Monday, March 4, 2013

Wooden Soldiers

Because I am tremendously busy at the moment,  I haven't had a chance to think about what new and fun things to do on this blog! We have the art contest coming up soon (deadline March 20th . . . don't forget!), so that will be fun. But in the meanwhile, it might be a bit hodge-podge for a few weeks. Do forgive me!

I thought to pass the time with some of the articles I wrote for the blog tour I did back in January. Many of you have already read these, but some of you might have missed them! So here you go . . .
 
Wooden Soldiers:
The Shaping of Imagination
Anne Elisabeth Stengl

 I want to talk to you for a moment about wooden soldiers. Specifically, a set of twelve wooden soldiers that belonged to a little boy a long time ago. 

This little boy was called Branwell--because long ago, everyone had funny names like that and no one thought it a bit strange--and he lived in a remote country house on a moor in England. As isolated as his home was, Branwell wasn't lonely; he had a lot of sisters. Neither was he bored; he had a keen imagination. 

And he had this beautiful set of twelve wooden soldiers. 

Branwell and his sisters--particularly the eldest, Charlotte--would play with these soldiers by the hour every day. And by play, I don't mean they would set up battles and chuck stones at them for bullets. Possibly they did sometimes, but that wasn’t the point of their play. No, Branwell and his sisters were far more creative than that. They invented personalities for each and every one of their twelve soldiers. And beyond personalities, they invented histories, relationships, dynamics, politics . . . an entire world, in fact, all sprung from their own imaginations.

They traveled to a made-up colony in Africa called Angria, and they peopled it with the characters of their soldiers, the "Young Men," as they were known jointly. These gallant fellows, guided always by the overseeing Genii (Branwell and his sisters), faced monsters and perils the likes of which only a child's imagination can conjure. Some died and were necessarily resurrected for later games, but don't think this lessened the tragedy of each and every death. Some were lost for months on end and presumed dead, only to return with still more glorious stories to be told.

Told and, more importantly, written down.

You see, Branwell and his sisters were not only imaginative but also lovers of the written word. They devoured whatever books fell under their hands and, encouraged by their father, were eager to pen down their own ideas as well. Branwell and Charlotte particularly wrote reams of material on their beloved Young Men: stories, poems, articles, and histories about the colony of Angria. Sometimes they quarreled about details and the order of events. But no matter! They wrote and they wrote and they wrote . . . .

 Sometimes their stories were influenced by events of the day. Sometimes they were filled with magic after the fashion of the Arabian Nights (some of Charlotte's favorite stories). Sometimes the influence of popular authors of that day can be seen in their little stories--authors like Byron and Sir Walter Scott. There were political intrigues, exciting romances with beautiful damsels, and often-stormy relationships among the twelve Young Men themselves. All alive and vivid in the minds of these children.

 Children who grew up. Grew up and became novelists.
 
Charlotte Brontë is perhaps the best-known of these four siblings. She wrote the famous novel Jane Eyre which has become a beloved classic, re-imagined on film again and again. Her sister Emily Brontë, only marginally less well known, penned the gothic romance Wuthering Heights, a chilling tale full of majesty and malice that belies the quiet girl who penned it. Anne Brontë is perhaps the least well known, but still respected as the author of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, a stunning piece of fiction that immortalized her own brother, Branwell, in the fictional character of Arthur Huntingdon.

Sadly, the only one of the siblings who never contributed to the history of English literature was young Branwell himself, whose descent into alcoholism and whose early death at age thirty-one prevented him from ever achieving the possibilities of his creative genius.

And yet, those possibilities live on long after his death in the many works he wrote about the Young Men, the twelve brave soldiers. An entire world lives and breathes on the page, even if forgotten by most. Sprung from the minds of children, but crafted with so much love, the Histories of the Young Men are a testimony to the power of youthful imagination, uninhibited and glorious.

I want to talk to you now about another set of soldiers. These were plastic, not wooden, and only a few inches tall. They had jointed arms and legs that grew looser with time until the little figures could scarcely stand. And they were held together from the inside with rubber bands which, given too much hard play, would eventually snap.

