Thursday 25 February 2010

An Australian Perspective - Kate Forsyth talks about writing fantasy

You're an Australian writer, so why were you drawn to write a book set mainly in Scotland and referring to so much Scottish history and folklore?

Even though my family has lived in Australia for generations, it is the old stories of Scotland and the UK that I was brought up on. My great-great-grandmother was born in Scotland and emigrated to Australia as a young girl. She had not wanted to come, and that might explain why she looked backwards to her past so much. She was by all accounts a grand storyteller, and used to tell her children lots of stories about Scottish ghosts and fairies and giants, and all about Scottish history. Her children told her children, and they told me (the novel is dedicated to my grandmother and great-aunts, who were the ones who began my lifelong fascination with Scotland). I've always loved history and fairytale, and so I loved listening to their stories. And then they began to give me books and stories to read, about Mary, Queen of Scots or Bonnie Prince Charlie. I have a wonderful old book on my shelf called 'In Search of Scotland' that my great-aunt Clarice gave to me when I was about 11, filled with old black-and-white photos and old maps and bits of history and poems and fairytales. I loved it.

I can't imagine 'The Puzzle Ring' being set in any other country but Scotland. It seemed very right to me that I should use all the old tales my grandmother told me in this way. I have set one of my books in Australia,and in the same way I can't imagine it being set anywhere else. (That book is called 'Full Fathom Five' and can only be bought in Australia or from an Australian internet bookstore like ).

What, for you, is the attraction of writing fantasy?

There are a number of things that draw me to writing fantasy. Firstly, I love to read books that are filled with magic and adventure and mystery and suspense, and I naturally want to write what I love to read. Secondly,fantasy draws its inspiration from the deep well of history, mythology and fairytale, and they have always been my great passions, ever since I was a young child. My great-aunts had a wonderful set of old children's encyclopedias called 'The World of Wonder - 10,000 Things A Child Should Know.' I used to pore over them as a child, and my favourite chapters were always the ones entitled 'Romance of British History'.  I still have those old books - my Aunty Gwen gave them to me when I was about 12 since I loved them so much (you can probably tell from this that I spent a great deal of time at my great-aunts - that's because my mother worked and we were sent to stay there most school holidays).

And finally, I love writing fantasy because it is a literature of transcendence. Jane Yolen wrote: 'For adults, the world of fantasy books returns to us the great words of power that, in order to be tamed, have been excised from our adult vocabularies .. These words are: Good. Evil. Courage. Honour. Truth. Hate. Love. They are a litany, a charm so filled with power we hardly dare say them. Yet with these magical words, anything is possible: the transformation of human into beast, dead into living, night into day, year now into year then or year 3000. They are the stuff of which our visions are woven, the warp and weft of our crafted dreams.' I love this quotation because it expresses something I feel very deeply and passionately - the power of words and stories, and the importance of opening our minds and imagination up and outwards. To me fantasy fiction does this better than any other kind of art.

A number of American fantasy writers have taken faeries derived from European folklore and set up them up very successfully in New York or Chicago - the 'urban faeries'. Is there a comparable modern Australian fantasy genre?

Oh yes. Fantasy fiction in Australia is as diverse as anywhere else, though on a much smaller scale. It's not always European folklore, either. Kylie Chang, an Australian author, has done a brilliant series of urban fantasy novels based on the premise that the ancient Chinese gods are alive and living in the modern world. And Kim Wilkins, one of my all-time favourite writers, writes amazing books which parallel the stories of a contemporary heroine with a dark and suspenseful story set in the past. Not all of them are set in Australia - my favourite, 'Ruin of Angels' parallels the story of an Australian girl living in London with the story of one of Milton's daughters. Another, 'The Autumn Castle' draws upon German fairytales.

Who are your favourite Australian fantasy writers?

I just love Kim Wilkins, Juliet Marillier, Garth Nix, Lian Hearn, Pamela Freeman, Alison Croggon - they are writing world-class fantasy and forging a place for themselves on the international stage.

So which writers have been your inspiration?

I read so much and love the work of so many writers this is difficult for me to answer. I guess the writers I read when I was between 9 and 13 are the ones who influenced me the most. These would be Susan Cooper, Ursula le Guin and the Wizard of Earthsea, Elizabeth Goudge, Joan Aiken, Lucy Boston, Eleanor Farjeon, Enid Blyton, Nicholas Stuart Grey, Lloyd Alexander - so many wonderful writers. I have on my website a page dedicated to my favourite writers - there are more than a hundred there! Adult writers whose work I love include Tracey Chevalier, Joanne Harris, Geraldine Brooks, Isabel Allende and other writers of historical fiction, plus fantasy writers like Susanna Clarke, Sarah Zettel and Robin Hobb.

Patricia Wrightson wrote fantasies based on Native Australian legends, which I read and loved as a child, but I've heard that more recent Australian writers of European descent are wary of accusations of cultural appropriation. Would you ever consider writing a fantasy set in Australia, and if you did, would you include any Native Australian elements?

