“Remember that writing is translation, and the opus to be translated is yourself.”
– E.B. White
The late, great E.B. White (Happy Birthday) left behind a strong legacy of memorable stories and characters that have become something of a window in to the things he loved and the struggles he faced during his time on this earth. He sought to translate himself in to his stories in ways that grounded them in a sometimes overly pessimistic reality, but always kept them honest.
Charlotte’s Web, probably White’s most popular work of fiction, is one of the first books of significance that I can remember reading, and it is a book that taught me, in this same spirit, that as a reader (as with any form of art) I also translate myself in to these stories in ways that shape me and inspire me. I know I owe much to the well travelled places of these childhood adventures that remain etched in my mind and memory, something that a recent viewing of the big screen adaptation of Roald Dahl’s BFG (another necessary piece of my childhood story) happened to remind me of.
As I was watching BFG it hit me. No, not a stray popcorn kernel coming from the back row. It was a sense of comfort as I recognized a shared affinity in these two stories, BFG and Charlotte’s Web, with the theme of belonging, and a similar exploration of isolation and anxiety. It reminded me that these themes represent what is a common human struggle that binds us together whether big or small, whether in the story of a spider or the tale of a giant.
SEEING THROUGH THE SHADOWS THAT HIDE US FROM THE WORLD
Charlotte’s Web tells the story of an unlikely relationship between a pig and a spider, whom we are first introduced to from the shielded shadows of a barn.
BFG also tells the story of an unlikely relationship, this time between a small, orphaned girl who lost her home and her parents and a mysterious giant with big ears, whose inability to fit in manages to find him isolated and alone in the Land of Giants. It is interesting that we also first meet the Giant from the vantage point of the shadows, something that hints at a shared concern for this struggle with loneliness, isolation and belonging.
In White’s story it is about how we come to terms with the harsher parts of life, the stuff that bogs us down and keeps us from dreaming. BFG takes this a step further, and for Dahl it is about learning to dream again in the midst of this struggle.
With all of these similarities, it should not be surprising to discover both authors faced their own struggles with isolation and anxiety. It should also not be surprising, given their different approaches, to hear how they coped with their struggles in very different ways.
I don’t know why, but some of the best children’s stories seem to come out of these sort of struggles. This would include Charles Schulz, a personal hero of mine and the creator of the popular Peanuts characters, who battled an anxiety disorder all his life. That this reaches across so many of our child-hood classics also reminds me that everyone deals with these struggles in different ways. Even so, there is something about the idea of the broken childhood dream and the threat of innocence lost that seems to resonate with both young and old, big and small, and this is precisely what we find at the crossroads of White’s admittedly pessimistic view and Dahl’s more hopeful expression.
FINDING LIFE IN THE MESSINESS
“What’s a life, anyway? We’re born, we live a little while, we die. A spider’s life can’t help being something of a mess, with all this trapping and eating flies. By helping you, perhaps I was trying to lift up my life a trifle. Heaven knows anyone’s life can stand a little of that.”
– Charlotte (excerpt from Charlotte’s Web)
Life is messy.
For some, this truth is thrust upon them without warning, such as in the story of Sophie, a girl who is far too young to have to deal with the loss of-both parents, her home and (both literally and symbolically in BFG) her dreams. In Charlotte’s Web it is Wilbur who comes face to face with the reality of death in a way that forces him to readjust his understanding of the world around him. We also see this in Charlotte as she adjusts to the reality of aging with death creeping it’s ugly head from around the corner. And lastly we see this in the Giant, whose overwhelming fear and past experiences keeps him shuttered in his house or hiding in the shadows.
The question that looms in the background of both stories is how this sort of uncertainty and loss shapes our ability to face tomorrow with confidence. Whereas White’s experience on the farm drives him towards a matter-of-fact approach to it all (this is just the way life is, and we do our best to make the most of it), in BFG the dream becomes the symbol that inspires Dahl’s hopeful response.
