Friday 12 November 2010

Fairytale Reflections (9) Delia Sherman

Delia Sherman is so well known and so active in the US and international fantasy community that she hardly needs any introduction, but I'm doing one anyway because I want to tell you how much I love her books.  And so here it is:  Delia writes historical/folklore/semi-comic fairy stories with a serious twist.  Her short fiction and poetry has appeared in many anthologies.  Her adult novels are 'Through a Brazen Mirror' and 'The Porcelain Dove' (which won the Mythopoeic Award) and, with fellow-fantasist Ellen Kushner, 'The Fall of Kings'.  She has also written two wonderful novels for younger children, 'Changeling' and 'The Magic Mirror of the Mermaid Queen', featuring adventurous, impetuous, warm-hearted Neef, the official changeling of Central Park, who is always getting into scrapes. 

I first met Neef in a story called ‘CATNYP’, in one of Terri Windling and Ellen Datlow’s wonderful anthologies of short stories, “The Faery Reel”.  I was entranced, and rushed out to find the full length novels.  As a changeling child, Neef is ‘kind of bi-cultural, human and fairy’, and her adventures take place in New York City:

Not the one in the ‘I ♥ New York’ posters, but the one that exists beside it, in the walls and crawlspaces and all the little pockets and passages of its infrastructure.  Call it New York Between. 

You always knew that such a place must exist, right?  And naturally the fairy folk who have arrived over the centuries and now inhabit New York Between are diverse, dangerous and dynamic.  Expect to hear the Wild Hunt howling on autumn nights in Central Park, to meet fox spirits and moss women in the woods, and to encounter the odd Fictional Character such as the Water Rat or Stuart Little down by the lake.  Neef has an unpredictable Pooka for a fairy godfather, and a motherly white rat for a fairy godmother. There are mermaids in the harbor, a Dragon on Wall Street, while as for the Green Lady:

When she’s happy, the Green Lady of Central Park is as beautiful as the most beautiful thing you can imagine.  She has greeny-brown skin, long dark-green ropes of hair, and deep-set eyes the color of new leaves after rain.  But she can change shape, and not all of her shapes are beautiful.

As soon as she saw me, her dreadlocks lifted and began to weave around her head and hiss like snakes.  Emerald fire smoldered in her eyes and her lips lifted over teeth grown suddenly needlelike.

“Can the music, boys,” she yelled.  “We have a situation here.”

I love the fun in these books, spiced with danger.  I love the wild but utterly convincing mix of characters and the sense of place - the spirit of New York itself.  (Naturally there will be real swan maidens backstage at the ballet in the Lincoln Center...)  They belong in that long pageant of impressively good children’s books in which New York City plays its part - ‘Roller Skates’, ‘The Cricket in Times  Square’, ‘Harriet the Spy’, and ‘From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs Basil E. Frankweiler’.  Delia is an active member of the Endicott Studio of Mythic Arts and a founding member of the board of the Interstitial Arts Foundation, dedicated to art found  in between genres and crossing boundaries.  She lives – where else? – in New York City with Ellen Kushner, travels whenever she gets the chance and writes wherever she happens to be.  And her fairytale reflection is  - 


When I was a child, I had a book called Fairy Tales of Many Lands, edited by H. Herda and published by Franklin Watts in 1956.  It’s sitting by my desk as I type, its disintegrating cover patched by my mother, some time in the early 60’s, with lavender and blue flowered Contac paper.  It was originally published in German, which explains the extremely idiosyncratic choice of tales (“The Good Shepherd”? “The Gnome’s Advice”? “The Enchanted Hill?”), the unfamiliar artists (Gerhard Grossman?  Hilde Koeppen?  Ursula Wendorff-Weidt?), and the stiff, translated prose.  In any case, I pored over its strange tales and sketchy wash illustrations with the single-hearted obsession of a child in love with a book.  There’s not a single story in there that hasn’t influenced me in some way or another, including the ones I hated (“The Weathercock” and “The Wonderful Coffee Mill,” if you’re curious).  But the one that really got me where I lived was a Russian folk tale called “The Snow Child.

It’s not a well-known story, so here’s a summary:

A childless couple celebrate the first snowfall of winter by sculpting a snow baby.  A stranger walks by, and the snow baby stretches, laughs, and becomes a perfect, pale baby girl with blue eyes and hair like starlight.  The couple, delighted, take her home, put her in their empty cradle, and call her Snowflake.