I love Patricia Wrightson! I have her autograph. When I was 11 I won a writing competition and the prize was to go the Children's Book Council of Austalia lunch to celebrate the 1978 Book of the Year Awards. I was privileged enough to sit next to Patricia Wrightson, which struck me dumb as she was one of my favourite authors. I remember being very disappointed when they brought out my lunch, giving me a very small serve of chicken nuggets and chips, when all the adults were eating steak and baked potato and salad which I would've much preferred. Patricia Wrightson must have seen my disappointed face because she told me they had given her far too much food, and would I mind helping her finish her meal as she didn't wish to be rude. She then heaped my plate with half of her serving, much to my delight. She chatted to me very kindly all through the meal, and then gave me her autograph which I still treasure.

Patricia Wrightson won the 1978 Book of the Year Award for 'The Ice Is Coming', the first in her Wirrun trilogy which tells the epic journey of an Aboriginal boy in search of an ancient earth-spirit who can help discover why the land is changing. Patricia Wrightson had also drawn upon Aboriginal myth and folklore for earlier books such as 'The Nargun and the Stars' and 'An Older Kind of Magic', but the Wirrun trilogy is the first time that her hero was Aboriginal himself, and it was far grander in scale and purpose.

In 1986 she became the only Australian to ever be awarded the Hans Christian Anderson Award for Writing, sometimes called 'the Little Nobel' because of its high international regard.

In 1989, she published 'Baylet', her last book to drawn upon what she called 'the folk-spirits of the Australian Dreamtime'. I was studying children's literature at Macquarie University at the time, and remember passionate and angry discussions about cultural appropriation and the problem of the ownership of stories. There was great controversy in academic circles about Patricia Wrightson's use of Aboriginal motifs, despite her careful research and what I think was great sensitivity. All of her books were dropped from school reading lists and university courses all over Australia. She went from being our most celebrated children's author to being shunned. She wrote very little else, And all of her books are now out-of-print (I collect them, so my children have a chance to read them!)

Since I was at university at the time, and a passionate advocate of her work, and desperately wanting to be a writer, the controversy had a deep impact on me. At the time I was writing the novel that was later published as 'Full Fathom Five'. It had an Aboriginal character in it and drew upon Aboriginal mythology. I was not able to get it published, even though it was longlisted for the Vogel Award twice (a prestigious prize for young unpublished authors in Australia). Some years later I re-wrote it completely, drawing upon Shakespeare and the 'Little Mermaid' fairytale instead, and it was accepted for publication. The only problem my editor had with the manuscript was I had retained some of the use of Aboriginal mythology. They were very concerned about that, and it was only when I wrote to the Aboriginal Centre in that area and was given permission to use the Dreamtime story in question that they allowed me to retain it.

So, yes, we are very aware in Australia of the dangers of cultural appropriation, and in being careful not to trespass lightly on a mythology that has deep significance to the culture of Australian Aborigines. That said, I have an idea for a story set in Sydney which would draw upon the local history and culture of the local Gayamaygal people. I'm sure I shall write it one day.

Fantasy is sometimes accused of being a form of escapism. How would you respond? 

Why is escapism a perjorative? I think all the best works of art are those that life you out of your own world for a while, and let you travel in other times, in other places, in other people's shoes. I think the most important reason to read at all is for pleasure. And of all forms of fiction, fantasy is the one most likely to engage with the deep ontological questions of humanity, such as the nature of good and evil, fate and self-will. But because these big subjects are dealt with through metaphor and symbol and archetype, because they are wrapped up in all the glamour of a magical adventure story, they work at a deeper, more subversive level. As Philip Pullman has said 'Thou shalt not' is soon forgotten, but 'Once upon a time' lasts forever.

Many of the Scottish landscapes and journeys in The Puzzle Ring are lovingly described. Did you visit Scotland to research your book? 

I did indeed. I have longed to go to Scotland all my life, and my husband says I wrote 'The Puzzle Ring' just to ahve an excuse to go there! It was just as wild and mysterious as I had ever imagined. We stayed in a real 14th century castle near Gatehouse of Fleet, a place where John Knox himself had once stayed. Then we had four nights in a cottage on the shores of Loch Lomond, in the grounds of Arden House which is a grand old Scottish baronial mansion that helped me visualise what Wintersloe Castle might have looked like... and the kids and I all wished we could live there!

We spent the days driving round Scotland going to all the places that appear in The Puzzle Ring - the fairy mountain Schiehallion; the whirlpool known as the Hag's Washtub; and the village of Fortingall where a five-thousand-year-old yew tree grows. We drove over the Rannoch Moor to Glencoe, a place that looks as if it has not changed in a thousand years, and along the sea road to the Isle of Skye, where we occasionally saw the most extraordinary mountain crags looming out of the mist and rain. We stayed in a fantastic old house with antlers and tiger heads on the floor, and an elephant's foot being used as an umbrella stand in the front hall. You can be sure that'll crop up in a story one day!

Three days staying in an old monastery on the shores of Loch Ness was definitely a highlight of the trip, particularly as the rain cleared and we had some beautiful warm, spring sunshine. We went monster-hunting, and ate some great Scottish cuisine in the local pubs, and then headed to Edinburghfor a few more days.

I loved Edinburgh! I think it's one of my favourite cities in the world. One of the highlights was the Beltane celebrations on Calton Hill. We listened to a wonderful Scottish storyteller who told us that Calton Hill was once believed to be a gateway to fairyland. This solved a massive problem I had with the plot of 'The Puzzle Ring' and so it turned into one of the best nights we had in Scotland (though we still cannot get over all the mad Celts with their bare arms and bare legs in the freezing cold of a Scottish evening).

