Tuesday 31 January 2012

Folklore Snippets - “Light High, Light Low.”

This is the first of an occasional series of 'Folklore Snippets' - little tales which pleased me and I hope will please you.  In honour of the Nis, the good-hearted but hot-tempered and unpredictable little house spirit in my 'troll trilogy' West of the Moon, here is a traditional Danish tale about one.

"Light High, Light Low"

From "Scandinavian Folklore" ed. William Craigie 1896

In Tylstrup lies a farm which has a nisse on it. Two ploughmen served there, one of whom was very fond of the nisse, while the other found his greatest delight in annoying him. Once he took away his porridge from him. “You’ll pay for that,” said the nisse, and when the man woke next morning he found that the nisse had placed a harrow over the ridge of the barn, and then laid him upon the sharp spikes.

“You’ll pay for that yet,” thought the man. Some time passed and the other man asked the nisse to sew something for him. It was a bright moonlit night, so the nisse took needle and thread, seated himself on top of the haystack and began to sew. Just as he was hard at work, there came a shadow over the moon, at which the little fellow became impatient and cried. ‘Light! Light high!” The man who teased him, however, was standing down below with a flail in his hand, and when he heard the shout he brought this over the nisse’s legs. Nisse thought it was Our Lord who had thus punished him for his imperious shout, and said very humbly, “Light high, light low, light just as you please, Lord!”

Picture credit: wikipedia: A tomte/nisse by Carta Marina,1539

Friday 27 January 2012

Baba Yaga - Wild Witch of the Writing Forest

by Lucy Coats
Baba Yaga by mythic artist Rima Staines

The Bear Moon is risen, and here comes the Baba Yaga in her iron mortar, rowing and sweeping, rowing and sweeping, till all that is left behind her is cloud wrack and the crushed black velvet of a midnight sky.

That’s how my own Baba Yaga story will start—the one I plan to write some winter when the snow starts to fall.

I can no longer remember where my fascination with Baba Yaga began. It may have been Arthur Ransome and Old Peter’s Russian Tales who introduced me to her, but I think not. Having a set of Russian cousins probably meant that somewhere, somehow, I was first told of her via whispered under-bedclothes tales of the witch with iron teeth, who lived in a house with chicken legs behind a bonefence of bright-lit human skulls. What a fabulous story! I was immediately hooked for life.

For me, she is the ultimate über-witch; the one all other fairytales imitate and fail to surpass. She has, variously, black iron teeth, a skeleton-leg, a sharp, beaky nose with excellent smelling skills, poor eyesight, no talent whatsoever for fine cooking, warts (and what is a witch without warts?), wheezy breath à la Darth Vader and a temperament which swings in a moment from mildly benevolent to seriously inimical. Her mode of travel is to climb into a large iron mortar, and row herself about the sky with a pestle, sweeping out her tracks with a silver birch besom as she goes—so much cooler than a mere broomstick in my opinion.

(Here she is coming through the forest in a painting by Ivan Bilibin.)

Baba Yaga was not always a fairytale figure for children, I think. Her roots go right back to that most ancient of world mythological figures, the triple-aspected Great Goddess in her function as Crone. Some folklorists deny this, but for me it makes perfect sense. Having studied shamanism and matriarchal religions for many years, I see in Baba Yaga all the key elements which make up the dark side of the goddess-as-wisewoman as well as weaving links between her and the Moirae/Parcae, the Morrigan, and the Norns. I think it is telling that Baba Yaga is never the star in her own stories, but always appears in a major supporting rôle, a sort of dea ex machina whose actions or advice determine the future course of the hero or heroine’s life. To brave young men who know how to enter her dancing chicken-leg hut she usually (but not always) shows her more benevolent side, giving advice and shelter; but to equally brave young women she is invariably less kind, making them do many impossible tasks before she will help them.

The Baba Yaga fairytale-myth is endlessly changing (I am reliably informed that she has about 26 different names), depending on which area the story comes from—and there are many many versions of it, some of which feature Baba Yaga only in passing. Baba is an Indo-European word meaning, loosely, old woman, but it can also be linked to demons and weather conditions (in Poland, when there is rain and sun together, the children chant: ‘Rain is falling, sun is shining, Baba Yaga’s butter’s churning’). Yaga may come from an old Slavonic stem meaning evil, sickness or nightmare. I also find it fascinating when fairytale-myth and reality collide—it is entirely possible that the idea of Baba Yaga’s hut on chicken legs came from the Finnish nomadic-hunter tradition of cutting down two trees close together to a height of about ten feet, and building a hut on top to prevent access to food and stores by wild animals. The exposed roots of the dead trees would have looked like chicken feet.

