Coraline by Neil Gaiman: Myth and a Message

Author’s Synopsis: Coraline’s often wondered what’s behind the locked door in the drawing room. It reveals only a brick wall when she finally opens it, but when she tries again later, a passageway mysteriously appears. Coraline is surprised to find a flat decorated exactly like her own, but strangely different. And when she finds her “other” parents in this alternate world, they are much more interesting despite their creepy black button eyes. When they make it clear, however, that they want to make her theirs forever, Coraline begins a nightmarish game to rescue her real parents and three children imprisoned in a mirror. With only a bored-through stone and an aloof cat to help, Coraline confronts this harrowing task of escaping these monstrous creatures.

For The Writer: Self described agnostic and practical atheist, Philip Pullman, said, “When you look at what C.S. Lewis is saying, his message is so anti-life, so cruel, so unjust. The view that the Narnia books have for the material world is one of almost undisguised contempt. At one point, the old professor says, ‘It’s all in Plato’ — meaning that the physical world we see around us is the crude, shabby, imperfect, second-rate copy of something much better. I want to emphasize the simple physical truth of things, the absolute primacy of the material life, rather than the spiritual or the afterlife.” [The New York Times interview, 2000

Philip Pullman endorsed Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, as did celebrity atheist and author Terry Pratchett. Oddly, the author’s third endorsement, though an indirect and conscripted quote from the celebrated Catholic Christian apologist, comes from G.K. Chesterton, whose observation about dragons being beaten, may ironically have been referring to the very traffickers of atheism Gaiman enlisted to praise his book.

I have noted before that some authors, such as Pratchett and Pullman, intentionally contest Christian faith through their work, while others, such as Kathryn Lasky of The Capture, or Roderick Gordon and Brian Williams of Tunnels, apply an alternative approach, intentional or not. The former humanists make no apology for their propagation of material humanist philosophy and criticism of the Christian faith; the latter unimaginatively dress their antagonists in the garb of Christian religion gone bad, (Is it bad in any form?) or some denomination of it, which could be interpreted as thinly veiled attacks.

Reader, I do not go hunting for this stuff. I pick up every book with the hope of a great story, biases aside. But philosophical bias is often woven among the fabric.

Why bring all this up in the context of Gaiman’s Coraline?

Though not as obvious, Gaiman’s Coraline is of the Tunnels and Capture ilk.

Not long reading into Gaiman’s fairy tale, my bias antennae bristled.

Here is how it played out:

As I read Gaiman’s descriptions of Coraline’s ‘other’ family, the scent of  a thing familiar began to percolate. The ‘Other Mother‘ quotes proverbs, cherry picked, more or less, from the long and broad Christian tradition.

The other mother shook her head, very slowly. “Sharper than a serpent’s tooth,” she said, is a daughter’s ingratitude. Still, the proudest spirit can be broken with love.”

Here are similar proverbs from the Bible. My readers have probably heard them before:

Whoever spares the rod hates their children, but the one who loves their children is careful to discipline them. Proverbs 13:24

Discipline your children, for in that there is hope; do not be a willing party to their death.  Proverbs 19:18

A wise son brings joy to his father, but a foolish man despises his mother. Proverbs 15:20

Gaiman is drifting along the edges of that literary vortex of characterizing Other Mother as a bent Christian from a weird, strict sect, I thought. Before I had recalled other works of children’s fiction that present similar characterizations, I read: “There we are,” she [the other Mother] said. “This is for you, Coraline. For your own good. Because I love you. To teach you manners. Manners makyth man, after all.”

Makyth? Does Coraline’s ‘Other Mother’ quote in King James English? “Augh! Not again,” I whispered to myself.

I have said it before (*See Tunnels); Christian religion gone bad or bound in the fetters of legalism deserves to be criticized. Christ Himself reserved his sharpest blows to the hypocritical religious establishment of his day. But when do these characterizations in children’s literature, sketched from bad religion, become general swipes at Christianity in general or in principle? In the case of Pratchett and Pullman, the answer comes readily; they said as much. In the case of Lasky and Gaiman, readers require more discernment.

I read on. Then, the hammer struck. The following quote is telling:

“There my sweet Coraline,” said her other mother. “I came and fetched you out of the cupboard. You needed to be taught a lesson, but we temper our justice with mercy here; we love the sinner and hate the sin.”

“Love the sinner and hate the sin” came out of some corner of the Christian camp as an over-simplified sound bite to defend criticism levelled by persons who, in fusing their identity to their acts, thought the distinction laughable. Though any parent who has grabbed a toy truck out of the hand of sibling about to commit aggravated assault upon her sister, brother or pet, experiences the distinction every day.smiling woman

Enough said. Gaiman could have omitted the allusions to Christianity or the Christian tradition, which would have, in my opinion, made his description of evil more universal in its depth, more widely applicable, since this devouring and controlling kind of evil, is found in many more places other than a form of Christianity gone bad. But, such as it is, Coraline presents itself, if in part,  as a veiled criticism of the Christian tradition.

On to a better aspect of the book.

I found the book so simply written, it read as if Coraline were a very long picture book. Here’s an example:

       The next day it had stopped raining, but a thick white fog had lowered over the house.

       “I’m going out for a walk,” said Coraline.

       “Don’t go too far,” said her mother. “And dress up warmly.”

       Coraline put on her blue coat with a hood, her red scarf, and her yellow Wellington boots.

       She went out.

       Miss Spink was walking her dogs.

The fairy tale unfolds in the same measured syntax, though evolves into more complex telling later on with a few splashes into complex ideas. But even when Gaiman introduces semi-colons, the clauses remain plain, the cadence steady.

I do not make note of Coraline’s simplicity to point out a weakness, but to draw attention to Coraline’s strength. Gaiman leads us down a scary path, one simple, measured step at a time, until, not realizing how far we have tread, it is too late to turn back. I did soon come to realize that the narrator (third person close point of view) sets forth the story in the simple way Coraline experiences life. In other words, the narrator, though distinct from Coraline, did not impose another personality on the story, but embraces the perspective of our heroine.

Gaiman’s Coraline underscores the potential of writing for the story, allowing the power of the story, which lies in its strength as myth – a tale embedded with the timeless composite of what it truly means to be human – to add flesh and bones to its soul.


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