Friday, 26 November 2010

Fairytale Reflections (11) Megan Whalen Turner

It must have been in 1998. My husband was working for a US company; we were living in America, in upstate New York, and one of the bolt-holes for me and my two young daughters was the local Barnes and Noble (conveniently close to Toys R Us and a miniature horse ranch). Trawling the shelves one day  - for myself, of course; the girls were in the littlies section - I pulled out a book called 'The Thief' by an author who was new to me: Megan Whalen Turner. It was a Newbery Honor book – I flicked it open and read a snippet – and so I met her narrator Gen (short for Eugenides), who is languishing in prison, loaded with chains, because:

As part of my plans for greatness, I had bragged without shame about my skills in every wine shop in the city. I had wanted everyone to know that I was the finest thief since mortal men were made…

But the thing about Gen is that there’s always a lot more going on than either the first-time reader or any of the other characters suppose. He is truly an unreliable narrator – an infuriating, intelligent, highly-strung, secretive, multi-layered individual whom you get to like very much indeed. And the book, with its sequels, is set in an almost but-not-quite familiar early Mediterranean world, where gods are worshipped who resemble the Greek pantheon but are not – and where small city states war against one another, or form alliances, under the shadow of a powerful Eastern empire.

Megan says she began her writing career in San Diego -

... so it's a special place for me.  My husband was awarded a fellowship by the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation and we moved to San Diego for a year so that he could write a book. While he was working on his book, I wrote my collection of short stories, 'Instead of Three Wishes'. We moved home to Maryland for a year and then came back to San Diego the next summer. We stayed in the same apartment building, right across from the beach, and I drafted 'The Thief'. At the end of the summer we moved to Northern California for a year, and then back to Maryland. We didn't come back to San Diego except for short visits for almost seventeen years, but last year, my husband had a year of sabbatical time accumulated and we knew where we wanted to spend it. As we drove across the country I was contemplating the edits from my editor on 'A Conspiracy of Kings'. When we arrived in San Diego again, I sat down and finished the book and sent it off. It came out in April, time for us to have a book launching party before we got back in the car and drove home.

If you haven’t read ‘The Thief’, I’m certainly not going to spoil the surprises for you, but the writing is a joy, the characterisation is wonderful, and story is breathtaking. Because of his boast “I can steal anything”, Gen is employed as a tool by the King’s Magus, to penetrate the site where an ancient treasure, Hamiathes Gift, is said to lie. But the dangers are great. Here’s the moment when Gen sees the place for the first time – hidden behind a waterfall:

…in the space of a few heartbeats, the river disappeared. The flow of its water stopped, came again in slushy bursts over the falls, and then stopped again.

... In the bulging rock where the waterfall had been, there was a recessed doorway. The lintel of the doorway was the rock itself, but set into it were two granite pillars. Between the pillars was a door pierced by narrow slits that were wider in their middles and narrower at the ends. The river water still sprayed through these slits and dropped into the round pool that remained in the basin below.

“I wanted to get here at least a day early, to give you a chance to rest,” said the magus. “The water will begin to flow again just before dawn. You have to be out again before that, as I assume the temple will fill quickly.”

The Thief was followed by its sequels, ‘The Queen of Attolia’, ‘The King of Attolia’, and ‘A Conspiracy of Kings’ and from an impressive start the books just get better and better. One of the many things I admire about them is their sheer intelligence. Lots of devious politics. Lots of twists. Characters do bad things – even cruel things – and yet we find ourselves in a process of learning more and more until we are forced to question our earlier judgements and see the characters differently. Interesting also is the way Megan Whalen Turner moves us away from her hero Eugenides book by book, even while he is still the focus of each. In ‘The Thief’, he is the first person narrator. ‘The Queen of Attolia’ is told in the third person: although Eugenides is still the main character, we see him often through the eyes of others – his close friends, family and enemies. In ‘The King of Attolia’, the point of view is that of the hopelessly straightforward young soldier Costas, completely and comically out of his depth as Eugenides’ unwilling bodyguard. And in ‘A Conspiracy of Kings’, we are back to the intimacy of first person narration – but by an entirely different character. I understand there’s another sequel on the way, and I cannot wait to read it.

Oh, and in case I didn’t make it clear, these books aren’t just cerebral. Megan's writing also encompasses tenderness and beauty and the sheer numinous otherness of the gods. And here she is to talk about a book of fairytales she had as a child:

When Katherine asked if I might like to write a blog post about my favorite fairy tale, I drew a blank.  Having read the previous posts and their loving attention to various stories, I’m almost afraid to admit this, but I didn’t like fairy tales when I was a kid.  I thought they were dry, their characters two dimensional and their plots predicatable.  But as I wrote my e-mail, meaning to decline, one particular book did come to mind.  It was Alice and Martin Provensen’s book of fairy tales, and I remembered it mainly for the illustrations, which were terrifying.

I asked Katherine if that sort of subject would do for a non-fairy tale reader and she said, yes.  So . . .


