Friday 24 September 2010

Fairytale Reflections (2) Adèle Geras

I’m thrilled to welcome Adèle Geras as the first of my guests on ‘Fairytale Reflections’.  Adèle was born in Jerusalem in 1944 and has published more than 90 books for readers of all ages. Her Egerton Hall trilogy, collected as ‘Happy Ever After’ (Definitions) retells the fairytales of Rapunzel, Sleeping Beauty and Snow White setting them in an English boarding school in 1962. She has also published a collection of retellings, brilliantly illustrated by Louise Brierley, called ‘Beauty and the Beast and Other Stories’, but that, alas, is out of print.  

Adèle has loved fairytales all her life, especially the Hans Andersen stories and the Coloured Fairy books by Andrew Lang.  Her most recent books ‘Troy’, ‘Ithaka’ and ‘Dido’ (David Fickling Books) revisit the Odyssey and the Aeneid, but from the viewpoints of some of the common folk caught up and affected by these great dramas: servants in the palaces of Troy and Ithaka and Carthage.  For them, too, the gods are real, and often heartless, and may appear at any moment.  In this excerpt, Halie, King Priam’s elderly cook, notices a strange looking man among the crowds welcoming the Wooden Horse to Troy:

I’ve seen him somewhere before, she thought. He was making his way through the crowd to the beach, and it was his beard she recognized: a silvery-blue colour, as though glinting fish scales had been caught up in his hair. It fell almost to his waist. He seemed to be wet.  His hair was streaming over his shoulders, and a powerful smell of fish came to Halie’s nose as he passed her. Some fisherman she’d seen once, but where?  She turned to ask Theano whether she’d noticed him, but in the turning of her head, all memory of the man left her.

Ominous, understated, doomladen: Adèle can take an old story, tweak it, shake it inside out like a worn shirt, and – voilà – create a brand new garment.  I love her books and perhaps especially her trilogy ‘Happy Ever After’ – a wonderfully fresh and unusual version of three classic fairytales, placed in a mid-twentieth century setting and seamlessly merging fantasy with realism.  And so without more ado, here she is talking about:


It’s about hunger. It’s about not being able to cope. It’s about mother love of a warped kind. It deals with contrasts. I love it almost more than any other fairy tale and I’ve never had to articulate why before now and hope I can come up with some good reasons alongside my gut reactions.

I’m an only child. When I was a girl, I wanted siblings more than anything else. I put brothers and sisters into my fiction whenever I can because their interaction fascinates me. In one book, The Girls in the Velvet Frame, I used a photograph of my mother and four of her sisters (she had five and four brothers as well!) as the springboard for the story. So that’s the first thing that makes me like the tale: whatever might happen to them, Hansel and Gretel are TOGETHER. They help one another. They share everything. It’s not clear who’s the elder. In the Humperdinck opera, it seems Gretel is the one who teaches but it’s traditionally Hansel who suggests leaving the trail of breadcrumbs and so forth.

The premise, of parents wanting to rid themselves of their children, is horrendous. But in the context of the Hundred Years’ War and starvation and deprivation in much of Europe, there must have been thousands of desperate families with too many mouths to feed. Infanticide becomes more common when things are tough but these parents don’t commit murder with their own hands. Rather, they try and lose their children in the forest and hope for the worst.

So that’s where we start: with every child’s worst fear. They dread, we all dread, abandonment and the disappearance of the familiar. Whenever we hear about lost children, whenever we think of someone forcibly separated from their parents, our hearts shrink in horror. It’s a fear we can easily imagine.

So: two children lost in the dark wood. Alone, but for the help of a magical white bird. Birds are everywhere: they eat the crumbs and wreck any chance of finding the way home, and it’s a bird who leads them to the magical house of the Witch.

This, the Gingerbread Cottage, the Sugar House, the House made all of sweets and the standout image of the story and it’s immensely powerful. We know it’s a snare and a delusion and Hansel and Gretel do not. In a pantomime way we’re thinking, calling out: Don’t fall for it! It’s a trick. Leave it alone! But they do fall for it. We know that they ought to resist its blandishments but they’re hungry. They haven’t eaten for days. Icing sugar. Toffee. Marzipan. Sticks of barley sugar holding up the lintel. Chocolate’s completely blissful. Then, from a door which I always imagine made of slabs of iced fruit cake (why? Ask Sigmund Freud!) the Witch emerges.

