“Trapped By Transformation: The Place for Female Identity in The Stoneheart Trilogy,” by Alya Hameed

"Chicken Little" By Christian Jackson

Chicken Little by C. Jackson

 

 

Volume 1, Issue 1 (July 2013)
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Abstract:  Charlie Fletcher’s middle grade contemporary fantasy series The Stoneheart Trilogy thrusts two children into an alternate dimension of adventure, ostensibly demonstrating the equal maturation of both the boy and girl protagonists. However, the story struggles to convey George and Edie’s evenly balanced empowerment and development, in part because of the parallels between Edie and the text’s use of mirrors that suggest that female empowerment is illusory, rather equating her to a controllable agent of change. This article examines the representations of feminine identity, agency, and physicality to demonstrate that the girl’s primary struggle lies in trying to achieve self-definition free from dominating male influences. Referencing contemporary theories on the transformed use of mirrors in fairy tales and fantasy, Hameed addresses the positive but limited shift that mirrors have made in enabling feminine identity formation. Despite the evolution of Edie’s self-awareness, this series presents women as the necessary conduits for the maturation of their male counterparts. Fletcher therefore portrays women as intrinsically linked to and contained by male agency and power, forcing us to question how far contemporary fantasy has progressed from earlier literary representations of women as subordinate figures.

About the Author:  Alya Hameed is currently pursuing her M.A. in English literature at San Diego State University, concentrating on children’s literature. She obtained her B.A. from University of California, Berkeley, where she first realized her passion for children’s lit while facilitating a class on the Harry Potter series. Her interests include all things fantasy, feminine identity, multicultural literature, and geography and spatial studies, with a soft spot for maps.

An earlier version of this article was presented at the SW PACA Conference (formerly known as SW/TX American Culture and Pop Culture Association) in February 2013, originally titled “Vehicle for Transformation: The Place for Feminine Identity in Charlie Fletcher’s The Stoneheart Trilogy.”

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The quest at the center of Charlie Fletcher’s The Stoneheart Trilogy is built upon two fantastical destinations. The first is a parallel dimension of London aptly called “Un-London” where statues come to life and into which only particular characters may enter, whether accidentally or purposely. The second is the past, attainable through gateways formed by mirrors. Fletcher propels both of his young protagonists – George and Edie – into these worlds, but I give particular attention to Edie, unique due to her inherited abilities to cross these boundaries without aid. As a “glint,” Edie can naturally see the animated statues of Un-London and is able to witness tragic pasts embedded in the stones and bricks of any location simply by touching them—an unguided vision which directly compares to the role of mirrors as channels to the past. These qualities, common strictly to female characters, differentiate and isolate Edie from George and their companions, consequently rendering her as “other”; her difference is consistently feared and denigrated in the series and becomes central to ascertaining the level of subordination that females inhabit. In a story that purports to relate the maturation and empowerment of both children, I explore the parallels between Edie and the use of mirrors to suggest that female empowerment is in fact illusory. Edie’s likeness to mirrors instead equates her to a controllable agent of change.

This paper will examine the representations of feminine identity, agency, and physicality to demonstrate that the girl’s primary struggle lies in trying to achieve self-definition free from dominating male influences. Mirrors act as the catalyst and transformative vehicle for this identity formation, which in turn enables the development of her maturity. Despite the evolution of her self-awareness, I argue that her efforts are not wholly successful and that this series presents women as essential to the maturation of their male counterparts, ultimately becoming conduits for the male’s growth. Fletcher therefore portrays women as intrinsically linked to and contained by male agency and power, forcing us to question how far contemporary fantasy has progressed from earlier literary representations of women as subordinate figures.

