Friday 1 October 2010

Fairytale Reflections (3) Susan Price

What can I say about Susan Price except that she’s one of the greatest contemporary British fantasy writers and I absolutely love her books?  If I had to pick a favourite out of the many she's written, I'd be spoilt for choice - but in the end probably I'd choose one of the ‘Ghost World’ series set in ‘a far-distant, Northern Czardom, where half the year is summer and light, and half the year is winter dark’ (‘The Ghost Drum’ won the 1987 Carnegie Medal) – or one of the two ‘Sterkarm’ books, a blend of futuristic sci fi time travel into the world of the border reivers of the 16th century (‘The Sterkarm Handshake’ won the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize’ in 1998).

Anyone who thinks women’s writing is somehow more lush and indulgent than men's need only read a few of Susan Price’s books to bring them to their senses. As a writer, she has nerves of steel. Her work is beautiful but tough: and she’s not particularly interested in happy endings.  She has the terse, dry wit of the Icelandic sagas which she loves, and a sharp eye. No one is better than Sue at bringing strange characters and faraway worlds to life. In this passage (from 'Ghost Song') Malyuta, a rough peasant, gazes at his new born son:

He looked at his son’s little body, no longer from head to foot than his own forearm. And the baby’s small mouth and nose, that breathed for him just as well as Malyuta’s great gape and hooter. …His tiny hands and – smaller and smaller – his tiny fingers, each with a tiny, perfect nail. And this smallness would grow to Malyuta’s size!

Now I believe what they say in the churches, thought Malyuta. I believe that water was turned into wine, and that three loaves and five fishes fed ten thousand. If a wonder like this boy of mine can come from two plain folk like my wife and me, then I believe that miracles are true.

It's a wonderful mixture of earthy scepticism and amazed love.  And poring over his child like this gives Malyuta the strength he will need in the next few moments when a shaman-witch from the icy north enters the house to take the baby away.

At any rate, Susan has been interested in myths and folklore since she was nine; and has been a professional writer since she was sixteen – and much of her writing is based on, or informed by, folklore. Here she is talking about her love of legends and fairytales: and of one in particular, collected by Joseph Jacobs in his 'Celtic Fairytales' and rewritten by Susan (just click on the title near the bottom of this post and you can read it on her website) -