Snowflake grows quickly into a beautiful, good, obedient, merry child, who helps her mother around the house and is beloved by everyone who sees her.  All winter she laughs and plays with the village children, but when the spring comes, she turns pale and quiet and takes to hiding in shady corners.  Come midsummer, she agrees to go out into the woods to celebrate with her friends.  But when they press her to leap over the midsummer bonfire, she slips away into the woods and heads towards the mountains to the north.

When Snowflake fails to return from the bonfire with the other children, the distracted parents search the forest until the village wise woman tells them to stop. Their daughter was the gift of King Winter, who has undoubtedly taken her back into his frozen kingdom.  They should be grateful for the gift and stop mourning.

In the meantime, Snowflake journeys through the woods, having adventures with a pair of lost bear cubs, turning down an offer to be Queen of a pond of musical Frogs, and sleeping under an oak tree, watched over by kindly giants, squirrels, and dwarves.  She reunites the cubs with their mother and begs a ride from a skeptical eagle, who carries her to his eyrie.  That night, King Winter appears to tell her that she is a snow child, whose real home is a crystal palace behind the moon.  He will take her there, but first she must return to her parents and tell them goodbye.  A flurry of snowflakes carries her back to her village, where she appears to her parents and tells them to be glad for her because she’s going home.  Then the sun rises and she melts and rises as a cloud to heaven.

It is, of course, a fable about children dying, right on up there with the death of Little Nell in its sentimental piety.  The oldest versions, referenced in the scholarly literature as tale-type 703, end at the midsummer bonfire, with the snow maiden giving into peer pressure and evaporating up to heaven, leaving everyone to wonder what has become of her.  Another variant has her growing up, falling in love, and melting from the heat of her sweetheart’s first kiss.

I like H. Herda’s version better.  

This Snowflake may be a compendium of Victorian virtues, but she’s anything but passive.  And she’s got a strong sense of self-preservation as well as a good heart.  She runs away from the fire—and the insensitive children who are pressuring her to jump it.  She knows how to catch trout with her bare hands and get honey from a hive.  She’s polite to frogs and wolves alike and she isn’t afraid of flying over ravines and gullies on an eagle’s back.  She’s not afraid to die.

There’s a reason that the spine of Fairy Tales from Many Lands is broken at the illustration of Snowflake in the eagle’s nest, looking longingly at the moon.  As a child, I was asthmatic, at a time when the treatment for asthma was pretty much a hot humidifier and Vicks Vaporub for mild attacks, and the hospital, an oxygen tent, and prayer for more severe ones.  Every time I couldn’t breathe, I was sure I was going to die.   And even though I was all too obviously not good, obedient, pious, industrious, or beloved by all who beheld me, I found hope in Snowflake’s after-evaporation reunion with her brother and sister snowflakes.

The comfort I found in Snowflake’s death is why I’m so appalled by the 20th Century’s cultural redefinition of fairy tales as simplistic, sanitized, happily-ever-after stories of heterosexual romance for children.  Yes, Fairy Tales of Many Lands was published for children, and I can’t read it now without wincing at the slightly twee tone of the prose (“Does this child really want to go up to the sky, this bewitching little child whom no one can resist?”).  And yet the stories confront the bitter side of human relations as well as the sweet, and the protagonists triumph over bandits and malicious friends as well as giants and dragons.  With few exceptions, the girls in these stories are as active and clever as the boys, and their rewards are not restricted to marriage.

Reading the story now, it seems odd to me that I identified so strongly with Snowflake.  Where she revived in the cold, I withered and wheezed.  Where she was slender and dainty and blonde, I was plump and bespectacled and mousy brown.  I was too allergic to animals to have a pet, let alone romp with bears, and couldn’t even play outside at recess, let alone go adventuring in the woods.  I was afraid of heights.  And my parents, while they loved me, did not approach the standards set by old Ivan and Maria.  Yet her story was, on one level, mine.  We were both children adopted by much older parents when we were babies, we were only children, and we were the gift of a stranger.  Neither of us fit the norms of the world we’d been brought into.  Both of us longed for a home we could hardly imagine, among people who not only loved us, but knew and accepted us for what we were.

Snowflake had to evaporate to find her home.  I only had to grow up.