Edie’s level of subordination can be understood through the examination of femininity in the novels. Because of the emphasis placed on the fact that only women can carry the burden of being a glint, it follows that femininity as a whole is encapsulated by the glint’s fantastical nature. Following George’s introduction to Un-London, his companion, a sentient bronze statue of a soldier called the Gunner, explains that “normal rational people” cannot see them because they “don’t believe you can walk around London with statues” (Stoneheart 59). Yet suddenly Edie appears, able to see them both. Thus, we associate irrational behavior with her immediately and accept the Gunner’s initial mistreatment of her. He explains that as a glint, she is a “seer, a bright spark; someone so sharp and shiny they cut themselves… [and] slice between all the different layers of ‘what is’ and ‘what might be’ and end up chopping right on through into ‘what was'” (64). The Gunner’s description, though accurate, reflects his opinion that glints are akin to dangerous weapons and also reveals the fear the glints evoke. He even calls her uncanny, evoking Sigmund Freud when he says that “this uncanny is in reality nothing new or foreign, but something familiar and old – established in the mind that has been estranged only by the process of repression” (429). As an uncanny figure, Edie is recognized by the Gunner immediately as a familiar form previously believed to be extinct and therefore stifled in the Gunner’s mind (and all other statues knowledgeable of glints). She elicits a disquieting feeling merely by turning up, and within moments of her introduction, Edie assumes an unwelcomed outsider’s role.

This otherness—her ability to travel between times and read into “what was” by the touch of her hand—demonstrates the “mystifying deathliness” that feminist critics Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar speak of when they say that “if the angel-woman in some curious way simultaneously inhabits both this world and the next, then there is a sense in which, besides ministering to the dying, she is herself already dead” (817). Not only does Edie see the past, she also witnesses death and devastation at the cost of her mental stability. Glinting the bombing of a Sphinx statue, Edie’s “back arched, her eyes screwed shut, her mouth opened wide, her neck tendons snapped tight as violin strings, and a sound that wasn’t just a sound ripped into George’s head” (Stoneheart 95). Her scream debilitates others, but Edie alone witnesses fatalities and verbally observes that “there’s a lot of death” (117) in certain areas. In this sense, Edie transcends mere uncanniness; she inhabits death.

The true horror of this association between females and death surfaces when Edie slips near the Thames River and inadvertently glints the murder of a young girl pushed into the frigid river depths. Only later does the truth hit her that she is that girl; now Edie must cope with the disturbing vision of her own murder. This revelation and the glint characteristics as a whole, special as they are, consequently have a distinct isolating effect on the girl. As an orphaned child, Edie already begins the series in a detached and lonely state; as a glint she is pushed even further from forging relationships due to her condition. Conversely, George inhabits the role of a “maker,” one who creates statues and indirectly imparts a ‘maker’s spirit’ into them so they may come to life in Un-London. He has “gifted hands, hands made to make things… All things that have been made… feel [his] power… Even things not yet made will reach out to [him] and crave the form [he] might give them” (278). Statues gravitate toward George to seek out his help and unifying ability, very much in contrast to Edie’s undesirability. Furthermore, he crosses into Un-London by accidentally breaking a statue and dishonoring the ancient bond between maker and statue, but he has a means to escape (once he mends his wrong). Edie has no such choice, unable to escape the so-called gifts of her unique state. These disparate treatments of the two children go unchallenged through most of the series, consequently shaping the arc of female development.

Gilbert and Gubar argue that women writers must kill the “monster” image perpetrated by early literary traditions or else relegate themselves to the role of advice or consolation giver (815). If we replace “writer” with Fletcher’s “maker,” their argument now suggests that women makers must harness the creative force and energy to dismantle the subordinate roles and treatment their predecessors have experienced. This indicates where Edie’s essential struggle lies—not in asserting control over her life but simply in establishing who she is, free of any cultural (or male) definition. In this case, being able to liberate herself from these shackles and formulate a fresh identity hinges on two factors: holding the status of “maker” (to be in a position of power and creativity at all) and knowledge and exculpation of her parents’ past. However, Edie is neither identified as a maker nor does she have much room for forgiveness for an unstable mother and abusive stepfather. Both of these factors reinforce the suppression of the young girl, whose consistently violated youth reveals itself entirely via her travels through the gateway-mirrors.

