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Elizabeth Hale: Mysteries, Marvels, and Margaret Mahy

In July 2012, with the death of Margaret Mahy, New Zealand lost one of its most successful, best-loved, and most distinctive authors of children’s literature. For over forty years, from her Canterbury base, Mahy had produced a prolific output of children’s stories, readers, poems, picture books, novels, young adult novels, non-fiction, and television, to say nothing of her public lectures and reflective critical writing. She was internationally recognized, both through her publications (translated into 15 languages) and through international literary awards in the field of children’s literature, such as the Carnegie Medal and the Hans Christian Andersen Award.

I am going to discuss some of the themes and ideas that make Margaret Mahy’s work so entertaining and distinctive—the relish in language and wordplay, the intense interest in the nature of creativity, and the enjoyment and understanding of predictable, unpredictable, and occasionally dangerous behaviour—but never so dangerous as to be beyond control. I’m going to talk about that last set of ideas—the relation between security and danger, which I think is a key element in her work.

Margaret Mahy was born in 1936 in Whakatane. She was the eldest of five children. Her father was a ‘bridge builder’ and her mother was a teacher before her marriage. According to Mahy, her father told magnificent stories and the children were encouraged to chip in. Mahy was, like many brilliant adults, considered a slow learner at school, perhaps because her mind was so full of words and thoughts and ideas that, by her own admission, she did not know how to handle. But from an early age she wrote stories, including her first publication, in the Bay of Plenty Beacon Junior Digest Competition, which appeared when she was seven.

After high school, she went to the then University of New Zealand, starting at the Auckland campus, and moving to Canterbury, where she graduated in 1955 with a BA. She then trained as a librarian at the New Zealand Library School in Wellington. On graduation, she worked in Petone, before moving to Governor’s Bay in 1965, near Christchurch, where she raised her two daughters as a solo parent, and where she lived for the rest of her life. First, she worked for the School Library Service, famously driving a book bus around the back blocks of Canterbury; then she was appointed Children’s Librarian at the Canterbury Public Library. She resigned in 1981 to write full time.

The first venue for her stories was the New Zealand School Journal, well-known for fostering talent among writers and artists. Her first story published there was called ‘The Little Witch.’ But it was ‘A Lion in the Meadow’ that caught the eye of an American editor and resulted in Franklin Watts publishing five of her stories in picture-book formats in 1969, launching her international career. That she was able to give up her day job in 1981 speaks to the success of her work, and also to her dedication to her profession as a writer.

Margaret Mahy’s literary output was voluminous, incorporating over 120 separate titles and several genres, including stories, picture books, chapter books, novels, plays, and non-fiction. Broadly speaking, her output can be characterized across the decades—in the 70s she gained a reputation as a writer of comic stories with a bite. For example, The Man Whose Mother Was a Pirate (1972); The Boy Who Was Followed Home (1973); and Nonstop Nonsense (1979). These are largely stories or collections of stories, though by the end of the decade the stories were growing in length. Throughout them is a strong sense of fun, an enjoyment of the sound, shape, and meaning of words, and relish in the magic and danger that come from breaking the rules (but only rules that deserve to be broken), as well as a negotiation between chaos and order that is characteristic of her work.

Gradually Mahy developed her stories into longer and longer pieces—chapter books for pre-teen readers, such as The Great Piratical Rumbustification (1978) and The Birthday Burgler, and A Very Wicked Headmistress (1984). And then come the 80s, dominated by the huge outpouring of novels for adolescents—known these days as Young Adult, or YA fiction—perhaps the work that she is best known for. These are books such as The Haunting (1982); The Changeover (1984); The Catalogue of the Universe (1985); The Tricksters (1986): and Memory (1987).

These novels received critical acclaim and were translated into many languages. In some respects they represent Mahy at the height of her writing powers. Some are realist, some are fantasy—all investigate the nature of growing up, of identity, of family, and of what to do with one’s powers and responsibilities. Like her children’s work, there is a sense of intellectual engagement with ideas about the wild—the ‘roar that lies the other side of silence’ to quote George Eliot. And she continued investigating those themes in the 1990s and early 2000s, with works such as Dangerous Spaces (1991), The Other Side of Silence (1995), Alchemy (2002), Kaitangata Twitch (2005), and others.

