Friday 24 June 2011

Fairytale Reflections (24) Nick Green

So here is a photo of my friend Nick Green, looking like a super-cool, turbo-charged, kick-ass dude, pretty much exactly the way kids imagine every [male] author ought to look. I mean, your average ten-year old wouldn’t feel like an idiot reading one of his books, would they?

It has been very difficult persuading Nick to part with enough information for me to make a reasonable go of writing this introduction.  I suspect him of being the kind of guy who refuses to part with information even when tied to the chair in the underground room, with the water rising around him and the candle slowly burning through the cord holding the anvil suspended over his head.  Out of sheer bloody-mindedness, no doubt.

At any rate, after applying a good deal of pressure I managed to extract only this:  Nick is the second oldest and second tallest of four brothers, and the only one who isn’t ginger.  It was while working for a children’s book club that he made the rash decision to start writing books as well as selling them.  He read English at Edinburgh University, and now lives in Hertford with his wife and an itinerant population of cats.

Fortunately, I have other sources of information. I first heard of Nick’s debut novel ‘The Cat Kin’ because it was news.  Nick self-published the book – yes, you heard – believing in its worth: and he was absolutely right.  After it was reviewed in The Times by Amanda Craig, who called it ‘a gripping adventure’, it was bought by Faber & Faber.  Nick was writing the sequel, there was going to be a trilogy, and everyone seemed to be talking about it.  What a brilliant success story!  So of course, I whizzed out and bought a copy… and was entranced. 

It’s a classic children’s adventure story with a fantasy/sci-fi twist: Two inner-city kids, Ben and Tiffany, each living tough lives, join an after-school gym class run by a strange woman called Mrs Powell.  And it turns out that what she teaches is the lost Ancient Egyptian art of ‘pashki’ – moving and sensing like a cat.  Soon Ben, Tiffany and the rest of their class are leaping over London’s rooftops, slipping near-invisibly through the streets – and about to need all nine of their new lives as they discover the very dark deeds taking place in the old factory with the chimney like a wizard’s tower, visible from Ben’s apartment block…  The plot is exciting, the writing is fresh, funny and perceptive.  Here, the children learn to climb trees like cats, up on top of Primrose Hill…

Perched over the dell, [Tiffany] parted the leaves.  The city of London looked near enough to touch.  Office blocks floated in the exhaust haze like fairy towers, the wheel of the London Eye no more than a charm bracelet dropped among them.
… A tree bearing bobbly green fruits fanned its branches like the spokes of an umbrella.  She bounded from spoke to spoke, catapulting herself off the last branch.  In a blink she was inside a cathedral of a horse-chestnut, emerald light glimmering through leafy windows, its mighty boughs straining higher like a spire towards the sun.  Up she dashed through the rafters as if ascending a spiral staircase, leaping out through a portal in the leaves.

But there’s a dark side to the book, too.  Tiffany is struggling with the reality of her brother’s illness.  What if illegal experiments could produce a drug to cure him?  Ben and his mother are under threat, their apartment wrecked by thuggish developers who want them to move out.  And both children have to learn responsibility for their new, sometimes frightening powers:

The cat-self he had awakened, his Mau body, had reflexes too fast for him to control.  If he was hit, he would hit back, no matter who got hurt.  … He shrank inside, just as he had when he was five and had accidentally set the waste paper basket on fire, thinking the flat, the whole world, would burn down.  … He hadn’t meant this to happen. What had he done?

And there turned out to be a dark side to the success story of Nick’s publication, too.  Despite many good reviews, despite the fact that by this time Nick had written the sequel, Faber & Faber decided not, after all, to go ahead with publishing this second volume, ‘Cat’s Paw’. 

This sort of thing is not uncommon these days, and it’s a crushing blow on a scale that perhaps only another author can fully understand.  Bloodied but unbowed, Nick decided that this left him with only one thing to do – self-publish ‘Cat’s Paw’, and be damned to 'em.

Which he did.  And lo! in the best of fairytale traditions courage and tenacity, allied to faith and talent, paid off.  ‘The Cat Kin’ was taken by valiant ‘Strident Publishing’ and republished with a brand-new cover.  Strident publishes the second book of the trilogy,‘Cat’s Paw’, in August, and Nick is busy writing the third.  And contemplating a new trilogy, ‘Firebird’.

With all that going on, I’m grateful to Nick for taking the time to write this Fairytale Reflection – and not at all surprised, really, that he’s chosen that tale of aspiration, fortitude, hard work …and cats:

Dick Whittington and His Cat: (or The Magic of Cats)

Turn again, Whittington, Lord Mayor of London!
Turn again, Whittington, thrice Mayor of London!

Is ‘Dick Whittington and his Cat’ really a fairytale? I’m going to call it one. Even though there is no actual magic (but see below), most of the ingredients are there: the poor and naive youth, the quest, the hardship, and at least a semi-supernatural element in the prophecy of the Bow Bells, calling the young Whittington back from Highgate Hill. I would argue that ‘Dick Whittington’ is not just a fairytale, but a particularly interesting one, being the only one (to my knowledge) that features a real person.