This book sat on my shelf untouched for years.  Too disturbing to read, too compelling to overlook, it was a gift and absolutely could not be sent off to the library book sale.  No matter how many times I weeded my collection, it always remained. There on the shelf, with its dark mesmerizing illustrations in black and purple and virulent green.

Those of you familiar with the deeply charming Animals of Maple Hill Farm, or with A Visit to William Blake's Inn which won both the Newbery Award and a Caldecott Honor in 1982 might be surprised that anything by the Provensens could be that disturbing.

Yes, well they were always about more than cats and bunnies and talking sunflowers.  In The Animals of Maple Hill Farm the Provensens introduce you to all the hens and roosters at their farm in a two page spread that includes examples of the obnoxious rooster, Big Shot, being nasty to the other roosters and bullying the hens, and then Big Shot gets carried off by a fox.
And no one minds, they say with a shrug.

Look through A Visit to William Blake’s Inn and notice the semi-circular smile on the Man in the Marmalade Hat.  That's him on the left.

Observe his chiclet style teeth.  Imagine an entire book peopled with those smiles and those teeth, and no friendly anthropomorphic sunflowers, either.  The best you get is some malevolent looking mice.

A mouse from "The Forest Bride" by Parker Filmore.

This from the story “The Lost Half Hour” by Henry Beston:

Or this from “Beauty and the Beast” by Arthur Rackham:

I couldn’t fit this into one scan, but if you look carefully you can piece together the composition with Beauty sitting at the table and the Beast lurking just around the corner. The Provensens have used the gutter between the pages to emphasize the corner in the image.  The images aren’t merely frightening, they are brilliant and frightening.  The hands of the beast are huge and clawed, yet they hang awkwardly, giving you the idea that in an unfortunate fumbling manner they might accidentally rip your arm off.

This is from the happy, upbeat (not), The Prince and the Goose Girl by Elinor Mordaunt.

Holy Cow.  This book gave me the heebie-jeebies.

So, of course, I left it on the shelf when I grew up and moved out on my own.  And I never read it when I visited home.  No, never.  And when I saw a copy at a thrift store, of course I said, “Oh, look!”  And bought it instantly.

Okay, so there . . .  there may be a contradiction there.  And when I said the book sat on my shelf untouched?  I lied.  When I got the book home and looked through it, I remembered every single story.  "The Lost Half Hour" where poor unfortunate Bobo is sent out by the Princess to find the half hour lost while she overslept.  “Feather O’ My Wing” by Seamus McManus with the same spiteful stepsisters as “Beauty and the Beast,” but a story line a little more like “East of the Sun, West of the Moon.”  Barbara Leonie Picard’s "Three Wishes" were the peasant boy gives away his hard earned wishes and receives them all back again.

And perhaps my favorite, “The Prince and the Goose Girl.” The heroine Erith is absolutely indomitable.  She won’t back down, not even if it costs her life, and when the Prince realizes this he also realized that Erith is right that he isn’t much of Prince.  Fortunately, he becomes a reformed man, and because Erith is as kind as she is brave, it all works out in the end.

Why, oh, why didn’t I think of "The Prince and the Goose Girl"  when Katherine asked me to write a post?

I think the answer has something to do with the Introduction to the book, which may be the one part I really didn’t read.  In the introduction Joan Bodger explains that these are literary fairy tales.  The italics are hers, not mine and their elitism makes me uncomfortable, but I think Bodger is saying the same thing that I am struggling with.  I didn’t like fairy tales when I was growing up because most of the things that were labeled “Fairy Tales” in my experience were those bowdlerized, dessicated versions that were three paragraphs long and came in books of a hundred or more and had absolutely no personality. Everything that gave them depth had been sifted out because it was rude, or it was frightening, or it made the story too long for its intended audience.

They were stripped down to their Propp’s morphology.  I tend to think of them as skeletons of stories, but the Provensons remind me that they aren’t dead skeletons so much as a seed bank that any of us can draw on, and that when we do draw on this seed bank, what we are writing (with or without the upscale qualifier literary) is fairy tales.

Friday, 19 November 2010

Fairytale Reflections (10) Cassandra Golds

Cassandra Golds is another writer whose acquaintance I am fortunate enough to have made because of this blog – although I was already aware of her fiction through Adele Geras, whose Fairytale reflection on Hansel and Gretel was the second in this series, and who is also a big fan.

Meeting Cassandra via email and the internet has been great fun. We seem to have much in common, not least because we are both big fans of that wonderful, currently-neglected-and-out-of-print Scots author Nicholas Stuart Gray, whose wildly imaginative yet down-to-earth fantasies we both grew up on and love. In fact, Cassandra has started a Facebook page in his honour.

Cassandra says, “I was born in Sydney and grew up reading Hans Christian Andersen, C.S. Lewis and Nicholas Stuart Gray over and over again.” She always knew she wanted to write for young people and had her first book accepted for publication when she was nineteen. Her three novels, Clair-de-Lune, The Museum of Mary Child and The Three Loves of Persimmon (just out in Australia) are all deeply influenced by the worlds of fairytale and 19th century literature.

