Showing posts with label Ursula K LeGuin. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Ursula K LeGuin. Show all posts

Friday, 29 March 2013

Fairytale princesses: tougher than you think

Fairytale princesses are still frequently written off as insipid, passive, and generally terrible role models for girls and young women. And while it’s easy enough to find counter examples of bold and brave fairytale heroines (The Master Maid, Mollie Whuppie, the girl in The Black Bull of Norroway) these do tend to be less well known, or at least nothing like as well known as the classics, the famous tales, the ones Disney picked: The Sleeping Beauty, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast.

In fact I don't happen to believe that it's the business either of literature in general, or of fairytales in particular, to provide role models.  (The business of literature is to tell stories about people, who may or may not be admirable.)  But even if it were, is the ‘insipid’ image really deserved? While it’s true that the Sleeping Beauty hasn’t much to do except await ‘true love’s kiss’, I don’t believe this is what makes the story so memorable – as I’ve said here – and I was pleased to discover Ursula K LeGuin saying much the same thing in a fine essay, ‘Wilderness Within’, in her collection ‘Cheek By Jowl’:  she quotes a short, haunting poem by Sylvia Townsend Warner:

                        The Sleeping Beauty woke:
                        The spit began to turn,
                        The woodmen cleared the brake,
                        The gardener mowed the lawn.
                        Woe’s me!  And must one kiss
                        Revoke the silent house, the birdsong wilderness?

For LeGuin, as for me: “the story is about that still centre: ‘the silent house, the birdsong wilderness’.”

As for the heroines of the other tales, they are all pretty active.  Abandoned in the forest, Snow White doesn’t lie down and die like the ‘Babes in the Wood’ but keeps going till she finds the house of the seven dwarfs, where she pays her way by working:

The dwarfs said, “Will you attend to our housekeeping for us?  Cook, make beds, wash, sew and knit?  If you like to do all this for us, and keep everything in order for us, you may stay and shall want for nothing.”
            “With all my heart,” said the child.  So she stayed, keeping everything in excellent order. The dwarfs went every day to the mountains, to find copper and gold, and came home in the evening, and then their supper had to be ready.

I can’t see anything wrong or unworthy about this bargain.  Both sides get something out of it, both are satisfied.  

Cinderella is another hard worker: grieving too, for her mother’s death: in the Grimm's version, 'Aschenputtel', the version I read as a child, there is no fairy godmother, no rats turned into coachmen, no pumpkin.  Cinderella makes her own magic. In a motif similar to that of ‘Beauty and the Beast’, she asks her father to bring her not beautiful clothes, pearls and jewels – as her stepsisters do – but ‘the first branch which knocks against your hat on the way home’. This turns out to be a hazel twig which Cinderella plants on her mother’s grave and waters with her tears, and:

A little white bird always came on the tree, and if Cinderella expressed a wish, the bird threw down to her what she had wished for.

When her stepmother throws peas and lentils into the ashes for her to pick out, Cinderella calls the birds:

“You tame pigeons, you turtle doves and all you birds beneath the sky, come and help me to pick
                                    The good into the pot
                                    The bad into the crop.”

And when the stepmother and sisters have sped away to the prince’s wedding, she goes to her mother’s grave and calls,
“Shiver and quiver, little tree,
Silver and gold throw down on me.”
Then the bird threw a gold and silver dress down to her, and slippers embroidered with silk and silver.

And so on, for the next three nights. It’s clear that Cinderella stage-manages the whole affair:

When evening came she wished to leave, and the King’s son followed her and wanted to see into which house she went.  But she sprang away from him and into the garden behind the house.  There stood a beautiful pear tree… She clambered so nimbly between the branches that the King’s son did not know where she had gone. He waited until her father came and said to him, “The unknown maiden has escaped from me and I believe she has climbed up the pear-tree. The father thought, “Can it be Cinderella?” and had an axe brought, and cut the tree down, but no one was in it.  And when they got into the kitchen, Cinderella lay there among the ashes, for she had jumped down on the other side of the tree, had taken the beautiful dress to the bird on the hazel tree, and put on her old grey gown.

This is a girl with her own mind and her own agenda.  She is a tough cookie, a girl who makes things happen. Although the tale of ‘Cinderella’ is often regarded as the archetypical ‘rags to riches’ story, it’s not, really.  A girl who can get whatever she wishes from a magical hazel tree is not ‘poor’.  In the course of the story, she gets her own back on nearly everyone.  Her father loses his pigeon house and pear tree (chopped to pieces); the stepsisters lose toes, heels and eventually their eyes, and the prince has to (a) delay his gratification and (b) put a good deal of effort into trying to find the mysterious girl he has lost his heart to.