Mirrors have traditionally symbolized a tool of patriarchy—imposing “mythical masks” onto women (Gilbert and Gubar 813)—and of male validation, wherein women lose subjectivity to become reflections of men themselves. Fletcher utilizes them as portals through which others may travel through time and space, paralleling their usage to the glint’s abilities and indirectly signifying  the conquering of females. When the Black Friar statue explains to Edie the power of mirrors, he describes them as “very powerful, and … very, very dangerous” (Ironhand 139). Edie initially remains unfazed because as a glint she understands “about being able to go to the past because it’s sort of what [she does]” (142) – a subtle hint that glints are powerful and dangerous as well. Yet she does not fully grasp the danger until subjected to the perils of mirror-travel by accidentally falling through one. That the Friar must rescue her from a threat of her own likeness by following her into the mirror demonstrates how “the creativity of the world made flesh is annihilating” (Gilbert 822) but can be curtailed by a male force. Mirrors act much like Edie then, who instills fear yet is frequently enlisted to engage her skills for another’s desire. As a result, Fletcher fulfills both traditional significances of the mirrors and implicates Edie as an apparatus to be controlled while fostering male dominance.

If the glint personifies feminine identity, and the mirror female agency, then Edie’s heart stone—a smoothed shard of glass—symbolizes her physical body. The glass glows in the proximity of “tainted” or dark statues, but it grounds Edie as well, providing her with the sanity necessary to survive her glinting experiences. Grounding denotes the corporeal significance of the glass; while everything else about her forces Edie into the realm of “monstrosity,” the glass demonstrates her need for footing in this world. Yet the strength she gleans from it belies her vulnerability. The primary villain of the series—a man named the Walker cursed to serve the dark forces of the universe eternally—takes particular interest in hunting down glints for his own purposes, and in the process he collects  “a few dainties and eye-brighteners” as a hobby, knowing full well that “without their heart stones they’re lost and spinning in the wind” (Ironhand 33). His callous nature reflects female objectification from the male perspective.

The Walker intimates that the glints’ “minds unspool, ” and we see that slow descent in Edie whenever the heart stone is out of her grasp. When she offers it to George at one point to warn him of approaching taints, she immediately senses “a nagging void… a suddenly noticed absence” (Stoneheart 353). Fletcher again brings Freud to mind with that statement, eliciting his  “psychoanalytic theories of fear of castration and penis-envy” which “transformed woman into non-man, thus defining her as ‘other’ and ‘lacking'” (Domínguez-Rué 425). A Freudian reading would therefore imply that Edie can never be equal to George because of that physical void and its psychoanalytical consequences. I do not suggest adhering to this reading; it is among his most contested theories especially in the light of feminist criticism and does not leave room for any successes by female figures. I do present it though to demonstrate the various ways we can interpret Edie’s character as operating within the frame of female subordination.

Instead, if we maintain her heart stone holds corporeal significance, then her hollowness from its absence depicts the uncertainty felt after physically giving oneself to another. Furthermore, forcibly stealing a stone symbolizes direct violation of a woman’s body, an abuse that Fletcher illustrates through the experiences of other glints. An older glint, the Blind Woman, is forever imprisoned as the Walker’s servant. Years of deprivation have left her hopeless, so when the Walker dangles her stone like a dog’s treat she “shudder[s] and sigh[s] with relief” (Ironhand265). Edie identifies this as a junkie’s habit, understanding that the Walker uses the woman’s stone like a drug, degrading her body in the process. Even more violent than this is the Walker’s treatment of Edie’s mother. Also a glint, she suffers when the Walker hunts her, “circling [her], wheedling, teasing, and then bullying and threatening” (Silvertongue 327), finally ripping her glass earring from her. His aggression coupled with the loss of her heart stone quickly leads to her institutionalization. She eventually sacrifices her life while attempting to kill the immortal Walker, furthering the theme of female subordination and ineffectuality.

The role and (in)efficacy of Edie’s mother, whose instability inevitably leaves Edie orphaned, draws attention to an issue that has troubled female characters in literature in the past: the struggle between the demonized or otherwise absent mother and her daughter. Susan Kornfeld has observed in contemporary science fiction that “recent works predominantly suppress or demonize mothers, and at times completely transform or displace maternal function” (65). Edie’s mother, abused and silenced, continues the feminist dilemma of how to interpret these maternal roles by propagating the “paradox of the powerful/powerless mother [that] will continue to the extent that women have power over children at the expense of empowerment” (Kornfeld 72-3). Her mother, devoid of self-empowerment, nevertheless affects and directs Edie’s actions without her consent, passing on the glint traits to Edie and later abandoning her. Through these actions, Edie’s mom transforms her function as mother to that of victimizer, further contributing to the underlying trend in the novels for the need to control the monstrous, “other,” female.

