Back to School – What to Read?


September means back to school. If you are a fan of the Harry Potter books, then you know

September 1 is the day the Hogwarts Express leaves from King’s Cross Station. Harry makes this trip in five of the seven books in the series. In Chamber of Secrets, he and Ron take a flying car to Hogwarts, and in Deathly Hallows, Harry and friends are in hiding from both the Death Eaters and the Ministry.

I’m teaching Chamber of Secrets this year in my children’s literature class. It’s a book that gets variously criticized, but it also raises some important issues—such as classism and racism—that persist throughout the rest of the series.
Now that I also have a course in the folktale, I won’t teach folktales as part of the children’s literature course. Not entirely true. I couldn’t keep Hans Christian Andersen off the syllabus for this year.
Andersen is a strange writer. He’s one of those children’s authors who many people identify as classic, but he has a darker, disturbing side that many people don’t know.
Think of some of his lighter stories. “The Ugly Duckling” is one that has been retold, in picture books and on television, many, many times. It’s considered Andersen’s signature story—an ugly duckling, shunned by the world until he discovers he’s actually a beautiful swan. This is how Andersen perceived his own life, the best evidence for that being his autobiography, The Fairy Tale of My Life.
Many of Andersen’s best-known stories are entertaining and gently ironic. Think of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” (not New Groove) or “The Princess on the Pea.” Many are more disturbing. Andersen’s darker side shows itself quickly once you start to look.
“The Tinderbox” is a story about a soldier who enters a hollow tree to retrieve an object for an old witch. She says he can fill his pockets with money, as long as he brings her back the object. The object, of course, is the tinderbox, and instead of giving it to the witch, he cuts off her head. The soldier proceeds into the town where he carouses and spends all of his money. He discovers the tinderbox will summon three magic dogs that will do whatever he asks. He wants the princess, and he gets her. At the end of the story, the soldier is about to be hanged, and he summons his three dogs using the tinderbox. He commands the dogs to kill the king and queen and the court, then he marries the princess, who is, apparently, okay with it. If the soldier in this story is the hero, then he’s a nasty one.
“The Little Mermaid” is a beautiful story about the youngest mermaid who falls in love with a prince. She sacrifices her legs and later herself for the sake of her prince. Lovely, indeed. However, the Little Mermaid has to endure excruciating pain after losing her fishtale; the prince doesn’t recognize her for the girl who saves him; he treats her like a pet, making her sleep on a cushion outside his door; then he marries someone else. The Little Mermaid can get back her fishtail if she cuts his throat and spills his blood onto her legs. She chooses not to, then throws herself off the boat, intending to kill herself. She doesn’t die, but is taken up as one of the spirits of the air.
Now think for a minute. Does this sound at all like Disney’s The Little Mermaid? The film marked the beginning of the Disney renaissance in the late 80s, and it was the film that brought me back to Disney. I love the character of Ariel, but she isn’t Andersen’s Little Mermaid, by any stretch.
Finally, if you want something dark by Andersen, read either “the Red Shoes” or “The Shadow.” Both of these stories are disturbing and graphic. Karen of “The Red shoes” is vain and loves to dance in her red shoes. Not a properly pious child, Karen would rather dance than pray. She eventually asks the executioner to cut off her feet because the shoes won’t stop dancing. In “The Shadow,” a young man loses his shadow, which eventually comes back to enslave and, finally, kill hymn.
Classics of children’s literature? Indeed. But remember, classic has become a largely meaningless  word when it comes to kid’s books. The word also describes every Disney film before it’s even released.
Andersen’s stories are rich, deep, dark, disturbing, funny, and entertaining. He’s one of those writers who used the fairy tale form because it best suited what he had to say. I think of him as a children’s writer, but mostly because I think of children’s books as a category of literature more than I do a type of literature only suitable for children.  And anyway, living in a world where kids only read kid’s books and adults only read adult books would be a sad place, indeed.

