Picture Window
Kathryn Shoemaker, editor

Extraordinary Navigators:  An Examination of Three Heroines in Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean’s Coraline, The Wolves in the Walls, and MirrorMask

Danya David

Danya David has a B.A. from McGill University in English Literature and Cultural Studies, as well as a teaching degree from the University of Toronto with a specialization in deaf education. She was a panelist at the first annual Graduate Studies Interdisciplinary Conference at UBC, and reviews books for CM Online Magazine. Danya is currently completing her masters in Children's Literature at the University of British Columbia, focussing her research on Jewish content in graphic novels. She currently teaches at the Centre for Intercultural Communication at UBC

Few author/illustrator teams have rendered a child’s journey through the dark world with such psychological and emotional complexity as the duet of Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean.  Their stories are as eerie, scary, and thrilling for the child reader as they are for the adult.  But more impressive than their rendering of ghastly fantasy worlds is their creation of the intrepid heroines who navigate them. With their novella Coraline, their picturebook The Wolves in the Walls, and their illustrated film script MirrorMask, Gaiman and McKean present their readers with three wildly courageous, loyal, resourceful, and emotionally strong female protagonists, who are resolved to rescue their families and homes from chaos and evil. Thrown into realms of distortion and illusion, Coraline, Lucy, and Helena glean information from their intuition and dreaming, and skillfully manipulate art, language, and narrative, in order to discern, define, and reclaim borders. Ultimately, these powerful heroines navigate and triumph over sinister worlds.  

Intuition and dreaming play vital roles in guiding all three heroines to victory.  With Coraline, Gaiman presents the reader with the story of a girl who discovers a world that is a distorted double of her own; complete with an Other Mother- a gruesome clone of her real mother, with button eyes, clawed fingers, and a diet of cockroaches- who desires to possess her.  When Coraline’s Other Mother kidnaps her parents, Coraline re-enters the nightmarish world in order to rescue them.  Her journey is a terrifying quest as she is challenged to discern clones, illusions, and disguises.

From the onset of her journey, Coraline is aided by her dreams, which both forewarn her of events to come, as well as provide her with tips for survival.  Following her first encounter with the Other Mother’s world, Coraline dreams of “little black shapes with little red eyes and sharp little teeth.” (Coraline 11)  She later recognizes these rats to be agents of the manipulating Other Mother.  The rats appear throughout the story, and Coraline understands that they foreshadow the gruesome beldam’s world. 

Dreaming becomes Coraline ’s time and space within which to reflect and make sense of the riddled world presented to her.  The actions she must take in order to successfully rescue her parents and the lost souls are often presented to her in her dreams.  Coraline’s ally, a black cat, for example, advises her that she is to overcome the Other Mother by “challenging” her. (65)  She then relies on her dreams for reflection, looking to sleep for an answer to “what the cat could have meant by a challenge.” (66)

Dreaming in Coraline plays an increasingly significant role as the story unfolds. After Coraline encounters the three lost children, she dreams.  In this dream, the children advise her, urging her to “look through the stone.” (87)  This is essential information, as the stone proves to be indispensable to Coraline’s locating and eventual rescuing of the lost souls in the Other Mother’s domains. 

By the end of the story, Coraline reaches a certain level of lucidity within her dreaming.  She is once again advised by the three children who are graciously indebted to her for saving them.  They warn her that her journey is in fact not over yet, as “the beldam swore by her good right hand… but she lied.” (145)  In her dream, Coraline devises an entire plan for imprisoning the Other Mother.  She envisions a pastoral picnic in a meadow with the three children, in which they enjoy lunch and play ball games. She becomes aware of her own dreaming within her dreams: “And then, in the way of dreams, the picnic was done…Coraline knew it was a dream then, because none of them [the children] ever got winded or out of breath.” (143)  But Coraline adapts this information from her dreaming life into a blueprint for her waking life, devising a complex plot- a picnic with dolls meant to lure the Other Mother into a well, which Coraline would seal shut with heavy planks. 

