Monday 28 February 2011

West of the Moon tour (2)

Today I am over at Katherine Roberts' blog Reclusive Muse, where I am talking about the Nis. If I have a muse of my own, I'm sure it's a Nis.

"Like the English brownies, he is a house or hearth spirit who will clean and tidy for you in return for food.  The Norwegian Nis's favourite food is a bowl of 'groute', barley porridge, with (this is very important) a large lump of butter."

Please do join us there!

Sunday 27 February 2011

Riddles in the dark

Tomorrow I'll be making my first stop on the West of the Moon blog tour - at the enchanted, mist-haunted home of Katherine Roberts' Reclusive Muse - who's posted up a wonderful poem in honour of my arrival!  It's a riddling poem, which suits 'West of the Moon' really well because it recalls the riddling verses, called kennings, which Old Norse poets so often employed. (Incidentally, I've always thought kennings are a brilliant way of introducing children to poetry.  I always use them on school visits - children adore riddles and really enjoy the imagery.) 

I too love riddles and kennings, and I've written about them on this blog before. The Vikings thought more of a man if he could weave words: some of their most renowned warriors were also poets, like Iceland's Egil Skallagrimsson, and Grettir the Strong. The murderous Harald Silkenhair in 'West of the Moon' is a warrior poet from this tradition, and keeps his men happy by asking them riddles (here are two I made up for him):

I know a stranger, a bright gold-giver
He strides in splendour over the world’s walls.
            All day he hurries between two bonfires.
            No man knows where he builds his bedchamber.”

            “I know another, high in the heavens
            Two horns he wears on his hallowed head
            A wandering wizard, a wild night-farer,
            Sometimes he feasts, sometimes he fasts.”


Friday 25 February 2011

"The Road Goes Ever On and On": The 'West of the Moon' blog tour

“This tale grew in the telling,” says J.R.R. Tolkien in the foreword to ‘The Lord of the Rings’, “until it became a history of the Great War of the Ring and included many glimpses of the yet more ancient history that preceded it.” 

About a week from now, on March 3rd, my trilogy ‘West of the Moon’ is published. To celebrate, I’m setting off on a blog tour, and for the next few weeks I’ll be posting links almost every day, here on Steel Thistles, to the different stages on my journey: guest posts, reviews, interviews and giveaways.  I’ve tried not to repeat myself, I’m having a lot of fun talking about things I love (like fairytales and fantasy and monsters) and I'd be very happy if some of you feel like coming along with me.  My first stop will be on Monday at 'Reclusive Muse', the blog of my friend and fellow-fantasy writer Katherine Roberts, and you can see the full tour schedule at my home page.

‘West of the Moon’ has occupied, off and on, a large part of my life, so in this post I'm looking back at the other journey: the journey of writing the book: how it began, how it developed and where it has led me.

Maybe all tales grow in the telling, but this certainly was the case with ‘West of the Moon’. I began writing the first part, ‘Troll Fell’, in longhand some thirty years ago, created a few of the characters and part of the situation, and then got stuck.  The manuscript stayed in a drawer for a couple of decades while I earned my degree, found employment, married and had children – but I never threw it out.  It was a tantalising keyhole glimpse of a world that intrigued and enticed me.  I knew one day it would draw me back.

When this finally happened, it was after spending four or five years of storytelling to schoolchildren in France and America where we’d been living.  I’d submerged myself in the oral storytelling tradition, mostly fairytales: The Juniper Tree, Mr Fox, The White Cat, The Goosegirl, The White Bear – and learned much from them about plot, structure and what holds an audience. I’d also read widely in Scandinavian folklore and fairytales - which for me have a wider range than pure mythology.  These stories are often attractively humble and homely, encompassing humour and warmth, as in tales of Norwegian trolls which infest farmers’ barns like vermin, or come tumbling in, menacing yet comical, on Christmas Eve to gobble up the food and frighten the inhabitants.  Yet such stories can also be numinous and terrifying in a way that, for me, strikes closer to home than tales of ancient gods.  What about the story of ‘The Deacon of Myrká’, who arrives on Christmas Eve on his grey horse Faxi to take his sweetheart to the dance, just as he’d promised – even though, unbeknown to her, he was drowned in the river weeks ago? She gets up behind him, and:

“As they reached the river, the ice banks were quite high, and as the horse went over the edge, the deacon’s hat was lifted at the back and Gudrún looked at his bare skull.  At that very moment the clouds cleared from the moon and the deacon said,

“The moon is gliding.
Death is riding.
Don’t you see a white spot
at the nape of my neck,
Garún, Garún?”

‘Troll Fell’ was conceived as a fairytale which would combine the homely and the terrifying: the humour and cosiness of a tale told by the fireside, but with room for that shudder of real terror as something peers in from the darkness outside.  I hope I succeeded, though it’s not really for me to say: but that was my aim.  But as Tolkien says, tales grow in the telling, and by the time I came to the second book, ‘Troll Mill’, more was going on under the surface than at first I realised.

‘Troll Fell’ was a winter book; ‘Troll Mill’ is set in summer: but darker for all that.  The hero and heroine, Peer and Hilde, are older, coming of age, beginning to wrestle with the doubts and ambiguities of life.  I used the old Orkney legend of the selkie bride – the seal woman whose pelt is stolen by a fisherman so that she must marry him. The fisherman loves his wife, but he captured her like an animal. So how can he be a good man?  The wife loves her child, but abandons it to return to the sea.  How can she be a good mother?  I found myself writing variations on a theme of motherhood.  There’s the lost selkie bride, whose story seems to me a metaphor for the tragedy of post-natal depression; there’s the Norse mother who cares for her family with common sense and hard work; and there’s the celebrity mother with the appalling brat – the Troll Princess.  The book filled up with summer storms, love and death, quarrels and misunderstandings and good intentions that go awry.