Gollum, the Evolution of a character


A character we won’t see in this December’s release of The Battle of Five Armies, the third in Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy, is Gollum. His absence in The Desolation of Smaug was somewhat overshadowed by the appearance of Smoug, the dragon, played brilliantly by Benedict Cumberbatch, but I still missed him.
Many readers of Tolkien aren’t familiar with the evolution of Gollum’s character, from his first appearance in the 1937 edition of The Hobbit and through its subsequent revisions while Tolkien wrote Lord of the Rings. From both the standpoint of writing and of fiction, Gollum is possibly one of Tolkien’s most dynamic characters, but he’s also one that evolves from a funny little creature who lives in the dark to a demonic ogre with hobbit ancestors who is maddened by the desire for the One Ring.
Jackson’s The Unexpected Journey (2012) brings Bilbo to the roots of the mountain, where he encounters Gollum, terrifyingly portrayed by Andy Serkis. The two engage in a riddle competition, one of the most poignantly drawn battles of wits in children’s literature. During their encounter, Gollum has moments where a different personality intrudes into his consciousness. He isn’t just talking to himself; he has two distinct personalities.
Don’t get me wrong. I love this scene from the movie. But the question becomes, why is Jackson portraying Gollum in this manner? While Andy Serkis’s performance of Gollum in An Unexpected Journey surpasses even that of his role in Jackson’s Two Towers and Return of the King, in some ways it’s a less accurate portrayal of the character.
The apparent split in Gollum’s character is the separation between the Smeagol and Gollum halves, those halves called Slinker and Stinker by Sam Gamgee in The Two Towers. These two halves of Gollum’s character say much about his obsessive desire for the ring, but Tolkien only develops this split during the writing of LOTR. Andy Serkis’s representation of Gollum in The Unexpected Journey has his character divided during his first encounter with Bilbo. Gollum appears to suffer what the DSM (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of mental Disorder) calls dissociative identity disorder. Gollum is an ogre, a pitiable one, but he isn’t in need of therapy. The doubling of character, and even setting, is something that happens throughout LOTR. Frodo and Sam, Bilbo and Frodo, Merry and Pippin, Gandalf and Saruman, Denethor and Theoden, Aragorn and Faramir, Aragorn and the Black riders all suggest contrasts in character and motivation. The doubling of Gollum’s character is more complex and more poignantly drawn than many others, and Tolkine uses it to further underscore the power of the ring to corrupt and destroy.
In Tolkien’s the Hobbit, Gollum talks to himself, or more accurately he talks to his Precious, but who wouldn’t, being stuck at the utmost bottom of a mountain for five hundred years. But the divide in Gollum’s character doesn’t occur here. His character only splits later in LOTR, once Gandalf recounts Gollum’s history, and after Frodo has exacted the promise from Gollum to keep ‘the precious’ out of the hands of the enemy.
cory Olsen, AKA the Tolkien Professor, claims that Gollum of the second edition of The Hobbit is the Gollum of LOTR. He says, in his excellent book, Exploring J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit:
“Thus, though the story of Bilbo and Gollum’s meeting was published nearly twenty years before The Fellowship of the Ring, I think it is fair to say that the Gollum in The Hobbit, as it now stands, is actually based on the Gollum of The Lord of the Rings.”
If this is true of Tolkien’s Hobbit, then it is equally true of Jackson’s film. If anything, it’s more so. Jackson is clearly capitalizing on Serkis’s performance, but it does the character something of a disservice as it leads movie-watchers to make certain assumptions about Gollum’s character and his development in Tolkien’s legendarium. Bear this in mind next time you watch any of the films.
Below, you can find a number of quotations, taken from John D. Rateliff’s The History of The Hobbit. The parenthetical comments are mine. Rateliff arranges parallel scenes from the first and second editions of chapter five, Riddles in the Dark, that clearly demonstrate the changes to Gollum’s character. This book is a necessity for anyone interested in the evolution of Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Enjoy.
First edition, 1937
Second edition, 1951
Third edition, 1966
First Ed.
“Deep down here by the dark water lived old Gollum. I don’t know where he came from or who or what he was. He was Gollum – as dark as darkness, except for two big round pale eyes.”
Second Ed.
Deep down here by the dark water lived old Gollum, a small slimy creature. I don’t know where he came from, nor who or what he was. He was Gollum – as dark as darkness, except for two big round pale eyes in his thin face.”
(Inserting the word “small” into this passage was Tolkien’s way of telling illustrators that Gollum was hobbit-sized, and not a troll-sized ogre.)
First Ed.
”Does it guess easy? It must have a competition with us, my precious! If precious asks, and it doesn’t answer, we eats it, my preciousss. If it asks us, and we doesn’t answer, then we gives it a present! Gollum!”
Second Ed.
”Does it guess easy? It must have a competition with us, my preciouss! If precious asks, and it doesn’t answer, we eats it, my preciousss. If it asks us, and we doesn’t answer, then we does what it wants, eh? We shows it the way out, yes!”
(The revised passage helps to clarify Gollum’s intent. The ring as Gollum’s birthday present becomes Bilbo’s cover-story to Gandalf and the dwarves, and what he sets down in his memoir.)
First Ed.
“Help me to get out of these places<” said Bilbo.
To this Gollum agreed, as he had to if he wasn’t to cheat, though he would have very much liked to have just tasted what Bilbo was like. Still he had lost the game …”
Second Ed.
Well?” he said. ”What about your promise? I want to go. you must show me the way.”
”Did we say so, precious? Show the nassty little Baggins the way out, yes, yes. But what has it got in its pocketses, eh? Not string, precious, but not nothing. Oh no! gollum!”
”Never you mind,” said Bilbo. ”A promise is a promise.”
”Cross it is, impatient, precious,” hissed Gollum. ”But it must wait, yes it must. We can’t go up the tunnels so hasty. We must go and get some things first, yes, things to help us.”
”Well, hurry up!” said Bilbo, relieved to think of Gollum going away. He thought he was just making an excuse and did not mean to come back. What was Gollum talking about? What useful thing could he keep out on the dark lake? But he was wrong. Gollum did mean to come back. He was angry now and hungry. And he was a miserable wicked creature, and already he had a plan.
(Here Gollum becomes the morally corrupt, wicked creature of LOTR, and the recognizable character of Jackson’s films.)
Olsen, corey. Exploring J. R. R. Tolkine’s The Hobbit. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012.
Rateliff, John D. ed. The History of The Hobbit. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2011.