Beauty, in ‘Beauty and the Beast’ is a similarly strong-minded young woman. The original tale by 18th century Madame de Villeneuve probably protested forced marriages - as Terri Windling puts it in another excellent essay:  "...Animal Bridegroom stories, in particular, embodied the real–life fears of women who could be promised to total strangers in marriage, and who did not know if they'd find a beast or a lover in their marriage bed."  (Beauty and the Beast", Terri Windling, Endicott Studio) And the modern, Freudian interpretation is scarcely any different, declaring the fairytale a parable about virginal female fears (Beauty  regards male sexuality as brutish and bestial, before coming to womanhood and embracing it).

Here's a slightly different take:  When her father loses all his money, Beauty rolls up her sleeves.  She works. She’s physically brave, insisting on saving her father’s life by going to live with the Beast. She’s got moral courage too: when the Beast asks, as he constantly does,

“Beauty, will you be my wife?”

she refuses, because even as she grows more and more fond of him, she is not ready to say yes.

Why aren’t we all cheering? If this is a parable about sex, it’s less about fear of sex – in most of the modern versions, Beauty loses her fear of the Beast months before the end of the story – than it is about resisting pressure, about taking the time to know your own mind.  At last - she leaves it rather late, but that’s narrative tension for you – Beauty realises that this ugly Beast is someone she truly loves. She doesn't even know he's a prince until after she's committed to him.

Finally, the whole ‘poor role model’ criticism is odder than you might think.  Is there any real danger that a little girl  (this sort of angst is always about girls) might read these fairytales and come away from them not with the message that you need hard work, faithfulness, determination and courage to succeed - but that you can loll around wearing pink satin until a prince comes to carry you away? I find that bizarre. Mainly, the princes in fairy stories are symbols of success.  How else can the tale convey it?  There aren’t that many job descriptions in the castle-studded, anonymous fairytale Wald. Cinderella, Beauty and Snow White can't  become tax lawyers or doctors or bankers or members of Parliament, any more than, in 'The Lord of the Rings', Aragorn can blast the Black Riders with a well directed burst of fire from a semi-automatic. Such things simply do not exist in their worlds.

On top of that, isn't it significant that the same disapproval and disquiet is never levelled at the many male characters in fairy stories who marry princesses?  The Brave Little Tailor, the soldier in 'The Blue Light', the soldier in 'The Twelve Dancing Princesses', the boy with the Golden Goose – no one seems to have any trouble recognising, in their tales, a royal marriage as a symbol of well-deserved worldly success. 

Who would have thought to find the double standard applied even to fairytales? What's sauce for the gander ought to be sauce for the goose.

Picture credits: 

Cinderella, Walter Crane
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Jessie Willcox Smith
Beauty and the Beast, Eleanor Vere Boyle

Friday, 28 January 2011

Fairytale Reflections (18) Inbali Iserles

Inbali Iserles 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’.  The sequel, 'The Tygrine Cat on the Run', has just been published by Walker.

One of the nice things about this Fairytale series is the wide variety of writers and books I get to talk about before the fairytale post itself. The fantasy/fairytale tradition is so flexible, so very much wider than the stereotype (of medieval-style, magic-filled alternative world). One variety which I don’t think has yet been represented in these posts is the ‘animal’ fantasy. There are numerous examples, ranging from what C.S Lewis called ‘dressed-up’ animals (Beatrix Potter, Brian Jacques) to romantic idylls of humans and animals living together (Kipling’s Jungle Books, Selma Lagerlof’s The Wonderful Adventures of Nils) to semi-naturalistic (Watership Down): the point of it all is – I suspect – to fulfil the age-old yearning to be one with the animals – to understand what they ‘say’. 

Konrad Lorenz, in his classic book about the language of animals, ‘King Solomon’s Ring’ (1950) refers to the ancient legend that wise King Solomon possessed a magical ring which gave him power to talk to the beasts. He continues that he has every reason to credit Solomon’s powers: “I can do it myself, and without the aid of magic, black or otherwise.” Further on:

The mysterious apparatus for transmitting and receiving the sign stimuli which convey moods is age-old, far older than mankind itself. In our own case, it has doubtless degenerated as our word-language developed. Man has no need of minute intention-displaying movements to announce his momentary mood: he can say it in words. But jackdaws and dogs are obliged to ‘read in each others’ eyes’ what they are about to do in the next moment. For this reason, in higher and social animals, the transmitting as well as the receiving apparatus of ‘mood-convection’ is much better developed and more highly specialised than in us humans.

