Monday, 30 April 2012

A Monday poem

 
 
'The Ghost’ by Walter de la Mare


‘Who knocks?’  ‘I, who was beautiful
Beyond all dreams to restore,
I from the roots of the dark thorn am hither
And knock on the door.’

‘Who speaks?’  ‘I – once was my speech
Sweet as the bird’s on the air,
When echo lurks by the waters to heed;
‘Tis I speak thee fair.’

‘Dark is the hour!’  ‘Aye, and cold.’
‘Lone is my house.’  ‘Ah, but mine?’
‘Sight, touch, lips, eyes gleamed in vain.’
‘Long dead these to thine.’

Silence.  Still faint on the porch
Brake the flames of the stars.
In gloom groped a hope-wearied hand
Over keys, bolts and bars.

A face peered.  All the grey night
In chaos of vacancy shone;
Nought but vast sorrow was there –
The sweet cheat gone. 



Friday, 27 April 2012

The Arabian Nights

Eastern City by Edmund Dulac
by John Dickinson

The cave of wonders! Torchlight glitters on piles of gems. It glows on jars of incense, on carpets, cloth, leather and canvas sacks that have split with the weight of coin and cascaded gold and silver across the floor. There’s pile upon pile of it, more than can possibly be counted, receding into the shadows. The light trembles. The hand the holds the torch shudders.

 Where did all these things come from? The men that laid them here are fierce and cruel. Hanging on hooks among the silks, like a carcass at a market, are the dismembered quarters of an unlucky traveller who was seized and hacked to pieces for daring to enter the cave. The last drops of his blood still drip to black pools upon the floor. He died not long ago. His killers must be close by. What’s that noise? Is it sand, trickling in a crevice, or the hiss of indrawn breath? Is it gold that glitters from the deepest shadows - or is it blades of steel?

Surprisingly, Ali Baba may not one of the original stories in The Arabian Nights. Like Sinbad and Aladdin it may have been collected separately by Galland, the eighteenth century French traveller who popularised the Nights in Europe. But it’s one of my Arabian Nights – the Nights that have been with me since childhood. It was in the big, colourful, yellow-jacketed hardback book that my parents gave us and through which we entered that fantastic world. I can still remember the pictures, flat and stylised like Persian miniatures, and the way the robber chief throws up his arm before the cave as he cries “Open Sesame!”

So many stories! Ali Baba and his slave-girl Morgiana, and thirty-nine thieves dead in their jars of oil. Aladdin and his lamp. The Sultan Haroun al Raschid and his vizier Jafaar. The hunchback and the bone he choked upon. The brothers Aboukir and Abousir, and the city where the dyers only know how to colour things blue. Turbans and curling beards and gongs and incense. Cunning and beauty and terrible cruelty. This was fantasy, an other world far removed from Western living-rooms, long before Tennyson wrote his Idylls or Tolkien woke our Northern myth from its slumber.

Scheherezade by Edmund Dulac


And Scheherazade herself. The young woman who, night after night, tells the stories to her husband the Caliph, knowing that if she ever loses his interest she will be executed in the morning like all his other wives before her. In the sweltering darkness she whispers to him, and he listens with his head propped on silken pillows as she ends one tale and begins another, only to fall silent just as her royal murderer is begging for more. Young as she is, she has mastered the art of the cliffhanger. (I never asked myself, when I had that yellow book in my hands, what else she might have known about amusing men in bed. Nor did I wonder if the Caliph’s problem with women might have stemmed from some very private little problem of his own, and the reason the stories worked for him was because nothing else was going to. Sad creature that I am, I can think these things now. )

14th C manuscript of the Thousand and One Nights, Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris


A thousand stories! I’m a storyteller myself, and used to being asked about my ideas. But where did she get all hers from? Maybe she walked at dawn through in the peacock gardens, her brain dull from fear and lack of sleep, plotting the twists and turns that would keep her alive for one night more. That story about the sailor went well. It must be worth a sequel or two. Is seven pushing it too far? All right, but what’s he going to do on his seven voyages? (Bird flies by with mouse dead in its claws) That’s it! Birds! Big birds, big enough to feed on elephants! That’ll make him sit up. That will get me one more dawn like this. One more…

Stories inside stories inside stories. Scheherazade tells of Jafaar the vizier, who, found wanting by his master Haroun, obtains a pardon for himself by entertaining his Caliph with the Tale of Nur al-Din Ali. (No harm, you can hear Scheherazade thinking, in planting the idea of mercy in her own Caliph’s head). The Fisherman tells the Djinn the story of the sage Duban. Sinbad the Porter hears the story of the seven voyagers from his namesake the Sailor. It’s like Russian dolls, one inside another inside another, and each decorated and striking, and the myriad of voices that tell them seem to come from all around, echoing inside the cave.


