Friday 28 January 2011

Fairytale Reflections (18) Inbali Iserles

Inbali Iserles has been an animal-lover all her life. And from childhood she has loved to write. Aged eight, she wrote a poem called ‘Rich Cat/Poor Cat’, which won a prize (I’m not allowed to reproduce it here!) – but it would take years of secret scribbling before she revisited feline themes in her first book, ‘The Tygrine Cat’.  The sequel, 'The Tygrine Cat on the Run', has just been published by Walker.

One of the nice things about this Fairytale series is the wide variety of writers and books I get to talk about before the fairytale post itself. The fantasy/fairytale tradition is so flexible, so very much wider than the stereotype (of medieval-style, magic-filled alternative world). One variety which I don’t think has yet been represented in these posts is the ‘animal’ fantasy. There are numerous examples, ranging from what C.S Lewis called ‘dressed-up’ animals (Beatrix Potter, Brian Jacques) to romantic idylls of humans and animals living together (Kipling’s Jungle Books, Selma Lagerlof’s The Wonderful Adventures of Nils) to semi-naturalistic (Watership Down): the point of it all is – I suspect – to fulfil the age-old yearning to be one with the animals – to understand what they ‘say’. 

Konrad Lorenz, in his classic book about the language of animals, ‘King Solomon’s Ring’ (1950) refers to the ancient legend that wise King Solomon possessed a magical ring which gave him power to talk to the beasts. He continues that he has every reason to credit Solomon’s powers: “I can do it myself, and without the aid of magic, black or otherwise.” Further on:

The mysterious apparatus for transmitting and receiving the sign stimuli which convey moods is age-old, far older than mankind itself. In our own case, it has doubtless degenerated as our word-language developed. Man has no need of minute intention-displaying movements to announce his momentary mood: he can say it in words. But jackdaws and dogs are obliged to ‘read in each others’ eyes’ what they are about to do in the next moment. For this reason, in higher and social animals, the transmitting as well as the receiving apparatus of ‘mood-convection’ is much better developed and more highly specialised than in us humans.

Inbali tells me she got the idea for her book ‘The Tygrine Cat’ as she ‘distracted a peevish infant with an encyclopaedia of cat breeds.’ She began to imagine a rivalry between ancient feline tribes. But, unlike Brian Jacques’ fantasies, these were not to be ‘dressed-up’ animals. Her cats are cats. They live in the modern, human world. They behave and react to one another as cats naturally do. However, they can ‘speak’ to one another, and – as owners of cats sometimes suspect! – lead rich, adventurous lives under the very noses of oblivious mankind.

Mati is ‘the Tygrine Cat’, exiled princeling of a cat kingdom far away, stranded on our shores and left to fend for himself among the feral and stray cats of ‘Cressida Lock’, a vividly imagined city marketplace. Inbali has a wonderful sense of place, and Cressida Lock and the desert kingdom from which Mati comes are presented from a low-down, cats’ eye viewpoint, tactile and full of smells and noises. Moreover, the cats have their own mythology, or spirit world. It’s called Fiåney, and is the home of powerful cat spirits and forces for both good and evil. ‘The Tygrine Cat’ and its recently published sequel ‘The Tygrine Cat on the Run’ is the story of how Mati ‘comes of age’, learns to trust himself and his friends, and reclaims his lost kingdom.

In this passage, Mati enters the spirit world:

A dim light filtered through the open door of the chamber from the overhead grille. Twilight. Mati settled back in the warm chamber and closed his eyes. He waited for sleep to reclaim him. A breeze drifted through the catacombs, nudging the door to and fro. Heat rose from the base of his paws. Fiåney was calling. His whiskers trembled, than relaxed. His head felt light, his body weightless. Floating into the dream-wake, the air became a rich, indigo blue. He sensed three passages unfurling before him, tugging at him at once in different directions. He started towards the middle passage with fluid steps… Dimly, at the end, he saw a sandy hilltop with a small mound of rocks. Beyond it the sky was crimson. Mati started to approach… [then] from the passage to his left, a voice called his name – the beautiful sonorous voice of a queen.

Here's an animated Youtube trailer (created by Sarah Sellars, a talented 16 year old fan!) for The Tygrine Cat

Part of the pleasure of the books comes from Inbali’s sharp observation of cat behaviour, the ‘mysterious apparatus for transmitting and receiving sign stimuli’ of Lozentz’s remarks. As I’ve already said, her cats really are cats. Here’s a moment when Pangur, leader of the Cressida Lock cats, considers Mati’s warning of danger:

Pangur sat in silent thought for a moment, studying the catling. His ears were pointed forward and he seemed relaxed. Only the twitchy beats of his tail betrayed his worries.

A page later, he addresses a meeting of the cats:

“Mati’s senses are not like others. He can commune with spirits – spirits from Fiåney.” This was news to no one at Cressida Lock. Still, the cats mewed and whispered as though in surprise. Several looked at Mati, whose ears were pressed flat against his head as his tail clung to his flank. He hated the attention.

Of course – cats hate being looked at by other cats…

Inbali was born in Israel, but came to London with her family at the age of three when her father took up a post at London University. When she was eleven the family spent a year in Tucson, Arizona – she claims to have arrived a tomboy and departed well-groomed and tidy! – before returning to England, where she eventually studied at the Universities of Sussex and Cambridge before becoming a lawyer. She lives in Islington, London, with four degus - exotic rodents rescued from the RSPCA. In her spare time she's a committed globetrotter, a passion that has taken her to the depths of the Amazon Rainforest and the bubbling geysers of Iceland.  In addition to her two books about the Tygrine Cat, she has written another children’s book called ‘The Bloodstone Bird’.

