OK, I’m more of a conventional, traditional bibliophile in the way that I store and display books. I use the bookcase/bookshelves approach – others like to be a bit more ‘showy’ in their approach. I prefer my books to be useful, to be like my tools – not mere dust catchers. The link below is to an article that looks at 5 ways to creatively display books, which isn’t really my cup of tea (which I don’t drink – so much for traditional then), but could be someone else’s I guess.
Two of Australia’s most popular children’s storytellers live in a treehouse. It’s a Thirteen-Storey one, at least it started out that way. The storytellers are Terry Denton and Andy Griffiths, responsible for an array of children’s comedies, who live in a fantasy treehouse paradise. There they write and illustrate their stories, distracted by the lemonade fountains, see-through shark-infested swimming pool and a marshmallow gun that shoots directly into your mouth.
Since its arrival on the literary scene in 2011, this Treehouse has grown by 13 storeys at a time. The next edition will be 104 storeys. The books have sold over 3 million copies in Australia alone. The treehouse now contains a detective agency, a mashed potato and gravy train and a machine that makes money… or honey… depending on what you’d prefer. These delights interrupt Andy and Terry as they write for their publisher, Mr Bignose. Indeed the treehouse functions as a metaphor for the writing process … its storeys provide food for the stories produced inside.
Treehouses feature often in children’s stories. In Dav Pilkey’s popular Captain Underpants series, the heroes George and Harold write comics in their treehouse and retreat to it when things get out of hand, to regroup and create their way out of trouble. There are, of course, Tolkien’s Ents, the walking trees who fight on the side of good against Sauron and his army. Or Dr Seuss’s Lorax, who guards the Truffula trees from devastation. Ents and the Lorax are guardians of the ecosystem. When they act we know that something is badly out of kilter – in these cases in the fight between good and evil.
Mention Enid Blyton’s Faraway Tree stories, meanwhile, and many a grown-up gets misty-eyed. Mary Pope Osborne’s Magic Tree House series has been going strong for 25 years, and has nearly 100 titles. Carter Higgins’s Everything You Need for a Treehouse helps you get kitted out for your own woodland home. And mythology is full of trees.
The World Tree of ancient Norse mythology, Yggdrasil, is similar to the thirteen-storey treehouse, linking the nine realms of the world (of fire, of ice, of elves, of gods, of fertility, of giants, of dwarves, of humans, and of the dishonorable dead). In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, when King Eresichthyon of Thessaly cut down the Greek Goddess Demeter’s favourite oak tree she teamed up with her sister Fames to torment him with a hunger so eternal that he eventually ate himself.
So it’s not surprising that living in the trees gives Andy and Terry and George and Harold access to fantasy spaces, and to magic and mystery. A technical term for this is liminality: in a liminal space, you are on the borders of things, or thresholds (the word come from the Latin for threshold, limen). If you live in a tree, you are up in the air, but connected to the earth.
At heart, most myths respond to fundamental practical needs. Tree house stories recognise that children need time in nature. For generations of urban children, these books offer a fantasy of unsupervised creative spaces where they can control their own adventures, face dangers that test them and engage with others in a less restricted way.
In Vitamin N: The Essential Guide to a Nature Rich Life (2016), author Richard Louv coined the phrase “Nature deficit disorder” to describe the human costs of alienation from the natural world. Opportunities for play in nature have dramatically declined in urbanised societies and with them, benefits such as creativity, problem-solving and emotional and intellectual development.
Writers like Denton and Griffiths recognise the child’s need for nature. So does Tina Matthews, in whose Waiting for Later a tree provides company for a child whose family is too busy to spend time with her. And so does mythology which regularly takes characters into nature, to confront, to challenge or to come to terms with life.
While the Thirteen-Storey Treehouse may not be directly inspired by Yggdrasil or Demeter’s Oak, or hop about like Baba Yaga’s hut, it understands the relation between creativity and time in the woods, taking part in a grand literary tradition that goes as far back as myth itself.
When asked to explain the significance and pleasure of the Chinese novel Dream of the Red Chamber, by Cao Xueqin, I’m afraid I usually flounder. How to put it to friends, students or colleagues that the tiffs, the leisurely intrigues and frustrated aspirations of a fractious bunch of adolescents constitute one of the great efforts at plumbing human experience?
