Saturday, June 9, 2012

The Gammage Cup, by Carol Kendall (1959)

"When something happens, something else always happens."

This quote is a sample of the whimsical writing you'll find in Carol Kendall's wonderful fantasy tale, The Gammage Cup. The whimsy is not without substance, and much of the story's content is a document of American attitudes towards conformity and individualism during the Cold War era. The Minnipin people find themselves threatened by a race of beings who were no doubt inspired by the red scare, and their only hope lies on the shoulders of a handful of individuals proud of their uniqueness.

900 years ago, the Minnipins settled in the Land Between the Mountains, which is protected on all sides by mountains and has no way in except a river that hasn't dried up for centuries. The leader of these Minnipins was one called Gammage, who had a cup, and as they scoured the land, Minnipins remained behind at key places to build towns. Some 400 years later, Fooley the Brave flew a balloon over the mountains and returned some months later with artifacts from the Land Beyond the Mountain. An accident caused him to lose his memory, and some of the artifacts were mislabeled, as a result. The Minnipins devote their lives to the findings of Fooley. His descendants are the town's leaders, called Periods, and named such things as Co., Bros., and Etc. because those abbreviations were found in Fooley's journal and they seemed important. The Minnipins devote their lives to making their towns look just like those pictures Fooley brought back, and as such they all have green doors and wear green cloaks. Well, almost all of them do.

There is a handful of nonconformists. Muggles, as the main character, hovers somewhere between conformity and nonconformity. She doesn't want to be an outsider, but she does like the outsiders who reside in the town, and her personality just doesn't allow her to follow every single Minnipin convention anyway. The other nonconformists include Gummy, who composes poetry that goes against Minnipin convention; Curley Green, who likes to paint actual landscapes and people rather than the arbitrary symbols the Minnipins favor; and Walter the Earl, who likes to dig up history, and the version of history he knows is not the same as the official history. Also important is Mingy the Moneykeeper, who doesn't want to spend money on superficial things like decorations, but would rather set up a sick fund. These five are important because they eventually find themselves outcasts when their nonconformist ways threaten the town's prize for best-looking town, whose prize is the Gammage Cup.

The real threat to the Minnipins, of course, is not these five outcasts, but mindless conformity. Tyranny begins to rear its ugly head as the Periods establish fines for idling. Also, the Mushroom people, or the Hairless Ones, are making a return, long forgotten because Gammage defeated them many centuries ago.

In many ways this is a simplistic story of good vs. evil. The Minnipins only naively fall into evil ways, doing what they believe is right, but it is the rugged individualists, the outcasts, who are the real heroes. I think one can view this as an allegory for the red scare vs. American democracy. The Mushroom people have no personalities and it is unquestionably the right thing to do to kill them all. If nobody among the Minnipins was brave enough to assert their own unique individuality, the Mushroom people would have defeated them easily, because the Minnipins, in embracing unquestioning conformity, were blind to the threat of invaders. Kendall seems to be reminding readers that it is the nonconformists who protect and represent American democracy. In this way, the tale is very simplistic, a relic of a time when people believed Communism was an unquestionable evil and that it presented a grave threat to democracy. It is in the language and characters that the novel shines, however.

Muggles is a fun heroine. She struggles between conformity and nonconformity, and in the end proves herself the strongest of all Minnipins. Not by virtue of battle, but by virtue of character. She rises as the leader of the five outcasts, and it is on her leadership that they survive on their own. And while she has a mostly cheerful disposition, Kendall provides her with some character depth, as she has some moments of profound doubts and depression. This helps cement the story with some substance.

The language is plenty fun too. The start of each chapter has a quote from Muggles or a poem by Gummy. Gummy's poetry litters the entire story, and much of it had me laughing. Some of the names of the places, too, is hilarious. It shows what happens to creativity when everybody conforms to a single set of standards. The name of the main town is Slipper-on-the-Water because Gammage lost a slipper on the river where the town was built. The streets have such names as Street Going to the River and Street Going Nowhere. Certainly practical, but not very imaginative. To give an example of how much fun the language is, I will share a passage:

"Then they heard it, though afterward they never could agree as to exactly what they heard. Mingy said it was a fat sort of noise, Walter the Earl claimed that it was an approaching kind of thing, but Curley Green described it as just a soundlike sound."

I could quote many, many passages like this, as well as Gummy's poems, but it'll be easier if you just read the book. In today's age of angst-filled and romance-focused fantasy, The Gammage Cup is refreshing. It is not angsty, and it has no romance. It is lighthearted through and through, and even its black and white depiction of good and evil had me feeling nostalgic. I find that the final 30 pages or so falter, but until then, it's a very enjoyable read.

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