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 Salt and Sweet Water Tongue: Writing the Sacred, Writing the Profane



Over the weekend, I read some of the more recent reviews of my Knight of Eldaran trilogy on Goodreads. More than other genres, fantasy has a bit of a marmite thing going on – you love it or you hate it; it’s difficult to be anywhere in between. Consequently, some reviews will be good, others not so encouraging. Whilst I was expecting this, what I was not expecting was specific criticism for use of profanity and graphic content.

Now, some context before I go further: I absolutely respect the opinions of those who find profanity, blasphemy, or sexual content in literature unpleasant or outright abhorrent, and the point of this post is not to ridicule or belittle those views. Indeed, I myself have a low tolerance of these things in what I watch, read – and even write. Many of those reviewers who have commented negatively on graphic content in ‘The Knight of Eldaran’ have been from North America, and it is true that what we in the UK consider ‘swearing’ seems to start from a slightly different baseline than our compatriots across the puddle. Even so, the comments I read got me thinking.

If you are someone who finds swearing uncomfortable, be aware that the following paragraphs will reproduce some of the langauge that has been criticised in the novels.

The Knight of Eldaran‘ is what I might call historical fantasy. It seeks, to put a Tolkienian term on it, to create an ‘inner consistency of reality’. That means that characters are going to make choices that we as readers aren’t comfortable with. As a writer, I genuinely struggled with whether or not to have characters use words like ‘bastard’ or ‘bloody’, because these are words that I would not use myself, and gratuitous swearing – so ubiqutous in so many parts of our culture – pains, irks and disgusts me. I considered coming up with some in-world equivalents, but in the end made the call to include this language.

Perhaps you’re reading this and wondering what objections readers could have to swearing. If they’re a parent, they may just want to guard their children from exposure to such language and concepts – and the argument ‘kids know far worse’ in no way invalidates parental desire to protect their children. Linguistic theory also clearly shows that we copy and emulate what we are exposed to and, whether for children or for ourselves, we may decide that we don’t want to use those kinds of words, and that therefore limiting our exposure to them is prudent.

For people of faith, purity of word can be a vital outward sign of their reverence for God – and so they eschew profanity. Indeed, for Christians, there is guidance in James to this effect, in James 3. Exhorting his readers to beware of their tongues, which can both praise God and curse their brothers, James exclaims: ‘Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring?’ (NIV James 3:11). The purpose of the striking imagery is clear: purity of language can be a signal of inward purity, and we should aim to be holy as our Father is holy. Indeed, given the Johanine declaration ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God’, human words – which are creative, just as that first Word – have a sacred quality that we should be in awe of. So to misuse words – or to use ‘evil’ words – is a bad idea. (What exactly constitutes good and evil words probably needs to wait for another time, and for those with more philosophical or theological gumption than myself!).

So, as a Christian… how do I justify the language that I use, when others consider some of it to fall in that ‘evil words’ category?

The profanity in my novels – which, to my mind, consists of the two words I’ve already mentioned, with the possible addition of ‘whore’ (which one reviewer also objected to) – is as far as swearing in my books goes. While it is language that I am uncomfortable with, it is infrequent and never used gratuitously. It always serves the purpose of building character – and it goes without saying that none of the characters who use it are framed as morally virtuous at the time that they do. In this way, the swearing in the novels demarks characters who are morally skewed: command over their language reflects their command over their moral compass.

Perhaps the most notable example comes part-way through ‘The Traitor’s Heir’, when Eamon (who is in the middle of what I call his ‘evil montage’) attacks Giles, furiously screaming “Bastard!” at him. There is no way that the reader is called on to applaud Eamon here, either in his action of his verbal expression of rage. Indeed, in the third novel, Eamon himself recognises his brokenness in language that would  be familiar to readers of James:

“You speak with a measured tongue.”

“A measured tongue? My tongue is a fountain that pours out saltwater one moment and fresh the next,” Eamon answered passionately. It had sworn him to the throned and to the King. What two things could be more different?

Ultimately, it could be argued that swearing in this fantasy trilogy serves to highlight the moral choices of its users.