Yet Dream of the Red Chamber, written in the mid-18th century, is the fullest immersion one could hope for into late imperial China, the best access to the minds, hearts and habits of that period, complete in everything from cosmology to cosmetics.
The episodic plot, sprawling over 2,500 pages in the standard Penguin translation, follows the infatuations and travails of a pubescent boy, Jia Baoyu. Baoyu is the unstudious and distracted son of a great, albeit troubled, house in Beijing. He is surrounded by a bevy of erudite and beautiful girls (relatives and maidservants), doted upon by his elderly grandmother, and terrified by his strict, pedantic father — a paragon or parody of the Confucian gentleman. In the pavilions, halls and gardens of this grand estate, allegory of and escape from the world, Baoyu struggles reluctantly towards adulthood.
The interlocking pieces of the plot are revealing vignettes and character studies, many of which have reached iconic status in Chinese culture, and proved fertile ground for theatre and the visual arts.
They function also as a mirror of a reader’s personality, status, age and values. Do you tend towards the maiden who moderates with steady counsel or to the volatile but brilliant orphan girl? Do you deplore or delight in the fiery, funny administrating aunt’s shady outlay of expenses and sometimes malicious (or even murderous) feistiness? As with Proust, the perspective changes with age: re-reading the novel this year, I noticed how my sympathies were shifting upward a generation.
What’s it all about?
The deceptively immaterial occupations of the characters’ daily rounds of visits and chats provide material as much for metaphysics as for psychology. Drama can be constructed one moment around whether Baoyu will have his tea (his nanny sometimes appropriates it), and the next moment around the boundaries of reality, or the purpose of human striving.
Somehow, almost deviously, through the spats, crushes and rivalries of a handful of teenagers, the great questions of the human condition are broached: what is a good life, faced with the inevitability and omnipresence of death? What are one’s obligations? How real is this life and what is it for?
Take the famous little scene in Chapter 22 when Baoyu is inspired to throw fallen flower petals into the stream, but is chided by his sensitive cousin, Daiyu, who remarks:
It isn’t a good idea to tip them into the water … The water you see here is clean, but farther on beyond the weir, where it flows on beyond people’s houses, there are all sorts of muck and impurity, and in the end they get spoiled just the same. In that corner over there I’ve got a grave for the flowers, and what I am doing now is sweeping them up and putting them in this silk bag to bury them there, so that they can gradually turn back into earth.
Contained in this image is, depending on how you see it, a poignant image of grief, an allegory of love or its inadequacy, or a Buddhist exhortation to accept impermanence. The work’s ability to imbue petty incident and trifling games with philosophical resonance is peerless.
But while you are distracted by the intricate web of their relations, and, we hope, by Baoyu’s marriage and/or enlightenment, the reader realises that this is a family, an estate, a dynasty, a universe, in decay.
Cao Xueqin, the author, was himself the scion of a family in slow collapse, and the work (left unfinished and completed after his death) is often read as an elegy to his own vanished childhood. From our historical vantage point, it is hard not also to recall that within 50 years of the novel’s publication, China was in the throes of the Opium War, its sense of self-sufficiency and centrality forever fractured (until, perhaps, now).
Dream of the Red Chamber has Balzac’s panoramic view of society, the satire of arrogance and fashion of Vanity Fair, the funny, meandering mischief of Decameron. But these comparisons are inadequate to a work so monumental and so vehemently itself, the epitome of the great tradition of Chinese family fiction.
The novel has spawned innumerable adaptations for the stage and screen, as well as dozens of sequels attempting to rescue or resolve its characters’ dilemmas and narrative arcs. It has influenced everything from the witty, cruel short stories of Eileen Chang, to the claustrophobic film, Raise the Red Lantern, and the opulent concubine-poisoners’ dramas of popular TV serials such as Empresses in the Palace.
Above all, reading (or prescribing) the novel feels like the antidote to facile stereotyping of Chinese culture. All the core topics are present: family dynamics; Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism; face and status; strategy and emotion. But all of these are played out for a readership which still regarded the world outside China as a curiosity, and was under no pressure to defend or justify its culture. It is a work of the Qing Dynasty, by a Qing author, for Qing readers; and it is the modern reader’s good fortune just to be allowed in.
Whether you read it straight through or dip in from time to time, this work affords entry to one of the great fictional universes.