Although at times Coraline is disoriented as she grapples with the borders between fiction and reality and between dream life and waking life (she is “never quite certain where her pondering ended and where the dream began” 152), she is undoubtedly certain that her own dreaming power is one of her most powerful resources.   Prior to executing her grand finale scheme, Coraline draws on her dreams once again, not only for information, but for encouragement as well, as she imagines “the three children waving good-bye to her in the moonlight, waving before they crossed that silver stream.” (150)  By heeding the wisdom in her own dreams, Coraline is strengthened to overcome the Other Mother.

Similarily, in The Wolves in the Walls, Lucy is informed by her own intuition.  She hears ominous sounds coming from the walls of her family’s house, and is convinced that there are wolves living in the walls, but no one believes her.  Her mother thinks that the noise is simply mice; her father is certain that it is “pesky rats”, and her brother believes it is bats.  Each of them adds, however, that “if the wolves come out of the walls, it’s all over.” [n.p.]  Lucy and her beloved pig puppet are proven correct when wolves do indeed break through the walls, evict Lucy’s family, eat the family’s food, parade in the family’s clothing, and generally indulge in mad and frenzied partying at their expense.  But the resilient Lucy is determined to reclaim her home. She devises a brilliant and witty plan, and leads her family into a creeping caravan through the walls of their house, reversing the fiasco and evicting the wolves, who in turn flee in hysteria, crying: “once the people come out of the walls, it’s all over!”

While Lucy’s family is preoccupied with mundane activities (her mother prepares homemade jam, her father is out at his job playing tuba, her brother is playing video games), it is only she alone who heeds the warnings of the ominous noises; the “hustling, bustling, crinkling, crackling” of wolves.  No one else seems to hear sounds except for Lucy, who is consumed by them.  Despite her family’s dismissal of her warnings, she remains steadfast to her intuition: “Lucy did not think it was mice or rats or bats.  She shook her head at this sad display of ignorance.” She affirms these convictions with her loyal pig puppet: “I don’t think it sounds like mice,” who clearly faithfully listens.  It is Lucy’s intuitive insights which forewarn and prepare Lucy for the mad chaos to come.

It is also in the middle of the night, as Lucy sleeps, that her convictions are confirmed, as she hears “clawing and gnawing, nibbling and squabbling”, and she realizes that not only are there wolves merely living in the walls, but that the wolves are all the while “plotting their wolfish plots” and  “hatching their wolfish schemes.”  As she becomes more and more certain of the imminent havoc through her dreaming, Lucy becomes increasingly armed with insight as to how to take charge.

In MirrorMask, dreaming plays an extremely significant role, as nearly the entire plot plays out within the dreaming world. Yet the story flows in and out of dreams, at times dreaming within dreams, weaving moments of awareness and reflection with the (supposed) “real” world.  MirrorMask is Helena’s retelling of her dream, framed with “reality”- at the one end with the night before her mother’s brain surgery, and at the other with the morning after the surgery has been successfully performed. She writes about herself, the daughter of a circus family, and her desires to abandon her arduous nomadic life and run away to “real life”. [n.p.] In her dreams, Helena enters a world with two lands: one eternally glowing with light, and the other perpetually shrouded in shadow. Each queen- the White Queen and the Dark Queen, are dichotomous versions of her real mother.  Helena navigates this new world in order to retrieve the MirrorMask - a crucial charm stolen from the daughter of the Dark Queen (who is in fact a corrupted double of herself - “snogging” dodgy boys, smoking, and shouting at her dad). The theft of the MirrorMask sets the White Queen into an everlasting sleep, that can only be disrupted with the return of the MirrorMask. With the help of Valentine, the sly juggler, Helena sets off on her quest.

