Monday, July 5, 2010

The keys, if you want them

There's a section in Stephen King's nonfiction book Danse Macabre where he talks about the folly of trying to analyze a great story because that takes all the magic it....Then King proceeds to analyze The Haunting because, well, he just can't help telling you why it's as great as it is.

In a similar spirit, I've decided that I probably should say a little more about that Neil Gaiman story I linked you to last Wednesday. So here's a direct cut-and-paste from an e-mail I sent a friend who asked me about it. I don't think I'm a good enough literary analyst to get the deepest levels of the story, but this is what I've come up with so far.  If you hated English class, feel free to stop reading now. ;-)


-- The narrator never names himself.
-- Calum's son is also named Calum.
-- The narrator says he never saw Calum's wife and doesn't know what color her hair was.
-- The narrator and Calum discuss their views of how you arrive at truth: are there lots of ways to arrive at the same spot, or is there only one right way, with every other path leading you astray?
-- BUT the thing in the cave says, "You are thinking like a mortal man, making things always to be one thing or another." This implies that things really don't have to be just one thing or another. They can be many things at once. With that in mind....
-- Note the ambiguity in this passage: "I was remembering every landmark — climb at the sheep skull, cross the first three streams, then walk along the fourth until the five heaped stones and find where the rock looks like a seagull and walk on between two sharply jutting walls of black rock, and let the slope bring you with it . . .I could remember it, I knew. Well enough to find my way down again. But the mists confused me, and I could not be certain." Why would the narrator say he was "remembering every landmark" at the top of this paragraph if he was really seeing everything for the first time? You think you know what he means, but maybe you don't. Not entirely.
-- Think about the scene where the narrator and Calum both see what appears to be another version of themselves, and ask yourself which direction they're looking when they see it.
-- The narrator steals sheep. Calum is a "reaver," which is another word for someone who steals - but think about all the connotations of that word.
-- Think about the ambiguity of this quote from the ferryman: “For not every day is it that I take a reaver and a little dwarfy man to the Misty Isle.” Is he talking about two people or one?
-- The Misty Isle is west of the mainland, where the narrator begins his story. One of the narrator's secrets is that his father came from the West.
-- The old woman says Calum's hand is "burned," which isn't quite the same as saying it has a burn scar. There is also a "burn" outside Calum's house. "Burn" is a Scottish term for "brook," but of course it can also mean a place that's been burned by fire - and you can also say someone was burned if they were cheated and/or stolen from. Again, Calum and the narrator are both thieves.
-- Calum burned his hand taking his father's dagger out of a fire and refusing to give it up. The narrator takes Calum's dagger.
-- When the narrator and Calum come to the croft house with the abused woman inside, Calum says, “No one at home.” The thing in the cave tells the narrator, "You leave the way you entered, through the mouth of my home." The last line of the story is, "There were a hundred roads and a thousand paths that would take me back to my home in the lowlands, where my wife would be waiting."

Are you starting to see now? These are just the things I've noticed so far, and I always feel like I miss a lot of things real literary scholars notice. Besides, Gaiman is just absolutely freaking brilliant and extremely knowledgeable about things like fairy tales and legends. So I feel like I'm just scratching the depths he built into this story. But from what I can see, it appears that the narrator and Calum are the same person - and Calum's son and the abusive husband in the croft house are other aspects of him (just as Flora, Morag, and the abused wife are all aspects of the same woman). The thing in the cave keeps sending him out and calling him back, taking more and more, making him a worse and worse person. The narrator doesn't care about gold (And characters in the story note more than once that gold is bad but silver is acceptable), but that's all Calum cares about - while the abusive husband doesn't seem to care about anything at all. You can't really make a linear path from one version of the main character to another because that's a "mortal" way of thinking. But clearly, the narrator is a more innocent version of Calum; and the abusive husband is probably a more corrupt version - which means Calum did survive the end of the story in one way or another. Since the thing in the cave says it sends a piece of itself out into the world with each person who visits the cave, then calls that piece back to itself, this is entirely possible. Now you start to see different paths leading back to the same truth, which is in that cave in the Black Mountains. And you begin to see the thing in the cave as being like a spider lurking in the center of a web.

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