Study Guide

Bridge to Terabithia Transformation

By Katherine Paterson

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But this year Wayne Pettis would be in the sixth grade. He'd play football until Christmas and baseball until June with the rest of the big guys. Anybody had a chance to be the fastest runner, and by Miss Bessie, this year it was going to be Jesse Oliver Aarons, Jr. (1.19)

Here, we see Jess attempting to transform himself through force of will. He spies an opportunity and wants to take advantage of it. Through hard work, he can make himself into what he wants to be, which in this case is the "the fastest runner."

Jess drew the way some people drink whiskey. The peace would start at the top of his muddled brain and seep down through his tired and tensed-up body. Lord, he loved to draw. (2.11)

The practice of drawing changes Jess from the inside out. It's like a drug, or an addiction. He gets a high from doing it that calms him down and brings him "peace." Even though his father disapproves of Jess drawing, Jess can't help it. He craves the activity and needs the "peace" it brings.

We don't belong at Lark Creek, Julia and me. "You're the proverbial diamond in the rough," she'd said to him once, touching his nose lightly with the tip of her electrifying finger. But it was she who was the diamond, sparkling out of that muddy, grassless, dirty-brick setting. (2.23)

Both Jess and Miss Edmunds ("Julia") recognize the other as someone who doesn't belong. Miss Edmunds is unlike the other teachers in that she recognizes Jess's potential for transformation, seeing talent that needs to be uncovered and polished. While she calls Jess a "diamond in the rough," he sees her as that "diamond." It probably doesn't hurt that her first name, Julia, sounds like "jewel."

Terabithia was their secret, which was a good thing, for how could Jess have ever explained it to an outsider? Just walking down the hill toward the woods made something warm and liquid steal through his body. (4.139)

The act of going to Terabithia has the same physical effect on Jess that drawing does. Whenever he does either of them, he feels "something warm" ("peace" [2.11]) "steal through his body." Maybe it's the mental challenge or use of imagination that's having a physical, calming effect. Maybe his body recognizes something's good for him before his mind can. Either way, despite what other people might think or say, Jess can feel the rightness of going to Terabithia, of drawing, and of moving outside himself.

Jess tried going to Terabithia alone, but it was no good. It needed Leslie to make the magic. He was afraid he would destroy everything by trying to force the magic on his own, when it was plain that the magic was reluctant to come for him. (7.2)

Halfway through the book, Jess still relies on Leslie to get to Terabithia. He thinks both he and Terabithia "need" her "to make the magic," and isn't yet confident enough that he can do it himself. While he's opened up enough to the possibility of seeing Terabithia and sharing in Leslie's creation of it, he doesn't think he can shape it on his own. His transformation into being a magic-wielder is only partially complete.

Leslie's eyes were sparkling. "Arise" – she barely swallowed a giggle – "arise, king of Terabithia, and let us proceed into our kingdom." (9.47)

Like she's knighting someone, Leslie confers magic and kingship on Jess. They both believe in it, and yet recognize the silliness too. When Leslie tells Jess he's the king, he becomes transformed into that king.

He watched the car go out of sight and then turned and ran with all his might to the house, the joy jiggling inside of him so hard that he wouldn't have been surprised if his feet had just taken off from the ground the way they sometimes did in dreams and floated him right over the roof. (10.70)

This pure "joy" is, unfortunately, short-lived. Yet, maybe it's only because it's short-lived that it's so deeply felt. Jess is so overcome with this "joy" that he practically flies, having so much feeling flood through him that he almost comes off the ground. This happiness makes him run faster.

If he got up now and went down to the old Perkins place and knocked on the door, Leslie would come to open it, P.T. jumping at her heels like a star around the moon. It was a beautiful night. Perhaps they could run over the hill and across the fields to the stream and swing themselves into Terabithia. (11.14)

Now Jess is trying desperately to make magic happen, when before he thought he couldn't. It's as though thinking about it hard enough will not only get him into Terabithia, but also will bring back Leslie, alive again, so they can go together.

She had tricked him. She had made him leave his old self behind and come into her world, and then before he was really at home in it but too late to go back, she had left him stranded there – like an astronaut wandering about on the moon. Alone. (12.17)

Jess is angry with Leslie for transforming him and then up and leaving. It's a natural stage of grief. He's mad at her because she was taken from him after totally changing him, but not quite finishing the process – leading him partway and then disappearing. He can't unlearn or change back to the way he was, but he also doesn't feel like he can move forward.

It was Leslie who had taken him from the cow pasture into Terabithia and turned him into a king. […] After you stayed for a while and grew strong you had to move on. For hadn't Leslie, even in Terabithia, tried to push back the walls of his mind and make him see beyond to the shining world--huge and terrible and beautiful and very fragile? (13.59)

Finally, Jess realizes that transformations themselves are temporary and keep evolving. In order to honor how Leslie changed him, he has to, in turn, keep on changing. It's not enough to do some growing and then stop. You have to keep doing it, keep challenging yourself, and keep pushing "beyond to the shining world." (It's sort of like how the narrator in Tennyson's poem "Ulysses" also wants to seek a better world: see our section on "Ulysses" for more.)

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