Inbali tells me she got the idea for her book ‘The Tygrine Cat’ as she ‘distracted a peevish infant with an encyclopaedia of cat breeds.’ She began to imagine a rivalry between ancient feline tribes. But, unlike Brian Jacques’ fantasies, these were not to be ‘dressed-up’ animals. Her cats are cats. They live in the modern, human world. They behave and react to one another as cats naturally do. However, they can ‘speak’ to one another, and – as owners of cats sometimes suspect! – lead rich, adventurous lives under the very noses of oblivious mankind.

Mati is ‘the Tygrine Cat’, exiled princeling of a cat kingdom far away, stranded on our shores and left to fend for himself among the feral and stray cats of ‘Cressida Lock’, a vividly imagined city marketplace. Inbali has a wonderful sense of place, and Cressida Lock and the desert kingdom from which Mati comes are presented from a low-down, cats’ eye viewpoint, tactile and full of smells and noises. Moreover, the cats have their own mythology, or spirit world. It’s called Fiåney, and is the home of powerful cat spirits and forces for both good and evil. ‘The Tygrine Cat’ and its recently published sequel ‘The Tygrine Cat on the Run’ is the story of how Mati ‘comes of age’, learns to trust himself and his friends, and reclaims his lost kingdom.

In this passage, Mati enters the spirit world:

A dim light filtered through the open door of the chamber from the overhead grille. Twilight. Mati settled back in the warm chamber and closed his eyes. He waited for sleep to reclaim him. A breeze drifted through the catacombs, nudging the door to and fro. Heat rose from the base of his paws. Fiåney was calling. His whiskers trembled, than relaxed. His head felt light, his body weightless. Floating into the dream-wake, the air became a rich, indigo blue. He sensed three passages unfurling before him, tugging at him at once in different directions. He started towards the middle passage with fluid steps… Dimly, at the end, he saw a sandy hilltop with a small mound of rocks. Beyond it the sky was crimson. Mati started to approach… [then] from the passage to his left, a voice called his name – the beautiful sonorous voice of a queen.

Here's an animated Youtube trailer (created by Sarah Sellars, a talented 16 year old fan!) for The Tygrine Cat

Part of the pleasure of the books comes from Inbali’s sharp observation of cat behaviour, the ‘mysterious apparatus for transmitting and receiving sign stimuli’ of Lozentz’s remarks. As I’ve already said, her cats really are cats. Here’s a moment when Pangur, leader of the Cressida Lock cats, considers Mati’s warning of danger:

Pangur sat in silent thought for a moment, studying the catling. His ears were pointed forward and he seemed relaxed. Only the twitchy beats of his tail betrayed his worries.

A page later, he addresses a meeting of the cats:

“Mati’s senses are not like others. He can commune with spirits – spirits from Fiåney.” This was news to no one at Cressida Lock. Still, the cats mewed and whispered as though in surprise. Several looked at Mati, whose ears were pressed flat against his head as his tail clung to his flank. He hated the attention.

Of course – cats hate being looked at by other cats…

Inbali 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. 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’.

Besides Solomon's legendary ability to talk to the animals, the Bible has other stories.  There's Balaam's ass, miraculously given the power to speak to its owner and deliver some good advice.  And there's the archetypal myth of Adam, who names the animals as a sign of mastery over them. So it's very appropriate, I think, that Inbali, who loves animals and writes about them so well, has chosen to talk about the power of names and naming, in the fairytale -


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?

Monday, 23 August 2010

Witches (2) Witches in Children's Literature

Macbeth:  How now, you secret, black and midnight hags?  What is’t you do?
Witches: A deed without a name.

“Witch” is not a neutral word. You can have good wizards or bad wizards, it seems, and when you encounter a fictional wizard you cannot be certain what leanings he may have.  (Gandalf is good, Saruman is bad.) But the default option for a fictional witch is that she will be wicked, unless the qualifying adjective ‘white’ is used. The gender-based difference here is one of the things we were talking about last week. 

I’d actually intended most of last week’s post was to be about children’s fiction, but having begun with the witch of Endor, I ended up following a train of thought that took me off exploring the origins of our modern western notions of witches.  My own thoughts unsurprisingly turned out to be very incomplete, and I’m very grateful to all of you who commented and contributed to what turned into a fascinating discussion.  I learned a lot.