A Visit to Charlottetown, PEI


One of the best things about the biennial Lucy Maud Montgomery conference is that it happens in Charlottetown. One of the best things about Charlottetown is going to the Lucy Maud conference.
Not entirely true. I went to see the musical Anne and gilbert the Thursday evening of my stay. The Guild, a theatre on the corner of Richmond St. in downtown Charlottetown—across the street from the Confederation Centre in one direction and the Anne of Green Gables Store in the other—is an intimate venue where the front row is essentially part of the stage. This year, Ellen Denny of London, Ontario, played Anne, and Patrick Cook of St. John’s, Newfoundland, played Gilbert, two very fine and energetic actors. This was one of the liveliest musicals I’ve ever seen, and I used to hate musicals.
I loved the show, but even better was having Ellen Denny and Patrick Cook show up at the Saturday evening banquet at the conference as part of a birthday surprise for one of the conference participants. Ellen Denny was sitting beside me, and I did my utmost to act as though I wasn’t thrilled at her choice of seats.
I correct myself. Many exciting things can happen in Charlottetown besides attending the Lucy Maud conference. I can’t oversell this place. It’s one of the oldest cities in the country, its streets are crowded with interesting shops, pubs, and coffee shops; its people are kind and helpful in a way I’ve rarely seen, and they really will go out of their way on your behalf. I was looking for a bank one afternoon, and this fellow, who happened to be eating lunch in his car, got out—leaving the door open with the keys in the ignition—to lead me around the corner and down the street to the door of the bank.
It’s not as though people aren’t friendly or helpful in Edmonton. They are. But in Charlottetown, the people seem to have fewer barriers when it comes to strangers. It’s all part of the island culture.
They have an expression on the island. If you aren’t an islander, then you “come from away.” If you come from away, then you will never be an islander. But neither are you a stranger. If you visit the island, you are a guest, and you will meet with the same kindness and respect granted to friends and family.
But back to the conference. We had four days of talking about Lucy Maud, Anne, Rilla, and many, many other characters from Montgomery’s body of work. And then there are the journals—five decades worth—which means we have more information about Lucy Maud’s personal life and writing habits than any other writer I can think of, save maybe Samuel Johnson.
The theme of this year’s conference was Montgomery and War. She only wrote one book about the Great War—Rilla of Ingleside. Nonetheless, the conference presentations and conversation ranged all over the Lucy Maud map: from food, to spirituality, to post traumatic stress disorder, to patriotism, to women and the Red Cross. We talked about Montgomery’s struggle with depression, her grief over the death of her beloved cousin Frede Campbell, and her decade-long series of court battles with L. C. Page, the original publisher of Anne of Green Gables in 1908.
I always learn something new at these conferences. I learned, for example, that Montgomery collected reviews of her books and pasted them into scrapbooks. A curious habit. But as Ben Lefebvre, co-organizer of the conference and editor of The L. M. Montgomery Reader, said to me in a hallway conversation, Montgomery was “the author of her own career.”
Montgomery’s short stories, her poetry, her many novels, as well as her scrapbooks, letters, and journals provide an endless number of discussion points, no matter the topic. I wondered if this conference would be more limited than those in the past because of the theme. But no. And more and more, scholars and professionals are bringing an interdisciplinary perspective to the conference. I, for one, had a child psychiatrist from Melbourne on my panel about trauma.
If you are an Anne fan, there’s much more to read and discover in Montgomery’s books—Emily Star, for one. If you aren’t an Anne fan, then try the journals. Life writing is entirely its own genre, and Montgomery provides interesting historical and cultural insights into life on Prince Edward Island and Ontario, not to mention Canada. Montgomery visited the UK during her honeymoon, but As far as I know, the farthest west of Ontario Montgomery travelled was Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, to visit her father, but she had friends and family all over Canada, the States, and the UK.
I fell into the world of Montgomery by accident. I didn’t read Anne of Green Gables until I was in my thirties—and I saw the film first. I don’t know how long I’ll stay in this world, but just like Charlottetown, it’s a fascinating place to visit.