The historical Richard Whittington, of course, was Lord Mayor a total of four times (but legend ignores that as it doesn’t scan). Also, he was never particularly poor, and no-one knows if he really kept a cat. According to my diligent academic research (Wikipedia), the story’s origins lie further back, in a Persian folktale of a youth and his cat, onto which the legend of Whittington was later grafted. We can only guess the reason for this, but by all accounts Richard W was an all-round good egg and probably deserved it.

DW and C (as I shall write henceforth) is a simple enough yarn. A young lad comes to London seeking his fortune, following a rumour that the streets are paved with gold. Of course, they aren’t, and he ends up as a scullery boy. But his master is a merchant, and offers a place on his ship for anything that Dick might want to sell. All Dick has is his beloved cat, so reluctantly he sends that. Then, despairing of his fortune and missing his cat, Dick runs away, only to be checked on the edge of the city by the calling of the Bow Bells, who seem to be foretelling his future. He will become Lord Mayor of London, not once, but three times. Dick turns back, and arrives at his master’s house to astonishing news. The King of Barbary (whose kingdom is plagued by rats and mice) has bought his cat for a huge sum of gold. Dick’s fortune in made, and his destiny set in motion.

It’s a heartwarming story, but what makes it a fairytale? Someone being elected to high office three times isn’t a fairytale – that’s Margaret Thatcher. Even the prophetic bells aren’t really enough to elevate this story to the level of fairytale. There has to be another element that makes it so enduring.

Let’s face it. It’s the cat.

Think of the story of DW and C, and it’s always the same image: the youth treading the roads with his belongings in a sack on a stick, and a cat trotting faithfully beside him. If that animal were a dog, you’d have no story. ‘Dog follows human’ is not news. ‘Cat walks with human’ is the stuff of legend (unless your name is Jackie Morris). And the cat is what people remember. I mentioned before that no cats are recorded in the life of the historical Richard Whittington – and yet the creature still keeps popping up in tantalising glimpses, much as you’d expect a cat to do. In his will, Whittington ordered the rebuilding of Newgate Prison, and over one of the gates you could find the carving of a cat. Later, in 1572, Whittington’s heirs presented a chariot with a carved cat to the Merchants’ Guild. And in front of the Whittington Hospital, on Highgate Hill where Dick was said to have turned around, the cat keeps watch in the form of a statue. Despite all his philanthropy and good works – not to mention his real, provable existence – Whittington’s perhaps-mythical cat has effortlessly outlasted him. It’s not fair, is it?

In the story, it’s the cat that fills the role normally occupied in a fairytale by magic. It manages this even though it does nothing extraordinary – it doesn’t talk or dress up like the animal in Puss In Boots, it just goes around being a very good mouser and Dick Whittington’s dearest friend. In short, it does what any cat does. Because what a cat does, is magic.

This idea is at the heart of my own series of books, 'The Cat Kin'. In this, a group of London children join a class where they learn to move, see, hear and fight like cats. The art of ‘pashki’ is entirely my invention, but such is the universal appeal and mystery of cats that many readers ask if pashki is in fact real, or based in reality. Indeed, if you search the web, you can find claims that it is (and I didn’t put them there). Like Whittington’s cat, pashki seems to want to have a life of its own. Cats, for whatever reason, continue to exert their mystical fascination over us human beings.

One final reason why I love the story of Dick Whittington and his Cat, is that it’s a great parable for an aspiring writer. Dick follows a bright dream initially, only to be bitterly disappointed, giving up and turning away from it. And then, when all seems lost, he is called back to his struggle with the promise of a great reward – a threefold reward. And since I’m just now finishing off the third book in the Cat Kin trilogy, you could say that this ending rings a bell for me too.

Picture credits: 
Nick Green
Dick Whittington on Highgate Hill:  by Gustave Doré: 'London, A Pilgrimage'
The Dick Whittington Stone at Highgate
Whittington and His Cat: mid 19th century print, courtesy of SpitalfieldsLife (where you can find the story of Blackie, the last cat of Spitalfields Market).

Friday 17 June 2011

Fairytale Reflections (23) Gwyneth Jones

As a long-term writer of brilliant adult science fiction, Gwyneth Jones is a force to be reckoned with.  ‘Bold As Love’, which won the Arthur C Clarke Award in 2002 (and was nominated for many others) is the first of a series of five books about a near-future Britain where society is in meltdown.  There’s a violent environmental movement, an Islamic uprising in the north, a subtle but nasty dose of black magic, and a complex relationship between the main characters – three charismatic, damaged and idealistic young rock stars who become the country’s reluctant saviours and leaders of a new government, the 'Rock and Roll Reich'.  The books are rich in wars, rock festivals, romance, horror, and a deeply felt version of the British landscape, history and myth.  Do read them - if you haven't already!

