Book review — ‘Coraline’ by Neil Gaiman

“Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” ~ Neil Gaiman, paraphrasing G.K. Chesterton

This quote, which I’ve often seen attributed to G.K. Chesterton, is to be found at the beginning of the children’s novel Coraline, by Neil Gaiman. The sentiment is indeed Chesterton’s, but according to Neil himself,* the original quote is quite different. The words are Gaiman’s, and they are beautiful.

Our favourite childhood books teach us a lot about the world — how it is and how it is imagined and the little fantasies that help protect us from a vast and uncaring universe. Reading Coraline with that quote in mind, I could see what this book would have meant to me as a child, sometimes being so afraid (of comparatively inconsequential battles and hardships) and wondering how I was supposed to just … battle on anyway. Gaiman doesn’t offer a divine solution, but sometimes what you need to know is that some things you have to do, even though they’re hard. I think that would have meant a lot to my ten year old self. It means a lot to my twenty year old self.

Coraline, for those who don’t know, is the story of a girl who is bored and ignored in her house as an only child with busy parents. She is constantly called ‘Caroline’ by well-meaning and inattentive old neighbours. One might get the impression that not one person actually listens to a word Coraline says. The story changes into something out of a dream — or a nightmare — when the lonely child discovers a strange and twisted version of her home through a magical door, complete with strange and twisted versions of her parents. These ‘other’ parents pay her a great deal of attention and listen raptly when she speaks. This seductive and false ‘other’ world — where people have buttons for eyes and rats watch your every move — wishes to keep Coraline forever.

This plotline is very relatable for a child. When children don’t get what they want, they might wish that they had different parents. When they are ignored, it hurts. Her parents aren’t perfect. They do need to work, but their child needs attention, company, love. But they do love her, even if they aren’t always there, and she loves them. There is a huge emphasis on family connection, and such frank appraisals of loving but stilted family relations is ultimately very touching.

One thing I would worry about is that I, as a cowardly adult, was frightened by this book, though that may have been more a maternal, protective instinct than anything. But I would perhaps avoid giving this to very small or easily frightened children. Then again, fear builds character, so … you’d have to judge for yourself, there.

Coraline was a beautifully conceived, beautifully executed story full of suspense and wonder. It made me want to find my parents and give them a hug, and then find my little brother and tell him to not ever go outside — the world is dangerous.**

Highly recommended to all.

 

End note *WARNING SPOILERS FOR THE MOVIE*:

I must confess that I saw the movie long before I read the book (scandalous!), which I usually try not to do. But there was one major difference between the book and its adaptation that cannot go unmentioned. In the book, there is no Wyborne. I don’t know if he was created for the purpose of the movie, or if he appeared in perhaps the graphic novel, but this had several effects: 1) Coraline was a kinder figure in the book, as we didn’t see her lashing out at another lonely child, 2) The resolution was a bit less … happy. She had learned to appreciate her life, but she was still alone — though this is perhaps more realistic. There are no convenient solutions, but simply a change in perspective, 3) The ending was scarier, because partners in crime make the suspense less suspenseful, and 4) Coraline herself was a little bit less fleshed out, through our limited knowledge of her interactions — we only ever really see her speak to adults, ghosts, cats and monsters. Not mundane, childish interactions. None of these differences are inherently good or bad, but it did create a notably different atmosphere in the story. But, having seen the movie first (though it was a while ago), I missed Wyborne.

 * I find the phrase ‘Neil himself’ funny because I think his name on Twitter is @neilhimself.  I think he actually mentioned the quote paraphrasing on Tumblr, though.

**  This may be extreme — he’s 15.

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Is it good to exist?

He’s adorable *_* And exists …. That is the only relevance, to be honest.

Is it good to exist?

This was a question put to my philosophy class today, while we were studying the environmental ethics of Hans Jonas, a German philosopher.

When discussing whether it’s wrong to destroy a rainforest or a species or even the future of our own race … all arguments for preserving nature are null and void if existence is not a good thing.

My lecturer told us that for the Buddhists, life is suffering (which is why detachment is the way to enlightenment — if you don’t have something you are not sad when you lose it). I cannot refute this. Life is suffering. Some have suffered more than me, some less — but we all suffer.

“Life is a disease: sexually transmitted, and invariably fatal.”~ Neil Gaiman

So why is existence good? Why do we strive to live? Why do all things strive? Why do we think killing is one of the highest sins? Why is the destruction of the human race to be feared, rather than desired? There is a clear way to end all suffering, yet most of us deny it with every fibre of our being.

I’ve thought about this before, perhaps more than is healthy. The conclusion I’ve come to, the only true answer I can find … is one of potential.

Sure, most of us will experience happiness at some point, but it will not last, before we descend once more into sadness, stress and general angst. So is the sadness balanced out by this happiness? Not necessarily, perhaps for some of us.

But when we are at our worst … death offers us nothing. I do not believe in an afterlife (you may differ from me, here), but death … leads to nothing. It means that your life had an imbalance of sadness. But if you choose to live … there is a chance. It might be small, it might be vaguely irrational, depending on your circumstances, but it is there. This hope of happiness. That is what we strive for.  And as someone who has experienced what I believe to be both intense joy and intense sorrow … I think the joy is worth waiting for. A gamble. We exist for all those little moments in which we are happy, or hope to be happy. We live to see it in others, see it for others when they can’t see it for themselves.

“All things strive.” ~ Terry Pratchett

I believe life is worth it for that chance. Because nothing compares to that joy. We have all heard Sartre’s famous quote, “Hell is other people” yet he fails to mention that only with other people, choosing life alongside us, will we reach a form of heaven. It may be fleeting, it may fade, but it existed, and it was utterly beautiful.

We may see it again.

“FOR THE SAKE OF PRISONERS AND THE FLIGHT OF BIRDS. WHAT CAN THE HARVEST HOPE FOR, IF NOT THE CARE OF THE REAPER MAN?” ~ Terry Pratchett

While I don’t dislike Buddhism, I could never adopt it for myself. Life is suffering, true. And you minimise this suffering through detachment. However … when you are detached, you lose that chance at euphoria. I don’t think it’s worth it.

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Someday … we shall all be gone. All that we know, all that we have done, all that we have thought and dreamed and achieved shall have faded. But not yet. There is beauty to be found that has not yet come to pass.

I ask only that you give it a chance.

“After all this time, it still seems to me like straight and fast is the only way out — but I choose the labyrinth. The labyrinth blows, but I choose it.” ~ ‘Looking for Alaska’ by John Green.

So … is it good to exist? Not always. Existence can be good or bad. But who are we to deny anyone, including ourselves, that chance?

Let me know what you think. Let me know if you have questions. I wrote this at 1am. Bear that in mind, please.

If you have a thought that you think is relevant, or might change my own view, I might write something else on this topic incorporating your philosophies.

Influences: Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman, John Green, Sartre, moral philosophy, life, Buddhism, etc.

The first photograph is not mine. The second is (it’s of Stephen’s Green Park, in Dublin, Ireland).