Self-aware. Self conscious. Self induced.

Grammar and Vocabulary: Example One

Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book.

I choose this because Gaimain is explicit about his homage to Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. I hope it stands as a case that exemplifies how two stories can share a very common structure and be viewed as equally and differently inspiring.

I could call this an example of a “coming of age” story, in that Bod (Gaiman’s character) has to grow up. I could call it a “quest” story, in that villainous Jacks (one of whom murders Bod’s family in the opening chapter) must be vanquished. Personally, I wouldn’t call it either one of those, although we could certainly have a good discussion if you were to take either of those or any other position.

I would call it a “transformation” story.

The reason I don’t call it coming of age is that while Bod essentially “ages” out of his time in the graveyard, I generally consider a coming of age story one in which the protagonist must address his or her own shortcomings and “grow up” – instead of “aging out.” A coming of age story typically involves a lesson learned and the person in question, whether teen or adult-who-ought-to-know-better, finally understands that Something Else matters. Often this lesson is about love or being true to yourself – and, even though true, these stories all too often manage to trivialize this particular message (editorial: over). A coming of age novel: I Am the Messenger. A coming of age film: Almost Famous.

In the two Books in question (Jungle and Graveyard), our heroes don’t learn a specific lesson. There’s a vague bit about being with their own kind (humans and living humans, respectively) and it’s bittersweet and they definitely arrive in “our” world a damn sight more prepared than most kids their age.

Compare this to rituals of adulthood in religion: taking Communion in Christian tradition or the bar/bat mitzvah in Judaism. These are age-appropriate, indicating that the person in question is now of an age to understand Big Things. Whether we actually understand them is a little beside the point – what matters is that, having passed through the ritual in question, in the eyes of the religion we are now adults (even if, in society, we are children). A transformation.

For the point of this writing, let’s assume we’re on the same page here, because honestly we can use any thousands of examples. Whatever you settle on for your idea of the story’s genre, whether you agree with me or choose another genre? To a very large degree, that determines its grammar.

The two books share a genre, but no characters. They do share character types. Mowgli/Bod is the boy hero, learning the rules of society from the outside in. His primary guardian is Baghira/Silas. His teacher is Baloo /Ms. Lupescu. The villains parallel in Shere Khan/the Jacks. These characters are not wholly interchangeable, but they are types. These types are the vocabulary. You might say that the exact expressions of types are the author’s voice (or “idiolect” if you want to be snooty about it).

Keep in mind – these are both celebrated books, and yet the roots of Gaiman’s story are abundantly clear in Kipling’s writing. All of which is to say – you can pay homage without copying, and still keep your own voice and originality.

Incidentally, we could have this same conversation over King Lear and Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres.


Discussion of story parallels at GoodReads:

Blog essay discussing parallels:

The Guardian talks to Gaiman

Next up: How We Do

Previous: New Series – Grammar and Vocabulary of Storytelling


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