However, Gwyneth also writes YA fiction under the name Ann Halam.  The earliest of her books I ever read was ‘Ally Ally Aster’, Allen & Unwin, 1981, in which a couple of conniving villains manage to imprison an ice spirit for their own nefarious ends.  (As you might guess, things turn out badly for them.)  After that I was hooked and have read nearly everything she’s written since: science fiction, horror and fantasy.  I’ve already talked on this blog about ‘King Death’s Garden’, a ghost story which is seriously funny as well as very frightening, as the self-pitying hero Maurice (characterised by the girl he fancies as a filthy, leprous little brute) sets out to discover the true secret of the large Victorian cemetery beside his great-aunt’s house. Then there’s ‘The N.I.M.R.O.D. Conspiracy’, a blend of horror and thriller, in which a boy, haunted by the little sister who drowned while in his care, begins to think – with reason – that she may still be alive. And ‘Siberia’, a haunting and beautiful book about a girl who journeys across a frozen and repressive land carrying a ‘nut’ full of mysterious secret seeds:

I knew the nutshell was magic.  There was a thin dark line around the middle of it.  Mama ran her fingertips around there: the nut came open in two halves and inside, snuggled in a nest of silky stuff, I saw tiny, furry living creatures.  They looked at me, with eyes no bigger than pin-heads. 

…They were called Lindquists, another strange word I must remember.  They would live, snuggled up together, and they would die, and curl up in their dishes again and turn into cocoons (I knew furry animals didn’t do that, caterpillars turning into butterflies did that, but this was magic).  Then you had to crumble the cocoons into powder, and put the powder into a new seed tube, with the right-coloured cap.

“Once there were Lindquists for all eight orders,” said Mama.  “The two missing ones are Cetacea and Pinnipedia.  But the marine mammals were lost.”

Her most recent book for young adults, ‘Snakehead’, Orion 2007, is a marvellous retelling of the legend of Perseus, written with wit, liveliness and passion.  And here is Gwyneth herself to talk about:

The Princess As Role Model

I’ve always been attracted to fairytales. I knew I was a storyteller long before I knew I’d be a writer: I took on my father’s mantle, and told epic bedtime stories to my brother and sister, at an early age, and my father’s stories (also epic, endless episodes from the same saga, about the same characters) were all based on a traditional tale, the one about a girl who finds out that she once had seven brothers, who were banished and turned into crows when she was born. It has many variants, but from internal evidence the original must be the Moroccan one (The Girl Who Banished Seven). Naturally, she sets off to find them and rescue them from the enchantment. That’s typical of a fairytale princess (she’s one of those who becomes a princess by marriage, but it’s all the same to me). They do the right thing. They stand up to evil step-mothers, and no task is impossible...

As a child I was small, podgy, clumsy and, worst of all, I was obviously going to pass that dreaded public exam called “The 11 Plus”, and go to Grammar School. I felt for the princesses in the fairytales. First they tell you you’ve been awarded fairy gifts (which you never asked for) and then wham, you’re plunged into bizarre vindictive hardship. Your mother dies, you end up sleeping in the ashes, washing bloody linen in a cave, knitting nettle shirts on a bonfire, wearing out your iron boots over razor sharp glass mountains. But I admired them too, and found them a tremendous comfort. They were so tough, so resourceful, and so decent. When everyone (not least the other little girls I knew) was telling me you are second-rate, they made me proud to be a girl. As I nursed my little bullied self home from school, by the most unobtrusive route, I thought about Cinderella. Elle s’estoit bien, says Perrault, and I wanted to be that person. To behave well, to stand up and be proud. (I knew it worked, too. The best way to frustrate a bully is to stay cheerful; be nice. It drives them absolutely nuts.)

When I was a child I responded to the bizarre adventures, the cheerful feats of endurance, the unstoppable can-do attitude of those privileged, yet beleaguered, young women. As I grew up the stories grew with me. I realised that the princess complex is a trap, it’s pure social propaganda. But I still loved the princesses, and the princes, themselves, and honoured their traditions when I started writing my own fantasy stories (published, long afterwards, as Seven Tales And A Fable). I honoured the stories, and I still do. I saw that they were more than lessons in docility, more than comforting, greedy daydreams. They were beautiful, ancient vessels, full of buried treasure. It was a very old, profound and lovely princess-story, re-written as a fantasy novel by a modern writer —'Till We Have Faces', C.S.Lewis—, that inspired me to write 'Snakehead', my own re-imagining of the story of Perseus and Andromeda.

'Till We Have Faces' is based on Eros and Psyche, one of the greatest of the Greek myths, and yet the story is familiar from many fairytales. A princess finds her prince and loses him. She fights her way back to his side by overcoming the fiendish magical  challenges devised by a spiteful royal mother-in-law—

Seven long years I served for thee
The glassy hill I clamb for thee
The bluidy shirt I wrang for thee
Wilt thou not wake and turn to me?

