Monday, 31 May 2010

Languages and the Tower of Babel

Genesis 11, verses 1-9:
1 And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech. 2 And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there. 3 And they said one to another, Go to, let us make brick, and burn them thoroughly. And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for mortar. 4 And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth. 5 And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children built. 6 And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do; and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do. 7 Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech. 8 So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city. 

Like every myth, this story communicates on different levels.  On a literal and simplistic level, it’s a story about human pride and ambition being punished by a God who apparently feels threatened. And read this way, it’s pretty dispiriting.  ‘Don’t try too hard.  Don’t be ambitious.’ That’s like saying ‘Don’t be human’, isn’t it?  The builders of the tower of Babel aren’t evil.  They’re only attempting what the space programme did – to reach the sky.

On another level, ‘The Tower of Babel’ is a ‘Just So’ story: it tries to explain why different languages exist; and on another it’s a glimpse of history, of Babylon’s great ziggurats and towers, its marketplaces and streets filled with merchants and foreigners, a place where many different languages could be heard; and on still another, it’s a lament for the fragmentation of mankind, for our lack of trust, our misunderstandings and enmities.  It’s a tale told around the world, in India, Africa and America – perhaps anyplace where people built pyramids and towers.  Nearly always the existence of multiple languages is presented as negative, a punishment which reverberates down the ages. Diversity of languages is seen as a bad thing, something which divides the human world and holds us back.  If only the whole world still spoke one language!  We would all be one people and could achieve anything!

Anyone who has struggled at school to learn a foreign language may have some sympathy with this view.  Anyone who has mastered a foreign language will, perhaps, feel differently.

There’s a fascinating article about language by Christine Keneally in this week’s ‘New Scientist' (29th May): '6,909 Ways of Thinking'.  It's about what different languages may tell us about humanity, the development of speech, and the ways our brains are shaped.  It’s not all that long since scientific thinking about languages was dominated by Chomsky’s theory that all languages are underpinned by a universal grammar for which the brain is deep-wired, and that this is why babies pick up languages so easily, while children who for one reason or another are deprived of language, past a certain age find it difficult or impossible to catch up. 

Now, it seems, some research is suggesting a different approach: the universal deep grammar may be a chimaera, and human languages may be genuinely diverse, with characteristics familiar to some being completely absent from others, and vice versa.

We of the Indo-European tongues are so accustomed to nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs that it’s hard to imagine talking without them.  But apparently, over the last two decades, researchers (like Columbus ‘discovering’ something the natives already knew) have found some languages such as Lao (spoken in Laos) with no adjectives at all: and even a few languages from the American Northwest without distinct nouns or verbs, but, instead, ‘a single class of words to encompass events, entities and qualities.’ This does not mean these languages are less sophisticated than ours.  All human language is highly sophisticated.  They are simply different.

English, according to the article, lacks ‘ideophones’: ‘where diverse feelings about an event and its participants are jammed into one word’.  Keneally provides the immensely appealing example of a Mundari, Indian subcontinent, word, ‘rawa-dawa’, which apparently means: ‘the sensation of suddenly realising you can do something reprehensible, and no one is there to witness it.’ 

(After I’d stopped smiling, I started to think about that. Is it really true that English contains no ideophones?  Does the word ‘shrugs’ mean merely ‘an up and down movement of the shoulders’?  Doesn’t it nearly always additionally imply ‘the person performing the action dissociates himself from responsibility’?  Can a word such as ‘shrug’ ever be completely unpacked from its associations?  Doesn’t it all rest rather shakily on interpretation?  And isn’t interpretation what language is all about?  Can all the ambiguities and double levels of meaning be so easily pinned down?) 

At any rate, it appears that humans may just have invented their languages as they went along, using ‘standard engineering solutions that languages adopt again and again; and then you get outliers’.  Languages may have evolved, like other characteristics, in response to particular environments.  Studying the differences between languages may provide rich information about the human mind. 

Keneally goes on to point out this means that the extinction of a language is a double tragedy (especially it’s usually accompanied by the erosion of a culture).  We lose not only the language itself, but also what it can tell us.  Some Australian languages have words for species – of bees for example – which have not yet been described by science.  It is, she quotes one scientist as saying, like losing a shelf from a library without even knowing which books were there.  

This is a haunting image, but I find another comparison springing to mind.  Languages are like the rainforests – beautiful, mysterious, diverse, full of life, full of unexpected creatures and unknown species.  It’s a commonplace to defend the preservation of rainforests on utilitarian grounds: who knows what unknown medicinal plants we may still find there?  Who knows what the loss of such great forests will do to the climate?  These are strong arguments: but the emotional heart of the desire to preserve the rainforests is that they are beautiful, and we want some wilderness in the world yet. 

Diversity is good.  No modern language is unmodified by another.  Even a brief glance at the dictionary shows how English combines French, Latin, Greek, Celtic and German elements, and still imports fresh words from abroad.  Not only do we humans come up with different concepts in different languages; we may even need different languages to think differently in.  Just think how many things we couldn’t even say if there were no foreign languages.  No schadenfreude. No dejà vu.  No glasnost or perestroika, no segueing from one idea to another. Just think how awful that would be. 

Instead of reading the story of the Tower of Babel as a tragedy, the smiting down of presumptuous humanity by a jealous God, perhaps we could read it as a mytho-poetic account of human creativity: ‘Let’s reach the sky!’ ‘Let’s discover the origin of life!’ We strive for perfection and though we always fall short, at least we keep trying.   Or maybe we could turn instead to a different account: a Greek story about the trickster god Hermes - god of words and inventions, messenger between Olympus and the mortal world.  Hermes is said to have created a confusion of human speech, which spoiled Zeus’ pleasure in ruling over men.  The Greek writer Pausanius says that Zeus therefore abdicated in favour of the culture-hero Phoroneus, first king of Argos, who introduced the use of fire and the forge and who, when the primeval waters receded, "was the first to gather the people together into a community; for they had up to then been living as scattered and lonesome families.”

And in this myth we see a more hopeful view of the diversity of languages: confusion of languages as a gift - like all the gifts of trickster gods, double-edged! - but still a gift rather than a curse: the Sky-Father retreats, but we human beings develop, invent, and flourish. 