And then I came to the third and final book of the trilogy, ‘Troll Blood’, in which the hero and heroine set out in a Viking ship to sail across the North Atlantic and reach the coasts of Vinland – in this case, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.  I’ve written elsewhere of my research for this book, so I won’t repeat it here.  This is an even darker book than ‘Troll Mill: it had to be.  The most cursory reading of the Greenland Saga shows that the interaction between the Norse would-be settlers and the original inhabitants of ‘Vinland’ was extremely violent, foreshadowing the whole sorry history of colonisation.  That shadow lay over my story.  It was impossible to write without delving into the fascination which violent power exerts over our imaginations.  What is a hero? Often, in real life, in the sagas, in history and in fiction, ‘he’ is a handsome figure wielding a famous sword...  In ‘Troll Blood’, young Harald Silkenhair is the very model of that kind of hero.  He is a charismatic psychopath who leaves a trail of death and destruction, and who is all the harder to deal with because other men can’t help admiring him. 

So yes, my tale grew in the telling.  Perhaps you couldn’t predict the ending of ‘West of the Moon’ from the beginning, any more than you could predict ‘The Lord of the Rings’ from ‘The Hobbit’: but the seeds are there.  As Tolkien went on to say about it,

“It was begun soon after The Hobbit was written… but the story was drawn irresistibly towards the older world…  As [it] grew, it put down roots (into the past) and threw out unexpected branches.”

Although ‘West of the Moon’ is full of magical, legendary creatures – some of them monsters – it’s my firm belief that the real monsters are always human beings.  Fictional monsters, in folklore and legends, are metaphors for the darkness in ourselves, which is where fantasy ought to take us.  And then it should take us out the other side and give us hope: because I also firmly believe in the heroism of perfectly ordinary people.  We saw them stand up, empty-handed, to police and soldiers armed with tanks and guns and teargas, a few weeks ago in Tahrir Square. 

And they prevailed.

Tuesday 22 February 2011

Fairytale Reflections - The Djachwi revealed...

Many thanks to Mr James Nyhan, a colleague of my husband, who has sent me a link to an article by a Slovenian folklorist, Monika Kropej: 'The Tenth Child In Folk Tradition' which casts light on who or what the Djachwi is, in the Irish tale of my last post, 'The King Who Had Twelve Sons'.

Do read it - it's extremely interesting, and it seems that the word stems from the Old Irish word for ten or tenth, and refers to the legend that the tenth child (or in some cases the seventh or twelfth) must roam the world as either a sacrifice to (a tithe) or as a personification of Fate or Destiny. 

Kropej even quotes William Larminie's missing note, torn out from the back of my book!  But the article is much more wide-ranging than that. (There's a wonderful tale of the tenth daughter, the only one of her sisters to respond to the Virgin Mary walking through the fields, who therefore has to go away with her.  And who says to her own mother, "You shall not see my death, but I will be standing by you when you die.")

Friday 18 February 2011

Fairytale Reflections (21) Katherine Langrish

All good things come to an end at last, and here, at least for now, is the end of Fairytale Reflections, although I do hope to be able to return with some new pieces for it later in the spring.  Next week, something quite new will be happening here... and meanwhile, at the end of this post you will find a list of names of all the marvellous writers who have so given their time and thoughts so generously.  You can find and reread all their posts easily by clicking on FAIRYTALE REFLECTIONS in the tag cloud.

Now here is a coda, or ending, to Fairytale Reflections.  And there seemed no better story to write about than the very one which lent me the name for ‘Seven Miles of Steel Thistles’.  As I used to say in a paragraph somewhere on the blog (which I removed because I figured by now you’d probably all seen it), the phrase comes from an Irish fairytale called -


It’s hardly a well known story.  I found it because of my habit of picking up shabby-looking books in second hand bookshops: a lovely old book called ‘West Irish Folk-Tales and Romances’ collected and translated by William Larminie (‘with introduction and notes, and appendix containing specimens of the Gaelic originals phonetically spelt.’)  It was published by the Camden Library in 1893.

Larminie, who was born in County Mayo in 1849 and died in 1900, was a minor Irish poet and a folklorist.  He spoke Gaelic, and translated most of the stories in the book from named oral storytellers:

‘All have been taken down in the same way – that is to say, word for word from the dictation of peasant narrators… difficult and doubtful pasts being gone over again and again.  Sometimes the narrator can explain difficulties.  Sometimes other natives of the place can help you.  But after every resource of this kind has been exhausted, a certain number of doubtful words and phrases remain, with regard to which – well, one can only do one’s best.’

He describes his narrators, who come from different districts: this is really fascinating:

“Renvyle… is situated in Connemara... Terence Davis is a labourer pure and simple. A man of about forty-five years of age, and blind in one eye. Some of his tales he got from his mother…

“Next in order, Achill Island, some twenty five miles from Renvyle by sea, more than sixty miles by land.  Two narrators from that locality are … represented in the book.  One of them, Pat. McGrale, is a man of middle age, a cottier with a small holding and besides, a Jack-of-all-trades, something of a boatman and fisherman, ‘a botch of a tailor’, to use his own words, and ready for any odd job.  He can read Irish, but had very little literature on which to exercise his accomplishment.  He knows some long poems by heart, and is possessed of various odds and ends of learning, accurate and not.  John McGinty, a man of Donegal descent and name, has also some land; but his holding is so small that he is to a great extent a labourer for others, and was engaged on relief works when I first came to know him.  He, also, is a middle aged man.  He knows many Ossianic poems by heart, which, he told me, his father taught him, verse by verse…”

It is John McGinty who told William Larminie the story of ‘The King Who Had Twelve Sons’. 

The first thing to be said about this story is that it’s picaresque, episodic, free-moving, fluid.  This is how it begins:

He went down to the river every day and killed a salmon for each one of them.