(The Black Bull Of  Norroway)

Perseus and Andromeda is another myth, perhaps the greatest of them all, with instant popular appeal. The hero-tale of Perseus fits in anywhere! There’s this kid, you see, brought up by his single mother, goes to High School or whatever, and then one day some supernatural beings come along. They tell him his father was a Greek God, they give him a magic sword and flying sandals, they send him off to kill a terrifying monster. He’s tall, strong and handsome! He has superpowers! He’s a teen with a mission! Oh, hey, and there’s a flying horse—

Unexpectedly, things get even better if you’re looking to write a novel rather than a comic book. The story of Perseus has complexity, it has texture. There’s the grim soap-opera of his parentage —why Danae of the shower of gold was locked up; how Zeus, the ruthless, randy chief of the Olympians, just couldn’t resist a challenge; how  Perseus’s charming grandfather put both mother and child in a box and had them thrown into the sea. There’s the unconventional little family group on the island of Seriphos: Danae and her son, washed up on the shore, living under the protection of Dictys the fisherman. Whose brother is the island’s tyrant king. Imagine this boy, knowing he’s different, but with nothing to show for it, no rank, no riches. Imagine him finding out that his biological father (he’s not impressed by divine status, of course; he’s family himself) is a ruthless Mr Big who raped his mother. He knows he’s been protected at least once from certain death. He must be wondering, as he grows up, what his selfish brute of a Divine Father saved him for.  Nothing good, you can bet...  And then there’s Dictys. Imagine the boy’s relationship with the fisherman, who has brought him up, and never (not in any of the accounts) put a disrespectful move on Danae. He’s been a true father. Dictys seems to be a man of peace, since he’s able to live and let live, with his wicked brother on the throne. How is his adopted son really going to feel, when the Messenger of the Gods, and the Goddess Athini waylay him on the road, and tell him he has to chop off the Gorgon’s Head? This Gorgon who was once a woman, too  beautiful for her own good, like Danae. Who was turned into a monster, to punish her for having been raped...

So it goes on, a wonderful story: the work of many hands, over thousands of years, and yet still alive, still growing, still inviting new storytellers to weave new patterns into the web. There’s only one weak point, and that’s the traditional centrepiece, where our hero finds his true princess, and has to win her by beating a string of awful vindictive challenges, thrown down by the malign Gods—

It’s weak because it doesn’t happen.

Andromeda isn’t a character. She’s not even as much of a character as the prince in 'The Black Bull Of Norroway'. She’s a name, and a predicament. Perseus doesn’t struggle to win her. He just passes by, on the way home from his questing work, swinging the Gorgon’s Head by the hair (not very safe! But that’s how it looks in all the pictures), and picks up a half-naked princess; like a pizza or a sandwich.

In my opinion, this just won’t do!

In 'Till We Have Faces' C.S.Lewis keeps his distance from the two principals, who represent, without much disguise, the human soul and the God of Love. His characters are the lesser figures. His protagonist is one of Psyche’s jealous sisters —a woman who barely exists in the original narrative. In 'Snakehead', I took the liberty of inventing the character of Andromeda, a weaver and a scholar (her name means Ruler of Men, or else Thinker) and switched things around so that she and Perseus have some previous history, before Andromeda is chained to the rock; before Perseus wanders along to slay the dragon. It just makes more sense, if Perseus knows he’s coming to the rescue of a princess; if he intends to claim her hand in marriage. It makes more sense to me personally, too. A generation ago, great writers and editors like Jane Yolen, Ellen Datlow reclaimed the traditional heritage: dismissing soft-focus, Disneyfied Snow White and Cinderella, rediscovering grim truths and quick-witted, resourceful heroines. That’s fine, that’s excellent work. But what I’ve wanted to do is to reclaim the relationships. To bring the prince and the princess together, instead of sending them off on segregated initiation trials. To let them meet as human beings, as friends, and fight side by side.

The story on record says Andromeda had to be sacrificed to punish her mother, queen Cassiopeia —who had boasted that her daughter was more lovely than a sea-nymph, and thus offended Poseidon, the God of Ocean and of Earthquakes. I don’t believe it. Child sacrifice was absolutely rife, around the shores of the Ancient Mediterranean. (Take a closer look at your Old Testament, if you don’t believe me). I’ll bet you anything it wasn’t a one-off occasion. I bet there was a lottery, and the children of the rich were usually spared, but then the queen’s political opponents decided Andromeda’s number was up. A powerful woman like Cassiopeia could have been an annoying relic of the old ways, in the days of the original story —when the Mediterranean World was leaving female-ordered civilisation behind, and patriarchal tribal rule was taking over.What would a princess do, if she found out she’d been drafted? Run for it, of course. And then what would she do, if she was a real princess; and knew some other poor girl would have to die in her place? She’d run back, of course. No matter who tried to stop her, no matter if she’d fallen in love.

