01 May 2007

Little Griffin

I read Saving the Griffin, by Kristin Wolden Nitz, because for several years I've been working and reworking a novel (originally a cycle of stories, hence the reworking) that would share two of its three Library of Congress cataloguing-in-publication subjects:

1. Griffins--Fiction.
2. Brothers and sisters--Fiction.
3. Italy--Fiction.
Nitz's website discusses her inspiration for the book during a stay in Italy (also the setting for her first novel, Defending Irene). Although she doesn't say it, I suspect that observations of her siblings and/or kids were also crucial. The psychological dance among sister and brothers of different ages is nicely observed, and the strongest part of the book.

On the fantasy side, there's almost no magic besides the baby griffin. We see a portal to the griffins' world, but don't enter it or learned why it opened. The plot about what kids do when they find a strange creature is straight from E.T., but those kids are never in real danger and never have to sacrifice much. What Ellen Howard has called "the price of fantasy" is very low in this tale.

At one point protagonist Kate critiques her little brother Michael's choice to name the little griffin "Grifonino"; she says that's like calling a young cat "Kitty," a generic term. That's also an apt metaphor for Saving the Griffin. It's an undemanding tale, pretty much exactly what one would expect.


Anonymous said...

Oh, please. The plot isn't straight from E.T. It's much, much older. I'm certain it's a variation of one of the so-called 20 Master Plots as put out by one author. But it's tough to resist a pair of worried eyes that stare at one day after day.

All the best,

Kristin Wolden Nitz
Another big fan of Susan Cooper and Diana Wynne Jones, who gets tired of people and creatures in other dimensions always speaking ENGLISH.

J. L. Bell said...

In his non-fiction book The Transparent Society, David Brin argues that E.T. represents a significant break from the traditional tale of finding an unusual creature or stranger.

In most ancient versions of that tale, the creature that insinuates itself into the family or village turns out to be harmful, and must in some way be rejected. In E.T., not only is the creature benevolent, but we're supposed to root for the heroes to help it and hide it from all levels of authority (parents, school, government).

Brin suggests that's a significant break from past cultures, and expresses something basic about the culture of either the US or modern western democracies.

Anonymous said...

Readers of dog stories, Edith Nesbit, Edward Eager and the juveniles of Robert Heinlein might consider E.T. to be more of a step in an arc than a significant break.

Mollie Hunter's books are exceptionally good treatments of the traditional tale.


J. L. Bell said...

In a tradition of fantasy stories that extends back millennia, all the examples proffered are from the last 110 years. And some, like Nesbit's wonderful Phoenix and the Carpet, fit the older, magic-is-ultimately-dangerous model as much as our benign isn't-magic-fun-while-it-lasts model.

I don't think I'd count dog stories in the same group because dogs aren't fantastic creatures who can represent a major deviation from the natural order. One could argue that the "E.T. model" is just a traditional all-dogs-have-to-die story with an advanced lizard man instead of a dog, as The Yearling is an all-dogs-have-to-die story about an animal that shouldn't be domesticated.

Are there "traditional" tales, centuries old, of a magical creature coming into a human family that don't end in tragedy? Take the selkie legend, for instance. Modern takes can come from the selkie's point of view (e.g., Franny Billingsley's The Folk Keeper). But older versions tend to be grim tales of seduction, kidnapping, and loss. "The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry" ends with—let's see, a child taken from his mother, the killing of that child, and the killing of his magical father.

Mollie Hunter's version of the selkie legend in A Stranger Came Ashore appears to cleave rather closely to the traditional themes. Or, as this web review puts it, "the theme of this story is to never trust strangers."