The other day, writing in my local cafe, I watched as a toddler ran shrieking away from her father, who was acting the role of the Big Bad Monster. The child was screaming with a mixture of delight and terror. The ‘monster’ bore down on her, whisked her into his arms, hoisted her aloft and the child gurgled with pleasure. Most of us have either seen or been participants in that scenario at some time in our lives.

One of the themes of my book Far Away is ESCAPE! In this case from a POW camp in Italy during the Second World War.

The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker

The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker

In his brilliant book The Seven Basic Plots, Christopher Booker says:

‘The thrilling escape from death runs very deep. It is one of the most consistent motifs in storytelling.’

He goes on to say that the vast majority of these stories are tied up with ‘overcoming the monster’. After all, there has to be something the protagonist is escaping from.

Here are a few examples:

  • a scantily clad heroine in a silent movie is tied to the tracks as the train bears down on her;
  • Jonah is swallowed by a whale and escapes when he is vomited out of its belly;
  • Little Red Riding Hood escapes the Big Bad Wolf;
  • Jack of the Beanstalk escapes and kills the giant;
  • Goldilocks jumps out of the window and escapes the three bears;
  • In the war film The Guns of Navarone, the guns are the monsters which our heroes blow up before making their escape;
  • In the film The Great Escape POWs tunnel out of a camp in Germany and escape;
  • Jerry, that pesky mouse, finds all kinds of ways to escape the malign attentions of Tom, the cat;
  • In the film The Shawshank Redemption a prisoner tunnels his way out of a prison and escapes through the sewage system. This has also just happened in real life in America. Richard Matt and David Sweat have just tunnelled out of a maximum security jail in Dannemora, New York.

You get the general idea and I’m sure you could add a few of your own! Once you start looking for escape stories you’ll find them everywhere.

Far Away by Victoria Blake

Far Away by Victoria Blake

One of the most interesting things about what happened to my father and what I depict in my novel Far Away is how the ‘monster’ to be overcome, (as Christopher Booker describes it), changed into a saviour. To start with the enemy was the Italians who were running and guarding the POW camps. However, on September 8th the Armistice was announced and on the following day the Allies landed at Salerno and Taranto. At that point the Italian army laid down its arms and the guards drifted away. What happened then, as thousands of Allied POWs poured out into the Italian countryside, was extraordinary.

Many of the Italian contadini – the country people – took incredible risks to help and protect these young men. This is one of the most touching aspects of the story. Of course, if you have next to nothing yourself then maybe it makes you all too aware of what it means to be starving, thirsty and cold. But all the same the risks were huge. If caught by the Germans helping escaped Allied soldiers then the Italians were likely to be killed and have their houses burnt down. That is a very big risk to take for people who, before they were imprisoned, had been fighting their sons, husbands, brothers and fathers.  It is possible to argue that the Italians knowing which way the war was going were acting in their own self-interest, however this does not reduce the level of courage shown or the dangers involved.

And the danger lasted for a long time. Germany did not just hand Italy over to the Allies. It took twenty months for the Allies to fight their way up to Italy’s northern border. It was to be a hard-fought, brutal and bloody campaign.

Do you have a favourite escape story?

Or do you have any stories from Italy at that time?


The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker

The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker

In his brilliant book The Seven Basic Plots Christopher Booker identifies the seven as being:

  • overcoming the monster
  • rags to riches
  • the quest
  • voyage and return
  • comedy
  • tragedy
  • rebirth

Although perhaps a bit light on comedy, The Odyssey contains most of the other plots but before I get too bogged down in theory let’s move swiftly on to Odysseus’ encounter with the Cyclops, which obviously fits the bill nicely for overcoming the monster.

The main thing that struck me after reading Book IX was how sympathetic I felt towards the Cyclops, Polyphemus, and how extremely irritated I was by Odysseus. I had forgotten that the Cyclops is a shepherd and there are rather tender scenes of him milking his ewes and goats and then returning their lambs and kids to them. These scenes are admittedly intermingled with him crunching up Odysseus’ companions and tearing them limb from limb.

However, when they first arrive in the cave, Odysseus’ followers plead with him that they should steal some sheep and cheese and get the hell out of there but Odysseus decides they should wait. And his reason?

‘I wished to see the owner of the cave and had hopes of some friendly gifts from my host.’

Well, how wrong can you be? In other words he is a greedy, reckless fool. Six of his companions are chomped up by the Cyclops before Odysseus’ nimble wits lurch into action and he devises a plan to get them out of there. It involves calling himself Nobody, getting Polyphemus drunk and a stomach churning eye-gouging scene.

‘… we handled our pole with its red-hot point and twisted it in his eye till the blood boiled up round the burning wood. The fiery smoke from the blazing eyeball singed his lids and brow all round, and the very roots of his eye crackled in the heat.’

Even with his eye out, the Cyclops is endearingly tender with his rams. Odysseus and his men strap themselves under the sheep to get past Polyphemus, who is blocking the exit from his cave and running his hand over everything that goes past him.

‘Sweet ram what does this mean? Why are you the last of the flock to pass out of the cave, you who have never lagged behind the sheep… Are you grieved for your master’s eye, blinded by a wicked man and his accursed friends, when he had robbed me of my wits with wine?’

Well, I’m still on Polyphemus’ side. And what does Odysseus do then? When they are out at sea he taunts Polyphemus, who starts hurling rocks at their boat, which creates such a swell that the boat is pushed back towards the beach and danger. Even then Odysseus will not shut up. He can’t resist bragging:

‘Cyclops, if anyone ever asks you how you came by your unsightly blindness, tell him your eye was put out by Odysseus, Sacker of Cities, the son of Laertes who lives in Ithaca.’ 

Oh great, so now Polyphemus knows his name and he calls on his father, Poseidon, to curse him. Yes, by the way, Polyphemus’ father is a god with the alarming epithet of ‘Earthshaker.’

‘…grant that Odysseus…may never reach his home in Ithaca. But if he is destined to reach his native land, to come once more to his own house and see his friends again, let him come late, in evil plight, with all his comrades dead, and when he is landed…let him find trouble in his home.’

Now Odysseus has a god against him who, we are told in the first paragraph of the book, ‘pursued the heroic Odysseus with relentless malice.’ Of course he does because Odysseus has blinded his son. So a monster is overcome but now Odysseus is cursed and inadvertently brings about the deaths of his own men. By the end of the chapter it has become clear that tricking the Cyclops was the easy bit. What Odysseus really needs to do is get a handle on his own monstrous egotism.

Do you have a favourite ‘overcoming the monster’ story?