Teen Lit Pre-Potter

For some reason, when I was at the used bookstore at Halloween, I had an overwhelming urge to re-read one of my favorite trilogies from Junior High. So I tracked down R.L. Stine’s Fear Street Saga trilogy. They only had the first book at the time, The Betrayal, so I took that one home. It’s set in Colonial New England and is about an ongoing family battle between the Goode family and the Fier (Fear, get it?) family. Anyway, what really stood out for me was the difference between this series and many of the ones written post-Potter. So I got to thinking about those books I read when I was in Junior High – the Babysitters Club, R.L. Stine, Christopher Pike (though I preferred R.L.), some Mercedes Lackey and the occasional Stephen King and Anne Rice, but of course, those aren’t considered teen lit. I’m not sure what else I read. But all of those books are really silly. True, the Fear Street Saga is well written and descriptive, but it’ is only 161 pages. Tiny pages. Small potatoes compared to the epics that are being published these days.

I’m curious why the change. I’ve read that publishers really just underestimated the attention spans of young readers, but I suspect that it’s more than that. I suspect it has something to do with authors finally writing something interesting, books relevant to the actual teenage experience, not the idealized fiction of John whatshisface movies. But, here’s the rub: they accomplish this without directly addressing these issues. The fictionalized realms and heroic journeys are exactly what the young reader needs. Not further reminders that being a teenager really sucks.

What is additionally interesting is how attractive these stories are to older readers. I’ve been suspecting that for awhile, American society is prolonging adolescence intentionally because something isn’t being fulfilled during the usual time. I’m not sure exactly what that something is. It’s not enough to say that we are a society without cultural mythologies and rites of passage. I think there’s something actually not fulfilling. I don’t think that this can be easily blamed on our social materialism, or on the failings of our educational program, or on various diseases and such. Maybe the problem is inherent in just being American. Maybe the problem is our culture and the cultural psychology. Maybe because the country was founded on ideals, and ideals built upon ideals, and Xerox copies of ideals drastically faded from the originals.

I’m not sure what happens next, but I am certain that we can’t keep up the current M.O. As a culture, it is making us cranky, aggressive and rude. And suppressing it with a lolly doesn’t seem to be working.


Using the Mask to Confront the Shadow: A Look at MirrorMask

MirrorMask, a story by Neil Gaiman and film directed in 2005 by Dave McKean, is a graphic fairytale of how a young girl, Helena, is forced to cope with her mother’s illness, which she does by retreating into her world of fantasy. One night, she wanders through a door and is stuck in a world where everyone believes she is the daughter of the Black Queen and responsible for the White Queen’s illness. When given the opportunity to glimpse into her own world through windows, she sees this Princess, named Anti-Helena in the credits, destroying her world. These glimpses help Helena realize many things about herself. In order to return home,Helena must face her shadow by finding the MirrorMask and facing the Princess with it. This raises the question of why one would wear a mask, specifically a mirrored mask, to confront the shadow. This film demonstrates that the mirrored mask, literally and figuratively, acts as a portal between the conscious and unconscious and as a tool for owning the shadow.

The shadow refers to aspects of oneself that are hidden in the unconscious during the course of persona development. On occasion, these aspects can boil to the surface and cause a temporary uncharacteristic outburst, or can cause long term personality shifts. According to Carl Jung, the shadow is a “moral problem that challenges the whole ego-personality, for no one can become conscious of the shadow without considerable moral effort. To become conscous of it involves recognizing dark aspects of the personality as pruent and real” (Jung 8). The contrast between Helena and the Princess illustrates this stark contrast: for every aspect of Helena that is light, it is dark within the Princess. Helena hones her creativity through art, whereas the Princess is destructive. The film highlights the relationship between the conscious and the shadow by emphasizing the striking ressemblance between Helena and the Princess: “Yes, you look like her, but you’re not her are you?” asks the White Queen’s Minister. Helena’s moral challenge is one we all face in our lives, that of owning the shadow and being conscious of how it affects decisions and relations between people. Before Helena enters her shadow world, she argues with her mother, who falls ill with an uncertain outcome. She blames herself for her mother’s illness, having allowed her shadow to temporarily control the situation.


