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..."] 


  1. An excellent point, Katherine, about these deep soul-truths which can be found in fiction of all types.

    Thank you for a moving post, Leslie. Much food for thought. And that fascination with the forest - both as a metaphor, and as a very real place with very real dangers - is endlessly enduring and meaningful.

  2. Fascinating. Thankyou.
    As children we had a recording of a musical version of this story - by the Obernkirchen Children's Choir - I always worried about the animals!

  3. Leslie's description of the Wald has reminded me of yet another poem of mine from a very long time ago. Dante wrote about finding yourself, in the middle of life, lost in a dark wood, not knowing where to turn. This poem is about that common experience, filtered through fairytales (although I was a long way from middle life when I wrote it!)

    Out from the pine forest stepped
    the bowing yellow dwarf, and stopped the prince,
    who - half despairing - told him everything.

    If the bent woman, walking backwards, sets you
    to sweep the green pins with an old owl's feather,
    and call up storm clouds in the fine June weather,
    and ride the yellow colt of your last nightmare -
    what can you do but sigh and tell your story
    to the first kindly stranger who has met you?

    'Tell me,' the dwarf said, 'what of your princess?'
    'Oh, turned into a brown thrush long ago
    she sits and sings in a fine gilded cage,
    and every spring she lays a pure blue egg,
    which, hatched, displays a tiny golden crown.
    That's why you see me wandering alone:
    for hills of glass and plains of knives spring up
    behind, and hinder me from turning back.'

    'Where's your white horse? Your squire, young Constant Jack?'

    'Jack used to fret me - always making speed.
    He rode my white horse red towards the wars
    a long time back. Today, I have no doubt,
    sheep graze the fine new grass between their bones.'

    'Ah?' said the dwarf. 'And so you're quite alone?'
    'Alone. And burdened with confusing tasks.'

    Then, pointing where the green ride ducked and dipped
    to twist behind the dense pine barrier:
    'Now,' said the dwarf, smiling, 'keep on till dark...'

  4. (Not that I'm comparing myself in any way with Dante, you understand! Just of the Wood as a metaphor for losing one's way in life.)

  5. Another wonderful post, Katherine! I find fairytale motifs in realistic fiction fascinating too. I wrote a book for adults a few years ago in which I interwove motifs from 'The Little Mermaid' with the story of a young women with agoraphobia in modern-day Australia - I loved that process!
    I must read Leslie's book now - thanks for the introduction x

  6. Ah, just found the poem! (You should put it in a post of its own, Kath!)

    Loved "ride the yellow colt of your last nightmare"...

    And, just out of interest, how old were you when you wrote it?

  7. How old? It's hard to remember exactly. Early twenties, no more. I don't write much poetry these days... maybe I should try and see what comes!

  8. I'm beginning to think that this whole fairy tale series is divinely inspired. What a thought provoking post!

    I feel somewhat validated now in my own belief that the distinctions made between fantasy and realism are thin (though it could be just that I'm a bit thick).

    Thank you, Leslie (and Katherine too, of course).