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Hijacking the Pumpkin Coach

On an overcast winter morning in outback New England, I’m taking time to consider the notion of transformations as they pertain to reading and story-making. The word means metamorphoses, which you will remember comes from the Greek words for change and shape — though meta also carries a sense of “beyond” as in “veering toward abstraction.” Transformations: shape-changers. Enchantments. Old wine in new skins. Disguises. Renaissances. Revelations.

I’ve been invited to contemplate the transformations inherent in the child’s experience of literature: what it means to turn a page of a picture book. What it means to revisit an older classic brought back to press for a new generation. What it means to play with traditional tales as a writer. To discuss all aspects of this subject, I’d have to set out with an endless supply of craft paper and an army of friends armed with nail scissors and pots of glue; I’d have to construct a pop-up world exactly the same size as our own, and then flex and reveal every secret flap and pocket as the world revolves. Impossible. I might as well try to hijack the globe.

Every aspect of our experience and understanding hinges on impermanence. Change, says Heraclitus, is the only constant. Overnight, last night, snow made of our rutted Vermont driveway a fairy-tale track of unblemished caster sugar. The landscape transforms my perspective on this subject, veering from muddy reality toward the romance of daydream.

I hope focusing on the aspect I know best — writing a new tale inspired by a beloved classic held in the public domain — will stand in for all the rest of the topic, and indicate something that might hold true in considering any aspect of transformation as an aspect of the reading experience. My musings will come in three headings:

  1. The Original Material
  2. The Spell at Hand
  3. The Impermanent Result

The title for this piece, you’ll have noticed, is “Hijacking the Pumpkin Coach.” A pumpkin coach is easily recognizable, unique in its narrative importance and placement, and nonexistent. It lays such pretty, unexpected tracks in the snow. It’s what law enforcement calls an attractive nuisance. I can’t resist it.

1. The Original Material

A transformation requires a starting prototype, whether it be a child’s preconception of the world or a story so worn and familiar it fits like an old shoe (and sometimes seems as shabby). The one essential is that the original is still quick with life, even if one can’t say quite how. (Toys are quick with life to young children; so are chants and rhymes, and small animals. And trucks. And old tales of magic.)

maguire_dream stealerTimeworn stories, to me, have the charm of beloved elders who, lively and mysterious, obey the lost proprieties of bygone generations. Since 1983, when I first dared to invite a preexisting character from folklore, Baba Yaga, to join the dramatis personae of my children’s novel The Dream Stealer, I’ve often returned to the library of my early years. I cherish the stories that transformed me from a somewhat brow-beaten if cheery kid into an intrepid adventurer tromping alongside Alice, Wart, Dorothy, Peter Pan, and Diamond (from At the Back of the North Wind).

Becoming an enchanter starts in childhood. To amuse my younger siblings, I could make a narrative up out of anything. I remember lying on my belly under the arms of a drying Christmas tree, working out an improv story for my brother and sister. The five cheap little plastic Nutcrackers from Woolworth’s could just barely fit into the coal car of my brother’s wooden train wobbling on its wooden rails. Look, if we run the tracks just here and press the branches down, the train will look like it’s coming through the woods. Here, it meets a coven of three giant naked Barbies sliding down the balsam branches to attack the Nutcrackers! Nutcrackers and Barbies, they are all coming home from the wars. Different wars. (A potential epic is seeded.) Is there any way we can use this flashlight? A fallen star in the forest…and Mommy’s fox fur drags on its belly through the toy soldiers, a Worm Ouroboros with a dandruff condition.

What am I doing professionally, now, but extending my childhood instinct to play? I look at beloved old stories for ways to tinker with them as a means of keeping them vivid—if not for new readers, then for myself.

I follow a few guidelines. I try to spin an interpretation or a re-candescence of a familiar treasure that maintains respect for the original even if I alter the tone and the themes. I allow comic episodes and adult references as long as they don’t cause the whole enterprise to resemble a Saturday Night Live skit or a parody from the venerable Carol Burnett Show. In other words, the seriousness that prompted the original work prompts me, too, even if as I play with the 
material it grows and changes under my direction, surprising itself, surprising me.

maguire_wickedWicked is the most obvious example and most famous of my fancies. It relies on collective memories of Baum’s 1900 children’s novel and the 1939 MGM film to provide readers some pleasure at seeing old friends and situations in new light. My adult novels Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister and Mirror Mirror are embroidered upon the plots of “Cinderella” and “Snow White” and set, respectively, in early-seventeenth-century Haarlem, Holland, and in central Italy of the High Renaissance. The fun of working out the metes and bounds of a magic mirror, a pumpkin coach, a fairy godmother, and a wicked stepmother are only tangential pleasures, though. The deeper theme, in my “Cinderella” effort, asks how to assess the relative values of beauty. My “Snow White” exercise outlines the costs to an individual and to a society of transforming from superstitious youth into a cerebral maturity.

Why not start from scratch? Because an old tale is luscious and attractive, and our natural appetite is already awakened toward it. The fun of encountering it again — and of seeing the changes wrought upon the original — is part of the pleasure, I hope. As a child reader, I cherished encountering aspects of Laura Ingalls Wilder and L. Frank Baum in, say, Seven-Day Magic and noting the presence of nursery-rhyme characters in the Alice books and of Father Christmas in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. This literary synchronicity gave me the sense that all meaning in the world was somehow attached, and finding out the relationship was one of the chief reasons to read (and write).

