Friday 24 December 2010

Queen Marie of Romania' s Christmas Story

A couple of weeks ago Heidi, at SurLaLune, was kind enough to suggest that I might be able to recruit Jane Austen or Charlotte Bronte to write me a post for Fairytale Reflections. I’m working on that. But today, Christmas Eve, seems to me the best of times to share with you a story.  A Christmas story.

But which one? The real Christmas story is all about the baby in the manger, and I don’t need to retell it here. ‘The Snow Queen’ and the ‘Snow Child’ have already been discussed here, and anyway they are really winter stories rather than Christmas tales. And ‘The Little Match Girl’ is too sad.

But there’s a story I came across in an old book many years ago which, with its Christian references, its piety, its poverty and its genuine moments of terror – even with its sentimentality – really does encapsulate something of the cruel winter darkness, and the necessary counter-blaze of light that we all feel the need for at this time of year (in the Northern hemisphere at least). It's a fantastic story to tell aloud.  It works for me – and it seems to have worked for the children to whom I’ve told it, over the years, at Christmas time.

It was written by the remarkable Queen Marie of Romania.  Allow me to introduce you!

Marie Alexandra Victoria, Princess of Edinburgh, was one of Queen Victoria's many grandchildren, born on the 29th of October (coincidentally my birthday too!), in 1875: the eldest daughter of the Queen's second son Prince Alfred, and his wife Grand Duchess Maria Alexandrovna of Russia. And so, little Princess Marie was just about as blue-blooded as she could possibly be.

In her teens, her first cousin the Prince of Wales (later King George V) fell in love with her and asked her to marry him - but although both fathers of the young couple were happy with the match, neither of their mothers approved. The Grand Duchess disliked the British royals, and the Prince’s mother, Alexandra of Denmark, did not like Germans, to whom Marie was related on both sides of her family. Such a dislike might seem odd, considering Alexandra’s royal husband was also of German descent - nevertheless, this lovely snarl of family prejudice got the match disapproved, and Marie was married off instead to Crown Prince Ferdinand of Romania - in some haste. She was seventeen and he was twenty-seven.

Well, the marriage was unhappy, but Marie was not a young woman to put up and shut up.  You can see her strength of character in photos and portraits (look at that determined mouth!) She flung herself into a series of passionate affairs, and it’s likely that at least three of her six children were born to lovers rather than to her husband.  In 1899, pregnant with her daughter Mignon, Marie forced her father-in-law King Carol to allow her to give birth as she wished in her father’s dukedom of Coburg, by declaring to his face that the baby she carried was not his son's, but the child of a Russian duke. Her husband – a quiet fellow who probably had little say either in choosing his whirlwind of a bride – recognised the child as his own to avoid scandal.

In the darkly ominous year 1914, King Carol died, Ferdinand ascended the throne, and twenty-nine year old Marie became Queen of Romania. Her charismatic personality quite overshadowed her husband's, and she became the country’s de facto ruler. She threw herself into the war effort, devising strategic plans with her military advisors for the defence of Romania against the German army.  She enrolled as a Red Cross nurse.  She wrote a book about Romania: ‘My Country’, to raise funds. A long-term friend of the Astors and other American socialites, she also pulled strings to obtain vital loans from the US government.  And after the war, she made an appearance at the Paris Peace Conference to help secure Romanian territories. By now known as ‘the Soldier Queen’, she famously declared, ‘Romania needs a face, and I will be that face.’

On her husband’s death in 1927, Marie’s son Carol became King of Romania. She eventually took a back seat and remained in Romania, writing books and memoirs. She died in Peleş Castle in 1938.

And Marie could write.  I don’t know whether this story of hers is traditional, or whether she invented it, but I suspect it's a bit of both. Some of the elements, especially the terrifying, groaning well in the dark, icy forest, could easily be traditional, but clearly Marie has ‘written it up’ – and in my opinion she has done a pretty good job. A love of her adopted country shines through, and there are many sharply and sympathetically observed details of Romanian peasant life.

And since children like Petru still exist - and since this is Christmastime - and since Queen Marie's story is all about poor children, I hope you won’t mind me adding a link to a children’s charity that works across Eastern Europe: Hope and Homes for Children.