Friday, 28 May 2010

Mythic Friday at Scribble City Central

You can find me this morning over at Lucy Coats' blog, Scribble City Central.  Like me, Lucy is a British children's fantasy author who is passionate about legends and folklore, and she has had the great idea of interviewing a series of fantasy authors about their favourite myths.  I can thoroughly recommend Lucy's middle grade fantasy 'Hootcat Hill' (Orion 2009) and she's just bringing out a great series for younger children, "Greek Beasts and Heroes".  I'm honoured to have been asked to take part in the 'Mythic Fridays' interviews - as you will see if you check them out, since some of the other participating authors include names such as Alison Croggan, Michele Paver and Adele Geras.  It was fascinating to answer Lucy's questions - I hope you'll enjoy both my answers and her very exciting and vibrant blog!

Monday, 24 May 2010

A Blog From a Thousand Years Ago

Do you remember the Penguin Classics – that fantastic collection of black-liveried paperbacks comprising translations of classic literature from all over the world?  I began buying them many years ago as a teenager, and - entirely without compulsion - read my way through much of Plato, Sophocles, Aeschylus and Euripides. Call me a geek, but there was even a time when I used to compose Socratic dialogue, for my own amusement, on solitary hillwalks:  

'So, for information about sheep you would go to a shepherd?' 
'Yes, Socrates.'
'And for information about ships you would talk to a sailor?  Or if you desired to know something about insects you would visit an entomologist?"
'Yes, certainly.'
'And you would think it useless to ask a sailor about sheep, or to demand information about ships from an entomologist?'
'That would be ludicrous indeed, Socrates.'

And pretty soon, after Socrates has established that for information about birds you would go to Bill Oddie, and for details of the lives of celebrities you would buy Hello magazine; and that you would be pretty disappointed in a shepherd who knew nothing about sheep, you find yourself agreeing that a politician really ought to have some notion of the Beautiful and the Good, and to be learned in Law, and that he or she should have some idea of putting the good of the people ahead of themselves - and in fact you find yourself wandering off into all sorts of delightful and unrealistic places.

You could pick up a pretty good education, twenty years ago, simply from buying one title after another out of those blocks of severe black which occupied prominent shelf-space in nearly all bookshops. They were by no means all about the Greeks.  I also read ‘The Conquest of New Spain’ by Bernal Diaz who served under Cortez; ‘The Book of Dede Korkut’ (legends of the Oghuz Turks), and, above all, translations from Chinese and Japanese literature.  Courtesy of Penguin Classics I discovered poems by Li Po, haiku by Bashō, and – perhaps the most enchanting of all, the writings of the eleventh century Japanese lady Sei Shōnagon, who is the person I really want to talk about today, and whose ‘Pillow Book’ has to be one of the most urbane and delightful books in the world.  

Shōnagon was born around 965, according to Ivan Morris’s introduction to the book (all quotations below are taken from his Penguin translation).  She acted as lady-in-waiting to the Empress Sadako at the court of the mid-Heian emperor Ichijō.  This was a fascinatingly cultured and civilized court.  At a time when in England, Ethelred the Unredy (or the Ill-advised) was trying to buy off the Vikings, and literacy was the province mainly of monks, in upper-class Heian Japan you could not even function socially (still less conduct a love-affair), without the ability to write – at a moment’s notice – impromptu verse in beautiful calligraphy, complete with allusions to classical Chinese poetry.

It was also a time when Japanese women – women, note: women in particular – were opening up the possibilities for writing in the vernacular: in Japanese.  This was because although both men and women were literate, the men tended to get that extra bit of education and learned Chinese too (rather like learning Latin).  And they then wrote in Chinese and remained derivatory, whereas the women were writing in their own native idiom and composing great works of literature.  Murasaki Shikibu’s immensely long and wonderful novel ‘The Tale of Genji’ dates from this period: she was a contemporary of Sei Shōnagon – and disliked her:

‘Sei Shōnagon has the most extraordinary air of self-satisfaction… She is a gifted woman, to be sure.  Yet, if one gives free rein to one’s emotions even in the most inappropriate circumstances, if one has to sample each interesting thing that comes along, people are bound to regard one as frivolous.  And how can things turn out well for such a woman?’

How modern and catty does that sound?  Anyway, Shōnagon’s ‘Pillow Book’ is a collection of miscellaneous writings bundled together over about ten year’s worth of observations, and ranges from gossip and scandal, to the beauties and sadnesses of the world, to things as mundane as the extraordinary way the lower classes shovel in their food (yes, she was a snob).  Clearly personal, clearly also intended to be read and admired, the 'Pillow Book' is really very much like a blog… but a blog from a thousand years ago.

One of her most fascinating habits is the occasional interspersion of lists of various things with different qualities.  Like this:

Depressing Things
A dog howling in the day time.  A lying-in room when the baby has died.  A cold, empty brazier.  An ox-driver who hates his oxen…

One has written a letter, taking pains to make it as attractive as possible, and now one impatiently awaits the reply.  ‘Surely the messenger should be back by now,’ one thinks.  Just then he returns, but in his hand he carries, not a reply, but one’s own letter … now so dirty and crumpled that even the ink mark on the outside has disappeared.  ‘Not at home,’ announces the messenger. Oh, how depressing!

Things That Give a Clean Feeling
An earthen cup. A new metal bowl.  A rush mat.  The play of light on water as one pours it into a vessel.  A new wooden chest.

Adorable Things
One picks up a tiny lotus leaf that is floating on a pond, and examines it…
An extremely plump baby, who is about a year old and has lovely white skin, comes crawling towards one, dressed in a long gauze robe of violet with the sleeves tucked up.
Duck eggs.
An urn containing the relics of some holy person.
Wild pinks.

Squalid things
The back of a piece of embroidery.
The inside of a cat’s ear.
A swarm of mice, who still have no fur, when they come wriggling out of their nest.
Darkness in a place that does not give the impression of being very clean…

Do please go and find a copy of the Pillow Book and read it: you will find Shōnagon a wonderful companion.  In the meantime, in her honour, here’s a list of my own.  Please feel free to add your own - I would love to see them.

Things that are pleasant to use:

An old fashioned rotary lawnmower: the sort you push along.  And the way the cut grass pours off the blades in green showers. 

A rotary egg-whisk: especially the double sort you wind with a handle.

A really sharp pair of scissors, and the crisp snark-snark sound as you cut through cloth.

A ratchet screwdriver: I love the clickety, clockworky sound of the ratchet, and the way each twist of the hand adds to the last.