Similarly, the sexual content of the novels – in this case, the extra-marital liaison between Eamon and Alessia (which is never described graphically or at length, but is certainly hinted at figuratively) – cannot be considered to be framed in a morally positive way. It is clear that both Eamon and Alessia are in some measure deceiving and abusing each other at first. While I do think that they come to genuine feelings for each other and, in the trilogy’s epilogue, a committed long-term relationship, it is not until they have learnt to respect each other and each other’s brokenness that their relationship becomes truly meaningful and mutually edifying.

I understand why some readers would have reservations about story-telling with swearing and sexual  content – especialy Christian readers coming to a trilogy by a Christian writer. I didn’t want to use either element gratuitously – and don’t feel that I did. I decided to walk a tricky line down the middle (and I’m open to the idea that I have stumbled en route). I’m sure I’m not the only writer – whether of faith or secular – who has grappled with the same decision.

So why did I take the risk? Because I didn’t want readers to reject the novels’ heart  – which is a story about the complex moral maze that we all navigate, and the way that we can be sustained in it by grace and redemption, whatever we have said or done, as long as we accept the call on our lives and dedicate ourselves to following it as truly as we can – on a technicality. Because if God is giving you a nudge to say that he’s there, it’s far easier, and more comfortable, to nit-pick your way out than to listen.

I’m not claiming, by the way, that my novels masterfully proclaim the great truths of eternity. But I will tell you this: I’m a great proponent of what Tolkien calls eucatastrophe (indeed, I’m working on a book of critical essays on it right now, and it is my favourite word to play in Hangman). Eucatastrophe essentially posits that stories in general – and fantasy in particular – can serve as startlingly clear connections to higher truths. Being, like Tolkien, a Christian and writer of fantasy, it is my hope that any such revelatory moments that come from reading my work point in the same direction.

Comments, thoughts, or quibbles? Are you a writer, of faith or none at all, who has had similar choices to make? Leave a comment or get in touch!

This post is also published on I’m experimenting with posting my blog thoughts in both places!


I’ve always written the way that I read – fast, almost breathlessly. I read the whole of ‘Paradise Lost’ in an afternoon. When I read articles online with others, I often hum a tune to myself while I wait for them to catch up.

My writing is – or has been – by and large, the same. The whole of my fantasy trilogy, ‘The Knight of Eldaran’, was written at high speed; I was capable of getting down several thousand words in half an hour, and of polishing off several chapters over a weekend. (These ‘chapters’ were often 10,000 words or more long!). This speed has been a hallmark of my academic and writing career, and a genuine boon.

But something has shifted. It perhaps began when, in my capacity as a teacher, I organised several outings to the Arvon Foundation for my creative writing group. In these intense weeks away – often in places with no internet and very limited phone reception – workshops with professional writers and poets enforced a retreat from the speed at which I am used to living – and writing. I relearned how to lavish attention on a handful of sentences. And then promptly forgot it.

Although I have spent a lot of time editing both ‘The Knight of Eldaran’ and ‘Out of the Darkest Place’ (which I co-authored with Peter Gladwin) over the last few years, time to actually write creatively, freshly, has not existed. So when I sat down to begin work on a new novel yesterday evening, it was a thrill to feel that flush of excitement.

The creative part of writing is rather like the emotional whirlwind of falling in love – there is newness, anticipation, sparks fly (while editing is like the commitment it takes to keep falling in love throughout your marriage). You can’t wait to get back to that story, and perhaps it is that adrenaline that makes you write so fast. And, last night, I was expecting to write fast.

I didn’t. In fact – meaning no disrespect to them – some of my weakest students could have written more in the hour and a half that I wrote last night than I did. That I was typing one-handed whilst holding my nursing/sleeping/nursing again seven-month old was actually by-the-by. I was slow-writing, taking the time to weigh and consider the words, structures, images, pauses. Taking time, rather like one would take time to enjoy a glass of fortified wine. Enjoying the nuances and flavours, having the opportunity to really savour them.

Being one-handed certainly impacted my speed, but in the end, I was proud of those slow-written words (about 346 of them). When one has young children, slow anything is a delight. And it struck me that, just as fortified wine is complex and concentrated so, too, is the slow-written word.

My decade-younger self would probably turn up her nose at how little I wrote last night. But older, wiser me will relish it – and hope for much more slow-writing time to come, even if it comes slowly.

Like my writing? Check out my sister site 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.

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 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.