In one comment, Leslie Wilson pointed out that African witches can be men. I wonder, though, if there are translation issues here, as there were for the ‘witch’ of Endor.  Who chose ‘witch’ as the correct translation for whatever the African words for these people are?  Why did they pick ‘witch’ rather than ‘sorcerer’ or ‘shaman’?  The name you give to something affects or reflects the way you think about it.  I notice that we in the west tend to refer to African ‘tribes’, which sounds primitive.  When we refer to ourselves we speak of nations – or, on a more familial level, clans.  Was ‘witch-doctor’ a term used in disparagement?  Someone reading this may know.

But in any case, I still think the ‘wicked’ aspect of the witch is linked to male fear of female power.  Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea books turned into an almost philosophical exploration of this thought. In the first book, ‘A Wizard of Earthsea’, wonderful and complex though it is, the usual stereotypes apply, as expressed in a couple of Gontish proverbs: Weak as women’s magic or  wicked as women’s magic.  ‘Good’ women in the book are unlearned and domestic.  The others are either ignorant crones with a few half-understood cantrips and charms, or else powerful, beautiful, ambitious and ruthless.  Reading the Earthsea books through in sequence is to follow LeGuin’s impressive journey from acceptance of this stereotype, to questioning of it, to utter rejection. 

In popular usage, even in this day and age, calling a woman a ‘witch’ is never complimentary – but neither is it entirely without positive implications.  A ‘witch’ is a woman who may be perceived as (illicitly) powerful, throwing her weight about, inspiring fear or envy. (As Cherie Blair and Hilary Clinton were perceived.)  A ‘witch’ is a woman who cannot be ignored.

And in this spirit, a spirit of subversive enjoyment, I think many of the witches of children’s fiction have been conceived.  I’m going to start off with a favourite from my own childhood, out of print now for many years: Beverley Nichols’ fantasy series   for children beginning with ‘The Tree That Sat Down’.  Here we meet the unforgettable Miss Smith.  She looks like a Bright Young Thing, ‘as pretty as a pin-up girl’; she is actually three hundred and eighty-five years old; her familiars are three quite disgusting toads whom she keeps in the refrigerator; she puffs green smoke from her nostrils in moments of stress; she flies a Hoover instead of a broomstick, and she takes an energetic delight in wickedness with which the author clearly had enormous fun.  As Miss Smith walks through the wood (on her way to make trouble for little Judy and her grandmother who keep a shop in the Willow Tree),

… all the evil things in the dark corners knew that she was passing… The snakes felt the poison tingling in their tails and made vows to sting something as soon as possible.  The ragged toadstools oozed with more of their deadly slime… In many dark caves, wicked old spiders, who had long given up hope of catching a fly, began to weave again with tattered pieces of web, muttering to themselves as they mended the knots…

Miss Smith’s fetching exterior allows her to inveigle her way into all sorts of places.  For example, she deals with the evil Sir Percy Pike who preys upon widows and orphans by lending money at extortionate rates.  Miss Smith is ‘also very keen on widows and orphans’, and – driven by professional jealousy – presents herself to Sir Percy in the guise of a beautiful widow, bedizened with diamond rings.

At the sight of these rings Sir Percy began to dribble so hard that he had to take out a handkerchief and hold it over his chin. … No sooner had he shut the door, than she spat in his face, hit him sharply on the chin with the diamond rings, knelt on his chest, and proceeded to tell him exactly what she thought of him. 

You can’t help cheering – even though Miss Smith is just as bad herself.  She comes into all Beverley Nichols’ children’s books: the others are ‘The Stream that Stood Still’, ‘The Mountain of Magic’ and ‘The Wickedest Witch in the World’.  Though she is of course foiled on every occasion, hers is the energy that drives the narrative. 

Next on my list is the witch Sylvia Daisy Pouncer in John Masefield’s ‘The Midnight Folk’ (Heinemann, 1927) and – though appearing to a lesser extent – in the sequel, ‘The Box of Delights’.  Little Kay Harker is a lonely, imaginative child: the book is peopled with his imaginary friends, toys, pet cats and ancestors who may or may not be ‘really there’.  His life is ruled by the strict and over-fussy governess Miss Pouncer:

“Don’t answer me back, sir,” she said.  “You’re a very naughty, disobedient little boy, and I have a very good mind not to let you have an egg.  I wouldn’t let you have an egg, only I had to stop your supper last night.  Take off one of those slipper and let me feel it.  Come here.”
Kay went up rather gingerly, having been caught in this way more than once.  He took off one slipper and tended it for inspection.
“Just as I thought,” she said.  “The damp has come right through the lining, and that’s the way your stockings get worn out.”  In a very pouncing way she spanked at his knuckles with the slipper…

It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that at night when the Midnight Folk reign in the old house, Miss Pouncer is cast in the role of the chief witch:

There were seven old witches in tall black hats and long scarlet cloaks sitting round the table at a very good supper.  They were very piggy in their eating (picking the bones with their fingers, etc) and they had almost finished the Marsala.  The old witch who sat at the top of the table…had a hooky nose and very bright eyes.
            “Dear Pouncer is going to sing to us,” another witch said.