A good fountain pen freshly filled with black ink: the nib swims over the paper leaving a shining trail and it makes you feel as though what you have written must be good!

A smooth clean block of white paper. 

A fresh eraser as soft as a mushroom: the tingling dusty feel under your fingers, and the way it shreds at the corner when you begin to rub out.

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Fairytale heroines

Heroines, you will note, not ‘fairytale princesses’. For though princesses do figure in fairytales, the heroine is just as often a peasant – or a farmer’s daughter – or perhaps the child of a powerful magician. Even in the so-called Classic Fairytales, the ones which have been anthologised and Disneyfied almost to death, Sleeping Beauty and Snow-White are princesses, yes. But Cinderella and Beauty are merchant’s daughters; Red Riding Hood is an ordinary little girl; Rapunzel is a peasant woman’s child; the heroine of Rumpelstiltskin is a miller’s daughter – and so on.

There’s a widespread notion that fairytales present a very passive picture of women and are dreadful role-models for little girls. This is due to ignorance. Many people who do not actually read fairytales, or have not read any since childhood, vaguely associate them with a picture of a Barbie-blonde lady wearing a pink silk dress and diamonds, lying on a bed in a tower, awaiting rescue from a prince on a white horse, and ‘love’s first kiss’. Like this illustration by Rene Cloke from ‘My First Book of Fairy Tales’, which I was given as a child.

Sleeping Beauty herself may not be a brilliant role model. But though the Freudians among us are no doubt correct about the story’s underlying imagery (the tower, the young girl’s awakening to sexuality, etc), for me what really makes the tale stand out is the arresting of time within the castle walls. There’s beauty and terror there: the whole little jewelled world frozen and forgotten, like Pompei under its ash, for a hundred years. (There are other tales of unearthly sleepers, like King Arthur’s knights under their hill, who still haven’t woken.) No one, to my mind – not even Robin McKinley in ‘Spindle’s End’, and certainly not the Disney film – has yet retold ‘Sleeping Beauty’ in a way which does the story justice: because nobody can find a way to dramatise that hundred years of sleep. And what’s the point of the Sleeping Beauty if she sleeps for only a few hours? My own daughters have regularly done better than that.

Getting back to heroines: fairytale heroines to me do not signal passivity and helplessness. Far more often they exhibit resourcefulness, resilience, ambition, courage – even ruthlessness. Cinderella does get to the ball, and in some of the earlier versions she is not helped by a fairy godmother, but by the hazel tree planted on her mother’s grave, suggesting that the strength and riches she finds come from within, from her own heredity. Beauty, of Beauty and the Beast, is braver than her father (seen here losing his wig in fright at the beast's approach).  Beauty ventures alone into the Beast’s castle and learns to distinguish the true worth behind his ugliness. (And yes – Freudian deconstruction says this too is all about the awakening of sexuality. But really, wouldn’t you rather have the story than the moral?) In the original tale, the Beast treats Beauty from the beginning with melancholy courtesy: she has no need to teach him manners as in the cartoon.

And what about the many, many heroines of less well-known tales? What about Mollie Whuppie, abandoned in the woods by her parents, whose quick wits defeat a giant and win the hand of three princes in marriage for her and her two sisters? Or Kate Crackernuts, who, when her own mother conjures a sheep’s head on to her prettier stepsister’s shoulders, takes ‘a fine linen cloth and wrapped it around her sister’s head and took her by the hand and they both went out to seek their fortune.’ They come to a king’s castle ‘who had two sons, and one of them was sickening away to death, and no one could find out what ailed him.’ Kate offers her services, and when the prince rises at midnight she follows him into a green hill where he dances all night with the fairies until he drops from exhaustion. By persistence, courage, and intelligence, Kate manages to cure both the prince and her sister, and: ‘The sick son married the well sister and the well son married the sick sister, and they all lived and died happy and never drank out of a dry cappy.’ Katherine Briggs wrote a full length novel based on this tale – ‘Kate Crackernuts’ – and very good it is, too.

Then there’s the Norwegian fairytale ‘The Master-Maid’ in which the prince would be eaten by the troll to whom he has pledged his work, were it not for the wisdom and power of the ‘Master-Maid’ who lives in the troll’s house. The prince succeeds at each perilous task only by following the Master-Maid’s advice. Finally the troll orders the Master-Maid to kill the prince and cook him, but the Master-Maid cuts her finger and lets three drops of blood fall. Then, as the troll sleeps, she escapes with the prince and a great deal of magical treasure; and when the troll awakes to demand if the meal is cooked, the drops of blood answer for her: ‘Not yet,’ ‘Nearly’, and ‘It is boiled dry’.

The troll pursues the couple, but the Master-Maid flings magical impediments in his path which change into mountains and seas. In the end, prince and Master-Maid are married, but not without a further development in which the prince forgets her, and is rescued on the verge of marrying the wrong woman…

Clearly, in this kind of story, women are more than matches for men. The fact that the happy ending is nearly always marriage does not invalidate the energy and determination of these heroines. Marriage-with-the-prince is a metaphor for success in life. These tales aren’t telling us to wish for Prince Charming and a life of idle luxury. They are telling us to be active, to use our wits, to be undaunted, to see what we want and to go for it.

In one of my favourite English fairytales, ‘Mr Fox’, a version of ‘Bluebeard’, the heroine Lady Mary may be initially taken in by the sly flattery of her suitor, but she is inquisitive and brave as well as rich and beautiful, discovers for herself the bloody secrets of Mr Fox’s castle, and turns the tables on him in the neatest and most self-possessed of ways. The story quite definitely approves of female curiosity and courage; without these qualities, the heroine would have joined the list of this serial killer’s victims. There is no marriage at all at the end of the tale, and one feels Lady Mary will give the next suitor a very hard look indeed.

Downtrodden heroines more often rescue themselves than they are rescued. The heroine of the story variously known as ‘Donkeyskin’, ‘Ashiepattle’, ‘Allerleirauh’, or ‘Cap o’ Rushes’ has to flee her father’s house either because, like Cordelia in ‘King Lear’, she has given what he considers insufficient proof of filial affection, or in some versions because she is the spitting image of her dead mother and he has incestuously decided to marry her. (Robin McKinley wrote a magnificent version of this tale: ‘Deerskin’; to my mind even better than Margo Lanagan's recent 'Tender Morsels'.) Disguised in extraordinary shabby clothes, a donkey skin, a coat made of all kinds of different furs, or a cloak made of rushes, she sets out for another kingdom and finds rough work in the palace kitchens, thereby demonstrating independence and resilience. On seeing the prince or heir of the house, she obtains his attention by a series of tricks (mysterious appearances at dances; golden rings dropped in winecups) and finally marries him. I call it enterprising.

