For centuries, the fairy tale has been the cornerstone of imaginative children's fiction - the genre provides a canvas by which amazing tales can be told. The fantastic becomes possible in fairy tales, and for many, childlike wonder can be recaptured by the simple act of reading one. However, in many children's books, there is a pervading theme of maturation, and "growing up"; in these stories, the fairy tale land the characters inhabit is shown to be fleeting and transient. Two such fairy tales - Ursula Dubosarsky's The Red Shoe and Neil Gaiman's Stardust - frame the fantastic story they tell with themes of maturation and responsibility. In these books, the main characters navigate a fantasy world, all while discovering that it is time for them to grow up. This essay will examine both books through this lens, in order to demonstrate how concepts of growing up and maturation are exemplified in The Red Shoe and Stardust.
In Ursula Dubosarsky's The Red Shoe, three daughters of varying ages (6, 11 and 15) live in Sydney, Australia in 1954. In an environment of very real torment and strife, these sisters - Matilda, Frances and Elizabeth - attempt to maintain their innocence, all while losing it in this harsh world. During this time, Australians (and many others) were still reeling from the effects of the Second World War. Not only that, the polio outbreak and other tragedies hang over the heads of these characters without them realizing it. Dubosarsky paints a world that is very treacherous and unforgiving, all through a child's perspective, leaving it in the periphery. While most fairy tale stories have a happy ending, this one possesses a somewhat more cynical mindset, merely demonstrating Matilda's attempts to survive with her innocence intact1
Most of the book's perspective coming from Matilda, her story is the one that is most frequently followed. The youngest of the three children, she has the most growing up to do; she is fascinated more than the other two sisters by fairy tales. In the very beginning of the book, she is the one begging her sister Frances to read her a fairy tale. Of particular interest to her is the fairy tale "The Red Shoe" by Hans Christian Anderson; Matilda uses fairy tales to learn about the world in which she lives. Constantly asking Frances "Why can't you wear red shoes to church?" and other simple questions, she uses the realm of imagination to immerse herself in what she thinks the real world is like2.
Matilda matures as the harsh realities of life begin to disillusion her from the fairy tales that she so loves to read. Matilda is depicted as having a very active imagination, and her childlike innocence blinds her, especially in the beginning, to the harsh environment that surrounds her. On the subject of soldiers, Matilda's view of fairy tale soldiers are much different from those soldiers that she actually knows: "She had never seen a soldier with a long red-and-white beard. All the soldiers she had seen had no beards and hardly any hair, although some of them had only one leg or one arm"3. While Matilda just chalks this up to a curiosity, the truth is that these soldiers are shell-shocked and horrified at the things they experienced in World War II. This is exemplified in the behavior of their father, who is a veteran experiencing tremendous post-traumatic stress disorder. He is often away from them, operating in the merchant navy, coming back from gifts and the like. However, even when he is there, he sinks into depression, even to the level where he attempts to hang himself near the end of the novel. This factor alone contributes greatly to the hell that Matilda must reconcile with her own active imagination.
There are many unique symbols linking Matilda's world to a fairy tale world, not the least of which is the actual use of the Hans Christian Anderson fairytale "The Red Shoe." Intertwined in the narrative at the beginning of the book, the tale of a girl who puts on red shoes for her confirmation intrigues Matilda; the thought of beautiful princesses and brave soldiers fascinates her and ignites her imagination. The story itself becomes a motif for the connection between Matilda's imagination and the rest of the world. Matilda's mother wears red shoes; Petrov's wife also wears red shoes. They seem to be a symbol for the eternal presence of heightened reality in Matilda's world. Matilda uses that imagination to enhance her mundane, sad and depressing real world. To her Uncle Paul, the goanna that he scares off was going to win her first place in the school's pet show, honoring her with a lollipop.