THE THINGS WE BOTTLE UP ALONG THE JOURNEY
Spending much of his time alone, the Giant fills his days as a dream-catcher: catching dreams, bottling them up and spreading them out over the slumbering bodies that fill the beds back in London. There is a certain charm to be found in the Giants self-less and self-giving activity. He wants to make the world a better place, and it immediately endears us to his character (played with depth and dexterity on screen by the voice of Mark Rylance). It does however, also help unmask what lies underneath the Giants personal self-imposed isolation and willing acts of service, reflecting some tightly guarded emotional secrets from his past that he does not want others to see.
These unseen layers guide and form the Giants response to his own troubled past and present circumstance. Just as Charlotte looks, in the midst of her own reality, to “lift up” her life a trifle by helping Wilbur, the Giant choses to help others to dream. Through both characters we learn that helping others can indeed help make our own life better as well, but we also learn that it can be a way of hiding and disguising the personal brokenness and hurt that lies underneath. For as much as the Giant freely gives away his dreams, we come to realize that he has also become an expert at hiding and bottling up his own.
I think I get this. At least in the context of my own story I do. Growing up I found it difficult to fit in at school. I was bullied quite a bit, and I can remember a few attempts to hang out in the gym with my fellow classmates being met by basketballs being launched at my head until I left. I learned to adapt, which mostly involved isolating myself in a growing library of books from Scholastic Book Fairs (how fitting is it that I would get a job there later in life). It would be later, as I connected with a youth group and life in a Church, that these insecurities would morph in to an opportunity to learn to serve from out of this sense of inadequacy.
The books (and later movies and television) became my world, a way of responding to the challenges around me. Learning to serve others became a means of finding my way back in to the world in the midst of these challenges. The truth though, was that while both were positive things, they also allowed me to continue to hide behind my insecurities, learning to fit in to the world that I occupied rather than being willing to stand out for who I was.
If I am honest, I did not yet know who I was, nor was I okay with who I was. I didn’t know it at the time, but my dreams had been bottled up, stored where no one could see them or break them beyond recognition. They had been bottled up for so long I didn’t even recognize them anymore. This likely stemmed from the chronic nightmares that haunted my childhood in the form of unnamed monsters and anxieties. It likely persisted after my first brush with death and my first experiences with failure and rejection.
However it happened, somewhere along the way life had taught me to stop dreaming.
FINDING YOUR VOICE AGAIN
The scariest part about daring to dream is the way it makes us vulnerable to our biggest fears.
The most wonderful part about daring to dream is the way it breathes life in to our most cherished joys and desires.
In both of these classic children’s stories (BFG and Charlotte’s Web), it is about the way we learn (or re-learn) to face our fears and give voice to the dreams that our fears have stifled. This voice plays an important role in both stories:
In Charlotte’s Web, Wilbur hears the words spoken from out the shadows before he sees, what turns out to be, a rather articulate spider with a small, humble and insignificant disposition. In BFG, Sophie sees the figure in the shadows before hearing him as an in-articulate giant with an obvious, towering disposition. In both cases the shadows represent fear and the hidden parts of ourselves that we don’t want the world to see; our insecurities. The voice represents the hopes and dreams that are trying to pierce through the shadows, the stuff that makes us who we are and that the shadows often keep us from seeing.
In the film BFG, dreams are kept in jars that the Giant uses to transport and give back to the world. Ironically, at the very same time he keeps his and Sophie’s dreams bottled up and hidden from the world. We aren’t immediately told what these dreams are made of, but we do know the ingredients include both the good and the mess.
It is when we learn to become okay with the messiness that we give the world the opportunity to see the good.
In this way, BFG is not about the sort of dream that paints picture-perfect visions of a wishful future. Life, after all, rarely goes the way we think it should. Rather, it is about the way in which our ability to dream allows us to make the most out of the unexpected and the unwanted, an idea which reinforces Charlotte’s insistence that life is messy, and that’s okay.
OUR DREAMS BIG AND SMALL
It is on one of his nightly trips back to the city that the giant first encounters Sophie, who, given her own troubled past, has been distracting herself by sneaking out of bed at night to sneak a peek behind the window curtains. It is here where Sophie likewise encounters the giant (where the filmmakers make creative use out of the book’s representation of hiding in the shadows of the moonlight). There is a beautiful scene that follows, as this relationship develops, where the Giant and Sophie are standing at a windowsill watching a little boy dream one of the Giant’s freshly caught dreams. Sophie turns to the Giant with an admission that she does not dream. It is expressed matter-of-factly, but we can hear the hint of longing that sits behind the confession, a glimpse of a less than ideal past that might be hampering her own ability to see who she is. Little does she realize, in this moment, that sneaking a peek behind the curtain was an act of dreaming, a risk-taking exercise that was in-fact teaching her how to find her voice again and bring it to the world. This small act would become the inspiration she eventually offers to the Giant to do the same.