And Pouncer does, to great effect:

“When the midnight strikes in the belfry dark
And the white goose quakes at the fox’s bark,
We saddle the horse that is hayless, oatless,
Hoofless and pranceless, kickless and coatless,
We canter off for a midnight prowl…”
            All the witches put their heads back to sing the chorus:
“Whoo-hoo-hoo, says the hook-eared owl.”

No wonder Nibbins, Kay’s cat, exclaims, “I can’t resist this song.  I never could.” Wicked the witches may be, but once again the author relishes their energy, their subversive delight. 

Another small boy in the clutches of a powerful female is the Wart in the hands of Madam Mim, in T.H. White’s “The Sword in the Stone”.  This passage was cut from “The Once and Future King” – perhaps White thought it was too burlesque for the soberer, more epic quality of the longer work?  (The witch of “The Once and Future King” is of course the Queen of Air and Darkness, the terrifying Queen of Orkney.)  Madam Mim is a humbler creation, but probably all too familiar to any little boy whose mother or nurse undressed him for an unwanted bath.  Madam Mim forcibly undresses The Wart with an eye to popping him in the pot and cooking him, singing a chicken-plucking song as she does so:

“Pluck the feathers with the skin
Not against the grain-oh.
Pluck the small ones out from in,
The great with might and main-oh.
Even if he wriggles, never mind his squiggles,
For mercifully little boys are quite immune to pain-oh.”

The Scots writer Nicholas Stuart Grey created another memorable witch in ‘Mother Gothel’, the desperately evil witch in “The Stone Cage” (Dobson 1963), his retelling of the fairytale Rapunzel.  Here, the fun and energy of the story belongs to the narrator, Mother Gothel’s cat Tomlyn – whose cynical and laconic style belies the fact that his heart is in the right place.  The witch herself is powerful, terrifying, slovenly, sluttish, but ultimately pathetic and redeemable. 

More wicked witches next week – this time, some of the darker and more serious treatments.

Monday, 19 July 2010

On Making

In Chaucer’s time, the word for a poet or author was ‘a maker’ - as witness the Scots poet William Dunbar’s luminous ‘Lament for the Makers’, in which he lists poet after poet taken by ‘the strong unmerciful tyrant’, death:

‘He has done piteouslie devour
The noble Chaucer, of makers flower;
The Monk of Bery, and Gower all three:
Timor mortis conturbat me.’

(In fact, damn it, go and read the poem first, and come back and read this after you’ve done.)

‘Maker’: I’ve always liked it. It’s less high-falutin’ than ‘author’ or ‘poet’: it links us inextricably – as we ought to be linked – with every other sort of human creativity. People make furniture. They make paintings, musical instruments and gardens. They make brain scanners, television programmes and films. They make homes. They make love – which as Ursula K Le Guin once wrote in the ‘The Lathe of Heaven’ (go and read that too), ‘doesn’t just sit there like a stone; it has to be made, like bread; re-made all the time, made new.’ None of these things (furniture, gardens, brain scanners etc) just happen. You can’t make anything worth having without a lot of effort. I should know, because I spent days this summer digging bindweed roots (thick, white, snappy coiling things) out of the rosebed.  And last year I had to do exactly the same thing.  But if I didn't, the garden would disappear under the weeds, and a garden is a lovesome thing, God wot. 

My brother and I were part of the 'Blue Peter' generation (for North American readers, 'Blue Peter' was and is a much-loved and long-running children's TV show, showcasing an idiosyncratic mixture of outdoor adventure, topical interest, pets, cookery and model-making).  My brother was fantastic at making things out of Squeezy bottles and cornflakes packets. He went on to construct balsa wood planes that really flew, and can now turn his hand to just about anything, including boats, house extensions, and beautiful, glossy musical instruments like this mandola. He’s also an accomplished folk musician who can compose his own tunes.

Me, I tried. I longed to own a model sailing ship, so I made my own very ugly one out of balsa wood, and painted it yellow. It had so many holes in the hull, it would have sunk like a stone, but I made it and loved it till it was squashed flat in a house removal. I wanted to own an exquisite piece of Chinese embroidery I’d seen, smothered in birds and flowers – so I got a bit of frayed blue satin and laboriously stitched away at a puckered, lumpy, clumsy bird.