Sufi imam from the Thousand and One Nights, 14th C manuscript

A thousand and one stories? Some collections have as many – ancient tales that go back into the folklore of different Middle Eastern cultures, including some about historical figures who lived long after Sheherazade and her Caliph are supposed to have existed. But most tellings have only a selection. Ours probably included no more than twenty. Some I recall very clearly. Other stories have elements I remember or half-remember, like tricking the djinn back into the bottle, or the book whose pages are poisoned, or the Caliph who enters a house in disguise, is entertained, and nearly loses his life. I must have read those stories and then forgotten them. Or maybe I never did, but others like Umberto Eco and James Elroy Flecker did at some time and have served them up to me since, set like gems in stories of their own making. Running my eye down the list of a thousand titles, I’m surprised to see how few I can recognise. The Nights were part of my childhood, and yet what I have is only a small proportion of what is there. They are the piles upon piles of untouched treasures that I left behind me in the cave when I escaped with my little bag of jewels all those years ago.


John Dickinson is the son of the author Peter Dickinson, and worked in the Ministry of Defence, Cabinet Office and NATO before leaving the civil service to begin writing.  His brilliant YA fantasy novel  ‘The Cup of the World’ and its sequels ‘The Widow and The King’ and ‘The Fatal Child’ are set in a far-off, war-troubled medieval kingdom where once, long ago, Wulfram the Seafarer came with his seven sons and conquered the land. Now the different baronies and territories descended from those sons are in turmoil and open revolt, bitter with complex politics and grudges. John has also published a historical novel for adults, ‘The Lightstep’, set in a German palatinate at the time of the French Revolution (one of the best adult novels I read last year) - and a coldly beautiful science fiction novel called ‘WE’.  His forthcoming book 'Muddle and Win, the Battle for Sally Jones', is a sort of 'Screwtape Letters' for children, in which a small devil and a guardian angel slug it out for the soul of good girl Sally Jones.  It will be out in September.

John Dickinson is also over at Fantabulous Fridays, Scribble City Central, this morning, talking about 'D for Devil' - I'm heading over there now!

Monday, 23 April 2012

Are We Underestimating Children?

My own well-loved copy of The Tale of Mr Tod
Friends of mine who are children’s authors were recently having a conversation about words their editors had asked them to alter, or explain, on the grounds that children would be puzzled by them. Among these were some horse-riding and falconry terms. And I’ve had the experience myself: writing about Viking ships in ‘Troll Blood’, for instance, I was asked to weed out or else explain some of the nautical terminology – ‘reefing a sail,’ for instance, and ‘a lee shore’ and other sailorly commands such as ‘luff’ or ‘jibe’.

Fair enough, you may think: we don’t want to be obscure. But it's worth asking: do children really stop in their tracks – or worse, derail – when they come across an exotic word they don’t understand? I doubt it. When I read an unusual word as child, one of four things would happen:

(A) I would semi-skip over it. This is the best option for things like: “‘Luff, you lubbers! Haul on those sheets!” roared the captain, as the sail went aback”: I didn’t have to know the exact meaning of the words; I could see that the ship was in difficulties and the captain was worried, and that was enough. Luff and lubbers and aback, and their ilk, got stuffed into a mental category of ‘mysterious words that sailors use’. (As did ‘ilk’, in fact. And that’s pretty much where they still are.) 

In 'The Tale of Mr Tod', I didn't worry when I came across: " 'My Uncle Bouncer has displayed a lamentable want of discretion for his years,' said Peter reflectively" - I got the point that Peter was criticising Mr Bouncer, and skipped on to the next bit, which was clear enough:  "...'but there are two hopeful circumstances. Your family is alive and kicking; and Tommy Brock has had refreshment. He will probably go to sleep and keep them for breakfast.'"  I used to read this book aloud to my bears when I was six.