She’s not often portrayed as a traditional black hat and broomstick regulation witch. In the opera, she’s sometimes a grotesquely blown-up and exaggerated cake shop lady: too bosomy, too rouged, too feminine altogether. And she loves, loves, loves children. She loves to eat them. It reminds me of the Maurice Sendak phrase from Where the Wild Things Are: “We’ll eat you up, we love you so.” Sendak has said that this was uttered by his aunts and uncles when they pinched his chubby childish cheek in an excessively affectionate way and I can vouch for that kind of language from my own experience. My aunts and uncles, (see above) did just that: they’d pinch my cheek gently and exclaim in Yiddish: A zissaleh! Which means: A sweet little thing!

There we have it. The children’s real father and their stepmother don’t love Hansel and Gretel quite enough to keep the family together. The bad mother, the Witch, loves them so much she wants to consume them. To this end, she locks Hansel up and we have cages, and bones, and fattening him up like a calf. And for an extra nasty twist, we have the Witch turning Gretel into her servant while she’s preparing to feast on Hansel.

The end of the story is gruesome. Gretel tricks the Witch, who is reduced to ashes in her own oven. It’s not exactly bland fare for children. Hansel and Gretel escape and with the help of the White Bird, find their way home. They are carrying the Witch’s treasure with them, which doubtless guarantees them a better welcome than the one they might have expected.

Forests, birds, a witch, a marvellous house made of everything delicious, white pebbles gleaming in the moonlight, a cage, a chicken’s thigh bone, a treasure chest filled with jewels....all these are powerful ingredients but what makes Hansel and Gretel greater than the sum of its parts it the love that sees the brother and sister through the terrible ordeals they have to endure. That abides and it’s stronger than any enchantment you can throw at it.

PS I’m adding a poem here which I wrote years ago. It’s the Witch speaking.....


This time, be careful.
They have removed all the stones
That you used last time.

I have ironed sheets
and put green pears to blacken
on the bottom shelf

of the oven. Come
alone or with another.
That doesn't matter.

My mouth is open,
all my loose teeth are sharpened
and the cake is baked.

Let's pipe the icing
into red blobs like bloodstains
and call them flowers.

Pull the shutters closed.
We'll lick and suck the white hours
until you ripen.

Follow the thin bird.
Stay in those flapping shadows
and you will be bones.

Friday 17 September 2010

Fairytale Reflections (1)

Fairytales are important to me.   They always have been, and I’m not sure why, but in a way that feels connected with the way I love bright colours, sunny spring days, autumn mornings, dark winter nights, snow, ice, my children.  They feel, in other words, very close to home.

And so I had the idea this summer to approach a number of well-known writers of fantasy whose books I greatly admire (and many of whom I am lucky enough to be able to count as friends), and ask each of them to write a guest post about fairytales for this blog.  I’ve asked them to choose a fairytale (or tales) with some particular personal meaning or resonance for them, and simply talk about it in any way they like.

I’m calling the series, which will be appearing every Friday for as long as I can persuade my friends to contribute, ‘Fairytale Reflections’, and I think it’s going to be fascinating and wonderful to see what each writer has to say.  And so, as an introduction to the series, here are my own thoughts on:

A few years ago I used to do quite a lot of storytelling, and one thing I learned early on is that you can only a tell a story well if you really love it.  This is a story I’ve told aloud on many occasions.  It’s from the Brothers Grimm. The illustration below is by Kay Nielsen.

Long, long ago – over an thousand years ago – a woman longed for a child.  Out in the courtyard of her house grew a beautiful juniper tree, and one winter day as she stood beneath it peeling an apple, she cut her finger and blood fell on the snow.  “If only I had a child as red as blood and as white as snow,” the woman sighed.  And the branches of the juniper tree stirred as if a wind was passing through…

Over the course of nine months, as the spring comes and the summer, and the juniper tree fruits, so the woman becomes joyfully pregnant.  She eats the berries, and foresees her death: “If I die, bury me under the juniper tree.”  She gives birth to a son, and dies, and her husband buries her under the tree and grieves… but not for long.  He marries again, and his second wife bears a daughter, little Marlinchen, and is jealous of the son who will inherit the house.

