Folklore and a Fowl

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Folklore and a Fowl
Children’s literature can serve many different purposes. It can be didactic, it can be entertaining and it can also help teach children about a cultural identity. Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer does all three. This novel, which has led to a series of eight full length novels, has been absolutely adored by children and young adults since it was first published. While entertaining enough to read casually the novel also provides copious amounts of folklore references as a basis for the story’s plot line, more specifically Irish folklore. This inclusion of folklore throughout the novel not only helps create a backbone for the story but it also provides a way for children to learn more about Irish heritage whether or not they themselves are of Irish descent. By incorporating elements of traditional folklore into a modern day setting Eoin Colfer blends the realm of realism and fantasy. Indeed this creates an enjoyable book and a great introduction into fantasy for young readers. Yet it is not folklore alone that makes the novel successful. The novel presents the reader with elements that blend fantasy and other genres, captures the approval of parents, teaches important lessons that are portrayed with subtlety and can be seen to help promote reading as fun for the young reader. The success of Artemis Fowl comes from all of these elements working in tandem to create a popular novel among all ages.

The context for which Artemis Fowl was created is important for its success. Eoin Colfer had already written three previous novels before writing Artemis Fowl. Although these three novels never achieved the international success that the Fowl series did they were all moderately successful within Ireland. They were able to generate a few thousand dollars of income for Colfer to supplement his teaching [McDonald]. Interestingly each of his three previous books provided elements that helped shape his Fowl series. His two earlier works, Benny and Omar and Benny and Babe, centered on a key theme; how to be a boy and grow up in the world and would provide the basis for his familiarity with Artemis [Keenan]. Although these novels were grounded in the real world Colfer’s third novel, The Wish List, provided the start to a fantasy writing style that would blend into the Artemis Fowl series. In all of his previous works Colfer tied his Irish background into his works whether they were Irish characters or Irish Folklore, as was the case with the derivation of the Faust legend in the third novel. These Irish ties made sense why they would be successful in Ireland and provided framework for the much more complex plot of Artemis Fowl.

Folklore can be very broadly defined and referenced, in the context that it will be used in this paper it will relate to a set of beliefs and myths by a particular group of people, often told through story. When looking at both folklore and realism Artemis Fowl is unique in its combination of technology and mysticism. The realism of the novel comes from the setting as well as the main character portrayed in the book, a young Irish boy named Artemis Fowl. This realism is then mixed with elements of folklore that have been traditionally Irish. Fairies, dwarves, even centaurs and leprechauns are all characters within the novel. Colfer intentionally combined the mysticism of fairies with technology that could be seen within the next 20 to 50 years in order to create the ideal blend between magic and technology [McDonald]. The blend is so well represented within the novel that it is easy to lose track of what is scientific achievement and what is magic.

One of the key characteristics of the Artemis Fowl series is its ability to keep readers captivated. Simply put the novels are extremely entertaining. They often draw criticism for their use of mild language and scatological humor but as Colfer believes the readers are able to handle the brief use language and this often leads to a momentary relief in the reading for readers [McDonald]. Colfer initially wrote the book to try to hook 12 year old boys to starting reading because from his view point, a teacher of young children, it was much harder to entice young boys to read. And although an underlying desire to attract a male audience for his novels his readership was split 60/40 boys to girls implying that the success of the novel was also due in part to the female heroin Holly Short [McDonald]. The ability of the novel to capture the imagination of readers and its financial success, often among the top ten NY Times best seller list, could in part owe some of its success to JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Both series were being published along the same time scale and were often considered companion novels by many publishing firms and retail outlets [McDonald]. The close association between the two, both fantasy adventures based stories, novels made it easy for readers to jump between the two and perhaps even furthered readers interest in fantasy as a genre. Besides the association with Harry Potter, Colfer’s book does appeal to young readership in other ways.