(B) I would pick up the meaning from the context. On reading that the Flopsy Bunnies fell asleep because lettuce is ‘soporific’, I didn’t go to the dictionary, neither did I make a conscious mental note that soporific must mean something to do with making you sleepy; the word merely took on a contextual colour, or flavour, which I would recall the next time I encountered it. Children are good at making these associative leaps because this is how they learn their own language anyway. It may lead to the occasional misapprehension, but such things are generally cleared up by experience.

(C) I would ignore the word entirely and carry on, which is what I still do if I’m reading – say – a 19th century literary essay with bits of original Greek poetry dropped in here and there.

Lastly:

(D) I would carry the book to my mother and ask, “What does this word mean?”

All four of these options are perfectly legitimate and we ought to be making sure children feel OK about employing them. A healthy reader should be like a healthy cross-county runner whose steady pace is not interrupted by obstacles and stumbling blocks. A confident child reader should have the toughness and elasticity to leap over the odd unusual word and keep going. And how are they going to acquire that confidence if every text they read has been raked and weeded flat?

When I was small, the King James Bible was standard reading for everyone. At the age of seven my classmates and I were expected to learn pieces of prose and poetry by heart. One week it was this:

“Once upon a time there were four little rabbits and their names were Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail and Peter. They lived with their mother, old Mrs Rabbit, in a sandbank, underneath the roots of a very big fir tree…”

And the next week it was this:

“The beauty of Israel is slain upon thy high places: how are the mighty fallen!
Tell it not in Gath, publish it not in the streets of Askelon, lest the daughters of the Philistines rejoice; lest the daughters of the uncircumcised triumph.


Ye mountains of Gilboa, let there be no dew,
neither let there be rain upon you, nor fields of offerings,
For there the shield of the mighty is vilely cast away…”

I can still recite the whole of David’s lament for Saul and Jonathan, and I loved it as much when I was seven as I do now – maybe even more, in fact. “They were swifter than eagles; they were stronger than lions…

Did I know what ‘uncircumcised’ meant? Of course not; I didn’t have a clue: and certainly no grown-up offered to explain it to me. IN CONTEXT, however, I understood perfectly well that it was a pejorative. Clearly the daughters of the uncircumcised were – for David – the daughters of people he disapproved of. That was enough for me at the time; nor does a clearer understanding of the procedure of circumcision add anything essential to this beautiful and troubled lament.

And Gath and Askelon and Gilboa – where were these? Again I didn’t know, but again it was obvious from the context they were towns or cities, and their names were beautiful – and just hearing about them made the world wider and more mysterious and exciting.

Don't worry, I'm not suggesting we return to making children learn swathes of the Bible by heart. But I am suggesting that the best way to learn something is to do it yourself, not to have it always done for you. Instead of worrying about individual words and their possible difficulty, shouldn’t we encourage children to throw themselves into a story and keep going to the end in spite of the odd word they don’t quite understand? Learning not to be afraid of strange words is exactly like getting down the length of the swimming pool without minding the odd wave that hits you in the face.

You discover your own ability, and it’s more fun that way.

Friday, 20 April 2012

The Pied Piper of Hamelin

The Pied Piper by Arthur Rackham

by Joanne Harris

Raised as I was on the darkest, grimmest of Grimm’s fairy tales, I’ve always been very much aware of the dual nature of the world depicted in folklore and story. For every happy ending, there is an equally tragic one; children left to die in the woods; lovers parted forever; villains with their eyes pecked out by crows, or burnt alive; or hanged. Fairytale is a world away from the comfortable assurances of the Disney franchise – and surely that was the purpose of those original fairy tales, devised as they were for an audience comprising mostly of adults; often very poor; people whose lives were cruel and harsh, and who would never – even in fiction - have accepted to believe in a world in which the shadows did not at least occasionally rival the light.

My favourite of these ambiguous tales was always the Pied Piper. It’s interesting that this very well-known story has never been softened and sweetened in the way in which, for instance, The Little Mermaid, or Sleeping Beauty, or Cinderella have been adapted to suit our more sensitive times and cultures. Perhaps because the main character is such a sinister figure, nameless, appearing from nowhere, then vanishing into nowhere again, leaving nothing but unanswered questions and a story that lingers uncomfortably without a happy ending. But the ambiguity and the unanswered questions are part of my fondness for this tale, which seems to me to sum up perfectly our uncomfortable relationship with the world of magic and story, a relationship that combines longing and fear in fairly equal proportions.

Like all stories carried down through the oral tradition, there are many versions of the Pied Piper. Mine goes like this.