So the stepmother murders the little boy, and then contrives to make Marlinchen feel responsible.  She cooks the child and serves him to his father in a stew, swearing Marlinchen to secrecy.  The father is troubled, he knows not why, but Marlinchen gathers up her brother’s bones in a handkerchief and buries them under the juniper tree.  A mist rises from the juniper tree, the branches stir, and out flies a beautiful fiery bird – her brother’s spirit.  At once her sorrow vanishes and she dances into the house. 

The bird flies away into the village, where it sings a wonderful song which tempts everyone out to listen. 

My mother killed her little son,
My father grieved that I had gone.
My gentle sister pitied me
And buried me under the juniper tree.
Keewit, keewit, what a happy bird I am!

What happens next, you must read the story to find out (there's a version if you click on the title above), but it’s entirely appropriate. The burning, blazing spirit bird with its paradoxically joyful song brings delight to the innocent, but terror and death to the guilty. 

Telling this story aloud, I made up a lilting little tune to fit the words of the song – it seemed impossible to baldly say them.  And I remember telling it aloud in a school hall in upstate New York to about an hundred and fifty ten-year olds.  When I reached the part about the murder, where the mother manages to unload the guilt onto her own daughter, I saw the face of a young girl sitting on the front row.  Her lips had parted and her eyes were dark with horror.  I did feel compunction, but the only way out of the horror is to go on through it, telling the story to the very end.  And the end is happy, one that does not negate the horror but transcends it.  When I’d finished, you could feel all the children relaxing.  They’d trusted me to lead them through a very dark place, but we’d come out into the light.  

Was it right to tell this story to children?  I have done, several times, and no one yet has told me it was a mistake.  On this occasion some of the children came up at the end and said, ‘thanks for the awesome story’, ‘cool story!’   But one of the teachers caught me and said, “Thankyou, these children don’t often hear stories like that.”

What is the meaning of The Juniper Tree?  It’s a very strong story, full of joy and pain.  It seems to say that you can’t have the joy without the pain, but that pain will always be mitigated by joy.  It’s about the power of beauty and music.  It acknowledges dreadful evil, but is still full of hope. Like a poem, it means different things at different times, but you can’t reduce it to this or that message.  It’s itself.  It’s ‘The Juniper Tree.’ It haunts me.

Thursday 16 September 2010

Steel Thistles

I was stunned and very pleasantly surprised this morning to discover this blog coming fourth on a list of  'The UK's Top 10 Children's Literature Blogs', which can be seen here.  Steel Thistles will come up for its first anniversary in November: around this time last year I was still angsting about whether to start a blog at all, and whether I really had enough to say in it.  In fact, I've found great pleasure this year in rambling on about all the things I love in children's literature, folklore and fantasy.  And I've made many new friends!

And so this seems a good moment to say 'thankyou' to all of you who read this blog and take the time to exchange opinions with me. I value and appreciate your time, your expertise, your thoughtful comments. Without you, I would be talking to myself.  Thanks for stopping by!

Sunday 12 September 2010

Realism and Fairytales

When I was ten or so, my brother and I would sometimes bemoan our bad luck in never having any adventures. We were both big fans of Enid Blyton, in whose books groups of children from nice safe middleclass backgrounds not too dissimilar from our own, ran into amazing adventures every single holiday. Every single Christmas or Eastertime, the circus would arrive and the bad-tempered clown would turn out to be an international jewel thief; or the tutor hired as a Latin coach would be a spy. Those lights flashing out to sea beyond the ruined castle were signalling to enemy submarines. The strange noises in the empty house came from smugglers’ barges gliding along the underground river gurgling beneath the trapdoor in the cellar.

Though these adventures were, in one sense, clear fantasy, they were presented with a veneer of realism which could deceive our inexperience. I loved to read of dragons and flying horses, but never expected to meet one. The dilapidated old barn, however, a mile up in the fields near the edge of the woods, with the shotgun cartridges scattered around the doorway – surely that was something which we ought to investigate? So we did, and got shouted at and chased by the farmer for walking over his crops.

Well, we should have known better. Enid Blyton is hardly a realistic writer. Maybe not. But what about some more recent ‘realistic’ books for children – say, Jacqueline Wilson’s nitty-gritty tussles with all sorts of issues? Her heroines live in children’s homes, or have totally unreliable parents, or big stepbrothers who bully them, or are young carers themselves, or try shoplifting and smoking to impress the glamorous ‘bad’ best friend… Isn’t this realism?