Why do you write for children?

I write for all age groups. I have picture books, books for early readers and independent readers, books for young adults and adults. You can read me from birth to death. To me, each story has its own shape and structure, and its own audience. I knew before I wrote a single word of 'The Puzzle Ring' that I was writing for children aged 10, 11 and 12. It demanded to be a children's book. The story I am writing now could be nothing else but for teenagers aged 13 and above. I am planning to write a retelling of the Rapunzel story and I know, without a doubt, that it is a novel for adults. I don't know how I know this, I just do. I think what I'm doing is writing for all the different ages and stages of myself. When I was a child, I desperately wanted to write the sort of books I so loved to read, books written for children. And then I grew to be an adult, and I wanted to write for the person I was as a grown-up. I do have favourite audiences. I love writing for this 10+ age group the most, I think because they still have a sense of wonder but are old enough to have a more sophisticated story with more sophisticated language. I love writing for adults too, I love being able to go a little deeper and a little darker.

Kate's blog tour continues tomorrow at bookworminginthe21stcentury

Wednesday 24 February 2010

The Puzzle Ring

“All her life Hannah had longed for magical adventures – to ride a unicorn, to find a dragon’s egg, to rub a lamp and conjure a genie.  Never had she expected a toad would spit an enchanted stone at her feet.  But then, she had never expected to discover she was the lost great-granddaughter of a countess either.”

Kate Forsyth is a well-known Australian fantasy author, but I have to confess this is the first of her books I’ve read.  This is also the first book review I've done on this blog - so two firsts at once, then.  I loved the story, and I think you will too. In fact I defy anyone not to want to read on after the opening line: “Hannah Rose Brown was not quite thirteen years old when she discovered her family was cursed.”

It’s got so many echoes of stories I adored as a child.  Wouldn’t you love to find out that, instead of plain Hannah Brown, you were really Lady Hannah Rose, heir to a Scottish castle?  Wouldn’t you love to have a bedroom in a tower?  Wouldn’t you love to meet a grandmother you never knew you had, unravel clues from cryptic diaries, discover magical secrets, find your way into the Hollow Hills, ride a water horse and meet Mary Queen of Scots?

Of course you would, or why are you visiting this blog?

The enchantment combines wildness and charm in a way that reminded me in places of Elizabeth Goudge’s classic ‘The Little White Horse’ – and Forsyth’s description of Hannah’s delightful tower room with its diamond-paned windows kicked off my reverie about magical rooms, a few posts back. 

The book begins in Australia but soon shifts to modern Scotland, where young Hannah – a determined and characterful girl – throws herself wholeheartedly into solving the mysteries of her new-found past.   Her father disappeared on the day she was born, and a curse has dogged her family ever since the fairy bride of one of her ancestors was burned as a witch in the 16th century.  Things can only be put right if the four parts of the Puzzle Ring are found and rejoined.

It’s a nice touch that Hannah is already a fantasy fan (unlike her sceptical scientific mother), and therefore able to take very much in her stride the magical phenomena that occur once she begins living at Wintersloe Castle, such as a goblin cat, and a toad which coughs up a mysterious stone ring or ‘hag-stone’. The hagstone gives Hannah fairy sight whenever she looks through it, and pretty soon, with the help of three new friends, she is journeying through the fairy hill and into the wild past.  Here, for a couple of chapters, the book feels rather more like historical fiction than fantasy as the plot takes in the Kirk o’ Fields murder of Queen Mary’s husband Lord Darnley.  But it’s all very exciting, and the fantasy elements soon return as brave Hannah plunges into the whirlpool known as the Hag’s Washtub to retrieve part of the Puzzle Ring. 

‘The Puzzle Ring’ is a splendid mixture of mystery, magic and humour.  Kate Forsyth knows her fairy lore, and there are some genuinely spine-chilling moments.  All the way through, I felt I was enjoying this book twice over – once for my grown-up self, and once for the ten-year-old me who would have curled up in a corner and read it over and over again.

Kate's been doing a brilliant blog tour.  Yesterday she could be found at Tales of Whimsy - and tomorrow she will be my guest here, at Seven Miles of Steel Thistles, answering my questions about Australian fantasy and the background to her own writing.  I know some of her answers are going to be very thought-provoking.  Do come and find out what she has to say.

The Puzzle Ring by Kate Forsyth, is published in the UK by Scholastic, ISBN 978 1407 10284 9

Tuesday 23 February 2010

Shining a light into the dark

If you are a writer, have you ever kept a diary?  I'm guessing you have. I started one when I was nine. “Mrs Butler’s school,” runs the first entry, “went to Stump Cross Caverns. We went down a long flight of steps and it was quite dark. Some tunnels were borded [sic] up. It felt strange being so far below the ground. There were many stalactites.”
Not very descriptive, but although the entry is pretty laconic, I reckon I was impressed. Impressed enough to want to record it. Anyway, I’ve been going underground in fiction ever since – in ‘Troll Fell’ and ‘Troll Mill’, and in my latest book 'Dark Angels' ('The Shadow Hunt' in the States).  I’m actually rather claustrophobic, but I do find caves fascinating. Each time I write about them I head off underground to collect first-hand impressions: for Dark Angels this meant a crawl - literally - down a Roman lead-mine in Shropshire: the entrance tunnel was approximately two feet high. It was wet, stony, uncomfortable, and of course unlit; and I wasn’t at all sure I could do it. But I did. I sat there in the dark and wrote (on a notebook I couldn't see) scrawled and broken sentences about what I could feel and smell and hear.  And I swore to myself that there would be no cheating this time – no writing about magical lights or mysterious phosphorescence. Unless they took candles along with them, my characters would be in the dark.