Once, the town of Hamelin was overrun by a plague of rats. (One of this story’s most interesting characteristics is that it is set in a real place, thereby locating the action somewhere between the conscious and the unconscious mind.) The rats were huge, black rats, and they spread like wildfire through the town, invading store-rooms and cellars, getting fat on grain stores, finally growing so big and so bold that they would snatch food right off dining-room tables, or little children right out of their cribs. (At this point, I remember an illustration in one of my grandfather’s old books, which showed a nurse looking into a crib, frozen with horror at the sight of a big rat sitting there in place of the baby.) No-one in Hamelin knew what to do. The Mayor, faced with a crisis such as he had never seen, announced a reward of a thousand crowns to the man who could rid the town of the rats.

"A thousand guilders!  The Mayor looked blue." Kate Greenaway

The next day a stranger came into town. (It’s worth noting here how often the very best stories begin with the arrival of a stranger into a closed community.) He was a beggar, by the look of him, with red hair and a jacket of two colours. (This is what made him the Pied Piper, and I spent a long time as a child trying to determine exactly what this pied quality meant in visual terms. Some books depicted him in yellow and red, like a court jester. Some said he was in red and green, a combination sometimes associated with the fairy world. I imagined him as a magpie; white on one side and black on the other, with the added associations both of bad luck and theft.) The man had no horse, no money and no possessions but a set of reed-pipes, on which he played very beautifully. (I also spent a very long time thinking about those pipes of his. I’d first read the story in French, for which the name of the instrument was “flûte.” In English, however, the stranger is described as a “piper,” which to me implied either bagpipes – which seemed unlikely - or maybe some kind of recorder, also referred to as “flûte”, or “pipeau” in French. I finally decided that the stranger played the pan-pipes, an instrument that has long been associated with the primal, darker side of Nature. This may seem like a trivial point, but in these old stories so many things are lost in translation – look at Cinderella’s glass slipper – that it’s sometimes worth checking the details.)

The Pied Piper had seen the rats and knew of the Mayor’s pronouncement. “I’ll rid you of your plague,” he said. “But remember, you promised to pay me.”

The Mayor, who, like all politicians, was more concerned with making promises than with keeping them, and besides, had little confidence in a man who couldn’t even decide on a single colour for his coat, agreed, rather too eagerly.

And so the Pied Piper took out his pipes and began to play a very simple little tune.

The Pied Piper by Elisabeth Alba
No-one could quite remember the notes of the tune the piper played (this should have come as a warning,) but it was a warm and lilting tune, bright and wistful at the same time; the kind of tune that makes people smile almost without knowing it, the kind of tune that makes folk tap their feet and think about dancing. And as the Piper played, the rats came out of the cellars to listen to him; and they slunk out of the back alleys and the grain-stores and sewers and ditches, and went off in the wake of the Piper, who ignored them and just went on playing that very simple little song, making his way quite casually into the centre of Hamelin, where the river ran fast and deep. And when he got to the river, the Pied Piper stood on the quay and played a little faster, and all the rats that had followed him ran straight into the river and drowned; and that was the end of the plague of rats.



The next day the Piper went to the Mayor to collect his thousand crowns. (One of the beauties of this tale is its continuing relevance. Centuries down the line, and artists – musicians and writers - are still fighting to be paid for the work they do, while people like the greedy Mayor still believe they can get it for free.) But the Mayor just laughed at the Piper, and said; “A thousand crowns for a tune? You must be out of your tiny mind. I’ll pay you a shilling for your trouble, and I’ll not ask to see your performer’s license.”

The Pied Piper wasn’t amused. (I’ve always seen him as red-haired, and red-haired men have a temper.) His mouth grew tight, and his strange green eyes narrowed, and he turned to the people of Hamelin and said; “You all heard what he promised me. You can make him keep his word.”

But the people of Hamelin knew perfectly well that the thousand crowns, if they were paid, would come straight out of their taxes. And now that they were free of the rats, it rankled to pay such a large sum to a man who had done nothing more than blow into a handful of reeds.

The man was a vagrant, after all; probably an illegal too. Why should their hard-earned taxes go to an undesirable? And so they said nothing, and shuffled their feet, and the Pied Piper got angry.

