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.


  1. Though I've only read Marillier's "Heart's Blood" out of the books you've listed, I have read her more adult Sevenwaters series (her latest just came out). "The Daughter of the Forest" is one of my all time favorite books. It is a beautiful, haunting version of "The Seven Swans". The way she weaves the fable through historical druid lore, you forget you are reading a fairy tale.

  2. I started with Daughter of the Forest and when I finished the Sevenwaters series (not counting the one just released),I had aleady ordered every book she has written from Amazon. I LOVED every one of them. Then I ordered the book from Australia (rather pricey since I am in Texas) Legends of Australian Fantasy. It was worth every penny for the 50 page short story by Juliet Marillier! She is the best storyteller I have ever read!

  3. Oh man, you made me want to read this book even more. I would have gotten it when it first came out, but too much money. Now it's adequately priced for me to get it! Beauty and the Beast is one of my favorite fairy tale stories, this was an amazing post by both of you, really. :)

  4. Daughter of the Forest is a book that I have read over and over; I find it so moving and beautiful, and I am completely taken to ancient woods with the trees whispering above me when I read it...I've read all the other Sevenwaters books (besides the newest), and Wolfskin, which I completely fell in love with, too. Thank you Ms. Marillier!

  5. Juliet Marillier is one of my all-time favourite writers and I just devoured 'Heart's Blood'. You must read 'The Daughter of the Forest', Katherine - its just a superb fairytale retelling. All of Juliet's novels are wonderful and so is your blog. Thank you!

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  7. Yes, I must get hold of 'Daughter of the Forest': it's one that people keep on recommending to me! Looking forward to 'Sevenwaters' as well.

  8. And now my reading list has grown, too. Thank you.

    I agree with the notion that stories have the potential to heal. Perhaps this knowledge has been buried for a long time and is now re-emerging. I've heard whispers of it from many quarters.

  9. Juliet Marillier's books are rarely on the library shelves here - but we are the neigbouring state in Australia and regard her as one of OURS!