Leaving Perseus with his repellent, murderous quest: a terrible choice, and just the inklings of a desperate plan—

The story of Perseus and Andromeda is the story of the founders of Homer’s Mycenae: well built Mycenae, rich in gold... way back in the Bronze Age. And from Mycenae, the baton was handed on to Athens, the cradle of western civilisation; making them a fairly significant couple, in the scheme of human history. (And by the way, Perseus and Andromeda did live happily ever after, which makes them unique among pairs of lovers featured in the Greek Myths) But is that all? The deeper I looked into the history of the  Medusa, terrible to look upon, snakehaired monster, and into the history of the mighty Goddess Athini, whose name means Mind, the more they seemed to reflect each other. As if Medusa and Mind were the two faces of one truth—

Did I catch a glimpse of the original, brilliant storyteller, telling me something timeless and profound? About that mysterious birthright gift, first freely given and then painfully earned, that lies at the heart of fairytale? Maybe, maybe not. I don’t know. I’m just a storyteller, seeing pictures in the fire. Pictures that, now as then, sometimes seem playful, sometimes serious, and sometimes seem to tell me eternal things.

Here’s some writing on fairytales, and some free stories:
And here’s the Snakehead page

Photo credits:
Gwyneth Jones 
Perseus and Andromeda: a wall painting from Pompei, The National Museum of Naples.
Perseus and Andromeda: by Ingres

Friday 10 June 2011

Fairytale Reflections (22) Terri Windling

Now here is the story of how I had the happy chance to meet Terri Windling.  My younger daughter is best friends with her stepdaughter, and occasionally, as young people do, she would toss out a small scrap of information about her friend’s family:

“Her step-mum writes.” 

“Does she?  What sort of thing does she write?”

“I don’t really know, but she’s very nice.”

So it took me ages to get around to asking more questions.  (Note to self: always ask more questions!) Presumably a similar rivulet of information was flowing in the other direction too. I live in Oxfordshire, and Terri in Devon when she’s not in New York or Arizona, so it wasn’t as though we were constantly running into one another as one does when collecting or dropping off one’s offspring at sleepovers, parties, school, etc. Eventually however, the penny dropped and I discovered who I’d been missing out on.  As I suppose most of you do not need me to tell you, Terri Windling is an American writer, artist and editor of fantasy for children and adults.  She has won more awards than you can shake a stick at: you can look it all up on Wikipedia, here

I didn’t know all that much about American fantasy writing before I met Terri, but she’s the best possible person to provide guidance, being not only most generous with praise and recommendations of other writers’ work, but also an excellent judge.  A whole world of brilliant fantasy opens up from a reading of some of the many anthologies Terri has edited, such as ‘The Armless Maiden and other Tales for Childhood’s Survivors’, a collection of powerful stories about ‘the darker passages of childhood’; and, with Ellen Datlow, many wonderful myth and fairytale-inspired anthologies for young adults such as ‘The Green Man’ and ‘The Faery Reel’.  I'm the happy possessor this week of two recent anthologies: 'Teeth' - a book of very different vampire tales by luminaries such as Holly Black and Neil Gaiman, edited by Terri and Ellen Datlow - and 'Welcome to Bordertown', (a city on the edge of our world and faerie) edited by Holly Black and Ellen Kushner, with an introduction by Terri.  I can't wait to read them both.

Terri’s own fiction includes ‘The Wood Wife’, which won the Mythopoeic Award for Novel of the Year in 1996, a fantasy novel in which faeries and shape-changing nature-spirits (Owl-Boy, Crow, the Rabbit-Girl, the Spine-Witch) walk the Arizona desert and interact with mortals.   Many of Terri's own paintings evoke such characters.  As well as writing several children’s books and numerous short stories, she is also the founder of the Endicott Studio, which is devoted to the discussion and practice of mythic fiction and arts. It could all be a bit overwhelming, except that she isn’t at all an overwhelming person – and it helps that we both own young and boisterous dogs who dissolve into joyful hysteria whenever they meet...

Re-reading, as I did before writing this introduction, some of Terri’s stories and essays in ‘The Armless Maiden’, I am struck by her passionate understanding of the fragility and desperate strength of childhood in adversity.  My own childhood was happy.  I trusted adults.  I used to trot down the lane to visit an old lady called Mrs Oliver, who had a collection of little porcelain houses with outsize porcelain flowers on the roofs.  She would give me orange squash and a biscuit, and I would sit on her chair and swing my legs and chatter.  She always asked about my parents and my brothers and sister, and would exclaim aloud, “Oh, yours is such a happy family!” in a way which – aged six or seven – I found silly, sentimental: of course we were happy:  wasn’t everyone? I now realise her exclamations were most probably related to the fact that my mother was my father’s second wife – his first having died – and so my older brother and sister were her step-children. 

Step-mothers get a bad deal in fairytales, as my mother herself has often ruefully remarked.  In fact, in many stories – Hansel and Gretel is an example – it was the children’s own true mother and father who abandoned them in the woods.  Some 19th and 20th century collectors and editors found this too hard to stomach, and changed the mother figure to a stepmother as some way of softening the brutality of the stories.  We would all prefer to believe that no true mother would abuse her child.  But the fairytales were more realistic than the editors.  As Alison Lurie wrote, in ‘Don’t Tell the Grown-ups’:  “The fairytales had been right all along – the world was full of hostile, stupid giants and perilous castles and people who abandoned their children in the nearest forest.”

