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


  1. I'm all for heroines. But boys do seem to be turned off by princesses. In my Seven Wonders books (promoted for 9-12 boys), they happily read the ones with heroines except for the third which had the word "princess" in the blurb. Never mind she was an Amazon princess who rode a horse and swung a sword... because they never got that far. Princesses are girly!

    (Wrote a longer comment, but Blogger swallowed it - grrr.)

  2. Oh how I love these Friday blogs.
    They bring back so many childhood memories but also raise so many interesting angles and points for me as an adult looking back on them.
    One of the reasons I started writing as a young girl was because the insipid princesses annoyed me so. Of course there were exceptions but rare in the anthologies I was reading, and the active heroine was never a princess. I used to rewrite fairytales, painstakingly type them out on a manual typewriter, roll the pages into a scroll and tie with a red ribbon, and present them to my younger sister.

  3. Wonderful post.

    There are so many strong and complex female fairy tale characters, and it's odd that we must go to the not quite so well known tales to find them.

    As always, this Friday series is expanding my ever-growing list of books to read. I look forward to getting my hands "Castle of Shadows."

  4. Happy sigh. I love this series!

    Middle school librarian Ms. Yingling (of Ms. Yingling Reads) recently posted about her ingenious program, Boys Read Pink, in which she openly recruits the boys at her school to read "girl books." Here's the link:

    As for me, when I do a school visit about my "princess book," I point out that it's an adventure story and show the boys how to make a fake book jacket covered with dripping blood and dragons, renaming the book To the Death. They love it!

    So it sometimes helps to fight the trend head-on, and with humor.