Pied fiddler?  German: artist unknown
At which point the Mayor, who had been waiting for the chance to pin something on the vagrant, had the Piper thrown out of town, with orders never to return. But as he reached the town gates, the stranger took out his reed pipe and once again began to play. No-one paid much attention at first. After all, the rats were gone. But the children of Hamelin heard the tune – a music that was at the same time wild and a little wistful, merry and unutterably sad – and they came out to hear the Piper. Heedless of parents and teachers alike, children all over Hamelin left their games and their schoolwork, abandoned their bicycles in the street, left football matches and skipping-ropes and went dancing off in the Piper’s wake. (I like to think that the tune he played was something only children could hear; a sound beyond the normal frequencies of the adult register. Perhaps it was; or perhaps children are just more susceptible to the call of the subconscious mind.)

They followed the Piper out of the town until they came to a round hill; and as they approached, a secret door inside the hill swung open, revealing a dark passage beneath. (I was born in a coal-mining town and in the waste ground behind my house there were several abandoned mineshafts. As a child I was at the same time terrified and fascinated by these, and spent hours crawling around the entrances to various tunnels and openings, certain that sooner or later I was going to get into Fairyland. Like the little lame boy, I’ve been looking ever since.)

The Pied Piper by Elisabeth Forbes 1859-1912
One by one, the children followed the Piper into the hill –and then the door to the passage slammed shut and none of the children were ever seen again. Only one child was left behind – a lame boy, unable to keep the pace, who was still outside when the hill closed.

As for the Pied Piper, whoever he was, no-one ever saw him again either, although some people thought they heard music coming from under the hill – music, and children’s voices, though whether the children were laughing or screaming, no-one could ever be certain.

As for the Piper, whoever he was… Perhaps this is the real reason why Disney has no use for this tale. There is no comfortable conclusion to this story; no happy-ever-after, not even a clear explanation. What happened to the children? Did they die inside the hill? Did the Piper abandon them there? Or were they (as I liked to believe) taken to another world, where children never have to grow up, forever free of the hypocrisy, greed and meanness of adult life? And who is the Pied Piper? The King of Faërie? An agent of Death? A parent’s worst nightmare? A child’s fondest dream? What happened to the lame boy? Did he spend the rest of his life trying to find the secret door, or did he have a lucky escape? I’ve always thought that a good story should ask at least as many questions as it answers, and this one seems to me to be a perfect example of the genre.

The lame child left behind. Artist unknown. (Note the discarded toys.)
Yes, and it is a fairy tale. In recent decades it seems to have become fashionable to look down upon the fairy tale and to value instead the kind of reading matter that deals with “serious issues”. In short, we have learnt to look for answers, rather than questions in the stories that we read. Surely this is the opposite of what a story should do for us. One of the reasons fairy tales and legends still resonate so strongly with us is that in spite of their apparent irrelevance to the topical problems of the “real” world (one of my grandfather’s sternest criticisms was to refer to something as “airy-fairy”, which implied both lacking in substance as well as dangerously imaginative), they nevertheless manage to locate our most sensitive pressure points, those things that transcend mere topicality, heading straight for the collective unconscious. (If you need further proof of this, try naming ten classic fairy tales from memory. Then try naming ten Booker prize-winners. See which ones you remember best.)

Lastly, for me, the Pied Piper is the perfect metaphor for our relationship with stories and storytellers. We all enjoy stories, but we also mistrust the subconscious world from which they spring, and we are often ambivalent, dismissive, fearful or sometimes downright ungrateful towards the people who create them. The Piper, like all artists, exists outside of society; his morality (such as it is) is fundamentally different from ours; he can be helpful or malevolent according to whim and his personal code; and his world, though appealing in many ways, is fraught with danger and mystery. As children, we often identify with the child characters in our stories. As an adult (and as a writer, of course) I have come to identify increasingly with the Pied Piper. Poised uncomfortably between the real world and the world of magic, keeping his audience in thrall; making them believe in things that they know to be impossible; facing both love and hostility with nothing more than a handful of tunes (or a story) between himself and the darkness - isn’t that what we all do? In a world that claims no longer to believe in magic or fairies or monsters, magic is still a powerful force, existing beneath the surface of things, ready to emerge when summoned by just the right combination of musical notes or of words on a page –

A story can bring down a government; or steal away a child’s heart; or build a religion; or just make us see the world differently. Storytellers come and go, but stories never die. And if that isn’t magic, then I don’t know what is.