Who?  Who is this? Who’s ‘them’? What’s going on?  Ah, this is what the King who had Twelve Sons did, of course!  We’ve been flung into the middle of a conversation here.  John (Sean?) McGinty has already introduced the story by its title and plunged straight in.

He saw a duck on the river and twelve young birds with her; and she was beating the twelfth away from her.  He went to the old druid and asked what was the cause why the duck was beating the twelfth bird from her.

“It was this,” said the old druid, “she gave the bird to God and the Djachwi.”

Immediately, the King decides to do the same thing as the duck:

The younger children were running on first to the house, being hungry, and the eldest was coming, reading a book, after them.  The father was standing at the gate on the inside, and he threw him a purse of money and told him he must go seek his fortune, that he gave him to God and the Djachwi. 

I’ve no idea what the Djachwi is.  The story never tells, and the relevant note by Larminie at the back of the book, which might have ventured a guess, has been torn away.  In any case, the Djachwi, whatever it may be, never re-enters the story.  This is merely the kick-start to get the son away from the house and on the road to adventure.  Note that the King is conceived pretty much as any small farmer with a garden and a gate… The son soon takes service under another king: his wages ‘the beast that comes and puts his head in this bridle mine.’  He soon hears news:

“The daughter of the King of the great Wren is to be devoured tomorrow by a piast.” 

Here a footnote explains that a Piast is ‘a Gaelic monster, not exactly equivalent to either serpent or dragon.’  There’s no explanation about the Wren, though, and the lad’s informant continues with great and realistic unconcern:

“Was it in a wood or a hole in the ground you’ve been, that you didn’t hear it? Gentle and simple of the three islands are to be there tomorrow to look at the piast swallowing her – at twelve o’ clock tomorrow.”

Naturally, the lad goes riding to save her.

He called for his second best suit of clothes, and it came to him with a leap; and he shook the bridle, and the ugliest pony in the stables came to him and put her head in the bridle.  “Be up riding on me with a jump” (said the pony)… He gave his face to the way and he would overtake the wind of March that was before him, and the wind of March that was after would not overtake him.

The princess is saved, and in a Cinderella-like motif, the lad is identified as her rescuer by his boot, which she had seized as he rode past her. The pair are married: ‘They spent that night part in talking and part in storytelling’: it sounds an idyllic union: but the very next day the lad finds a pearl of gold upon the beach, and the druid (remember him?) tells him it belongs to “the daughter of a king of the eastern world, who lost it from her hair; - that there was a pearl of gold on every rib of her hair”.

The lad wants to find her.

The pony told him that she was hard to see.  “There are seven miles of hill on fire to cross before you come to where she is, and there are seven miles of steel thistles, and seven miles of sea for you to go over. I told you to have nothing to do with the apple.” 

Note that the lad’s advisor has morphed from the druid to the pony in the space of a couple of sentences.  We’re now a long way from the boy’s father, the eponymous King Who Had Twelve Sons: we’ve had two kings already and are about to meet a third, while the boy is about to collect a second princess.  He leaps the pony into the castle where she lives, catches her up and leaps out with her, and takes her home.  The pony is turned into a rock, which can turn to a pony again if struck with a ‘rod of druidism’. 

Now there are two women in the castle:

And the young queen he married did not know… till the hen-wife told her.  “Well!” said the hen-wife.  “He has no regard for you beside the other.  There is an apple of gold on every rib of hair upon her head.”  

On the hen-wife’s advice, the young queen plays cards with the lad till he loses, and she commands him to bring her ‘the black horse of the bank’. ( Could this be a water horse?  There’s no knowing).  The lad brings the pony back to life, and the pony fights the black horse and brings it home.

At this point, I don’t know about you, but I’m on the side of the young queen who was rescued from the Piast.  I’m expecting this to be her story now.  And so it is, for a while.  She and her husband continue to play cards and send each other on tit-for-tat errands.  The queen has to fetch for him ‘the three black ravens that are in the eastern world’, and succeeds, helped by friendly giants: but – feeling contrary no doubt, and who would blame her? – releases them, once her husband has seen them:

“If I promised to bring them to you, I did not promise to give them to you.”

Now, however, the young man is irritated by the henwife’s interference.  He summons her and sends her off to ‘the Gruagach of the Apple, and bring …the sword of light that is with the King of Rye’. 

Are you still with me?  Still keeping up with the storyteller John McGinty as he leaps from character to character – from King to lad, from lad to queen, from queen to hen-wife – agile as a man crossing a river on stepping stones?

The hen-wife succeeds in her task with the help of a friendly smith (and the loss of both the tips of her little fingers) and brings back the sword. 

Now then!  Surely it’s time for this story to spring back on itself and wrap everything neatly up at last!  But what do we get?  A row of asterisks:

*        *        *        *        *        *       
And a footnote:

‘The narrator’s memory failed him at this point, and he was unable to relate the further developments of this remarkable game of plot and counterplot.  Although the hen-wife was successful in the last event mentioned, it must be inferred that she was ultimately defeated.' 

All John McGinty could remember of the rest of the story was the last, disconnected and downbeat sentence:

And when the first wife saw the second wife with her own eyes, she could esteem herself no longer, and she died of a broken heart.

Here are some asterisks of my own:

*        *        *        *        *         *

Why have I spent so much time telling you about this story – when John McGinty himself couldn’t remember what happened?  What’s the good of a story (as Alice might say) with no proper ending?

To me, the good of it is that it reminds us of the process by which all fairytales have come down to us.  Though there are many good oral storytellers today, as there are many good folk and ballad singers – and I’ve tried my hand at both – we’d have to confess that the immediate origin of most of our stories and songs is from books.

I’m terribly impressed by the honesty which led William Larminie to include this story in his collection.  It starts promisingly, it’s got many intriguing developments – but in the end, we don’t know what happens.  We never will know.  John McGinty forgot. 