As an author, I have retold “The Snow Child” only once, in a story called “The Printer’s Daughter,” written for the Windling/Datlow fairy tale anthology Ruby Slippers, Golden Tears.  My chance-child is made of paper, not snow, and her adventures take place in the wilderness of Elizabethan London rather than in a Russian forest.  Frisket is a post-modern heroine, fully conscious that she’s not human, always longing to go back to paper and ink.  Which she does, in the end, with the help of a scruffy poet.  It’s one of my favorite pieces of my own fiction, drawing on all the Elizabethan prose I read for my degree in Renaissance studies as well as on “The Snow Child.”  But it’s not the only piece of fiction that story has touched.  Almost everything I write has got a foundling in it somewhere, a child out of place or out of time, raised and loved by those who have no blood kinship with it.  Like Snowflake, each of these foundlings is and is not me, their stories rooted in mine and branching from it, like tributaries from the river that is my drive to write.

Picture credits: Photo of Delia Sherman by Laurence Tammaccio
Illustration of The Snow Maiden from a painted box by  A Verdernikov, 2000



  1. Lovely piece. Great last sentence!

  2. Those stories have always grabbed me with the Moment: that moment when the true family of the foundling comes and cries, "Sister, Daughter, at last we've found you! Come home!"

  3. Thank you for reminding me of Snow Child. I can vaguely remember reading a version of it when I was younger and being quite disturbed by it.

    I love the sound of the fairies in New York - looking forward to exploring your work!

  4. I've never heard that tale. I like the idea of the Winter King walking around, first making snow children, then giving them away. I like the idea of a crystal palace on the moon, and that before she can go she must say goodbye. It's very provocative!

    And now I must go find "Printer's Daughter."

    I just read CATNYP for the first time two weeks ago. So that's funny.

  5. I've never heard of this tale, but I can understand why you resonated with it as a child.

    A while ago, someone sneered at my love of fairy tales and the fact that I spend time writing them. She said, "It seems to be the trendy thing to do."

    Why did I cast my pearls among swine?
    I'm grateful for this community of people who comprehend the special role that fairy tales play in our lives.

  6. Cathrin, I can't understand why someone would sneer at fairytales or the writing of them - 'the trendy thing to do'? It sounds like envy of something she cannot understand, and you can do nothing with such people.

    csecooney, I'm going looking for 'The Printer's Daughter, too!

    Delia's post sent me back to a book from my own childhood - in fact, from my mother's childhood and passed on to me - called 'The Mammoth Wonder Book'- full of stories and pictures. I seemed to remember a version of 'The Snow Child' in there. It turns out to be by Nathaniel Hawthorne, and is about a snow girl built by two children in their garden, who then comes to life and plays with them, until the parents, upset by the sight of a child in a thin dress playing in the cold, insist on bringing her in and placing her by ther fire, whereupon she faints and melts. I'm not sure about the message here - maybe a romantic, 'children know what adults miss'?

    And I also remember Raymond Briggs' wonderful wordless picture book 'The Snowman'. All about the (necessary) transience of beauty and childhood...

  7. Lovely post, and now I'll have to go hunt down Delia's Neef in NYC books because I love fantasy which steps alongside the real world and in particular, New York City, a crazed place in which magical alternatives and half-glimpsed supernatural beings seem all too plausible

  8. Beautiful post. I hadn't heard of this poignant tale before. It did also remind me of Briggs' touching story "The Snowman." I adore the idea of a child made of paper. So fragile, and so full of meanings and associations. (And set in Elizabethan London!!) I will certainly be another one on the lookout for "The Printer's Daughter."

  9. Delia's lovely post reminded me of one on Rima Staines' blog a while back, on snow in children's book illustration:

    (Rima is a young artist who lives down the street in my little village on Dartmoor.)

    "The Printer's Daughter" is one of my favorite all-time stories of Delia's. Utterly magical.

  10. What a lovely post! I don't know that story but it has that haunting half-familiar feeling so many fairy tales have. And I must hunt down Delia's books, they sound enchanting :)

  11. Terri did a beautiful piece of art based on Delia's "The Printer's Daughter" - a favorite of ours, it hangs in our guest room, and is much admired by all who come. (We must find a way to put it up online somewhere for all to see....)

  12. Oh do, if you can - what a lovely thing to have!