In this essay I aim to explore some of the fantastical elements used in the children’s fantasy novel Coraline by Neil Gaiman. I use literary professor Maria Nikolajeva’s book The Magical Code (1988) as a tool for finding these elements – elements that Nikolajeva calls fantasemes.
The secondary world in Coraline seems to exist parallel with “our” reality and is accessible from the primary world through a portal. The door and the mysterious tunnel are the passageway to the other world. The door is portrayed as a mystery, something forbidden as it’s in the room where Coraline is not allowed and it’s accessed with a great rusty key.
But although the secondary world is open, it is, of course, not open to anyone. For instance, when Coraline’s mother open’s the door, nothing happens: “Her mother was right. The door didn’t go anywhere. It opened into a brick wall.” (p. 9) But when Coraline opens the door herself, this scene emerges:
Coraline put her hand on the doorknob and turned it; and finally, she opened the door. It opened on to a dark hallway. The bricks had gone as if they’d never been there. There was a cold, musty smell coming through the opened doorway: it smelled like something very old and very slow. (p. 26)
It could be read as a comment on how Coraline’s parents doesn’t give her enough attention as well as a way of showing how grown ups in general focuses on more mundane things than children, hence missing the magic. This is recurrent in children’s fiction and in children’s fantasy especially.
The dream, often used as a passageway in fantasy , doesn’t have that function in Coraline. But it serves as sort of a warning of things to come, for instance when Coraline dreams of meeting a rat and follows it to the drawing room, where the main gateway actually exists (p. 10).
We gather there might be other passageways as well, like the cat’s ability to move between realities. Later on we realise that Coraline isn’t the only child who have been visiting the secondary world, when she finds the ghosts of the other children.
Nikolajeva discusses journey patterns in children’s fantasy and establishes that the most common pattern in the circular journey. The character (or characters) makes a travel to the secondary world and then return to the safe haven of home. Gaiman toys a bit with this notion.
Firstly, Coraline is forced to enter the passageway to the other world a second time, after returning and finding her parents missing. Also, to remove the parents is a very effective way to make the whole text seem unsure and not safe.
Like I wrote on the forum, the secondary world consists of the elements of Coraline’s reality – her house, the closest surroundings, her parents and the other people living in the building. But all the elements are slightly twisted and changed, in a silently threatening manner. This makes the secondary world more confusing and creepy than if it had been a completely different universe.
Secondly, when Coraline returns to her real home the second time, the threat of the Beldam is still present. Not even the primary world is allowed to be a safe haven. So, the goal must be not only to arrive at the primary world, but to cut off all connections to the threatening secondary world.
Many of the magical items existing in fantasy derive from folk lore, myth and fairie tales. In Coraline we have the magical mirror, which we recognize from Snow White as well as Through the Looking-Glass.
It doesn’t function as a passageway in Coraline, but it serves other purposes. When the other mother kidnaps Coraline’s parents, she is able to see this through the mirror. Also the mirror functions as a prison for Coraline and the ghost children:
She pulled Coraline back into the hallway and advanced upon the mirror at the end of the hall. Then she pushed the tiny key into the fabric of the mirror, and she twisted it. It opened like a door, revealing a dark space behind it. [---] There she swung the mirror closed, and left Coraline in darkness. (p. 80)
Another magical item is the seeing-stone that Coraline gets from Miss Spink. The stone works as a protection for Coraline, and it allows her to feel safer when spending time in the strange secondary world. It’s also used as a weapon in the struggle against the other mother, when Coraline uses the stone to be able to find the souls of the ghost children (for instance, p. 97). The souls actually take the form of small glass marbles, which is suiting – to put something serious and vitally important into the form of an ordinary toy.
Connected to the magical items is also the concept of a magical helper, writes Nikolajeva, which in children’s fantasy often consists of talking animal, preferably domestic ones. Like the cat in Coraline. But cats may also be viewed as magical creatures with connotations to witchcraft.
The cat often serves as a reluctant helper to Coraline throughout the novel, for instance, in telling that the Beldam is fond of “games and challenges” (p. 65) It is also the cat that shows Coraline that her parents are missing, although he can’t speak in the primary world. “The cat made no reply, but Coraline could imagine its voice, as dry as a dead fly on a windowsill in winter, saying Well, where do you think they are?” (p. 54)
Typically, the rats serve as minions to the other mother, as rats often are associated with filth and diseases. The mice in the novel, however, serve as messengers twice in the novel, warning Coraline about the going through the door in the beginning and finally telling her the primary world is safe again in the end.
To conclude – it was quite easy to establish some of the fantasemes used in Gaiman’s Coraline. The structure of the secondary world as only open to some creatures (Coraline, the cat, the earlier children). The door is a classical fantaseme, though in this version it is accompanied by the mysterious tunnel as well.
Classical is also the function of the dream as something more than just a dream. In this case, the dream serves as a sort of warning or premonition for Coraline.
Gaiman builds his novel on the circular journey pattern often used in children’s fantasy, but makes it into a loop movement: there and back again and then there and back again, again, so to speak.
To use the protagonist’s primary world as a model for the threatening secondary world, like Gaiman does, is not the most common thing in fantasy. This increases the feelings of insecurity and threat in the text, in my opinion. As does the fact that the dangers of the secondary world are allowed back into the primary world.
Magical items, another type of fantaseme, appear, such as the mirror, the seeing stone and the children’s souls, disguised as glass marbles. A magical helper exists as well, albeit a bit reluctant – the cat. The talking cat form is also typical in children’s fiction, as it’s a domestic animal, chosen for a sense of safety. Other magical animals appearing are the threatening rats and the helpful mice.
My conclusion is that Gaiman uses a lot of classical fantaseme in Coraline, but that they seem to be worked with quite deliberately and that in many ways Gaiman also breaks our expectations for a fantasy novel for young children.