Saturday, 5 April 2014

The Colours in Fairytales

It’s usual for collections of fairytales to include pictures.  When I was very small, the simple retellings I was able to read were full of lavish colour illustrations like this one by Rene Cloke. It's very pink...

The Andrew Lang collections, the Red, the Green, the Violet, theYellow Fairybooks had their intricate Victorian engravings (which I longed to colour in). I read the tales of Hans Christian Andersen with wonderful watercolour illustrations by Edmund Dulac: 

I borrowed from the library Grimm’s fairytales with pictures by Arthur Rackham.  

But fairystories don’t actually need illustrations.  They contain their own colours, brilliant as any medieval painting. As red as blood, as black as ebony, as white as snow. 

In his book ‘An Experiment in Criticism’ CS Lewis talks about good and bad writing, and the possible differences between them. (I know this sounds as if I'm heading off at a tangent, but bear with me.)  He suggests that some readers prefer bad writing because they do not want or are not interested in the things which good writing can provide: richness of experience, for example, or depth of thought. Some readers simply want the action, the page-turning, the next thing.  And this explains the popularity of the airport thriller, and of Dan Brown.

For such a reader, Lewis says, good writing will be either too rich or too bare for his purposes.

A woodland scene by DH Lawrence or a mountain valley by Ruskin gives him far more than he knows what to do with; on the other hand, he would be disappointed with Malory’s ‘he arrived afore a postern opened towards the sea, and was open without any keeping, save two lions kept the entry, and the moon shone clear.’ Nor would he be content with ‘I was terribly afraid’ instead of ‘my blood ran cold’. To the good reader’s imagination such statements of the bare facts are often the most evocative of all.  But the moon shining clear is not enough for the unliterary.  They would rather be told that the castle was ‘bathed in a flood of silver moonlight’.

I’m not concerned here with Lewis’s thesis about different types of reading (I think he’s right, but I also think all of us can be ‘good’ and ‘bad’ readers: I have days when I can be that attentive, sensitive reader Lewis applauds and other days when I simply feel lazy).  But I do want to point out that fairytales – traditional fairytales – tend like Thomas Malory's Morte D'Arthur to be economical with description.

In olden times, when wishing still helped one, there lived a king whose daughters were all beautiful, but the youngest was so beautiful that the sun itself, which has seen so much, was astonished whenever it shone on her face. Close by the King’s castle lay a great dark forest, and under an old lime-tree in the forest was a well, and when the day was very warm, the King’s child went out into the forest and sat down by the side of the cool fountain; and when she was bored she took a golden ball, and threw it up on high and caught it.

            The Frog-King

Lovely as it is, the phrase ‘so beautiful that the sun was astonished’ does not tell us what the king’s daughter looks like. Hardly any modern writer who might wish to turn The Frog-King into a novel could resist providing more. The princess would have to be given a name. We would learn what colour her hair and eyes are, whether her nose turns up at the end, what she wears. In the inevitable process of extending and elaborating the tale, the writer would have to try very hard to avoid literary clichés.

A fairytale does not have to try hard.  In keeping everything simple, it also keeps everything fresh. ‘Close by the King’s castle lay a great, dark forest’ leaves almost everything to your imagination, and then comes the ‘old lime tree’ and the cool well, and that’s as much as anyone needs to know.  A novelist might add a description of the well, providing it with a carved marble parapet or a rustic stone wall.  It might be beautifully written and very fine – but in a fairytale, it would merely get in the way.

Yet how is a simile like ‘as green as grass’ or ‘as black as coal’ less of a cliché than ‘bathed in a flood of silver moonlight’?  In my opinion, because they are so brief.  They leave the imagination free. ‘Red as blood’. The colour flashes on the inward eye in all its familiar, potent brilliance - and is gone.  What else can ‘red’ be as red as? Strain after another comparison as much as you like, you’ll not do better.