Like Coraline and Lucy, Helena grapples with questions of what is dream and what is “real”.  She begins to understand that what she shapes in the dream world can affect the real world. According to the reasoning of the dream worlds, she comes to realize that her real mother will be cured if she saves the White Queen.   Helena’s brilliant and smooth negotiating of fluid spaces where things “blended and swam,” allows her the peace of mind to learn from the information offered by her dreams. The mixing and weaving of dream worlds of floating sculptures, flying books, and sinister sphinxes, with the world of her mother in the form of the White Queen, along with the “real” world of her mother lying ill in a hospital bed awaiting surgery, become a kind of logic for Helena, as the blurred entries and exists into various levels of dreaming (or perhaps various dreams) guide Helena in her mission to find the MirrorMask.

Helena learns from the wisdom of dreams early on in her quest.  Following the traumatic evening in which she learns that her mother will be going in for surgery the next day, Helena dreams a dream that would foreshadow the events to unfold in her journey.  She writes: “In my dream, my reflection was laughing at me.  In my dream, I was two different girls.  In my dream, Mum was on her way to be operated on, and when she opened her eyes, they were as black as glass…”  This information helps Helena in the events to unfold, as she comes to understand that the corrupted version of herself she sees in “Wanted” posters is in fact not the “real” her, and that the version of her mother with black glass eyes is, in fact, the Dark Queen, and not her “real” mother.  It is in dreaming that Helena gains the awareness that perhaps everything is dream, but even in this, her identity as Helena on a quest in a dream, is always affirmed.

The three remarkable heroines are aided not only by their intuition and dreaming, but also by their ability to engage with and negotiate art, language, and narrative. Coraline is presented not only as a vastly courageous girl, but also as an exceptionally clever, capable, and creative one.  Upon her return home after her first visit to the Other Mother’s world, she enters her father’s office and “woke up his computer and wrote a story.” (Coraline 51)  She emphasizes her own authorship by calling her story “CORALINE’S STORY”, and proceeds to compose a story about a girl who liked to dance so much so, that “SHE DANCED AND DANCED UNTIL HER FEET TURND INTO SOSSAJES THE END,” calling to mind Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Red Shoes”, in which a young girl eventually dies because she cannot stop dancing.  Coraline prints out her story, turns off the computer, and then draws a picture of “a little girl dancing underneath the words on the paper.” (51) Writing and drawing seem to be ways in which she subconsciously processes and copes with the unsettling and brooding world she has just discovered. 

Her inclination toward engaging with narrative intensifies as the story unfolds. When Coraline remembers her father’s story of bravery in the face of attacking wasps, not only does she rehash the story in her own mind, but she comes forth with it, orally recounting it to her ally, the black cat.  Through this act, she foreshadows, mirrors, and mentally prepares herself for what she plans to do once inside the Other Mother’s domain.

Similarily, Coraline’s ability to engage in language-play becomes increasingly valuable.  In the dark closet into which she is thrown, she comes to the realization that the Other Mother is a parodist, a trickster, and a game-player, who attempts to seduce Coraline with twisted games of “Hopscotch, Happy Families, Monopoly.” (77)  Coraline initially rejects these game-playing offers, but then understands that if she plans to save herself and the others, she must play into the Other Mother’s games, and cleverly so.  This epiphany leads her to take matters into her own hands, and she daringly proposes a game involving a risky though potentially sagacious deal with the Other Mother: “You like games…That’s what I’ve been told…Wouldn’t you be happier if you won me, fair and square?” (91) She proposes an “exploring game” (92);  a hunt for the souls of her parents and the dead children.  If she succeeds in finding them, they will all be freed, but if not, she will agree to stay eternally with the Other Mother, and be “a most dutiful daughter.” (91) This excites the Other Mother, who is ignorant to her contestant’s narrative wizardry which in fact rivals her own. 

Coraline cleverly tries to elicit crucial information from the Other Mother, manipulating language in order to get tips:  “How big are souls anyway?  Fine, Don’t tell me… It doesn’t matter if you help me or not. Everyone knows that a soul is the same size as a beach ball.” (94)   Later, when Coraline is closer to victory, she manipulates her language again to deceive the Other Mother, duping her into thinking that she believes that her parents are hidden outside of the house.  Coraline, however, knows exactly of her parents’ whereabouts- they are trapped in a snow globe above the mantelpiece, but she must hide this awareness from the Other Mother.  Through her ability to negotiate language, Coraline is ultimately able to manipulate her captor.

