“No human face is exactly the same in its lines on each side, no leaf perfect in its lobes, no branch in its symmetry. All admit irregularity as they imply change; and to banish imperfection is to destroy expression, to check exertion, to paralyze vitality. All things are literally better, lovelier, and more beloved for [their] imperfections…”
– John Ruskin
Today is July 31st, the birthday of the famous Harry Potter! I was very lucky to have grown up with Harry as the books came out. Until recently, I took it for granted that readers from 1997 to 2007 got to be a part of Harry Potter hype while the books were still rolling out; generations from now, the story will be just as incredible and just as magical, but at only one point in history did we get to be the ones to read it first. It got me to thinking about other works of children’s literature, and what it would have been like to be the first children to read The Hobbit or Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. As wonderful as it must have been, nothing beats Hagrid banging down the door of that forlorn shack in the middle of the sea, a slightly squashed birthday cake in one of his enormous pockets.
As Willy Wonka cribbed from Arthur O’Shaughnessy, “We are the music makers, we are the dreamers of the dreams,” and it is interesting to note the motifs that arise over time, particularly in stories. As Martine Mussies observes, “The exploration of the recreation of myths gives us valuable insights in the complexities of human interactions… It creates a sense of continuity in societies, across generations, using the past as a foundation on which to build a better, or at least more ‘authentic’ and relevant, understanding of the present and future. The influences that shape fantastic beings like mermaids tell us so much about what it means to be human”. Mermaids have been a persistent fixture in folklore the world over for centuries and continue to appear in contemporary fiction. Plenty of merfolk besides the mermaid ‘exist’, “these include not only the mermen, but such creatures of the imagination as the seal-folk and the water horse or kelpie,” but mermaids seem to have won a special place on the narrative stage. Even still, it can be easy to treat such creatures of fantasy trivially; they are the stuff of glittery merchandise and 5-year-olds’ birthday parties, but I think this surface observation can be deceiving. Even the most whimsical of storytelling may have something worthwhile to share, and this sentiment is described beautifully in an interview with Neil Gaiman for World Refugee Day 2014. He talks about his cousin, Helen, who survived the Warsaw ghetto in World War II; “She actually told me a story that made me realize that what I do is not trivial, because if you make stuff up for a living—which is basically what I do—you feel kind of trivial.” His cousin, Helen, had started teaching mathematics and grammar to the girls in the ghetto during the day:
“And at that point, you had a death sentence for possessing a book—books were illegal—but she had a Polish translation of Gone with the Wind that was slipped to her and she would keep it behind a loose brick in the wall and stay up late every night reading Gone with the Wind so that when the girls came in the next day, she could tell them what happened in the chapters she read that night. And just for that hour, they got out of the Warsaw ghetto… and I thought that actually changes everything: the idea that it’s not just escapism, it can actually be escape and it’s worth dying for.”
I think that stories have much more to tell that what is present at face value; storytelling is our shared human heritage and in a lot of ways, it makes us who we are. And while not everything can be a literary masterpiece or worthy of special merit, stories count, even those that take on a lighter—perhaps humbler—form.
“Paris holds the key to her heart” sings the cast of Anastasia in director Don Bluth and Gary Goldman’s 1997 epic animated drama. They could well have been singing about my lingering book-browsing habit—if it has Paris, it has potential. From The Dictionary of Animal Languages to Minette’s Feast (an adorable picture book told from the perspective of Julia Child’s cat), to (obviously) My Life in France, I seem content to loiter in abstractions of this city. One of my favorite movies, Midnight in Paris, goes a long way to describe why this is such a common sentiment. I must admit, however, that it wasn’t the Paris-element that had me taking Rooftoppers home from my local library—no, it was the first line of the book, as follows:
“On the morning of its first birthday, a baby was found floating in a cello case in the middle of the English Channel. It was the only living thing for miles. Just the baby, and some dining room chairs, and the tip of a ship disappearing into the ocean.”