And throughout it all, she kept up an indefatigable series of visits to schools and libraries, reading her work—this in the days before the more professionalized organization of such things. I am sure her visits inspired a lot of children with the idea of the power of words—writing them or reading them—and with the power and value of living a creative life.

Indeed, ideas about power and creativity run through most of Margaret Mahy’s work. In formulating the topic and title for this talk, I was searching for words that I felt characterised this preoccupation—and the words that came up were the following—danger, security, magic, mystery, and marvels. What I’m going to do now is investigate the way that Mahy’s work engages with these ideas, using the idea of danger as the focus.

Margaret Mahy’s first major picture book, A Lion in the Meadow, has at its core a meditation on the relationship between danger, storytelling, truth and fiction. In it, a little boy tells his mother that there is a ‘lion in the meadow’ that he is afraid of. Thinking he is only pretending, the mother makes up a creature of her own. She hands him a matchbox, telling him that in the matchbox is a tiny dragon. If he releases it, it will grow in size and chase the lion away. This the boy does—and there is a dragon inside, who takes over the meadow. The lion runs away, into the house, where he tells the boy that he should have left him alone, saying: ‘I only eat apples.’ In turn, the boy admonishes the mother—who confesses that she hadn’t realized there actually was a dragon in the matchbox. The story concludes with the dragon in possession of the meadow, and the lion incorporated into the family routine.

In this story, we see some characteristic Mahyian concerns in operation. The lion is a perceived danger—his wildness frightens the boy, who seeks advice and protection from his mother. Of course, the lion turns out to be benign—a comedy storybook lion who only eats apples, while the dragon turns out (as far as the story tells) to be more dangerous—or at least more terrifying. When the mother confesses her astonishment : ‘But there wasn’t a real dragon. It was just a story I made up,’ the little boy admonishes her: ‘You should have looked inside,’ while the lion comments, ‘That is how it is. Some stories are true and some aren’t . . .’ The relationship between truth and fiction is a preoccupying concern in Mahy’s work—the power of truth vs the power of lies—here we have a möbius strip of paradoxical statements—the boy is telling the truth about the lion, but the lion defangs itself with its love of apples; the mother is, she thinks, telling a story about the dragon, but it turns out to be truer than she bargained for. Benign wildness enters the house, while unaccountable and astonishing wildness and danger (generated within the house as an adult response to perceived child fantasy) are permitted to roam outside in the meadow.

Danger, wildness, security, imagination, fantasy, and truth. What makes Mahy a distinctive writer is the care with which she investigates different aspects of danger for young readers. There are many types of dangers in her work: there are actual and perceived dangers, there are social dangers, physical dangers, and there are emotional dangers. It might sound like a truism—after all, danger of some kind is integral to most plots—the danger of not getting what you want, or of losing something that is valuable to you or those you love, broadly speaking, runs through most narratives. But Mahy’s dangers are connected with the craft and identity of writing—in her works, and in her reflections on her work.

Here is a real life example of Mahy facing danger herself, with her daughters. Mahy lived, as you know, in Governor’s Bay—not quite the back of beyond, but in the seventies it was isolated and an arduous (though spectacular) drive along the summit road over the Port Hills onto the peninsula. One afternoon on their way home from Birdling’s Beach, a wild and isolated stony beach on the edge of the peninsula, their ageing car burst into flames. Leaping with her children from the flames, and seeking for some words to calm them, she exhorted them to ‘look on this as an adventure’.