In The Wolves in the Walls, Lucy uses art to negotiate the wolves’ mad havoc and to ultimately reclaim her home.  At the onset of the story, the illustrations depict countless drawings and paintings of wolves on the walls of Lucy’s family’s home.  These drawings are presumably created by Lucy.  Later, she hears wolves again as she draws a picture. It is when she leads her family back to the house and into the safety of its walls that they use Lucy’s artwork as a sort of spy-glass: “the family crept through the walls of the house, peeking out through the eye-holes of paintings.” [n.p.]  In this way, Lucy uses art-making and artwork strategically, to forward her plan of saving herself, her family, and her home.  Likewise, the cover of the book depicts Lucy gazing at the reader, as she draws pictures of wolves on walls.  Wolf eyes peek through peep-holes in her drawings.  The idea of authorship is blatantly rendered here: Lucy is both author and creator of her story.

Helena’s story in MirrorMask is entirely her own, written as a sort of journal, in first person point-of-view.  As she boldly narrates: “This is the first story I’ve written down…I call this story MirrorMask, and it is written and illustrated by me, Helena Campbell.” [n.p.]  When she falls asleep, her fantastical dreaming interludes begin. Helena uses writing to try to negotiate sense and structure amidst the bizarre and delirious worlds she is presented with.  At the end of her narrative, she signs off as “HELENA CAMPBELL”; claiming and emphasizing her own authorship.

She also uses narrative to protect and save both herself and her ally Valentine by feeding the ravenous and menacing sphinx-like creatures pages from books.  By throwing them scraps of narrative, she succeeds in subduing and appeasing them, as they “tore into the pages as if they were the best sweets in the world…their mouths gummed together by the pages of the book.”  Helena also uses language-play to aid in her survival.  When a terrifying gryphon halts Helena and presents her with a riddle to solve, she retorts with her own riddle, stumping the creature, and telling it: “You have a good think.  I’ll be back in a bit.”  She then escapes.

In addition to negotiating narrative, Helena also engages with art in order to steer through the new worlds presented to her.  Prior to her initial entry into dream, Helena climbs onto the roof of her Aunt Nan’s house and begins to draw pictures of “gargoyles and monsters and cats on the wall.”  She continues to explain that “I drew a window on the back of the wooden door, but I couldn’t think of anything to draw inside it, so I started on the ground.  It was going to rain soon, and so I drew a sun, certain that if I drew it properly, drew it bright enough and hot enough, it would make everything okay- it would burn away the stuff growing in  Mum’s head…I drew as hard as I could.” Helena’s fervent engaging with art-making ultimately endows her with authorship over her world, as her drawings provide the landscapes and the venues for events that ensue; and the suns which she draws with so much zeal “shine brightly in the land of light.” Helena’s artwork guides her through the fluid spaces, strengthening her with a sense of familiarity and home.  Later, when a librarian reads from a book entitled A History of Everything, Helena comes to learn more about herself, as she finds herself paralleled in this story about a girl who “makes the world by drawing it.”

In the end, once Helena finally claims the MirrorMask, she comments on her own power as narrator, artist, and ultimately as creator:  “It’s a lot like being some kind of god, when you wear the MirrorMask.  Or it’s like writing a book.  You can fix things, or you can sort of do something in your head and let them fix themselves.  It’s not hard.”

The worlds in which these three heroines find themselves are terrifying because illusion and reality are placed side by side, cloned, and often fused, until boundaries defining people, creatures, and places become indecipherable.  Coraline, Lucy, and Helena’s aptitude for learning from intuition and dreaming, along with their ability to negotiate art, language, and narrative, empower them to discern and navigate boundaries.  Their triumphs depend wholly on their abilities to discern and redefine boundaries. 