All of the Annes (of course with an E)


With the LMM conference in Charlottetown just over a week away, I’m spending much time these days thinking about and reading L.M. Montgomery, particularly rilla of Ingleside. Rilla is Montgomery’s book about WWI. It’s a poignant narrative about Anne’s family and the response of the community of Four Winds Harbour to the war.
If you haven’t read the book, I won’t spoil it for you, but I’m always struck by the character of Anne in this last of the Anne books, chronologically speaking, that Montgomery wrote in her lifetime. After Rilla, Montgomery went on to write Anne of Windy Poplars and Anne of Ingleside, but these books fit earlier into the series, and, if you’ve read them, you will know the different tone these books employ. The Anne of Rilla of Ingleside is both mother and wife—sometimes writer but always a prominent figure in the community—a woman who has raised a family and experienced grief over the deaths of two children. The Anne of this book is a long way from the chatterbox who first comes to Green Gables on a buggy with Matthew, imagining names for the places she passes—The White Way of Delight and The Lake of Shining Waters—and  imagining having a family for the first time in her life.
Don’t get me wrong. I love the Anne from Anne of Green Gables, but it can be tricky sometimes reconciling the girl to the woman. Anne herself in the first book talks about the different Annes that she must negociate: “There’s such a lot of different Annes in me. I sometimes think that is why I’m such a troublesome person.” But readers of the series have to negociate Annes as well. You have to go from loving a skinny, starry-eyed redhead at eleven to understanding a wife and mother in her forties. Fans of the Harry Potter series talk about growing up with Harry and friends—especially those kids, like mine, who began reading Harry at eleven or twelve—but it’s a much longer haul with Anne.
Here are two passages that help to illustrate all of the Annes from the Montgomery’s series:
Anne of Green Gables
She danced up to the little looking‑glass and peered into it.  Her pointed freckled face and solemn gray eyes peered back at her.
“You’re only Anne of Green Gables,” she said earnestly, “and I see you, just as you are looking now, whenever I try to imagine I’m the Lady Cordelia.  But it’s a million times nicer to be Anne of Green Gables than Anne of nowhere in particular, isn’t it?”
Rilla of Ingleside
“She was thinking of little Joyce’s grave in the old burying-ground over-harbour – little Joyce who would have been a woman now, had she lived – of the white cross in France and the splendid grey eyes of the little boy who had been taught his first lessons of duty and loyalty at her knee – of Jem in the terrible trenches – of Nan and Di and Rilla, waiting – waiting – waiting, while the golden years of youth passed by – and she wondered if she could bear any more.”

L.M. Montgomery and War, the Eleventh Biennial Conference

On June 25, I will be travelling to Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, for L. M. Montgomery and War, the Eleventh Biennial LMM Conference, at the University of PEI. This year’s conference commemorates one hundred years since the beginning of WWI.
This is my fourth trip to this conference, and it’s an exciting event for Lucy Maud fans and scholars from around the world. I will be staying in downtown Charlottetown, a short walk from the harbour, the Anne of Green Gables Store, and the Anne of Green Gables Chocolate Shop. The chocolate shop will definitely be one of my stops.
Enjoy a tourists welcome to the Anne of Green Gables National Park. Remember, Anne is an industry for the island.
Charlottetown is a beautiful city, and it would be a challenge to find friendlier or more engaging people anywhere in Canada. Charlottetown itself is an older city—as far as Canadian cities go. During my last two trips to the conference, I had the good fortune to stay at the Great George, which I was told hoasted the fathers of confederation at the Charlottetown Conference in 1864.
The Lucy Maud conference starts on Wednesday, June 25, and I will be presenting on Friday, June 27. My paper for the conference explores post-traumatic stress in Montgomery’s fiction, specifically rilla of Ingleside and Jane of Lantern Hill.
While Montgomery wrote only one book exclusively about World War I, the conference will feature papers and presentations that cover war in all of its implications in her fiction.
Watch for updates and photographs from Prince Edward Island as the conference gets closer. If you haven’t’ read Rilla of Ingleside, Montgomery’s novel about the war from the perspective of the home front, you should know that the book largely comes from Rilla Blythe’s point of view, Anne’s youngest daughter. Rilla has to grow up as the community responds to the war and the war effort. Here is an excerpt.
“We must keep a little laughter, girls,” said Mrs. Blythe. “A good laugh is as good as a prayer sometimes—only sometimes,” she added under her breath. She had found it very hard to laugh during the three weeks she had just lived through—she, Anne Blythe, to whom laughter had always come so easily and freshly. And what hurt most was that Rilla’s laughter had grown so rare—Rilla whom she used to think laughed over-much. Was all the child’s girlhood to be so clouded? Yet how strong and clever and womanly she was growing! How patiently she knitted and sewed and manipulated those uncertain Junior Reds!
Rilla of Ingleside, Chapter XII