But that didn't matter. These little soldiers--G.I. Joes, as they are known on the market--meant so much more to my brothers and me than mere plastic, rubber bands, and joints.

 You see, we also had an imaginary world. We called it "Pinesville" and it was a town we'd invented peopled with characters as alive and vivid to us as our own neighbors and friends. Represented by G.I. Joes, these characters existed more in the realm of imagination than in any physical form. My family was the Hardings, and my chief character was the middle son, a handsome and inventive young fellow named Andrew (my name is Anne, and Andrew seemed a close fit). My big brother's family was the Tuckers, and his chief character was a brave and brash young fellow named David. My little brother invented the Maddisons, but he never could quite settle on a distinct personality for any one character, so he played with an assortment of different fellows, depending on his mood. 

Eventually the world and characters extended far beyond the actual G.I. Joe figures we had. All the girl characters, for instance, were purely imagined, but no less real in our minds. The same with all the "adults,"--because, of course, our own characters were always the same age as we were, and grew up alongside us.

Oh, the adventures we had! Sometimes we went back in time to the Wild West, or even to the feudal Middle Ages. Sometimes Andrew and David and their friends battled pirates, and on more than one occasion, cannibals. There were fairy-tale adventures, such as the old witch that lived in the forest near their house who liked to steal children and turn them into stew. Now there's a foe worthy of any childhood game!

 As we grew older, we tended to modernize. We brought Pinesville into the present age, and some of our characters formed a rock-and-roll band. I can still sing some of the "songs" we wrote for this band . . . known as the "Pinesville Dudes." My inventive Andrew was constantly coming up with new gadgets, and I do believe our gallant G.I. Joes even built a rocket and traveled into space at one point.

 We grew older still. Our games changed along with us. We would send them on missions with my fighter pilot father. Papa would tuck them into pockets of his flight suit and take them with him overseas, so that Andrew and David and some of the others are even now better traveled than I am. We built submarines and submerged them in the lake near our house, waiting all winter to see how they would survive . . . and, of course, amusing ourselves on the winter evenings with stories of their aquatic adventures.

We grew some more. And eventually, we grew up. I went on to become a professional novelist. Like Charlotte Brontë, I have never written a professional story that dealt with any of the characters of my childhood.

But Pinesville and its denizens remain vivid and alive in my mind. Even today, my older brother--now a search-and-rescue helicopter pilot and a decorated war hero--will call me up upon occasion and say, "I've got a new Pinesville story for you." And he will make me laugh all over again as he spins a yarn about these characters we know and love as dearly as we know and love each other.
 
So what is the point of this article, you ask? Well, it's simple: I am here to sing the praises of childhood imagination. If not for Pinesville and those games with my brothers, I do not believe I would be a professional novelist now. The world we created, all those characters and relationships and adventures, taught my imagination how to work, how to shape stories. We did not play video games, and we did not watch many movies. Instead, we spent hours in our rooms or in the backyard, simply letting our imaginations run wild, in whatever directions we wished!

I'll bet if you could ask Charlotte Brontë what led her to becoming a novelist, she would get a little smile on her face as she thought back to Branwell and all those hours of invention with a humble set of wooden soldiers. Then, with an air of secret mystery, she would say, "The Young Men, of course."

Ask me that question, and my smile might just mirror hers. And I would put my hand into my coat pocket where even now a little figure nestles. His joints are so loose, he can no longer stand. He's missing a leg, and his face is rubbed out beyond all recognition. But I know who he is.

Andrew is not limited to the little toy figure of a plastic G.I. Joe. Andrew is alive and well as long as my big brother and I remember.

So tell me about you. Did you have your own world as a child? Can you see how it might have influenced and helped your own creative writing?

8 comments:

Victoria said...