It’s interesting (to me at least) that this fascination with caves started so long ago. I’ve kept a diary on and off ever since, and in my early twenties recorded a number of conversations with a guy I worked with, who belonged to the Cave Rescue. He was for ever being hauled out of bed at 2 am to go down pot-holes and drag out people who had got stuck. Sometimes they were alive, sometimes they most definitely weren’t. One night the team was called out to rescue an eighteen-year old girl from a university club who’d fallen down a ninety foot pitch. 

“When we looked at her” (he told me) “we could see that if we moved her we were going to kill her, so we stayed with her till the medics came down with oxygen. But even then we were still going to kill her if we moved her, and she died down there about half an hour after we reached her.
“It was pretty wet. Luckily she wasn’t very big, so it was easier getting her out – you know, it’s a pretty tight passage.” He paused. “She didn’t look very good when most people saw her. When we got to her she wasn’t so bad, because the water had washed her clean.” He paused again. “It’s going to be an awful shock for her mother.”

Strong and terse: he was shaken and emotional. I felt the emotion too, but also I was trying to learn how to write dialogue. I would go home and scribble down what I remembered. I wasn't being callous, but this is what writers do. I’m still moved by what he said - even more, if possible, now I have daughters that age myself - but I'd have forgotten about it years ago if I hadn’t written it down.
There's times when it’s handy to turn up an old diary and find something to jog the mind into action. Weather writing, for example. Me and my brother walking on the moors in the heavy winter snow of 1979:
In places the snow looked just like the surface of a clean new mushroom, white and peeling a little all over. Later, coming down the tarn road, shadows on the snow were a luminous, pale violet. 

We all think we can remember just how it felt to be young. But a diary is there as a sort of reality check. I said and wrote some things which now seem outrageous - and I'm sure, without the diary there to prove it, I'd have edited them out of my memory.  You could say that going back into old diaries is another sort of caving - delving into the past, sometimes crawling into uncomfortable places.  

When I was just sixteen I moved to a new school, and one day during an English lesson some of my new friends discovered that I wrote poetry.   For fun. I had never thought writing poetry was at all odd; but they were utterly baffled by it; and then I became baffled by their bafflement... we gaped at one another like goldfish in separate bowls.  The teacher, who was not more ten years older than us, took advantage of the moment and asked if any of the other girls in the class had ever kept diaries.  Several had.  She went on gently to suggest that writing a poem might be - in some ways - similar to keeping a diary.  A poem might distil an experience, an emotion, a feeling, in the same way that writing a diary entry could preserve a moment of the past.  Comprehension dawned on my new friends' faces, and I too had learned something.  In some odd way, one of the reasons I write is to preserve life, to create life, to shine light into the dark.  

Original Photo from North Wales Caving Club

Thursday 18 February 2010

Looking-Glass Land

I was sitting in my upstairs writing room (the tiny spare bedroom) when I saw one of our cats – the black one with the white shirt-front – trot purposefully across the road, down my opposite neighbour’s drive, and disappear into the hedge.

I found myself wondering what tales a cat could tell.  Do they construct narratives for themselves?  What does life mean to a cat? For cats lead very different lives to ours.  We hardly even live in the same house. From down on the floor, things look utterly different. The functions of objects are not the same for my cats and me.  I don’t walk on the table (neither should they, but they do); I don’t sleep on the stairs; I’m not desperate to lose myself in the garage, I'm not interested in what’s going on under the kitchen sink.  When I go out the back or front door, I don’t tense and look carefully about for enemies. 

I don’t know what my cats get up to when they go out, but I suspect it’s adventurous and epic, with dangers everywhere.  Cats that go outdoors are never bored.  And what must it be like to go up trees the way they do?  We were pruning the apple tree a few weeks back, and I realised how very much higher it feels, at the top of the ladder, than it seems from the ground; and how very different the garden looks from up there.

I suppose you remember it was the black kitten’s fault that Alice went through the Looking Glass?  It wouldn’t fold its arms properly, and she held it up to the mirror ‘that it might see how sulky it was –

‘and if you’re not good directly,’ she added, ‘I’ll put you through the Looking Glass-House…
‘Now… I’ll tell you all my ideas about the Looking-glass House.  First, there’s the room you can see through the glass – that’s just the same as our drawing room, only the things go the other way.  I can see all of it when I get upon a chair – all but the bit just behind the fireplace.  Oh!  I do so wish I could see that bit.  I want so much to know whether they’ve a fire in the winter: you never can tell, you know, unless our fire smokes, and then smoke comes up in that room too – but that may be only pretence, to make it look as if they had a fire. Well then, the books are something like our books, only the words go the wrong way; I know that, because I’ve held up one of our books to the glass, and then they hold one up in the other room.’

