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?


  1. Miaou! Marvellous... I just wish I had written "The Tygrine Cat"!

  2. What a fantastic post - thank you Inbali and Katherine. I too am fascinated by names and their significance, and I'm glad someone else felt a little sorry for Rumpelstiltskin, who had saved that girl's life three times. Anyway, what was she thinking, marrying that terrible king!

  3. Thank you, Catdownunder!

    Gillian, I completely agree - names are fascinating. I'm glad I didn't appal you with my sympathy for poor old Rumpelstiltskin. That king really is the true villain of the piece.

  4. I always felt for Rumplestiltskin and really like your idea that he wanted human companionship, he certainly didn't need the ring or necklace if he could spin straw into gold (unless the 'ring' and 'necklace' were as metaphorical as Cinderella's slipper is meant to be). I also always felt very sorry for the giant in Jack and the Beanstalk (message being it's alright to steal and lie if you're stealing from someone different from you) and personally won't read Golidlocks to my daughter (same message)!

  5. Great post! Interesting interpretation of Rumplestiltskin's motivations. To me, though, the overall message of the story is even darker than cheating or denying companionship to a lonely person: if you're a girl, you're powerless, no matter what. The maiden has no control over her life. She is at the whim of her father's foolish boasts and then the king's greed, then Rumplestiltskin's demands. Even as a queen she cannot overrule him. In the end her child is saved, not by her own knowledge or skill, but really by luck. The messenger saw Rumplestiltskin when he just happened to be singing about his name. The child and she queen are safe, but what sort of lives were they saved for?

  6. I have to agree with Connie. I've never enjoyed this tale, not even enough to think about what it might be saying. This post and the comments have helped me to clarify how I feel about it. The father and the king are opportunistic vampires and Rumpelstiltskin, though he is an outcast of sorts and might have been a sympathetic character, betrays the maiden as soon as he realizes he can't possess her.
    On another note, I'm looking forward to reading Inbali's cat stories. They sound fascinating.

  7. Great post, fun comments. Katherine--my reading list has gotten so much freaking longer after finding your blog!

    I feel that I should point out--in some versions it's the poor girl's mother who sells her to the king, after giving her a savage beating. And in the Scottish version, Rumplestiltskin is instead Whuppity Stoorie--and a clever old lady she is, too. If you all are interested, plenty more variants at Ashliman's site.

    Through conversations with a friend about this tale, I've come to understand it as a tale that has no villain--no real antagonist. Even the king--as king--was under no obligation to make the girl queen. It's a wonderfully ambiguous and facile tale. The more time I spend with it, the stranger and more beautiful it seems.

    Thanks again for your thoughts, Inabali.

  8. Sorry, *Inbali. Sort of reinforcing your point about unusual surname is Pazdziora, so believe me--I can relate!

  9. I've always rather liked the English (Norfolk) dialect version, Tom Tit Tot - in which the Rumplestiltskin character is an 'imp'with a tail, and responds to every question about its name, ie:

    "Is that 'Balthazar'?"
    "Noo, that ain't," that said, and that twirled that's tail.

    Eleanor Farjeon wrote a wonderful story based on it, called 'The Silver Curlew'.

    I agree about the greed of some fairytale characters, Bryony - I feel sorry for Jack's giants, too. I suppose it's worth remembering that the folk who told fairytales also enjoyed cockfights and bear baiting, and were not necessarily repositories of ideal wisdom. We're not going to get great messages out of every tale. Just memorable stories, and we can make what we can out of them - Connie's dark interpretation is perfectly valid. But I do like Inbali's suggestion that the suspicion and prejudice and fear in the story might have been altered if one of the characters had had the strength to love.

    Mr Pond, sorry about the extended reading list - but what fun it will be!

  10. Connie, Cathrin, I agree that the maiden is powerless. That said, in the version of the fairytale that I recently re-read, she expresses glee at Rumpelstiltskin's downfall, as does her company (and I remember that from the version I heard as a child). So while it's easy to see her as a pawn in a world of scheming men, it is hard to sympathise with her entirely.

    Bryony Pearce, it is true, there is definitely a theme of japes at the outsider's expense. Rumpelstiltskin is of course a fool for encouraging the maiden to track down his name, arrogant, no doubt, in assuming that the feet is beyond her, and immoral for enforcing his sinister deal in any event. But does he deserve such a brutal fate? Torn in two, both physically and - I believe - metaphorically. Poor, foolish, lonely soul!

    Mr Pond, that's quite all right, I've been known to do worse myself (even spelling my own name incorrectly, would you believe?). "Spell Check" converts my name to "invalid". This never rankled until I had a knee operation and was briefly hobbling about. Then it became personal!

  11. Inbali--yeah. My name just sends Spell Check shrieking into the night...

  12. It occurs to me that a character similar in many ways to Rumplestiltskin is the witch in Rapunzel. Her story could almost be taken as a 'what could have happened' (she takes the child as payment for stolen lettuces and keeps her locked in a tower).
    You mention the tellers of these tales liking cock-fights, Kath, this is true, but I think these tales also highlight their fear of losing healthy babies. The theme of something 'other' wanting to take a healthy human child is common throughout fairytale literature and in literal tales about faeries of course.
    A really interesting thread, thank you.

  13. Bryony, yes, that's a very good point. Thanks for making it!