To Hold Up a Mirror and Make It So

When the rabbits started to die, I didn’t understand what was going on.

As I continued to read, I was as confused and lost as the characters in the story. It took me years to understand some of the central messages of “Watership Down”, but the confusion and heartbreak of those rabbits was mirrored in myself long before that understanding.

We bring ourselves to the stories we read and I have written about what that does and does not do for our understanding and connection to the tales we absorb.

I haven’t spoken about what happens when a writer deliberately tries to shine the story back upon us.

It is hard to write about areas of social or political concern in fiction, particularly genre fiction.

The dance between polemic and seed of change is a difficult one.

“Watership Down” was a watershed moment for my nine-year-old self. I know that it is not viewed as well by others, so even the definition of success is not a universal statement.

Mirrored moments in stories are often how commentary is worked in, although they can be used for other purposes.

Describing the human destruction of a rabbit warren from the rabbits’ perspectives allows us to look at mundane events in a new light and perhaps see ourselves and our relationship to those events.

This type of mirroring can also be used to create empathy and connection for the characters in the story.

We may not have lived in a cupboard under the stairs, but there are few children who haven’t been lonely, who wouldn’t be awed and excited about a grand magical destiny. Many, many people can see themselves in Harry Potter, but also were able to sink so much more deeply into the world he inhabited because they learned about the world just as he did.

His confusion and understanding were mirrored back to us and our agreement or disagreement with his choices reflected our own understanding of ourselves and our relationship with choice and power.

There are more cynical, and less successful, examples of holding reflections up to the audience. There are stories where the characters or action serve as little more than thinly-veiled mouthpieces for a particular statement or writer’s vision.

The problem is not in the holding of this vision or statement.

It is that clumsy mirrors are worse than no mirrors at all.

There are very few things more likely to break suspension of disbelief or interest than the idea that we are being forced to stare at the writer’s vision of us-

-and it bears no resemblance to what we see and know of ourselves.

I have learned so much through reading, both about myself and the world around me.

The best mirror that I can face in a story is one that subtly, creatively forces me to summon my own reflection-

-and look at myself in understanding.

IMG_0821Our reflections may not always be obvious, but they are often worth seeing

How we see ourselves and how we recognize ourselves in the stories we read has always been one of my favourite puzzle pieces to dissect.


For my work on reflections, metaphorical and literal, you can read my fantasy novel,  The Guests of Honor. It is available here.

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2 thoughts on “To Hold Up a Mirror and Make It So

  1. The great thing about reading is our subconscious understands the meaning and intent first, particularly as a child, and sometimes its years before we consciously grapple the idea a novel presented.

    • I think this is why I am so attracted to great children’s literature. There is a subtlety and richness to the messages of great children’s stories. Often, adult writing is laid out much more heavily and with less nuance.

      We have a keen intuitive understanding as children and some of the best writers understand that and built on that foundation. I think of the way my own thoughts have been shaped by great writing that I read as a child, even if it took me years to fully and consciously understand the messages.

      I love the process of slow understanding although I know that not everyone shares those tastes!

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