Besides Solomon's legendary ability to talk to the animals, the Bible has other stories.  There's Balaam's ass, miraculously given the power to speak to its owner and deliver some good advice.  And there's the archetypal myth of Adam, who names the animals as a sign of mastery over them. So it's very appropriate, I think, that Inbali, who loves animals and writes about them so well, has chosen to talk about the power of names and naming, in the fairytale -


In the tale of Rumpelstiltskin, a mill owner boasts to the king of his daughter’s talent for spinning straw into gold. Presumably he utters this fib in a moment of reckless abandon, consumed with ambition and the desire to please. Why the king believes him is another question. Avarice and hubris rub shoulders thickly. So the mill owner’s daughter – beautiful, naturally, but quite lacking such talents, is set to work amid bales of straw. She must spin it into gold by morning, or perish at the king’s command. Men do not emerge well from this tale.

Yet the despairing maiden is visited by an odd little fellow. A dwarfish caliban without much to endear him, he nevertheless possesses the skill she lacks and he agrees to spin the straw into gold in exchange for her necklace. By morning, the man has gone, the room is full of gold, and the maiden is overjoyed. But the king is not satisfied: he wants more.

So the maiden is placed in a room, this time larger and with many more bales. Again she must spin them into gold, on pain of death. The little man returns to save the day, but creepily so – this is no prince on horseback, not the sort of character with whom you wish to do deals. But a deal must be struck, and the maiden offers him her ring. When the man has gone, and the room is full of gold, the king is overjoyed. But still he wants more.

Once last time the maiden is placed in a room, this time vast, with towering bales. As she wallows there, alone in her despair, the little man returns. This time she has nothing to offer him. He asks for her firstborn and the maiden agrees – thoughts of children are far from her mind. All turns out well, then, for a while. The delighted king offers his hand in marriage (the girl is of low birth but she is attractive, and she has made him rich beyond imagining). It is only later, long after the wedding festivities have concluded, that the young queen gives birth to her first child. And the little man returns to claim what is his.

Desperately the queen offers him the fortune of the kingdom, but the man will not be appeased – he longs for something living, not for the trappings of human wealth. Stirred with pity at the queen’s tears, he agrees that the she may keep the child provided that she can guess his name within three days.

The queen tries every name she knows but all to no avail. She despatches messengers across the kingdom to hunt down unusual variations. Only on the third day, moments before the little man is due to appear, a messenger returns with a peculiar tale: on the very outskirts of the kingdom, he saw someone dancing a jig around a bonfire and singing of his unusual name: Rumpelstiltskin. The jubilant queen repels the little man by uttering his name. The man stamps his foot in fury, so hard that it sinks deep within the earth. Stamping his other foot, he rips himself apart. And that is the end of Rumpelstiltskin.

Here is a story where the greedy succeed, the victim is unsympathetic (was it wise of the maiden to promise her first born?) and the villain curiously wretched. What is the message of Rumpelstiltskin if not that cheaters are winners? After all, the little man had fulfilled his side of the bargain. Couldn’t it be that he was merely seeking that human affection that was denied him in his solitary life? He is odious, of course, but tragic too. I know that my interpretation of the story is a controversial one. I was always inclined to identify with the bad guy.

What struck me most on first hearing this fairytale as a child was the power of a name. Rumpelstiltskin’s name was ultimately his undoing. As the bearer of an unusual name: my bête noir, my curse, my identity – I could empathise.

In most cultures names have symbolic meaning. They are not just labels by which we distinguish ourselves but avatars that hold a deep message, whether about our origins (Moses, in Hebrew “Moshe”, meaning “plucked out of water”), our intention for the name-bearer (Linda – “beautiful” in Spanish, Aslan – “lion” in Turkish) or a homage we pay to a deity or a saint for protecting the name-bearer.

Modern fantasy reveals a fascination with names. In The Lord of the Rings, there are names in many tongues, and ancient words hold in them the power of revelation. Most characters have multiple monikers. The shift in a hobbit-like creature to a wasted, tormented obsessive is characterised through a change of name from Smeagle to Gollum. The handsome hero of the epic is known, among other things, as Aragorn, son of Arathorn, the Dúnadan, Longshanks, Wingfoot and Strider.

Names may be dangerous and, in the world of books, their expression alone can be folly. Characters in the early Harry Potters are urged not to speak the name Voldemort, due to its perceived power, and in the later books dare not do so because of a trace placed on its utterance (Harry’s foolishness in breaking the taboo almost costs him and his friends their lives). In a world of spells, where language is gateway to untold power, a presence can be called upon by a name alone.

Invocation of this kind does not appear in Rumpelstiltskin, but another theme familiar to fantasy does. If someone knows your name – your true name – they can defeat or even rule over you. Take, for instance, the Earthsea series by Ursula K Le Guin. As the Master Namer explains: “A mage can control only what is near him, what he can name exactly and wholly.” A name, then, is the very essence of a thing. It is not simply a useful appellation by which is it known – it is the actual knowledge. Symbolically, Rumplestiskin’s name is his sacred identity. Revealing it cleaves him to his very core, taking his identity away from him.

It is probably imprudent to stray into the realm of souls, a thing’s essence, or whatever we may call it, and yet I suspect that the longing to communicate this is at the heart of creativity: the desire to be understood. If the wicked would seek to enslave us by possession of our true names, could that knowledge, shared with those we love, dismantle the barriers between human minds? Where could such insights take us, should we seek to do good? How else might poor Rumpelstiltskin have responded, had his name been invoked with love?

