If there’s one book in this series which will really baffle you, I think it’s this one. Well, or The Gift, but I flatter myself that I’ve entirely convinced you that The Gift is very much about the power and value of music. This one may confuse you a little. Maybe. Unless you’re a folklorist or medievalist or simply a well-read person who knows that the fay and the fey and the magical and the musical all go together like iron to a magnet. Which is to say it’s a force that both attracts and repels and is so strong that it’s almost tangible… but never is quite. People like to call it mysterious, which is an adult way of saying it’s a thing which is very well-studied and has been closely examined over centuries, but still can’t really be fully explained. Fairy-folk have an incredibly strong attraction to music. They love it, but cannot resist it. And this is explored in one of the greatest studies of the subject in our second-to-last stop on this musical journey: Outside Over There, written and illustrated by Maurice Sendak.
I am, unusually for me, linking to Amazon. Whenever I do so I feel the need to explain myself. In this case, it’s because I had a hard time finding a hardcover copy, and the only place I could find it was Amazon. I think this book is so powerful, such a classic, such a necessary book, that you really do need it in hardcover. So I’m linking to a hardcover copy. I will note that, given how often it’s read in this house, and how ardently it’s loved, I’m very glad I got the hardcover edition!
Do I need to tell the story much? It’s a simple story, and an insanely complex one, so I’ll tell the simple lines of it quickly. Ida’s father has gone away to sea, and her mother is crying in the arbour. Her baby sister starts crying, and Ida plays music on her wonder horn to soothe her. But Ida looks out the window while she plays, and no one sees the goblins come to steal away Ida’s sister, leaving a changeling of ice in her place. When Ida sees, she grabs her horn and goes off to outside over there in pursuit. When she finds the goblins, she plays her horn to charm them until she can find her sister and escape back home, where her mother is sitting in the arbour reading a letter from Ida’s father, which says:
I’ll be home one day, and my brave, bright little Ida must watch the baby and her Mama for her Papa, who loves her always.
The story is a creepy one for many reasons, mostly because of the questions left unanswered: Who is this father and where is he going and why? What about the mother? Why is she crying and leaving Ida in charge of the baby? She sits sadly in the arbour but does she ever notice the absence of her children in her sorrow, or does that pass her by? (I admit to ambivalence regarding this mother: I wish I knew something better of her, but, while I’m sympathetic to her sadness, I can’t help but wish that she at least noticed her crying baby.) Ida is the one left in charge, and our big question is: Why? Why can’t anyone but Ida defend her home against these goblin interlopers? And, in the end, against any further danger, by her father’s request?
We don’t know why, but we do know that this is the case. And, thus, at the same time that these questions make the story a bit uncomfortable, they also put a lot of power into the hands of our Ida. (I can’t help but wonder if a bit of Tiffany Aching in Terry Pratchett’s The Wee Free Men came from Ida. She, also, is a strong-willed young woman who charges after the fairy-folk to win back her brother.) Just look at Ida here:
She could take on the world. I don’t mind telling you she reminds me strongly of Delacroix’s Liberty. And look what’s right by her foot. It’s her horn, the horn she tucks into the pocket of her mother’s rain cloak when she heads off in pursuit of her sister. That horn gives her a lot of power in this story.
While we’re on the subject both of music and her father, there’s a rather strange passage where we’re told “she makes a serious mistake,” climbing backwards out the window into outside over there so that she doesn’t see the thieves. She then hears “from off the sea her Sailor Papa’s song” telling her to turn around so that she can see the goblins, and to use music to captivate them. It’s a kind of musical augury or oracle: some kind of mystical help transferred by ear. (As for the advice– well, why else did she bring her horn, I can’t help but wonder. The directional advice is well-taken, however.) Well. I admit freely and cheerfully to being stumped, and we’ll come back in a little bit to why I don’t care about not understanding the whole thing fully.
The rest of the book takes us further into musical territory, perhaps somewhat more familiar to us. Ida charms “them with a captivating tune,” forcing them to dance against their will, faster and faster until they’re entirely breathless, but, merciless, she drives them on and on until she dances them straight into a dancing stream which stalls them until she can reach her sister, who is “crooning and clapping as a baby should.” What happens to the goblins in the stream we don’t know. Folklore has many possibilities for us– water is what’s called a “liminal space,” meaning a threshold between worlds. Perhaps they’re stuck in their world and Ida’s crossed over with her sister. Perhaps their power was broken by the water. Perhaps they were drowned in the water. We honestly don’t know. Ida and her sister then follow the path of the stream (the illustration shows a man playing some instrument in his house by the stream, so there’s something going on with music and this stream), and the stream takes them up the “ringed-round hill” (I’m not even going to start on that one) to her mother and the letter from her father.
Look, it’s a strange book, and there’s no doubt about that. I still refuse to call it “mysterious.” If you want, I think I can choke out the word “mystical,” but I might spit over it. The only “mystic” element is that part where Ida somehow hears a kind of “helper song” from her father while she’s floating off in search of her sister. But if you want to know what I really think, it’s that this music is our key to not-fully-understanding the book.
I want to digress a bit into a discussion of the senses and why music and sound are different. Touch is, well, tangible. You have to make physical contact with a Thing to experience touch. Taste is the same way. Sight requires you to make eye-contact with a person or object. Smell is also produced by a physical object of some sort. Sometimes you’re stumped by what’s producing the smell, but it still comes from somewhere. Music is a bit more tenuous. The music might come from speakers, but the music was produced long ago in a concert hall in Vienna. Or you might be in that concert hall in Vienna, but the music was written centuries back by a composer in Venice. Perhaps you’re saying, “But what about instruments?” To which I say, “Please show me the music they make. Take a Stradivarius and grind it to pieces. Produce a single atom of music and show it to me.” (And, no, I wasn’t able to type that sentence without shuddering. Please do not harm any violins. I would be very upset.) And yet… you sit in that concert hall and your spirit is exalted; you sit at home listening and your house feels less lonely; you sing to your child and both of you laugh.
What’s my point? My point is that the force or power we’re dealing with here is strong, incredibly strong, but in no way tangible. Iron and magnet. It can attract or repel but you can’t see it. And don’t you see that the book is the same way? I don’t want to try to explain the logical progression of song from Sailor Papa to Ida’s ears. I know what it’s doing, and that’s enough for me: music cuts through to Ida, somehow. She’s responsive to it. She uses it against the goblins. She and her father use it to get her on her way. Music is her power. The story is strongly evocative, in other words, just like music is. It has an emotional impact, without always requiring tangible, logical explanations. We can understand these connections to work without having everything explained. It feels like it’s been around for years, like it’s as old as anything which turns up in Grimm’s or Andrew Lang’s collections. And yet, it’s odder, stranger– maybe more likely to have popped up in Joseph Jacobs’ books. But it’s not. It’s greater still: an original story straight from the heart, brain, guts, and hands of Maurice Sendak, a gift to the world we may yet come to merit one of these days.
Let me sum this up again so I can try to make sense for you all: I’m arguing that this story reflects the same kind of force music has within the story. The force is invisible, and works according to its own rules– rules which aren’t always explained. It’s a powerful force, both attracting and repelling the goblin-creatures of the tale. The story, likewise, is a powerfully attractive kind of story, but has chilling elements which trouble us. It’s a powerful story, with powerful events and connections, but those connections don’t always seem to make “sense,” as we understand it. They trouble us. They’re problematic. They’re right there, if you know what I mean… if you give me a moment I’m sure I can explain… but you never will. You aren’t supposed to.
In very short form: this book feels like music sounds. And I have no greater compliment to pay it.