As a child, I heard the usual fairy-stories – a 'Cinderella' derived from Perrault, 'Billy Goats Gruff', 'Little Red Riding Hood', and so on.  I loved them.  I loved their repetitions and rhythms– 'Oh, Grandmama, what big ears you have!”, and “Who's trit-trotting across MY bridge? - '  I loved their vivid, beautiful images – the little girl in the scarlet, hooded cloak walking through the dark forest, the glass slipper, the sky-high beanstalk...  But I had no idea of their history, or their cultural resonance.  I imagined that the version of the story that was read to me WAS the story, that there was no other way of telling it.
            At the age of 10, the Greek Myths happened to me, and I was totally smitten.  For a whole year I lived, in my imagination, in the Greek Myths, with flying horses and hydras, with awesome and unpredictable gods, dragons and golden apples.  The next year, when I moved to Secondary School, I discovered the Norse Myths – and they, for me, blew the Greek Myths away.  They felt like coming home: but a home that was no less fascinating, with ice giants, fire giants – in fact, ice and fire all the way through.
            After that, I read every collection of Myths and Legends I could find; and when I ran out of Myths, I  read collections of fairy-stories and folktales: the Grimm Brothers, and Jacob's English Fairy Stories, and Asbjornsen and Moe's Norwegian Stories – and Russian, Irish, Scottish, French, Italian, Polish stories – I couldn't get enough of them.  And, without knowing it, I was learning an enormous amount about story-telling – 'Billy Goats Gruff', for instance, is a master-class in narrative and suspense.
            The more I read, the more something became obvious: – the stories weren't as individual, as distinct from each other – or from Myth – as I'd thought.  The Scots story of Kate Crackernuts was strangely like Cinderella, though set in a more work-a-day world.  Another Scots story, 'The Finger-lock' was Cinderella with a boy as the central character instead of a girl.  No Fairy-Godmother – no pumpkin coach or glass slipper, but the essentials of the story remained.  (There are, I later learned, over three hundred variations on the story usually known as 'Cinderella'.)
            This Norwegian story, 'East of the Sun, West of the Moon' was the myth of Psyche and Cupid in northern dress.  The English stories, 'Tom-Tit-Tot,' and 'Stormy Weather' were variations of 'Rumpelstiltskin'.  In 'Whuppity-Stoorie' the Rumpelstiltskin figure is female, and kindly – she saves the heroine from a life of drudgery in the end.
            Echoes were everywhere.  In the Irish Legend of Deirdre, the heroine sees a calf killed in winter.  Its red blood falls into the white snow, and a raven comes to eat it.  Deirdre wishes for a husband, “with skin as white as this snow, lips and cheeks as red as this blood, and hair as black as the raven.”  In 'Snow White,' collected hundreds of years later, the queen sits stitching her embroidery in its ebony frame beside a snowy window-ledge.  She pricks her finger, and blood falls on the snow.  She wishes for a child, “with skin as white as this snow, hair as black as this ebony, and lips and cheeks as red as this blood.”
            In the story, 'The Soldier At Heaven's Gate,' a soldier slips into Heaven before his time, and climbs up into God's chair, from where he sees the whole world, and everything that's happening, just as God does.  The soldier is overwhelmed by the world's sorrow, cruelty and pain: and the end of the story is tragic.  I was reminded of how the god Frey, in Norse Myth, climbs into Odin's chair, and sees all of the nine worlds spread before him.  He looks into Jotunheim, sees a beautiful giantess, and falls deeply in love...  The consequences are also tragic, but on a more mythic scale, since this leads, in part, to the defeat of the gods at End of the World.
            The 'Three Heads In The Well'  is another fairy-tale with mythic echoes.  The well is under a great tree, and from the well's depths float up three wise heads, which speak to the heroine.  In Norse Myth, there is a well between the roots of the great World Tree, and by the side of the well is the head of Mirmir, which has wise words for those who question it.  And Celtic Myth is full of magical, talking severed heads.
            Nor are these connections limited to folk-lore and myth.  The Danish legend of Amleth is Shakespeare's Hamlet; and King Lear is, in part, a Cinderella story.
            I was puzzled by all these echoes and correspondences, in stories which were supposed to be widely separated geographically, and dated from a time before broadcasting and widespread literacy could send a story round the world in days, if not hours.  That led me to reading books about folk-lore, rather than books of folk-lore.  I learned that, of course, I wasn't the first to notice that fairy-stories seem to be made up of interchangeable, interlocking pieces, which can be taken apart and put back together in different patterns.  The pieces have been given the name of 'motifs', and have been catalogued – 'The Forbidden Door', 'The Helpful Animal', 'The Cruel Stepmother', and so on.  I was also fascinated to discover that the psychoanalyst, Jung, considered some of these motifs to be archetypes: an integral part of our psychology.  The trackless forest, the wolves and 'the white bear of England's wood'; the depths of the well, the sorcerer – these appear in our dreams and shape our thinking.  The ogres and dragons and man-eating witches of fairy-tales have a reality: small children know there is a monster lurking in the dark, waiting to eat them.  Outside the cave, there was.  One of the 'uses of fairy-tales' is in helping children to sleep.  Telling them, 'Monsters don't exist,' won't help – they know it isn't true.  Giving them a dragon-slayer is far more effective.  These days, 'Dr Who' works a treat.
            However that may be, I have found fairy-stories endlessly compelling throughout my life. Indeed, I think I find them more compelling, now I'm in my fifties, than I did when I was five. Then they were a good yarn.  Now I find that, like the dark well at the foot of the World Tree, they hold fathoms deep of a not always kindly wisdom.
            I can't pinpoint exactly when I started to notice these strangely haunting echoes and connections between tales, but I know that one of the stories I read around that time was the Irish SILVERTREE AND GOLDENTREE, and so that's the story I nominate for this series.  I leave it to the reader to guess which better known fairy-story it echoes, but I will mention this: in Irish myth, a salmon lives in a pool in the Boyne, and eats the hazelnuts which fall into the water.  Hazels were magical trees, and the magical nuts made the salmon wise.  The young Fionn Mac Cumhaill was ordered by his master to catch the salmon, cook it and serve it to him.  As Fionn cooked it, he burned his thumb, stuck it in his mouth, and so tasted the salmon's flesh first, and gained all its wisdom, including the ability to understand birds and animals – just as Siegfried, in Norse legend, cooked the dragon's heart for his master, burned his thumb, stuck it in his mouth, and understood what the birds in the tree overhead were saying...


  1. Lovely post! But why does Malyuta get the miracle wrong? )It's five loaves, two fishes and five thousand fed).

    I haven't read Ghost Song but even a peasant would know the story from carvings and frescoes in church.

  2. Well, I'm not too sure how often the feeding of the Five Thousand turns up in church paintings - but Malyuta is way out in the sticks, and his little church (if there was one) would be a very humble affair - so maybe he misremembered...

    Trust you to spot that, Mary!

  3. What Kath said, Mary! But also because Malyuta's author was born, bred and raised an athiest; and had only a memory of being bored in undodged assemblies as a guide. I never knew it was wrong until now! - but I'm surprised none of my editors caught it. Maybe they thought it was a deliberate mistake too.