Colours in fairytales are strong, simple, basic, and meaningful.
The Queen at her Window: 'Blanche-Neige' illustrated by Benjamin Lacombe, Milan Jeunesse, 2011

Once upon a time in the middle of winter, when the flakes of snow were falling like feathers from the sky, a Queen sat at a window sewing, and the frame of the window was made of black ebony. And whilst she was sewing and looking out of the window at the snow, she pricked her finger with the needle, and three drops of blood fell upon the snow. And the red looked pretty on the white snow, and she thought to herself, ‘Would that I had a child as white as snow, as red as blood, and as black as the wood of the window-frame.’

Little Snow-White

In spite of the 'Sleeping Beauty' picture at the top of this post, you don’t get pink in fairytales. You don’t get purple. Yellow is rare. But there is white snow, white linen, white snakes, white doves, white swans, white feathers. Red blood, and roses as red as blood. There are green branches in dark forests.  Black ravens, black ebony, black coal.  Golden hair, golden straw, golden crowns, golden spinning wheels.

The dove said to her, ‘For seven years must I fly about the world, but at every seventh step that you take I will let fall a drop of red blood and a white feather, and these will show you the way.’

            The Singing, Soaring Lark

White, black and red are meaningful colours because they are rare in nature and therefore noticeable. White is the colour of innocence, the colour of an untrodden fall of snow under which the whole landscape is transformed. A white dove is an emblem of peace, a black raven a signifier of wisdom. In some variants of Snow-White, it is a raven which the queen sees against the snow, a more likely and a sharper contrast than an ebony window-frame. Black is unusual. Most birds are brownish: even today with our dulled attention to nature, we notice black crows and white swans.  Before chemical dyes, black was an expensive colour for clothes: it stood out: most people could not afford to wear it. And red of course is the most meaningful of all colours, the most emotionally charged.  Red is the colour that accompanies childbirth, wounds, war, accidents. Red is the stuff of life and death.

'Blanche-Neige' illustrated by Benjamin Lacombe

Gold is the colour of the sun, or perhaps it should be the other way around: the sun is more glorious than gold. The princess in The Singing, Soaring Lark wears a dress ‘as brilliant as the sun itself’, while the heroine of The Black Bull of Norroway cracks open nuts to reveal dresses the colours of the sun, moon and stars. Gold stands for luck, goodness, happiness and fortune.

Blue, the colour of the sky, is strangely rare in fairytales. Apart from the eerie, supernatural blue light – the witch-light – in the story of that name, the only instance I can find is a sad little tale about a toad in which the blue object is artificial, a handkerchief:

An orphan child was sitting by the town wall spinning, when she saw a paddock coming out of a hole low down in the wall.  Swiftly she spread out beside it one of the blue silk handkerchiefs for which paddocks have such a liking, and which are the only things on which they will creep. As soon as the paddock saw it, it went back, then returned, bringing with it a small golden crown…

Tales of the Paddock, II

Colours in fairytales aren’t decoration, they aren’t even ‘just’ descriptive. They carry information.  They are a form of emphasis. And they can be relied upon. A golden head which rises to the surface of a well may be strange, but won't be evil. Magical and just, it gives the same advice to both the good and the selfish girls: it is their own natures which will bring good or bad fortune.  A girl who can ask a hazel tree to shake gold and silver down upon her is sure to prove fortunate. A white dove will aid the innocent even as it pecks out the eyes of the guilty.

Here’s a poem, into which I tried to work the colours of fairytales.


Out from the pine forest stepped
the bowing yellow dwarf, and stopped the prince,
who - half despairing - told him everything.

If the bent woman, walking backwards, sets you
to sweep the green pins with an old owl's feather,
and call up storm clouds in the fine June weather,
and ride the yellow colt of your last nightmare -
what can you do but sigh and tell your story
to the first kindly stranger who has met you?

'Tell me,' the dwarf said, 'what of your princess?'
'Oh, turned into a brown thrush long ago
she sits and sings in a fine gilded cage,
and every spring she lays a pure blue egg,
which, hatched, displays a tiny golden crown.
That's why you see me wandering alone:
for hills of glass and plains of knives spring up
behind, and hinder me from turning back.'