Joanne Harris, author of 'Chocolat', needs little introduction.  Her adult books are full of fairytale motifs, and she's a writer who is definitely comfortable with the superstitious and supernatural side of human life.  Born to a French mother and an English father in her grandparents' sweet shop, her family life was filled with food and folklore, and there's a clear connection between food and magical power in her novels.  Bottles of homebrewed wine in 'Blackberry Wine' actually narrate parts of the story, and the chocolate in 'Chocolat' is almost sacramental food.  Joanne's characters see ghosts, consult the tarot, dance with shadows.  I love the passage in Chocolat where Vianne makes a Pied Piper window display in the chocolaterie: a mountain of green tins covered in crinkly cellophane to represent ice, with a river of blue silk and a cluster of houseboats,

"And below a procession of chocolate figures: cats, dogs, rabbits… and mice.  On every available surface, mice.  Running up the sides of the hill, nestling in corners, even on the riverboats.  Pink and white sugar coconut mice, chocolate mice of all colours, variegated mice marbled through with truffle and maraschino cream, delicately tinted mice, sugar-dappled frosted mice.  And standing above them, the Pied Piper resplendent in his red and yellow, a barley-sugar flute in one hand, his hat in the other."

Her children's books, 'Runemarks' and its sequel 'Runelight', are wonderfully exciting blends of Norse myth and fantasy. 

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Folklore Snippets - The Night Troll


The Night Troll


In this short tale, reminiscent of the Scottish ballad ‘The False Knight on the Road’, a quick-witted girl keeps a monster at bay. It was collected by the 19th century Icelandic folklorist Jón Árnason; trans May and Hallberg Hallmundsen, ‘Icelandic Folk and Fairy Tales’, Iceland Review Library, 1987 – and goes to show once again that girls and women in fairytales and folktales are resourceful and brave.



It happened at a certain farm that the person who was left to guard the house on Christmas Eve while the others were at evensong, were always found either dead or mad the following morning.

The farm people were greatly distressed over this, and there were few who wanted to stay home on that particular night. One Christmas, howeve, a young girl volunteered, and that was a relief to other members of the household.

After they left, the girl sat on a dais in the badstofa [heated sauna room], singing to the baby she held in her arms. As the night wore on she heard someone at the window saying:

“What a pretty hand you have,
my quick one, my keen one, and diddly-doe.”

The girl answered:

“It has never raked the muck,
my prowler, my Kári, and corry-roe.”

The one at the window said:

“What a pretty eye you have,
my quick one, my keen one, and diddly-doe.”

And the girl shot back:

“Never has it evil seen,
my prowler, my Kári, and corry-roe.”

The answer came from the window:

“What a pretty foot you have,
my quick one, my keen one, and diddly-doe.”

To which the girl replied,

“It has never trod in filth,
my prowler, my Kári, and corry-roe.”

From the voice at the window came:


“Day is dawning in the east,
my quick one, my keen one, and diddly-doe.”

And the girl within replied,

“Stay and turn to stone,
but be of harm to no one,
my prowler, my Kári, and corry-roe.”

Then the being disappeared from the window. In the morning when the farm people returned, a huge boulder was found in the alley between the farm buildings, and it has remained there ever since.

The girl recounted everything that had happened during the night. It appeared that it had been a night-troll that spoke to her through the window.



Picture credit: The Night Troll At the Window by Asgrimur Jonsson, 1876-1958

Monday, 16 April 2012

The Golden Ages

I hope you'll forgive a little blatant self-promotion, but I'm going around this morning with a grin like a Cheshire Cat, after a couple of good friends got in touch to say my first book, Troll Fell, was given a really good shout-out on BBC Radio 4's book program, Open Book, yesterday!  Novelist and critic Amanda Craig was in conversation with Lyn Gardner and Mariella Frostrup; and the second half of the program was about 'the golden ages' of children's books, and whether or not the classic children's book, accessible to what in the US are called middle-graders and over here, more long-windedly, 'seven to eleven year olds', is currently overshadowed by teen fiction.

It's an interesting discussion with people who know their stuff - and I was thrilled to hear Amanda recommend 'Troll Fell' and its sequels (now in one volume as 'West of the Moon') as one of the best reads for the age group. Yay! 

I think children aged seven to eleven or twelve or so ARE at a golden age - I love doing talks to them, they are so enthusiastic and receptive and just generally fun - and I agree with Amanda and Lyn that there has been more than one Golden Age of books written for them.  But listen for yourselves! 

Click here to go to the programme.  The whole thing is worth listening to, but it's the last ten minutes which concern childrens' book, so it you want to concentrate on that, you can slide the cursor along. 