I wanted a miniature Chinese garden like one I’d read about in a book – so I borrowed a tray and arranged gravel and stones and moss around a tin lid (for the pool) and stood some china ornaments around it till the moss dried and the tray got knocked over. Oh, and I wanted an eighth Narnia book, so I got an old blue notebook and wrote my own. (You can see it here if you like.) And though none of the things I made may have been any good (by some ultimate critical standard), it was the making of them that counted.

While I was still at school, teachers and other random adults would sometimes remind us that 'it doesn't matter if you win or lose, it's how you play the game'.  It did matter if we won or lost (and those same adults secretly thought so, and we knew it) so we didn't pay too much attention.  Still, the moral was well meant.  For winning or losing is pointless unless you already care about the game. I was no good at sports, didn't enjoy the game, and therefore neither cared nor tried: but sometimes now, if I'm talking to children in schools about writing, I tell them it's very much like practising a sport.  You can have talent and do nothing with it.  Or you can have talent and enjoy writing as a hobby.  Or you can have talent, and practise regularly, and study technique, and with a bit of luck thrown in you may become a professional.  Even in today's celebrity culture, children readily understand that you don't get to play for Manchester United, or in the Men's or Women's Finals at Wimbledon, without putting in a lot of hard work.  (Maybe that's why sportsmen and women are so revered.)  But it's all right to do things as well as you can.  We should let ourselves off sometimes.  Children (and adults) need to remember that it's all right not to play football as well as David Beckham.  We have the right to enjoy doing things at our own level.

For me, the writing is what has lasted.  I'm never likely to become an embroiderer or woodcarver.  But it’s all making, and any child who hammers a nail in straight, paints a picture or bakes brownies knows how good it feels. 

Here’s a poem by Robert Bridges which I learned by heart when I was about nine. It says, so beautifully, exactly what I feel.

I love all beauteous things,
I seek and adore them.
God hath no better praise,
And Man in his hasty days
Is honoured for them.

I too will something make,
And joy in the making,
Although tomorrow it seem
Like the empty words of a dream,
Remembered on waking.

Sunday, 20 June 2010

Other Worlds

This will be the first of two posts about other worlds in children’s and YA fiction – about fantasy worlds; the sort of magical countries many children invent for themselves as refuges and playgrounds for the imagination. In this post I want to discuss the three classic fantasy worlds I entered as a child: in the next, I’d like to take a wander around some of the more recent ones.  (There's no way I can fit them all into one piece.) 

And I’m not talking about Elfland - which is a place no one invented, a place which in spite of its various glamours is always itself and always the same.  I’m talking about complete, self-contained worlds like Middle Earth which seem – in their own terms – solidly real. 
Of course the first such world to come my way was Narnia, a place which shares one characteristic with Elfland, in that it’s possible to get there from here.  I certainly wasn’t the only child to half-believe Narnia might really exist.  I don’t think I peered into wardrobes (though we had several that might have modelled for the one in the picture), but at the age of nine or ten my best friend and I longed terribly to get into Narnia ourselves – to wander through the woods talking to dryads, to sail those magical seas... 
...when they returned aft to the cabin and supper, and saw the whole western sky lit up with an immense crimson sunset, and thought of unknown lands on the Eastern rim of the world, Lucy felt that she was almost too happy to speak.
Lewis believed such longing was a common human experience; for him it suggested the existence of God, and I think he believed at least one of the purposes of art was to create a yearning for something above and beyond this world.   Whether he was right or not, I do know that he was enough of an artist to create a powerful yearning in many of his own readers.  I longed for Narnia at least as much as I longed for a pony of my own; and both desires, at the age of ten, could compare in strength of feeling and emotional highs and lows, with being in love. 

