Wild Things with Baby Faces, part 4: “We are all little beasts.”

10 Oct

4. “We are all little beasts.”

Another way of interpreting this little story is as a tale of authorial wish fulfillment. Reading the book this way—where Sendak gives his little narrator all the things the real world will not and cannot—is limited, however. Of course, part of the book’s appeal lies with the not so subtle glorification of bad behavior. Readers, for a few brief minutes, get to romp and roar and yell and scream without repercussions. Max is all of us, and Sendak himself confirms this interpretation. In a recent interview, Sendak calls Max “a normal child, a little beast, just as we all are little beasts” (Paul, 35).

The boy is Sendak, but also everyone else.

Joseph Campbell, in A Hero with a Thousand Faces, offers up an argument for narrative that is universal, wherein a hero must travel through a number of stages in the process of self-discovery. The essence of his argument is that all myths—and almost all stories, really—are the same. (If you’ve never read Campbell, despite some occasional academic-y prose, he’s a pretty wild ride.)

Sendak’s book follows Campbell’s outline. Max’s journey, in a number of interesting ways, mirrors Campbell’s classic hero’s journey.[1]

The story is simple, clean and elegant, a classic quest motif, where the main character travels around the world to destroy a monster. On pages 18-19, the story reads “ . . . and he sailed off through night and day and in and out of weeks for almost over a year . . .” The timing here is essential, giving the story the feel of an epic, and providing the necessary time to allow our hero to make his journey. Without these crucial lines, the book would feel insubstantial. Max must travel far and wide, leaving the safety of his home to wander the earth.

“. . . the hero goes forward in his adventure until he comes to the ‘threshold guardian,’ at the entrance to the zone of magnified power” (Campbell, 77). Campbell goes on to describe these guardians as “leviathans . . . and other powers of the deep” (Campbell, 78). On page 19, Max, on his epic journey across a vast ocean comes across a dragon, just before he lands on the land of magnified power, where the wild things live. It’s an apt creature, a guardian of the untamed lands. And here, he meets the monsters.

But, he doesn’t destroy them, and therein lies a possible clue to Sendak’s reasons for writing the book. Instead, the boy becomes the leader of a clan of monsters. He vanquishes nothing. He tricks the monsters with his wits, and then leads them through a wild days-long romp of roughhousing, a child’s version of paradise.

At a later stage in the hero’s journey, Campbell says that the hero “ . . . is covertly aided by . . . amulets . . . . that there is a benign power everywhere supporting him in his superhuman passage” (Campbell, 97). On page, 25, Sendak draws Max with two new accoutrements: a crown and a scepter. Both are classic examples of magical talismans. It’s as if Sendak had plotted Max’s story with Campbell in mind.

Max with two magical talismans.

According to Campbell, all heroes must return home and eventually, Max must, too. He misses his mom.[2] He misses being needed and loved. Thus spent, slaked, and satisfied, he leaves his acolytes to return home. He isn’t punished for his misdeeds. He is rewarded. In the parlance of the times, he gets to eat his cake and have it, too.

Max is the narcissistic little boy and the epic hero; the plot holds both of these components, the mythic and the personal. And like all great epics it ends with the hero safely returned home.

“‘Who having cast off the world,” Campbell quotes the Upanishads, “would desire to return again?’ . . . And yet, in so far as one is alive, life will call” (Campbell, 207).

The simple pleasures of basic living, food and shelter, are enough to pull little Max back from the island of uninhibited life amongst the fierce creatures.


[1] An entire masters’ thesis could be written on Wild Things and Campbell, so two examples will have to suffice.

[2] The author, Marcus, reveals that Sendak struggled with the ending, unsure of how, or why, a boy would leave paradise to return to the normal world.

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