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The Lion and the Unicorn 24.2 (2000) 247-259

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Mystery in a House

Elizabeth E. Wein

In a short story by Joan Aiken, "A Room Full of Leaves," a lonely boy exploring his huge ancestral home discovers a room with a limitless tree growing in it. It is quite literally a "family tree"--all his ancestors are sitting on its different branches, which disappear into the ceiling. But the real force behind the story is neither the family nor the tree: it is the house whose room gives the story its title, the house that contains all the boy's ancestors at once and that provides the link that allows him to know them. Perhaps it is no coincidence that similar houses appear in otherwise unrelated children's books as direct links to the past, and often as links to a child's ancestral past. The concept of a solidly grand ancestral home is a distinctly culturally related feature; it would be irrelevant in, say, a nomadic society, and is not even necessarily typical of Western society. To the Laura Ingalls of the "Little House" books, the house is nearly always something new. It symbolizes home and family and security, to be sure, but it is a security that Laura herself helps to establish--she helps to build these houses. Laura's houses are immediate; they hold no ghosts. The houses of ancestry are old, established, and seemingly (though not necessarily) set forever in the ground on which they are built. And often as not, they are haunted.

While there are few stories of the "haunted house" that appear as folktale types (with the exception of Aarne/Thompson 307B, "The Conquered Ghost," and 1160, "The Ogre in the Haunted Castle"), nevertheless the haunted house and its inhabitants generate motifs that occur throughout folklore and children's literature. Nowhere is the use of these motifs (Thompson, Motif-Index of Folk-Literature E222 ff., E281-82, E338, and others) more fascinating than where the house itself becomes a sentient presence, a character in the story in its own right. The houses in such stories awaken the protagonist to an awareness of family, time, and endurance. Even when the house involved is not a family home, nevertheless, the concept of family, and where the protagonist fits into the family, is central to the plot. [End Page 247]

The academic folklorist is equipped with some useful and interesting tools for literary analysis, armed as he or she is with the concepts of tale type and motif. Suddenly there is a framework for comparison that makes sense of coincidence of idea and plot structure. Stories that are similar in plot are types; shared elements within these stories are motifs. Stith Thompson defines type as an "independent narrative" (Dictionary of Folklore and Mythology 1137), with the stipulation that there are a limited number of these identifiable in any given culture. If the reader will accept that a recurring story about a house, usually haunted, operating as a link to a character's past and family, is a type by this definition (though not necessarily a folk-tale type), it is possible to see that specific works of literature for children echo and emphasize their ancestral folk legends and fairy tales. Likewise, these works contain recurring themes that would be considered motifs if they appeared in folk tales rather than in literary works: they are "any of the elements going into . . . tale, [that] must have something about it that will make people remember and repeat it" (Thompson, Dictionary of Folklore and Mythology 753). We may or may not have patterns and ideas of an ancestral collective unconscious printed on our brains; but we certainly have a culturally shared toy box of narrative building blocks that we can arrange and, as storyteller or author, use to create our own palaces.

Rather than slavishly comparing Thompson's identified folk motifs with corresponding motifs in works of literature (though they do exist), I would like to examine the way in which individual authors use and repeat particular elements in the same way...