Friday 29 July 2011

Fairytale Reflections (29) Sally Prue

When Sally Prue’s first novel, ‘Cold Tom’ won the Branford Boase Award and the Smarties Prize Silver Award in 2002, it was clear that a wonderful new writer of folklore-based fantasy had arrived.  ‘Cold Tom’ taps into many legends and ballads about the fairies - the Tribe, which lives on the common.  They are cold-hearted, dangerous, feral hunters, pitiless to those who, like Cold Tom himself, are different.  And they see humans as demons: ugly lumpen beings, hopelessly tied and enslaved to one another by a tangle of emotional bonds like vines.

It’s a powerful and startling image, and one of those moments only fantasy provides: when we step right out of the human world and see it from outside, like seeing the Earth from space.  Cold Tom is only half elfin.  His fangs aren’t growing, the Tribe rejects him, and the only place to run is the city of the demons.  How on earth can he adjust to humanity and the ties that bind us?   

Sally’s writing reminds me of Diana Wynne Jones who wrote books of otherworldly beauty – I’m thinking of ‘Power of Three’ and ‘The Spellcoats’ – as well as more homely and amusing stories for younger readers, such as the Chrestomanci books.  ‘Cold Tom’ and its recent sequel (or more accurately prequel) ‘Ice Maiden’ are YA reads: chilling, haunting, sharp-edged.  Here young half-German Franz, who has fallen into a pit on the common while chasing the elfin Edrin, finds a heap of elfin bones, and prods the skull:

This time there was no doubt: the white bone moved.  More than that, it gave way, swiftly, bewilderingly, and before he could stop it his finger had gone right through the bone into the brain cavity.

He snatched his hand back in horror, but somehow, horribly, the whole skull came with it.  Panicking, he tried to bat the thing off with his other hand, but those fingers sank into the stickily melting bone of the skull, too.

And suddenly Franz’s head was full of savage laughter, and glowing eyes, and dangerous darkness.

And singing.

Sally is also the author of a trilogy of books for younger, ‘middle grade’ readers: the Truth Sayer Trilogy.  As Sally comments on her website: “You know how people are always going into a different world and then discovering that everyone speaks English? Well, what if they don’t?”

I love this.  Young Nian is taken away from his family by the Tarhun, warrior priests, to be trained as a seer and Truth Speaker at the House of Truth on the Holy Mountain.  Nian may have great powers, but he misses his family and finds the stern House little better than a prison.  So he tries to escape.  This sounds like the stuff of many other fantasy novels, but Sally’s sense of humour and strong characterisation distinguish Nian’s erratic career across the universes, landing in our own world – Earth – in the bedroom of a very ordinary boy called Jacob. Neither can understand a word the other says, and comic mayhem follows. In a way, it’s the same theme as the Cold Tom books: looking at our world from outside, seeing ourselves as others see us.  The trilogy also encompasses a variety of thought-provoking ideas about the nature of time and space, and besides the comedy, there are some tremendous moments of imagination and terror: as in the second book of the trilogy, the March of the Owlmen, when the knife-sharp, two-dimensional Owlmen come slicing into the world.

So welcome to Sally Prue, who is going to talk about searching for fairyland and finding it (maybe) closer than you expected: in the mirror, out in the yard, around the back of the supermarket carpark.  For as Franz thinks to himself at the beginning of ‘Ice Maiden’ – ‘This wasn’t a folk tale, this was 1939.  There were no elves or fairies here, any more than there were wolves. It was impossible, completely impossible, there could be any kind of creature anywhere near him… And at this same moment something hit him violently in the back.’


We didn’t lack books in my childhood home. I mean, we had a Bible, a Be-Ro cookery book, David Copperfield, Shakespeare, and, oddly, the collected poems of Walter de la Mare.

Mind you, of these only the cookery book was ever actually opened.

But we had a large blue set of Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopaedias, too. I think they must have been my father’s. They were from the 1930s and extremely dull. Occasionally, though, the pages of dense text and murky photographs of the Queen Mary’s turbines were enlivened by brief re-tellings of classic tales.

Now, I must be honest here. As a child I had no taste. What I wanted from a story was, first of all a HAPPY ENDING, and secondly REALLY NICE CLOTHES. Ideally that meant princesses, but even a goose girl would do as long as her rags were elegantly tattered and her apron strings were blown into delectable volutes.

I very happily read all Arthur Mee had to say about Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and The Ugly Duckling (a great favourite: I was the only girl in my class without fair hair and so I was constantly cast as the witch in our singing games. But oh, I thought, perhaps one day...).

Those were important stories. They introduced me to beauty in art. They taught me that the values of my family were not the values of the whole world. They taught me to hope.