Many are the heroines who get the better of the Devil himself (this dark gentleman rarely does well in folktales.) Remember the farmer who sells his soul in return for twenty years of good harvests? And when the time comes to pay up, his clever wife saves him. “My man won’t be a minute, sir, he’s just getting his things together, and please take a mouthful to eat while you wait!” she calls to the Devil, handing him a pie into which she has baked a red-hot griddle. When he bites into it, burning his tongue and breaking his teeth, she interrupts his howls with the merry cry, “And I’m coming too, to cook for you both!” – at which the terrified Devil takes to his heels. Of course it’s comical: but note that the farmer’s wife employs her wits and her skills, and defeats the Devil in a particularly feminine way.

Alison Lurie, in ‘Don’t Tell the Grownups’ (Bloomsbury, 1990) points out that ‘Gretel, not Hansel, defeated the witch’, and adds, ‘In the Grimms’ original ‘Household Tales’ (1812), there are sixty-one women and girl characters who have magic powers as against only twenty-one men and boys: and these men are usually dwarfs and not humans.’ Compared to the ‘classic’ children’s literature which I wrote about last week, in which only 12 out of 66 titles featured girls as the main character, this is pretty impressive.

When the king’s daughter saw there was no hope of turning her father’s heart, she resolved to run away. In the night when everyone was asleep, she got up and took three different things from her treasures, a golden ring, a golden spinning wheel, and a golden reel. The three dresses of sun, moon and stars she placed into a nutshell, put on her mantle of all kinds of fur, and blackened her face and hands with soot. Then she commended herself to God and went away.

('Allerleirauh': in which the princess saves herself from an incestuous marriage and wins a prince.)

The maiden went forth into the wide world to search for her brothers and set them free, cost what it might. And now she went onwards, far, far, to the very end of the world. Then she came to the sun, but it was too hot and terrible, and devoured little children. Hastily she ran away, and ran to the moon, but it was far too cold, and also awful and malicious, and when it saw the child it said, “I smell, I smell the flesh of men.” …So the maiden went onwards until she came to the Glass Mountain…

('The Seven Ravens': in which the princess saves her long lost enchanted brothers.)

When they [father and daughter] had dug nearly the whole of the field, they found in the earth a mortar made of pure gold. ‘Listen,’ said the father to the girl, ‘as our lord the King has graciously given us this field, we ought to give him this mortar in return for it.’ ‘Father,’ said the daughter, ‘if we have the mortar without having the pestle as well, we shall have to get the pestle, so you had much better say nothing about it.’ But he would not obey her, and carried the mortar to the king…

('The Peasant’s Wise Daughter': the daughter’s wit and courage saves her father and wins marriage with the king – whom she later kidnaps to teach him a much-needed lesson.)

The heroines in these tales know their own minds and make their own decisions. They are wise, prudent, determined, wily and brave. They are so far from the stereotype of the fairytale princess that one has to ask how it arose, and to wonder whether late 19th/early 20th century editorial bias – to say nothing of rewriting – had anything to do with choosing more ‘properly behaved’ heroines for children’s anthologies?

Wednesday, 12 May 2010


Out of interest, the other day, I pulled a list of ‘Children’s Classics’ off Wikipedia.  There are 66 titles, and Aesop’s Fables heads the list with William Caxton’s edition of 1484.  Apart from a couple of pretty obscure titles - at least, I have never heard of ‘A Token for Children’ by James Janeway, and ‘A Pretty Little Pocket Book’ by John Newbery - I can hand on heart say that I encountered most of them during my own childhood.  ‘Robinson Crusoe’?  Tick.  ‘Ivanhoe’?  ‘The Swiss Family Robinson’? ‘The Coral Island’?  Tick.  ‘Journey to the Centre of the Earth’?  ‘Uncle Remus’?  ‘Black Beauty’?  ‘Treasure Island’?  ‘The Happy Prince’? Tick, tick, tick.  And so on. 

The list is familiar even though I doubt many of today’s children would consider ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’, ‘David Copperfield’, or even ‘Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea’ to be tremendously riveting stuff.  Nor were many of them expressly written for children.  But so what?  We were tougher nuts back in my childhood.  I happily gnawed my way through ‘Ivanhoe’ and ‘The Children of the New Forest’.  I expected roughage in my reading, and I got it. 

What strikes me now, though, is the extreme scarcity of heroines. Fairytales apart, there are only 12 stories out of the entire 66 in which the main character is female: these are: ‘Little Goody Twoshoes’ (1765), ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ (1865) and ‘Through the Looking Glass’ (1871), ‘Little Women’ (1868), ‘What Katy Did’ (1873), ‘Heidi’ (1884), ‘The Wonderful Wizard of Oz’ (1900), ‘Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm’ (1903), ‘Pollyanna’ (1913), ‘A Little Princess’ (1905), ‘Anne of Green Gables’ (1908), and perhaps ‘The Secret Garden’. There are some deceptive titles which sound as though they are going to be about heroines, such as ‘Lorna Doone’ (1869) and ‘The Princess and the Goblin’ (1871) but these are really far more about the male protagonists, John Ridd and Curdie.
Even though the last book on the list was published in 1918, many – in fact most – of these titles formed part of my reading a full half century later, as a child growing up in the sixties. I can’t say I consciously noticed the absence of strong female characters, since naturally I identified with the hero, whoever he might be.  I swam lagoons with Jack, Ralph and Peterkin, roistered and swashbuckled with D’Artagnan, escaped across the heather with Alan Breck, roamed the jungle with Mowgli – but I did notice the rare occasions when a feisty heroine was presented to me.  This, I think, is why so many of us loved – loved – Katy Carr, Jo March and Anne of Green Gables.  We were resigned to girly girls in books.  We were used to them needing to be rescued, and swooning on manly breasts (Lorna Doone).  Or being sweetly domestic, decorative, helpless and good.  (David Copperfield’s Dora.)  Or ill-treated victims (Sara Crewe).  Or simply not there at all. It was a literary world in which boys were allowed to be Peter Pan but girls were condemned to be Wendy.