Friday 21 January 2011

Fairytale Reflections (17) Jane Yolen

Here is a writer who needs no introduction. Jane Yolen has won umpteen awards, including but not limited to the Caldecott Medal, two Nebula Awards, the World Fantasy Award, three Mythopoeic Awards, the Jewish Book Award, and the World Fantasy Association Lifetime Achievement Award. Her many books (over 300 to date) are on shelves all over the world. Six colleges and universities have given her honorary doctorates. Newsweek has called her ‘the Hans Christian Andersen of America’, and the New York Times proclaimed her ‘a modern equivalent of Aesop’. What can I possibly add to that?

Well, first of all, I want to thank her for responding so generously to my email asking her to consider writing a short piece for Fairytale Reflections. I’m really honoured to welcome her to this blog. Second, as best I can, I’d like to talk a little about a few of those 300 books.

Even if you don’t think you’ve read anything by Jane, you probably have. She’s written everything from picture books for little children, to magical adventures and fairytales for middle-graders, to teenage and adult fantasies, to academic essays. Remember ‘Owl Moon’ (1987) – a gorgeous picture book in which a little girl goes owl-watching on a moonlit night with her father? Or perhaps ‘Touch Magic’ (2000), an impassioned set of essays on the importance of fairytales and folklore in children’s reading? In the introduction to the 1981 edition, Jane writes:

Culture begins in the cradle. Literature is a continuous process from childhood onward, not a body of work sprung full-blown from the heads of adults who never read or were read to as children. …I believe that the continuum of literature is best maintained by those tales of fantasy, fancy, faerie, and the supra-natural, those crafted visions and bits and pieces of dream-remembering that link our past and our future. To do without tales and stories and books is to lose humanity’s past, is to have no star-map for our future.

In response to which, I can only throw my hat in the air and cheer.

Her 1992 novel ‘Briar Rose’, in the Fairy Tale Series created by Terri Windling, is the most powerful retelling of ‘Sleeping Beauty’ that I’ve ever read or am ever likely to read. It’s also a story of the Holocaust.

Each reader will have his or her individual reaction: here, in part, is mine. My first job after I left school at sixteen (I went back to college later, but that’s another story) was as part-time cleaner in an ‘old folks’ home’. The place was a sumptuous 18th century building in the Yorkshire Dales, looking out upon beautiful parkland. However, the roof leaked, the food was poor, and the inhabitants were – in the main – confused and unhappy.

Every time I hoovered the hall, one old lady would come out of her room to beg me, in tears, to phone a home she no longer possessed, so that a husband who’d died years before could take her away. Then there was the autocratic Mrs Thornton who shared a suite with her husband who had Alzheimer’s: she fought for their dignity so fiercely that the staff disliked her, and thought she was ‘putting it on’ when she fell ill. But she wasn’t, and she predeceased him. And the incontinent and prematurely senile woman whose room reeked of urine and whose perennial excuse was that ‘the animals’ came out of the chest of drawers in the night, and it was they who had soiled the room…

It was a place where stories ended. A place where the narratives of lives ran into the sands. A place without hope. It made a great and terrible impression on me, and I swore to myself that never, never should anyone I loved be abandoned to such a place – and yet I know that one does not always have the choice.

In Jane Yolen’s ‘Briar Rose’, as the heroine Becca and her sisters visit the nursing home where their grandmother, Gemma, who always used to tell them the story of the ‘Sleeping Beauty’, is now dying – I felt the chill shock of recognition.

[Becca] bit her lip and silently led them down the hall. Only Mrs Benton was still in her room, crying softly to herself. Becca couldn’t think of a time when she visited that Mrs Benton wasn’t crying, calling out for her mother.

The three sisters pay their uncomfortable final visit, and before she dies, Gemma breathes a secret to Becca. ‘I am Briar Rose,’ she says.

The old woman struggled against the restraints, trying to sit up. … “I was the princess!” she cried again. “In the castle. The prince kissed me.”
“Yes, Gemma.”
“Promise me you will find the castle. Promise me you will find the prince. Promise me you will find the maker of spells… On my grave, swear it.”

What, then, was the narrative of Gemma’s life? What was her secret history? The clue which Becca must now unravel is in the fairystory which meant so much to Gemma that she told it to her granddaughters over and over again:

Gemma was saying: “… so the king said it was time for a party… A terrifically big party. With cake and ice cream and golden plates. And not to mention invitations sent to all the good fairies in the kingdom.”
“But not the bad fairy.”
Gemma pulled the child closer to her. “Not the bad fairy. Not the one in black with big black boots and silver eagles on her hat.”
“But she came.”
“She came, that angel of death. She came to the party and she said, ‘I curse you, Briar Rose. I curse you and your father the king and your mother the queen and all your uncles and cousins and aunts. And all the people in your village. And all the people who bear your name.’
Gemma shook herself all over, and Becca put her hand on her grandmother’s arm.
“It will be all right, Gemma. You’ll see. The curse doesn’t work.”

Leslie Wilson’s books, of last week’s post, are ‘realistic’ historical novels with hidden fairytale motifs acknowledged as a debt by the author, perhaps barely detectable to the reader. Jane Yolen’s ‘Briar Rose’ is not a fantasy. It is a novel which deals with the most brutal of truths. And yet, it is openly conceived as a fairytale. Read it – you’ll never forget it. And now for Jane’s own words: on rewritten, recreated fairy stories as mirrors – often ‘dark mirrors’ – for our own time.


A number of years ago, folklorist Alan Dundes coined the term “fakelore” to describe stories not from the folk canon but that sounded and tasted  and felt like those stories but were invented whole cloth by writers. Lumping in, I suppose, Madame LePrince du Beaumont and Isak Dinesen with Hans Christian Andersen, Angela Carter, and (gulp) me.