'Fairytale Reflections' will be back in January. In the meantime, please have the happiest of Christmasses and a wonderful New Year, and enjoy reading


Friday 17 December 2010

Fairytale Reflections (14) Celia Rees

Celia Rees, best known for her historical novels, is not commonly regarded as a fantasy writer.  And if what you mean by ‘fantasy’ is a medieval-style secondary world filled with wizardry, dark lords, elves and sorcery, then indeed, Celia doesn’t do that stuff.  But we all know the boundaries of fantasy are wider than that single stereotype.  The titles of Celia’s historical YA novels (such as ‘Witch Child’, ‘Sorceress’, ‘Pirates!’) betray her interest in writing what I would describe as strongly themed, folklore-inspired fiction.  Of ‘Witch Child’, for example, Celia says:

I studied American history at university and can remember thinking about those first settlers, surrounded by vast forests… an ocean from home.  Many years later I was reading about 17th century witch persecutions in England and I began to speculate.  What did that mean, to be a witch?  I thought of it as a kind of shamanism.  It occurred to me that Native Americans were a shamanistic people.  The beliefs and skills which would have condemned a girl in one community would have been revered in the other.  That got me thinking: ‘What if there was a girl who was a witch.  What if she went to America, thinking she would be safe there?’

‘Witch Child’ won the Di Cento prize in Italy in 2001 and the prestigious Prix Sorcières in France in 2003.  (And of course Sorcières means ‘witches’…)  Then came its sequel ‘Sorceress’; the colourful ‘Pirates!’ concerning two 18th century girls who take to the high seas; and ‘Sovay’, based on an old English ballad about a female highwayman who holds up her lover at pistol point.  In many of Celia’s novels there is a subtle touch of the supernatural.  She has even written stories about ghosts and vampires… and in the ‘The Stone Testament’, she combines in one intricate Chinese puzzle of a book, Victorian explorers, an ancient civilization, a worldwide modern suicide cult, the End of Days, a supernatural crystal skull, and the reappearance of the Beast Gods from the far past. 

So I do think she qualifies...

And all her books are so well written that really I want to quote from each one I pick up. You’ll have to make do with just two.  This is from the beginning of the ‘The Stone Testament’:

Mikel sang the Song of Leaving.  The land was doomed to die, along with all living plants and animals.  The only way to survive was to depart.

…He had been here for more than a day, sitting cross-legged and motionless, high on the cliff above the Cape of Souls, where three oceans met.  …The waves collapsed back into a furious chaos of white water which turned in wide spirals… moving always towards one central pool which lay directly below the face of the cliff.  Here the water was still and black, solid like glass. The Eye of the Sea.

There was something different about the bulging lens of water, something wrong.  The boy was disturbed in some deep way but knew better that to stare into the terrifying swirl of currents.  To look would mean to be sucked down… as surely as the spirits of the departing dead, who whispered past him on the final stage of their journey.  In a late stuttering rush the souls of men, women and children came skittering around him, like dead leaves blown on the wind. 

(Am I right to suspect a quiet echo of Milton's Paradise Lost there: where the fallen angels lie ‘thick as autumnal leaves that strew the brooks/In Vallombrosa…’ ?)  Anyway, here, in completely different mood, is a passage from ‘Pirates!’  The white girl Nancy and the black girl Minerva, both dressed as young men, stroll through the capital of a Caribbean island at dusk:

White stars blazed across the sky.  I looked up at them, reading the constellations, wanting to set a course that would take us far away from everyone and everything, to a place where we could live together without danger and free.

“What are you thinking?” Minerva asked.

“Oh, I don’t know.”  I thrust my hands in my pockets.  “I was thinking of a song.  About a magical ship with ropes of silk and sails of silver and mast made from the rowan tree.  I was thinking how good it would be to set sail in her and steer for the sun and the moon and stars.”

Minerva looked away from me.  To the harbour.  “Do you regret the turns your life has taken?”

I didn’t answer, because I didn’t know.