Many literary critics discuss how Colfer walks a thin line with regards to sexual tension within Artemis Fowl. Although Eoin Colfer explicitly states that he does not envision any romance relationships for the main character, “I don’t really want to get into girlfriends and romance.” He does have very subtle ways to peak the curiosity of his young male readers [McDonald]. Often likened to the personality of James Bond Artemis Fowl displays the coolness and suaveness needed to play the role but none of the sexism or misogynistic traits. The main female heroin is even depicted in a sexually desirable way, extremely pretty and dangerous in the mind of a young male hitting puberty [Keenan]. With the underlying sexual tensions being depicted in the novel it is easy to see why such a character could be idolized by young male readers. If Colfer was indeed intending for this novel to be read by 12-14 year old boys as a way to get them interested in reading more adding elements of sex definitely would draw his readers in more, even if there were no explicit depictions. Colfer’s decision to not age the young protagonist through the follow up novels demonstrates his ability to walk a fine line where sexual undertones and hints can still have a place in his novels while avoiding the potentially hazardous territory of anything more. Despite the entertainment value to readers Artemis Fowl like many of the fairy tale stories that it derives from does have its share of lessons to be learned.

Many children’s novels are written with the intention of teaching its young readers a life lesson or exposing them to a hardship that others in life may have to face. The novels provide a way to broach a hard to talk about subject and allow young readers to view life from someone else’s perspective. I believe that while Artemis Fowl does not intentionally try to accomplish anything more than providing a starting point for reading to young readers it does provide important lessons to its readers if they are reading closely. Artemis is a typical anti-hero a main character who the reader adores despite his morally questionable acts. In his quest to steal gold and revitalize his family fortune he does sacrifice half of his newly found fortune in favor of returning his mother to health. As self-centered as Artemis is portrayed he still finds compassion for his family and displays uncharacteristic acts to help others. A moral lesson of how family and health is more valuable than riches is not so hidden within the ending of this Artemis Fowl novel. Colfer also develops a safe theme of how humans are destroying the earth and man’s destruction of the environment to use at the novels center that allows his plot line to describe why fairies are underground [Keenan]. This is just another plot device that allows Colfer to further engage in a politically correct dialogue about the mistreatment of the environment by people. The importance of which is not so much the message but the engagement with young readers. Engaging with them allows the young readers to think about their own actions in their own lives. Even if subtle, moral lessons do appear within the Artemis Fowl series which contributes further to its success by appealing to parents and having them feel safe about what their child is reading.

Not only are parents okay with their children reading about Artemis but often the book is read by adults too. The success of the novel is not limited to merely being a children’s novel although that was the intended audience. The novel provides a simple yet compelling story that attracts readers of all ages. Colfer mentions that often parents or other adults often write to him and provide a rationale for why they read his book suggesting that they were slightly embarrassed to have picked up a children’s novel and enjoyed themselves [McDonald]. For Colfer though he sees this as a compliment to his works and does not try to dissuade the added fan base. Important to the reason why Artemis Fowl became such a successful novel is impart because of its likability amongst readers of all ages, if parents who pre-read the novel for their kids enjoy themselves it is more likely that they will suggest it as a good read to a friend who also has kids and continue the book’s good reception. And while each reader has their own favorite genre Artemis Fowl falls within no specific genre to be stereotyped.

Perhaps the biggest draw to the Artemis Fowl series as mentioned earlier is its unique blend of mysticism and technology. Specifically the folklore references within the novel have their roots in traditional Irish, English and European stories. I believe that it is interesting to note that Eoin Colfer had originally planned to publish a collection of Irish myths and legends and then upon learning that there were already a multitude of collections he transitioned into the Artemis Fowl novels [Keenan]. A fairly obvious connection to traditional Irish folklore is the use of ‘LEPrecon’ for the fairy police force that engages with Fowl. Traditionally Irish leprechauns were considered, “a diminutive other-world man, who was invariably solitary’ [Keenan]. The physical relationship between the two seems clear but the characteristics of the traditional figure also appear within Colfer’s novel as well. Traits like healing, time disruption, memory wipes all appear within Colfer’s first novel and continue to be featured in his later novels. The reader is presented with imaginations of other traditional folklore creatures like dwarves in the form of Mulch Diggums, pixies, centaurs, goblins, trolls, and elves. All of these are traditional mainstays in the stories of Irish and English folk songs and stories and perhaps surprisingly their representations are all closely aligned with how they have been portrayed in the past.