And perhaps, who knows? another night, a week or two later, stung by his failure to tell the story all the way through, John McGinty did remember the ending, but Larminie wasn’t there.  Or perhaps he strung on to it the ending of some other story, which could be appropriately altered to fit.  Or perhaps he made something up out of his own head. That’s the way oral storytelling works: it isn’t fixed, it isn’t canonical.  This broken telling is ‘authentic’. 

If I added an ending of my own, it wouldn’t be authentic at all. 

Or would it? 

“This story is true,” as one of the other tales in the book concludes.  “All the other ones are lies.”


Adele Geras - Hansel and Gretel
Susan Price - Silvertree and Goldentree
Mary Hoffman - The Fisherman and His Wife
Kate Forsyth - Rapunzel
Katherine Roberts - The Snow Queen
Lucy Coats - Baba Yaga
Sue Purkiss - The Wild Swans
Delia Sherman - The Snow Child
Cassandra Golds - The Little Mermaid
Megan Whalen Turner - The Provenson Book of Fairytales
John Dickinson - The Arabian Nights
Juliet Marillier - Beauty and the Beast
Celia Rees - Blodeuwedd
Gillian Philip - Tam Lin
Leslie Wilson - The Bremen Town Musicians
Jane Yolen - Fakelore and Folklore
Inbali Iserles - Rumpelstiltskin
Midori Snyder - The Monkey Girl
Ellen Renner - The Master-Maid
Katherine Langrish - The Juniper Tree and The King Who Had Twelve Sons

Picture credit: Arthur Rackham, from 'Irish Fairytales' by James Stephens

Friday 11 February 2011

Fairytale Reflections (20) Ellen Renner

Ellen Renner was born in the USA, in the Ozark Mountains of Missouri, but came to England looking for adventure, married here, and now lives in an old house in Devon with her husband and son.  I’m totally impressed, because besides being a very good writer, Ellen can fence with a sword (something I've always wanted to do) and is also a weaver who can start from scratch with a hank of sheep’s wool, spin it on a wheel, and then either knit it or weave it onto cloth on her loom.  On top of which, she rides a motorbike.  (Not on top of the loom, of course. I mean, 'in addition.') 

Ellen's first book, ‘Castle of Shadows’ (2010) is set in an alternate world similar to nineteenth century England, in a city not unlike London.  Young Charlie (Charlotte) is the Princess of Quale.  Years ago her mother the Queen – a notable scientist – mysteriously vanished. Her eccentric father the King spends all his time building ever more elaborate card-castles.  Neglected and hungry, bullied by the housekeeper, Charlie runs wild and scrambles at will over the roofs of the castle, her only friend the gardener’s boy, Toby – until the day when the suavely intelligent Prime Minister, Alistair Windlass, begins to take an interest in her.  But is he a true friend, or does he have some other motive for turning Charlie back into an educated, well-dressed, 'proper' princess? 

Alistair Windlass is a remarkably complex villain - if indeed he is a villain and not a patriot, two definitions which the book demands we consider, along with what they might mean...  All of Ellen's characters are refreshingly multi-layered.  The heroine Charlie is hot-headed, loyal and brave, but increasingly the weight of sovereignty imposes its limitations upon her. In a moving passage from Ellen’s second book, ‘City of Thieves’, Charlie climbs to the high ridge of the castle roof to put herself to the test:

The sky was pearl-coloured and cold. Dew lay on the leads, shimmering between water and frost.  The rooks screamed, hoarse with excitement at the freshness of the day.  Charlie filled her lungs with silvery air. 

She took her time climbing to the ridge, pausing to watch the rooks wheel overhead and to look, when she was high enough, for the distant glimmer that was the sea.  When she reached her enemy and stood staring at its long metal backbone, she couldn’t tell whether she was shaking from fear, excitement or cold.

She knew what she was going to do.  She had thought it out during the climb.  She did not want to die. She needed to do this, but she no longer trusted in the magic of her feet and head to keep her safe.  She knew now, as she had not before, that she could die.  She knew it with her body and not just her mind.  The knowledge brought sadness.  She had lost something, and it wouldn’t come bac

‘City of Thieves’ continues Charlie’s story, with further focus on her friend Toby and his efforts to escape both the family of thieves who claim him as their own, and the machinations of the sinister yet strangely attractive Windlass.  Quale is in deadly danger – and Charlie and Toby are forced to take opposite sides.

The plotting is delightfully complex: more twists and turns than a chain-link fence.  These are books hard to categorise – a fantasy world without magic, with a hint of steam-punk, lots of interesting politics, some fearsome inventions, and brilliant characters you really care about.  It’s already been said, and I agree, that Ellen’s writing is reminiscent of Joan Aiken’s.  If only you could introduce characters from one author’s books to another’s!  I’d love to see tough, passionate Charlie meet Aiken’s irrepressible gamine, Dido Twite.  And while on the subject of strong heroines, Ellen has chosen in her Fairytale Reflection to consider the female role in fairytales, as exemplified by -


Recently, during a school visit, an eleven-year-old boy said he found Castle of Shadows 'girly' and asked, 'Did I mean it to be that way?'

I was, frankly, horrified. Castle of Shadows is about love and hate, power and powerlessness, politics and science. Charlie, the main character, is the least frilly princess imaginable. In a reversal of the fairy-tale tradition, she is the hero and her helper a boy. When I invited him to imagine the exact same sequence of events with a boy as the main character, my questioner had to admit that there was nothing intrinsically feminine in either plot or themes. It appeared that the thing preventing him from identifying with the story was that fact that it had a girl protagonist who, moreover, was a princess.

He went on to ask many more lively and interesting questions, but the incident remains with me as an example of the truism that, while girls will happily read books where the main character is a boy, the same cannot be said for boys. Which begs the question: Why?

