Friday, March 23, 2012

FU Weekly: "Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children" Analyzed


Today, we are looking at folk- and fairytales, seeping into modern stories, voices from the old mixing with the new. Our guide is Issue 3 contributor and Pushcart nominee Samantha Kymmell-Harvey.


So, if you're looking for a good book...

File:I samma ögonblick var hon förvandlad till en underskön liten älva.jpgMiss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children: A Modern Folktale

Review and analysis by Samantha Kymmell-Harvey

Ransom Riggs’s "Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children" is one twisted bedtime story whose creepy vintage photos and cannibalistic monsters will haunt you long after you turn over the final page.

After Jake Portman’s gun-toting, paranoid grandpa is brutally killed, the young teen is plagued not only by nightmares of the monster he saw that night, but also by his grandpa’s last words: “Find the bird. In the loop. On the other side of the old man’s grave. September third, 1940” (p.33).
           
Despite his parents’ belief that it’s only senile babble, Jake obsesses over those words in an attempt to find closure for his grief. On his birthday, Jake discovers a letter stashed inside one of his grandpa’s books that finally unravels the true meaning of his final message. The fairytales he used to tell Jake of levitating girls, invisible boys, and the monsters who seek to slay them are no fairytales at all. They are very real, and without Jake’s help, his grandpa’s beloved sanctuary for peculiar children will be destroyed at the hands of the very creatures who murdered him.

Riggs has created a cast of endearing and captivating characters, each with his or her own unique contribution in the war against these creatures, the hollows. The plot is well-paced culminating in an exciting final showdown. Without revealing any spoilers here, I’d like to say how excited I am that the ending was left intriguingly open. I wonder what the next installment has in store for Miss Peregrine and all her peculiar children.

For me though, this story is at its heart a fairytale, every bit as dark as the ones the Brothers’ Grimm put on paper. And I suspect that this is what Riggs intended. He refers to fairytales at the very start of the novel when Jake proclaims of his grandpa’s tales, “I didn’t believe in his fairy stories anymore” (p. 16).

At first glance, "Miss Peregrine’s" seems a modern YA fantasy. Jake is a typical high schooler who works at his family’s drug store. His relationship with his father is strained as Jake tries to claim more independence in his own life decisions.

But elegantly woven between Jake’s “normal” life and his personal pilgrimage to discover his grandfather’s secret past, are the elements of classic Celtic folktales.

First, Miss Peregrine’s home is located on Cairnholm Island in Wales, which Grandpa Portman describes as “an enchanted place . . . designed to keep kids safe from monsters, on an island where the sun shined every day and nobody ever got sick or died” (p.9). This concept is a classic Otherworld-setting, perhaps inspired by the Irish Faerie land of Tír na nÓg, or “Land of Youth.1

Tír na nÓg is an island reachable only by magical means, whether by invitation from one of its supernatural inhabitants, or by a difficult quest over water. Once in the land, time stops. Those who live there enjoy an eternal youth, while time in the human world goes on.

Miss Alma Lefay Peregrine is the fearless leader of her own Tír na nÓg. Her full name is revealed early on to foreshadow her own magical abilities.“Lefay” comes from French “fée” meaning “fairy.” Her house is the sanctuary for many peculiar children, called so because they possess unique powers.

In Riggs’s novel, Miss Peregrine is no human, but an ymbryne whose ability is to manipulate time. They “create temporal loops in which peculiar folk can live indefinitely” (p.151). Miss Peregrine’s loop is September 3, 1940 in which the children's day comes to a dramatic close. German bombs fall harmlessly onto the house and in the morning, the loop re-sets. While back in the real world, when Jake finally discovers the house, it’s nothing but a shell.

This manipulation of time is a common theme in folktales. The Irish hero Oisín follows his fairy lover, Niamh, back to Tír na nÓg where he lives for a year. But homesickness prompts him to return to Ireland. Niamh warns him not to let his feet touch the ground, else he will rapidly age and die. When Oisín arrives home, he is shocked to discover that 300 years have passed since he left. He heeds Niamh’s warning until one day when he is knocked off of his magical horse and instantly crumbles to dust.²

Emma, one of Miss Peregrine’s wards, is invited to the human world by Jake to meet his father. Much to his dismay, she declines. Miss Peregrine reveals to Jake that “[t]hey cannot linger in your world, Mr. Portman, because in a short time they would grow old and die . . . If the children loiter too long on your side of the loop, all the many years from which they have abstained will descend upon them at once, in a matter of hours” (p. 206). So like Oisín, the children of Miss Peregrine’s must remain within her loop if they wish to keep their immortality.

Just as Tír na nÓg is surrounded by watery borders, Miss Peregrine’s loop is surrounded by a border as well. A border is an essential element in fairytales because there must be some sort of divide between the realm of humans and the realm of Faerie.