Cassandra’s writing is beautiful, delicate and strong; and her books are not like anyone else’s at all. Clair de Lune is about a young girl who has never spoken a word since the death of her mother, a great ballerina. Then she meets Bonaventure, a dancer-mouse, who takes her to a mysterious monastery hidden away in the building where she lives... And The Three Loves of Persimmon is also about a friendship between a girl and a mouse living in a vast railway station. Does that sound sweet, cute? Maybe it does, but believe me these are not twinkly books. Cassandra’s writing takes the reader into surreal places where dark emotions and the hidden places of the human soul can be explored.

The Museum of Mary Child just blew me away. It begins with a prisoner, a young man chained in a dark cell, who is visited in his sleep by birds – a society of birds, in fact: The Caged Birds of the City. It moves on to the city madhouse, where a young woman has just been turned out into the streets. And it concerns a young girl called Heloise who lives with her cold, unloving godmother, the guardian of the strange museum next door, the Museum of Mary Child, where ‘visitors enter smiling and depart with fear in their eyes’. Heloise’s godmother even censors the Bible wherever there is any passage concerning love. So when one day Heloise finds a beautiful doll buried under a loose floorboard in her room, she knows she must keep the discovery secret. She names the doll Maria, and one day, sewing in her room, muses aloud,

“I wonder what you would say to me, Maria dear, if you could talk?”

She glanced casually at Maria’s serene little face. Then a strange thing happened. There was a shift in the air, a shimmer, and something changed. Was it Maria’s face, or was it the world itself? For the briefest moment, Maria’s features became fluid with expression, and Heloise heard a voice, as clear as a bell, and yet inside her head, answering promply:
“I would say, I love you.”
Heloise froze.
“Oh, Maria, dearest,” she whispered with all her heart. “I love you too.”

… For this – this – was love. This closeness, this affection, this protectiveness, this respect, this joy between Maria and herself was not charity but love. And this fear of losing her, and the sadness and loneliness that would come if ever she did – that too was love. Love was allowing someone to matter to you. Not for their usefulness to you, or even for your usefulness to them, but for no reason, except that they were they and you were you. Love was everything, all that mattered. And yet, in a strange kind of way, her godmother had been right. For love was a kind of folly, a losing game. The Greatest of all Wastes of Time.

But then, that depended on what you thought time was for.

The Museum of Mary Child was recently short-listed for the Young Adult section of the Australian Prime Minister's Literary Awards. Cassandra says it was inspired by the worst nightmare she ever had…

And her Fairytale Reflection is -


Once upon a time, when I was a very little girl, my father bought me and my younger sister a record.

It was one of the Tale Spinners for Children series — a collection of records so fondly remembered by some adults that there is a (very handy) website devoted to them. Tale Spinners for Children was a series of fully dramatised British adaptations of classic fairytales and stories — everything from “The Sleeping Beauty” to The Count of Monte Christo. They were lavishly produced in the manner of BBC radio drama, with appropriate classical music and British actors who were rarely credited on the sleeves, although they included such luminaries as Maggie Smith and Donald Pleasance — and who had voices to die for. They made some fifty of them altogether, throughout the sixties, and incidentally the brilliant producers and adaptors were not credited either. We as a family had several of them, but one of these had the dread hand of fate on it. It was the Tale Spinners adaptation of “The Little Mermaid” by Hans Christian Andersen. They used Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor as incidental music, and used it so masterfully, you would swear the work was written for the story. From the moment I first heard it — a moment some time before I could read — I was in love, with both the story and the concerto.

The first time I listened to it I remember sitting on the lounge in front of the big record player in my childhood home with  an aching throat and tears streaming down my face. The Tale Spinners version — which, although dramatised, stuck closely to the Andersen original — was about unrequited love, self-sacrifice and the hope of ultimate transcendence. In other words, it was not the Disney version. And yet, at the age of five or so, none of it seemed foreign to me. Not only did I think this was the most beautiful story I had ever heard — immediately I conceived a passionate allegiance to it. From this point on, for me, “The Little Mermaid” was what a good story should be — sad, noble, uplifting, passionate, desperate, extreme and big, opera-big. And it had to make you cry. It was the first time I was ever moved to tears by a work of art, and I have never fully lost the conviction that that is art’s first duty: the gift of tears.

And the dread hand of fate? Well, from the moment I first heard that record, I was destined to be a children’s author. It changed the course of my life. Or set me on it.

“The Little Mermaid” is unusual in this series in that it is, not a traditional or folk tale, but an original story, by an author who is a legend in himself. What’s more, we know a good deal about the biography of the author, and like many of his stories, this one has strong autobiographical overtones. We are often told that folktales were not originally told specifically to children — that they were meant for an audience of all ages.  Original fairytales, on the other hand, such as Andersen’s and Oscar Wilde’s, are probably more truly children’s literature in the modern sense. And yet ever since I was an adult myself it has struck me that “The Little Mermaid” is a very adult story. Or at least, that it is an adult story told in the form of a children’s fairytale. Because it takes as its subject, not (for example) every child’s two greatest fears, as Adele Geras says so perceptively of “Hansel and Gretel”, but unrequited love, terrible self-sacrifice, and eventual transcendence, I have spent a good deal of time wondering what it was that I saw in it at that age. Why did I identify with it so strongly?