Are girls innately more empathetic? Are there biological and evolutionary reasons which tend to make men see women as 'other', while women sometimes identify so strongly with those they love that they can lose their own sense of self? Or is the reason cultural: the fact that active female protagonists – female 'heroes' – are so hard to find in our stories and cultural myths? If the boy in that school had grown up with stories and cultural myths where 'heroes' are girls as often as boys, would he have had the same reaction to my book?

Castle of Shadows began as a fairy-tale: a missing queen, a forgotten princess, a mad king who neglects both daughter and kingdom, the corrupting desire for power. I was aware of these fairy-tale elements from the moment of inception and also of my own ambivalence towards them. I was particularly wary of having a princess for a main character. Fairy-tale princesses held little charm for me as a child.

I read mythology, folk lore and fairy-tales voraciously, yet certain tales felt inappropriate and even irritating long before I was capable of analysing why that might be. They annoyed me in the same way Barbie dolls did. These were the stories featuring passive girls, usually born or destined to become princesses, like Sleeping Beauty or Cinderella. Girls whose physical attractiveness was the sum of their identity; girls who were not so much protagonists as prizes.

I yearned for heroines I could identify with and aspire to be like. Girls who DID things. Who underwent hardship and suffering and overcame the odds by use of their own wit or courage. And I found Gerta in Andersen's The Snow Queen and the brave sister in the Grimms tale, The Six Swans. I found Gretel in Hansel and Gretel; Janet in Tam Lin; and the redoubtable, spendidly named Molly Whuppie – the female Jack who bests her giant. Molly may marry and disappear into  'happy-ever-after', but you know she will go on dominating life just the same.

I had a more complicated reaction, no doubt because of the darker themes of forced marriage and the bestial interpretation of male sexuality, to tales such as Mossy Coat, The Black Bull of Norroway, and East of the Sun, West of the Moon, but I still admired the courage and cleverness of the heroines. In these tales, a young woman is forced to perform nearly impossible tasks in order to recover a lost fiancé or husband, and sometimes their children. She succeeds with the help of magical advisers and gifts.

Similar, but missing out the forced marriage aspect, are versions of The Master-Maid as told by Andrew Lang in The Blue Fairy Book. This tale and its variants, including Sweetheart Roland, Nix-Nought-Nothing and The Battle of the Birds, are classified, by those who enjoy such things, as 'girl helps hero flee' (Arne-Thompson type 313). It's a strange classification, since the heroes in these stories are less interesting than the heroines. The 'helpers' are the true protagonists. These heroines have no advisers, are given no gifts. They succeed by dint of their own magical abilities, courage and cleverness. These are witches, one and all; daughters of ogres or giants, who wield far more power than than their mortal lovers.

In The Master-Maid, the king's youngest son goes off into the world to seek his fortune and takes employment with an evil giant. The giant sets him three impossible tasks which the prince is only able to complete by following the advice of the Master-Maid. 'Master' here means skilled, and the young woman is obviously a magician employed as a servant by the giant. Their relationship is never explained. (In some versions, she is the Giant's daughter.) The giant, suspecting her involvement, orders her to kill the prince and cook him for his supper. Master-Maid pretends to obey, but when the giant falls asleep, she puts her plan into action:

So the Master-Maid took a knife, and cut the Prince's little finger, and dropped three drops of blood upon a wooden stool; then she took all the old rags, and shoe-soles, and all the rubbish she could lay hands on, and put them in the cauldron; and then she filled a chest with gold dust, and a lump of salt, and a water-flask which was hanging by the door, and she also took with her a golden apple, and two gold chickens; and then she and the Prince went away with all the speed they could ...

Of course, the giant wakes, is fooled for a short time by the three drops of blood, who answer his calls in the Master-Maid's voice. He tastes the mess in the cauldron; the game is up and he gives chase. This pursuit was always my favourite part, but I prefer the version in The Battle of the Birds, taken from The Well at the World's End, Folk Tales of Scotland retold by Norah and William Montgomerie:

 ...the giant jumped out of bed and, finding the Prince and his bride had gone, ran after them.
In the mouth of the day, the giant's daughter said her father's breath was burning her neck.
'Quickly, put your hand in the grey filly's ear!' said she.

'There's a twig of blackthorn,' said he.
'Throw it behind you!' said she.
No sooner had he done this than there sprang up twenty miles of blackthorn wood, so thick that a weasel could not go through.

The giant is delayed while he chops the wood down, but he's soon after them again:

'In the heat of the day, the giant's daughter said: 'I feel my father's breath burning my neck. Put your hand in the filly's ear, and whatever you find there, throw it behind you!'

He found a splinter of grey stone, and threw it behind him. At once there sprang up twenty miles of grey rock, high and broad as a range of mountains. The giant came full pelt after them, but past the rock he could not go.

He is delayed again as he digs through the rock, but the lovers' respite is brief and she once more instructs him to reach into the filly's ear:
This time he found a thimble of water. He threw it behind him, and at once there was a fresh-water loch, twenty miles in length and breadth.
The giant came on, but was running so quickly he did not stop till he was in the middle of the loch, where he sank and did not come up.

The giant defeated, the lovers reach the Prince's home, but their trouble is not over. The Master-Maid warns him: '... if you go home to the King's palace you will forget me, I forsee that.' But the stubborn Prince insists. And as though he were a mortal venturing into the fairy realm, she instructs him not to speak to anyone there, and especially not to eat any food, or else he will forget her. Of course, he eats and forgets. In the second half of the tale, she must use all her magic to cancel the spell and win back her beloved.
Most tales about the winning back of a lover or husband put the blame for his forgetfulness onto women: the mother and daughter troll; the hag and the enchantress. Only in darker versions of Sweetheart Roland do we find the heroine killing both rival witch and straying betrothed. In all other cases, it is only the rival women who are killed. From The Master-Maid:

So the Prince knew her again, and you may imagine how delighted he was. He ordered the troll-witch who had rolled the apple to him to be torn in pieces between four-and-twenty horses, so that not a bit of her was left ...