Though of course the perceptive lover of such tales could have pointed out to him how often the best of those stories have already moved back into the folk corner, hiding there for a number of years until they have emerged as—ta!ta!—folk stories.

I don’t like Dundes’ dyad and actually make this distinction: the greatest stories I know whether folklore or fakelore touch on the sacred, that moment when head and heart and soul combine.

My "sacred" may not be yours. We may worship at different altars.

Sacred in story has nothing to do with organized religion or disorganized religion. It has to do with that moment you are reading a story or hearing it from a teller’s mouth, and suddenly the hairs on your arms and the back of your neck rise up. The moment when you and the story ascend a level of humanity and touch the very hem of heaven. Call it the Numinous Effect or the Arm Hair Affirmation or anything else you wish. I call it sacred.

I think what Dundes was getting at, though, had more to do with the fact that a written or art tale carries with it an acknowledgement of personal history.

But wait-- even fairy tales that we so often claim are universal and ageless--carry the thumbprints of their own time. So a social scientist or international lawyer could parse (as happened at a fairy tale conference I once attended at Princeton) the fairy tale punishments in classic European fairy tales, explaining them in terms of the community and era in which each story was told. Thus the witch shoved into the oven in Hansel and Gretel, and the wicked queen in her red hot iron shoes are reflections of the prevailing laws about the burning of witches, and so forth.

That our stories are mirrors of our time, reflecting prevalent prejudices and class hatreds does not surprise any of us. Recent events—the harrowing of so many African states; on-again off-again Afgahistan hunt for Ben Ladin; the Iraq war with its nasty sectarian fighting; the on-going killings of children by children in schools around America; the recent attempted assassination of a congresswoman in Tucson that took the lives of others as collateral damage--all these are relevant to any discussion of moral issues. Yet when a fairy story creates a dark mirror, giving back in a fantastic setting the baser beliefs and feelings and legalities its own day, that often comes as a shock to even the more perspicacious reader (and as a total mystery to those readers who skim along the tops of metaphors.)

But really, fairy tales and folk stories have always been a kind of map which we clutch as we move along the journeys of our lives.

 A kind  of map.

But not strictly a map. The tale is obviously not a point-for-point representation of a specific landscape. A real map in the hand, however cleverly drawn, is still a landscape on a single plane. It is specific to an area.

A story--if it is any good at all--charts much more. It encompasses an entire heart's world. 

Once Upon  by Jane Yolen  © 2007

Once Upon A Time
there was a Wolf,
but not a Wolf,
an Other,
whose mother
and father were others,
who looked not like us,
Republican or Dem
in other words--
They were forest dwellers,
child sellers,
meat eaters,
wife beaters,
idol makers
oath breakers—
in other words, Wolf.
So Happy Ever After means
we kill the Wolf,
spill his blood,
knock him out,
bury him in mud,
make him dance
in red hot shoes.
For us to win
The Wolf must lose.

Photo credits: Jason Stemple

Friday 14 January 2011

Fairytale Reflections (16) Leslie Wilson

So far in this series, my guests have all been writers of books which, by the widest definition at least, are fantasies. Then, chatting to my friend Leslie Wilson, whose two books for teenagers are realistic, historical fiction set in Nazi Germany, she said, ‘There are fairytale motifs in my books, too, you know,’ – and I realised it was true. I immediately asked if she would write a post for Fairytale Reflections.

And I think her post is important ( as well as very moving) because it reminds us that the perceived gulf between fantasy and realism in fiction is more mirage than fact. All fiction is invention. Back in the 16th century, Sir Philip Sidney wrote his ‘Apologie for Poetrie’ as a defence of invention, to persuade those people who felt, uneasily, that it was somehow wrong and childish to concern themselves with something ‘untrue’. Sidney wrote:

‘I think truly, that of all writers under the sun the poet is the least liar… for the poet, he nothing affirms, and therefore never lieth. For the poet never maketh any circles about your imagination, to conjure you to believe for true what he writes.

… None so simple would say that Aesop lied in his tales of the beasts; for whoso thinks that Aesop writ it for actually true were well worthy to have his name catalogued among the beasts he writeth of. What child is there that, coming to a play, and seeing Thebes written in great letters upon an old door, doth believe that it is Thebes?’

Sidney’s point is well worth remembering today: the books most likely to deceive are those apparently realistic works which may or may not be well-researched. (Stories about unicorns will hardly deceive: stories about World War II may.) His further point is that fiction (or poetry) teaches truth of another sort: ‘No learning is so good as that which teacheth and moveth to virtue, and none can better both teach and move thereto than Poetry’. In modern terms, fiction provides insights that history and science cannot: it allows us to see life from other viewpoints than our own, and explore our own world via the mirrorlands of metaphor and fancy.

The obligatory adjective for ‘research’ is ‘meticulous’, and is so often employed as to have lost some value – but I know that Leslie’s research really is meticulous: she is a writer who checks every detail. She grew up bilingual, the daughter of a German mother and an English father, and some of the events in her first YA book, ‘Last Train from Kummersdorf’ stem from her mother’s traumatic wartime experiences, from which, in part, her writing derives its emotional truth and responsibility.

‘Last Train From Kummersdorf’(which was shortlisted for the Guardian Fiction Prize) is set in 1945. On the run from the advancing Russian army, two young people, Effi and Hanno, become companions on the road, teaming up to defend and help each other from the many dangers they meet along the way. Here’s an extract, after Russian planes strafe the column of refugees, who moments earlier have been making friends, telling tales and joking:

One of the Czekallas’ horses was dead, and the other bleeding to death, because they’d got him in the throat. The wagon was keeling over, one of the big rear wheels had gone. The air was full of flour from a burst sack, so everything, even the horses, was covered with white powder. 