For the time being, though, I was young, and therefore enslaved and helpless. To make matters worse the land of the princesses was plainly very far away. I knew of no real-life princesses except Princess Anne, and she seldom appeared swathed in acres of bouncing chiffon, which was surely the entire point of being a princess.

(Actually, Princess Anne never appeared in acres of bouncing chiffon. I just couldn’t begin to understand it. Reefer jackets?)

Now, unfortunately, Arthur Mee’s stories were not very many, and not very long, and I soon began to suffer from serious princess-starvation. Looking back, I can see that in the man’s world of the 1930s Arthur Mee had been generous to include any princesses at all. They were probably as unappealing to him as the Queen Mary’s innards were to me. But there it was: all too soon a thoroughly satisfactory story like Snow White would be followed by something about Camelot or Olympus which were dull dull dull, with few happy endings and fewer princesses, and those there were dressed in either their nighties (Olympus) or their dressing gowns (Camelot).

I realise that so far I have proved myself to have been the dullest, least numinous sort of child (so lacking in genius that I was quite unable to make anything at all of David Copperfield, Shakespeare, or Walter de la Mare) but I’m sorry to say that things are about to get even worse, because for my seventh Christmas my Cousin Ann bought me a copy of Chimney Corner Stories by Enid Blyton.

Now, I don’t think there are any princesses at all in Chimney Corner Stories, and Enid Blyton isn’t really interested in clothes, either: there’s one really shocking tale about a doll who cuts up her lace coat to make some curtains for a dolls house, an act of madness of which the author seems, astonishingly, to approve.

Still, Enid Blyton’s stories are solidly constructed and I found them extremely satisfying. By far the most marvellous thing of all, though, was that in several of the stories the elves come out of fairyland into our own world. One elf gives wishes to ordinary children (and I was, as we have seen, a very ordinary child) and another (actually I think it might have been a goblin) is banished from fairyland for wickedly stealing hairs from caterpillars to make paint brushes.

Now that was truly astonishing, because it meant that fairyland couldn’t far away at all. Those elves and gnomes were coming and going from fairyland to my world just as easily as I left home to go to school.

Think of that! Snow White’s country was clearly a long way away (and once upon a time, as well) but these gnomes were emerging from their fairyland straight into contemporary England – a rather smug version of contemporary England which included servants and ponies, true, but recognisable for all that.

Not only that, but when I looked at the fairies’ clothes (always the clothes!) I saw that some of them were wearing bellbine hats. Now, bellbine grows along municipal chain-link fencing everywhere in England. Why, bellbine even grew through the hedge between my house and the plastic bag factory!

And if there were bellbine flowers, then perhaps...well, even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (as I learned from the children’s TV programme Blue Peter) had believed there might be fairies at the bottom of the garden.

I searched and searched among the bellbine, and occasionally I saw something, or just missed seeing something, or heard a mysterious rustling, which might have been a fairy. It was enough to keep my new hopes alive.

When I got to the junior school I had access to more books, and my horizons widened accordingly. I learned about the wardrobe, of course (my parents’ wardrobe contained not one single fur coat and perhaps that was why it proved a continuing disappointment) and later, I suppose by this time at secondary school, I learned about Herne the Hunter in Windsor Great Park, and the god (or goddess) Sul who lives in the hot spring at Bath.

I learned about a very local haunting, Harcourt’s Chariot, which rattles precipitously down the Back Hollow from Ashridge to Aldbury.

I learned about the Romans’ lares and penates which guard boundaries and households. I found out about the green men who have been hiding in the foliage around us for so long that no-one knows any longer where they came from or why they are watching us.

This intrusion of otherworldly beings into my own England was startlingly different from the stories of Camelot and Olympus, and different from the stories of the princesses, too. Herne and Harcourt and the green men were here, now, close as breathing, casting shadows on my back. Mount Olympus might be a real place, but it was far beyond my reach (I’m sorry to say that the furthest we’d ever gone on a family holiday was Lyme Regis).

In any case, to visit the Olympians you needed Hermes’ wings, or Iris’s rainbow: there was no way, even in my wildest fantasies, I was going to find Apollo mooching about round the back of a plastic bag factory. (I admit that nymphs seemed to get about a bit, but nymphs were like Star Trek security men: shallow in character and soon dead.)

I was realistic enough to know, anyway, that even if I could get to Olympus or glum Camelot then none of those grand people – Lancelot or Zeus or Morgan Le Fay or Hera – was going to be the slightest bit interested in me. (If Adele Geras’s marvellous stories of the Greek gods had been available I might have felt differently about this, but, alas, they were yet to be written.)