File:John Bauer -I julnatten.jpgIn this novel, that border is a bog. Riggs must know his folklore as well because he explains through his character, museum curator Martin Pagget, that “ . . . people believed that bogs -- and our bogs in particular -- were entrances to the world of the gods . . . it’s not quite water and it’s not quite land -- it’s an in-between place” (p.90). This “in between” place in folklore is referred to as a “liminal zone³” -- a zone where fairy activity is heightened because of its continually changing state, like a river or a bog.

The problem with the bog border in "Miss Peregrine’s," is that it has been discovered and infiltrated by the peculiars’ main two enemies: the wights and the hollowgasts.

The word wight may call to mind Tolkien’s “barrow-wight,” the malevolent spirit dwelling within his burial mound from which the hobbits must escape. But Riggs’s wight is nothing like that. In fact, it’s Riggs’s hollowgast that follows more in the tradition of the Norse barrow-wight, called a draugr. And given that Tolkien was very much inspired by the Norse and Icelandic sagas4, it would not be surprising that perhaps Riggs may have found inspiration here, too.

A draugr is a living corpse who can travel outside of his barrow and possesses an insatiable hunger, believing that by eating life, he can restore his own5. One famous account of a cannibalistic draugr is in the Icelandic Saga “Egil and Asmund.”

Aran and Asmund are two viking warriors who are very much brothers in bond. They make an oath that when one dies, the other should sit inside his burial mound for three days to keep watch. Aran dies and Asmund fulfills his promise. Into the mound, Asmund takes a hawk, a horse, and a hound. On each of the three nights, Aran’s corpse rises and devours each of the animals. On the final night, Asmund falls asleep, but is awakened when the corpse tears his ears off. The warrior slices the draugr’s head off before he, too, can be devoured6.

In the novel, Miss Peregrine’s brothers decide they want to test the limits of an ymbryne’s power and craft. They venture into an old loop in Siberia and the result is a massive explosion. The brothers emerge as hollowgasts. Miss Peregrine explains their name, “ . . . they reversed themselves to a time before even their souls had been conceived, which is why we call them hollowgasts -- because their hearts, their souls are empty” (p.256). Hollowgasts seem very much like the Icelandic draugr because they too must feed on life in order to gain it. Specifically, they need the flesh of peculiars, but they also feed on sheep and other human beings throughout the novel.

Once a hollowgast has devoured enough peculiars, it then becomes a wight, which Miss Peregrine describes as passable “for human, they live in servitude of their hollow brethren, acting as scouts and spies and procurers of flesh” (p.256). Their main attribute is that they lack pupils. If the eyes are the window to the soul, then this physical characteristic shows their lack of soul, just as Miss Peregrine says.

"Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children" is in fact, a classic Celtic fairytale dressed up and spun into a modern YA fantasy. It’s an old story for the new generation to ensure that



Notes:

1. Rolleston, T.W. Celtic Myths and Legends, 3rd ed. (New York: Dover, 1990) 272.
2. Rolleston, T.W. Celtic Myths and Legends, 3rd ed. (New York: Dover, 1990) 272-4.

3. Edward J. Cowen and Lizanne Henderson, Scottish Fairy Belief. (Lothian: Tuckwell, 2001) 39
4. Burns, Marjorie, “Tolkien Retells an Old Norse Legend,” Wall Street Journal 23 May 2009.
5. “Connections between Norse Draugar and Romanian Vampire Legends,” 2008, 16 March 2012 <http://
www.farseek.com/essays.draugar.htm"
6.  “The Walking Dead,” 16 March 2012. <http:www.vikinganswerlady.com/ghosts.shtml.


File:Riddaren rider, John Bauer 1914.jpg
Further Reading:



1. The Luminarium: A collection of Irish folk tales and mythology:
http://www.luminarium.org/mythology/ireland/
2. The National Museum of Wales: http://www.museumwales.ac.uk/
3. The Icelandic Saga Database: http://sagadb.org/
4. The Tolkien Society: http://www.tolkiensociety.org/
5. Celtic Creatures Primer: a series I’ve been running on my blog for the month of March: http://samanthakymmell-harvey.blogspot.com/




DSC00085.JPGAuthor Bio:
Samantha Kymmell-Harvey is a writer and teacher residing in Baltimore. She holds a Master's in French Medieval literature, specializing in folklore. Her fiction can be found in Fantastique Unfettered and Underneath the Juniper Tree, and is forthcoming in Lacuna Journal of Historical Fiction. Her non-fiction can be found in Enchanted Conversation magazine. Check out her blog at: http://samanthakymmell-harvey.blogspot.com/






Thank you, Samantha! Reader, we'll see you next week. Perhaps you'd like to check out our prize draw and auction in the meantime?


--AS

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Illustrations from www.oldbookart.com and www.commons.wikimedia.org.