Mahy repeatedly told this anecdote in response to questions about her life and writing—I think it’s classic Mahy, I have noticed over the years that she often uses anecdotes like this that give some, but not total, insight into her life (warding off the danger of telling too much, and distracting with a spectacular detail). But what’s more important here is the insight it gives to her ideas about the relationship between adventure and the difficult, or dangerous, parts of life. Elsewhere, she reflects further on this idea:

It suddenly occurred to me as I was reading about the characters crossing the desert [in King Solomon’s Mines] that what I was finding as a reader terribly interesting and exciting was in fact terribly uncomfortable for the characters in the story who were going through the experience, and I realized then that it would probably be the same with adventures in real life; there would be aspects which were incredibly uncomfortable. That realization enabled me to cope with the uncomfortable bits and not get overwhelmed by them. (Sue Kedgely, Our Own Country: Leading New Zealand writers talk about their writing and their lives, 140)

If you turn your adventure into a story at the moment of it happening, you distance yourself from the fear and are able to process things. Calling danger ‘adventure’ is a way to help yourself work through a moment of peril—after all, the word adventure implies that there will be an end to danger, and a return to safety. And calling to mind the realities of adventure as you read performs a different function—enabling you to regard them with empathy or sympathy—to add a moral dimension to one’s reading.

Of course whenever Margaret Mahy talks about anything, it ends up in her writing, or in being a reflection on her writing. And it should come as no surprise that the eminently story-able car accident appears in at least two of her stories, including The Catalogue of the Universe, a novel that more than most appears based on her real-life situation.

In The Catalogue of the Universe, Angela May and her mother, Dido, live at the end of a dangerously narrow and twisty road. They drive it cautiously, but their farming neighbours, the Cherries, drive it with cavalier haste, eventually coming to grief. The Cherries’ crash is very precisely detailed, especially in terms of the alarm it causes Angela and her friend who witness it. For a while, Angela thinks it is her mother, Dido, whose car has gone over—given particular poignancy by the fact they have recently been in conflict. Here, Mahy’s real life moment of danger is used as a plot point to emphasize a further emotional danger in Angela and Dido’s narrative. Dido arrives on the scene shortly afterwards; shaken by what they have witnessed, their reconciliation is swift and emotional.

Physical and emotional dangers coincide here, the one enabling the resolution of the other (though it is hard luck for the Cherry boys, who are badly injured). And literally going over the edge for one pair of characters prevents the other pair from doing so. Much of Mahy’s YA fiction in particular is about averting that danger—the cracks in familial relations can open up to such an extent that some or all of the family will go over the edge if danger is not averted.

Going over the edge can mean a number of things—and in some regards it can mean disrupting and unsettling social expectations. Much of Mahy’s work is about nibbling at the edges of society—revealing the fraying cords of its fabric. And this can be seen in much of her comic work—her short stories, poems, and picture books.

For example, in the delightful reader A Very Happy Bathday (1989), a motorcycling bear arrives at a hotel, checks into a room on the fifth floor and takes a very noisy, deep, and messy bath that spills everywhere and causes a shower of drips in the dining room. Various guests go to complain, but on seeing the large, hairy, toothy bear, they instead wish him a ‘very happy bathday.’ Eventually an enterprising guest gets him out of the bath by inviting him to join them all for dinner.
Throughout the story, the bear remains sublimely unaware that he is annoying the other guests, and also that he is threatening to them. Thus the guests, who wish to behave fiercely themselves, by complaining aggressively, are forced to use the tactics of respectable politeness to ease the situation. They are also forced by their intimidated politeness to invite danger into their midst, civilising (perhaps) the unruly bear: at dinner, he reflects ‘How kind everyone is. I must take a bath more often.’

In contrast to the bear’s unawareness of the threat others perceive in him, we have the little poem, ‘George’s Pet.’ Again, Mahy shows a subversively comic sense of how dangerous creatures can work to unsettle polite society.

When George and his gorilla
Go bounding down the street
They get respectful nods and smiles
From neighbours that they meet.

If George had owned a puppy-dog
Or else a kitty-cat
His neighbours wouldn’t notice him
With courtesy like that.

Two things strike me about this poem—it’s about the power of the seemingly dangerous to show up the ridiculousness of social convention. George and his gorilla intimidate the neighbours, who respond with ‘respectful nods and smiles’—nods and smiles that they would not normally bestow on (presumably, though not necessarily) a little boy. This is the power of the perception of danger—and also of the unexpected—a retreat into convention in response to something that is not quite understandable.

