Over at Tor.com, Katherine Addison (the new writing identity of Sarah Monette) discusses the Coming of Age trope, and mentions how often it is assumed that the default hero of such a story will be male – stories traditionally tell us that when girls become women, their “story ends” when they get married, while men get to transition into kings, heroes, magicians, etc. She also notes the general assumption that a Coming of Age story will be about the transition between childhood and adulthood, even though there are other points in people’s lives when a growing up/transition/levelling up story is relevant.
There are some great developments of some of Addison’s ideas in the comments, especially the first one by Dr Cox, which quotes Laura Ingalls Wilder:
Around the time of WWI, Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote in Our Darling Daughters that before her marriage, her dreams ended with the marriage and that “when a girl was successfully married there would be nothing in her life afterward worth making a story about” but that “Greatly to my surprise, I found that with my marriage the story had hardly begun and since then I have found life daily more engrossing and worth while as I have watched and experienced the changes in the life and ideas of women” (from A Little House Reader, ed. William Anderson).
This is so completely relevant to the post I’ve been burning to make about the kids fantasy TV series Yonderland, that I knew I had to write it RIGHT NOW OKAY. So here we are.
If you haven’t yet discovered the TV series Horrible Histories, which is a brilliantly mad educational comedy sketch show that presents the grotty underside of history to a generation of children who think poo is hilarious (ie all generations of children ever), then you have something to look forward to. Start by searching for some of their songs on YouTube, which will give you some idea of the talent, gumption and humour (as well as historical rigour) behind the show. I have been particularly pleased with the way that the creative team – five men and one woman who write and perform the majority of the material – shine a light on gender and race issues, and include so many different kinds of women in the stories that they tell.
Which is why, when we ran out of Horrible Histories and I found out that the exact same writing-performing team had created a fantasy series, Yonderland, I ordered the DVD without delay. I didn’t quite know what to expect. The promotional art looked a bit pantomimey, and there were puppets… which is one of those things that can go either way, you know?
What we got was a compelling and subversive portal fantasy with a funny, progressive script (“Bit racist” notes the Elf when the heroine thinks his name is too complicated to remember), some fabulous design work, a mishmash of historical influences (they stole their costume designer back from Horrible Histories, hooray!) and a show made with great dedication and love. Plus the puppets turned out to be pretty great.
The five male members of the team play the majority of the roles in Yonderland, which lends a Monty Python-esque feel to the world, where you might see the same actor playing 4-8 parts in a single episode, and yet the clever costumes etc. make it clear that they are different characters. It also means that, apart from the occasional dragged-up crone, some lady puppets, and the occasional cameo from one of the many other women who performed in Horrible Histories, Yonderland can be a bit of a sausagefest.
However, the reason for this is that Martha Howe-Douglas, the only woman in the core creative team, is our central hero. And she’s wonderful.
The premise of the show is that all of the other magical lands have fallen to darkness, leaving only Yonderland surviving, and that they desperately need a Chosen One to cross over from “our” world and save the day. Only they’re a bit fuzzy about the details on how that’s going to be achieved, because the infamous second scroll has been lost.
The creative team have been interviewed about the initial idea for the show and how they didn’t have a clear idea at first about who that Chosen One would be – a kid, a teenager? But because Martha was the only woman in the team, they wanted to give her a prominent role, and so they hit on the frankly brilliant idea of The Chosen Mum.
Debbie Maddox has spent the last five years chasing her high-energy twins around the house (we never see the children as anything but a blur) and cleaning up after her earnest and sweet husband. Now the kids are off to school and she’s not quite sure what to do with herself – finding some “me time” is traditional at this point, yes? At which point, an elf appears in her larder and drags her through a portal to save Yonderland. You know how they always SAY that the skillset of the stay-at-home-mum should count as the equivalent of running your own corporation, when writing a ‘back to work after long maternal break’ CV? Well, it turns out that for Debbie Maddox, her mum credentials have prepared her beautifully for saving a magical kingdom.