There are a number of possible answers to that question. One thing I believe with all my heart is that there is nothing trivial about childhood emotion. Children may be small, but their emotions are big, as big if not bigger than the emotions of adults. You will never be more passionate than you are at five. Things will never matter to you more, and you will never be capable of more suffering. It is also perfectly possible that you have already had your heart broken. I am the eldest of two sisters; my younger sister was born when I was eighteen months old. It is a family anecdote that, when my beloved grandfather came to see my baby sister for the first time, he walked past me and went first to her in her bassinet, the new baby. I’ve been told that I ignored him  completely for the duration of the visit which followed that betrayal and indeed that our relationship never recovered. I hope you are not shocked — in fact I think this is a fairly ordinary family story; one adult or another   must have made that kind of crucial false step every time a new baby has been born into this world. But I think, in common with many children, that must have been my first experience of losing a beloved to another, and that that was one of the things I was recognising in “The Little Mermaid”. You learn all the basics of romantic love before you hit kindergarten; I’m quite certain of that.

But romantic love is not the only subject of “The Little Mermaid”. It is also, crucially, about the longing for another state of existence; and about dignity and even triumph in humiliation in suffering. In a way, the Little Mermaid’s falling in love is just the trigger for a drama about personal identity; she doesn’t just love the prince, she wants to be him, that is, human, with an immortal soul, which in Andersen’s tale is the exclusive preserve of human beings. And — according to the Sea Witch — she can only truly become a human being, with a human being’s immortal privileges, if she wins the love of the prince. The Sea Witch can give her legs — at a dreadful price. Only the prince can give her a soul.

Many people seem to think that this story of Andersen’s is deeply anti-feminist. I think that is a profound misreading. I’m not arguing that he was a feminist in our terms or that he was anything other than a man of his time. But it astonishes me that such people haven’t noticed that he has identified himself completely with his female hero — she’s not the Other (as women continue to be for so many male authors), she is himself.  Furthermore, she is doing something completely atypical of traditional fairy tale heroines (or at least those belonging to the canon of the best known) — she is the lover, not the beloved, the active, not the passive one. Indeed, it is she who saves the prince from drowning in a feat that would take almost impossible strength and stamina, even for a mermaid. She’s only a fifteen-year-old girl with a fishtail, after all, and yet she holds the insensible prince above the waves during the entirety of a terrible storm at sea, which has wrecked his ship, and which rages all night. Then, as the story develops, she pursues him — but, lacking the voice she has given in payment to the Sea Witch for the magic that will split her fishtail into legs (and less obviously but just as importantly, being a foundling with no family or earthly breeding) — she is unable to win his love. (And incidentally, what an unforgettable character the Sea Witch is — laughing in scorn at romantic love, and cutting, with the Little Mermaid, one of the most chilling devil’s bargains in literature. And the Little Mermaid’s grandmother — what a marvelous creation! — with all her wise counsel against reaching too high, and being discontent with what she believes to be the pretty good wicket of mermaid-hood.) It is also crucial to note, not only that the Little Mermaid makes her own independent choices, creates her own destiny, throughout the story, but also that in the overwhelmingly powerful denouement, which is to some extent a twist, the Little Mermaid beats the Sea Witch and even the strictures of the story itself, at their own game. Two possible endings have been laid out for her by others; instead — by staying utterly true to her self, her principles and her conception of genuine love — she invents her own.

When I was twelve, because of the Robert Redford film, which I adored, I read The Great Gatsby for the first time. It had the same effect on me as “The Little Mermaid”, and when I was in my twenties and more capable of analysis it dawned on me that it is exactly the same story. Gatsby is the Little Mermaid. He, a poor boy, falls in love with a rich girl, Daisy. He cannot win her in the state of existence into which he was born — that is, poverty — and so he devotes his life, spectacularly, to transforming himself into a rich boy. He gets the mansion and the money, just like the Little Mermaid gets the legs. But he cannot win Daisy from the husband she has chosen from her own kind, just as the Little Mermaid cannot win the prince from his intended. For both of them, tragedy, and a strange kind of transcendence, results.

Unrequited love makes you question your entire existence. It is as if your whole self is worthless, because that self is worthless, or not worth enough, to the beloved. If you experience unrequited love profoundly, it will have a profound effect on your personality. You will be inclined to define yourself by it, as if it is the single most important aspect of your personality. And it will force you to find a means of transcendence — a sense of worth, even of personal destiny, that makes the indifference of the beloved bearable and even creatively and spiritually lucrative.

Here is something I will never know, but will wonder about all my life. When I first heard “The Little Mermaid”, was I already, at five or six, that kind of personality who would spend much of her life loving unrequitedly? Or could it be true — though, as a children’s author, I hope with all my heart that it is not — that the story affected me so deeply that it turned me into such a person?