Let’s stop for a moment and just reflect (pardon me) on how sinister (sorry again) Alice’s chatter actually is.  She’s not even stepped through the looking glass yet, but she’s already come up with the disquieting notion that the people who live there are NOT us; and that they may be deliberately deceiving us.  It isn't her own reflection holding up the book in the mirror, but a mysterious ‘they’.  (And a nice bit of observation on Lewis Carroll’s part:  the looking glass is on the high mantelpiece: Alice, as a little girl, is not tall enough to see herself in it: if she holds a book up over her head she can see the reflected book, but not the person holding it.)

Alice continues:  ‘You can see just a little peep of the passage in Looking-glass House, if you leave the door of our drawing room wide open: and it’s very like our passage as far as you can see, only you know it may be quite different on beyond.’

And, of course, it is.  ‘What could be seen from the old room was quite common and uninteresting, but all the rest was as different as possible.  For instance, the pictures on the wall next the fireplace seemed to be all alive, and the very clock on the chimney piece…had got the face of a little old man, and grinned at her.’

People – adults as well as children – often ask writers the dreaded question, ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’  It’s so very difficult to answer because a lot of the time, we don’t actually know. But I’ve evolved an answer. Fittingly, it’s in the shape of a story.  Some years ago on a book tour I stayed in a Manchester hotel, and my room overlooked the windows of a derelict building across the street.  Because I'm a storyteller, I immediately imagined a face in one of the broken windows, looking back at me.  Who might it be?  A ghost?  A fugitive?  A member of a gang?  Somebody from the past?  An alternative me?  And any one of those choices would lead to a different story.  

My ideas come from that hop across the street, that quantum jump that takes me out of myself into a different place, to see the world from a different, slewed angle. They come from Looking-Glass Land.

Wednesday 17 February 2010

The Wild Hunt and the Flying Monk

Because we are getting a new puppy (tarantara!) we recently drove over to Malmesbury, Wiltshire, to visit her.  Malmesbury is a sweet little hillside country town with the remains of a huge medieval abbey.  And I mean HUGE.  It was founded around 676, built and rebuilt, and by 1180 possessed a 431 foot spire, easily beating Salisbury Cathedral. So it was pretty catastrophic when, circa 1500, the spire was struck by lightning and collapsed; and then the west tower also fell down fifty years later and – well, what’s left is impressive but nothing compared to past glories.

For a small place, Malmesbury has a colourful past. A gravestone in the churchyard commemorates the death in 1703 of a barmaid called Hannah Twynnoy who was killed by a tiger: 

In bloom of Life
She’s snatched from hence
She had no room
To make defence
For Tyger fierce
Took Life away
And here she lies in a bed of Clay
Until the Resurrection Day.

The tiger belonged to a travelling circus which parked in the inn yard.  Like Albert in ‘Albert and the Lion’, it seems that Hannah could not resist teasing the animal - with fatal consequences.

A luckier and much earlier Malmesbury character was described by the chronicler William of Malmesbury, a monk of the abbey who wrote several books including a history of the Kings of Britain up to the Conquest.  It is this book in which he details the magnificent escapade of the flying monk.  Some time in the early 1000’s, the monk Eilmer of Malmesbury flew something like a primitive hang glider off the top of one of the abbey towers:

“He had by some means, I hardly know what, fastened wings to his hands and feet, so that he might fly like Daedalus, and collecting the breeze upon the summit of a tower, flew for more than a furlong (220 yards).  But, agitated by the violence of the wind and the swirling of the air… he fell, broke both his legs, and was lame ever after.”  Enthusiastic despite his injuries, Eilmer declared that he knew what had gone wrong: his glider needed a tail. He was probably right. And he wanted to have another go, but his abbot – who must have been a long-suffering and enlightened man to allow him to try in the first place – utterly forbade it. 

My book ‘Dark Angels’ (‘The Shadow Hunt’ in the USA) is set in the late 12th century, and I spent months researching the period.  I wanted to know as much as I could about ways of life in a monastery and in an (already old-fashioned) motte-and-bailey castle.  I wanted to immerse myself in the stories 12th century people told and sang, and the legends they believed in.  There was no better place to find this out than from the medieval chronicles themselves.  They are irresistible once you get going, full of colour and vigour and human emotions.  Take an example from the Peterborough version of the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, the progressive year-by-year account of important events which was kept and copied up with some slightly different variants from 1042 to 1155.  The thing to remember is that the Anglo Saxon Chronicle was written in the vernacular – in Old English, not in Latin. Hence the name. This meant that after the Norman Conquest, as far as newly appointed Norman French abbots were concerned, the Chronicle was effectively written in code.  These abbots could read Latin and French; they couldn’t read English.  So for the year 1127, the monk writing the chronicle is free to say exactly what he thinks about his new abbot, Henry of Poitou, who has been appointed by the King: 

“Thus miserably was the abbacy given, between Christmas and Candlemas, at London, and so he [Henry] went with the king to Winchester and from there he came to Peterborough, and there he stayed exactly as drones do in a hive.  All that the bees carry in, the drones eat and carry out, and so did he…”

So far, vivid enough – but this is merely the lead-in to a piece of vituperation which has become famous as an account of one of the earliest apparitions of the Wild Hunt in Britain!  Our anonymous but angry chronicler continues: 

“Let it not be thought remarkable when we tell the truth, because it was fully known all over the country, that as soon as he came… then soon afterwards many people saw and heard many hunters hunting.  The hunters were big and black and loathsome, and their hounds all black and wide-eyed and loathsome, and they rode on black horses and black goats.  This was seen in the very deerpark of the town of Peterborough… and the monks heard the horns blow that they were blowing at night…

“This,” our chronicler concludes darkly, “was his coming in – of his going out we can say nothing yet.  May God provide!”