And as Terri Windling has said in her afterword to The Armless Maiden,‘Surviving Childhood’, there is a need for stories ‘for the Hansels and Gretels still imprisoned in the witch’s cottage.  And for the lucky ones, the brave ones, who have found their way out of that terrible wood.’

On Fairytales

I've been asked to reflect on fairy tales – which, as it happens, is something that I've been doing my entire professional life: thirty years of championing re-told fairy tales as a literary art form.  I've reflected so long, and written so much, on the fairy tales that have meant the most to me that my difficulty now is in finding a new approach, a new pathway into this old, old territory.  And so I'm going to start by telling you a story. It begins, of course, Once Upon a Time.

    Once upon a time there was a girl  who was forced to flee her childhood home. Why? Let’s never mind that now. Perhaps her parents were too poor to keep her. Perhaps her mother was an ogre or a witch. Perhaps her father had promised her to a troll, a tyrant, or a beast. She left home with the clothes on her back, and soon she was tired, hungry, and cold. As night fell, she took shelter in a desolate graveyard thick with nettles and briars. Beyond the graves was a humpbacked hill and in the side of the hill was a door. The girl walked towards the door and saw a golden key standing in its lock. She turned the key, opened the door, and crossed over the threshold….

I can still remember that moonlit night, but I don’t remember how old I was -- only that I was past the age when a girl should still believe in magic. Cold and quietly miserable in a childhood that seemed never-ending, I sat hunkered down in the grass among the gravestones of my grandfather’s church, trying to conjure a portal to a magic realm by sheer force of will. Like many children, I longed to discover a door to Faerie, a road to Oz, a wardrobe leading to Narnia, and I wanted to believe that if I wished with all my strength and all my will then surely a door would open for me. Surely they would let me in.

I wanted to flee unhappiness, yes, but there was more to my desire than this – more than just escape from the intolerability of Here and Now. My desire was also a spiritual one – for we often forget that spiritual quest is a common and natural part of childhood, as young people struggle to understand how they fit into the world around them. That night, my solemn conviction was that I did not fit into the world I knew, and so I sought to cross into some other world, through the power of imagination. Did I really think it might be possible? To tell the truth, I no longer know. But my longing for that door was real; and my sharp, physical, painful desire for the things I imagined lay just beyond: Vast, unmapped, unspoiled forests. Rivers that were clean and safe to drink. Wolves and bears who would guide my way once I’d learned the power of their speech. My childhood in the ordinary world was a transient, uprooted one; but beyond the door I’d find my place, my power, and my true home.

 Like many children hungry for intimate connection with the spirit-filled unknown, what I failed to manifest that night I found in my favorite children’s books: in fairy tales, myths, and other tales of border-crossing and enchantment. I read these stories over and over. I devoured them and I needed them. But there came a time when I understood that I was growing too old for fairy stories, and I slipped them to the back of the shelves, embarrassed by my attachment to them. I was dutiful. I read “realistic” books about teen detectives, inventors, and spies; I read teen romances and girl-with-horse novels. I watched the wholesome Brady Bunch and the Partridge Family on television…and nowhere in the popular culture of the ‘60s did I see a life and a family that was remotely like mine. Secretly, I still preferred those fairy stories that I was meant to out-grow. I found a strange kind of comfort in them, though I couldn’t have told you why.

If only I’d known that in centuries past such stories weren’t labeled For Young Children Only, I wouldn’t have felt so obliged to hide these volumes behind Nancy Drew. I wish I'd known that magical tales had been loved by adults for thousands of years; and that in Europe the oldest known fairy tale collections had been published in adult editions, savored by the literary avante garde in 16th century Italy and 17th century France. Thanks to the work of contemporary fairy tale scholars we now know that early versions of familiar tales (Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, etc.) were sensual, dark, and morally complex. In the 16th century version of Sleeping Beauty, the princess is awakened not by a chaste, respectful kiss, but by the birth of twins after the prince has come, fornicated with her sleeping body, and left again (returning to a wife back home). In one of the oldest known versions of Snow White’s tale, a passing prince claims the girl's dead body and locks himself away with it, pronouncing himself in love with his beautiful “doll,” whom he intends to wed. (His mother, complaining of the dead girl's smell, is greatly relieved when her son’s macabre fiancé comes back to life.) In older versions of the Bluebeard narrative (such as Silvernose and Fitcher’s Bird), the heroine does not sit trembling while waiting for her brothers to rescue her – she outwits her captor, kills him, and restores the lives of her murdered predecessors. Cinderella doesn't sit weeping in the cinders while talking bluebirds flutter around her; she is a clever, angry, feisty girl who seeks her own salvation – with the help of advice from her dead mother’s ghost, not the twinkle of fairy magic.