… Magda started to scream. ‘Oh Lord Jesus. Oh Lord Jesus.’ [She] was screaming about Czekalla and Lisbeth, who hadn’t got to the ditch. They lay dead in the road. The spray of bullets had pushed Czekalla across the road; his schnapps bottle lay intact a short distance from his corpse. Herr Hungerland was alive, he’d come out of the ditch with his smart clothes plastered in mud. The rest of them were just as filthy.

Then the practicalities of the new situation kick in.

Ida looked at the horses. They were both dead now, but for the life of her she couldn’t face chopping them up for meat. She scolded herself for weakness. Anyway, Magda was going to do it. But when Magda got to the horses she hesitated, wondering how to start. Then Herr Hungerland walked over to stand beside her, putting out his hand for the knife.
‘Let me,’ he said, ‘I have some knowledge of physiology. I am a doctor.’

That a doctor - whose skills are for healing - should find his main utility in this situation the ability to butcher a dead horse, makes a terrible and ironic point about the decivilizing nature of war.

Leslie is additionally the author of two novels for adults, the critically acclaimed 'Malefice', a novel of the English witchhunt, published in 1991, and 'The Mountain of Immoderate Desires', which won the Southern Arts Prize in 1997.  Her most recent young adult novel, 'Saving Rafael' (2009) was nominated for the Carnegie Medal and shortlisted for the Lancashire and the Southern Schools book awards. ‘Saving Rafael’ opens grimly in ‘Uckermark Girls’ Concentration Camp, Spring 1944’, where the heroine, Jenny, has been sent. She herself is not Jewish, but she’s in love with her long-term best friend Rafael, who is – and the book heartbreakingly and nail-bitingly describes her and her family’s increasingly desperate and forlorn attempt to protect their old friends and neighbours. I asked Leslie if she could see any fairytale motifs in this book too, and she answered that maybe it is a bit like the stories of girls who undergo hideous sufferings to save their enchanted lovers or husbands – like ‘East of the Sun and West of the Moon’. But it’s ‘Last Train From Kummerdorf’ which, for Leslie, has the clearest fairytale analogue: that well-loved tale of the Brothers Grimm:


When my novel Last Train from Kummersdorf  was published, my brother read it and then said to me: ‘It’s not at all a realistic novel, is it?’ And indeed, it isn’t, though I’m not sure how many people have noticed.

It is a novel very much in the German tradition: and at first glance it is close to other German novels and short stories about the Second World War and ‘Die Flucht’ – which means ‘The Flight’, meaning the escape from the advancing Russian army. Most of these are realist. But as I wrote it I knew I was in the German romantic/gothic tradition, like Storm’s Schimmelreiter (The Rider on the White Horse), or Gotthelf’s The Black Spider. Less unequivocally so, perhaps, than Grass’s Tin Drum. (A novel which made it hard, at first, to write Kummersdorf, because Grass seemed to have said it all so brilliantly.) But then I began to see that I had things to say that hadn’t already been said, and dared to go forward.

That tradition is deeply rooted in folklore, and so am I. Like Susan Price, I spent years and years of my childhood reading folktales from all over the world. But it was when I was doing my degree in German that I read the whole way through the three-volume 1900 jubilee edition of Grimm that I was lucky enough to be given in childhood – and, like Susan Price, found my mind going clicketty-clack, categorising the stories, seeing that certain basic plots came up over and over again, with variations – and once a motif from the Nibelungenlied, the medieval Lay of the Nibelungs, in The Two Brothers: the sword put between a man masquerading as his twin brother and his sister-in-law when they have to sleep together. Siegfried puts a sword between himself and Brünhilde when he beds her in the guise of his brother-in-law-to be, Gunther. Maybe the Nibelungenlied draws from popular folklore, maybe the folk story has picked up part of the epic. In any case, it was deeply important to me to read the collection then, one of those things that one knows one has to do, even if one doesn’t know why. What it taught me is what others have said before me: there are only a limited amount of plots. The other realisation was also important: that stories are interdependent and feed each other. When – many years later - I started to write Kummersdorf, I quickly realised the influence, in my story, of The Bremen Town Musicians. 

The Brothers Grimm were undoubtedly motivated by a desire to establish an authentic ‘German’ voice; a project rooted in the dubious one of German unification by force, rather than through the liberal impulse of revolution. That hope was dashed in 1948. As for the ‘authentic German voice’, that was a stupid idea. Folktales are international; carried along trade routes, they flit from country to country. Some of the Grimm stories came from Perrault. Maybe nursemaids picked them up in the houses of the francophile German aristocracy and middle class, and took them back into their own humble homes to tell to their own children. At that point other motifs infiltrated them, which is why Aschenputtel is different from Cendrillon. The other thing that the Grimm brothers did was to edit the stories – but I am quite certain that they still retain much of the authentic vernacular voice. 

I think the value of myth and fairy stories is that they mitigate the dreadful things that happen to human beings. Stories of heroes, of magical rescues, of the world turned upside down, give us courage to face a harsh world. The savagery of the revenge sometimes taken expresses people’s deep inner anger; an anger too often bitten back in a world where injustice and callous exploitation were – and still are - rife.  The Bremen Town Musicians is about old animals, worked-out, threatened with various brutal ends because they’re no use to their masters any longer. They find a robbers’ house in the forest and frighten the robbers away from it and their booty simply by making their various noises – music, according to them – so then they are able to live at their ease for the rest of their lives. I think the story reflects the reality of the lives of story-telling grandparents, who were similarly regarded as useless – except to keep the children quiet. It’s a story about Grey Power. Or just about the powerless who manage – just for once – to turn the tables. And, significantly, when the robber comes back to see if the band can repossess their house, the voice that finally terrorises him is that of the cockerel who he interprets as a judge’s voice, calling out: ‘Bring the rogue to me!’

