The Quest for Identity: Overthinking ‘Stick Man’


One of the joys of parenthood is coming back into contact with children’s books, and we are slowly building a collection of stories by Julia Donaldson. Having now devoured the Gruffalo (upon which I have already written a post, viewable here) umpteen times, we are just now in a ‘Stick Man’ phase. And it’s got me thinking about something which really does concern everyone: our pursuit of our own identity.

Of course, the quest for identity – and, often, for adulthood – is one of the chief concerns of children’s stories in every medium. But what is interesting about Stick Man is that it presents us with what is arguably the flip-side of this quest: the trouble to maintain that identity in the face of a world which looks at us through a million different lenses.

If you’re not familiar with the story, it is actually very simple: Stick Man lives with his wife and children in a tree. On going for a jog one day, he is separated from his family and drawn progressively further and further from home by a variety of obstacles, ranging from dogs to children, to swans, the ocean, and even a distressingly close encounter with a fireplace.

At the opening to the story, Stick Man is clearly established as settled and at one with himself and his family; the ‘family tree’ is a powerful emblem of his rootedness in himself, his family and, by inference, his history. He has safely made the rocky transition into adulthood and emerged with a clear sense of himself: ‘I’m Stick Man, I’m Stick Man, I’m Stick Man – that’s me!’. The last thing he is expecting on his morning jog is peril to his physical self and identity.

At each escalating encounter, Donaldson’s verse employs the refrain: ‘Stick Man, oh Stick Man, beware of the…!’. The repetition – strengthened by the tight verse of the poem – highlights something that adolescents and adults know only too well – the world attacks who we are, sometimes indiscriminately, and often from many different angles. Stick Man disentangles himself from each situation with the defiant proclamation ‘I’m Stick Man’. It is his self-assertion that allows him to remove himself from the obstacles that threaten him and continue on his quest for home – a space which is arguably the symbolic location of his identity.

Perhaps the most evident example of the barrage of life against identity in this story is the couple of stanzas focused entirely on Stick Man’s negating of the labels that others have placed on him: ‘I’m not a bat, or a bow, or a boomerang… No, I’m Stick Man… And I long to get back to the family tree.’ In each case, others are attempting to force him into a role that, while he may externally look suited to it, it reduces him to the level of a tool or implement and does not respect his intrinsic self. He has to fight – and fight hard – to reject those labels, and to remind himself that he is right to do so. But, as the listing of roles in this section shows, the sheer number of attacks on identity can wear you down.

Stranded and lost in the snow, Donaldson’s paints a heartbreaking picture of near defeat partway through the poem, where we read: ‘Stick Man is lonely. Stick Man is lost… Stick Man is woozy. His eyes start to close…’. Note how the syllables here are short, and the sentences, too, to convey the withering of the hero’s resolve to preserve his true self against a world that has caged him in (a feeling built, again, by the closeness of those short sentences). It is a sense compounded by the gathering of open vowel sounds of ‘lonely’, ‘lost’ and ‘woozy’ which, in a verse-trick reminiscent of Milton’s Paradise Lost, conveys the yawning emptiness occassioned by loss of self. It is no accident that it is at this point that Stick Man falls unconscious and nearly becomes firewood. Surrender in this quest will result in the complete destruction of the self.

Look closely at what it is that saves him: the sound of Father Christmas, stuck in the chimney, which wakes him before he is reduced to kindling. Despite his own near-hopeless situation, Stick Man still has enough of himself left to show compassion to a ‘stuck man’, and it is this act of kindness which will ultimately reunite him with his family.

There is a subtle message, here; if we take Father Christmas as powerfully emblematic of our own childhood selves, then Donaldson seems to suggest that it is through compassion on that self that we are reconnected to the fullness of our our adult selves. In short, we have to re-embrace our inner child – with care and compassion – to find again the capacity to actualise our identity. It is only when he has done this by helping Father Christmas that Stick Man is once again able to joyfully proclaim: ‘I’m Stick Man – that’s me.’

The rewards of being at peace and joyfully proclamative of our identities are not merely selfish – being restored to himself also allows Stick Man to be restored to his proper place in his home and family. Donaldson shows us that knowing ourselves also allows us to know and be known in a fulfilling way by those around us.

Enjoyed this post? Check out ‘The Deep, Dark Wood: Overthinking ‘The Gruffalo‘.