The Giant, being an inarticulate character, would go on to do his fandangled best in this moment to try and explain to Sophie precisely what it was to dream. “Dreams are short on the outside”, he responds, “but they are long on the inside.”
Sophie wishes to dream, but she does not know how. The Giant knows how to dream, but he is too scared try for fear of being disappointed, let down or scared by what he finds. What is clear is that both of them have dreams on the inside that have been percolating and growing for a long time, dreams that desire to be set free. Dreams, after all, never truly die. They only remain bottled up in the places that we choose to store them, until we, or perhaps someone else, open them up again.
And here-in lies the great truth of BFG: In the book and in the film, the giants are the dreams. They symbolize the giants in our life that seem far too big to handle, the stuff of nightmares and night terrors, the stuff of our rampant anxieties. They also symbolize the ability to stand taller than our fears, the day dreams and secret desires that motivate us to move forward. Further, these giants, these dreams, are the joys, the fears, the hopes and the desires that not only make us who we are, but also connect us to one another.
Ultimately, these dreams, these giants in our life, have the potential to drive us forward or hold us back from participating in the world around us. It is the way we respond to the challenges and the opportunity that can help shape which direction they take us.
The film uses the device of visual scope to help portray this truth in it’s own way. While Sophie and the Giant are much closer in size than they are in the book (in the book Sophie can fit in the Giants ear), this allows for a much more striking contrast when it comes to the Giant and the other “not so friendly” giants that surround him. In the Land of Giants the others tower over both him and Sophie, showing us how sometimes our fears can dominate us and overshadow our ability to find hope in our own larger than life circumstance. For the Giant these fears (the much larger giants that lurk outside his door) represent his failures and the unknown, his fear of the world seeing him for who he really is. For Sophie, her fear is losing the only true family she has in the Giant.
In Charlotte’s Web, when Wilbur faces the threat of death it begins to rob him of his innocence. This death, this sense of forever loss, is the giant in Wilbur’s life. As Charlotte begins to weave and shape the story of Wilbur for the world to see, she is re-shaping Wilbur’s own ability to see his story as something bigger than his fears. She is teaching Wilbur to dream again, and in the process finding a reason to dream herself. She brings words of significance to Wilbur about who he is in a scary world. “Maybe you’ll live forever” Charlotte tells Wilbur, yet in the meantime she persists in telling Wilbur exactly who he is in the present moment… one terrific pig.
In BFG it is a little girl who helps the Giant find his voice by facing his biggest fear, which is making himself visible to the world. She does this by helping him see who he is first by adorning him with the name “Big Friendly Giant”, and then showing him that he is accepted for exactly who he is. In response, BFG recognizes that he needs Sophie to help him learn to dream again, for his sake and for her sake as well. As they face their fears together, they both learn to become okay with their secrets being made visible to the world around them, letting themselves be seen for who they really are (which most certainly does not belong in the Queen’s Castle, but they make themselves welcome there anyways in what unfolds as a stellar sequence on screen). This is what also leads them to the realization they can’t do it alone.
Ultimately both stories show us the importance of having others in our life who can help us see those hidden places, to help us find the voice that is piercing through the shadows. Community requires us to be visible and vulnerable. Community also requires us to take the risk of investing in others.
FROM ORDINARY MIRACLES TO DREAMS COME TRUE
“I don’t understand it. But for that matter I don’t understand how a spider learned to spin a web in the first place. When the words appeared, everyone said they were a miracle. But nobody pointed out that the web itself is a miracle.”
– Fern (excerpt from Charlotte’s Web)
The caption of the feature film Charlotte’s Web, and the song that accompanies it, uses the phrase “ordinary miracles”. This reflects the idea that hope can be found in a sunrise, in facing the messiness of life by finding beauty in the moments that lead us towards a new day.