Coraline is presented at the onset as a child plagued by mirrors.  The Other Mother attempts to weaken Coraline by destabilizing her in a world of blurred boundaries.  She is thus challenged to navigate through unstable territory.  But Coraline learns quickly that she must be adamant in her assertion of her own boundaries.  This is evident from the start, as she insists on correcting adults who misname her: “It’s Coraline, not Caroline. Coraline.” (4) 

Robyn McCallum, in her bookIdeologies of Identity in AdolescentFiction, states that “displacement can effect a fragmentation of the subject.” (McCallum 69) This is precisely the Other Mother’s plan.  She is horrific for the reason that she is indefinable: she is human and not human.  But Coraline soon mobilizes her insistence to define. When she sees fifty red eyes starring at her from under the bed, she promptly asks: “Are you rats?”, and then: “Can you talk?” (Coraline 30)  When she meets the cat, she is likewise determined to define it: “I saw a cat like you in the garden at home.  You must be the other cat.” (35)  Her labeling of the cat as “ally” proves to be vital to her plans.

Coraline resists the Other Mother’s temptation, as she tries to seduce her with food and toys.  Although the comfort-food-loving Coraline is ravished, she rejects the Other Mother’s offer for a midnight snack of hot chocolate: “I don’t need a snack- I have an apple.” (62)  Coraline’s behavior exemplifies novelist/historian/critic Marina Warner’s ideas in her No Go the Bogeyman: “Toys delight the baby.  But he recognizes that if he takes their gifts he will somehow pass into their power; though he is an infant, he is a wise child.”  Warner continues: “He knows he should not take anything from strangers, and certainly not eat anything they press on him.” (Warner 1) Coraline is indeed a “wise child”, as she is acutely aware of her need to resist, therein drawing boundaries between herself and the Other Mother who wishes to posses her. 

Coraline also rejects the Other Mother’s claims of the whereabouts of her parents, making certain that the Other Mother understands that she is not to be taken for a fool. When the Other Mother shows Coraline a mirror and attempts to dupe her into thinking that her parents have purposely abandoned her in order to enjoy a child-free vacation, Coraline refutes this, saying: “No, I don’t see.  And I don’t believe it either”.  The text reveals that: “Coraline was sure in her heart that what she had seen in the mirror was no more than an illusion.” (Coraline 63)  Coraline also refuses to sleep under the same roof as the Other Mother, (64) desiring the separation of her world and that of the Other Mother’s.  She soon comes to realize that “should she open the bedroom door, she would find it empty, or more precisely, that it was an empty room and it would remain empty until the exact moment that she opens the door.” (66) 

Because she understands that the Other Mother is deceptive and that her realm is a distorted version of Coraline’s own, Coraline understands well that the sewing of button eyes would mean the stripping of her ability to perceive, and therein her ability to discern boundaries. Coraline is thus determined to keep her real eyes, thereby preserving her chances of survival.

Likewise, upon choosing a starting point for her hunt, Coraline sees that “there was no point in exploring the garden and the grounds: they didn’t exist; they weren’t real.” (94)  This honed awareness of boundaries is also used to arrive at the vital realization that: “…these things...were illusions, things made by the other mother in a ghastly parody of the real people and real things on the other end of the corridor.” (117) Coraline concludes that the Other Mother “could not truly make anything”, that “she could only twist and copy and distort things that already existed.” (118)  It is this vital epiphany which informs and arms Coraline as she sets out to accomplish the finishing touches of her mission.

In The Wolves in the Walls, Lucy learns the importance of identifying borders to her mission of reclaiming her family home.  When she returns to her besieged house, she realizes that reaching her bedroom without being caught by the wolves is impossible. But her solution is swift:  “Quick as the flick of the wing of a bat, Lucy slipped into the wall.”  [n.p.] She creeps “through the house on the inside,” pushes through the drawing that hangs over her bed, and retrieves her pig puppet. 