Last Train from Kummersdorf is about civilians, and civilians who end up facing the incoming army. As a child, I always noticed the value that’s placed in wartime on soldiers’ lives over those of civilians. I resented it, because from an early age I’d heard from my mother just what defeat means. When the soldiers are dead, it’s the old people, the youngsters and children who are in the front line. Many of the Russian soldiers entering Germany in 1945 behaved the way conquering soldiers have always done. They behaved that way even in the Slav countries they came to first, so it wasn’t, as many people have said, just a revenge-taking for the dreadful things the German soldiers had done in Russia. Members of the Red Army raped, tortured, murdered and looted, with Stalin’s blessing. The innocent suffered along with the guilty. ‘Deutsche Frau ist deutsche Frau,’ a Russian soldier said when it was pointed out to him that the woman he was about to rape was Jewish. ‘German woman is German woman.’ My mother got away from a Russian by the skin of her teeth, ran away into the forest and the mountains and almost died there. That, along with the expulsion of many of her family from their homes in Silesia, is the ‘core narrative’ I was working with.

If you sleep rough, it very quickly starts to do things to your perception of reality: dossers and refugees live a different kind of reality from ours, in our houses, where we can shut the door on danger. I think when you’re in constant danger of your life, then some fundamental, mythic perceptions probably kick in. My mother, wandering the mountains in April, was living out a fundamental folkloric story of pursuit, only it was Russian soldiers, rather than enraged witches, she was escaping from. Hanno and Effi, in Kummersdorf,  are trying to escape from the Russians too, but they have a Quest, too: to get to the West, where the boy Hanno’s mother is, and where the girl Effi is firmly convinced she’ll find her father. The teenagers pick up other people, rag-tag refugees; it was at that point that I said to myself: ‘This story is like The Bremen Town Musicians!’

But my refugees don’t find the baddies in a house: the baddies are on the run, too, and the kids pick some of them up and have to schlepp them along willy-nilly; the old crazy doctor who’s murdered disabled children in the ‘euthanasia’ programme; the rabid Nazi police officer who nurses a strange hatred for the boy Hanno. But there’s someone else: the little man Sperling (which means sparrow) with his dog Cornelius and his magic cart which he makes over to the kids after a Russian air attack kills him. When the kids play a game with the railway tickets in the cart, when Effi teases the adults with the fantasy they’ve cooked up – when suddenly the other refugees start believing the alluring fantasy of a train that can carry them out of danger – this is story taking people over, altering their perceptions of reality. And the train itself, when it half-magically appears, becomes a location where the truth comes out about the refugees’ pasts. Though it’s no means of escape for them, so the story doesn’t end there.

My novel, like so many fairy-tales, and especially the Musicians, takes place in the German ‘Wald’, the forest, the location where so many German folk tales play off. I knew the German forest from an early age, though not the Brandenburg forest of the novel. My grandfather had a house on the eastern shore of the Rhine. My brother and I used to go off into the Wald­ and explore it, but it felt dangerous; full of wild boar for one thing, who might attack us in the breeding season. Once, when I was a baby, my mother was on her own in the house at night – my grandparents had gone out together – and she heard a snuffling and thumping against the door, a huge animal apparently trying to break in. She was terrified. In the morning, there was blood on the grass outside, and the adults realised it must have been a wounded boar. It wasn’t really a danger to us, of course, but the story of that inchoate menace in the night coming out of the Wald  stayed with me. When the stags were rutting, the clash of their antlers echoed and filled the valley in front of the house; they were almost as loud as thunderclaps.

The road from Opa’s house led to a little clearing in the woods where a flame flickered, day and night. I was told that a child had been lost out there once, and its desperate mother promised the Virgin Mary that if her child was found, she’d set a flame there to burn to help other travellers who might be lost. The flame marked the place where the child was safely found. I don’t know if it’s still there. I can picture it now, at a place where two paths met, in a part of the forest planted with conifers; the dusty path scattered with needle-mess and resinous cones, and the dimness among the trees. Mirkwood. The forest went on and on, it seemed enormous. I knew the witches and wolves and robbers were in there; you only had to go far enough. And so it became part of my psyche and so I had to write about it.

[The translation of the German gothic script in the illustration is: "into the room, so that the windowpanes rattled.  The robbers leapt up at the ghastly racket, and were convinced that a ghost was coming in: terrified, they ran out of the house into the forest.  Now the four companions sat down at the table, helped themselves to what was left of the feast, and ate as if they were getting ready for a four weeks fast. When the four musicians had finished, the extinguished the light..."] 

Friday 7 January 2011

Fairytale Reflections (15) Gillian Philip

Welcome back to Fairytale Reflections!  And welcome to my first guest of the year, the Scottish YA author Gillian Philip.

Since Gillian lives in the far north of Scotland (with her husband, nine year old twins, two dogs, two psycho cats and eight nervous fish), she and I haven't actually met, yet - but since I always feel happier the further north I go (and I’ve got my eye on a trip to the Outer Isles one of these days) I feel sure it’s only a matter of time. And I don’t have to tell you all that one of the wonders of the internet is the way it’s possible to make long distance friends – especially friends whose books are as striking and compelling as Gillian’s. She writes across genres: ‘anything that comes into my head, including fantasy, crime, science fiction and horror’. ‘Bad Faith’ is a Scottish-set dystopia about a society ruled by a tight-minded religious elite, and ‘Crossing the Line’ is a hard-edged thriller with a hint of the supernatural. And as Gabriella Poole she has written the 'Darke Academy' series for Hothouse.

