Where the Wild Things and Ursula LeGuin: fantasy, myth, symbol

A look into the dark soup of Sendak’s imagination, refined into the formation of a picture book. Where the Wild Things Are provides a curious mixture of space, pictures, and words as we all travel into the unknown, into the repressed, and finally into self-acceptance.

The following excerpts are taken from one book: Cech, John. Angels and Wild Things: The Archetypal Poetics of Maurice Sendak. University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 1995.

"Our whole childhood remains to be reimagined." Gaston Bachelard

"A man’s work is nothing but a slow trek to rediscover,, through the detours of art, those one or two images in whose presence his heart first opened." –Albert Camus

The child of the sixties provides us with a kind of cultural primitivism, that the child is way down and into the unconscious and the guide to the healing sources of fantasy, the spontaneous spark that lights the shadows.

"The great fantasies, myths, and thales are indeed like dreams; they speak from the unconscious to the unconscious, in the language of the unconscious–symbol and archetype. Though they use words, they work the way music does: they short-circuit verbal reasoning, and go straight to the thoughts that lie too deep to utter."

Where the Wild Things Are opened up the fantasies of the young child’s emotional life and let the monsters out. It looked closely at the shadows of childhood, rather than its sunny, happy exteriors.

Where the Wild Things Are has been a subtle presence for the two generations of children and parents who have read and reread it. . . . .In conversations I have had with dozens of young people who have never taken a children’s literature coure, and are thus unaware of Sendak’s canonical status within the field, they have informed me that they were "just like" Max when they were children and that the book left a lasting impression on them. These confessions have occurred too often to be accidental, and, although anecdotal, they nevertheless serve to confirm the fact that WTWTA has become something more than simply a very popular children’s book. It has become, in fact, part of the collective memory that Carl Kerenyi refers to as a "living mythology" a complexly interwoven, constantly changing cycle of stories that sustains and replenishes the reservoir of a culture’s beliefs. For the society that creates them, these myths "form the ground or foundation of the world, since everything rests on them." They provide a culture with its fundamental meanings, with permanent points of reference that, despite surface or even formal changes "remain ageless, inexhaustible, invincible in timeless primordiality, in a past that proaves imperishable because of its eternally repeated rebirths."

Myths are also about how to resolve life’s puzzling, conflicting, emotionally charged experiences, James Oliver Robinson summarizes:

Very often, the problem being "solved" bya myth is a contradiction or a paradox, something which is beyond the power of reason or rational logic to resolve. But the telling of the story, or the re-creation of a vivid and familiar image which is part of a myth, arries with it–for those who are accustomed to the myth, those who believe it–a satisfying sense that the contradiction has been resolved, the elements of the paradox have been reconciled. Dramatic retelling catharsis, as Aristotle pointed out about tragedy, which the audience–the participants in the myth–takes to be an explanation, a structured understanding, of the original problem.

Myths are also seen as a "metaphorical statement of the truth" says Barbara Bader.

Max is in the middle of one of his crises that Erik Erikson argues we all pass through at regular stages in our lives, from infancy to old age; these crises affect the psychological relationships between ourselves, those close to us, and the larger society of which we are a part. Max is poised between his own wild declarations of independence and autonomy and the very real fact of his continuing emotional dependence of the adults around him–especially his parents and particularly his mother.

The child, Sendak says, invents a host of necessary games in order to combat an awful fact of childhood: the fact of their vulnerability to fear, anger, hate, frustration–all the emotions that are an ordinary part of their lives and that they can perceive only as ungovernable and dangerous forces. To master these forces, children turn to fantasy: that imagined world where disturbing emotional situations are solved to their satisfaction. Through fantasy, Max, the hero of my book, discharges his anger against his mother, and returns to the real world sleepy, hungry, and at peace with himself.

The result of weathering this crisis, from an Eriksonian perspective, is the development of the child’s ability to practice "self-observation, self-guidance, and self-punishment."

What Sendak is tracing in the microcosm of Max’s experience is the larger process of ego-formation: the slow evolution of consciousness in which the individual, beginning i childhood, starts to make those choices that define him, those things that weill become his "I," and those that will be returned to the "not-I," the unacknowledged, rejected, or repressed psychic material that makes up that guardian of the unconscious, the shadow–the first aspect of the unconscious that we confront as we begin the lifelong process of integration, of becoming conscious of the unconscious. Ursula K. Le Guin describes this archetypal symbol:

"The shadow is on the other side of our psyche, the dark brother of the conscious mind. It is Cain, Caliban, Frankenstein’s monster, Mr. Hyde. It is Virgil who gioded Dante through hell, Gilgamesh’s friend Enkidu, Frodo’s enemy Gollm. It is the Doppleganger. It is Mowgli’s Grey Brother; the wereworlf; the wolf, the bear, the tiger of a thousand folktales; it is the serpent, Lucifer. The shadow stands on the threshold between conscious and unconscious mind, and we meet it in our dreams, as sister, brother, friend, beast, monster, enemy, guide. It is all that we don’t want to, can’t admit into our conscious self, all the qualities and tendencies within us which we have repressed, denied, or not used."

Max is still too young to recognize that the monsters are projections of himself and thus to make the moral decisions and conscious admissions that are necessary for the shadow to be admitted and absorbed into the conscious sense of self. These are the tasks of the adolescent and, with increasing urgency, the adult. But Max has had a first, dramatic encounter with these forces that are not simply evil but "inferior, primitive, awkward, animallike, childlike; powerful, vital, spontaneous. It’s not weak and decent. . . it’s dark and hairy and unseemly; but, without it, the person is nothing. What is a body that casts no shadow? Nothing, a formlessness, two-dimensional, a comic-strip character. The person who denies his own profound relationship with evil denies his own reality."

LeGuin, Ursula K. The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction. New York: Putnam, 1980.