In much the same way, BFG taught me that my dreams will always have the potential to propel me forward or hold me back, to be helpful or harmful. What ultimately matters is whether I allow the nightmares to silence my ability to hope, to lose sight of the small, everyday, ordinary miracles that can lead us towards a much bigger potential for greater living.
In the end of the film BFG, Sophie describes the dreams (the giants) as “all the secret whispers of the world” that are helping to make her who she is, continuing to re-shape her expectations of the world around her. It is a beautiful sentiment. It is a sentiment that I believe also happens to be true. When we speak we offer ourselves to another as we are. But when we listen we hear the story of our experiences and of others that can help shape us in to what we are becoming, which is taller than our fears, bigger than our failures.
Finding a way to dream again is about learning to be okay with who we are and trusting that both our failures and the wisdom of others can help make us better. It is about learning to respond with grace and confidence when life looks a little bit different than we imagined, and continuing to search for new possibilities when things feel impossible. When we learn to face our fears, and when we learn to dream again, it gives us the opportunity to make a difference in the world in ways both big and small.
ACCEPTING OUR FAILURES AND FINDING OUR STRENGTHS
Many of my favourite childhood stories have taught me similar things about what it means to stand taller than my fears. For me it begins with facing the demons of my anxiety and my depression. The fact that these same child hood stories are also expressions of the authors own translated life helps me know that I am not alone in this battle, whether that be Charles Schulz public battle with depression and anxiety or E.B Whites internal battle with feelings of isolation.
In the case of BFG (and Dahl’s other works), it is a revealing (and necessary) process to recognize the personal demons that inspired Dahl to give shape to the story from his own embattled context, which arguably inspired a much different response than White or Schulz. BFG is largely an unveiling of the authors own personal brokenness, as he remained a conflicted personality who expressed his own failure (and need) to belong in the world by projecting on to others a strong bent of racism and social bigotry. This is mere speculation, but I believe this is what drove him to continually write about themes of brokenness, belonging and being the social outcast. I also think it is why he wrote about the fantastical, larger than life images of our childhood fantasies, whether that be a factory made of chocolate or a mysterious and magical Land of Giants. There is a sense that these stories acted as a sort of confession of a life that he was less than satisfied with, a life that reflected his own bottled up dreams, failures and broken childhood expectations.
Spielberg himself would go on to suggest in an interview about his work on BFG, “For somebody who has proclaimed himself anti-Semitic, to be telling stories that just do the opposite, embracing the differences between races and cultures and sizes and language, as Dahl did with ‘The BFG,’ it’s a paradox.”
Journalist Carnevale pushes this even further, saying, “To be so gifted and yet so full of disdain for others was Dahl’s problem. His creations reflect that self-hatred, but if they did not, they would not be honest explications of a cruel and merciless world.”
Stories, whether we write them or read them, help translate ourselves. When we translate ourselves it keeps the stories honest. Clearly Dahl struggled with being compared to others around him, something his stories help to unmask. The beautiful thing about this though is that, if I am honest, there is something of this struggle that remains in me as well.
Just as Charlotte’s Web was White’s way of reflecting on his relationship to the world around him, I can’t help but imagine that Dahl engaged in the process of writing in order to make sense of his own struggles. By being brave enough to offer this window in to his own soul, he also helps encourage us to present our unmasked self to the world, faults and all. After all, it is in the messiness that the world can also see the good, and it is by facing the world that we find the courage to stand taller than our giants.
There was a time when I was alone
Nowhere to go and no place to call home
My only friend was the man in the moon
And even sometimes he would go away, too
Then one night, as I closed my eyes,
I saw a shadow flying high
He came to me with the sweetest smile
Told me he wanted to talk for awhile
He said, “Peter Pan. That’s what they call me.
I promise that you’ll never be lonely.”
And ever since that day…
He sprinkled me in pixie dust and told me to believe
Believe in him and believe in me
Together we will fly away in a cloud of green
To your beautiful destiny
As we soared above the town that never loved me
I realized I finally had a family
Soon enough we reached Neverland
Peacefully my feet hit the sand
And ever since that day…
Neverland is home to lost boys like me
And lost boys like me are free
– Lyrics from Lost Boy by Ruth B