After studying History and Politics at the University of Warwick, Celia spent 17 years teaching English in city comprehensive schools.  She began writing in 1989, and has published over twenty books for older children and teenagers, which have been translated into 28 languages and shortlisted for many major awards.  Her most recently published book, ‘The Fool’s Girl’, draws its inspiration from Shakespeare’s ‘Twelfth Night’, and I reviewed it here.   And her Fairytale Reflection is the story of –


‘she wants to be flowers and you make her owls...’ (The Owl Service, Alan Garner)

Blodeuedd is a story from the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogion. I first came across it when I was eleven or twelve years old and reading my way through the Myths, Legends and Fairy Tales section of the school library. There, I discovered Lady Charlotte Guest’s translation of the Mabinogion, that great collection of Welsh stories. I was familiar with Greek myths and legends, stories of the Norse gods, but these tales were new to me and they were our stories, stories from the British Isles. There were familiar characters, I recognised King Arthur, but this was not the Arthur I knew. There was a strangeness here and a power. Many of the stories did not make sense on first reading; there was a denseness about them, a feeling that the tales contained many stories, concentrated and packed together. This did not detract from my enjoyment. It merely added to the mystery. Here were kings, queens, magicians and shape shifters, golden ships, magic cauldrons, giants and dragons but behind them it was possible to sense something far more ancient, darker: more dangerous and more powerful.

I have continued to be fascinated by the Mabinogion, by its elusiveness and by its hints at other meanings, the remnants of a much more ancient storytelling tradition reaching back into an otherwise unknowable pre-history. The Mabinogion has proved a rich source of raw material for many of our greatest fantasy writers: Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Susan Cooper and, of course, Alan Garner who used the story of Blodeuedd as the basis for his novel The Owl Service.

Then they took the flowers of the oak, and the flowers of the broom, and the flowers of the meadowsweet, and from these they conjured up the fairest and the most beautiful maiden that anyone had ever seen. And they baptised her in the way they had at that time, and named her Blodeuedd.

She is made from the sweet smelling flowers of summer, gold for beauty, white for purity. ‘They’ are Math, a powerful magician, and his nephew, Gwdyion, shape shifter and story teller. They are making a wife for Lleu Llaw Gyffes, miraculous child and now strapping young man. The boy’s mother, the great queen Aranrhod, will not own him and Math and Gwdyion resort to trickery to get her to grant him the trappings that will mark him as noble: a name, arms, a wife. They have already tricked her into naming and arming him but she has got wise to their wiles and places a bane upon the boy: ‘He will never have a wife from the race that is on this earth.’  Undeterred, Math and Gwydion make him a woman out of flowers but they cannot control her. They cannot make her love Lleu, or prevent her from falling in love with another: Gronw Pebr, lord of Penllyn, who is staying in her house. When Lleu is called away, she betrays him with his guest. Even though Lleu is protected and can only be killed in the most bizarre and unlikely set of circumstances, she manages to overcome protections to enable Gronw to kill him with a spear. Lleu is, of course, no ordinary mortal, so at the moment of his death he changes into an eagle. Gwydion finds him and restores his true self. Then Gwydion goes after Blodeuedd. In punishment for what she has done, he turns her into an owl.

‘I will not kill you. I will do worse. Namely, I release you in the form of a bird … you will never dare show your face in daylight for fear of all the birds … You shall not lose your name, however, but will always be called Blodeuwedd. Blodeuwedd is owl in today’s language and for that reason the birds hate the owl and the owl is called Blodeuwedd ’ 

Gronw Pebr, the adulterous guest, does not escape punishment. He is made to stand on the same spot where Lleu he was standing when he was killed. He is allowed to put a stone between himself and his attacker, but Lleu’s spear goes through the stone and kills him. So ends the story of Blodeuedd, and so ends the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogion. 

I like magicians who make mistakes. Their mistake is to think that they can make a woman out of flowers, or anything else, and expect to control her, or crucially expect her to obey human rules. It is all bound to go hideously wrong. On the other hand, you cannot get away with breaking the universal, ancient and binding obligations of a wife to her husband, or a guest to his host. Those who do so will inevitably be punished.

The mistakes, the misplaced love, the infidelity, the punishment, all make the story very human. One of the most intriguing aspects to the story is its association with an identifiable place: Nantlleu – the  valley of Lleu. The Nantlle(u) Valley is located along the Llyfni river to the east of  Pen-y-groes and Tal-y-sarn in North Wales. Even more intriguingly, a stone pierced with a hole was found in a local river in 1934. This gives the story an unusual and powerful validity, a sense that these things really happened in this place, something not lost on Alan Garner, when he set his modern re-telling in this actual valley. Behind these characters, however, stand greater, more shadowy figures, hinted at by the powers, abilities, and often names associated with them. Lleu, for example, is set apart by the bane upon him, his special protection, his great strength and above all his name which associates him with Lugh, the Celtic god, who is, in turn, identified with Mercury.  