So that left me with Herne the Hunter and various ghosts, pixies and green men – none of them, frankly, either snoggable or the sort of people you could take home to meet your parents. My interest in fairyland wobbled.

But then one day a boyfriend said do you like folk music? and put on a record. It was a song about a real place, Carterhaugh, where it is so easy to pass from England to fairyland that the tale begins with a warning:

                                    Oh I forbid you, maidens a’
                                    That wear gowd in your hair,
                                    To come or gae by Carterhaugh
                                    For young Tam-lin is there.

Tam-lin. And suddenly there it was, opening before me: a handsome prince grown close and dangerous, stepping out of the pages of a book and onto the real earth of my own country.
                                    Janet has kilted her green kirtle
                                    A little aboon her knee...
                                    And she’s awa to Carterhaugh
                                    As fast as she can hie.

And who, frankly, can blame her?

Oh yes, and suddenly the roots of fairyland were growing out and penetrating into real life again, into my life, for Janet is no beflounced princess, but a woman of warm blood and hot desire who knows what she wants and is prepared to fight to get it.

Yes. I discovered I was now old enough to journey far – and fight for what I wanted, too.

Fairyland had grown, just as I had, and yet again, like an enchanted mirror, it was showing me not my own reflection but my heart’s desire. Over the years it had presented to me visions of beauty, hope, escape, romance, and in the end courage.

And I’ll tell you something. That boyfriend never got away.

Picture credits: 
Sally Prue
Tam Lin copyright Dan Dutton
Princess Anne in The Courier
The Convulvulous Fairy by Cicely Mary Barker


  1. Thankyou. Tam Lin is marvellous!

  2. Thank you for the kind mention, Sally and for this MAGNIFICENT piece which made me laugh and think and what more could you ask? Marvellous.

  3. These books sound great! I don't usually read fantasty, but I'll look out for Cold Tom. Thank you, Kath and Sue.

  4. Thank you, Sally - I loved this. But I was puzzled by your description of Arthur Mee's Children's Encyclopaedia as boring! We had just one volume (No.1, or 2, I forget which) and my memory of it is that it was FULL of fairytales, poems and pictures of waif-like girls in floaty dresses and daisies in their long hair (and how I longed to be one of those girls!) That book was where I found wonderful sad stories like The Forsaken Merman, and the one about the man who stumbles by accident into fairyland and when he returns a hundred years have passed and everyone he knew is dead. Have I really forgotten 90% of what was in that book? The saddest story of all is that when I wanted to show it to my own children I found my parents had thrown it away.

  5. That's a fab post - I loved it! I think we have similar childhood reference points, although I always wanted the books to have witches, not princesses. I blame the solitary Arthur Rackham print for that.

    I love the way you describe Sally's writing as coming from the opposite-from-usual angle. Now I'm going to have to buy a copy of Cold Tom!

  6. Really enjoyed this - positively impish!

  7. Thanks very much indeed to Cat, Adele, Leslie, Esmerald, Sue and Strop. I'm really delighted you enjoyed the account of my undistinguished childhood!
    Ann, I haven't seen those encyclopaedias since I was a kid, but I do have a more modern version which is I think pretty much the same, except with some of the more blatant racism taken out.
    Yes, there are over two hundred stories in the whole set, but they go rapdily down-hill from volume one, and there are no stories at all in volumes nine or ten (boooo!). The later volumes often try sneakily to pass off Golden Deeds as proper stories, too, (huh!) and there are also things like Aesop's Fables in there, which didn't cut the mustard at all as far as I was concerned.
    Having said all that, I still keep the whole set entirely for the stories, so at least two and a half cheers for good old Arthur Mee.

  8. I loved COLD TOM, and I loved this post too!

  9. Thanks very much indeed, Susan - praise from Sir Hubert...

  10. Fabulous post (and series)! Folk music was a gate I walked through, too. And so funny about the REALLY NICE CLOTHES. I've noticed this is the sina qua non for my young daughter and her friends, and likely was for me once, too.

  11. Haha, I'm glad someone else has admitted to the importance of the princess' or goosegirl's sartorial flair! Oddly enough I never really cared about what the prince was wearing... Enjoyed the post very much.

  12. A very funny and enlightening read! But I always felt sorry for the Star Trek dispensables right at the start of the show.

  13. Thanks, Amy, and Lily and Cathrin! I'm still a sucker for a lovely frock. I had my head up a Tudor lady's skirt at Hardwick Hall yesterday, checking out her farthingale. They're now stiffened with parcel-strapping, apparently.

    Must say, though, Lily, there was a point, later, where I began to appreciate the Princes' very very short tunics...