  4. What a super post, Susan! Fascinating stuff all round. Thanks, Kath for the whole series. It makes Fridays really special.

  5. My point was, Sue, that if he knew it at all, he would know it right. Because he would presumably have known it from church sermons? But as I say, it's in all ignorance of the book.

    And it seems the editor did not know the Bible either! I think this is sad. One can be an atheist, agnostic, pagan or member of any other religion and still know the stories. Some of them really are rather good.

    Anyway, as Kath implied, I can be relied on to pick on the least relevant point, if my editorial eye is caught. Perhaps I should be an editor rather than a writer?

  6. You'd make a good editor, Mary! But maybe the editor thought there was an alternative version of the Bible in Sue's books because they're so magical?

    And since this post is taking an unexpected religious turn, I always wondered what they did with the twelve baskets of bread that were left over at the end of the miracle after everyone was full... anyone know?

  7. Thanks! I really enjoyed reading that.
    I read the quote out to some children who definitely know their Bible stories. They looked a bit puzzled and then the eleven year old said, "I suppose him getting it wrong is part of the story."
    I hope they fed the birds and the animals with the left over bread Katherine!

  8. I love this post and I agree that Fairy Tale Fridays are wonderful. What will we do when they're over? I also appreciate being introduced to a new fairy tale (new for me). Wise fish are strangely moving. I'm including one in a middle grade novel that is now a work in progress. My love of fairy tales was reborn in recent years and I have a lot of catching up to do. Thanks for helping.

  9. Mary would be a wonderful editor, but it would be a terrible waste of a wonderful writer. How interesting to hear the children found a way to rationalise the mistake, Catdownunder! And a lovely image of the birds and beasts getting their share of the miraculous feast. Cathrin, I would love to show you a ceramic I have by a local artist who is a friend of my mother - a man tenderly cradling a fish as if it were his beloved. You'd think it would be comic, but in fact I find it magical and moving!

  10. Mary should certainly stick to writing, however good an editor she is! But she's right about the Bible Story, and I would prefer that it was right - but I didn't know I had it wrong, and nobody told me, so I couldn't put it right. I should have checked - but I made the mistake of thinking I'd had that story read at me so often that I didn't need to. A mistake I've made before...

  11. What a lovely post. All the echoes and correspondences are part of what I love about fairy tales. Someone asked me the other day what made me think fairy tales were still relevant now. The question shocked me--it has never occurred to me that anyone would think they're not. Those echoes and connections continue to find their way into so much fiction (of all kinds) and I can't see the truths that fairy tales offer ever becoming irrelevant.

  12. And Sue is such a wonderful writer that she deserves the best of editors always.We all need a second pair of eyes on a text.

    I re-write Bible stories in an on and off series for Frances Lincoln (Miracles, Parables, Animals, Kings and Queens) with lovely illustrations by Jackie Morris and Cristina Balit.

    Not with the aim of converting anyone but because the stories permeate so much of our language, literature and art that I want everyone to know them. Am not even a proper Christian myself but admire it as mythology.

    Even when I want to argue with them, as so many parables - why should the b****y Prodigal Son have all that fuss made over him, for instance?

  13. I know! But I suppose that was the point. If Christ really made up all those parables - and I'm no Biblical scholar but I haven't ever heard any reason to suppose that he didn't - then he was a riveting storyteller. Don't you think he was wanting to get just that reaction - 'BUT THAT'S SO UNFAIR!!!' to make the point that God doesn't work on human principles, and will welcome you home even at the last possible moment? And I'm not a believer any more, but I can remember so many of them.

  14. Following a line of thought here - parables are stories with a moral message, right? Used in many if not most major religions? Very effective, very striking - and must have a relationship with secular storytelling. But not many fairytales project obvious lessons (except maybe a few of the 'don't waste your opportunities by wishing a sausage on to your husband's nose' type). Oh, and I suppose, 'be courteous and good'. But what's the message of the three fairytales we've heard about so far on this series? They act on us at a deeper, more mysterious level - again like poems.

  15. Three Heads in a Well does have a very strong moral message - a "do as you would be done by" one.As does Cinderella and many others. But they don't all. What about the seven swan brothers? What IS the meaning of that incomplete shirt sleeve?

  16. I love the posts in this series. They are wonderfully written, such potent recollections of the first readings I ever heard or read, and they leave me with a memory of being a child that is vivid and poignant. Magical in the same way that a favorite book or story is.

  17. I love the post! I too absolutely adore fairytales, folk tales and myths. Though you did mention a few stories I must've missed. I'll have to see if I can find them.

    There is something truly magical about these tales. I love working in elements of these into my work. Thanks again. I've been inspired to dig out my collections and read them all again.