Then there is the enigma of Blodeuedd herself. Math and Gwdyion don’t destroy her. How can they? She is their creation. They make her into an owl. Somehow, in doing this, they exchange the grounded passivity of flowers for something far more potent. They give her wings and a whole new set of associations. She still has beauty. In my mind, she becomes a barn owl, one of our most beautiful native birds. In becoming an owl she takes on other meanings: fierce hunter, ghost-like harbinger of death, but also potent and universal signifier of knowledge and wisdom. These different aspects echo the dual and triple aspects of many goddesses. Blodeuedd uses her wings to fly back through time and across space, to perch on the shoulder of the Greek goddess Athene, and stand next to the great Babylonian goddess, Ishtar, who is often shown with the feet of a bird and flanked by owls.


NB: For those unfamiliar with Welsh pronunciation, 'Blodeuedd' is pronounced roughly: Blod-OY-eth

Friday 10 December 2010

Fairytale Reflections (13) Juliet Marillier

I first came across Juliet Marillier’s historical fantasies several years ago when the beautiful cover of ‘Wolfskin’, with its dark Viking ship against a golden sky, caught my attention. But – though strongly tempted – I didn’t read it. The reason? I was writing Viking-period fantasy myself at the time, and reading someone else’s fictional take on the period was too dangerous. (Either the other author’s work is so much better than your own that you get discouraged, or it’s so different that you become distracted, or it’s exactly what you wanted to do yourself - and now you can’t. Safer to steer clear!)

Then, more recently, I came across Juliet’s YA novel ‘Wildwood Dancing’ which has nothing at all to do with Vikings. I read it, and its sequel ‘Cybele’s Secret’ – and was utterly enchanted. And since I’m not currently writing any more Viking-age fantasies, I can break my self-imposed taboo and go back to read ‘Wolfskin’ and its sequel ‘Foxmask’. Yay!

Juliet was born and brought up in Dunedin, New Zealand, and now lives in Western Australia. Her books have won many awards, including the Aurealis (three times) the Sir Julius Vogel Award, and France’s Prix Imaginales. She is a member of the druid order OBOD (the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids), and owns to ‘a lifelong love of traditional stories’. She lives in a hundred year old cottage which she shares with a small pack of waifs and strays.

Juliet’s work is rooted in myth, folklore and fairytales. ‘Wildwood Dancing’ is set in a ramshackle old house – a castle, really – called Piscul Dracului, Devil’s Peak, deep in the forests of rural Transylvania. Strange tales are attached to the place, and it’s not surprising that Jena, whose best friend is a frog of uncanny intelligence, shares a secret with her four sisters. In their bedroom is a portal to the Other Kingdom, which when it opens reveals:

…a flight of stone steps snaking down, down into the depths of the castle. The first time it had ever happened, back when there were only four of us, we had clutched each other’s hands tightly and crept down trembling with excitement and terror.

By now, however, it is with excitement and pleasure that the girls look forward to their evening of dancing with their Other Kingdom partners:

Our slippers whispered on the stone floor as we glided along under the carven extravagance of the roof. Here, there were enough gargoyles and dragons and strange beasts to decorate the grandest building in Transylvania. They clung to the corners and crept around the pillars…watching us with bright, unwavering eyes. Subterranean mosses crawled over their heads and shoulders, softening their angular forms… The first time we saw this Gallery of the Beasts, Tati had whispered, “They’re not real, are they?” and I had whispered back, “Just nod your head and keep walking.” I had sensed, even then, that respect and courtesy could go a long way to keeping a person safe in a place such as this.

Respect, courtesy, courage – the strength of sisterly love and family ties – and a strong dose of the attractions and wild dangers of the Otherworld and the woods. These seem to be some of the recurrent values of Juliet’s work. And her heroines – Jena of ‘Wildwood Dancing’, Caitrin of ‘Heart’s Blood’ – are intelligent, hardworking, responsible, and brave. They may live in apparently isolated villages or castles, they may enjoy dancing with faerie princes, but they belong to the wider world, they acknowledge links of trade and commerce. They value education, the chance to travel and work. They are, in the best sense, civilized.