Uncle Paul is often a source of maturation for Matilda as a character in The Red Shoe; he and Matilda have many conversations together, as the relationship between him and Matilda's mother deepens. Matilda is given stronger reinforcement to stay in her childlike innocence when Uncle Paul, after playing a happy song, says "What a pity, what a pitythat life's not like that. What a pity it is"4. These events and more allow Matilda to remain a little girl, and stop herself from seeing the bad things that happen around her - no matter what evidence exists to the contrary.
Neil Gaiman's 1999 novel Stardust paints a much more fantastical picture, and is a much more straightforward fairy tale than Dubosarsky's novel. At the same time, it presents a powerful message of maturation and growing up in its main character of Tristran. Throughout the book, he transforms from a "painfully shy" boy into a selfless man, shifting his priorities as he learns more about the fairy-tale land in which he inhabits5. It is very much a "hero's journey" type of story, wherein a young, impetuous lad learns how to be brave and save the girl he loves from the evil villains. However, at the same time, it demonstrates how a fairy-tale character would mature within a fairy-tale world; this is in stark contrast to The Red Shoe, where Matilda begins to awaken to her real world from a fantasy land.
When the reader meets Tristran near the beginning of Stardust, he is a foolish, impetuous boy, willing to go to great lengths to woo the beautiful Victoria Forester. The fact that his first chapter is called "In Which Tristran Thorn Grows to Manhood and Makes a Rash Promise" is indicative of his overall arc in the book; being a typical boy, he lusts after Victoria, and desires her to the exclusion of all else. As a result, when he sees a fallen star land over the land of Faerie, he resolves to capture it and bring it to her. This is indicative of a decided amount of impetuousness, typical of a fairy-tale protagonist; as is apparent in the beginning, he comes from simple means (that he knows of), and is a very scrappy, bold youth. He has not learned temperance or patience, and recklessly wanders off in search of the fallen star.
The world in which Tristran inhabits is not one easily "grown up" from, in terms of fairy tale lands; the entirety of Stardust takes place in both the lands of Wall and Faerie. The land of Faerie is openly acknowledged by the inhabitants of Wall, making the land Tristran inhabits thoroughly magical. As a result, the use of (and belief in) magic and sorcery is not something that must be abandoned in favor of maturity; instead, Tristran must find his own courage and manhood while navigating this very world. Unlike Matilda's search for truth in the harsh world of 1950's Sydney, Tristran instead finds new things about himself, while still operating in a fantastical land.
Once Tristran finds the star, and sees that it is a beautiful woman named Yvaine, he is still undeterred. While he maintains a semblance of reservation regarding the prospect, seeing that the star is a living creature, he is committed to bringing it before the girl he loved. As time passes, however, and they go through more adventures together, he finds his priorities changing. "He could no longer reconcile his old idea of giving the star to Victoria Forester with his current notion that the star was not a thing to be passed from hand to hand, but a true person in all respects and no kind of a thing at all. And yet, Victoria Forester was the woman he loved"6. With this thought, he begins to abandon his own initial priorities and think of others - particularly Yvaine's welfare.
Both stories carry strong themes of growing up and maturation, lending their fairy-tale backgrounds an added air of sophistication and nuance. Gaiman's entire tale revolves around Tristran's ability to take responsibility for himself, and to look at the way his actions affect others. Matilda and the other children in The Red Shoe begin to learn more about the world in which they live, and find it to be much scarier than their fairy tale imaginations.
Tristran and Matilda alike have companions throughout their stories which symbolize their connection to the fairy-tale world. In Tristran's case, there is Yvaine, the fallen star that he enters the world of Faerie to capture for himself. Throughout the book, she is presented as an ethereal, kind and gentle creature; being a fallen star, she is immortal, and the very thing that all the varying forces in the book (the witch-queen, the sons of Stormhold) want for themselves. Matilda, on the other hand, has an imaginary friend, with whom she has fantastic adventures in her own fairytale land. Floreal, a character from a radio show that Matilda enjoys, joins her on her adventures through her real life. Instead of being a guardian angel type of character, he is extremely blunt, and tells her the harsh truth of things. These secondary characters both have an effect on the maturation of the two main characters; while Yvaine provides a magical MacGuffin to Tristran's adventures, she also helps him on the path to responsibility and maturity. Tristran's initial intentions for her are simply as a gift to his lady love, Victoria Forester; over the course of the book, the two fall for each other, and he becomes her protector rather than her captor.
