STOPPING THE REIGN OF THE RAIN
by Gene Phillips
The following is not exactly a follow-up to my essay on the subconscious element in fiction, but it does touch on how it can appear in a variety of genres with which is not strongly associated. For instance, it should go without saying that a concept like Superman requires a certain amount of “mythic thinking,” but what about a more mundane-seeming genre, such as the “funny kids” genre of Charles Schulz’ PEANUTS?
Now, let's be clear: am I saying that each and every PEANUTS strip has deep mythic import? Answer: since I haven't even said that of all superhero stories, any intelligent person ought to answer "no." But I think some are better understood through a myth-critical approach that expands on underlying concepts rather than insisting on a "lowest common denominator" interpretation.
Case in point: a sequence I'll entitle "Linus the Rain-Stopper," which is three Sunday strips from the early 60's Peanuts collection PEANUTS EVERY SUNDAY. Here's the story:
STRIP ONE: Linus & Charlie Brown stand in an open field while rain starts coming down: CB is wearing a baseball hat & glove. CB walks away, complaining that the rain interrupts every time you want to do something. Alone, Linus recites the well-known "Rain rain go away" chant. The rain stops. Shocked, Linus runs home and tells Lucy, "Hide me" in the last panel.
STRIP TWO: It's raining again as Linus leads Lucy outside to show her what he can do. He chants the words again, and even Lucy is startled by the rain coming to a halt. Linus gets hysterical: "Do you think I'm a demon? Do you think they'll stone me? I DON'T WANNA BE STONED!" Lucy calms him down and asserts that they have to wait for it to rain one more time, to be sure that the rain-stopping isn't just coincidence. (Apparently she's a believer in "the third time's the charm!") The strip ends with another gag.
STRIP THREE: While they wait, Linus continues to worry about being thought a demon, and Lucy assures him that science will find some use for him. Charlie Brown wanders up, giving Lucy the chance to explain to him (and any readers coming in late) what's going on. The rain starts. Lucy urges Linus to "say the words," and then yells at him, flustering him. Linus utters a mangled-up version of "Rain rain go away," and the strip ends with the three kids being drenched in a torrent of rain, as Lucy calls Linus a "blockhead."
A Christian critic might make this into a meditation on false gods or hidden talents or other themes. I don't think it's that allegorical. However, I also don't think Schulz' well-documented knowledge of Christian themes is entirely irrelevant, either. There's no doubt that Schulz's overriding purpose is to make his readers laugh, even as a superhero artist's purpose is to give thrills and chills. But humor and mythicity are not mutually exclusive, and here the humor proceeds from the notion of a mundane little boy finding himself in a very mythic situation, sans any guidance apart from Lucy's dubious help. Most probably Schulz rooted the idea in a commonplace fantasy-- how many kids and adults alike have wanted the power to bid halt to an inconvenient rainfall? But it doesn't remain a commonplace fantasy in Schulz's world, which is what lends it the quality of mythicity. Linus' anguish about being thought a demon, while comic, is nonetheless a logical extrapolation of his mythic situation.
On one hand, the seasoned PEANUTS reader knows that the situation is funny because Linus is not a demon and Schulz is not going to let him be stoned. On the other, that reader also knows that were this sort of miracle to occur in his world, stoning is not an unlikely outcome for anyone who seemed to arrogate to himself the powers of dat ol' storm-god Yahweh. Somehow, to get back to the status quo, Schulz must undo one mythic situation with another. This he does by having Linus mangle his magic words, essentially "un-saying" them. Since the reader has accepted the author's ability to confer this unexplained power on Linus, he accepts just as readily the author indirectly stating (through Lucy) that once Linus has blown the "third time" test, that was his last chance to prove the power real: thus the whole arbitrary rain-stopping power goes away and everything's back to normal.
Although-- no, don't even get me started on the blanket.