Juliet has a deep belief in the power of storytelling for teaching and healing. I was much struck by her reaction to her diagnosis of cancer in 2009:

I realised very soon after my diagnosis that if I didn’t meet the challenge with the same bravery my female characters showed in their stories, then what I was writing was invalid. I did my best to be as brave as Liadan or Eile during that year of surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy.

I’ve never read a more moving testament to the bond between author and character, the life-flow between creator and creation. What more can I say? Here is Juliet herself to talk about the fairytale which underpins her adult novel ‘Heart’s Blood’:


I’ve loved Beauty and the Beast ever since I discovered it in Andrew Lang’s Blue Fairy Book at the age of eight or so. As a child, I was captured by the magical elements of the story: the mysterious empty house with the meal ready on the table and the bed turned down for the weary traveller; the shock of the Beast’s first appearance; the mirror that allows Beauty to see far away; the cast of invisible retainers; the sixth sense that lets our heroine rush back to her dying Beast just in time to save his life. As a child I was untroubled by the fact that Beauty was so much the victim of her family’s poor judgement. I simply revelled in the spellbinding romance of the story. It was probably that tale, above all, that shaped me into a writer who puts a good love story in every novel!

All my books contain elements of traditional storytelling. I thank both my Celtic ancestry and a perceptive children’s librarian for providing me with a very early passion for myth, legend, fairytale and folklore. Of my twelve novels, three are loosely based on well known fairytales, and the others dip frequently into the cauldron of story that we all share, borrowing themes and motifs from its rich brew and, I hope, adding something new each time to the nourishing contents. I’ll write more later on my use of Beauty and the Beast as the framework for a gothic fantasy-romance for adults, Heart’s Blood (Roc, 2009.) First let’s look at the history of the fairytale itself.

According to fairytale scholar Jack Zipes, the literary development of Beauty and the Beast starts with the Greek myth of Cupid and Psyche, published by Roman writer Apuleius the second century. This story was revived in seventeenth century France, where it became immensely popular, inspiring various re-tellings including a ‘tragédie-ballet’ by Corneille and Molière.

Cupid and Psyche is a story about the perils of female curiosity, and belongs to an oral storytelling tradition featuring mysterious bridegrooms and inquisitive brides. Marry me, the young woman is told, share my bed, but don’t ever light the lamp after night falls. When the curious woman inevitably falls victim to temptation, she loses her husband and may or may not be allowed to win him back by performing a gruelling quest. East of the Sun and West of the Moon is a wonderful example of this kind of tale.

French writers of romances reworked the tale of Cupid and Psyche in various ways, usually incorporating magical transformations, wicked fairies and handsome princes. These tales had the dual function of entertainment and instruction. As with most re-tellings of traditional stories, whether oral or written, the new versions were tailored to their time, culture and readership. In the French romances, the emphasis shifts towards the female protagonist. She must discover the importance of keeping her word, and learn which virtues are most to be valued in a young woman. In addition, she learns that a true hero practises the qualities of courtesy, honour and self-restraint.

Gabrielle de Villeneuve’s elaborate, extended tale of Beauty and the Beast, published in 1740, was the model for most of the later versions. A simpler version, intended for a young audience, was written by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont. Instead of Psyche, who lets her curiosity get the better of her common sense, we have Beauty, a model of daughterly loyalty, sweetness and self-denial. Jack Zipes tells us that in Mme de Villeneuve’s version, Beauty is ready to give up her claim to the Beast/Prince at the end of the story because her own origins are too humble to make her a fit wife for him. The fairies intervene and argue on her behalf, and then, in a real cop-out of an ending, we discover that Beauty is actually adopted, and a princess!

The story most of us are familiar with goes something like this. There’s a widowed merchant with three daughters. They’ve fallen on hard times, and have gone to live in the country where they run a small farm. The two elder daughters are vain and lazy, and spend all their time moaning about the loss of their wealth and status. The youngest daughter, Beauty, is not only lovely to look at, but a paragon of virtue who works hard and never complains despite the selfish behaviour of her sisters. Elder siblings in traditional stories are often shown as less than admirable, while the youngest is generally good and beautiful, though sometimes naive.

Father hears that one of his ships, thought to be lost at sea, has arrived safely in port. He heads off to retrieve the cargo. Before he goes he asks the daughters what gifts they want him to bring home for them. Sisters One and Two ask for jewels, silks and so on. Beauty asks her father to bring her a rose.