I’m sure you already know why I hope that’s not true. It’s because I don’t want to have that much power. I don’t want any story to have that much power.

P.S. You can hear what I heard as a five-year-old at this site, if you can play an mp3 file. Scroll down until you see The Little Mermaid and download to your heart’s content!

Picture credits: The Little Mermaid swimming by Edmund Dulac
                                 The Little Mermaid saving the prince by Jiri Trnka

Friday, 12 November 2010

Fairytale Reflections (9) Delia Sherman

Delia Sherman is so well known and so active in the US and international fantasy community that she hardly needs any introduction, but I'm doing one anyway because I want to tell you how much I love her books.  And so here it is:  Delia writes historical/folklore/semi-comic fairy stories with a serious twist.  Her short fiction and poetry has appeared in many anthologies.  Her adult novels are 'Through a Brazen Mirror' and 'The Porcelain Dove' (which won the Mythopoeic Award) and, with fellow-fantasist Ellen Kushner, 'The Fall of Kings'.  She has also written two wonderful novels for younger children, 'Changeling' and 'The Magic Mirror of the Mermaid Queen', featuring adventurous, impetuous, warm-hearted Neef, the official changeling of Central Park, who is always getting into scrapes. 

I first met Neef in a story called ‘CATNYP’, in one of Terri Windling and Ellen Datlow’s wonderful anthologies of short stories, “The Faery Reel”.  I was entranced, and rushed out to find the full length novels.  As a changeling child, Neef is ‘kind of bi-cultural, human and fairy’, and her adventures take place in New York City:

Not the one in the ‘I ♥ New York’ posters, but the one that exists beside it, in the walls and crawlspaces and all the little pockets and passages of its infrastructure.  Call it New York Between. 

You always knew that such a place must exist, right?  And naturally the fairy folk who have arrived over the centuries and now inhabit New York Between are diverse, dangerous and dynamic.  Expect to hear the Wild Hunt howling on autumn nights in Central Park, to meet fox spirits and moss women in the woods, and to encounter the odd Fictional Character such as the Water Rat or Stuart Little down by the lake.  Neef has an unpredictable Pooka for a fairy godfather, and a motherly white rat for a fairy godmother. There are mermaids in the harbor, a Dragon on Wall Street, while as for the Green Lady:

When she’s happy, the Green Lady of Central Park is as beautiful as the most beautiful thing you can imagine.  She has greeny-brown skin, long dark-green ropes of hair, and deep-set eyes the color of new leaves after rain.  But she can change shape, and not all of her shapes are beautiful.

As soon as she saw me, her dreadlocks lifted and began to weave around her head and hiss like snakes.  Emerald fire smoldered in her eyes and her lips lifted over teeth grown suddenly needlelike.

“Can the music, boys,” she yelled.  “We have a situation here.”

I love the fun in these books, spiced with danger.  I love the wild but utterly convincing mix of characters and the sense of place - the spirit of New York itself.  (Naturally there will be real swan maidens backstage at the ballet in the Lincoln Center...)  They belong in that long pageant of impressively good children’s books in which New York City plays its part - ‘Roller Skates’, ‘The Cricket in Times  Square’, ‘Harriet the Spy’, and ‘From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs Basil E. Frankweiler’.  Delia is an active member of the Endicott Studio of Mythic Arts and a founding member of the board of the Interstitial Arts Foundation, dedicated to art found  in between genres and crossing boundaries.  She lives – where else? – in New York City with Ellen Kushner, travels whenever she gets the chance and writes wherever she happens to be.  And her fairytale reflection is  - 


When I was a child, I had a book called Fairy Tales of Many Lands, edited by H. Herda and published by Franklin Watts in 1956.  It’s sitting by my desk as I type, its disintegrating cover patched by my mother, some time in the early 60’s, with lavender and blue flowered Contac paper.  It was originally published in German, which explains the extremely idiosyncratic choice of tales (“The Good Shepherd”? “The Gnome’s Advice”? “The Enchanted Hill?”), the unfamiliar artists (Gerhard Grossman?  Hilde Koeppen?  Ursula Wendorff-Weidt?), and the stiff, translated prose.  In any case, I pored over its strange tales and sketchy wash illustrations with the single-hearted obsession of a child in love with a book.  There’s not a single story in there that hasn’t influenced me in some way or another, including the ones I hated (“The Weathercock” and “The Wonderful Coffee Mill,” if you’re curious).  But the one that really got me where I lived was a Russian folk tale called “The Snow Child.

It’s not a well-known story, so here’s a summary:

A childless couple celebrate the first snowfall of winter by sculpting a snow baby.  A stranger walks by, and the snow baby stretches, laughs, and becomes a perfect, pale baby girl with blue eyes and hair like starlight.  The couple, delighted, take her home, put her in their empty cradle, and call her Snowflake.

Snowflake grows quickly into a beautiful, good, obedient, merry child, who helps her mother around the house and is beloved by everyone who sees her.  All winter she laughs and plays with the village children, but when the spring comes, she turns pale and quiet and takes to hiding in shady corners.  Come midsummer, she agrees to go out into the woods to celebrate with her friends.  But when they press her to leap over the midsummer bonfire, she slips away into the woods and heads towards the mountains to the north.