But as well it’s about borrowed danger. Note that second stanza—if George had an ordinary and unintimidating pet, ‘His neighbours wouldn’t notice him with courtesy like that’. George makes himself noticeable, and worthy of courtesy.

Respectability is a danger itself, however—and frequently in Mahy’s books we see the overtly respectable subverted by the overtly dangerous, unexpected and threatening. Perhaps my favourite example of this is The Boy Who Was Followed Home. A small boy, Robert, is followed home from school each day by an increasing number of hippopotami. Alarmed by the hippos, who bask happily in the goldfish pond, his respectable parents are driven to the Yellow Pages to consult the ‘not very respectable’ witch, ‘Mrs Cathy Squinge’. She gives him a pill to cure his case of the hippos. Order would seem to be restored. The hippos slink away, giving Robert ‘reproachful looks over their shoulders’, and the parents are pleased with the result.

But Robert is sorry: ‘he rather liked being the sort of boy hippos follow’ (like George with his gorilla). It’s implied it gives him a glamorous edge—something to differentiate him from the dullness of respectability. So he is delighted when the pill has a side effect—the next day he’s followed home by a giraffe. The joy on Robert’s face, as depicted by the illustrator, Steven Kellogg, shows his delight.

Here we have a story that powerfully shows how difficiult it is to keep the unexpected—and the wild—at bay, and that sticking fast to the straight and narrow, to the respectable, is impossible. It also shows the necessity for families to give a little when faced with a child (or sibling or parent) they don’t entirely understand, who may be unorthodox in some way. Repression, in other words, won’t work. It’s not unlike A Lion in the Meadow, in which true stories—a lion, a dragon—trump the adult desire to keep fantasy at bay. In other words, some aspects of the wild, of the dangerous, or uncanny, or unaccountable, or magic, or marvellous, need to find a place in society—not just patrolling at the boundaries (i.e. a lion in the kitchen, as well as a dragon in the meadow).

Parents, or humans, or adults, in these books, symbolize society; children symbolize the individual—and the stories are about what happens when the individual doesn’t conform to expected patterns—when their non-conformity threatens to unravel the social fabric: we must reach for our set forms of courtesy to cope with a gorilla on the sidewalk; we must race to the Yellow Pages for help, even if it’s to look under W for witch.

But while we might sympathise with the individual, especially the non-conformist one, there are limits. Individuals must not be in thrall to their desires and will and selfishly impose them on others. Selfishness and greed pose significant dangers.

The Great White Man-Eating Shark (1989) is a picture book about Norvin, a boy who looks like a shark. He is a talented actor, and a very good swimmer, who can ‘shoot through the water like a silver arrow’. But. . . .

‘What’s the use of being able to shoot through the water like a silver arrow if everyone gets in my way?’ he thought. So he came up with a wicked plan.
Out of plastic he made himself the dorsal fin of a great white man-eating shark. Then he strolled around the headland, thought a few sharkish thoughts, strapped it on and slid into the clear blue water. (5-6)

Here again we have a kind of borrowed danger—as Norvin thinks his sharkish thoughts and puts on his shark suit. For a while it gets him what he wants, and he shoots back and forth through the water like a silver arrow to his heart’s content, while everyone else cowers on the beach. But, he is so convincingly sharkish that the danger he fakes becomes real:

But, suddenly, he felt he was not alone. Someone was swimming beside him. Who could it be? He looked out of the corner of his eye.
There, nuzzling up to him, was a great white man-eating shark—a female. Norvin was such a good actor that she did not realize he was merely pretending to be a shark. She gave him a very loving glance.
‘You are the shark of my dreams,’ she said. ‘Marry me at once or I shall lose my temper and bite you!’ (22)

Of course his retreat is immediate and unequivocal.

