Where the Wilds Things Are is a strange little book. It tells the story of Max, a young boy who gets sent to his room without supper for talking back to his mom. In his room, his imagination transports him to a land of monsters, who crown him their king. As a king free from parental admonition, Max partakes in a sort of bacchanalia, but soon finds it unfulfilling. He leaves the land of the wild things and returns to his room, where he finds supper waiting for him after all.
The book is strange in its form: 9 sentences span 36 pages. And it’s strange in its reception: the wild things are a celebrated part of our cultural landscape despite the fact that Max rejects them in the end. The idea of becoming king of the wild things, of living free from moral restraint and responsibility, even for just a moment, seems to be what has attracted generations of readers. (It’s no wonder that some conservative Christian parents refuse to read the book to their kids.) Despite the popularity of the wild things, this book is not a celebration of rebellion but a fantastical retelling of the Prodigal Son.But in Where the Wild Things Are, Sendak does not simply recast the Prodigal Son as a children’s fable. The book is art.
In the gospel of Luke, Jesus tells the parable of father and his two sons. The younger son demands his portion of the inheritance, which the father gives him. The son then “squandered his wealth in wild living” (Luke 15:13 NIV). He hits rock bottom, eating the slop of the pigs he was hired to feed, and decides to return home and beg his father to live as one of his servants. When the son returns, his father runs to him, hugs him, and throws him a welcome home party. The older son refuses to join the party in anger, but the father tells him, “We had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found” (Luke 15:32).
That the Wild Things book parallels the Prodigal Son further highlights its strangeness, for its author, Maurice Sendak, was an atheist. But Sendak does not simply recast the story as a children’s fable. The book is art. And like all art, its form commands our attention. And as great art often does, it focuses our attention on redemption.
The story begins:
“The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind and another his mother called him ‘WILD THING!’ and Max said ‘I’LL EAT YOU UP!’ so he was sent to bed without eating anything.”
At first glance, the book’s opening seems rather mundane. A disobedient child and a disciplinary parent is common enough in children’s literature, but how these words interact with the illustrations hint of something greater.
That opening sentence takes three full page spreads to complete. It’s jarring. What’s more, the first page’s incomplete sentence is matched by an incomplete illustration. At least, it feels incomplete, for it is far too small for its page. About four inches of barren white space surround Max who is clumsily hammering a bed sheet into the wall. The next two illustrations are slightly bigger, but still do not fill the page. A casual reader might dismiss the illustrations’ sequential growth as mere whimsy, but once the themes are fully developed and the interplay between text and illustrations reaches its climax, we will see how the unusual form is integral to the book’s content. In other words, we will appreciate the book as art.
Additionally, the sentence structure here and throughout is actually typical of Old Testament narrative: a series of unembellished clauses joined by conjunctions, most typically and. Here is a representative example from Genesis:
So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desires to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, and he ate. (Genesis 3:6)
From the beginning, whether we know it or not, Wild Things has us thinking biblically in cadence and tempo. But if we didn’t recognize the similarities in syntax, the themes should move us in the right direction. Max’s disobedience leads to his exile in his room, just as Adam and Eve’s leads to their exile from the Garden. Max’s mother tells him the truth of who he is: a wild thing, echoing what Scripture tells us about who we are: sinners, wild things rebelling against our loving heavenly Father.
Max’s story continues, just as slowly; the next sentence takes five pages to complete:
“That very night in Max’s room a forest grew and grew and grew and grew until his ceiling hung with vines and the walls became the world all around and an ocean tumbled by with a private boat for Max and he sailed off through night and day.”
Again, the sentence is punctuated by a series of illustrations. These gradually increase in size. At the end of the sequence, the illustrations have not only filled the entire right side, but have spilled onto the left. As Max reaches the shore where the wild things are, the illustrations dominate both pages, pushing the text to the bottom of the spread. The illustrations grow as Max descends further into his disobedience. And after Max is crowned king of the wild things, he commands, “Let the wild rumpus start!” and the text is gone. The illustrations of Max’s pagan rumpus completely fill the next three page spreads, now devoid of words.
The first illustration strikes the reader as pagan: Max and the wild things are dancing under a full moon. Max’s eyes are closed and his mouth is open as if in song. In the second illustration, they dangle from the tops of trees. And in the third, Max sits triumphantly on one wild thing’s shoulders, holding a scepter. Here Max’s sinful nature is given complete reign. He is the wildest of wild things, a king of his own making, unrestrained by parental admonition.
But why should the height of Max’s sin banish the text? J. R. R. Tolkien helps us find an answer when he explained why he didn’t want his own stories illustrated:
If a story says “he climbed a hill and saw a river in the valley below”, the illustrator may catch, or nearly catch, his own vision of such a scene; but every hearer of the words will have his own picture, and it will be made out of all the hills and rivers and dales he has ever seen, but especially out of The Hill, The River, The Valley which were for him the first embodiment of the word.
Words evoke the ideal; illustrations capture a particular instance of that ideal. A particular will never encompass the ideal. It is limited and insufficient. God commands Israel, “You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them” (Exodus 20:4). Images are idols for they are not the true God, who is invisible and absolute. We must direct our worship to what is absolute; to worship particulars is misdirected worship, the essence of sin.
Thus the image is king while Max’s sin is king of him. But finding his wild revelry unfulfilling, Max commands, “Now stop!” bringing the text back into the story.
Max sends the wild things to bed without their supper, and he “was lonely and wanted to be where someone loved him best of all.” The land of the wild things, so enticing at first, leaves him embittered and alone. Milton’s Satan thought it “better to reign in hell than serve in heaven.” Max, at this moment, would disagree.
And so as Max returns home, where parental oversight awaits, the illustrations start to recede. Max leaves the wild things and sails back to “the night of his very own room where he found his supper waiting for him,” just as the prodigal son leaves his poverty to return to the loving embrace of his father. The penultimate page establishes equilibrium—the text on the left coupled with a full illustration on the right: Max in his room, pushing back the hood of his wolf suit, repenting of his wildness. But there is no period at the end of what seems to be a complete sentence. The reader turns the page to see the end of the sentence, the end of the story, standing alone without illustration: “and it was still hot.”
The words have the last word, ending the story with the ideal love of the parent who provides exactly what the child needs, body and soul.