When Snowflake fails to return from the bonfire with the other children, the distracted parents search the forest until the village wise woman tells them to stop. Their daughter was the gift of King Winter, who has undoubtedly taken her back into his frozen kingdom.  They should be grateful for the gift and stop mourning.

In the meantime, Snowflake journeys through the woods, having adventures with a pair of lost bear cubs, turning down an offer to be Queen of a pond of musical Frogs, and sleeping under an oak tree, watched over by kindly giants, squirrels, and dwarves.  She reunites the cubs with their mother and begs a ride from a skeptical eagle, who carries her to his eyrie.  That night, King Winter appears to tell her that she is a snow child, whose real home is a crystal palace behind the moon.  He will take her there, but first she must return to her parents and tell them goodbye.  A flurry of snowflakes carries her back to her village, where she appears to her parents and tells them to be glad for her because she’s going home.  Then the sun rises and she melts and rises as a cloud to heaven.

It is, of course, a fable about children dying, right on up there with the death of Little Nell in its sentimental piety.  The oldest versions, referenced in the scholarly literature as tale-type 703, end at the midsummer bonfire, with the snow maiden giving into peer pressure and evaporating up to heaven, leaving everyone to wonder what has become of her.  Another variant has her growing up, falling in love, and melting from the heat of her sweetheart’s first kiss.

I like H. Herda’s version better.  

This Snowflake may be a compendium of Victorian virtues, but she’s anything but passive.  And she’s got a strong sense of self-preservation as well as a good heart.  She runs away from the fire—and the insensitive children who are pressuring her to jump it.  She knows how to catch trout with her bare hands and get honey from a hive.  She’s polite to frogs and wolves alike and she isn’t afraid of flying over ravines and gullies on an eagle’s back.  She’s not afraid to die.

There’s a reason that the spine of Fairy Tales from Many Lands is broken at the illustration of Snowflake in the eagle’s nest, looking longingly at the moon.  As a child, I was asthmatic, at a time when the treatment for asthma was pretty much a hot humidifier and Vicks Vaporub for mild attacks, and the hospital, an oxygen tent, and prayer for more severe ones.  Every time I couldn’t breathe, I was sure I was going to die.   And even though I was all too obviously not good, obedient, pious, industrious, or beloved by all who beheld me, I found hope in Snowflake’s after-evaporation reunion with her brother and sister snowflakes.

The comfort I found in Snowflake’s death is why I’m so appalled by the 20th Century’s cultural redefinition of fairy tales as simplistic, sanitized, happily-ever-after stories of heterosexual romance for children.  Yes, Fairy Tales of Many Lands was published for children, and I can’t read it now without wincing at the slightly twee tone of the prose (“Does this child really want to go up to the sky, this bewitching little child whom no one can resist?”).  And yet the stories confront the bitter side of human relations as well as the sweet, and the protagonists triumph over bandits and malicious friends as well as giants and dragons.  With few exceptions, the girls in these stories are as active and clever as the boys, and their rewards are not restricted to marriage.

Reading the story now, it seems odd to me that I identified so strongly with Snowflake.  Where she revived in the cold, I withered and wheezed.  Where she was slender and dainty and blonde, I was plump and bespectacled and mousy brown.  I was too allergic to animals to have a pet, let alone romp with bears, and couldn’t even play outside at recess, let alone go adventuring in the woods.  I was afraid of heights.  And my parents, while they loved me, did not approach the standards set by old Ivan and Maria.  Yet her story was, on one level, mine.  We were both children adopted by much older parents when we were babies, we were only children, and we were the gift of a stranger.  Neither of us fit the norms of the world we’d been brought into.  Both of us longed for a home we could hardly imagine, among people who not only loved us, but knew and accepted us for what we were.

Snowflake had to evaporate to find her home.  I only had to grow up.

As an author, I have retold “The Snow Child” only once, in a story called “The Printer’s Daughter,” written for the Windling/Datlow fairy tale anthology Ruby Slippers, Golden Tears.  My chance-child is made of paper, not snow, and her adventures take place in the wilderness of Elizabethan London rather than in a Russian forest.  Frisket is a post-modern heroine, fully conscious that she’s not human, always longing to go back to paper and ink.  Which she does, in the end, with the help of a scruffy poet.  It’s one of my favorite pieces of my own fiction, drawing on all the Elizabethan prose I read for my degree in Renaissance studies as well as on “The Snow Child.”  But it’s not the only piece of fiction that story has touched.  Almost everything I write has got a foundling in it somewhere, a child out of place or out of time, raised and loved by those who have no blood kinship with it.  Like Snowflake, each of these foundlings is and is not me, their stories rooted in mine and branching from it, like tributaries from the river that is my drive to write.

