“Close your eyes, but keep your mind wide open.”
Bridge to Terabithia
I haven’t read Bridge to Terabithia, but the film was on iPlayer and it felt like exactly the kind of thing I’d enjoy watching over lunch. It’s the story of two children, Leslie and Jess, who create a magical kingdom peopled by trolls and giants and evil squirrels as an escape from the troubles of the everyday.
Terabithia is a narrative full of disguises. The children’s adventures in their imaginary realm, fighting strange monsters, commanding warrior dragonflies, being rescued by friendly giants, often directly mirror similar challenges they experience at school, in what we would recognise as the real world. A common refrain is: “you can face down trolls but not the school bully?”, but the equivalence goes further than that, as these monsters speak with the voices of the bullies, sharing physical and aural characteristics with the worst tormentors. School bullies are only trolls in disguise, or vice versa. It’s a very common device in children’s literature, and very often advanced as a defence of fantasy: it gives us the tools to cope with the real.
The problem with such a reading of the world, of course, is that it can lead to essentialism. Casting bullies as monsters, as specifically and conspicuously other, doesn’t necessarily allow for much nuance: if something is disguised then it must have a true nature to disguise. The bully is permanently othered by such an approach – he or she is always less than human, subordinated to the imaginative and the intelligent. Think of Tolkien’s orcs, who we can quite easily imagine standing in for Nazis (though it’s worth noting that Tolkien himself would have hated that reading): if we choose to read them this way, we get a text that tells us that under their disguise of humanity, Nazis are evil creatures bent only on destruction and cruelty and can therefore be destroyed in great swathes with no moral compunction whatever.
Does Terabithia dodge this particular bullet? One of its most interesting plotlines is that of an eighth-grader girl who terrorises the school. Our Heroes pull a revenge prank on her, only to discover the next day that her father beats her. What’s interesting about this isn’t the real-world nuance of it, which isn’t really that unusual these days, but the fact that this particular bully is figured in Terabithian terms as a troll who’s initially threatening, but who unexpectedly comes to Our Heroes’ aid later on. (It’s symptomatic of the film’s inability to decide between fantasy and reality that the troll becomes benign before her real-world counterpart does: we can’t say that the children consciously take their real troubles across into their shared fantasy.) Unlike much children’s fantasy of this ilk, Terabithia allows for change, for the possibility that things aren’t always what they seem: even trolls have a weak spot. And the children are never allowed to feel superior to the monsters of Terabithia – the film is careful to link the absolutes of fantasy to the complexities of reality, focusing on both settings equally so that neither can quite be read as the truth.
The film has its problems: there’s definitely some Magic Pixie Dream Girl stuff going on with Leslie, and on a purely aesthetic level the CGI leaves a lot to be desired. But it is a really potent, complex take on that much-cited defence of fantasy – one that refuses to block out the horror of the real at the same time as it allows the consolation of fantasy. I’m going to have to seek out the book soon.
(This post was written as a response to today’s Daily Prompt: “Brilliant Disguise”.)