Being of Irish descent himself it is not hard to see how Colfer wanted to present a world that was relatable to young Irish boys. It was not until later that he realized that when his novel had found success outside of Ireland those traditional folklore representations would now be exposing a much wider audience to the folk songs of Ireland. In retrospect I do not believe that Colfer would have altered his usage of fairy tale characters to suit an international audience the characters already are easily accessible to readers and general enough that readers will not need any deep understanding of the tales the characters come from. Even more than providing readers with interesting characters Colfer presents folklore that can be critiqued in a literary setting while still retaining his own cultural background and persona within the writing. Alan Dundes argues that when looking at folklore there is often a natural tendency to separate out literary criticism with cultural criticism of folklore and the two remain distinct yet linked [Dundes]. What Colfer provides for readers, intentionally, is an introduction into the Irish folklore culture through a literary means but also through a cultural icon in the young Artemis Fowl and his family. Fowl’s interaction with the mythical beings that he interacts with not only provide insight into the tendencies of these being but also into himself and perhaps by extension that of Colfer. This new familiarity with Irish culture through Artemis Fowl can entice young readers to further their knowledge through other literary works, a definite goal of Colfer’s when creating the novel.

When deliberating on which genre to start young readers on Colfer provides a great starting point. The novel which blends the suave intellectual of Artemis that closely resembles a James Bond figure also features fairies and magic. Part crime deduction of Sherlock Holmes and part Lord of the Rings mysticism Artemis Fowl provides a book that can take readers in many directions. By not being purely fantasy the novel can be seen as an introduction into the fantasy genre, especially for young boys who often are opposed to reading fantasy novels. Stereotyping genres breaks down with Artemis Fowl and because of the novels mixed elements it delivers an entertaining read to those who might be otherwise opposed to traditional fantasy. As mentioned earlier getting young boys to read was a primary goal of Colfer’s so by adding battles and fight scenes Colfer could appeal to their interests as he mentioned in an interview boys preferences were to be out fighting their own famous battles on the playfield instead of reading inside [McDonald].

The Artemis Fowl novels are unquestionably successful when looking at their sales, merchandise, even possible movie production possibilities. They may not be as successful of other contemporary young children’s novels like Harry Potter but they are still extremely prolific in readership. I believe that the elements that make them successful are not new or revolutionary but work well enough with each other in order to produce a series that appeals to young children and adults alike. Colfer did an extremely wonderful job of taking elements that he was familiar with and creating a novel and series that can attract young boys and not alienate young girls. Artemis Fowl represents an excellent case of where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
"Profile: Irish writer Eoin Colfer and his new book, 'The Wish List'." Weekend Edition Sunday 4 Jan. 2004. Literature Resource Center. Web. 14 Nov. 2012.

Additional primary source.

Avi, et al. "Worlds Of Fantasy." Reading Teacher 59.5 (2006): 492-503. Education Research Complete. Web. 14 Nov. 2012.
Colfer, Eoin, and Craig M. McDonald. "Eoin Colfer: An Exclusive Interview." Art of the Word [online Magazine] (2003). Rpt. in Children's Literature Review. Ed. Tom Burns. Vol. 112. Detroit: Gale, 2006. Literature Resource Center. Web. 14 Nov. 2012.
Del Negro, Janice M. "Review of Artemis Fowl." Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books 54.11 (July-Aug. 2001): 406-407. Rpt. in Children's Literature Review. Ed. Tom Burns. Vol. 112. Detroit: Gale, 2006. Literature Resource Center. Web. 14 Nov. 2012.
Keenan, Celia. "Who's Afraid Of The Bad Little Fowl?." Children's Literature In Education 35.3 (2004): 257-270. Education Research Complete. Web. 14 Nov. 2012.
Keenan, Celia. “Close up on Eoin Colfer.” Inis: Magazine of Children’s Books Ireland, Summer 2008, pp. 26-30 Education Research Complete. Web. 16 Dec. 2012.
Kristine Miller. "Ghosts, Gremlins, and “the War on Terror” in Children’s Blitz Fiction." Children's Literature Association Quarterly 34.3 (2009): 272-284. Project MUSE. Web. 14 Nov. 2012. .

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