From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

COSMIC POWERS

Nonfiction

The Deathly Shadows in Our Lives

“Boy, why are you crying?”

These are the first words Wendy Moira Angela Darling addresses to the most famous shadow-loser in fantasy literature, Peter Pan, when she awakens to find him crying on the floor of her nursery. Peter, recalling his manners, introduces himself, and the subject is not broached again until Wendy learns that Peter has no mother. “No wonder you were crying,” she says, only to be met with scorn. It isn’t something as silly as that, Peter tells her. It’s that he’s lost his shadow; it had gotten trapped in the window of the nursery on his last visit, and his attempts to stick it back on with soap have not been meeting with success.

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The Shadow as the Soul

European folk tradition has placed quite a strong emphasis on the connection between the shadow and the soul; this connection can be found in German and Portuguese folklore, and in non-European folk belief as well. Otto Rank, in 1925, published what is perhaps the first scholarly survey of beliefs surrounding shadows in his landmark book, Der Doppelganger. Rank notes that folk beliefs regarding shadows are inseparable from those regarding mirror reflections and other forms of doubles. His short book takes two approaches, one anthropological, in which he catalogs and discusses the beliefs regarding shadows, mirrors, and doubles in a variety of cultures: Western European, Eastern European, Asian, and African. In the second part of the book, he uses literary works on the double contemporary with his writing to construct a psychoanalytic theory accounting for these beliefs. While Rank’s work was not translated into English until 1971, it achieved great renown through Sigmund Freud’s use of it in his famous essay, “The Uncanny.”

One of Rank’s most acute observations is that the shadow/reflection/doppelganger, though almost universally the focal point for a number of superstitions regarding bad luck and death, seems to be at its origin an attempt to find comfort, to ameliorate our fear of the inevitable extinction that awaits us all. The shadow is evidence of an incorporeal self, a self that exists apart from the physical body that invariably meets with death. In other words, our shadows are our souls. They represent our best chance at immortality.

If this is the case, then why should so many superstitions revolve around the bad luck brought to us by shadows? As Rank tells us, German folk belief warns against looking at a corpse in a mirror, lest another death befall the household; in France, it was believed possible, if certain rituals were carried out, to see how one will look on one’s deathbed by looking in a mirror. Many, many cultures veil mirrors after a death, either to prevent the soul of the deceased from being accidentally snagged in the mirror, or to prevent the souls of any survivors reflected in the mirror from being carried off by the deceased. In Portugal, dancing or playing with one’s own shadow was the same as dancing or playing with the devil; Albanian belief tells us that a shadow can separate and become quite dangerously malevolent.

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Catching a Shadow

There are numerous stories in which the Devil, unable to get his hands on a man, takes the man’s shadow instead. In some stories, this is a happy ending, as the man escapes the Devil’s clutches, but in others, it is a sign of his damnation. In a great number of traditions as well as much contemporary fantasy literature, to steal somebody’s shadow is to control him or her, rendering the unfortunate victim a mindless zombie (for a good example of this, see Suzy McKee Charnas’s wonderful YA novel, The Silver Glove). How does this fit in with the idea that the shadow promises us immortality?

In German folk belief, seeing one’s own doppelganger is a harbinger of death. Why should this be? Well, if the shadow represents the soul, seeing one’s shadow or double free from the body mimics the event of death, in which the soul leaves the body. Seeing one’s shadow or one’s double is not only a reminder of the inevitability of death, as it must first bring mortality to mind before it can console us for it, but it is also an enactment of that death. Perhaps it would be better, even more comforting, we feel, if we just don’t think about death at all.

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The Shadow of Death 

Peter Pan loses his shadow in a nursery, and tries to stick it back on with soap. Many may find this example completely unrelated to the shadow’s connotations of death and possible damnation. Their memories of J. M. Barrie’s dark and poignant novel have been dulled by Disney and Mary Martin. For Peter is the child who never grows up, and there is only one way for a child never to become an adult. Those of us with the good fortune to live in the first world (and to have health insurance) in the twenty-first century may find infant or child-death to be the ultimate obscenity, a taboo topic to be approached only with the utmost earnestness and therapy, but in Barrie’s day, even the wealthy could not prevent their children from being carried off by illness or injury (needless to say, the children of the poor were yet more vulnerable), and the young girl who gave Barrie the name “Wendy” did indeed die at the age of five, from cerebral meningitis. Add to this the group of “Lost Boys” and remember that to “lose” someone is a euphemism for death, as common in Barrie’s day as it remains in ours, and the fact that Mrs. Darling, Wendy’s mother, at the beginning of the novel, remembers a story that Peter Pan goes “halfway” with children who have died, so that they will not be frightened on the journey, and the connection between Peter Pan and the shadow’s promised immortality, as well as its threat of death, becomes quite apparent. Peter himself is both the promise of eternal youth and the threat of premature death, so it is imperative that he retain both the light of Tinker Bell, the alternately protective and murderous fairy who adores him, and his shadow. Fortunately, Wendy proves quite able with a needle and thread, and his shadow is restored.

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Peter is not the only one combining the hope of life with the certainty of death, the light with the dark. We cast shadows by standing in front of a light-source, usually the sun. Looking up, we see light, the sun. Looking down, we see the shadow, darkness. And we think of ourselves as being in the middle, walking in the light as long as we can before the inescapable tumble. But it is we who create the shadow; the darkness is our body. We carry the potential for that darkness with us, wherever we go, until that final journey to the Neverlands.

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Veronica Schanoes

Veronica SchanoesVeronica Schanoes is an assistant professor in the department of English at Queens College-CUNY, where she is at work on a book about fairy tales and feminist theory. Her fiction has appeared in Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror 21 edited by Ellen Datlow, Kelly Link, and Gavin Grant, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and Strange Horizons. She has published scholarship on mirrors in fairy-tale revisions and the Harry Potter series.