So we were thrilled when Katy lost her temper, disobeyed her aunt and swung in that swing; and all the Victorian business of being an invalid and becoming the heart of the family hardly seemed to count in comparison.  Some of Susan Coolidge's writing is still extremely funny, and you can sense her delighting in her heroine's realistically child-like outbursts.  Here's Katy inventing a break-time game:

…Katy’s unlucky star put it into her head to invent a new game, which she called the Game of Rivers.  It was played in the following manner: - each girl took the name of a river and laid out for herself an appointed path through the room, winding among the desks and benches, and making a low roaring sound, to imitate the noise of water.  Cecy was the Plate; Marianne Brooks, a tall girl, the Mississippi; Alice Blair, the Ohio; Clover, the Penobscot, and so on.  They were instructed to run into each other once in a while because, as Katy said, ‘rivers do’.  As for Katy herself, she was ‘Father Ocean’, and, growling horribly, raged up and down the platform where Mrs Knight usually sat.  Every now and then… she would suddenly cry out, ‘Now for a meeting of the waters!’ whereupon all the rivers bouncing, bounding, scrambling, screaming, would turn and run towards Father Ocean, while he roared louder than all of them put together, and made short rushes up and down, to represent the movement of waves on a beach.

Of course they get into trouble, but anyone can see it would be worth it to have such fun.  And Jo March, too, could lose her temper, and acted – in boots! – and wrote stories, and did things.  Mary in ‘The Secret Garden’ is angry – very angry – for a lot of the time.  Even transplanted Heidi yearns for her Alp and her grumpy grandfather, and eventually gets her way.  While as for Anne – impulsive, rebellious, outspoken Anne –   

“How dare you call me skinny and ugly?  How dare you say I’m freckled and red-headed?  How would you like to have such things said about you?  How would you like to be told that you are fat and clumsy and probably hadn’t a spark of imagination in you?  I don’t care if I do hurt your feelings by saying so!  I hope I hurt them.  You have hurt mine worse than they were ever hurt before even by Mrs Thomas’s intoxicated husband.  And I’ll never forgive you for it, never, never!”

Such girls seemed to be going places.  The trouble was that there wasn’t really anyplace for them to go.  I don’t know why the imaginations of the women who created them could come up with so few goals in an era that was producing strong women by the bucketload: in the States, the early suffragists like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton; in Britain reformers like Florence Nightingale, Josephine Butler, the Pankhursts. But it was an era where perhaps to be a little girl was to have more freedom of behaviour than a grown woman.  Anne of Green Gables becomes Anne of Ingleside, a teacher, marries Gilbert Blythe and has children.  Jo marries Professor Bhaer not Laurie (this we could hardly forgive, though it may be more realistic!); she does become a writer, but then goes all matriarchal and nurturing and 'womanly'.  Katy travels to Europe and marries a young naval officer who is attracted to her because of her – wait for it – selfless nursing skills. 

So the vigorous rushing rivers of Katy’s game end up flowing decorously into the great calm land-locked sea of wife-and-motherhood.  Still, at least these books gave some expression, some release, some validity to the passion and energy of growing girls.  Nowadays we take it for granted.  My own daughters have never been interested in Little Women or Anne of Green Gables.  They don’t find Jo an exciting rebel but a prissy homebody taking covered baskets of Christmas dinner to the poor, selflessly selling her hair. (Her hair?  What?  Why?)

In Enid Blyton’s ‘Famous Five’, how I and my schoolfriends identified with the tomboy George, who cut her curly hair, wore shorts, owned a dog, told the truth at all costs and was brave and passionate.  How much better she was than sissy Anne (who wore a plaid skirt and a hairslide)!  And yet, and yet – that cry of hers, “I’m as good as a boy any day” – is the very mark of inequality.  Why should a girl have to masquerade as a boy to be taken seriously?  Why should bravery, independence and action be seen as masculine qualities?

We shouldn’t be complacent.  I can think of plenty of independent, strong heroines in modern children’s fiction – Joan Aiken’s Dido Twite would come top of my personal list, in books like ‘Night Birds on Nantucket’ and ‘The Cuckoo Tree’; and Harriet of ‘Harriet the Spy’; Lyra in ‘The Golden Compass', the gallant Sabriel of Garth Nix's 'Sabriel' . These girls aren’t trying to prove that they are as good as or better than boys.  They simply get on with life and grapple with its problems. My own books have so far figured boy and girl main characters of equal rank.  Hilde in the Troll books is much more confident and outgoing than diffident, self-doubting Peer, while Nest, heroine of ‘Dark Angels’/’The Shadow Hunt’ is at least equal to the young hero Wolf in passion and poise.  But there are still many books for teenagers in which the heroines need – rely on – yearn for – the strong arms and love of some idealised boy. ‘Twilight’ springs instantly to mind. Compare Bella to Katy Carr or Jo March - it's hard to imagine either of them languishing after 'perfect' Edward.  

Of all the girls in all the titles on this list of classic books for children, the most independent of all must be Lewis Carroll’s Alice, who calmly steers her way through the looking glass wonderlands of her own imagination.  Alice does not feel in the least inferior to any male character.   She stands up for herself in her own very feminine way, experimenting, chopping logic, lecturing herself and others, refusing to be snubbed, insulted or put in her place.  At the end of each book, when the world threatens her, she pulls it down about her ears like Samson pulling down the pillars of the temple in Gaza.  She is extraordinary – and the creation of a man.  But she is pre-adolescent: what does the world really hold for ‘alices when they are jung and easily freudened’?  Carroll’s Alice touches a kind of bedrock: a certainty of self-worth that may be felt by many little girls in stable and happy families – but which is still all too easily lost as the teens commence. 

Monday, 10 May 2010

Lady Luck and "Wasted" by Nicola Morgan

Luck - or the goddess Fortuna - used to be portrayed in art as a woman turning a ever-moving wheel, the Wheel of Fortune, on which people rode from success to failure and from failure to success.   Chance, fortune: the fall of the dice, the pattern of the cards, the flip of a coin - down the ages, people have used them in attempts to steer themselves through the multiple possibilities and uncharted waters of the future. Now here's a brilliant YA novel by Nicola Morgan that explores all this.  The hero is Jack, a teenager with a double tragedy in his past.  His life was changed for ever by a set of freak circumstances, and now he's obsessed by the 'what-if's' and 'if only's' of past and future.  If even tiny events may have unpredictably catastrophic results, how can you choose your way?  Jack has, he thinks, found the answer.  He tosses his lucky coin and allows chance to guide him.  But can chance ever be a sure guide?