For contemporary fantasy to move forward from the traditional placement of women as demonized and subordinate, the female needs to enlist more agency than her precursors. Edie does indeed gain empowerment through the heart stone and mirrors, enough to develop her self-awareness and maturation. The tools become her vehicles for recovery, supporting Veronica Schanoes’ claim that mirrors (and I would add other representations of femininity) in contemporary literature are “being reclaimed… as potential sources of power, self-creation, and magic” (6). First, Edie is murdered by the Walker, but the power of a large collection of discovered heart stones revitalizes her via the hope and strength embedded within the glass shards. Her “affliction” becomes a source of power rather than of annihilation. Secondly, consider Schanoes’ argument that in contemporary fantasy “the novel itself becomes a mirror to ‘show’ us the events of the story” and draws a parallel “between the reader and/or writer and a woman looking into a mirror” (15). We see mirrors become the narrator when Edie demands the Friar to let her travel back and uncover the truth about her mother; one by one memories unfold and in doing so, reflect “her shifting consciousness with respect to her own story” (Schanoes 15). As Edie witnesses her mother’s slow unraveling, she learns that her mother never intended to abandon Edie and that she tried to protect Edie from the Walker. These realizations awaken Edie’s self-awareness, revitalize her love for her mother, and remind her of her responsibility to help George and their allies in the present.

Also vital to Edie’s identity formation is uncovering her father’s name. In one poignant memory she watches her mother part ways with a man who is returning to a troubled relationship for the sake of his unborn child. Together they cast a bottle out to sea with an invisible message filled with hope and wishing “one day it’ll float up on a beach and someone will think it’s empty, and not realize it’s a magic bottle… [And] never know why their life changes for the better” (Silvertongue 275). Edie’s heart stone is a shard from this bottle, the knowledge of which exposes the authenticity of her mother’s emotions and fragile state and reinforces compassion for her. This memory also leads to the startling realization that this man is both her father as well as George’s. That information fully shapes her identity, past and present, and completes her personal quest. The mirrors enable this change, and ultimately Edie is able to develop beyond the earlier glints because she has George’s father’s blood in her—she too is a maker. This would imply a subversion of the earlier analysis of the female as glint and illustrate the progression of female agency in contemporary fantasy. Edie now has the ability to do as Gilbert and Gubar suggest and dismantle the “monster” image of women.

Notice however that her own gifts do not serve to free her; the mirrors do, but even they come with a caveat—her maturity and growth arrive under the gaze of males: the Friar and the Gunner. As a glint Edie can travel in time uncontrollably, but through the gateway-mirror she requires a porter. In her study of portals in fantasy, Lori Campbell discusses the implications of females placed under the guidance of a porter. Speaking of Ford Madox Ford’s The Brown Owl, she states, “Nevertheless, her power remains tenuous and inconsistent due to the male protectors Ford provides, so that [the princess’s] success implies women may rise, but only with the approval or guidance of men who actually run things” (52). Edie must ask the Friar for help through the mirrors to discover what happened to her mother, and the Gunner follows her later. Fearing that he intends to take her back, she implores him to let her continue and they come to an agreement:

…in this one place, in the matrix bracketed by his two strong arms, there was a stillness in which an understanding was born as she looked into his eyes.
“Please,” she mouthed. “She’s my mum.”
He took a deep breath… And then nodded.
“But not on your own,”… (Silvertongue 255)

Edie consequently proceeds on her journey under his watchful eye, remaining subordinate to masculine forces and within their control. That Edie should remain constrained is not surprising though, once we evaluate the nature of her relationship and interactions with George.