On his way home Father is caught in a storm in a forest and seeks shelter in a mysterious castle that seems deserted. Despite the emptiness, lights are blazing and he finds a delicious meal all set out, which he eats. He finds a cosy bed all prepared, and he sleeps. In the morning he wanders into the garden and finds roses blooming. Remembering Beauty’s request, he picks one, and a fearsome Beast appears to tell him his life is forfeit. If not his own, then that of one of his daughters. The Beast lets the father leave on condition that either he or one of his daughters returns within a certain period.

When she hears this, Beauty insists on returning with her father, since it was her request for a rose that caused the trouble. She persuades her father to leave her at the Beast’s castle, and the Beast sends Father home with a chest of riches.

Over the next few months, Beauty is provided with everything she wants, and the Beast comes to eat supper with her every evening. Once Beauty realises the Beast is not fattening her up to eat her, she befriends him, and realises over time that despite his hideous appearance, he is a courteous, thoughtful and charming companion. After some time, Beauty wants to visit her family and the Beast allows her to go for one week. Her sisters, however, conspire to keep her home for longer. They’re jealous of her fine clothes and her happiness, and they are hoping the Beast will get annoyed and devour her!

After ten days, Beauty dreams the Beast is lying in the garden of his castle, almost dead. She is stricken by remorse and realises she cares about him more than she realised. ‘It is neither handsome looks nor intelligence that makes a woman happy. It is good character, virtue, and kindness, and the Beast has all these good qualities.’ (Mme Leprince de Beaumont.)

Beauty rushes back to the castle, finds her dream was indeed true, splashes the Beast’s face with water and tells him she loves him. The Beast disappears, to be replaced by a prince ‘more handsome than Eros himself.’ He explains that Beauty has just undone a wicked witch’s spell, which prevented him from revealing either his looks or his true intelligence until a girl came along who would ‘allow the goodness of my character to touch you.’ A good fairy praises Beauty for preferring virtue over beauty and wit. Beauty and her prince are married, and the two sisters are turned into statues that will stand one at each side of the castle doors until they learn to recognise their faults.

Maybe this tale has its origins in Cupid and Psyche, but the Greek myth’s theme of feminine curiosity has vanished completely from the Beauty and the Beast stories of Mme de Villeneuve and Mme Leprince de Beaumont. The story is no longer about a woman’s inability to respect her lover’s secrets, but has become a tale of virtue and self-denial rewarded; a lesson in feminine behaviour, eighteenth century style. Indeed, reading the Mme de Beaumont version today I find myself rather surprised that I still love the story! Of course, the wonderful magical elements remain, even if the moral lesson is somewhat difficult for a contemporary readership to swallow.

When I used Beauty and the Beast as a framework for my adult novel, Heart’s Blood, I saw the theme of the story as acceptance: learning to accept others with all their flaws, both physical and non-physical; and learning to accept, love and forgive yourself, no matter what your weaknesses and faults. I altered various elements of the story, notably to make my Beauty a less passive person. In my story, both principal characters carry a weight of past trouble. Anluan (Beast) has suffered a stroke in childhood, losing full use of one arm and leg, and has fallen into depression after various family crises. He sees himself as crippled, weak and impotent. Caitrin (Beauty) is on the run from abusive relatives, and is barely holding herself together after a breakdown. So we have a pair of wary, damaged protagonists, each of whom must learn self-acceptance before he/she can reach out to the other. Together they must face an external challenge of massive proportions, as well as confronting their personal demons.

Anluan does not provide a splendid castle, beautiful clothing and sumptuous meals for Caitrin, but he does provide the two things she needs most: a safe place to stay, and paid work in the craft she loves (she’s a scribe.) Caitrin is neither a great beauty nor a paragon of feminine self-denial. Her sense of self-worth has taken a battering. But she has one virtue that allows her to make a difference: she sees every individual as worthy of love, no matter how flawed. In reclaiming others, she finds herself.

I ditched the wicked fairy’s curse and the magical transformation from beast to prince. I’ve always disliked stories in which the hero or heroine must become physically perfect (and wealthy / noble) before the happy ending can occur. For me, it is inner beauty that counts, and the knowledge that everyone is worthy of love. So my Beast has a disability at the start, and he still has it at the end. But by the end, it no longer matters.