I loved to imagine as a child. To be honest, I still do--perhaps I'm a bit old for that, but Ah well. I didn't have a specific world in which I always imagined, but I loved to play soldier, spy, Indian, animals, superheroes...the list goes on. I was, however, a tomboy, and thus always the valiant hero of my own imaginary world. By exercising my imagination since I was young, I have kept it "in shape"; this helps me to creatively brainstorm for ideas for my novel. More specifically, I have found that my childhood games influenced my novel in that my heroine has a tough side--not the "Get outta my way, boys, machine gun comin' through" kind, but enough for her to be brave and rational in the face of danger. I must be careful with this tendency to create similarities between myself and my main character, however--I wouldn't want my beloved Fiona Fairclough turning into a dreaded Mary Sue!

Galadriel said...

It's funny you should mention that, because I recently read a biography of Charlotte Bronte for class.

Queen Ali said...

Me, my many siblings and cousind made up several imaginary worlds of our own, some were acted out by stuffed animals and dolls, but most were acted out by us physically. I can still see the faries and fauns we used to dance with along with the goblins and dragons we used to fight. We were almost all girls so our games tended to lean towards a more girlish/romantic sort of adventure, often ending with us being married to our newset favorite characters and have several adopted children.

Our games taught me to live in imagination, they taught me how to write, and what kind of herione I preffered compared to others. Whenever I need a little inspiration to escape writer's block, I think back over our games and ask myself what so-and-so would in such a situation.

Meredith said...

What a beautiful article! I never knew those facts about the Brontes. I love their books, particularly Wuthering Heights. I'll have to check out Anne Bronte's book.

I was always a loner when young, particularly in my elementary school days. Also, I endured some bullying as well. All this is to say that I did indeed make up lots of imaginary worlds. One of the most vivid ones was called Delmaria, which had been usurped by an evil sorceress. Oddly, I never pretended to be a princess but a commoner who saved the kingdom. It was always fun when I could rope my cousins into playing with me. I'd line up my dolls and stuffed animals and read or tell them stories, or I'd play outside and pretend to be a hero. I was fascinated by Joan of Arc and would often pretend to be her. Strangely, one of my favorite biblical stories was the one about Samson, and I'd often pile bed pillows into columns and push them over, pretending to knock down the Philistine temple.

One of my most vivid memories occurred the first time I read C.S. Lewis' The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. One day, I started pulling things out of my closet and flinging them onto the floor. When my mother found me, I was pressing the back of my closet wall, searching for the entrance into Narnia. That memory still makes me laugh.

God bless you.

Clara Darling said...

Anne Elisabeth, I just love this! I have yet to read any of the Brontes' books, although I have seen EVERY movie version of Jane Eyre!

I am the youngest in my family, so I mostly played by myself; although I could usually convince one of my siblings to come play with me after school! I was always coming up with different worlds and creatures, and ALWAYS making tents and hideaways within my room. My brother would sometimes help me with that; he's an expert tent-out-of-sheets maker! But I was mostly outside in the woods with my faithful dogs, saving the day from who-knows-what!

Molly said...

I've never read any Bronte books, but my sister owns lots.
Ha, I still live in an imaginary world often; it seems so entirely real to me, even! It's so nice to converse between several worlds and reality, ha ha! It helps with story ideas. :) I love being a pirate, though, after watching the Pirates of the Caribbean. Makes me want to be a hero so badly! LOL!

Brandi Boddie said...

Anne, your references to G.I. Joe took me back :-) My cousin and I loved watching G.I. Joe and Transformers. I made up stories about the characters because I loved how heroic and brave they were. Looking back at those times when I let my imagination soar, I know they influenced my desire to write today.

Great post!

Hannah said...

My brother and I invented lots of worlds when we were little, whether in the sandbox, or the wooden fort, or any hideaway in our back-yard. Mostly we created adventures with our Legos. As a matter of fact, my brother still invents stories to make me laugh, and some of your characters, Anne, have entered his wild tales.

As for me, I still act out epics with one of my best friends along with her little brother. We can get quite dramatic. Sometimes it's hard to keep from laughing. Actually, two of the characters I play in there came from some of my older stories, and a character I invented there weaseled his way into my current work-in-progress, though he changed significantly.