In other words, the Peterborough account of the Wild Hunt is informed by the Peterborough monks’ hatred of their new, foreign, and greedy abbot.  It’s a splendid piece of mud-slinging, which has preserved an even more splendid bit of folklore – and yes, it did find its way into my book.   

Friday 12 February 2010

Storytelling is for everyone

Since the last entry, I've been on a school visit.  And talking to 200 Year 7s (twelve years old, approximately) has made me think further on the whole connectedness of folklore, story telling and story writing, so here's a postscript.

The children were a great, lively bunch, in a school that doesn't get many author visits. I do a lot of  interactive stuff: some riddles, some drama - and I tell stories from the viking sagas, stories from medieval chronicles. By the time children are in Year 7, any visiting author has to prove him or herself worthy of being listened to.  You cannot just waltz in and start talking about elves. Or I don't anyway.  Even though my last book, 'Dark Angels' ('The Shadow Hunt' in the US) is all about elves.  Because English twelve year olds think of elves as little green-stockinged things with red hats dancing around a Christmas tree and making toys. And why would they want to hear about that?

So I start off by talking about aliens and UFO's, instead, and about people who think they've been abducted by aliens and operated on and even had their brains removed (rather like Spock in the old Startrek episode) - and then I tell them a (genuine) story from the 13th century about someone being abducted by elves and having his brain removed - and I try to show them how people have been telling the same sorts of stories for hundreds and hundreds of years.  And how some of these stories then end up becoming woven into the books I write.

A book itself is an alien thing to some of these children.  An intimidating, unpleasurable thing, and reading itself a difficult struggle that gets you nowhere slowly and makes you feel a fool.  Yet we all tell stories, all the time.  I said to them, "I'll tell you this, I've never been into a school that didn't have a ghost story.  When I was at school,  we had a disused railway station just along the road, and there was supposed to be a severed hand that crawled around the platform in the broken glass.  Nobody ever saw it, of course, but the story was there.  All schools have ghosts."

Hands went up.  "We have Bloody Mary in the toilets," two girls remarked.  (Who is Bloody Mary, in this context?  Who knows?  She's obviously some frightening supernatural, half believed in, half delighted in...)  A boy told me, 'There was a ghost at my mum's school - the ghost of a cleaner who got locked in."

And so I was saying, "There you are!  These are the stories people tell because, though nobody knows who makes them up, they are fun to tell and fun to hear.  And sometimes they do get put into books: but - and THIS is the important thing - they don't COME from books.  They come from the real world and from real people."

Anybody can make up a story; anybody can tell one.  It's a tragedy for children to feel disempowered and divorced from the process of storytelling, because it's one of the things we were all born to do.  Why should the tales children tell have value when collected by adults and printed in the Journal of the Folklore Society, yet no value in the playground?  I want children to know that the tales they tell each other are just as real, just as 'important' as the ones that get caught (by lurking academics) and shut up in books. 

And if they know that, perhaps they'll lose their fear of reading them and writing them down.

Wednesday 10 February 2010

Knee Deep in August

Folklore, like democracy, is of the people, by the people, for the people.  It may get written up, annotated, shut into books and become the subject of scholarly papers, but it doesn’t stay there, it flows out round the edges – like the Swedish story of the troll who sealed up a whole lake in an envelope and sent it by a travelling tinker to be delivered to a town he wanted to drown.  On the way, the tinker felt his pocket getting damp, investigated, and found the envelope leaking water.  He opened it, and out rushed the entire lake… 

Here’s a book with a whole lakeful of folklore shut up inside it.  I was in my local Oxfam shop a couple of days ago and fell for this very big, very thick secondhand  book called ‘Folklore on the American Land’, by Duncan Emrich, published by Little, Brown & Co, 1972. It's not, as I initially thought it might be, a book of Native American tales, it's a book about folklore collected from the American people during - roughly - the first half of the 20th century.

Emrich was born in 1911, became an English Professor at Columbia, served in Military Intelligence during the war, became chief of the Archives of American Folk Song section of the Library of Congress, and ended his days as Professor of American Folklore at American University.  He died in 1977.  So, a scholarly man.  And the book looks intimidating: emblazoned with the US eagle and weighing heavy.  Yet it turns out to be one of those books, that as soon as you open it, the stuff inside just flies out and demands to be shared – and that’s quite simply what I’m going to do. 

It’s full of wonderful photographs, for a start - like this one, from  Robstown, Texas, 1942, Saturday morning baseball. (Photo by Arthur Rothstein).

And this one from Delacroix Island, St Bernard Parish, Louisiana 1941: Spanish Muskrat trappers playing 'cache'. 
(Photo by Marion Post Wolcott.)

And this very moving one from somewhere near Jackson, Kentucky, 1940: a country funeral: Mountain people carrying a homemade coffin up a creek bed to the family plot on the hillside. (Photo by Marion Post Wolcott)

The book has sections about the etymology of place names, such as an explanation of the name of a river in Colorado

“When Spanish explorers moved north out of Mexico into our Southwest, a small band reached the southern edges of what is now Colorado.  They were slain by Indians on the bank of a river and their bodies were left to become bones under the relentless sun. 