I did keep the parts of Beauty and the Beast that I so loved in childhood. Heart’s Blood has a forbidden garden and a rare flower; it has a cast of unusual retainers; it has magic mirrors; it has a visit home and a precipitate return to face a life-and-death crisis. It also has ghosts, Irish history, a library full of ancient documents and a little occult magic. Beauty and the Beast it isn’t. But the strong old bones of my favourite fairytale are there throughout, giving my story its true heart.

And that’s what is so marvellous about fairytales. They’re as ancient as the hills, but they never grow old. As society and culture change, as our world becomes a place Apuleius and Mme Leprince de Beaumont could never have dreamed possible, the wisdom of those tales remains relevant to our lives. Because, of course, the stories change with us. We tell them and re-tell them, and they morph and grow and stretch to fit the framework of our time and culture, just as they did when they were told around the fire after dark in times long past. In this high-speed technological age, an age in which 140 characters are deemed sufficient to transmit a meaningful message, these stories still have much to teach us. We would do well to listen.

Friday 3 December 2010

Fairytale Reflections (12) John Dickinson

John Dickinson’s debut novel ‘The Cup of the World’ was published in 2004 at pretty much the same moment as my own ‘Troll Fell’. You tend to notice the books your first novel arrives in the world with – like picking out the other children in a kindergarten class where your own child has just started. ('Go, little book – and please make friends...') - but I would have noticed this book any time, anywhere.  Besides its intriguing title, ‘The Cup of the World’ had - has - the most gorgeous cover: all storm-lit smoky skies swirling over a great stone-lipped cup rimming a world of cities, lakes and mountains. It begs to be lifted off the shelves.

The Cup of the World’ and its sequels ‘The Widow and The King’ and ‘The Fatal Child’ are set in a far-off, war-troubled medieval kingdom. Once, long ago, Wulfram the Seafarer came with his seven sons and conquered the land. Now the different baronies and territories descended from those sons are in turmoil and open revolt, bitter with complex politics and grudges.

The first book follows the fortunes of headstrong Phaedra, visited in dreams by a mysterious knight whom she marries, when finally they meet, in spite of his reputation for black magic... In the second book, Phaedra’s son grows up in exile with his mother, and in the third book he becomes ‘Prince Under the Sky’ – ever wandering as he seeks to undo the curse of Beyah, the weeping goddess of the land.

This is not a fantasy in which things automatically turn out well. Indeed it has the classic feel of a tragedy such as the Morte d’Arthur, in which the good intentions of men and women are overwhelmed by destiny. It’s full of compelling, flawed characters and beautiful, ominous writing. Here Phaedra has found little Ambrose clambering – as toddlers will if unregarded for a moment – up the stone steps to the tower. Then she sees something waiting on the steps above him:

The crouching thing lifted its head. Beneath the hood it seemed eyeless, toad-headed. Something crunched. Flecks of stone trickled down the stair.

Long fingers that were not a man’s stretched towards the child.

“Amba!” she said, louder this time. The boy looked round and saw her. I’m busy, his look said.

If she stepped forward he would turn to climb again. Two steps above him the fingers hovered like the roots of black trees. Water glistened on them. She must not look. She must look at Ambrose. At Ambrose. “Come down, darling. Please – come down.”

John is the son of the author Peter Dickinson, and worked in the Ministry of Defence, Cabinet Office and NATO before leaving the civil service to begin writing. This seems an excellent background for an author whose work is so deeply concerned with the complexities, compromises and betrayals of human relationships, both personal and political. John has also published a historical novel for adults, ‘The Lightstep’, set in a German palatinate at the time of the French Revolution, and a coldly beautiful science fiction novel called ‘WE’, which has recently been nominated for the Carnegie Medal. They are both wonderful. And for his Fairytale Reflection, he has chosen to talk about the fascinations of -



The cave of wonders!  Torchlight glitters on piles of gems.  It glows on jars of incense, on carpets, cloth, leather and canvas sacks that have split with the weight of coin and cascaded gold and silver across the floor.  There’s pile upon pile of it, more than can possibly be counted, receding into the shadows.   The light trembles.  The hand the holds the torch shudders.  Where did all these things come from?  The men that laid them here are fierce and cruel.  Hanging on hooks among the silks, like a carcass at a market, are the dismembered quarters of an unlucky traveller who was seized and hacked to pieces for daring to enter the cave.  The last drops of his blood still drip to black pools upon the floor.  He died not long ago.  His killers must be close by.  What’s that noise?  Is it sand, trickling in a crevice, or the hiss of indrawn breath?  Is it gold that glitters from the deepest shadows - or is it blades of steel? 