'Where's your white horse? Your squire, young Constant Jack?'

'Jack used to fret me - always making speed.
He rode my white horse red towards the wars
a long time back. Today, I have no doubt,
sheep graze the fine new grass between their bones.'

'Ah?' said the dwarf. 'And so you're quite alone?'
'Alone. And burdened with confusing tasks.'

Then, pointing where the green ride ducked and dipped
to twist behind the dense pine barrier:
'Now,' said the dwarf, smiling, 'keep on till dark...'

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Folklore snippets: Yeats on Irish fairies

From: ‘Irish Fairies, Ghosts, Witches’ in ‘Lucifer’, 1889
William Butler Yeats

The Pooka seems to be of the family of the nightmare. He has most likely never appeared in human form… His shape is that of a horse, a bull, goat, eagle, ass, and perhaps of a black dog, though this last may be a separate spirit.  The Pooka’s delight is to get a rider, whom he rushes with through ditches and rivers and over mountains, and shakes off in the grey of the morning.  Especially does he love to plague a drunkard – a drunkard’s sleep is his kingdom.

The Dullahan is another gruesome phantom. He has no head, or carries it under his arm.  Often he is seen driving a black coach, called the coach-a-bower [Irish Cóiste-bodhar: deaf or dead coach], drawn by headless horses. It will rumble to your door, and if you open it, a basin of blood is thrown in your face. To the houses where it pauses, it is an omen of death.  Such a coach, not very long ago, went through Sligo in the grey of the morning (the spirit hour).  A seaman saw it, with many shudderings. In some villages its rumblings are heard many times in a year.

The Leanhaun Shee (fairy mistress) seeks the love of men.  If they refuse, she is their slave; if they consent, they are hers, and can only escape by finding another to take their place. Her lovers waste away, for she lives on their lives. Most of the Gaelic poets, down to quite recent times, have had a Leanhaun Shee, for she gives inspiration to her slaves. Her lovers, the Gaelic poets, died young. She grew restless, and carried them away to other worlds, for death does not destroy her power.

Friday, 28 March 2014

'Daughters of Time' at the Oxford Festival

This coming Sunday, 30th March, 2.00 pm, I'm heading for the Oxford Literary Festival to join my fellow authors Mary Hoffman, Penny Dolan, Leslie Wilson and Celia Rees who will be talking about this book,  'Daughters of Time'.  We're all founding members of The History Girls blog, created by Mary Hoffman to celebrate historical writing, fiction and non-fiction, from a female perspective.  We were thrilled when she suggested that some of us might get together to write a series of children’s stories centred around significant women in British history. In the end, thirteen of us took up the challenge: too many to fit on one panel! So I've got the easy job of sitting in the audience -  but I'll be there to help sign books at the end.
Why did we feel this book was important?  Growing up in the 1960’s, the history taught to me at school was mostly about men. I heard of few women role models. When sibling rivalry between me and my younger brother descended a level or two, we might wrangle about whether ‘girls are as good as boys’ or ‘boys are better than girls’, but if he challenged me with ‘Why are there more famous men than women, then?’ my arsenal was small. Queen Elizabeth the First.  Grace Darling.  Joan of Arc (though being burned at the stake was hardly something to aim for). Um. Queen Victoria? – a dull old lady who wore black and was not amused?  Not very inspiring to a child.  I knew of only one woman scientist, Marie Curie (culled from the pages of my Grandma’s ‘Reader’s Digest Book of Famous Lives’, I was a child who read everything).  Famous authors? – well, I knew about the Brontes. And that was about it.

True, I devoured the historical books of Geoffrey Trease who usually had a brave, cross-dressing heroine adventuring alongside the young hero.  But that wasn’t real.  Rather gloomily I supposed that women didn’t have adventures.

How wrong I was.  And ‘Daughters of Time’ amply demonstrates it. When we came to decide who we should pick, we were spoiled for choice: we had heated discussions about which women to include: we could have written three anthologies, never mind one! (Some of the names which had, inevitably, to be left out are listed at the back of the book).  Among us, we wrote about queens, visionaries, reformers, political thinkers, dramatists, scientists, pilots and activists. And I knew immediately who I wanted to write about: Lady Julian of Norwich. 