Um, not quite. I have the utmost admiration for Jacqueline Wilson’s books, which my own daughters loved – but actually, they are fairytales. Wilson’s stories chime so with young girls, because everyone loves a good dose of misery followed by a happy ending. (Look at Frances Hodgson Burnett’s ‘A Little Princess.’) Aged about ten, my younger daughter and her friends were writing stories at school that were essentially Jacqueline Wilson fan-lit: first-person accounts of an imaginary home life in which Dad got drunk, blacked their eyes and wept, while feckless Mum went out with the empties and came back in with another tattoo. Of course there are such homes, far too many of them. But the reason I claim Wilson’s books are really fairytales, is because her young heroines who go through so much, always end up wiser, happier, and in a better place than they started from. They are fairytale endings. I say this with no shadow of disparagement – but realistic, they’re not.

Alison Lurie, in her brilliant set of essays on children’s literature ‘Don’t Tell the Grownups’ (Bloomsbury 1990), recounts how at the age of five she was given ‘The Here and Now Story Book’ by a writer named Lucy Sprague Mitchell – whose credo was that fairytales delayed ‘a child’s rationalising of the world’ and left him ‘longer than is desirable without the beginnings of scientific standards’. Lurie writes:

Inside, I could read about The Grocery Man (“This is John’s Mother. Good morning, Mr Grocery Man”) … The children and parents in these stories were exactly like the ones I knew, only more boring. They never did anything really wrong, and nothing dangerous or surprising ever happened to them – no more than it did to Dick and Jane, whom I and my friends were soon to meet in first grade.

Learning to read in the early sixties, I also encountered such children: the ‘Janet and John’ readers, and the safe, sunny, pedestrian world of the Ladybird books – where all families were made up of a Mummy who stayed at home and baked, a Daddy who went to work carrying a briefcase, a little boy in shorts, a little girl in a frilly dress, and a spaniel. Plots would revolve around picnics, kite-flying, the collection of tadpoles in jam-jars, and the making and icing of fairycakes.

Lurie continues with devastating truth:

After we grew up, of course, we found out how unrealistic these stories had been. The simple, pleasant adult society they had prepared us for did not exist. As we suspected, the fairy tales had been right all along – the world was full of hostile, stupid giants and perilous castles and people who abandoned their children in the nearest forest.

To succeed in this world you needed some special skill or patronage, plus remarkable luck, and it didn’t hurt to be very good-looking. The other qualities that counted were wit, boldness, stubborn persistence, and an eye for the main chance. Kindness to those in trouble was also advisable – you never knew who might be useful to you later on.

And this still seems to me the best argument against those who still think that fairytales are unreal; or at least more unreal than books set in the everyday here and now. How much do we need to be taught, in Lucy Sprague Mitchell’s phrase, to ‘rationalise the world’? Do we really need protection from the obviously fantastic? My brother and I, as children, could imagine ourselves into an Enid Blyton-style adventure – and, so doing, explored potentially dangerous deserted barns and houses – because her books contained no obvious impossibilities. But fiction is fiction is fiction.

Stories are real and not-real at the same time. What we really need in life, it seems to me, is encouragement. Plenty of fiction will take you from A – Z on the direct route, but you may possibly learn more on the scenic way. We need to allow ourselves and our children to discover the power of metaphor to transform experience. I would put my money on the basic stuff of fairytales being far more likely to happen to the average child than the chance of capturing an enemy spy or discovering a nest of coiners. Your parents may abandon you, or die, or abuse you; you may be ignored and disregarded; later in life your lover may forget you; you may have to work hard for little or no reward.

Though at first glance fairytales may seem simple or childish with their pre-industrial characters and settings, they offer a rich harvest of archetypes, of metaphors for life, of delight in the beautiful world and of resignation in the face of death. Fairytales we have read as children often stay with us forever. Some are frightening, of course… for the land of faerie is a dangerous place… but so is this world, and we do children no favours by pretending otherwise. Fairytales – real fairytales – don’t pull punches. They tell us life often looks overwhelming - impossible. You may have to travel to the back of the north wind, ride over seven miles of steel thistles, weave shirts out of nettles, suffer insults in silence, scale a glass mountain – but ‘pack courage, leave fear at home’, and you will find a way.