The magic of reading

The book within the book as the key to strange worlds: how the writer Cornelia Funke uses this literary motif is being researched by specialist in German studies Olaf Koch.

Zeichnung einer Elster, die auf einem zugeklappten Buch sitzt.
© Dressler, Cornelia Funke

She is one of the world's best writers of literature for children and young people: Cornelia Funke's fantasy books can be found on reading lists of classics – alongside "Alice in Wonderland" and "Harry Potter". Her novel "Inkheart" (2003), the first in the Inkworld trilogy, is a multi-award-winning fantasy book. The adventure story about bookbinder Mo and his daughter Meggie is made special by a literary trick used by the author: the book within a book motif. The name "Inkheart" is not only the name of the novel by Funke, but also the book around which everything in the novel revolves.

It is about the magic of reading. Bookbinder Mo and his daughter Meggie have the gift of reading aloud: each line opens the gateway to the book world. The characters that are read out come alive and enter the fictional real world of Meggie and Mo. The figure of Farid from "1001 Nights" appears at the home of the father and daughter. Mo also reads the villain Capricorn and his men out of "Inkheart". The gateway between the letters on the page also opens in the other direction. So, after reading aloud, not only has the postman disappeared, but also Meggie's mother Resa. To find them again in the book and read them back out is Mo and Meggie's mission. To do that, however, they must first get their hands on the Inkheart book. To prevent him from being returned to the storybook, Capricorn is destroying all the copies of Inkheart.

It is exactly what we like about a good book, to be completely immersed in a story, to be involved in the action and really empathise with its characters, who are so familiar to us, just like dear friends.

Olaf Koch
Zeichnung eines aufgeblätterten Buches

"The book within a book motif is nothing new in literature," explained Olaf Koch, lecturer at the Institute of Modern German Literature and Media. The specialist in German studies researches fantasy and literature for children and young people at Kiel University. He gave a talk on his research and the book "Inkheart" within the framework of the lecture series "Literarische Welterfolge in deutscher Sprache" (global literary successes in the German language) at Kiel University. "The idea of books within books has been around since about 1800," explained Koch. "At that time, literature began to make itself the subject matter." For example, Goethe describes becoming a writer in "Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship" (1795/96) and the epistolary novel "The Sorrows of Young Werther" (1774). Novalis used the motif in his work "Henry von Ofterdingen" (1802).

"By using the book within a book motif, authors create a meta level in order to shed more light on the characters and their actions by mentioning a book or poem – usually a very well-known title of its time," said Koch. Goethe's reference to Lessing's "Emilia Galotti" at the time of Werther's suicide is one example.

Zeichnung eines Huhnes, das bequem an ein Buch gelehnt ist.

In other fantasy novels, for example, "The Neverending Story" by Michael Ende (1979), the eponymous book within the book serves as a portal: it draws the reader Bastian into the magical world of Fantasia, in which the text becomes reality and the characters and places come alive. Bastian becomes an active character in the empire of Fantasia. "The book within a book motif involves the reader in a very particular way. It is exactly what we like about a good book, to be completely immersed in a story, to be involved in the action and really empathise with its characters, who are so familiar to us, just like dear friends," said Koch.

The book and the reading of the book represent a gateway to the magical world in "The Neverending Story" just like in Funke's novel "Inkheart". "What makes her novel so special, however, is her idea of bringing the author of the book – Fenoglio – into play," said Koch. "Mo and Meggie are looking for the author of the Inkheart story, Fenoglio, within the Inkheart novel and hope he will help them." Capricorn is also after the author as the latter still has a copy of Inkheart in his possession. Instead of being frightened of the villain, however, Fenoglio is fascinated by the character he has written.

"Incorporating the author is a brilliant move because he can make unpredictable twists and turns in the action possible," said Koch. Thanks to Fenoglio, the story has a happy ending: he quickly rewrites Inkheart. The fantasy continues in the second part of the trilogy – "Inkspell" (2005). Fenoglio returns from the fictional real world to the Inkworld and lives with characters he himself has created. "It is ideas like these that make all three of Funke's Inkworld novels so special. She has a rightful place on the list of classics for children and young people," said Koch. A fourth volume "Inkworld. The Colour of Revenge" is currently being written.

Author: Jennifer Ruske

The presentation by Olaf Koch on Cornelia Funke's "Inkheart" is available online with the rest of the lecture series "Literarische Welterfolge in deutscher Sprache" (global literary successes in the German language):
bit.ly/rv-welterfolge