The processes of “owning the shadow” and not allowing it to get out of control involves recognizing and honoring it. The confrontation between the conscious and the shadow is not a battle between hero and boon guardian, though it can manifest as such, but rather more of a truce. The conscious agrees to honor the shadow, and the shadow promises to behave itself. In the coming-of-age story, the hero does not fully defeat the shadow figure, but does come to an understanding.


Helena’s journey through her shadow world, which she created in her drawings and hung on her bedroom wall, forces her to confront the world she not only created in her drawings, but also within her unconscious. This world consists of neighboring Light & Dark kingdoms. The mythology within this world talks of a young girl who sat down one day and began drawing. When she ran out of room, she flipped the paper over and continued on the other side, thus creating the two kingdoms. Helena’s mission is to restore peace between the two kingdoms by finding the charm that will awaken the White Queen (her manifest desire to cure her mother). The Kingdom of Light knows that Princess Anti-Helena came for a visit and then the queen fell ill (her unconscious self-blame for her mother’s illness). The Kingdom of Dark accusses the Light of kidnapping. The Charm, as Helena discovers, is the MirrorMask, and by finding the mask she an awaken the queen, restore the delicate balance between the two worlds, and go home.

In stories and in mythic ritual, masks are often used to alter the appearance of an individual, either for a disguise or in imitation of a specific figure. In either case, this represents a supression of the individual ego in favor of an adopted persona. Masks help shield one’s identity, temporarily pushing traits below the surface. Whether the mask is temporary, permanent, or permanent but constantly changing, it provides a metaphor for the process of individuation as one pursues one’s own hero’s journey.

Masks play a large role in Helena’s life. Her father runs a circus, and both she and her mother perform alongside clowns, acrobats, and other performers. Helena’s teenage crisis extends from her desire to have a “real life,” meaning one in which she is valued for herself not valued as a circus performer, a stable life with friends with real faces. When she enters her shadow world, she finds that she is the odd one for not wearing a mask. Her friend, Valentine, criticizes her for not having a proper face, and the White Queen’s guards comment upon her changeable expression as they carry her to the palace. Valantine asks, “How do you know if you’re happy or sad without a mask?” Although masks are commonly used to hide one’s feelings, they become the means to understanding expression within Helena’s shadow world. This characterizes not only the opposite nature of the shadow world, but also the importance of masks in Helena’s psyche. Her life is marked by masks, always having to put on an alternate face for circus goers.


Because masks act as the keys to true expression between this world, a mirrored mask melds the expressions of both the mask’s wearer and of the outside person facing the mask, bringing them into each other. The MirrorMask also acts as a portal between the shadow and the conscious worlds. Its reflective properties force the shadow and the ego to look upon each other, forcing them to unite, before crossing between boundaries. When the ego wears the MirrorMask, the shadow is kept within the shadow world, but the opposite is true when the shadow wears the mask, allowing it to enter the conscious realm. Allowing the shadow to gain control, as Anti-Helena did, can lead to dischord in the consciousness and imbalance in the unconsciousness. Such dissonance distracts the hero, ourselves, from the archetypal journey, and one will have to spend time cleaning up the mess, in addition to atoning for mistakes.

A film like MirrorMask serves as a reminder that one’s worst enemy is often within oneself, and that Self must be confronted at some point during life’s journey. This does not mean that Helena has conquored all of her dragons and has become unified with the Self, but she at least now possesses an awareness. This insight gives one the ability to navigate the remaining mysteries of the unconscious. The journey is never complete, especially not after one task, but every success adds experience and wisdom to interpreting one’s life.

Works cited:

Jung, Carl Gustav. “The Shadow.” Trans. R.F.C. Hull. The Collected Works of C.G. Jung. Vol. 9, part 2. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1959.

MirrorMask. Dir. Dave McKean. Perf. Stephanie Leonidas, Jason Barry, Rob Brydon. Jim Henson Productions, 2005.