This is the first mention in the story that the young lady is a troll. It seems rather stiff punishment for proffering an apple to a man who takes your fancy, but such are the rules of fairy-tales.

As for hags, in these as in most fairy-tales, elderly women come in for harsh treatment, which doubtless says much about the social attitudes of the times in which they were written. The Master-Maid needs somewhere to live in order to win back her man, and when she spies a little hut in a small wood near the King's palace, she more or less moves in:

The hut belonged to an old crone, who was also an ill-tempered and malicious troll. At first she would not let the Master-Maid remain with her; but at last, after a long time, by means of good words and good payment, she obtained leave.

The crone is less pleased when the Master-maid starts redecorating:

The old crone did not like this either. She scowled, and was very cross, but the Master-maid did not trouble herself about that. She took out her chest of gold, and flung a handful of it or so into the fire, and the gold boiled up and poured out over the whole of the hut, until every part of it both inside and out was gilded. But when the gold began to bubble up the old hag grew so terrified that she fled as if the Evil One himself were pursuing her, and she did not remember to stoop down as she went through the doorway, and so she split her head and died.

Such is the fate of hags and crones. They are either trolls to be killed or, more rarely, advisers whom the heroine would be wise to listen to.

The best of all hags must be Baba Yaga, as powerful as she is terrifying; who eats stupid girls but offers the wise and brave ones power and life. Lucy Coats has done an excellent post (Fairytale Reflections 7) on Baba Yaga and my favourite fairy-tale heroine, Vasilisa.

I can't leave hags behind without mentioning a modern fairy-tale, the brilliant 'Howl's Moving Castle', in which Diana Wynne Jones takes the motif of the fairy-tale hag and turns it on its head from the inspired moment in the book when she transforms her protagonist into an aged crone, which she remains for much of the novel. Wynne Jones knows, as all women do, that there is little difference between heroine and crone. Time's slight-of-hand – a malicious magic – and the princess becomes the hag.

In most fairy-tales, the heroine's ultimate reward is marriage, whereupon her adventures cease. But then, so do the hero's.

As for my own heroine, the princess Charlotte, I grew to know her better as I wrote the book. Like the Master-Maid and Molly Whuppie, she is girl who knows her own mind. She is, like all girls, the heroine of her own life, not merely a prize or a helper, and her story needed to reflect that reality. Castle of Shadows is no fairy-tale. Charlie resembles the real life queen, Elizabeth the First, far more than she ever will Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty. In the passing of time, she will grow to become a wise and powerful crone. And like that monarch (for Charlie is a queen now too), she may be destined never to know what happens in the land of 'happy-ever-after'.

Picture credits: 
'Ellen Renner' - courtesy of the Western Morning News
'Girl beside a Stream'  by Arthur Rackham, Sheffield City Art Gallery
'Molly Whuppie' retold by Walter de la Mare, illustrated by Errol le Cain
'East of the Sun, West of the Moon' by Henry Justice Ford
'The Giant in The Master Maid' by John D Batten
'Mollie Whuppie and her Sisters' by Errol le Cain

Friday 4 February 2011

Fairytale Reflections (19) Midori Snyder

Midori Snyder  is the author of numerous numerous fantasy novels for adults, young adults and children, along with assorted poems, essays and short stories, she co-directed the Endicott Studio for Mythic Arts with Terri Windling, and writes a fascinating arts and literature blog, In The Labyrinth.  The Innamorati’, set in an alternate Renaissance Italy - won the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Adult Literature in 1998.

Raised in the US and Africa, Midori studied African oral narratives, earned a Masters in English Literature, and has taught English and creative writing in Italy and Wisconsin. The author of numerous fantasy novels for adults, young adults and children, along with assorted poems, essays and short stories, she co-directed the Endicott Studio for Mythic Arts with Terri Windling, and writes a fascinating arts and literature blog, In The Labyrinth.

It was Midori’s YA novel ‘Hannah’s Garden’ (2002) which first enchanted me. Seventeen year old Cassie is a talented violinist, looking forward to an important recital – when news arrives that her artist grandfather is dying in hospital. With her mother Anne, and Anne’s new boyfriend, she  travels north to the farm where her grandfather lived – to discover that something very strange is going on. The farmhouse has been trashed, Great-Grandmother Hannah’s spiral garden has been destroyed, and the weedy yard and woodlands appear to be haunted by weird and sometimes hostile presences.  Here’s the moment when Cassie is saved and hidden from a violent intruder by protective, yet scary hands whichreach out of the wall and drag her in:


Another  hand, chalk white this time, reached out through the faded wallpaper and covered my mouth. …I could hardly breathe as I was ironed and flattened by the wooden hands, and pulled back through the brittle wallpaper.

I passed through the wallpaper’s thin skin. The plaster cracked open like soft clay to allow me passage into the wall. The hand over my mouth kept the dry chalk and horsehair fibers from clogging my throat and nose. …The hands continued to pull me backwards into the yielding plaster until the old lath closed over my chest and thighs, hiding me within the wall. Plaster filled in the hole my body had made and the wallpaper repaired itself, knitting the tears, the white flowers smooth again against the gray background.

There was a soft muffled sound. Glancing sidelong, I saw the profile of a woman, her white face narrow and pointed. Her hair fanned out like spiderweb, weaving through the lath.


You would think Midori walked through walls on a regular basis...  In the following wonderful essay, she considers what it takes for a partnership truly to achieve happy-ever-after.


When I was a girl reading fairy tales, I appreciated those courageous maidens tromping off in iron shoes or flying on the back of the west wind to find their future husbands where they, imprisoned by trolls or cannibal mothers, waited to be rescued. I admired those young women and their single–minded purpose. They were bold, resourceful, and spirited. And they were certainly a far cry from the “waiting–to–be–awakened” girls or the girls expecting to be fitted with a shoe, a Prince, and a future all at the same time.


