own decisions, standing up for what you believe in, and the worth of sacrifice in relation to love and the protection of those you love.

“Ella Enchanted” provides a universe that is similar to one children have already experienced, but includes a great deal more in the way of explanations, possibilities and self-driven opportunity.  It is a great example of a way to challenge a reader to see beyond more simplistic explanations and search for new perspectives and explanations.  A retold fairy tale is a great example of this, because the concrete universe has already been established, and by telling the same tale from a new perspective, new questions can be unearthed, alternate mindsets discovered, and previously unconsidered horizons can be expanded.  This particular retelling is also consistent with the idea of concepts carrying over from the fantastical worlds to the real ones.  In “Ella Enchanted,” Ella is a real girl with a flaw that she has to work to overcome.  This is certainly a concept that is applicable to many people.  While Ella may not fit the traditional archetype of ‘hero,’ she is still heroic.  She becomes, through her own strength of will, her own knight in shining armor – in the process, saving herself, her prince, and the entire kingdom.  If someone as seemingly average and insignificant as Ella can create such a vast and positive impact, surely this will inspire those who read about her to feel hope and optimism that they, too, can overcome significant challenges and obstacles to create a positive impact on themselves and the world around them.

Fairy tales have been around for a long time.  And with each retelling, they have continued to change and grow ever since their inception.  “Ella Enchanted” is a distinctive example of 21st century fantasy with an alternate world that is still attached to a familiar and long-standing one.  While it may lack the grandeur of Tolkien, or the epic tragedy of Rowling, it is accessible in its realism and its message – one that, while not political or catastrophic, speaks to the more personal internal battles that still must be fought and are no less important than those larger-than-life clashes between good and evil.  “Ella Enchanted” has no evil villain to be abolished or grand quest to be completed.  There are good characters and bad characters, but the main struggle is simply one between a girl and the unwarranted chance restrictions and conditions to which she finds herself bound.  Ella is ordinary, but she is strong.  And it is that kind of inner strength and conviction that is an amazing resource in struggling through such challenges as anxiety, depression, and insomnia.

Read it.  Or else.

(If you were Ella, you’d HAVE to obey me, but as it is, you have the freedom of choosing.)

I’ve had this copy for NINETEEN YEARS! I think it looks pretty good considering how many times I’ve read it!