Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman

Entry for 14 March 2009:

When my brother Willy and I were kids, our dad read The Jungle Book aloud to us, not the cute Disney version, but Rudyard Kipling’s original, a darker coming of age story about a feral child raised by wolves. The book unfolded, over time, in a series of episodes, punctuated by other stories, including most memorably Riki-tiki-tavi, the brave mongoose, and the white seal, who lived in a secret island in the Northern Pacific. All the stories in the Jungle Book’s two volumes involved outsiders finding their way in a hostile world, with the support of unexpected others. But it was the extended story arc of the Mowgli stories that carried the most weight. For some reason, I think it was the fact that we’d somehow misplaced volume 2, I never got around to reading these innocent/wise stories to my own kids, an omission that I still regret.

So when Neil Gaiman produced his own modern version of the classic Kipling story last year, I pricked up my ears and instead of waiting for it to come out in paperback, I sprang for the hardback version. And when I finished it, regretful that there wasn't more, I passed it on to Diane, who having read the first couple of chapters, wanted to know why I had recommended it. After all, an updated version of a classic 19th century animal adventure story, played as contemporary urban horror set in an abandoned graveyard, seems a highly unlikely premise for a modern young adult classic, which has just won the highest prize in American children’s literature, the Newberry Award.

So what is it that I so savoured in The Graveyard Book? Well, of course there is the sheer audacity of the concept, and the pleasure following the changes that Gaiman (author of the Sandman series of graphic novels, Coraline, and so on) has rung on Kipling’s original. Thus the wolf pack becomes the ghosts who inhabit the graveyard; Sheer Khan, the rogue tiger, becomes the killer Jack Frost; Bagheera, the black leopard and Mowgli’s protector and mentor, becomes Silas, a standard of horror fiction inverted into a kind of guardian angel; the apes become ghouls; and so on.

The hero, christened Nobody Owens by his ghost parents, features in a series of episodic narratives, spaced two years apart, as we watch him grow from 2 to 16. And although the genre is ostensibly horror, with all the trappings, and although there is a nicely done, terrifying climax to it all, the overall tone is one of innocence, by turns vulnerable, sweet, tender, naïve, wide-eyed, confused, and ultimately determined.

I think that the actual power of the book, however, is in its universality: It doesn’t matter whether you are being raised by wolves or ghosts or your own parents, life is filled with certain harsh realities: life and death, actions and consequences, facing the mystery of our origins (and all origins are mysterious no matter how well documented), figuring out who we are and how we will define ourselves for ourselves and for the world, separation and loss, and leaving those we love behind. All of us are constantly surrounded by our animal natures, our evolutionary heritage, represented by the Jungle; and in the same way, we are surrounded and live in the midst of the ghosts of those who have gone before us, the monsters of our human insecurity, selfishness and cruelty. Kipling uses Nature as a screen on which to project these archetypal aspects of what it means to be human; Gaiman uses the Supernatural for exactly the same purpose. Gaiman’s ghosts come from many different centuries, from Roman to Victorian times, providing an apt metaphor for the rich layering of history that we live within, and that lives within us, in our buildings, our laws, our belief systems and our language. These express themselves as the cultural/human universals, Jung’s archetypes, imprinted in us via the existential givens of our unfolding lives.

What I’d like to do now is to go back and read again, after the intervening 50 years, Kipling’s original Jungle Book stories.

1 comment:

Becky said...

The day after I heard the Newberry winner announced, I got this book from the public library and read it compulsively until I finished it. Gaiman has a lovely, lyrical style despite the dark subject.

About three-quarters of the way through, I finally recognized the parallels with the Harry Potter series (a young boy raised in a difficult setting comes of age and faces the killer of his family).

Now I want to read "Coraline".