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When ignorance truly is bliss

If you will recall, when a certain “Da Vinci Code” took the world by storm a few years ago, its allure lay in the suggestions of the concealed, occasionally controversial meanings in different art forms. Recall also, the mention of such subliminal messages that Disney had been said to slip into its work: for instance, the misbehaving pollen grains floating over Simba's head in a particular scene in 'The Lion King'. Or, for that matter, the not-so-innocent analysis of The Little Mermaid's red hair.

Does it strike you as slightly incongruous that children's entertainment should be found to have more adult connotations than necessary? Perhaps you hadn't noticed until now. Neither had I, for that matter until a decision to do a tiny bit of research on the topic yielded results that were surprising, disappointing and eventually, painful.

Nursery Rhymes? I Wish…
Perhaps some of you may already know that the toddler's favorite 'Ring a Ring O Roses' was actually derived during the Great Plague in 16th century Europe, where the Ring o roses represented a symptomatic skin rash, for which a 'pocket full of posies' were a defence. And, of course, the 'all fall down' at the end signified the commonest result of being a plague victim. However, did you know too, that 'Jack and Jill' was, again, symbolic of the beheading of the French King Louis XVI and his wife, Marie Antoinette, who soon 'came tumbling after'? Imagine these words being chanted, in all innocence, by your little cousin now. Unnerving, isn't it? I don't even want to tell you what 'Mary, Mary, Quite contrary' stood for…but you will, in all likelihood look it up anyways, so I suppose you may as well know that Mary here, was no none other than the Catholic queen 'Bloody Mary', infamous for her killing of Protestants who hence made up her 'growing garden'. I'm sorry you had to know that. I'm sorry I had to know that.

When people just won't let good things be
Dr Seuss is one of the most popular of children's authors and for good reason because children's literature, for its very simplicity, is unbelievably difficult to write. It was nice, I always thought, to find writers who didn't delve into the complex, chaotic themes that characterize the lives of grownups. So it was a little irksome to discover that “A person's a person, no matter how small,” Horton Hears a Who, for those of you who may not remember was used as a slogan for anti-abortion campaigns. For goodness' sake, it's a children's book. Why did you have to associate abortion with it? It doesn't end there, however; one of his books was also taken off the shelves for allegedly having references to the Cold War. Yes, it was a kid's book.

The Twisted world of Disney
I really, truly regret having looked up any of the following because, as a child I adored Disney movies. I'm sure that many of us did. I ask you, when you were 6 years old, did it occur to you that 'The Lion King' had undertones of racism, just because the 'good' lions had lighter fur than the antagonist Scar? Did you even care? And, I wonder, did Pocahontas create a negative image of Native Americans for you? The stories of The Little Mermaid and Snow White are all euphemistic of women fallen from grace and they are (so it seems) chock-full of sexual insinuations. Apparently, 'Beauty and the Beast' has not only innuendoes but satanic references too. I didn't look into those, though. And don't ask me to; I've had enough disillusionment for one day.

It is in our inquisitive, disbelieving natures to strip an issue to its bare, dry bones and then to scrape the bones away and analyze the marrow within. I accept this in adult entertainment, adult art and adult literature; we like our allegories, symbols and innuendoes a reflection on the multifaceted enigma that is existence. But in works meant for children? Just because they are too innocent to understand them hardly justifies it. What does one gain from forcing adult themes into fantasy worlds created for children? Or willing oneself to find them even if they do not exist?

It is understandable for folk tales and rhymes to possess some underlying historical or social theme. Perhaps, after all, the issues already existed and the tales were created for children to shield them from the adult issues that they actually are. However, when fairytales and movies are made with the original intention of amusing children, this argument ceases to have any bearing. If it is meant for the innocent, why not just let them be innocent? A few generations have watched these movies and read these books without turning out much worse than others. Why, in that case, must 'grownups' create such a fuss and controversy over entertainment that was not meant for them anyways? The only thing that will come has come of this is that some hapless soul will stumble upon these issues that needn't even have existed, and then wonder whether all those childhood stories were a farce, a big nasty joke that grownups played on them just because they were too good to understand.