It was not until the 19th century that volumes of fairy tales aimed specifically at children became the industry standard, supplanting the arch, sophisticated editions penned by authors of previous generations.  Advances in cheap printing methods had created a hot new market in children’s books, and Victorian publishers sought products with which to tap into this lucrative trade. Ironically, the way was led by two scholarly German folklorists, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, editors of a German folk tale collection published for fellow academics. Upon realizing that a larger audience could be found among children and their parents, the Grimms revised their collection to make the tales more suitable for young readers, altering the stories more and more with each subsequent edition. The commercial success of the Grimms volume was noted by publishers in Germany and beyond, and soon there were numerous other fairy tale books aimed specifically at children -- filled with stories drawn from 16th, 17th, and 18th century fairy tale literature, now simplified and heavily revised to reflect Victorian “family values” and gender ideals.

As the next century dawned,  the pendulum of adult literary fashion swung to tales of domestic realism while fairy tales and fantasy were increasingly left to the kids. Worse was to come as the century progressed, for Walt Disney would do more to turn fairy tales into pap than all of the Victorian fairy books put together as he rendered classic stories into animated films deemed suitable for American family viewing. Responding to criticism of the extensive changes he’d made in fairy tales like Snow White, Disney said: “It’s just that people now don’t want fairy stories the way they were written. They were too rough. In the end they’ll probably remember the story the way we film it anyway.”

Disney’s fairy tale films, and the imitative books they spawned,  went a long way to foster the modern misconception that fairy tales are children’s stories and have always and only been children’s stories. Yet fairy tales, J.R.R. Tolkien pointed out (in his lecture “On Fairy-stories,” 1938)  have no particular historical association with children; they’d been pushed into the nursery like furniture the adults no longer want and no longer care if its misused. “Fairy–stories banished in this way,”  he said, “cut off from a full adult art, would in the end be ruined; indeed, in so far as they have been so banished, they have been ruined." 

Professor Tolkien himself deserves much of the credit for bringing magical tales back to an adult audience, which he did, of course, through the international success of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien’s books surprised critics by striking a chord with readers of all ages and from all walks of life, directly challenging the assumption that fantasy had no place on adult bookshelves. Today, a generation of readers who have grown up with Bilbo and Frodo Baggins – not to mention Sparrowhawk, Harry Potter, Lyra Belacqua, and the whole modern fantasy publishing genre – may not fully comprehend the boundary-busting nature of Professor Tolkien’s achievement.

In the place and time where I grew up, for example, there were only a very few fantasy books available in the local library (the Narnia books, the Oz books, The Wind in the Willows, a handful of others ), strictly confined to the children’s section – and somewhat suspect even there. Fantasy, I understood, was like the training wheels on my first two-wheel bike: a forgivable crutch at the outset, but one I was meant to progress beyond needing.  I hadn’t progressed. I still craved such tales, though they stood on shelves meant for much younger kids. A worried librarian actually took The Blue Fairy Book out of my check-out stack, replacing it with a more “age appropriate” (and insipid) story about a perky camp counselor. The message was clear: fantasy belonged to the children who still played with dress-up dolls, and my craving for it led me to think there was something wrong with me.  It was only later that I learned that others shared this craving, including adults. “I desired dragons with a profound desire,” wrote J.R.R. Tolkien of his own adolescence. “Of course, I in my timid body did not wish to have them in the neighborhood…. But the world that contained even the imagination of Fáfnir was richer and more beautiful, at whatever the cost of peril.”

It wasn’t until I turned fourteen that I discovered Tolkien’s trilogy, although the books had been available in American editions for some years before that. I began The Fellowship of the Ring on the school bus on a grey winter morning, reading with pure amazement as Middle Earth opened up before me. Here, in the language of fantasy, was a story that seemed more real to me than any “realistic” story I knew -- a story about danger, terror, and courage; about the cost of heroism and the importance of moral choices. In Middle Earth, as in my parents' house, an epic battle between good and evil was waging, and even a humble, seemingly-powerless creature like a hobbit could affect its outcome.

Some months after The Lord of the Rings, I discovered Tolkien’s slim volume Leaf by Niggle containing his lecture/essay “On-Fairy Stories” – which was, for me, a more influential text than  all the good professor’s celebrated fiction. It was here I first learned that fairy tales had an old and a noble lineage -- and that they’d once been more, so much more, than the Disney versions known today. I dug out my favorite fairy tale books and I read the old tales with new eyes; and this time I understood why I’d clung to these stories for so many years. Like Tolkien’s books, they addressed large subjects: good and evil, cowardice and courage, hope and despair, peril and salvation – all subjects not unfamiliar to children raised in embattled households. Fairy tales spoke, in their metaphorical language, of danger, struggle, calamity – and also of healing journeys, self-transformation, deliverance, and grace. The fairy tales that I loved best (Donkeyskin, The Wild Swans, The Handless Maiden) were variations on one archetypal theme: a young girl beset by grave difficulties sets off, alone, through the deep, dark woods. Armed with quick wits, clear sight, persistence, courage, compassion, and a dollop of luck, she meets every challenge, solves every riddle, and transforms herself and her fate.  This was my story, my myth, the central text and theme of my young life’s journey. This was the story I needed to hear again and again and again.     
There is irony in the fact that the door I’d been looking for that night among the graves had been right in front of me all along, in the pages of those old fairy tale books. But I’d needed Tolkien’s lecture to understand what it was I loved about fairy tales; his words were the golden key that finally opened the door for me. I then crossed the threshold into the land of Story, where I have been travelling ever since: wandering its vast forests, drinking from its clear, cold streams, learning to speak with wolves and bears (which, as it turns out, is not half as hard as you would think).