Gillian’s latest book, ‘Firebrand’, is a full-blooded plunge into fantasy and has to be one of the best books I read last year. Set in the 16th century at a time of witch hunts and burnings, it follows the fortunes of Seth MacGregor, bastard prince of the Scottish faeries, the Sithe, and an attractive hero in every sense of the word. Here’s a moment when he rides a sinister and beautiful waterhorse from the loch:

Smooth skin under my palm. The opalescent shine of its hide as I drew my hand across its neck and the hairs flattened, then sprang back... The cry of a night bird…

And then insanity.

Nothing else on earth could have moved so fast… When the creature reached the crest of the hill, I saw the whole moor and the hills spread out beneath me, the jagged broken curve of the earth at the horizon. I couldn’t get off the horse. I didn’t want to. Plunging, swerving, it swivelled its head to enjoy my awe and my terror. Its jaws opened in a knowing grin, and the canines flashed again. And then, impossibly, it sprang down the precipitous slope. Straight for the dark water and its lair.

The book is rooted in the history and folklore of Scotland, and is quite unflinching about the cruelty and hardship of the times. The Sithe are ruled by a queen, Kate NicNiven, who is volatile, cruel and devious in the best traditions of fairy queens, and who deliberately stretches the loyalty of her subjects, Seth and his brother Conan included, almost to breaking point. There’s a protecting Veil between the land of the Sithe and the mortal world, and Kate wants to tear it away. And she invokes the help of some hauntingly unpleasant creatures called the Lammyr…

‘Firebrand’ opens with the most dramatic of cliff-hangers, and I’m not sure I breathed till I got to the end, where there was a twist I never saw coming, but which was perfectly satisfying. I want more, so it’s a good thing there are three sequels on the way.

Even for an author, Gillian can boast a pretty wild variety of jobs. She says, ‘I’ve been writing all my life, but have also worked as a record store assistant, theatre usherette, barmaid, sales rep, political assistant, radio presenter, typesetter, and as a singer in an Irish bar in Barbados. I’ve always loved the stories of the Scottish landscape, which shimmers with myth and legend; the old tales seem to go on existing just below the surface, in the cities as well as the wild places.’

I asked her to pick a Scottish tale to tell us about, and she has chosen -


As a child I don’t think I was aware of the story of TAM LIN, one of many mortal men stolen away by the Queen of the Faeries. I’m not even sure when I first read or heard such tales; stories of the faery people were simply a kind of background music that I gradually noticed and that came to fascinate me. Tam Lin is just one variation on a theme that sometimes has a happy ending, more often less so: a mortal – more often than not a man – is foolish or brave or naive enough to go away with the faeries.

There’s a recurring notion that once involved with the People of Peace, you’re going to need all your wits, courage and – usually – the help of a friend to get away. More often than not, even all of those aren’t enough, and that makes many of the stories melancholy.

Tam Lin is a little different, and that’s why I’m fond of it. The traditional ballad begins with a warning not to go to the woods of Carterhaugh, because young Tam Lin is there – a man who was taken by the Queen of the Faeries, who now protects their sacred woods, and who will demand a penalty of anyone who trespasses. Earlier versions are pretty clear about what that penalty will be... and when young Janet, whose father nominally owns the wood, dares to go there to pick roses, she comes back not just wildly in love, but pregnant.

Luckily the love is mutual, and Tam explains to Janet that the Queen of Elfland saved and took him when he fell from his horse in these woods. He is her prized mortal lover, but every seven years the Queen must pay a tithe of souls to Hell, and he fears that this Halloween, he will be the tithe. Janet can save him, and free him from the Queen’s thrall, but it will take huge courage. She must wait in the trees till she sees the faery folk ride in procession through the woods. She must let the first two horses pass, but when the third – a milk-white steed – appears, she must pull him down from it. 

The faeries, he warns her, will be enraged, and now will come the hard part. She has to hold onto him whatever happens, though they’ll morph him into many hideous forms to try to make her let go. Sure enough, when she does as he tells her and pulls him from his horse, he is turned into a snake, a newt, a bear, a lion, red-hot iron, then burning lead. Through all the transformations, Janet holds on  for dear life, and at the touch of the burning lead, forewarned by Tam, she tips her burden into the water of the nearby well. Tam climbs out, returned to his human form and free of servitude to the Queen. Though the Queens rails about the ‘theft’ of her dearest mortal, she sullenly admits defeat, and the young couple live, as they should, happily ever after.

The story has many parallels and similarities in other traditions and tales – Thomas Rhymer, Cupid & Psyche, Childe Rowland, and even Beauty and the Beast: with the last, for instance, there’s the forbidden forest and the rose motif; the threatening inhuman figure with whom the heroine falls in love; his former identity as a noble young lord; and the fact that the heroine must go through dangers and horrors to rescue him. (There’s a theory that Beauty & the Beast is a later bowdlerisation of the Tam Lin story, leaving out the sex. I’ve always rather liked the Disney version more than their other ‘fairytales’, not least for its gutsy heroine, but it’s difficult to imagine it including ravishing among the roses followed by pregnancy...)

The reversal of ‘traditional’ fairytale roles is one of the most appealing aspects of Tam Lin. Tam is effectively helpless before the Faery Queen, though there’s nothing emasculated about him. It’s Janet who must free him, and she’s willing to undergo torments to do so. The fact that it all ends happily is unusual for a tale of the Faery Court. 