Having gobbled up the last of the Narnia books, I began writing my own.  (It was the next best thing to getting there.)  “Tales of Narnia”, I called it, and filled an old hardbacked exercise book with stories and pictures based on hints Lewis had left in the Seven Chronicles: “The Story of King Gale”, “Queen Camillo”, “The Seven Brothers of Shuddering Wood”, “The Lapsed Bear of Stormness”.  (You can see more of it here.) And I copied out Pauline Baynes’ map of Narnia in loving detail.  There it all was, as if looking down from an eagle’s eyrie:  the indented east coast with Glasswater Creek and Cair Paravel; Archenland to the south; Dancing Lawn and Aslan’s Howe and Lantern Waste in the centre of the map; Harfang and Ettinsmoor to the north.  Looked at in realistic terms, I suppose the map is really pretty sparse, but it didn’t matter.  Narnia isn’t the sort of fantasy world in which one worries about economics, transport, coinage, or supply and demand.  In fact, as soon as any of the characters start thinking in those terms themselves (Miraz, for example, or the governor of the Lone Islands) they get into trouble.  (“We call it ‘going bad’ in Narnia,” as Caspian magnificently remarks.)  Narnia self-corrects in that respect: it will allow the existence of a Witch Queen who rules over a century of winter, but it will not permit the existence of taxation and compulsory schooling.  This can hardly be because Lewis disapproved of taxation and compulsory schooling.   It’s because Narnia is a child’s world, and no ideal world for children is going to include anything so dull.
People talk a lot nowadays about the Narnia stories as religious allegories.  They really aren’t.  There is Christian symbolism in the books, but that is not at all the same thing. And it went clean over my head as a child.  Indeed, talking to some teenage Muslim girls lately, I got surprised looks when I mentioned the Christianity in the Narnia stories.  They hadn’t noticed it either; I had to explain why, how Aslan is a parallel to Christ.  I think Lewis, who only came to Christianity through stories, actually minded more about the story than the allegory.  It’s perfectly possible for a child to read “The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe” under the impression that Aslan is no more and no less than the literal account makes him: a wonderful, golden-maned, heroic Animal. I know, because that’s the way I read it, and that is why I loved him – the Platonic Form of the Lion, if you like, though I couldn’t have put it in those terms.  “The Last Battle”, in which the Christian parallels become more explicit, is far less popular with children, because everything goes wrong, and Narnia ceases to be, and Aslan turns into Someone Else: “And as He spoke, He no longer seemed to them like a lion...”  What?  What?  I didn’t want the new heaven and the new earth and the new, improved Narnia, thank you very much.  I wanted the old one, and Aslan the Lion, and things to go on as they always had. 
After Narnia, then where?  Luckily for us all, there was Middle Earth waiting to be explored.  Aged about nine, I’d paid a brief visit via “The Hobbit” and hadn’t liked the place at all.  I was sensitive to tone, and detected a certain flippancy and condescension in Tolkien’s writing.  Those elves at Rivendell, singing silly songs in the trees: “Oh tra-la-la-lally, come back to the valley,” indeed!  And the grumbling, cowardly, squabbling dwarves weren’t at all the sort of people I liked to be fictionally associated with. (Needless to say, this was a personal reaction, no more.  One of my daughters adored “The Hobbit”, and reading it aloud to her as an adult, I found it more tolerable than I’d remembered…)
I might never have picked up “The Lord of the Rings” if it hadn’t been recommended to me by my maths teacher Miss Parker who found me drawing dragons in the back of my exercise book.  I admired her (she was young, with short curly hair and a cheerful smile), so dutifully sought out “The Fellowship of the Ring” in the school library, and was swept away forever.  Gone was the semi-detached air of facetious patronage I’d disliked in “The Hobbit”:  here was a self-consistent written world that took itself entirely seriously. 
There was no way of getting there from here, no view from the outside.  If Middle Earth is connected with ours at all, it’s far away in the depths of time.  It’s a bigger, more grown-up place than Narnia, and an advantage of the quest theme is that we get to travel through it, solving one of the big problems with fantasy and sci-fi worlds:  Worlds are huge places, and one spot cannot be representative of all.  The length of the book ensures the sense of scale, too: travelling on foot, or at best by boat or on horseback, it takes the characters a realistically long time to get anywhere.  The detail of the journey is part of the pleasure: fantasies in which deserts, ice-caps, jungles and seas flash by at bewildering speed give me motion sickness.
Instead Tolkien loiters and lingers through the woods of the Shire: 
...after a time the trees began to close in again... then deep folds in the ground were discovered unexpectedly, like the ruts of great giant-wheels or wide moats and sunken roads long disused and choked with brambles.  These lay usually right across their line of march, and could only be crossed by scrambling down and out again, which was troublesome and difficult with the ponies. Each time they climbed down they found the hollow filled with thick bushes and matted undergrowth...
