Do forgive a short fanfare! My book of essays on fairy tales, ‘Seven Miles of Steel Thistles’, is once again available from Amazon in paperback and e-book. Originally published in 2016 by the Greystones Press, it received some lovely reviews... ‘Highly readable, sharply perceptive, it will appeal to absolutely everyone fascinated by the staying-power of folk tales, fairy tales and ballads,’ said Kevin Crossley-Holland, while Terri Windling called it ‘One of the very best books I’ve read this year … insightful, reliable, packed with information .. and thoroughly enchanting.’
Sadly the Greystones Press closed in 2020, so the rights reverted to me. Rather a lot of other things also happened in 2020, as we all know: plus I was writing a book about the Narnia stories (‘From Spare Oom to War Drobe: Travels in Narnia’: Darton Longman & Todd, 2021), so with one thing and another it’s taken me till now to get this earlier book out and about again.
I’m delighted to have managed it. During the year it was written I was looking after my mother, then in her 90s and very frail, though spirited, brave and indomitable. She died soon after it was published, and the book is dedicated to a beloved friend who helped care for her.
Traditional fairy tales can be good things to read in difficult times. They can take you through dark places and out the other side. They’re not naïve; they recognise how hard life can be – and the ‘happy ending’ is often no more than a way to signify that the story’s over. You think ‘The Sleeping Beauty’ ends with the prince and princess getting married? Not in Charles Perrault’s version, which goes on to tell how the prince’s wicked mother accuses the princess of killing her own babies. Fairy tales tell of jealousy, cruelty, avarice, trickery and murder: they also tell of loyalty, love, self-sacrifice, endurance, justice and hope.
I found release in writing this book – in asking whether heroines such as Cinderella, Snow White and Beauty (she of the Beast) are really so passive, and celebrating feisty characters like Norway’s magic-working Mastermaid, and the gallant Lady Mary of the English fairy tale ‘Mr Fox’. I wrote about Irish legends and fairy tales, Scottish folk-tales – the Orkney ballad ‘The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry’ – ghostly White Ladies and their ancestry as Teutonic goddesses – enchanted Wishing Tables, Japanese fox-spirits, otherworld brides, lost Kings of fairyland, and more.
If it sounds like your sort of thing, I hope you’ll enjoy it. I'll be posting one of the essays from the book later in the week as a taster, but in the meantime thankyou for reading this! And I'll leave you with a poem. (There are a couple of others in the book, but not this one.)
‘Oh Tam Lin –
If I had known of this night’s deed
I would have torn out your two grey eyes
And put back in two eyes of tree.’
So said the faery queen that night on the road
when I quenched my love in the peat pool,
but that was not the end of it.
For winter nights, the Sithe shriek round the house,
calling down the chimney like a black wind
plucking the slates away: ‘Come back, Tam Lin!
You who gave a girl a rose from the briar bush!
The heart’s fire dwindles. Do you remember Elf-hame?
And my love, my love throws back the blanket,
and I grip his arm as I gripped the red-hot iron
in unflinching hands.
‘Tam Lin, can you bear to grow old?
Do you remember the land of young apples?
What have you lost? What have you gained, Tam Lin,
but aches and agues, toothlessness and death?’
howl the voices down the chimney.
They always bring a night of storm, and all
my paternosters cannot turn them away.
‘Come wind, come rain,
beat on this house until the lintels weep,
beat on this house until the candles quiver
and cold draughts whip under the door and blow
over the floor, cross currents of unease.
Let him feel mortal!’
I could bear all this.
Only, my youngest boy came in today,
with a rose in his hand. ‘Who gave you that?’ said I.
‘O mother,’ said he, ‘a lady in the brakes
of Carterhaugh. Her kirtle green as grass,
with silver chains that tinkled as she walked.’
‘Your son shall come to me, Janet,
In yon green hill to dwell.
Your son shall be my knight, Janet,
And he shall serve me well.
‘His eyes shall be of wood, Janet,
Cut from an alder tree,
And you may keep Tam Lin, Janet,
For he’s too old for me.’
It’s a cruel price.
I would sooner have died in giving birth to him.
I would sooner my love rose and went out to them.
Oh Queen of Fays,
If I had known of this day’s deed –
I would have let your knight, Tam Lin,
ride down to Hell on his milk-white steed.
© Katherine Langrish 2016
'Herald' - by John D. Batten
'Tam Lin' - by James Herbert McNair (1868-1955)