Problem-solving, negotiation, some basic magic and active parenting all come to the fore as Debbie takes on a variety of quests in between making the lunches, cleaning and picking up the kids from school. Some of these quests may involve attending a spa for a lovely relaxing time, or visiting the race of fluffy creatures who want to compose a song in her honour, but only when she’s wavering as to whether the hero life is for her…
It’s hard to express through words how much I love this show. Mothers are mostly invisible in fantasy – and it’s so very rare to have a fantasy adventure (especially one aimed at children!) in which a Mum is the most important character. I also like that the series delves into Debbie’s feelings of guilt, ‘trying to do it all’ and not wanting to let her family down even as she gets more and more invested in her portal adventures – but these are resolved through compromise and her acceptance that being a hero might be a job (and frankly an unpaid one) but it’s one she gets a great deal of personal satisfaction from. Enough, at least, that it counts as her deserved and justified “me time.”
(Let’s not delve too deeply as to why a professional freelance writer might feel so sympathetic to this particular storyline)
I also like that Debbie’s kids are actually irrelevant to the story as characters (in that the story only happens when they’re not there), though they are constantly on her mind as she juggles her responsibilities. We do, however, get an interesting on-screen portrayal of her relationship with her husband – they are a team and they are friends, and it never occurs to her not to tell him about her magic other life (though somehow circumstances make this impossible). Meanwhile, her husband is searching for his own lifestyle satisfaction by pursuing a dream as an amateur actor, which Debbie finds a bit far-fetched (this from a woman who talks to a grumpy magic stick regularly) but learns to accept and support.
This is a kids show about how adults need to have something in their lives other than wiping up messes, driving you to and from school, and earning a living to put a roof over your head, and makes it clear that they are not selfish for following their dreams. WHEN DOES THIS EVER HAPPEN IN KIDS TV? I adore the fact that my daughters enjoy this show so much, and are absorbing messages about how Mums deserve to have their own magical adventures when the kids aren’t around.
One of my favourite episodes unpacks the myth of chivalry and knighthood in all kinds of interesting ways, looking at the inherent class issues, power imbalances, courtly love (tournaments include kissing contests!) and the undeniable fact that most medieval knights were probably arseholes. The main villain of the series, Negatus (Simon Farnaby) plays up and against all kinds of “Dark Lord” traditions, appearing pretty much as an example of middle management, at a career plateau after reaching his level of incompetency – but still relishing many of the trappings of villainy, especially the decor and fashions. Debbie often treats the Elf (puppet voiced by Matthew Baynton) who is her main companion and guide to Yonderland, as if he is one of her children, despite the fact that he is a middle aged, cynical adventurer with a grotty sense of humour.
All is not as it appears.
Oh and speaking of the grotty sense of humour, the layer of jokes “for the grownups” peppered through the adventure can be surprisingly filthy, but tend to be so quick that you almost miss them, and the kids can usually be distracted from asking what they mean if you don’t laugh too long and hard. “Seriously did he just say that?” is a common refrain. There’s also a dark streak to the comedy, hinting at a lot more gore and gruesomeness in this fantasy world than we ever see on screen.
Yonderland wears its influences on its sleeve, an unabashed love letter to Henson fantasy films like Labyrinth and Dark Crystal, to Monty Python, to children’s books like The Wizard of Oz and The chronicles of Narnia and to history itself. Once you get used to the mix of medieval, Renaissance, Regency and Victorian steampunk all jammed in together, it makes for a charmingly chaotic world.
But it’s Debbie, the Chosen Mum at the centre of it all that makes this series really special – a pragmatic, capable heroine who is constantly doing a double take at the insanity of the world that has chosen her as its champion, but also falls in love with it along the way. The more challenges she succeeds at – whether it’s righting the wrongs of a tournament of evil, slaying a fire dragon, stopping two idiot Gallants from killing each other out of mutual politeness, organising an impromptu soccer match to bond her ragtag team before they save the day, and so on – the more she comes to realise just how capable she is of handling just about anything… as long as the quest is complete before the school day ends!
Yonderland is a coming of age story, not of a child becoming an adult, but of a parent emerging from the pressured, all-consuming pre-school years and stepping into the light.
And I think the message here is that more mothers could be fantasy adventure heroes, if flexible hours were available.