This richness of visual, almost tactile detail is what makes the world of “The Lord of The Rings” so particularly actual and real.  You feel you could dig a hole in the ground.  And note how Tolkien uses description to make us feel uneasy: those “sunken roads long disused”, who made them?  When, and for what purpose?  Though we never find out, I’m willing to bet that Tolkien knew, and it is such small touches that build up the sense of Middle Earth as a place with a deep and often unsettling past. 
Is it odd that the things which make a fantasy seem most real are the things borrowed from our own world?  Narnia often seems like a glorified Britain: those sunny woodlands with their ranks of blossoming cherries, those bright coves with their sea-splashed rocks, those dour rocky highlands patched with snow.  Middle Earth is a sort of ur-Europe, with its mountain ranges and plains and forests, all in the temperate zone.  (For some thoughts about Mordor, see my post here.) We hear vaguely of hot southern lands in both fantasies, and neither Lewis nor Tolkien treats the south fairly.  Calormen is an ‘Arabian Nights’ fantasyland, and Lewis avowedly hated the Arabian Nights.   (It’s probably unwise to try writing about something you hate, and no amount of special pleading can quite let him off the hook.  If you doubt this, imagine trying to explain to someone from Turkey or Iran, why this place whose entire idiom and setting is clearly based on an imaginary Baghdad, also includes the worship of Tash and a character like the Tisroc?)  Tolkien’s dark-skinned southerners (“swarthy men in red” with “black plaits of hair” and “brown hands”) from Far Harad are in league with Sauron.  In either case, the south is viewed as a place of delusion and error, of false opinions and false gods.  Though I noticed this as a child, I did not recognise it as prejudice.  Children accept things in books at face value.  This is why it is important to think about what they are being offered.   I certainly noticed – again without any sense of being taught a lesson – that the people in the next fantasy world I visited were all dark-skinned – except for the outlandish and savage Kargs. 
The island of Gont, a single mountain that lifts its peak a mile above the storm-racked North-east Sea, is a land famous for wizards.
So begins Ursula K LeGuin’s “A Wizard of Earthsea”, the third in the triumvirate of imaginary worlds I discovered as a child.  The Earthsea books aren’t a polemic.  They are not satire: white readers are not supposed to see themselves in the Kargs, like the Yahoos in Gulliver’s Travels.  LeGuin simply upends convention and supposes that for once, the ‘savages’ have white skin and blue eyes.  Here is a strength of fantasy, the chance to see and do things differently: how often is it taken advantage of?  I think writers often discover their own fantasy lands a bit at a time.  LeGuin began the Earthsea books by asking questions about wizards: must they always be old, like Gandalf and Merlin, with long white beards?  Why are they never young?  Gradually these questions led to others.  Why are wizards always male, anyway?  What is it about wisdom, that we always picture it in this male form?  Where do women come into it all?  When, eventually, Ged relinquishes his wizard’s power, he grows in wisdom and humanity. 
Once again there was a map, this time of islands like jigsaw pieces scattered across the sea. The Archipelago, with Havnor in the middle, the East Reach and the Kargad Lands; the West Reach, Pendor, and the Dragon’s Run.  Perhaps even more than in Middle Earth, there was a sense of space: you could take a boat like Lookfar, and sail and sail until you sailed right out of the Archipelago into the Open Sea, and find the colonies of the Raftmen who never come to land; and beyond that, what? 
And beyond that, what?  Because in many ways, the boundary of Earthsea isn’t a physical one at all.  We don’t know whether there are other islands beyond the rim of the horizon, or where the dragons come from.  The true limit of Earthsea is the wall of tumble-down stones that separates us from the land of the dead.  Here is Ged, trying to save a dying child:
Summoning his power all at once and with no thought for himself, he sent his spirit out after the child’s spirit, to bring it back home.  He called the child’s name, “Ioeth!”  ...Then he saw the little boy running fast and far ahead of him down a dark slope, the side of some vast hill.  There was no sound.  The stars above the hill were no stars his eyes had ever seen.  Yet he knew the constellations by name: the Sheaf, the Door, the One Who Turns, the Tree.  They were those stars that do not set, that are not paled by the coming of any day.  He had followed the dying child too far.
C.S. Lewis wrote of:  “That unnameable something, desire for which pierces us like a rapier at the smell of a bonfire, the sound of wild ducks flying overhead, the title of The Well at the World’s End, the opening lines of “Kubla Khan”, the morning cobwebs in late summer...”
Is it longing?  Or is it more simply a pang of mingled delight and pain: sic transit gloria mundi?  You can cram all things into a book.  There’s a fairytale (which A.S. Byatt retold in “Possession”) about someone who goes underground and discovers a miniaturised enchanted castle under a glass dome.  Fantasy worlds are a bit like that: little bottled universes that we can hold up to the light and use to examine huge questions about life and death and loss and the beauties and cruelties of the world.