The worlds of each respective book betray a different message from the author regarding maturing in or out of childlike imagination. Gaiman's world of Stardust is one of boundless imagination, where fallen stars take human shape, and people can find themselves to be half-Faerie royalty overnight. This is not a reality that is shirked, Gaiman remaining fully committed to the fairy tale. As a result, it is merely the characters within the fairy tale that need to grow up. In the case of Tristran, he learns to be selfless, respectful, and courageous, all while earning the love of Yvaine and abandoning the base, gift-contingent love of Victoria Forester.
In The Red Shoe, however, the fairy-tale world of Matilda collapses around her as she begins to experience the real effects of tragic events on her and her family. She and her sisters experience a depressed, suicidal father, the growing affair between their mother and uncle, and the growing threat of Soviet spies just down their street. Matilda and the other girls, as they mature, are thrust into a world of distrust and suspicion, as the Cold War rages on. In the wake of the Petrov Scandal, Matilda seems to try and disappear more and more into her fantasy land. Characters like Floreal attempt to wake her up from it, but she refuses. With his suggestion that there were spies next door, she simple thinks "Maybe I could be a spy," and turns it into another game she plays - another fairy tale7.
The importance of folk tales and fairy tales themselves are important within the context of both books. This is extremely evident in The Red Shoe, with Matilda's entire world revolving around either the recitation of fairy tales (like "The Red Shoe") or the creation of her own fairy tales (playing spy in light of the Petrov scandal happening next door). Dubosarsky employs internal focalisation in the narrative of her book - the narrator of the book knows just as much as Matilda or the other protagonists do; this allows the reader to see the world through Matilda's eyes, and get caught up in the majesty and innocence of her character. However, it also permits the reader to see beyond the limits of Matilda's 6 year old disposition and notice the true horrors that lie above her child's mind. In this way, Matilda has a lot of maturing to do throughout the events of the novel.
In the case of Stardust, the entire world is a fairy tale, with many different individual stories interweaved into one. In this way, the entire story is a metafictional tale of fairy tales in general; this is evidenced by the use of the name Faerie to describe the land of magical creatures. Tolkien once stated that fairy tales should not be tales about fairies, but tales of men in the land of Faerie, for which this book certainly qualifies8. The brave hero Tristran, the evil witch-queen, the boisterous air pirates, and more all seem to indicate a world filled with different imaginary creatures and happenings. The book itself even begins with a fairy tale - the tale of Tristran's father, Dunston, and his affair with Una, the faerie princess, resulting in the creation of Tristran. By making this magical tale the backstory of Tristran's half-Faerie upbringing, as well as the discovery he makes near the end of the book, Tristran's maturation and "growing up" is fully intertwined with the concept of the fairy tale. For him, becoming a man involves literally coming to terms with the "fairy tale" half of him, and becoming a more well-rounded human being.
Both books carry distinct messages about the importance of fairy tales as one matures. In The Red Shoes, fairy tales and imagination are used as a crutch to hide oneself from the harsh truths that surround a paranoid, depressed world. Matilda's use of stories and fairy tales lends a magnificence to the mundane that is often lost when growing up; therefore, Matilda prizes it as much as she can. Tristan also learns to embrace the fairytale within him, and learn a greater sense of wonder that breaks him out of his impetuous, shy personality. While both of these books have very different things to say about the role of fairy tales in 'growing up,' they both embrace the joy and excitement that fairy tales offer, regardless of the stage of life the protagonist is in.
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