Meanwhile I can't wipe that smile off my face.


Friday, 13 April 2012

Rumpelstiltskin and the power of names


 by Inbali Iserles



In the tale of Rumpelstiltskin, a mill owner boasts to the king of his daughter’s talent for spinning straw into gold. Presumably he utters this fib in a moment of reckless abandon, consumed with ambition and the desire to please. Why the king believes him is another question. Avarice and hubris rub shoulders thickly. So the mill owner’s daughter – beautiful, naturally, but quite lacking such talents, is set to work amid bales of straw. She must spin it into gold by morning, or perish at the king’s command. Men do not emerge well from this tale.

Yet the despairing maiden is visited by an odd little fellow. A dwarfish caliban without much to endear him, he nevertheless possesses the skill she lacks and he agrees to spin the straw into gold in exchange for her necklace. By morning, the man has gone, the room is full of gold, and the maiden is overjoyed. But the king is not satisfied: he wants more.

So the maiden is placed in a room, this time larger and with many more bales. Again she must spin them into gold, on pain of death. The little man returns to save the day, but creepily so – this is no prince on horseback, not the sort of character with whom you wish to do deals. But a deal must be struck, and the maiden offers him her ring. When the man has gone, and the room is full of gold, the king is overjoyed. But still he wants more.



Once last time the maiden is placed in a room, this time vast, with towering bales. As she wallows there, alone in her despair, the little man returns. This time she has nothing to offer him. He asks for her firstborn and the maiden agrees – thoughts of children are far from her mind. All turns out well, then, for a while. The delighted king offers his hand in marriage (the girl is of low birth but she is attractive, and she has made him rich beyond imagining). It is only later, long after the wedding festivities have concluded, that the young queen gives birth to her first child. And the little man returns to claim what is his.

Desperately the queen offers him the fortune of the kingdom, but the man will not be appeased – he longs for something living, not for the trappings of human wealth. Stirred with pity at the queen’s tears, he agrees that the she may keep the child provided that she can guess his name within three days.

The queen tries every name she knows but all to no avail. She despatches messengers across the kingdom to hunt down unusual variations. Only on the third day, moments before the little man is due to appear, a messenger returns with a peculiar tale: on the very outskirts of the kingdom, he saw someone dancing a jig around a bonfire and singing of his unusual name: Rumpelstiltskin. The jubilant queen repels the little man by uttering his name. The man stamps his foot in fury, so hard that it sinks deep within the earth. Stamping his other foot, he rips himself apart. And that is the end of Rumpelstiltskin.

Here is a story where the greedy succeed, the victim is unsympathetic (was it wise of the maiden to promise her first born?) and the villain curiously wretched. What is the message of Rumpelstiltskin if not that cheaters are winners? After all, the little man had fulfilled his side of the bargain. Couldn’t it be that he was merely seeking that human affection that was denied him in his solitary life? He is odious, of course, but tragic too. I know that my interpretation of the story is a controversial one. I was always inclined to identify with the bad guy.

What struck me most on first hearing this fairytale as a child was the power of a name. Rumpelstiltskin’s name was ultimately his undoing. As the bearer of an unusual name: my bête noir, my curse, my identity – I could empathise.

In most cultures names have symbolic meaning. They are not just labels by which we distinguish ourselves but avatars that hold a deep message, whether about our origins (Moses, in Hebrew “Moshe”, meaning “plucked out of water”), our intention for the name-bearer (Linda – “beautiful” in Spanish, Aslan – “lion” in Turkish) or a homage we pay to a deity or a saint for protecting the name-bearer.

Modern fantasy reveals a fascination with names. In The Lord of the Rings, there are names in many tongues, and ancient words hold in them the power of revelation. Most characters have multiple monikers. The shift in a hobbit-like creature to a wasted, tormented obsessive is characterised through a change of name from Smeagle to Gollum. The handsome hero of the epic is known, among other things, as Aragorn, son of Arathorn, the Dúnadan, Longshanks, Wingfoot and Strider.

Names may be dangerous and, in the world of books, their expression alone can be folly. Characters in the early Harry Potters are urged not to speak the name Voldemort, due to its perceived power, and in the later books dare not do so because of a trace placed on its utterance (Harry’s foolishness in breaking the taboo almost costs him and his friends their lives). In a world of spells, where language is gateway to untold power, a presence can be called upon by a name alone.