He shot like a silver arrow, dorsal fin and all, towards the beach and flung himself on to the sand where he lay, kicking and screaming with terror. Everyone could see at a glance just what Norvin had been up to. . . . The people of Caramel Cove put up a shark net across the mouth of the bay, but for the rest of the summer Norvin sat on the beach, watching other swimmers shoot backwards and forwards like silver arrows. He had had such a terrible shock that—shark net or not—he was too frightened to go swimming for a long, long time. Though he was a plain boy, he had made rather a good-looking shark, and I think he was very wise not to take any dangerous chances. (23-4)

The moral of this story might therefore be: if you give into your sharkish impulses and borrow danger, you may find yourself haunted by that danger, in the company of real sharks, or perhaps unable to get back from your sharkish self. It is also about the danger of selfishness to broader society.

Margaret Mahy talks about the inspiration for this story in one of her lectures. On a writer’s trip in Mexico, she found herself alone in the hotel pool, apart from a couple, furiously resenting their presence. As she swam (like a silver arrow, I hope, she was a very good swimmer) she imagined turning herself into a shark, to chase them away. That shark self, of course, is the shark self we all have—we can all on occasions be, or want to be, ruthless, greedy, dangerous, selfish.

As I swam backwards and forwards I began to dream of dressing up as a shark, and gliding up the pool towards them. I could see myself: soundless, menacing and ruthless, my skin set with sharp, close-set denticles, my silent crescent snarl filled with rows and rows of teeth. The lovers would suddenly see my dorsal fin approaching. They would leap out of the water screaming. I would have the whole pool to myself, free to be a sliver arrow to my heart’s content. It would all be my space, and deservedly so.

Yet afterwards, she says, she finds herself haunted by memories of her greed and her selfish desires. She became a ‘temporary villain’, a persona that she is disturbed to find empowering and attractive—in contrast to what she presumably has thought of as her biddable, polite, kind, and socialized self. This is another example of Mahy revealing something—but not too much—another example, too, of her using a story to work out a problem from her own life—to exorcise it, perhaps, through comic story.

A different kind of story might have shown Norvin fully embracing his sharkish self, and the female shark, and abandoning human society altogether. But Mahy tends to advocate for a peaceable collective solution: greed is dangerous because it spoils things for everyone—you can’t have Caramel Cove to yourself if it means everyone else has to cower on the beach. And Norvin is, to some extent, lucky to have the beach to retreat to when sharkishness becomes overpowering.

Interestingly at the same time that The Great White Man Eating Shark acknowledges the allure of giving into one’s desire to be dangerous, it also does something very practical in the interests of children’s safety: advising children what to do when you come face to face with a shark in the water—practical advice for children on New Zealand swimming beaches, where this is a very real possibility.

But to go back to Norvin and his desire for sharkishness. There are hints as to why Norvin becomes sharkish. Granted, he looks like a shark to begin with, but this appearance, as well as being an index to character, sets him apart as an outsider. He’s unconventional, different-looking, he doesn’t fit in. He doesn’t, for instance, get the acting roles he wants—there aren’t many lead roles for boys who look like sharks. Being an outsider can make you sharkish—because you tread the perimeter with one foot in the wild; so, too, not getting what you want has a tendency to elicit sharkish behaviour. Mahy has great sympathy for outsiders—as can be seen in the pirates and witches—lovable rogues that roar around the edges of nursery tales, and that can symbolize all sorts of socially marginalized identities. Her pirates have been variously identified as the very old, the very young, gays and lesbians, solo parents, artists, thinkers, writers, hippies, ecologists, activists—the politically liberal. (Indeed it’s more respectable in Mahy’s world to be unrespectable—as long as you don’t impose your differences too forcefully on other people.)

This might be why so many of her young adult novels are set on the fringes—in houses that are on the outskirts of town, or in isolated hamlets, or on their own in the landscape. Being physically on the fringe, in the ways that the families in these novels are—often attempting self-sufficiency, as in the family in Dangerous Spaces, or eking out a fragile existence on a single income, as in The Catalogue of the Universe and The Changeover. This fringe-dwelling, of course, has the effect of throwing the family into isolation, meaning that the focus is on family dynamics, and in particular the clash of wills between different individuals (children and parents, siblings, cousins). In the family as in the society depicted in the picture books, the clash of wills can have dramatic, and dangerous consequences—while the children need to work through the dynamics of individuation, they need to do so in a way that does not irretrievably shatter the family. And they need to come to terms with the realities and the effects of their parents’ individual desires and wills. Mahy’s Young Adult novels lack the uproarious humour of her picture books and short stories. They are not comic works; they are serious explorations of the relations of human beings, written for young adults who are exploring their own beings. And in them, Mahy treads the perimeter of the wild in an altogether darker and deeper way than the comic and carnival way of her comic picture books.