Surprisingly, Ali Baba may not one of the original stories in The Arabian Nights.  Like Sinbad and Aladdin it may have been collected separately by Galland, the eighteenth century French traveller who popularised the Nights in Europe.  But it’s one of my Arabian Nights – the Nights that have been with me since childhood.  It was in the big, colourful, yellow-jacketed hardback book that my parents gave us and through which we entered that fantastic world.  I can still remember the pictures, flat and stylised like Persian miniatures, and the way the robber chief throws up his arm before the cave as he cries “Open Sesame!”

So many stories!  Ali Baba and his slave-girl Morgiana, and thirty-nine thieves dead in their jars of oil.  Aladdin and his lamp.  The Sultan Haroun al Raschid and his vizier Jafaar.  The hunchback and the bone he choked upon.  The brothers Aboukir and Abousir, and the city where the dyers only know how to colour things blue.  Turbans and curling beards and gongs and incense.   Cunning and beauty and terrible cruelty.  This was fantasy, an other world far removed from Western living-rooms, long before Tennyson wrote his Idylls or Tolkein woke our Northern myth from its slumber. 

And Scheherazade herself.  The young woman who, night after night, tells the stories to her husband the Caliph, knowing that if she ever loses his interest she will be executed in the morning like all his other wives before her.  In the sweltering darkness she whispers to him, and he listens with his head propped on silken pillows as she ends one tale and begins another, only to fall silent just as her royal murderer is begging for more.  Young as she is, she has mastered the art of the cliffhanger. 

(I never asked myself, when I had that yellow book in my hands, what else she might have known about amusing men in bed.  Nor did I wonder if the Caliph’s problem with women might have stemmed from some very private little problem of his own, and the reason the stories worked for him was because nothing else was going to.  Sad creature that I am, I can think these things now. )

A thousand stories!  I’m a storyteller myself, and used to being asked about my ideas.  But where did she get all hers from?  Maybe she walked at dawn through in the peacock gardens, her brain dull from fear and lack of sleep, plotting the twists and turns that would keep her alive for one night more.  That story about the sailor went well.  It must be worth a sequel or two.  Is seven pushing it too far? All right, but what’s he going to do on his seven voyages?  (Bird flies by with mouse dead in its claws)  That’s it!  Birds!  Big birds, big enough to feed on elephants!  That’ll make him sit up.  That will get me one more dawn like this.  One more…   

Stories inside stories inside stories.  Scheherazade tells of Jafaar the vizier, who, found wanting by his master Haroun, obtains a pardon for himself by entertaining his Caliph with the Tale of Nur al-Din Ali.  (No harm, you can hear Scheherazade thinking, in planting the idea of mercy in her own Caliph’s head).    The Fisherman tells the Djinn the story of the sage Duban.  Sinbad the Porter hears the story of the seven voyagers from his namesake the Sailor.  It’s like Russian dolls, one inside another inside another, and each decorated and striking, and the myriad of voices that tell them seem to come from all around, echoing inside the cave. 

A thousand and one stories?  Some collections have as many – ancient tales that go back into the folklore of different Middle Eastern cultures, including some about historical figures who lived long after Sheherazade and her Caliph are supposed to have existed.  But most tellings have only a selection.  Ours probably included no more than twenty.  Some I recall very clearly.  Other stories have elements I remember or half-remember, like tricking the djinn back into the bottle, or the book whose pages are poisoned, or the Caliph who enters a house in disguise, is entertained, and nearly loses his life.  I must have read those stories and then forgotten them.  Or maybe I never did, but others like Umberto Eco and James Elroy Flecker did at some time and have served them up to me since, set like gems in stories of their own making.  Running my eye down the list of a thousand titles, I’m surprised to see how few I can recognise.  The Nights were part of my childhood, and yet what I have is only a small proportion of what is there.  They are the piles upon piles of untouched treasures that I left behind me in the cave when I escaped with my little bag of jewels all those years ago.

Picture credit: Scheherezade by Kay Nielsen 1922