Yet even in their plucky natures and heroic tales, there was still something about them that troubled me. Perhaps it was the assumption of happily–ever–after, or at least the seeming surrender of all that reckless adventure. Their rites of passage completed, the journey to find a husband over, there was an expectation that life for these young women would settle once again into neatly defined roles and an untroubled routine. This assumption didn't sit well with me at all. I knew from my own family that such happily–ever–afters were not true. I had parents who had met and married in a passion, and then just as passionately argued, accused, betrayed and divorced each other. The photographs of their early years depict the blissful expressions worn by most newly married couples, but the later years proved ugly, full of dark misadventures and contentious battles over money. Though I left home at seventeen, inspired I think by the example of those stalwart maidens, I roamed the world in iron shoes forged by my parent's issues and no other goal in my mind except to escape their battles. Eventually, my money dissolved, the shoes became as thin as paper, and I returned home.


What a surprise then to discover a scant year later that home had all but disappeared. A Central Asian scholar, my mother boarded a bus in Istanbul and traveled for two weeks across Afghanistan following the Silk Road up to India, where she was now living, indefinitely it seemed. My father and his new wife returned from Africa and moved to another state. My older brother and I temporarily inherited the house along with its mortgage, and one of my mother's dysfunctional, melancholic friends as a roommate. I received phone calls from my mother at odd hours of the night, from Delhi, Calcutta, and Bombay, mostly asking me to wire money. During the days I worked at a movie theatre, selling popcorn and watching Dirty Harry play to a nearly empty house. It didn't seem right. My mother was out there reinventing herself and I was here, stuck. I wanted to be angry with her, but the truth was I admired her. She was difficult, unpredictable, but also interesting and indomitable. I concluded that she had needed that difficult spirit to survive the dismal destruction of her happily–ever–after.


At the end of my eighteenth year I enrolled in college and met my husband. It happened with the unreal grace of a fairy tale — a single sentence really. There was an introduction, a smile, a night, and almost immediately we were attached at the hip. As pleased with each other as we were, it was disconcerting to find our joy not shared by our friends. According to his family and certainly his suburban friends from high school, I was an unlikely choice, a disaster, and an aberration. It was the seventies; I was too political for them, too opinionated; I wore flannel shirts, glasses, and said “fuck” earnestly and often. His friends whispered that he had been snared by a girl who wasn't playing by the usual rules. I was neither compliant nor pretty in the way one expects of an accessory, and I was known to have claws, verbal comebacks that stung. His parents were convinced that I was the reason he strayed from the church. I was a fornicator, from the wrong class, a pathetic child of a broken home that could only spell disaster for their errant son.


Yet on the other side of the field my women friends from the university shook their heads in equal disapproval. Self proclaimed radical feminists, these “Red Sisters” argued that marriage was bourgeois, that women in such bonds were no more than property, and they determined that the only way to avoid the trap was to sleep with each others' husbands and boyfriends, swapping them like shoes or sweaters. I refused such invitations — I had already seen where that road led and I wasn't anxious to retrace my parents' footsteps. Monogamy and true love may have been reactionary, but I found them challenging, full of creative possibilities, and, among my girlfriends, mostly untried.


Still, it was difficult and lonely to be on the margins of two worlds, so I remember the thrill I felt recognizing a kindred spirit the first time I encountered “The Monkey Girl, ” a tale from the Kordofan people of the Sudan. The youngest son of an Emir is asked to choose a bride from the eligible maidens of his village. The Prince rides his horse up and down, spear in hand, ready to cast it at the door of the chosen girl. But he seems unable to decide, and in a moment of frustration, casts the spear far out into the desert. For two days he journeys after it only to discover the spear embedded in the trunk of a lone tree, and in whose leafless branches sits a monkey. As the Prince approaches, the monkey inclines her head, and in a gentle voice accepts the proposal of marriage. And the Prince? Well, he is the hero, a man of integrity, true to his word, so he pulls the monkey up behind him on the horse and together they return to the village to be married.

Monkey figurine,
Iran 3rd millennium B. C.

As one might imagine, it's difficult for the Prince. The Emir is appalled; the Prince's brothers, married to wealthy brides, pity him. Hearing the Prince's heavy sighs, the monkey makes him an offer: “Return me to the desert and I promise there will be another woman, more beautiful than you can imagine, waiting for you on your return. ” “And you? ” the prince inquires, “what will happen to you? ” “I will die, ” she answers simply. The Prince is a decent and compassionate sort, and though it would improve his situation immensely, he refuses to sacrifice the monkey's life. Yet when the Emir decides to dine in each one of his sons' homes, the young Prince is overwhelmed with dismay — for their house is a dark hovel, their meals poor fare. The monkey repeats her offer, but once again the Prince refuses. The monkey tells the Prince to invite his father for the evening meal and that all will be ready for his arrival. When father and son enter the house, the Prince is astonished to discover a miraculous transformation. Beneath the golden gleam of a hundred oil lamps the once barren rooms are now sumptuously decorated. There are plush carpets patterned with flowers, embroidered silk pillows on which to recline, and low tables spread with silver and copper platters of rich, steaming food. The men are amazed, and for the first time the Prince begins to wonder about his bride.

What follows is a delicious, slow striptease as the monkey unveils her secrets to the Prince one pale limb at a time over a number of nights. Three times the curious Prince spies on the monkey and manages to catch sight of her sitting before a mirror and deftly peeling back a portion of her furry hide. By moonlight he can see a slender wrist, the curve of her ivory breast, a naked shoulder. Each time he moves toward her, she twirls her finger and a sandstorm fills the little room, blinding him. Only when she is ready at last to emerge as a lovely young woman is the Prince able to steal the skin and burn it. As she stands before him in all her splendor, the Prince is appropriately humbled and awed by his fantastic bride. United at last as a couple, their marriage is now on a sure and heroic footing.

