Friday, January 3, 2014

Fantasy, Metaphor, and Reality: The Challenges of Adolescence

Over the holidays, I finally had a chance to finish off some of the books I've been wanting to read for a while, including Will Alexander's National Book Award winner Goblin Secrets.  I really enjoyed the book, particularly the way that the secrets were carefully layered throughout the story--each time I thought I had reached a resting point, Alexander pushed the narrative forward, resulting in a story that is challenging for readers of all ages, despite the fact that the writing style is aimed at young adult readers.  (If you would like to read a full review of Goblin Secrets, along with an interview with Will Alexander, you can find both here.)

But what struck me most about Goblin Secrets was the way that Alexander used some of the fantastic elements of the story as metaphors for growing up, a feature of the novel that connects it to other works including Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials series and Buffy, The Vampire Slayer.

In Goblin Secrets, the protagonist, Rownie, is an orphan in search of his brother.  He escapes from the witch, Graba, who had been caring for him, and gets invited to join a group of traveling performers, who also happen to be goblins.  In the city of Zombay, goblins are the only ones allowed to perform theatrical works because they are the Changed--therefore, the masks they wear when they perform do not have the power to change them into something else, since they are Changed already.  For human children, though, there are stories of the goblins stealing children and changing them into goblins.

When Rownie begins performing with a group of the goblins, he worries about whether his wearing of a mask will affect who he is.  He talks with another member of the troupe who had been changed from human to Changeling, asking him how the Change had actually happened.  "[Rownie] wanted to know if he was Changing.  He needed to know whether or not it would be a good thing if he did" (Alexander 132).  Rownie's concern about whether or not he will be changed into something else by spending time with the goblins is, along with his search for his missing brother, one of the major elements that pushes the plot forward.

What I think works so well about this is that this concern about change can be read in at least two ways.  Obviously, it can be read at face value, where it thematically connects to the way magic and theater is dealt with over the course of the whole novel.  But it can also be read metaphorically, as a discussion about some of the concerns that younger readers might have about going through puberty and getting older.  What's it like?  Am I really changing?  Is it going to be a good thing when I do?  The loss of control over his own self that Rownie experiences in Goblin Secrets is very similar to what many readers of the novel experience with their own bodies, thus making the magical concerns of Rownie extremely relevant in the real world.

This layering of meaning, and the possibility of reading Goblin Secrets as a metaphor for adolescence in general, connects Alexander's novel to at least two other works aimed at teens.  For starters, Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials series uses the daemons of his young adult characters as a physical representation of maturing during adolescence.  The daemons of characters like Lyra and Will are physical manifestations of a person's inner self, and for children, the daemons can shift form at will.  When a person enters adolescence, and particularly sexual maturity, the daemon's form becomes fixed.  The sense of loss and confusion alongside the hope and expectation for the future seen in the transformation of Lyra's and Will's daemons in The Amber Spyglass (the final book in the trilogy) very effectively captures some of the conflicting emotions that teenagers in the real world might experience as they themselves become aware of their own sexuality.  Just as in Goblin Secrets, this key aspect of the His Dark Materials series functions on a metaphorical level as well.

My favorite example of this comes from the episode "Innocence" in season 2 of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer.  In the episode right before this, "Surprise," Buffy and Angel (the vampire with a soul) finally have sex; this moment of pure happiness is enough to reverse the curse on Angel, taking away his soul and making him as evil as any other vampire.  Buffy, however, doesn't know this, and she thinks that Angel is pulling away form her because of what happened between them.  Take a look (sorry, the video won't embed for some reason).

 This moment is where I truly fell in love with Whedon's series.  I realized here how much the fantastic elements in the show functioned as a metaphor for what teenagers in the real world experience in high school--here, Angel's transformation back into a vampire without a soul reflects the fear of many a girl that the guy she loves will totally change into something else once they have sex.  As with Alexander's novel, the story itself is quite compelling, but the metaphorical connection to the real world makes it matter.

By Jen Miller