On Religious Education

Every semester, I dread the religion unit for a variety of reasons, the main one being that it is so difficult to generate good, quality discussion from my students. Most of them were either raised in a Christian home, are still practicing Christians, and/or are self-declared atheists, who, regardless of actual religious affiliation, have been raised in a social paradigm that is fundamentally Christian: our educational system, our government’s relationship to religion, our national holidays. It’s difficult to transcend this cultural influence because it operates on the unconscious level. I have found, probably in large part because of this unconscious Christianity, that many of my students struggle to write about any religion objectively and academically. Those that are most successful are those who write outside their own faith. Those that write within their own… Well, there are some better than others.

I started off this semester’s unit with a conversation about biases, to lay it all out on the table, then spent the rest of the unit covering the stories – myths – of the major religions and some of their most prominent themes. Personally, I love exploring religion as mythology and vice versa, but I find it frustrating that I have to fight the uphill battle of getting around terminology. Joseph Campbell said in one of my most favorite quotes ever, “Mythology is other people’s religion. Religion is a misunderstanding of mythology.”

That said, I propose an approach to religious education that teaches it as mythology, with emphasis on the stories and arts rather than on doctrine or rote memorization of various passages. Such memorization doesn’t mean automatic education. In fact, I confess, for all the Sundays I spent at church, I have yet to be able to recite the Nicene Creed, but ask me to explore the metaphor behind the life of Jesus, I can be coherent and possibly enlightening.

In order for such a method to work, the terms have to come into alignment. Mythology isn’t a lie, and Religion isn’t an organization bent on muddling matters. And also, getting out of the habit of describing everything in terms of absolutes.

Is Civility Dead?

I caught a piece of that show, Today, which is on a station I don’t normally watch, and they were running a segment about civility versus rudeness. Today’s installment focuses on the use of technology and how it helps disassociate people from each other, and suggests that this issue compounded with social tensions – especially concerning the economy – is to blame for the endemic rudeness and aggressiveness running throughout American culture. In my own little microcosm, I see many of the same symptoms: drivers who feel they are entitled to the entire road at the expense of safety, students who text during class, students who yell at me for not giving them exceptions to the rule, conservatives who want to boycott necessary taxes for community building… That’s only the Short List.

My gut impulse is to suggest that the best way to combat rudeness is through the Humanities, since obviously parental role models aren’t working (in fact, they simply fuel the fire). Through the Humanities, we can be reminded what it means to be HUMAN, in direct contrast to the science and technological emphasis in modern education. The real sad part is that many schools are killing the Humanities and those that still have a Humanities program stop with Intro, which is painfully just one step away from art history, and really don’t get the point across. (As a side note, I’m now contemplating semester themes to highlight various human issues, but since that will require a major curriculum change, that might be awhile in the works.)

But then I think about it a little further. Aggressiveness is the realm of Ares, technology the realm of Hermes, drunken excess or other substance use to combat the daily tensions of everyday life the ream of Dionysus, and the power games belong to Zeus. I think I now get the whole Goddess movement. I don’t support the Goddess movement as a rebellion against the patriarchal norm, but I do see a lack of female influence in the cultural psyche. Where is Demeter and her connection to our food source? Where is Aphrodite – where is beautiful Aphrodite, I should say. We live under the shadow of Dark Aphrodite, the direct result of the unhealthy relationships Americans have to sex. Hera seems to be on permanent vacation, and Athena isn’t trying hard enough.

I’m not the biggest fan of archetypal psychology, especially when it holds onto the Greco-Roman paradigm, but I’m now curious what archetypes we can introduce back into our society that will finally get the point across on a universal level. Harry Potter and some of my other favorites only hit a portion of the population. The meaning of Disney characters gets lost in the commercialism and analysis falls on deaf ears. We need balanced archetypes. Not just a Jesus, but a Mary Magdalene– maybe this is why she has gained new popularity in recent years – the psyche needs her to balance.

Over the last few weeks, we’ve explored Buddhism briefly in my classes. To many of my students, the concepts of the Middle Way and Compassion make perfect sense, even though they have no inclination to become practicing Buddhists (which I wholly support, since I think it involves a major lifestyle change that has to be right for the Western individual because it involves a sort of reprogramming of our priorities).

It all goes back to Balance. I think of the Sacred Cow of the Kali Yuga standing on one foot, trying very hard to not topple over. The paradigm shift is coming around the mountain, here she comes…