"Later, a following group of Spaniards came upon the river at the same point and found the skeleton bodies.  They named the river with a great and sonorous Spanish name: El Rio de las Animas Perdidas en Purgatorio...  The River of the Souls Lost in Purgatory.

"In time, French trappers moved across the land.  They heard the Spanish name, but… shortened it to a reasonable Purgatoire, and that is the way the name rides on maps today: the Purgatoire River. But Kentuckians and men from Texas, knowing no French, heard the name within the limits of their own vocabulary and understanding as Picketwire.  So to them, and to generations of Coloradoans after them, the river became the Picketwire.  I have heard old-timers name it so.”

What hasn’t this book got in it?  There are the names of mining camps, racehorses and hound dogs.  There are lists of nicknames: Three-Fingered Smith, who chopped off two fingers bitten by a rattlesnake, Peg-Leg Annie whose feet were frozen in a snowstorm on Bald Mountain, Crooked-Nose Pete, and Christmas-Tree Murphy who ‘killed a man with a Christmas tree’, and names of ladies of easy virtue such as Cattle Kate, Ragged Ass Annie, Silver Heels, Prairie Rose, Few Clothes Mollie and Frisco Sal.    There’s stuff about children’s games, the varieties of cattle brands, tall tales, urban legends, historical songs, riddles, and folk medicine.  There are street cries (here are two from Texas):

            Hot tamales, floatin’ in gravy
            Suit ya taste and don’t mean maybe!

            Ice cold lemonade!
            Freeze your teeth, curl your hair,
            Make you feel like a millionaire!

Emrich delighted in the anonymous expressions and turns of phrase collected from his countrymen. 

As hot as a June bride in a featherbed.  (Tennessee)
            Pity is a poor plaster (New York State)
            You’d think he could put out hell with one bucket of water (the Ozarks)
            Cute as a speckled pup under a red wagon (Kentucky

And – here’s a lovely one – “He lives so far back in the hills, they have to wipe the owl-shit off the clock to see what time it is.”

I’ll be coming back to this book again, for sure.  In the meantime, though, from the chapter on folk language and grammar, here’s a paragraph about a lawyer in southwest Missouri who needed the exact date of a woman’s death to enter in some legal papers:

‘When the lawyer queried surviving relatives, he was told, “Aunt Suly died just past the peak of water-melon time.”  Another said, she had passed away “at the start of kitchen-settin’ weather”, the first chilly period of early fall, when people sit around the wood range in the kitchen.  The dead woman’s most intimate friend said. “She took sick when we was just about knee-deep in August.”’

And that's what I mean about folklore: the wonderful do-it-yourself idioms, stories and customs of the people. Authors?  Who needs 'em?  Don’t you just wish you could have thought of that yourself? 

Thursday 4 February 2010

Magical Rooms

A few years ago I used to do a lot of oral storytelling. You can’t tell a story well unless you love it, and one of my absolute favourites is ‘Mr Fox’, the English version of ‘Bluebeard’. It’s far superior to Bluebeard, in my opinion, and its heroine, Lady Mary, is feisty and clever. But of course, one of the high points of the story is when she opens the little door decorated with the legend: Be bold, be bold, but not too bold/Lest that thy heart’s blood should run cold - and discovers the place where Mr Fox hangs up his victims: the well known Bloody Chamber.

Bruno Bettelheim, in 'The Uses of Enchantment', discusses the secret or forbidden rooms in fairytales very much in Freudian terms: “‘Bluebeard’ is a story about the dangerous propensities of sex, about its strange secrets and close connection with violent and destructive emotions.” The blood upon the key, which betrays to Bluebeard that his wife has entered the forbidden chamber, leaves little doubt that Bettelheim is right in this instance – though that motif is missing from Mr Fox, which is a story about a clever girl coming close to extreme danger but turning the tables on the one who threatens her.

Other rooms in traditional fairytales, such as the Sleeping Beauty’s chamber, or Rapunzel’s tower, can also be seen in Freudian terms as symbolizing unawakened virginity. (Although I’m uncomfortable with the extreme passivity of the image: and I do think it is dangerous to take a Freudian interpretation as an explanation. An individual fairy tale is much more than any particular common denominator. )

I was corresponding with the Australian fantasy YA author Kate Forsyth recently (look out for a review and interview with her on this blog later in the month) and the subject came up of magical rooms in children’s and YA fiction. And I started to think about how very different they often are from the Bloody Chamber or the Ivory Tower. The room, in children’s fiction, is a place of magical refuge, yet full of possibility.

A room of one’s own. Many children do not have one. They share with brothers or sisters. They lead lives ruled by adults. A room of one’s own, for a child, is a place where it can be in control. It’s also a place to start out from: the firm base of safety from which a child can explore the world. Rooms in children’s or young adult fiction, therefore, often reflect the desirable qualities of a perfect personal space.

Elizabeth Goudge was good at this. Maria, heroine of ‘The Little White Horse’, coming to the magic and mystery of Moonacre Manor, is provided with a bedroom in a tower with a door too small for an adult to get through. The room has three windows, one with a window seat, a ‘silvery oak floor’, and a four-poster bed ‘hung with pale blue silk curtains embroidered with silver stars’. And ‘the fireplace was the tiniest she had ever seen,’ but big enough for ‘the fire of pine cones and applewood that burned in it… It was the room Maria would have designed for herself if she had had the knowledge and the skill.’ From such a base Maria can with confidence launch her campaign against the men of the sinister Black Castle in the pine wood.