The Deep Dark Wood: Overthinking ‘The Gruffalo’

Despite being Italian, my family has always, thanks to one Tanta Johanna, celebrated the day of Saint Nicolas on the 6th of December as done in Germany. When I was young, this was the day that advent calendars, Christmas decorations and chocolate were delivered, a kind of pre-Christmas warmup for the big day itself.

This is a tradition I am maintaining now that I have children of my own, but they are so young that I didn’t want edible treats to be the focus. Instead, I bought them a new book each and, while my seven-month old has been slapping her way through ‘That’s Not My Fox’, for my nearly three-year-old son, I bought a copy of Julia Donaldson’s ‘The Gruffalo’.

I don’t think there can be many people in the UK who haven’t heard of the Gruffalo but, I confess, I had never read the story and knew nothing about it. So it was with real interest that I sat with my children to listen to my husband reading it for the first time. And, as a literature student, there were a number of things about it that really struck me.

The story follows a mouse through a wood, where he encounters three animals – a fox, an owl and a snake. In western folklore and fairytale, each of these creatures has traditional significances: in its size and demeanour, the mouse represents a kind of innocence and weakness which also, in the story, allows it to become a kind of Everyman. Young readers identify with a creature that is little and might encounter danger, which this mouse does.

Mouse’s foes here are traditional figures of the cunning and ruthless (embodied by fox), the otherworldly (in the owl, long an emblem of omen as well as wisdom) and the duplicitous (in the snake). Indeed, the ‘deep, dark wood’ itself has Dantean resonance, recalling the poet’s wandering in despair, and migh also, if we put on the hat of Freudian theory, be emblematic of the dark world of the subconscious and unconscious. In which case, could fox, owl and snake be allegorical symbols for sins or unspoken desires?

You might think this is getting a bit heavy, but don’t worry; Donaldson’s remedy to what could actually be quite frightening is inventive rhyming that skilfully mixes the key ingredients of balladic, oral, tradition – repetition, a strong rhyme scheme, alliteration, especially in emphatic positions, such as ‘scrambled snake’ – with vocabulary that undercuts frightening elements by contrasting the fairytale set up with quotidian elements like ‘ice cream’. These tangible, everyday items, named by the mouse, help a child feel like the protagonist is safe and in control, and make any threat in the story manageable.

Mouse himself showcases a very western virtue; in the same vein as Homer’s wily Odysseus, Mouse averts becoming dinner for any of the larger, threatening creatures through use of his wit. Readers delight in this, and the wit is compounded by Donaldson’s verse, which always gives the metrical and linguistic punchlines to Mouse, while the villains are contained by repetition. Mouse frightens the creatures away with talk of a Gruffalo, which he knows does not exist.

Except, of course, that it does – exactly as he has described it. So Mouse uses his wit again, explaining to the hungry Gruffalo that as he (Mouse) is the most frightening thing in the forest (as evidenced when fox, snake and owl flee from him), Gruffalo should leave him alone. Gruffalo duly does so, leaving mouse to enjoy his nut in peace.

As well as the oral elements that I mentioned earlier, Donaldson employs a triadic structure in the three encounters, conforming to rhetorical and narrative traditions, and frames the poem in a kind of ‘there and back’ frame, which not only heightens predictability and enjoyability for children but also allows for a strong resolution when Mouse escapes the cycle and gets his reward. Indeed, the final page uses a fraction of the lines used in every other verse, giving us a powerful sense of Mouse’s victory.

Overthinking it? Totally. But there is no reason why children’s literature should not be analysed in as much detail as any other. Good storytelling, after all, begins in the nursery; it is there that our imaginations are awakened.

‘The Gruffalo’ is just such storytelling: it allows little ones to approach some genuinely frightening ideas in a controlled situation, making it safe enough to explore intellectually, and thus perhaps better arming them for some of the trials of real life. Very Bettelheim. At the same time, Donaldson’s verse is skilfully wrought to introduce some of the most cherished tools in a literary workbench. And, of course, ‘The Gruffalo’ is gorgeously illustrated, too.

Hats off to Donaldson and Scheffler; this story genuinely deserves its accolades!

Like my writing? Check out my sister site www.annathayer.wordpress.com to learn about my award-winning fantasy trilogy, ‘The Knight of Eldaran‘, and my work on Tolkien and Lewis. Yes, you got me: I’m a geek.