Volcanoes are among the most dramatic and interesting features of our environment. It is not surprising, therefore, that they should take the centre stage in not only ancient myths, but in numerous examples of modern literature as well. In this blog post we will examine volcanoes in Norwich-born writer Philip Pullman’s The Firework-Maker’s Daughter (1995), a modern classic of children’s literature featuring the muse for our own Norfolk volcano: Mt. Merapi in Indonesia.
Lila is both daughter and apprentice to Lalchand, a master Firework-Maker. Lila wants nothing more than to follow in her father’s footsteps, but Lalchand warns her that she is not ready. In order to become a true Firework-Maker, Lila must confront Razvani, the Fire-Fiend who resides inside Mt. Merapi, and return with some of his Royal Sulphur. Convinced that she is capable, Lila runs away from home and begins her journey to the volcano in order to prove herself to her father. However, she leaves unaware of the special protection needed in order to survive Razvani’s flames…
During Lila’s assent of Mt. Merapi, the mountain is portrayed with a great sense of realism, making the reader aware of just how dangerous and inhospitable a place a volcano can be. The rocks on the mountainside are hot, sharp and unpredictable, and the air is thick with sulphur:
[T]here was no sign of the Grotto- just an endless slope of hot rough stones that tumbled and rolled underfoot. And her throat was parched and her lungs were panting in the hot thin air, and she fell to her knees and clung with trembling fingers as the stones began to roll under her again.
As a first impression then, one might be mistaken in the belief that Razvani is but a myth to deter people from going near it. However, the text goes on to prove that this is not the case. Mt. Merapi is also shown to be a place of mysticism and supernatural power- Razvani is not simply a myth or a story, he is very real indeed, making himself known to Lila as she enters a cave in the side of the mountain:
“And then, into the heart of the light and the fire and the noise leapt Razvani himself, the great Fire-Fiend, whose body was a mass of flame and whose face a mask of scorching light. […] In a voice like the roar of a forest fire, Razvani spoke.”
We can understand why this is the case when we think about children’s literature as a whole. Beginning with the phrase “A thousand miles ago, in a country east of the jungle and south of the mountains”, The Firework-Maker’s Daughter is a fairy-tale. Fairy tales traditionally contain some magical or non-realistic element, and feature a moral lesson as the result of an encounter with this element. In this story, the volcano now plays a vital role- the Fire-Fiend causes Lila to examine her life and what she truly requires in order to become like her father. In this sense then, Razvani is more than a simple account of a myth, used to explain the activity of the volcano, or to deter people from the mountainside. Rather, the Fire-Fiend serves a purpose as a plot device, enabling Lila to learn a moral lesson and to understand what it truly means to make fireworks like her father.
Philip Pullman’s The Firework-Maker’s Daughter (published 1995/1996, Transworld Publishing Ltd., London) can be enjoyed by both children and adults, and is widely available in libraries and book retailers.