Picture credits: Photo of Delia Sherman by Laurence Tammaccio
Illustration of The Snow Maiden from a painted box by  A Verdernikov, 2000


Friday, 5 November 2010

Fairytale Reflections (8) Sue Purkiss

Sue Purkiss describes her first few stories as ‘ghostie, witch fantasies for young children’. Her next two novels, ‘The Willow Man’ and ‘Warrior King’ are for older children. ‘The Willow Man’ is a contemporary story underpinned by the presence of the mysterious and magical figure of the ‘Willow Man’ or ‘Withy Man’, a huge outdoor sculpture by Serena de la Hey, set in a field near Bridgewater in Somerset. Young Tom is fascinated by the figure, which becomes ever more meaningful for him as he and his family struggles to cope with his little sister Sophie’s sudden stroke. ‘It only happened to one child in fifty thousand’ the doctors say – but Tom can’t help wondering if it happened because he quarrelled with her… And when on top of everything else, his friend Ash goes missing, perhaps the Willow Man can help?

He thought he had closed his eyes, but he could see the sunlight through his eyelids, and then he must have opened them a tiny crack. Or maybe he just thought he had, because he wasn’t sure what he’d seen, or, really, if he’d seen anything. Well, he couldn’t have. He might have seen Sophie hold up the flowers, but he couldn’t possibly have see the Willow Man bend gracefully down and take them. It must have been something to do with the sunlight again – when you stared into the sun with your eyes closed, it did make funny patterns on the inside of your eyelids…

Beautifully, delicately written, ‘The Willow Man’ is about hope and resurgence. And ‘Warrior King’ is a re-imagining of part of the life of Alfred the Great – king of Wessex from 871 to 899, renowned for his learning, for his defence of England against the Danes, and in a legend once famous among schoolchildren, for burning those cakes. Enchantment is present in this book too, in the shape of Cerys, the silver-eyed wise woman.

Sue’s books are grounded in the landscape of Britain, especially the beautiful county of Somerset where she now lives, which contains the original Isle of Avalon, the mysterious Glastonbury Tor, and the misty marshes where Alfred once hid from the Danes. (Her latest book, ‘Emily’s Surprising Voyage’ is a story of Brunel’s spectacular ship the SS Great Britain, now permanently to be found  in Bristol harbour.) I can’t resist quoting this passage from her website, about a visit to Athelney ‘where Alfred made such a botch of baking the cakes’:

There was a low green hill with a stumpy stone monument and apart from that, just a magical landscape, with rows of willows, water birds calling above stretches of floodwater, and in the distance, the iconic outline of Glastonbury Tor. You could see hardly any houses. It struck me that this place had hardly changed in hundreds of years.

As I leaned on the gate looking at the hill – at Alfred’s Athelney – an old man came up to me. “Ah,” he said – and I swear this is absolutely true – “you’ll be looking for Alfred.”

After that it may come as no surprise that Sue’s choice for ‘Fairytale Reflections’ is that tale of hope and transformation -



I have been a reader of fairy tales at various stages in my life. When my sister and I were small, my mother used to buy us Ladybird books – Cinderella, The Sleeping Beauty, Little Red Riding Hood – always with the same reassuringly familiar format: a page of text on the left, and a full colour, full page illustration on the right. They taught me to read: we read the same books over and over, and one of my earliest memories is of insisting to Dad that tonight, I would read to him. I’d heard the stories so often that I’d memorised them, and begun to link up the printed words with the spoken ones.

Later on, when I really could read, I had a series of little buttercup yellow books, which each featured a single fairy story. I really liked these. I think it was partly because they were miniature: I also liked little teddy bears, dolls’ house furniture, and tiny porcelain animals. I remember reading Beauty and the Beast under the sheets when I was supposed to be asleep. It had lovely pictures. There was one bit where the father brought back a red rose and a white rose from the Beast’s castle. His daughters were astonished to see roses in the middle of winter; such a thing was impossible, and therefore proof of something magical. The roses in my garden often flower late, into November and even December, and when they do, I always feel vaguely surprised – because I know from that story that they shouldn’t.

Later, when I was older, I used to get as many books as I could out of the libraries in town and at school. I read anything I could get hold of, including fairy stories: collections from different countries and Andrew Lang’s series of rainbow fairy books. Then I read a book called The Amazing Mr Whisper, by Brenda Macrow. That was the first story I’d come across where the magical world intruded into the real one: the precursor for me of the Narnia books, Alan Garner, and eventually Tolkien. I was enchanted by the idea that the two worlds could collide, and I think after that I began to drift away from pure fairytales. 

I rediscovered them when I had children of my own. My mother bought more Ladybird books: I bought collections with gorgeous illustrations. The children loved them, as I had done. I remember a friend saying she wouldn’t buy fairy stories for her children: they are full of such terrible things, she said – old ladies pushed into ovens, grannies eaten by wolves, stepmothers poisoning princesses, parents abandoning their children. Well, yes… and yet, these stories endure, as others don’t. (I managed to track down a copy of my beloved Mr Whisper a while ago; it hasn’t worn well, even for me!) Children cope with the cruelty in fairy stories, just as they love the horrors that Roald Dahl’s characters encounter; I think sometimes they are not given enough credit for being able to tell a fictional world from the real one, the one they have to live in.

