Goblin Secrets

By William Alexander

Current & Digital Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry Books (Simon & Schuster)

Reading Level: Ages 8 & Up

Marly Youmans writes: 

Some Thoughts on Masks and Wholeness in William Alexander’s Goblin Secrets

Power, freedom, and transformation are embodied in the idea of the mask. The self may be radically changed by an encounter with what is entirely Other. William Alexander’s Goblin Secrets offers us a pair of characters who appear closely allied in name, the lure of theatre, and genetics. Looked at from the vantage point of a Bruno Bettelheim, maimed Rowan and little Rowan—Rownie—might seem to blur into one figure. Each of the brothers, however, achieves both separation and wholeness through Rownie’s love for goblin masks. The useful enchantment of masks allows Rownie to change and find a new life, and gives him the means to transform his incomplete elder brother into a complete new being.

Rownie of Zombay begins his acquaintance with goblin masks by putting on the mask of a giant. The mask is his opposite, large and fierce. A mask gives Rownie—and vicariously, the audience—the momentary, free choice of a life in which he is not at the mercy of Graba (that leader of orphans who is kin to Fagin and Baba Yaga), and they are not at the mercy of the Guards. In doing so, he “changes the shape of the world” for himself and those who watch him.

Two sorts of masks are important to Rownie. The last time he saw his missing brother Rowan, the two joked together about their own faces being masks. In the words of another creator of goblin stories, George MacDonald, human courtesy shows “either a true face or a mask.” Rowan and Rownie show true faces to each other. But both come to love and wield created masks. On that last day before he became one of the missing, Rowan wore an actor’s mask and was arrested by the Guard, for no one in Zombay is free to don a mask. For a long time, it is only in his dreams that young Rownie can wear a mask or turn it inside out.

The arc of Rownie’s story reminds me of Yeats’ obsession with poetic theatre and the “creation of a great mask.” The “masks” that Rownie makes with his brother Rowan by “making faces” are natural masks, the work of genetics and the moment's playfulness. But before his tale is ended, Rownie will come to participate in the “creation of a great mask,” for no mask is complete until it is worn, just as no story is complete until it finds a reader. Through masks, Rownie is able to loom “like a giant,” to stand “like Rowan.” In time, he reaches the storehouse of masks—the familiar Zombay clock tower, which turns inside out like his dream mask, revealing itself as a source of powerful images.

There Rownie meets the greatest, oldest mask of all, an occult face: “It is the River, and also a mask. We needed to speak to the River, to give it a face and a name, so that we could ask it not to drown us with floodwaters.” As floods surge, Rownie fastens the stone mask onto his brother Rowan, who lacks will and momentum after being maimed by the Lord Mayor’s men and made heartless—a distant cousin to Diana Wynne Jones’ Howl (both lacking a heart, both fond of face-and-hair transformation, and both hailing from moveable houses, whether castle or Baba Yaga-like shack.)

The maimed Rowan comes to a new wholeness and resolution when matched with a mask that is utterly unlike him. When Rownie places the river’s mask onto his brother’s face, he acts in the midst of a crisis; the masking itself is another crisis, one with a highly uncertain outcome. As Rowan merges with mask and river, his eyes deepen, and he once again recognizes the natural mask of Rownie’s face. As a composite of elder brother and river, Rowan answers his little brother’s call to stop the flooding of Zombay: “He cut through the air like a fisherbird, and dove down into the surface of himself.” The art of the mask and the performance of the actor’s art discharge energy, create something new—change the shape of Rownie and Rowan’s world.

Rownie, constantly faced with the differences between self and masks, finds his way toward wholeness. He accepts and claims the name that was no name. In new freedom, he escapes the false nurturing of both government and Graba, allying himself with goblins who navigate around Zombay’s human laws. At the close, he sits down to eat a post-adventure meal among his Sendakian family of wise “wild things.”

The tyrannical hold of Graba is abolished in great part because of Rownie’s use of masks that teach him new ways to be. He claims size and fierceness with his first mask, and he learns from the fox how to flee from Graba and her Grubs: “Rownie did wear a mask. He stood like a fox, wily and proud. ‘You will not catch me,’ he said, and as he said it he knew that it was true.” Despite his size, his outcast state, and his subjugation to Graba and her child—and pigeon-servants (another sort of mask, as Graba peers out of their eyes), Rownie chases and instinctively grasps after wholeness, seeking new selves in masks and incorporating their powers into himself.

Hidden in its dangerous shelter, the actor encounters the power of the mask, and afterward is freer to act because he is changed, enlarged, and energized by its meaning and potency. When Rowan wears the most fearsome and powerful mask of them all, he is made over, changed to something whole and free. Now he will never be what he once was but will exist as some amalgam of river and youth, transformed to a fluent river spirit like Kohaku in Miyazaki’s Spirited Away. What he lacked in will and momentum, Rowan now has through the power of the mask. What the citizens of Zombay feared most, Rowan has become. The terror of uncontrolled waters has been transformed into art and performance, and the blending of Rowan, river, and stone mask has given Rowan rebirth in a form that may be as lasting and as lovely as Yeats’ golden bird forged in the “artifice of eternity.”

Marly Youmans is the author of eleven books of fiction and poetry. In the past year, she served as a National Book Award judge and published a book-length adventure in blank verse, Thaliad (Montreal: Phoenicia Publishing), a collection of formal poems, The Foliate Head (UK: Stanza Press), and a novel set in the Depression-era South, A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage (Mercer University Press / The Ferrol Sams Award, Foreword Finalist.) http://www.thepalaceat2.blogspot.com


YPL Finalists That Year:

  • Carrie Arcos for Out of Reach
  • Patricia McCormick for Never Fall Down
  • Eliot Schrefer for Endangered
  • Steve Sheinkin for Bomb: The Race to Build—and Steal—the World's Most Dangerous Weapon

YPL Winner That Year: William Alexander for Goblin Secrets

Judges That Year: Judith Ortiz Cofer, Susan Cooper, Daniel Ehrenhaft, Gary D. Schmidt, Marly Youmans

The Year in Literature: Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos won the Newbery Medal.  Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley won the Printz Award.

More Information: Goblin Secrets was William Alexander’s first novel. A sequel, titled Ghoulish Song, was published in March 2013.

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