If I could have one Magic Wish today, I would like to travel back in time and to find that miserable girl among the graves, appearing before her like a classic Good Fairy, draperies flapping in the wind behind me. This is what I would like to tell her (and, indeed, every other child just like her):  “There are better worlds out there, my dear. And I promise you, you're going to find them.”

Picture Credits: Terri Windling:  photo by Alan Lee
Hansel and Gretel by Arthur Rackham


Thursday 2 June 2011

Exciting Things!

Two exciting things, actually.  The first is the lovely cover of the new book I’ve written. ‘Forsaken’ will be published in November by Franklin Watts EDGE, and is one of a series, commissioned from several different well-known children’s authors (*modest cough*), of quick reads for children aged nine and over – children who are competent readers but might feel daunted by a thick, 350 page novel.

This is as sophisticated a story as I’ve ever written, so I hope some of you adults will like it too.  You can fit a lot into a little room. 

Last week I was thinking about waterspirits – naiads and undines and kelpies – the denizens of fresh water, rivers, lakes and tarns.  But the salt sea has always been the province of mermaids.  And rather as fairies were downgraded to flowery little creatures with butterfly wings and sparkly wands, so mermaids – ever since Disney’s Ariel, perhaps – have gone sparkly too.  Long blonde hair, mirrors and combs: perhaps the accessories don’t help – and don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind this at all, any more than I mind little girls poring over the Flower Fairy books, as my own daughters used to do.  Sweet little mermaids are safe and happy reading for little girls.  But what about older children?

I’m not even going down the route of the siren, the mermaid as death omen, precursor of shipwrecks.  No, where I started from in this little book was the original legend behind Matthew Arnold’s classic poem ‘The Forsaken Merman’.  It’s called ‘Agnete and the Merman’ and I found it in an old book of Scandinavian poetry.  In it, as in Arnold’s poem, a mortal woman marries a Merman and has seven children by him.  One day, as she sits singing under the blue water she ‘hears the clocks of England clang’ and seeks leave to revisit land and go to church once more. 

Once back on shore, however, she refuses to return to the sea.  In Arnold’s poem, which I really love, the Merman and his children call wildly and vainly for their lost wife and mother from the bay, until at last they accept that she will never return.

But children, at midnight,
When soft the winds blow,
When clear falls the moonlight,
When spring-tides are low:
When sweet airs come seaward
From heaths starr’d with broom,
And high rocks throw mildly
On the blanch’d sands a gloom,
Up the still, glistening beaches,
Up the creeks we will hie,
Over beds of bright seaweed
The ebb-tide leaves dry:
We will gaze, from the sand-hills
At the white, sleeping town,
At the church on the hillside –
And then come back down,
Singing, ‘There dwells a loved one,
But cruel is she.
She left lonely for ever
The kings of the sea.

There seems to me a great tragic tension in this poem and in the older ballad – the same tension that is found in the Orkney stories of the selkie wife who leaves her fisherman husband to return to the sea.  (Which is the same story in reverse, and an important element of my book Troll Mill, the second part of West of the Moon). These stories are about an unbridgeable strangeness between husband and wife, perhaps more specifically the terrible strangeness caused by post-natal depression.  They’re about seeing someone – even someone as close to you as your partner – as alien. In the Merman story, and with Andersen’s story of The Little Mermaid, despite the little mermaid’s bargain with the sea-witch – it’s not really the physical fact that the mer-people have tails and the humans have legs that causes the trouble.  It’s the perceived ‘fact’ that mer-people don’t have souls.  This will cause the eventual eternal separation of any mer/human marriage anyway; so no wonder the Merman husband, though he calls so desperately, and even climbs on the gravestones in the churchyard to peep through the church windows, will never win his Margaret back. 

Then I thought, but what if one of the children went after her mother to try and bring her back?  And with that idea, which totally grabbed me, this book just flowed.

And my second Very Exciting Thing is that a new series of  Fairytale Reflections will begin on this blog next Friday, and the opening essay will be from the amazing Terri Windling, author of  'The Wood Wife'  - which won the Mythopoeic Award for Novel of the Year in 1996 - and fantasy editor extraordinaire.

I'm posting a little early this week, as I'm going away for a few days.  Have a good weekend, everyone!