The Wild Swans, by Hans Christian Andersen, has terrible things in it. But it’s also a story of haunting beauty. This is what happens.

It begins with eleven princes, who write ‘with diamond pencils on golden tablets’ and their little sister, Elisa, who has ‘a picture book that cost half the kingdom’. Their mother is apparently dead, but nevertheless they are happy until their father marries an evil queen, who turns the brothers into swans (they change back to their true forms only at night) and sends Elisa to live with peasants in the country. When she is fifteen, Elisa returns to the court, but the stepmother manages to get rid of her (not without some difficulty, but she’s a resourceful woman). Elisa flees the castle, and find herself in a dark, dark forest. Thanks to a troop of glow worms, another of angels, and a mysterious old woman, Elisa finds her way through the woods to the sea, where she meets up with her brothers. They carry her over the ocean to the country where they live, a place of forests, mountains and castles. As she sleeps, a fairy comes to Elisa in a dream and tells her she can lift the enchantment from her brothers, provided she makes each of them a shirt out of nettles. But she must not speak a word till she has done: if she does, her brothers will die.

            She begins the work, but she has only finished one shirt when  the king of the country comes across her while he is hunting. He falls in love with her, takes her back to his castle, gives her ‘regal gowns’ and has her hair ‘braided with pearls’. They marry, and she falls in love with him too, but is determined to press on with her task. The archbishop, however, believes she is a witch. He follows her one night when, having run out of nettles, she goes to a churchyard to collect more, passing by monsters which feast on the flesh of corpses to do so. The archbishop accuses her of witchcraft, the king can find no other explanation for her trips to the graveyard, and of course she cannot speak: he declares that the people must decide on her fate. They do – they say she’s a witch and must burn. Still she keeps sewing, still she won’t speak. Just in the nick of time, her brothers appear. She throws the shirts over them, and they are transformed into their real selves. (All except the youngest. His shirt is not quite finished, so he is left with a swan’s wing instead of an arm.) Elisa, exhausted, collapses, seemingly lifeless. But then something magical happens: the faggots which had been used to make the pyre suddenly begin to grow, and in no time at all a hedge of beautiful red roses has appeared. At the very top is a single white one. The king plucks it, lays it close to Elisa’s heart, and she comes back to life.

So – terrible things indeed. Some of the elements of this story are to be found in others too. There is the evil stepmother. She has the king: she doesn’t want to be burdened with his twelve children. So they experience the sudden loss of an idyllic lifestyle; they sink from the top of the heap to the very bottom. There is the journey – the quest –  through a forest. Forests, of course, were dangerous. They still are in many places (though not, perhaps, in our small island). In a real forest, you can quickly become disorientated and lose your way, and then you are at the mercy of fierce creatures: wild boar, wolves, and bears. In an enchanted one, there are other dangers too – witches, goblins, sinister trees.

Elisa is beset by dangers from the start. But once she sets about her task, she becomes even more vulnerable; she is not allowed to speak, so she cannot explain or defend herself. The king is kind and he loves her, but even he is a threat to her: he takes her away, without her permission, from where she needs to be. She has to go to the graveyard – it’s the only place she can get fresh supplies of nettles – but in doing so, she lays herself open to the Archbishop’s accusations. Then she falls victim to a mob: one day the people cheer her: the next they jeer and condemn her to a terrible death. The fickle affections of the mob are frighteningly real.

But she is not a passive victim. We know that she is only allowing all this to happen to her because she is ferociously loyal and determined. Even when she falls in love with the king, she still doesn’t allow herself to be distracted. She loves her brothers and she is determined to keep to her commitment to save them, no matter how hard it may be. She may be a victim, but she’s far from weak.

We talk of ‘fairy-tale endings’ as if fairy stories invariably end well. True, in the end Cinderella and her prince live happily ever after. So does the Sleeping Beauty; so does Snow White. But it isn’t always so. In The Wild Swans, one brother is left with a swan’s wing instead of an arm. Perhaps this is one of the things that makes this particular story so poignant; there’s an admission that everything doesn’t always turn out all right, no matter how hard you try. Fairy stories may take place in an enchanted land, but they deal with situations we must face in real life.

There is even something paradoxical about the enchantment. The stepmother wants to turn the princes into ‘voiceless birds’, but her power has its limits, and instead of becoming something ugly, they are turned into ‘beautiful wild swans’. They are no longer princes, and their true lives have been taken away, but still they have been transformed into something wonderful: to borrow from Yeats, ‘a terrible beauty is born’: and they fly across the ocean at sunset to meet their sister like ‘a white ribbon being pulled across the sky’. It’s a lovely image and a lovely moment, as Elisa sees her brothers for the first time in so many long and difficult years.

The Wild Swans is about as far as you can get from the popular Disneyfied construct of what a fairytale is. Like a wild landscape, it is bleak and harsh. But, for me at any rate, it has also a beauty that touches the heart.

Photo Credit: This decoupage of the Wild Swans is by Queen Margrethe of Denmark - find more about her work at