For example, perhaps Mahy’s most popular novel, The Changeover, tells of Laura Chant, a teenager who changes over to become a witch in order to save her little brother from the predations of a lemure, a kind of Ancient Roman vampire, who is feasting on the little boy’s soul. In changing over, Laura takes control of all sorts of dark emotions—especially anger at her divorced parents, confusion at their adult sexual desires and her own developing sexuality. The novel’s subtitle is ‘A Supernatural Romance.’ Here, we see Laura becoming, not sharkish, but getting in touch with her inner sharkishness, in this case, a kind of magical and womanly power, directly connected with romance, love, sex, and power. Being a Young Adult novel, concerned with exploring the development of identity in teenage characters, and with taking Laura, and readers, safely through the dangers posed by conflicting ideas and ways of seeing the world, Mahy shows Laura maintaining control of her powers, and indeed postponing the full use of them, once she has saved Jacko and achieved a reconciliation between herself and her parents. It’s okay to be dangerous, then, as long as it results in the restoration of a kind of order.

Throughout Mahy’s work, I think, is a recognition of the writer’s responsibility in investigating danger and in negotiating it safely for young readers. Though Mahy is anarchic, it is an anarchy that is almost peaceable—though she is a rebel, she is a rebel who wants everyone to get along. So I want to conclude by thinking a little bit about the role of the writer here, and the role of story and creativity. In her lecture ‘Surprising Moments’—the inaugural Margaret Mahy Memorial Award lecture, she reflects on the role of story.

Story and fantasy have many functions in our lives, but one of the functions is to mediate between us and naked existence, to nudge us back into a state of astonishment from which we can also easily retreat, as well as providing places to stand, strong places in an overwhelming world. And when, pushed by no matter what sort of force from outside, we fall into the cracks in the structure, we immediately start to compose stories to bridge the crack or fill it in so we can walk out of it safely. (‘Surprising Moments’, 30)

Mahy’s father was a bridge-builder, and that image is important for her—making the join between divided parts of society, and perhaps too divided parts of the self. And that is what story is and does in her work. But the image of the wild, of the dangerous (even though it is often a joyful danger) is never far away from the surface with Mahy. And indeed, that is what story does, as well: making us look at and understand the nature of danger, at the same time as giving us something that enables us to manage, or cope with, or control that danger—at the time it faces us, or later, when we stand on solid ground and recover our composure.

As a writer for young readers, of course, Mahy is continually bound by the contract that requires children’s literature to restore the child to solid ground (be that the solid ground of a happy ending, the attainment of some kind of understanding, or of some other kind of resolution). Thus her work is continually a negotiation between the attractions (and the threats) of danger and security. Indeed, in a short essay, Notes of Bag Lady (2004) Mahy reflects on this negotiation:

A long time ago (it now seems) I was one of the many people who was eaten up by story—not any particular story, but the platonic form of story that roars and devours us all (though people don’t always realize they have been swallowed). Writers are the ones who roar back, digesting while they are themselves digested. (Notes of a Bag Lady, 48)

In this characteristic take on issues of writing that taps into imagery of the devouring, swallowing, and roaring of wild animals, Mahy suggests that the concept of story has an intrinsic danger to it—that the movement into and out of danger so much a part of narrative has the potential to ‘devour us all’.

Who better than a writer, then, to ‘roar back’, to control and shape and narrate danger, to take readers out of that danger and back into security—refreshed, invigorated, and perhaps more reflective. And who better than Mahy, exhilaratingly aware of the attractions and the perils of danger, to do this, and to do it so effectivel, with such care, awareness, vibrancy, wit and warmth.