And you still ask why we are a cynical generation?

By Risana Nahreen Malik


Book Review

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

Children's literature has always been a little creepy. Delighting in grotesques and implied horrors, it has always been a bit surreal. A touch gothic. After all, their favourite protagonists are orphans and that always entails a quick death or two.
The Graveyard Book just seems to take its atmosphere of eeriness more seriously, that's all.

Our story begins on a foggy summer night, in a little house with an open door. Inside the man Jack is wiping his knife and checking his black gloves of the thinnest lambskin. He is fairly satisfied by the evening's work. Three quarters of the job dispatched without complications and now just the toddler left. But the toddler is nowhere to be found. The man Jack is a skilled tracker and soon he is on the boy's trail as it winds its way up the hill.

Fortunately the toddler is not alone and is able to escape the man Jack's clutches with a little help from the souls of the dearly departed. And though he has lost his family he has soon enough acquired a new one, along with a black caped guardian and a new name, Nobody Owens. Bod for short.
The Graveyard Book, based in part on Rudyard Kipling's classic tales of the adventures of Mowgli the Man Cub, is the second novel that Neil Gaiman has written for children. And it's a wonderfully sweet and slightly spooky treat (think Halloween candy) for the little kid in all of us.

Gaiman has always been an excellent stylist, and in The Graveyard Book he is in full bloom. His tone is wry, amusing. His is narration chuckle-worthy and the atmosphere is delightfully dreadful and slightly spine-tingling. It's not quite the short, sweet stylistic wonder that was Coraline, but it is marvellous nonetheless.

And if the writing isn't as snappy as Gaiman's last effort, don't let that disappoint you. For Mr. Gaiman has gained something which eluded him in his previous endeavour, a vibrant, beating heart. As astonishing as Coraline was, it was a bit threadbare. And though Coraline was a plucky, excellent protagonist (who could probably wipe the floor with Bod) who survived a chilling adventure, she didn't really engage me on the emotional level. But The Graveyard Book is filled with moments, which make the heart soar.

This is, no doubt, thanks to the depth of characterization to be found this time around. The characters are, no doubt, archetypal but they each have little dashes of detail that endear them to the reader. Bod is a cipher, a stand-in, a little unsure of himself and prey to the different faults characteristic of his ages (the story follows him from toddler to manhood) but nevertheless is never annoying and often endearing. The graveyard folk are by turns funny and occasionally insightful. And there are three secondary characters of some importance, each of whom is excellent, but who I will neglect to mention to keep the story zipped. But undoubtedly my favourite character is Silas. Bod's guardian is one of the best supporting characters I have had the pleasure of encountering in any medium. And if he doesn't make your heart bleed when he speaks of the Macabray, then I regretfully inform you that you have passed onto the next world and are no longer with us. My condolences.

But the most astonishing aspect of The Graveyard Book is that despite the ghouls, magicks, ghosts and nightmares the most important truths to be found are about life. When Bod explains to Silas that he would not mind dying (after all, most of the people he knows are dead, or near enough thereabouts) his guardian responds, with all the wisdom of his innumerable years:
“You're alive, Bod. That means you have infinite potential. You can do anything, make anything, dream anything. If you change the world, the world will change. Potential. Once you're dead, it's gone. Over. You've made what you've made, dreamed your dream, written your name. You may be buried here, you may even walk. But that potential is finished.”

This is truly a remarkable book. If a book like Disgrace is food for the mind, to prevent our heads from rotting out from the inside, then The Graveyard Book is one for the soul. Returning to the Halloween candy analogy; this is one for the child in all of us. And my inner child has never been convinced that too much Halloween candy is a bad thing.

By Shoumik Hassin

 

 
 

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