The book is riveting - touching, thought-provoking, un-put-downable.  I asked Nicola if she would make a guest appearance on my blog, and she kindly agreed - so here she is this morning to talk about luck in publishing - and how you might make it work for you!

Since my new novel, Wasted, is about huge and unpredictable effects of tiny “lucky” chances on our lives, I’m seeing examples of chance and luck everywhere. Luckily, as this blog tour means I need to write about it in lots of different ways! I like Kath’s suggestion of writing about the part that luck plays in getting published, as it fits my other blogging hat: the how to get published one. So, thanks, Kath and thanks so much for letting me visit you here.

Everyone says you need luck to get published. If you’re struggling / failing, it’s tempting to blame bad luck: you’re talented, hard-working, and deserving, but the luck fairy hasn’t sprinkled stardust on you yet.


Of course, some people certainly do strike it lucky. A real “right-time-right-place” event, meeting the right person at the right moment, for example, or sending an MS and just happening to have it read by exactly the person who was looking for exactly that MS.

And that’s what people usually mean by needing luck to be published. But there are three ways in which you might think differently.

First, we are woolly in our thinking about luck. We talk about luck when it was perseverance or judgement; and we fail to notice other things that actually are luck, such as the presence of talent in the first place. Oh, and there’s certainly luck in what happens to a book after it’s published – at least in the sense that the writer has little control, and we can work our socks off, doing all the right things, yet still have mediocre sales. (Ask me!)

Second, regarding the act of becoming published: actually you don’t NEED luck. Of the three elements of getting published – talent, perseverance and luck – you only need two, any two. If you have talent and you persevere for long enough, you won’t need luck. Think about throwing dice, trying to throw a double six. You could be lucky first time; but otherwise, if you throw the dice often enough, eventually you WILL throw a double six. That’s not luck: it’s perseverance.

Third, and most importantly, it’s in our control to create a good environment for luck. Not totally control it, but draw it to us by our actions. If you don’t believe me, read Richard Wiseman’s The Luck Factor. (And my blog post here – The Luck Factor) I’m not talking about the appalling luck that hits some people through no fault of theirs. I’m talking about the many ways in which you can encourage the luck fairy to sprinkle fairy dust. Hey, fairy – pick me, pick me!

Here are my top tips for being “lucky” in publishing – and they apply equally to published and unpublished writers:
  • Be in it to win it – write and submit. Often.
  • Be realistic: doing everything right does not guarantee success. A lot of published authors, including me, are hiding bruises in this recession, so you are not alone if you feel rejected by publishers. We have to pick ourselves up and keep on going. It’s a shocking business sometimes, but no one dies.
  • Be positive: the next thing you write might be your break-through. So write it!
  • Be strategic: a day working out strategy instead of writing is well spent.
  • Be connected: blog, Twitter, join groups, follow blogs and comment. Twitter is second to none (in my opinion) for making connections that are fun AND useful. I even sold a sofa on Twitter! It’s a combination of huge office and vast party, but with the advantage that you don’t get trapped with a boring person.
  • Be informed about publishing, how it works, what publishers want.
  • Be a reader: the more you read, the better you’ll write; the better you right, the more likely you are to be and stay published.
  • Be flexible and versatile: you may be a YA novelist, but is that all you can do?
  • Be open to new experiences, new knowledge, new friends. You never know what anything might lead to.
  • Be generous: with your time, your smile, your energy and your books. Karma is not a figment of the imagination.
  • Be brave - braver version of yourself. If in doubt, DO introduce yourself, DO mention your book – don’t bang on, bore or be pushy or insensitive, but do believe that people DO want to know.

In a way, this boils down to one word: do.

Hang on: do we really want to be published through luck, or through talent and hard work? Because if we want it to happen through talent and hard work, we shouldn’t be looking for that luck fairy to sprinkle sickly sherbet fairy dust, should we?
In which case, aren’t those tips redundant? No, I think they are good strategies. Good strategies make good results more likely.

A couple of days ago, on 6th May, I was talking to a teenage reading group, The Cat’s Rrar ( Why did this happen? I was in the Children’s Bookshop in Edinburgh and plucked up courage to introduce myself to the new bod behind the till. Turns out it was Cat Anderson, formerly of Borders, and she knew my books and had just started blogging. My mind instantly went into, “What could I do for her?” mode. I told her about my new book and blog, asked if she’d like a copy for her group and offered to talk to them. This lucky meeting led to some great contacts and new readers. Did I say lucky? I shouldn’t. I could have walked out of that shop after just buying a book but I chose to introduce myself and it was that simple but slightly scary choice that led to good “luck”. Sometimes it’s really embarrassing and I cringe but this time it has led to something really good.

So, I won’t say, “Good luck”. I’ll say, “Be brave!” As Jack says, in Wasted, “Luck is just what we call it.”

PS If you want to try your luck at winning a copy of Wasted, head over to the Wasted blog (, and sign up as a follower to be entered in the weekly draw. I’d love to see you there and I have loads of discussions going on about luck, chance, risk and quantum physics!

Monday, 3 May 2010

Ghost stories for children

There is a vast range of ghosts in children’s fiction.  I’m going to leave out all the comic ones, on the assumption that a comic ghost story is hardly a ghost story at all.  Even Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Canterville Ghost’ doesn’t become spooky until the end – when the comedy vanishes into pathos.  Such stories, one presumes, work mainly to stop young children being frightened of ghosts – rather as the brilliant Ahlberg ‘Funnybones’ picturebook series helped prevent my kids being frightened of skeletons: (“In a dark dark room in a dark dark house on a dark dark street – three skeletons lived…”)

That ghost stories can be spooky without being truly frightening is proved by the beautiful Green Knowe series by Lucy Boston, the first of which, ‘The Children of Green Knowe’ was published by Faber and Faber in 1954.  I grew up with these books, buying the last, ‘The Stones of Green Knowe’ as a teenager in the late 1970’s. A lonely little boy, Tolly, goes to stay with his grandmother Mrs Oldknowe in her ancient house (modelled on the author’s own beloved twelfth century manor house at Hemingford Grey, Cambridgeshire) and slowly comes to meet the other children who have lived in the house down the centuries.  Lucy Boston wrote pure, elegant prose, with a light but sure touch.  Here, Tolly and his grandmother have finished decorating their Christmas tree:

As they rested there, tired and dreamy and content, he thought he heard the rocking horse gently moving, but the sound came from Mrs Oldknowe’s room… A woman’s voice began to sing very softly a cradle song that Tolly had learned and dearly loved:

“Lully lulla, thou little tiny child,
By by Lully lullay…”

“Who is it?” he whispered. 
“It’s the grandmother rocking the cradle,” said Mrs Oldknowe, and her eyes were full of tears.
“Why are you crying, Granny?  It’s lovely.”
“It is lovely, only it is such a long time ago.  I don’t know why that should be sad, but it sometimes seems so.”
The singing began again.  It was queer to hear the baby’s sleepy whimper only in the next room, now, and so long ago. 

Scary things do happen in the Green Knowe stories, but always with a background of reassurance that goodness is greater than evil.  Tolly never time-travels – he meets the ghosts in his own ‘now’, although at the very end of the series the Norman boy Roger, whose father built the house, does briefly travel forward into his future: our twentieth century. The theme of the books is that of TS Eliot’s Four Quartets: ‘Time past and time present/Are both perhaps present in time future/And time future contained in time past.’ Lucy Boston’s books echo with the voices of children: ‘hidden excitedly, containing laughter’.

Plenty of other books do take the child hero or heroine back into the past to share in other lives.  In fact, the little Victorian ghost in smock or pinafore, looking out of the windows of the big house, whose history the modern child gradually uncovers, is almost a cliché. A constant theme in children’s ghost stories is that of loneliness.  A solitary child feels a misfit, or has no friends, and finds ghostly companionship. Tolly is just one example, although he develops a strong relationship with his delightful grandmother; another is Anna, the lonely little girl in Joan G. Robinson’s ‘When Marnie was There’ (1967).  Anna has never had a friend: her relationship with the strange child Marnie gradually prepares her for real live friends when Marnie goes away.  This book is one of many where the reader can decide for him or herself whether the ghost is ‘real’ or some kind of dream playmate. And of course there is Tom in Philippa Pearce's classic, 'Tom's Midnight Garden', who finds his way into a garden of the past, and a playmate in the little girl there. 

Penelope, the heroine of Alison Uttley’s classic ‘A Traveller in Time’ (Faber 1939) is another shy, quiet, imaginative child, who sees ghosts or visions of the past almost without trying.  On being sent to fetch a rug,

“Upstairs I went again, but when I got to the landing I looked at the closed doors and did not know which was Aunt Tissie’s, for there was something strange and unfamiliar about them.  I hesitated and opened a door, and then stopped short, for in the room before me, down a couple of steps, were four ladies playing a game with ivory counters.  They sat round a table and a bright fire was burning in an open hearth. They were young and pretty, except an older woman whose expression was cold and forbidding… All this I saw in the moment I stood transfixed at the door.  Then a little spaniel rushed across the room and they turned and stared at me with startled eyes.  They were as amazed as I, and sprang to their feet, yet there was never a sound…

“I beg your pardon,” I muttered, and quickly I shut the door, my heart pounding and my hands trembling.   

Penelope soon grows as intimate with the 16th century inhabitants of the old Derbyshire farmhouse ‘Thackers’ as with its 20th century inhabitants.  She becomes an anxious yet powerless witness to the ill-fated Babington plot to free Mary Queen of Scots; and the book is also a poignant love story.  

All of these are ghost stories which explore the transience of time, rather than the finality of death.  They are typically sensitive and beautiful: eerie rather than scary. And perhaps it's a theme that children on the cusp of growing up are particularly fascinated by: the realisation that old people were once young, and that children like themselves will one day be old

Another time-slip ghost story, with a slightly harder edge and bags of atmosphere, is ‘Playing Beatie Bow’ by the Australian writer Ruth Park, in which the prickly Abigail, resentful of her parents’ divorce and being made to move to a high-rise area of Sydney, witnesses children playing a creepy game:

‘Oh Mudda what’s that, what can it be?’
‘The wind in the chimney, that’s all, that’s all.’
There was a clatter of stones being dropped.  Some of the younger children squawked and were hushed.
‘Oh Mudda what’s that, what’s that, can you see?’
‘It’s the cow in the byre, the horse in the stall.’
Natalie …put her hands over her eyes.  ‘Don’t look, Abigail, it’s worse than awful things on TV!’

And the climax of the game comes with the cry:  ‘It’s Beatie Bow…risen from the dead!’  Into this book too comes a desperate love story – for how can love span the centuries?

Like all of us, children - older ones especially - enjoy a good scare.  Moving on from the beautiful and the poignant, we come to more malevolent ghosts.  There’s an extremely sinister one in Katharine Briggs’ famous ‘Hobberdy Dick’ (1955) – the appearance of a ghostly child, informed by the evil spirit of the woman who killed it.  One of the characters, Anne, wakes in the night:

She sat up in bed with a beating heart, aware of a wicked thing in the room. There seemed a faint light at the end of the bed; more she could not see, but the room was icily cold, and cruelty and remorse and pain pressed on her like a weight, so that she could not move.

Help comes, but at the cost of the death of the good woman who exorcises the spirit.  This book is a brilliant exploration of the folklore and customs of the seventeenth century, by an expert who knew and loved the stories better than anyone else. 

Peter Dickinson’s “Annerton Pit” (1977) is the story of a blind boy, Jake, whose grandfather, a ghost hunter/debunker, has disappeared near Annerton Mine, site of a dreadful mining disaster a hundred years ago.  Entwined with an adventure story, is the creepy build-up of supernatural tension, as, trapped with his brother and grandfather at the bottom of the mine, Jake becomes aware of a strange presence in Annerton Pit:

There was another noise, even fainter than the sea.  Jake couldn’t decide if it was real, or was only an effect of the fall – a low, continuous, throbbing hoot. Sometimes it seemed to be coming from further up the tunnel, sometimes from all around him, and sometimes from inside his head.  Once he’d noticed it, it bothered him.

Low key, but spine chilling.  Less is often more with a good ghost story. 