Lady Julian, a medieval visionary and anchorite who spent perhaps thirty years of her life walled up in a small stone room or ‘cell’ at the back of St Julian’s Church in Norwich, may seem a strange character to offer to readers of nine plus. But she was an amazing person, strong, sane and compassionate.  She is the author of the very first book known to have been written in English by a woman – ‘Showings of God’s Love’, in which she vividly recounts her visions. It’s a very good book, too – full of imagery drawn from everyday life, as when she describes how God showed her ‘a little thing, the size of a hazelnut’ on the palm of her hand, and when she asked what it was, told her, ‘It is all that is made’.  And she has a wonderfully feminist take on religion, describing God as a Mother who tenderly cares for us: ‘for when a child is in trouble or scared, it runs to its mother for help as fast as it can’.

Julian’s message down the centuries is one of hope.  ‘All shall be well,’ God promised her. We still need to hear that message, and that was why I chose it as the title of my story in which twelve year-old Sarah, Lady Julian’s new little maidservant, battles with homesickness and grief.

Friday, 21 March 2014

The Great Selkie of Sule Skerry

An airthlie nourrice sits and sings,
And aye she sings, Ba lily wean!
Little ken I my bairnis father
Far less the land that he staps in.

So begins the old ballad of 'The Great Selkie of Sule Skerry'. As Laura Marjorie Miller discussed a few weeks ago in her guest post here, most selkie tales – or at least, most of those familiar to a modern audience – concern a seal woman who is captured or taken to wife by a mortal man, usually a fisherman who spies her dancing in mortal form on a moonlit beach and steals her sealskin robe, so preventing her from returning to her kindred in the sea.

In Margo Lanagan’s thought-provoking ‘Sea Hearts’ (UK title 'The Brides of Rollrock Island’), the men of the island take beautiful, passive, mournful selkie brides in preference to ordinary human women, but this communal act of selfish, sexual exploitation rebounds upon them. The men cut themselves off from genuine relationships, and they and their children suffer from the seal women’s terrible, unspoken grief.

My own 'Troll Mill' (the second part of 'West of the Moon'), opens when a fisherman’s wife, Kersten, thrusts her newborn baby into the arms of the young hero, Peer, and flings herself into the sea. Hampered by the baby in his arms, Peer tries to stop her:

Rain slashed into his eyes.  His feet skated on wet grass, sank into pockets of soft sand. She was on the beach now, running straight down the shingle to the water. Peer skidded to a crazy halt.  He couldn’t catch her. He saw Bjørn, bending over the boat, doing something with the nets. Peer filled his lungs and bellowed, ‘Bjørn!’ at the top of his voice.  He pointed.

Bjørn’s head came up. He turned, staring. Then he flung himself forwards, pounding across the beach to intercept Kersten. And Kersten stopped.  She threw herself flat and the wet sealskin cloak billowed over her, hiding her from head to foot.  Underneath it, she continued to move in heavy, lolloping jumps.  She must be crawling on hands and knees, drawing the skin cloak closely around her.  She rolled. Waves rushed up and sucked her into the water. Trapped in those encumbering folds, she would drown.

‘Kersten!’ Peer screamed. The body in the water twisted, lithe and muscular, and plunged forward into the next grey wave.

Writing 'Troll Mill', I found myself exploring various themes of possession – can one possess a child? – a wife? – another person? – and motherhood. I wanted to explore the paradoxical selfishness of a ‘good’ and likeable man, Bjørn, who has used love as an excuse for trapping the woman he wants. And I saw the selkie’s return to the sea, abandoning her child, as a metaphor for post natal depression.