Belief in faeries is still strong in areas of Scotland, which isn’t wholly surprising. There are still places wild enough for the barriers between reality and ‘something else’ to seem remarkably, tangibly thin (not least the haunting Isle of Colonsay, whose former laird MacPhie seems to have had an unusual number of run-ins with the people of the Otherworld). Superstitions still exist quite strongly (my mother-in-law’s gardener swore no good would come of her telling him to cut down a rowan tree, and blamed the foul deed immediately when the house subsequently burned down). At a relative’s baptism I remember being quite sure that an aged aunt’s refusal to drink from a green cup was down to an unwillingness to offend the faeries. As it turned out the prejudice was an extreme sectarian one, but I can’t believe the two aren’t linked, somehow and somewhere in the past.

As for the disappearance of unfortunate mortals, there are surprisingly recent tales. Tomnahurich is a hill in the middle of Inverness that’s long been associated with the Otherworld. A local story tells of two buskers, dressed in kilts and carrying pipes (all perfectly normal) who seemed so disoriented and terrified among the traffic that they spent a night in the police cells. When they were brought before the sheriff next day – luckily a Gaelic speaker, since they could speak nothing else – they explained that their panic was down to the world seeming to have changed a great deal since last night, when they were offered good money to play at a gathering of lords and ladies beneath Tomnahurich hill. 

At a loss, the sheriff returned them for the time being to the cells, where a minister was summoned to the disturbed young men. As soon as he began to pray, and God’s name was mentioned, the young men, their instruments, and their payment all crumbled to dust.

It’s a fanciful story, and appears in many forms over the centuries, but in wilder landscapes it’s not hard to imagine another barely-seen world, repressed (perhaps temporarily...) by modernity and religion. Maybe that’s why the stories and their attached superstitions are resilient enough to survive into the contemporary world. 

Or possibly it’s because the fairy stories are so entangled with religion and superstition and the beliefs of even more ancient times. The Fairy Hill of Aberfoyle in Perthshire is believed to house the spirits of the local dead, in a way that echoes the far older beliefs of those who buried their dead in chambered cairns. Catherine Czerkawska’s play The Secret Commonwealth is the tale of Aberfoyle minister Robert Kirk, who wrote a book of the same title, and whose knowledge was thought to come straight from the faeries themselves. He’s another one who meddled with them at his own peril: angry at his betrayal of their secrets, the faeries were said to have faked his death while abducting him to the Otherworld. He came to his cousin in a dream, telling him of his captivity and promising to appear at his own funeral – at which moment the cousin must throw a knife over his head to free him. Kirk duly appeared – but alas, the cousin was too gobsmacked to perform the required act, and the minister was never seen again.

It’s a chilling and wonderful story, but in Czerkawska’s play it’s used also as a metaphor for the loss of the ancient beliefs, the gradual withdrawal of an older tradition before the Christian ascendancy. What’s so fascinating about the fairy traditions is the way they were not discarded, but woven into the new beliefs: loathed by the Church, becoming associated with the devil and necromancy – but never wholly dying out. 

Yet that mingling isn’t all bad. One of the loveliest cross-traditions, and my favourite, is the one – varying from region to region – that says the faeries are the rebel angels. Thrown out of Paradise by an angry God, the angels that fell into the sea became seals and seal people. The ones that were caught in the sky as they fell became the Merry Dancers, the Northern Lights. And the ones that fell on land? They became the Faeries.


Gillian's wonderful post jogged my memory.  About twenty years ago I wrote a poem based on Tam Lin. Like Gillian, I loved the ballad, but couldn't help wondering what happened next. Would the Faery Queen really leave the lovers alone?  Or would she look for some sort of revenge?  I dug out the poem and showed it to Gillian, who agreed that this was just the sort of thing the Queen would do. (I know Kate Nic Niven would!) Here's the poem:

Janet Speaks:

‘Oh Tam Lin –
If I had known of this night’s deed
I would have torn out your two grey eyes
And put back in two eyes of tree.’

So said the faery queen that night on the road
when I quenched my love in the peat pool,
but that was not the end of it.

For winter nights, the Sithe shriek round the house,
calling down the chimney like a black wind
plucking the slates away: ‘Come back, Tam Lin!
You who gave a girl a rose from the briar bush!
The heart’s fire dwindles.  Do you remember Elf-hame?
And my love, my love throws back the blanket,
and I grip his arm as I gripped the red-hot iron
in unflinching hands.

‘Tam Lin, can you bear to grow old?
Do you remember the land of young apples?
What have you lost?  What have you gained, Tam Lin,
but aches and agues, toothlessness and death?’
howl the voices down the chimney.
They always bring a night of storm, and all
my paternosters cannot turn them away.

‘Come wind, come rain,
beat on this house until the lintels weep,
beat on this house until the candles quiver
and cold draughts whip under the door and blow
over the floor, cross currents of unease.
Let him feel mortal!’
I could bear all this.

Only, my youngest boy came in today,
with a rose in his hand. ‘Who gave you that?’ said I.
‘O mother,’ said he, ‘a lady in the brakes
of Carterhaugh.  Her kirtle green as grass,
with silver chains that tinkled as she walked.’

‘Your son shall come with me, Janet,
In yon green hill to dwell.
Your son shall be my knight, Janet,
And he shall serve me well.

‘His eyes shall be of wood, Janet,
Cut from an alder tree,
And you may keep Tam Lin, Janet,
For he’s too old for me.’

It’s a cruel price.
I would rather have died in giving birth to him.
I would rather my love rose and went out to them.

Oh Queen of Fays –
If I had known of this day’s deed,
I would have let your knight, Tam Lin,
ride down to Hell on his milk-white steed. 

Picture credits: from 'Tam Lin' by Jane Yolen, illustrated by Charles Mikolaycak