2. The Spell at Hand

The spell is the new story itself, and how it is told. The original tales are often usefully flat in their language; prettiness and sometimes even logic and meaning have been worn away by time. (Much is made, for instance, of the improbability of Cinderella’s slippers being glass. One theory held that perhaps this was a mistranslation of a medieval French word for fur, vair, rather than glass, verre. Though the theory is shaky, it lends a new energy to the story. Imagine going to a ball in fur shoes! Like monster slippers! What would that say about Cinderella’s underlying situation, apprehension, ambition?)

When I examine an old story to see how it makes me feel now, very often my eye falls upon something that feels ragged, unfinished. Sometimes it is a missing backstory—like how did the Wicked Witch of the West come to be so terrifying, and was she always? Sometimes it’s a little bit of story anomaly, loose-hanging narrative DNA that is just waiting to be considered.

When NPR asked me to write and perform an original story to air Christmas Day 2008 on All Things Considered, they said — explicitly — they wanted something familiar that might be presented anew. I replied that me being me, a practicing Catholic, I’d have no interest in doing an exposé about just exactly what sort of “reindeer games” Rudolph wasn’t allowed to join. NPR being NPR, they weren’t going to want stories of the youngest soloist in the heavenly choir who got separated from her cohorts on the Celestial Omnibus and ended up taking the second star to the right and going straight on toward the very wrong morning.

“Something more sober,” I said to the NPR editor, “but something that we still associate with the holidays. Like, oh, ‘The Little Match Girl.’”

And that, instantly, was it. I’d cried over Andersen’s story as a kid, but I might be among the last generation to get that story as a regular part of childhood’s literary diet. In the nineteenth century, a belief in the heavenly peace of an actual afterlife obtained more forcefully than it does today. Now, the story of a pauper child dying of the cold on New Year’s Eve seems a morbid and even sensationalist exercise in the portrayal of child abuse, of society’s unconcern for the plight of the poor.

I wanted to restore to the story some sense of transcendence that is lost today. Without denaturing Andersen’s original, I wanted to build a housing about his story so that the same words and incident could perhaps support a different meaning, one in which a sense of magic and hope could again inhere.

maguire_matchlessAndersen had left me a clue in his very short tale. In paragraph six of the three-page story, the Little Match Girl is out on the frigid midnight streets. As she darts from a coach rattling past (a pumpkin coach? Hmmm…), the slippers belonging to her dead mother fall off her feet. One is eaten by a donkey. Andersen writes: “The other slipper might keep one foot warm, she thought, but as she went to retrieve it, a boy about her age was picking it up. ‘This will make a fine cradle for my babies!’ he said, and ran off into the darkness.”

Aha! There is my dangling thread. Hans Christian Andersen left it for me to find. The only spoken words in the story are not the Little Match Girl’s but those of a boy out on his own. In Andersen’s version, he’s never named, nor seen again, and his puzzling comment is never explained. This is my inspiration, and it feels sanctioned.

Hence, Matchless: the story of Frederik, the only son of a widowed seamstress, whose path intersects with the Little Match Girl’s that fateful evening. I’m able to wind several chapters of his story around hers: indeed, I embed every word of Andersen’s original tale as chapter two of my four-chapter story. I don’t change a single phrase in the little girl’s own story. I just couch it in a wider world. The original is then transformed. (Not improved; I don’t expect that. But changed.) A new setting that I hope shows off an old jewel to advantage.

3. The Impermanent Result

maguire_eggandspoonSondheim and Lapine’s 2014 film Into the Woods, no matter how popular on the screen, can never erase the original tales that inspired it. The film doesn’t strive to. For our pleasure and for deeper rewards than pleasure, it transforms the Grimm tales, knowing full well that the originals remain unbesmirched and entire. Behind my jovial nutcase witch Baba Yaga currently reappearing in Egg & Spoon lurks the real Baba Yaga in the shadows. She belongs to a thousand years of history. The prototype’s mouth may twitch at the comic indignity of my portrayal of her, but she is untroubled. She is eternal, and holds her own counsel.

No spell lasts forever. The princess’s carriage eventually reverts to its status as vegetable joke. The witch’s spells are overcome by a battery of kisses. Alice does wake up from her midsummer dream. Readers who have loved it when Wart, in The Sword in the Stone, spends part of a chapter with Robin Hood and Maid Marian and that lot know that, when he leaves them, the Merry Band in Sherwood Forest will revert to iconic status, unchanged in any essential way by Wart’s having stopped by.

What is changed, of course, is the reader. We have been reminded that the currency of the old tales is still good. I use the word currency to mean value and also, say, timeliness — as in being current (and why not, while I’m at it, liveliness, as in the current that jolts Frankenstein’s monster into kinetic behavior?).

In a sense beyond enchantment, writers such as John Gardner (Grendel), Jean Rhys (Wide Sargasso Sea), John Updike (Gertrude and Claudius) and even P. D. James (Death Comes to Pemberley) are only following in the footsteps of Perrault and Grimm, Shakespeare, Boccaccio and Chaucer, Plautus and Virgil and on back to Homer, in taking familiar material and refashioning it to enhance narrative force and pertinence. Contemporary transformations of old stories, especially mine, neither abuse nor improve upon the originals. Homages help keep old tales current for a new set of readers to discover.

Ladies, gentlemen, your carriage awaits: but do put it back in the vegetable plot when you’re done with it. It will be needed again before much more time has passed.

From the May/June 2015 special issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Transformations.

Gregory Maguire About Gregory Maguire

Gregory Maguire is the author, most recently, of Egg & Spoon (Candlewick), a 2015 Boston Globe-Horn Book Fiction Honor Book, and a forthcoming novel for adults, After Alice. For twenty-five years he co-directed Children’s Literature New England, which he also helped found.

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