'The Great Selkie of Sule Skerry' differs from the ‘selkie bride’ legends insofar as the selkie in question is not female, but male. The earliest known version was collected by Captain F.W.L. Thomas of the Royal Navy, who heard it sung by ‘a venerable lady of Snarra Voe, Shetland’ some time around 1852: he sent it to The Society of Antiquaries of Scotland.  Later in the century it made it into Child’s Ballads, number 113, and an original tune for it was collected in 1938 by Professor Otto Andersen on the island of Flotta, Orkney, who heard it sung by John Sinclair:

Sadly I can’t find a recording. The best known tune for the ballad was written by James Waters in the late 1950s (sung below by Joan Baez).

As with most stories of human/otherworldly liaisons, in 'The Great Selkie of Sule Skerry' things have gone wrong from the very start. The ballad opens with the ‘airthly nourrice’ – the mortal woman nursing her child – lamenting that she doesn’t know who his father is. ‘Little ken I my bairn’s father, far less the land that he dwells in’. It’s easy to let the beautiful tune sweep you away into a pleasant mood of romantic melancholy. But stop, stop and think!  What does it mean, when a woman doesn’t know who her child’s father is? How can that happen? It can happen if that woman has been raped.  There’s a lot of rape in ballads, much of it quite casual, probably reflecting everyday life.

So here’s this woman, this unnamed woman, rocking and nursing her child, not knowing who his father is, and then something fearful happens.

Then ane arose at her bed-fit
And a grumlie guest I’m sure was he:
‘Here am I, thy bairnis father,
Although I be not comelie’.

‘One arose at her bed foot’ – in her home, in her bower, into the safe place where she’s nursing her child, there emerges, surges up like an apparition from the foot of the bed, this grim, rough creature which once forced itself upon her. (The illustration by Vernon Lee, above, powerfully suggests the uncanny terror of the moment.) And he acknowledges her child as his. And he tells her the terrible truth: he’s not even human, and if he has a home at all other than the wild sea, it’s only a tiny rock far out in the North Atlantic, far from land.

I am a man, upo’ the lan,
An I am a silkie in the sea,
And when I’m far and far frae lan
My hame it is in Sule Skerrie.’

The woman reproaches him.  ‘It wasna weel,’ she says, ‘That the great Silkie of Sule Skerrie should come and aught a child to me.’ But in response, this happens.

And he has ta’en a purse of gold
And he has put it upo’ her knee,
Saying ‘Gie to me my little young son
And tak thee up thy nourris-fee.’

He’s paying her off, flinging money into her lap. ‘Pick up your money and give me my son.’ It’s like a blow to the face; his indifference to her is chilling. This is not a happy story, and the selkie, being a supernatural creature, has the gift of foreseeing how it will all end: badly.  One summer day, ‘when the sun shines hot on every stone’, he will take his little half-mortal son ‘and teach him how to swim the foam’. But by this time the woman will have married a man who can shoot with a gun. (I wonder if when this ballad was new, guns were new too?) At any rate, either by accident or by design, he will shoot both the selkie and his son.

An it sall come to pass on a simmer’s day
When the sin shines het on evera stane
That I will tak my little young son
And teach him for to swim the faem.

An thu sall marry a proud gunner,
An a proud gunner I’m sure he’ll be,
And the very first schot that ere he schoots,
He’ll schoot baith my young son and me.

What was the point of it all, then?  If it was always going to end in such tragedy?  Why did the selkie take the woman in the first place, why did he father her child? You might as well ask, ‘What is the point of “Hamlet”?’  The ballad is a song, a poem, and if it’s about anything it’s about the harshness and unfairness of the world, and the brevity and beauty of life.  The best moments are in the last-but-one verse: it’s full of light: the glorious heat of the sun on the shoreline stones in the short, bright northern summer, and the sensuous joy and tenderness of the bond between the selkie and his ‘little young son’ as he teaches him to ‘swim the foam’. Those are the moments that make the story bearable – and surely, the ballad says, those are the moments which make human life bearable, however brief it may be.

 Joan Baez' haunting version of 'The Great Selkie of Sule Skerry', tune by James Waters.

Picture credit:  Vernon Hill's illustration of the tale. From Richard Chope's 1912 collection Ballads Weird and Wonderful