Sunday, January 20, 2013

Wooden Soldiers

Wooden Soldiers:
The Shaping of Imagination

By: 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?

1 comment:

  1. Oh Anne, this is a great post! You and your brothers remind me so much of me and my brother! Good heavens, we had so many worlds in our little backyard. We had little stick figures in a sandbox that we would regularly flash flood so we could perform search and rescue missions. (With the foolish man on the shores of the water, of course.)

    We had another set of characters--David, Goliath, John Smith.

    Then there was our Forces of Valor figurines. My brother wielded about seven characters; I only had one...Frank.

    But our Legos were our big world. The empire built up through the years, constantly changing, but always staying a terrific place of fun. Even today, we host conversations between characters evolved from that Lego world. Ha, ha when we watch movies, we still cast our characters for the roles. Sure way to get a good laugh out of any movie.

    I completely agree with you, Anne. How we cultivate our imaginations when young help us later on.


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