Invocation of this kind does not appear in Rumpelstiltskin, but another theme familiar to fantasy does. If someone knows your name – your true name – they can defeat or even rule over you. Take, for instance, the Earthsea series by Ursula K Le Guin. As the Master Namer explains: “A mage can control only what is near him, what he can name exactly and wholly.” A name, then, is the very essence of a thing. It is not simply a useful appellation by which is it known – it is the actual knowledge. Symbolically, Rumplestiskin’s name is his sacred identity. Revealing it cleaves him to his very core, taking his identity away from him.

It is probably imprudent to stray into the realm of souls, a thing’s essence, or whatever we may call it, and yet I suspect that the longing to communicate this is at the heart of creativity: the desire to be understood. If the wicked would seek to enslave us by possession of our true names, could that knowledge, shared with those we love, dismantle the barriers between human minds? Where could such insights take us, should we seek to do good? How else might poor Rumpelstiltskin have responded, had his name been invoked with love?

Inbali Iserles was born in Israel, but came to London with her family at the age of three when her father took up a post at London University. When she was eleven the family spent a year in Tucson, Arizona – she claims to have arrived a tomboy and departed well-groomed and tidy! – before returning to England, where she eventually studied at the Universities of Sussex and Cambridge before becoming a lawyer. She lives in Islington, London, with four degus - exotic rodents rescued from the RSPCA. 
 
Inbali has been an animal-lover all her life. And from childhood she has loved to write. Aged eight, she wrote a poem called ‘Rich Cat/Poor Cat’, which won a prize (I’m not allowed to reproduce it here!) – but it would take years of secret scribbling before she revisited feline themes in her first book, ‘The Tygrine Cat’ and its sequel, 'The Tygrine Cat on the Run'.

In her spare time she's a committed globetrotter, a passion that has taken her to the depths of the Amazon Rainforest and the bubbling geysers of Iceland.  In addition to her two books about the Tygrine Cat, she has written another children’s book called ‘The Bloodstone Bird’.


Picture credits: Rumpelstiltskin, Walter Crane
Rumpelstilskin, artist unknown
Rumpelstiltskin, Arthur Rackham

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Folklore Snippets - "To Catch a Nisse"

From: "Scandinavian Folklore" ed: William Craigie 1896

As every one was eager to have a nisse attached to his farm, the following plan was formerly made use of to catch one. The people went out into the wood to fell a tree. At the sound of its fall the nisses all came running as hard as they could to see how folk did with it, so they sat down beside them and talked with them about one thing and another. When the wedges were driven into the tree, it would often happen that a nisse’s little tail would fall into the cleft, and when the edge was driven out, the tail was fast and nisse was a prisoner.



Down in Bögeskov (Beech Wood) lived two poor people who, as they lay awake one night, talked of how fine it would be if a nisse would come and help them. No sooner had they said this than they heard a noise in the loft, as if someone were grinding corn. “Hallo!” said the man,“there we have him already!” “Lord Jesus, man, what’s that you say?” said the woman; but as soon as she named the Lord’s name, they heard nisse go crash out of the loft, taking the gable along with him.


Picture credit: small troll or nisse by John Bauer (d. 1918)

Friday, 6 April 2012

The Wild Swans

by Sue Purkiss



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.

Decoupage of the Wild Swans by Queen Margrethe of Denmark


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 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.

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. 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.

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 most recent book, ‘Emily’s Surprising Voyage’ is a story of Brunel’s spectacular ship the SS Great Britain, now permanently in Bristol harbour. And she is currently working on a book set in World War II.


Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Folklore Snippets - The Nidagrísur

From: "Scandinavian Folklore" ed. William Craigie, 1896

The Nidagrísur is little, thick and rounded, like a little child in swaddling clothes or a big ball of yarn, and of a dark reddish-brown colour. It is said to appear where new-born illegitimate children have been killed and buried without receiving a name. It lies and rolls about before men’s feet to lead them astray from the road, and if it gets between anyone’s legs, he will not see another year. In the field of the village of Skáli on Österö stands a stone, called Loddasa-stone, and here a nidagrísur often lay before the feet of those who went that way in the dark, until once a man who was passing and was annoyed by it, grew angry and said “Loddasi there,” upon which it buried itself in the earth beside the stone, and was never seen again, for now it had got a name.

No Nidagrisurs available online, so here's a picture by John Bauer of a changeling child reared by trolls, 1913