Just as mirrors are her portal, so is Edie George’s portal into a developed masculine figure. Campbell discusses girls as portals, arguing that a girl’s “personal ‘loss of self’ becomes permanent rather than transitional as the phases of her maturation resonate to enable the growth of the male figures in her life” (83). In this light Edie maintains her “loss of self” when she becomes George’s vehicle of change, never quite rising out of that role; because of her, George grows into a self-assured leader with grit. When he has the opportunity to escape from Un-London by mending the statue he breaks originally, George instead chooses Edie, saying, “I won’t leave you alone here. I’m not forgetting any of this” (Stoneheart 445). Earlier in the story he does actually leave her, but as the quest progresses, George chooses repeatedly to rush to Edie’s rescue: from the Walker, from tainted statues, from her own death. Each time, her concern for and loyalty to George grow stronger while his courage and determination do the same, spreading his protection to others as well. When the Gunner is lost and unable to return to his platform at midnight and risks losing his sentient quality, George chooses to stand in his place all night (consequently living through the memory of a war while doing so) to ensure the Gunner continues to live. Immediately following this harrowing experience, George embarks to save Edie from the Walker, dictating commands so that “the unmistakable crack of authority in [his] voice made the spits look at him in surprise” (Ironhand 346). His interactions with Edie and deliberations over situations concerning her motivate George’s development in character and enable him to choose to lead.

George’s final transformation occurs at the very end, when Edie and George are coming to terms with her heritage, making them equals since she has finally exhibited maker qualities. This scene fulfills Campbell’s arguments that a girl’s transformation is incomplete until she applies what she has learned to transform another (91). Edie has enabled George’s change and development, thus concretizing her own growth, but the Walker makes one final appearance and nearly kills Edie. George, now able to react immediately, permanently freezes the Walker with a slain head of Medusa, ironically using the epitome of female “monsters” with the power to steal male generative energy (Gilbert 823) to save Edie one last time. It implies that female power, no matter how powerful, can be controlled by men in the end, much like Edie who has transformed into a more significant and formidable person but still walks away with George’s arm looped over her shoulders.

Stoneheart does not fully abandon the shackles of early fantasy models, but it does demonstrate the woman’s personal journey to a complete sense of self. Edie is the only character that willfully travels through the mirrors on her own agenda and attains knowledge and self-awareness in the process. This deliberate distinction shows that the past exists within the female’s realm of expertise and serves as a function of female creativity (Campbell 88) and strength. These strengths belie female liberation, though; always under masculine control, Edie never learns that her gifts act as restraints as much as enablers of identity formation. By serving George’s needs for personal development, Edie never reaches the same level of authority as him. Yet her subjugation also stems from maternal stagnancy. Kornfeld describes a return “to narrative structures of two hundred years ago, where the daughter’s struggle to find herself and freedom is set against or driven by an absent, suppressed, or antagonistic mother… And in those works where maternal function is displaced or transformed… a silenced mother is often in the background ” (72). Kornfeld indicates a necessity for the daughter to lose her maternal voice in order to gain freedom, but for Edie that maternity translates to the transformative features used by George. As a result, she remains suppressed,  and ultimately we as readers are left to question how and when female agency will exist equally beside male.

Works Cited

Campbell, Lori M. Portals of Power: Magical Agency and Transformation in Literary Fantasy. Jefferson, NC: McFarland &, 2010. Print.

Domínguez-Rué, Emma. “Madwomen in the Drawing-Room: Female Invalidism in Ellen Glasgow’s Gothic Stories.” Journal of American Studies, 38.3 (2004): 425-438.

Fletcher, Charlie. Ironhand. New York: Hyperion for Children, 2009. Print.

—. Silvertongue. New York: Hyperion for Children, 2010. Print.

—. Stoneheart. New York: Hyperion for Children, 2008. Print.

Freud, Sigmund. “The Uncanny.” Literary Theory: an Anthology. Ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Malden: Blackwell, 2004. 418-30. Print.

Gilbert, Sandra and Susan Gubar. “The Madwoman in the Attic.” Literary Theory: an Anthology. Ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Malden: Blackwell, 2004. 812-25. Print.

Kornfeld, Susan. “Suppression and Transformation of the Maternal in Contemporary Women’s Science Fiction.” Extrapolation 45.1 (2004): 65-75. ProQuest. Web. 31 May 2013.

Schanoes, Veronica L. “Book as Mirror, Mirror as Book: The Significance of the Looking-glass in Contemporary Revisions of Fairy Tales.” Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, 20.1 (2009): 5-23.

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2 thoughts on ““Trapped By Transformation: The Place for Female Identity in The Stoneheart Trilogy,” by Alya Hameed

  1. Pingback: The Unjournal of Children’s Literature | educating alice

  2. Pingback: Sunday catch-up (news, reviews and more from the world of children’s literature) | Did you ever stop to think and forget to start again?

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