That should have been enough of a happy ending. But it isn't and with good reason. How can a woman of power, of fantastic substance from that world beyond the boundaries of the human world be tamed, slotted into the narrow role of a wife? What indeed would be the point of reducing her to the ordinary? The Prince and the Monkey Girl are happily married, but the happily–ever–after is threatened when the Emir begins to lust after the young woman. He imposes impossible tasks on his son, proclaiming death if the Prince fails to complete them. Of course, it is his fantastic bride who rescues him. Effortlessly drawing on her power, she makes the gardens bear fruit overnight and just as easily consumes a storehouse of food during the second night. In the final task she tricks the Emir into agreeing to his own death should the Prince succeed in making a newborn infant learn to walk and talk in a single day. The following morning the child walks into the hall announcing the Emir's death sentence and the ascension of the young Prince to the throne. Not just a pretty face this monkey girl, but wise and adept at managing agriculture, politics, law, and dangerous men.

Illustration by Edmund Dulac

What fascinated me the most in this story was not the obvious ugly monkey to beautiful woman transformation. It was the idea that the Monkey Girl controlled not only the destiny of her own rite of passage, but also that of the Prince. Through the agency of the spear — a wonderful manipulation of the phallic sign — she brings the Prince out into the fantastic realm to her to begin his journey. Similarly, cloaked in the animal skin, she embarks on her own rite of passage, journeying back to the human world while the storyteller in her recounts, in figurative language, the scenario of her death as an adolescent girl, and of her subsequent resurrection as an adult woman ready for marriage. She uses her disguise not only to complete her rite of passage, but also to test her husband's worthiness, integrity, compassion, and the strength of their bond. Little by little, she reveals herself to him, gradually making him aware of the considerable hidden power she possesses. Can he handle it? Will he be frightened? Or worse, will he try to control and possess her like the Emir?

It is the task of the hero to wrestle with the ambiguous power of the fantastic world and return with its fully creative potential in hand. The young Prince proves his loyalty and compassion — and from the monkey's bestial skin there emerges a beautiful bride. This bride is unlike her mortal counterparts, no matter how brave and courageous they may appear in other tales, for she represents a union, a partnership between the human hero and the creative forces of the fantastic world. In their marriage, hero and fantastic bride work together as equals to enrich each other's lives and strengthen their community. 

But this is one bride that must never must be underestimated or taken for granted in the happily–ever–after. The beastly bride, while she may shed her skin or commit herself as a sensual partner, never surrenders her power and therefore always remains a little dangerous, a little unpredictable. There are beastly brides who hide their scales, their fur, and don the bodies of women in order to marry men for their own reasons, and to have children. Perhaps these brides should come with warning labels — disrespect us at your own peril! Husbands who transgress by peering into keyholes to learn the hidden truth about their wives run the risk of losing all the privileges such fantastic women provide them. And while the tales of beastly brides may be regarded as the cautionary warnings of a patriarchal society, convinced that the difficult woman hides a furry tail, scaled thighs, or a demon's appetite, I, for one, rejoice in them. They force the essential questions of marriage: Can you respect the power I hold, the secrets that are mine, the space that is reserved for me alone, and still be loving? Can marriage be a union of two forces, each with their own gifts to be offered freely, mutually acknowledged, respected and supported? And if the answer is no and the marriage hits a bump, a snag in the happily–ever–after, these women pack their bags and leave for the forests, the deserts, the deep oceans, or India, angry, but undaunted. Years after their divorce, my father confessed to me that he had often told my mother in their bitter fights that it seemed she couldn't decide whether to be a mother or an academic. It was with regret that he had recognized too late that had he supported her, she could have been both. A beastly bride, my mother was too difficult and too rich in resources for my father to appreciate and love until she was gone.

The tale of the Monkey Girl gave me what I needed most at a critical time in my life: the image of the creative and complex woman, unique to herself but willing to share those considerable gifts with a man capable of intuiting the wealth of her worth hidden beneath the skin. But more than that, the Monkey Girl also suggested that I need not be afraid of the fragile happily–ever–after, that I had resources of my own and that I would not have to contort myself into a restricting social role for fear of losing that fairytale ending. There was always travel. I gained courage resisting the tyranny of those opposing sides: the one that argued I was too radical and sharp, and the other that insisted I was a deluded, romantic traditionalist caught in the jaws of a bourgeois trap. Thirty years later, still happily married to the same man, I feel a debt of gratitude to the powerful example of the fantastic bride.

When I began to write novels I experienced again the presence of the Monkey Girl at my shoulder, pushing me, encouraging me. What better teacher could I have had? For out of the mysteries, the imagination, the realm of all things fantastic, she creates and transforms life: gardens out of the desert sands, wealth out of a hovel, feasts out of dry bread, precocious children out of newborns, and a husband out of a promising but confused young hero. She has a flare for drama, disguise, and illusion. From the moment the Prince releases his spear in her direction, she controls the story, manipulating the narrative, repetition fueling a smoldering sexual anticipation that climaxes when she at last reveals herself quite nude and available. 

But behind the Monkey Girl there is another woman, the one who tells this tale, the one who repeats it over and over again so that we may always remain respectfully awed by the provocative and resplendent power of the fantastic bride. Who could resist admiring the skill of such a potent storyteller? Certainly not me, and so it is in my own work that I follow this well–worn path and take pleasure in writing the tales of difficult women, ambiguous and fantastic women, women whose fairytale–like stories I never grow tired of imagining.


 Copyright © 2002 by Midori Snyder. This article first appeared in Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Women Writers Explore Their Favorite Fairy Tales (Second Edition), edited by Kate Bernheimer, Anchor Books, 2004. This material may not be reproduced in any form without the author's express written permission.