In ‘Linnets and Valerians’, perhaps Goudge’s masterpiece, the quieter heroine Nan is given a parlour of her own by her austere Uncle Ambrose. It opens off a dark passage, but then: ‘The room inside was a small panelled parlour. There was a bright wood fire burning in the basket grate, and on the mantelpiece above were a china shepherd and shepherdess and two china sheep. Over the mantelpiece was a round mirror in a gilt frame… Nan sat down in the little armchair and folded her hands in her lap… It was quiet in here, the noises of the house shut away, the sound of the wind and rain seeming only to intensify the indoor silence. The light of the flames was reflected in the panelling, and the burning logs smelt sweet.’ And yet, in the heart of this paradise a snake lurks: the discovery, in a cupboard, of an old notebook written by the witch Emma Cobley. ‘Nan sat down in the armchair with shaking knees, but nevertheless she opened the book and began to read.’

In each case, the rooms – though so utterly desirable – contain clues and hints of the past, of the passage of other people’s lives, and of mysteries which must be investigated.

In a similar way when Garth Nix’s Sabriel comes for the first time to the house of the Abhorsen, escaping terrifiying dangers, it is a place of refuge: ‘The gate swung open, pitching her on to a paved courtyard, the bricks ancient, their redness the colour of dusty apples. The path wound up to…a cheerful sky-blue door, bright against whitewashed stone.’ And she wakes later, ‘to soft candlelight, the warmth of a feather bed…A fire burned briskly in a red-brick fireplace, and wood-panelled walls gleamed with the dark mystery of well-polished mahogany. A blue-papered ceiling with silver stars dusted across it, faced her newly opened eyes.’ This is a place in which Sabriel cannot stay, but which belongs to her: it will strengthen her even though she must leave it. It’s also a place in which she will learn more about her family, her past.

It’s not a fantasy, but Betsy Byars’ ‘The Cartoonist’ is also about the necessity for a child to have some personal space and the strength that be derived from it. The only place in Alfie’s crowded house where he can be himself is in his attic, where he expresses himself by drawing the cartoons that are his life-blood. So long as he has his attic, he can cope with the demands of his noisy, feckless family: ‘The only thing Alfie liked about the house was the attic. That was his. He had put an old chair and a card-table up there, and he had a lamp with an extension cord that went down into the living room. Nobody ever went up there but Alfie. Once his sister, Alma, had started up the ladder, but he had said, “No, I don’t want anybody up there…I want it to be mine.”’ When the family decide over his head that his older brother can have the attic, Alfie’s entire personal existence feels threatened. He barricades himself in.

Magical rooms, magical personal spaces, abound in children’s fiction. In Margery Sharp’s ‘The Rescuers’, I was charmed as a child by the cosy home the mice build in the heart of The Black Castle whilst evading the dreadful cat Mameluke and trying to rescue the imprisoned Poet. The hole becomes: ‘a commodious apartment… Gay chewing gum wrappers papered the walls, while upon the floor used postage stamps, nibbled off envelopes in the Head Jailer’s wastebasket, formed a homely but not unsuitable patchwork carpet. Miss Bianca with her own hands fashioned several flower-pieces – so essential to gracious living – dyed pink or blue with red or blue-black ink’. And there’s the necessary fire, of course – ‘a fire of cedarwood’ made from cigar boxes.

I remember wishing I, like Heidi, could have a bedroom up a ladder in a hay-loft, where Heidi sleeps ‘as soundly and well as if she had been in the loveliest bed of some royal princess’. And to this bedroom she returns later in the book with her rich, lame friend Klara: ‘They all stood round Heidi’s beautifully made hay bed…drawing deep breaths of the spicy fragrance of the new hay. Klara was perfectly charmed with Heidi’s sleeping place. “Oh Heidi! From your bed you can look straight out into the sky, and you can hear the fir trees roar outside. Oh I have never seen such a jolly, pleasant sleeping room before.”’ Of course, this mountain home will give strength to Klara and heal her.

And isn’t part of the charm in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s ‘A Little Princess’ the way in which Sara’s attic room is transformed, first by the power of her imagination and then by a reality which she calls ‘the magic’, from a cold, inimical space into a place which comforts and sustains both body and soul? ‘“Supposing there was a bright fire in the grate, with lots of little dancing flames,’ she murmured. ‘Suppose there was a comfortable chair before it – and suppose there was a small table nearby with a little hot – hot supper on it. And suppose”- as she drew the thin coverings over her – “suppose this was a beautiful soft bed, with fleecy blankets and large downy pillows. Suppose – suppose –’ And her very weariness was good to her, for her eyes closed and she fell fast asleep.” Of course she awakes and finds it’s come true…

Rooms in children’s fiction are not Freudian symbols of sexual awakening, nor are they cold ivory towers from which it is necessary to be rescued. Children’s rooms are magical personal spaces in which the child is protected and nourished, in which she can learn to be herself and from which she – or he – can explore the world.

Illustration by Garth Williams, from Margery Sharp's 'The Rescuers'