Ann Halam, whose books for children range from fantasy to ghosts to sci-fi to horror, actually managed to break the rule I mentioned at the beginning of this piece by writing a totally brilliant ghost story for children which is funny as well as terrifying.  “King Death’s Garden” (Orchard, 1986) is the story of the impossible and self-pitying Maurice, obsessed with his asthma and allergies and with the vain hope of attracting the attention of elegant Jasmin Kapoor.  Maurice has refused to relocate with his parents to the Gulf, and is boarding with an elderly aunt until the end of term.  He is of course another loner – and ends up spending far too much of his time in the Victorian cemetery beside his aunt’s house… Here he is, reading the tombstones:

The Best Mum and Dad in the World… Never a Cross Word….And in the morn the angel faces smile, That I have loved long since and lost awhile…Love’s last gift, remembrance…

Suddenly he realised that someone was watching him.  It made him jump, because just then he was well off the path and actually standing on a grave.  He was only putting back some plastic flowers that had pathetically fallen out of their urn, but he knew it wouldn’t look good.  A big elderly man was standing by a bench just a few yards away.  He was glaring like someone in authority – maybe a gardener.

And maybe not...

I’d recommend any book by Ann Halam, but another of hers’ with a creepy ghost is ‘The Nimrod Conspiracy’ (Orion 1999). Completely different, just as good.  And I have to mention Robert Westall, whose taste ran to more Gothic ghosts and horror, always rooted in his beloved North East: ‘The Scarecrows’, ‘The Stones of Muncaster Cathedral’; ‘The Watch House.’  Definitely for older children, and not for the faint-hearted.  And speaking of Gothic, how about Leon Garfield, whose novella 'Mister Corbett's Ghost' ought to be better known?  

A windy night, and the old year dying of an ague.  ... In the apothecary's shop in Gospel Oak, the boy Partridge looked up through the window to a moon that stared fitfully back through the reflections of big-bellied flasks, beakers and retorts.  Very soon now he'd be off to his friends and his home to drink and cheer the death of the old year - and pray that the new one would be better.  And maybe slip in a prayer for his master, Mister Corbett, the apothecary himself. Such a prayer!
"May you be like this year that's gone, sir, and take the same shivering ague!  For your seasons weren't no better."

Having wished his master dead, poor Benjamin Partridge soon has cause to wish him alive again, as he has to accompany the poor phantom over Hampstead Heath - on a journey through guilt, terror and pity to eventual 

An exception to the rule that ghost stories for children always have solitary heroes or heroines is Catherine Sefton’s charming ‘The Back House Ghosts’ (Puffin, 1978).  Ellen’s mother, who runs a seaside boarding house, accidentally overbooks.  The enormous Mooney clan arrive (eleven children!) and, to make space, Ellen moves out into the ‘Back House’ – a disused cottage at the bottom of the garden.  That night:

Ellen lay back in her lumpy bed. She liked the back house.  She would make it live again.
She went to sleep watching the sky through the window.  The stars were stabs of light against a dark blue cloth, and the moon was yellow and round…

When Ellen woke up in the morning, the first thing she saw was the window. 
            Through it she could see the back wall of Bon Vista, and the window of the back bedroom… and nothing else.
            No sky.
            Just the grey wall and the rose which grew across the window.

All the books I’ve discussed so far have been full length novels (although the Green Knowe books are fairly slim.)  To write a really good novel-length ghost story is a fantastic achievement, because stringing out the tension for so long is really difficult.  Most literary ghosts – for adults at least – tend to arrive in the form of short stories, and many of the children's writers I've talked about in this post also wrote brilliant - and often dark - short ghost stories.  Philippa Pearce could weave terrifying tales about inanimate objects: an old wooden tallboy; a Christmas pudding ('A Christmas Pudding Improves With Keeping', from 'Who's Afraid, and Other Strange Stories' 1986).  A master of the form was the late great Jan Mark.  Perhaps her best collection is ‘In Black and White’ (Viking, 1991).  Every story in this book is so wonderful, it’s hard to pick just one, but one of Jan’s own favourites was the story called ‘Nule’ - in which Martin’s little sister Libby makes a character out of the newel post at the bottom of the stairs. She calls it ‘Nule, and dresses it up with a pointed hat.

The hat definitely did something for Nule.  When Martin came in later by the front door, he thought at first that it was a person standing at the foot of the stairs.  He had to look twice…

Entering into the spirit of the thing, he helps Libby to dress it up more, with an old coat and gloves, and a pair of football boots at the bottom.  Not a great idea, as it turns out…

(Illustration copyright Neil Reed, 1991)

There are ghosts in two of my own books: an Icelandic-style vengeful corpse in ‘Troll Blood’, and a harmless but still rather unnerving White Lady in ‘Dark Angels’ (US title: ‘The Shadow Hunt’.)  As you can see I love ghosts – one day, maybe, I’ll try and write a novel length ghost story of my own.  In the meantime, I’ll leave you with Peer and Hilde, beginning to wonder about an empty house on the shores of Vinland.

The sun had sunk below the hills, and the wooded slopes looked dark and mysterious.  Down by the ship, the men had lit a fire on the shore.  Around the flames, the evening turned a deeper blue.
“We should go and help,” said Hilde.  “Look, they’re bringing things up already.”  Someone was coming slowly up the path, as if stiff from weeks at sea.  His face was indistinct in the dusk. He turned aside, heading for the other house.  Hilde called out, “Hello!  Is that one ours?”
Whoever it was made no reply, but turned in to the porch of the second house.  Hilde shrugged.  “He didn’t hear me.  It must be that one.”
They walked across.  Flat stones made a short path outside the door, which was shut.  Peer lifted the latch. The Nis darted between his feet – and sprang back like a startled cat, all arched spine and splayed limbs. Peer saved himself by clutching at the doorpost.
“What are you doing?” he cried.
The Nis was creeping backwards, bristling.  “Not nice,” it squeaked.  “Not a nice house at all, Peer Ulfsson.  The other one is better!”  It shook itself and shot decisively away. 
With an odd feeling under his ribs, Peer shoved the door wide open and looked in.  He didn’t step over the threshold.  Hilde craned over his shoulder.
It was just like the first house.  Same long fire pit, same smoke holes, same dusty-looking benches and line of dim posts leading to a doorway at the far end. 
This house was colder than the first.  The air felt disturbed, as though someone had recently passed through.
But it was completely empty…