As Lucy and her family camp outside and discuss their future, her father suggests that they move to a desert island, her mother suggests a hot-air balloon, and her brother proposes a tree-house, “at the top of a very tall tree.”  It is only Lucy who offers that they return to live in their house. Her family is horrified at the thought, but Lucy defends this idea, explaining that there is “a lot of space in the walls of the house.”   When her father asks what is to be done about the wolves, Lucy responds: “They are in the house. Not the walls.” Lucy is so determined to reclaim borders- the literal physical borders of her house, that she is incidentally completely unaffected by a momentary guest appearance by the “Queen of Melanesia”, who is arguably meant to symbolize the concept of a geographic territory populated by people of utterly mixed and untraceable ancestry.

Lucy’s family follows her lead and the caravan creeps “through the walls of the house”, “peeking through eye-holes in pictures”, and spying on the wolves as they indulge in wild partying at their expense. Fed up with what she sees, Lucy mobilizes her family to pick up legs from broken chairs, and they break through the walls of the house.  With this blatant act of destroying and redefining borders, Lucy rescues her beloveds and reclaims her home. Lucy the navigator is depicted with an illustration of her sitting in the garden, assembling a gigantic tattered map of the world.

Like Coraline and Lucy, Helena’s reflection and awareness help her navigate through the murky spaces between dream and reality. She establishes at the onset that she is dreaming, and this knowledge empowers her to be brave and active in her new horrific surroundings.  She narrates: “I realized two things. (First) not to look for sense in this place, because (second) I was asleep and this was just a dream…And suddenly I stopped being worried.”  Helena’s awareness of borders manifests in an exchange between herself and Valentine.  As they pass by her Aunt Nan’s house, she is surprised not to see herself in her bedroom.  She asks Valentine: “Shouldn’t I be there, if I’m dreaming?” The crafty Valentine retorts with question: “You’re dreaming?”  Helena vigorously responds:  “Well, yes.  I think we’ve rather definitely established that.”  Helena’s fundamental yearning for lucidity strengthens her and eventually leads her to the MirrorMask, which ultimately saves her as well as her mother. 

Helena asks questions and demands answers.  She explicitly asks Valentine what a MirrorMask is.  Although he does not offer an adequate response, she defiantly rephrases the question and poses it to a mask shop owner: “Look, we need to know about the MirrorMask.  We thought you might know something about it, having a mask shop.” 

When Helena sees herself in a “Wanted” poster, she is able to reason: “It was me, and it wasn’t me,” understanding that in a dream world, images and identities are easily and often purposely manipulated.  Similarily, when she meets her mother in her dream, and the two realize that they have perhaps been sharing the same dream, Helena affirms: “It’s not your dream, Mum.  It’s mine,” and in this way, draws boundaries and claims her own territory.

In effect, these three heroines’ abilities to define borders enable them to reclaim them as well. Coraline, Lucy, and Helena each rescue their families and reclaim their homes.  They are skilled navigators who tap into their innermost resources in order to overcome terrifying worlds.  Gaiman writes: “It is astonishing just how much of what we are can be tied to the beds we wake up in in the morning, and it is astonishing how fragile that can be.” (Coraline 67)  Indeed, the flux between dreaming and waking life is often disconcerting.  But with Coraline, The Wolves in the Walls, and MirrorMask, Gaiman and McKean confirm that although spaces and circumstances may be fragile, children repeatedly shine forth with unmatched bravery, skill, creativity, and stamina. 


Works Cited

Andersen, Hans Christian.  “The Red Shoes.” The Complete Hans Christian Andersen Fairy Tales.  New York:  Random House, 1988.  450-453.

Gaiman, Neil and Dave McKean.  Coraline.  New York: HarperCollins, 2002.

---.  MirrorMask.  New York:  HarperCollins, 2005.

---.  The Wolves in the Walls.  New York: HarperCollins, 2003.

McCallum, Robyn.  Ideologies of Identity in Adolescent Fiction.  New York: Garland Publishing, 1999.

Warner, Marina.  No Go the Bogeyman: Scaring, Lulling and Making Mock.  London: Random House, 1998.


Danya David

Volume 12, Issue 1 The Looking Glass, January/February, 2008

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"Extraordinary Navigators:  An Examination of Three Heroines in Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean’s Coraline, The Wolves in the Walls, and MirrorMask"
Danya David, 2008
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