Vassilisa arrives at Baba Yaga's hut - by Ivan Bilibin

The best-known Baba Yaga tale (and my own favourite) involves Vassilisa the Fair, and is a type of Cinderella story crossed with the classic maiden-on-a-quest fairytale. Re-reading it for this piece together with Clarissa Pinkola Estes’ classic psycho-commentary from Women Who Run With The Wolves reminded me what a revelation this kind of delving into the deeper meanings of fairytale was to me when I first came across it. As a child I knew the tale as an exciting adventure with all the elements I liked—a bit of sadness, a brave heroine (I always preferred heroines), baddies at home, a scary witch and a quest against all odds with a satisfyingly bloody ending. To discover, when I was older, that it is a story about the importance of listening to one’s intuition, about facing the dark side of one’s character, about growing up into a woman’s power, made me look anew at all fairytales and reinforced their importance for me, not just as fireside tales, but as key signposts for life itself.

In the case of Vassilisa, well, who would not wish to have a little doll in the pocket to take advice from? For me, intuition (the doll), is a big part of my writing armoury. The ‘doll place’ is where I go when I get stuck. “Sleep now, all will be well,” says the doll, when Baba Yaga gives Vassilisa the impossible task of sorting a million poppy seeds from a pile of dirt. Sometimes, when I get bogged down in a story, that’s just what it feels like—impossible to go on, impossible to sort out. But, as I have written elsewhere, I find that handing over to the intuition doll and going to sleep while she does the hard work is a marvellous solver of story problems.

Then there’s the wicked stepmother and sisters. They are the voices in my head—the ones that tell me I’m useless and not good enough; that I can’t do it, and I never will; that I should just give up now because really, who am I to dare...? For me, they are the true demons, not Baba Yaga at all. She’s the one who teaches hard but important lessons and gives the essential gift of the fire of confidence. She may make me work damned hard for it, and challenge me at every turn—but if I can use my brain, if I can listen to the doll, if I can complete Baba Yaga’s tasks, carry her reward of a fiery skull through the dark forest and burn up the sneering demons, then I will have a story to tell at the end of it all—and what a hell of a story it will be!

Lucy Coats has written over 25 titles for children, the latest of which are the 12 books of her Greek Beasts and Heroes series, published by Orion.  She blogs on myth, folklore and all aspects of writing at Scribble City Central.

Besides the Greek Beasts, Lucy is the author of the splendidly titled ‘Hootcat Hill’, a vigorous fantasy for older children, set in an ever-so-slightly different version of modern Britain where children learn ‘Frankish’ at school instead of French, and look forward to university at Oxenfoord rather than Oxford. Here, in a little village called Wyrmesbury, young Linnet Perry discovers her true identity as the Maiden, one of the seven Guardians whose duty it is to quell the waking of the dreadful worldwyrm.

Monday 23 January 2012

Childhood reading

Like the smell of woodsmoke – which always takes me back to a narrow sun-striped Majorcan street lined with tall houses, silent in the afternoon heat, on a long-ago holiday when I was eight years old – certain books take me back to the particular place and time when I first read them.

“The Voyage of the Dawn Treader”, for example. Here I am, about nine years old, curled up in a big bristly armchair which prickles my bare legs, reading and reading. I’m alone in the house because my younger brother’s in hospital with peritonitis and my parents are visiting him. (He swallowed a small cocktail sausage at a children’s party, and amazingly the cocktail stick went down too. He’ll come out of hospital in a week or so with a three inch scar – this was before the days of keyhole surgery.) Unaware of the danger he’s in, I am mildly bemused by the fuss and bother I sense in the house. My parents have bought me the ‘Dawn Treader’ paperback, the last of the Narnia books I haven’t read – I came to them out of sequence – to keep me quiet and console me for being left alone while they go visiting the hospital. Anyway, their ruse is working. I’m away on those brilliant seas, looking down through clear water at the purple-and-ivory-skinned sea people, shivering with pleasurable terror at the nightmarish island where dreams come true (“Dreams, do you understand? Not daydreams: dreams!”), tiptoeing with Lucy along the sunlit empty corridors of the magician’s house.

We had a lot of books at home and I was allowed to read more or less whatever I liked. I loved Shakespeare, I loved “Jane Eyre” (Oh, poor Jane, locked in the Red Room by horrid Mrs Reed!) Now I’m ten years old, I’ve just finished “Oliver Twist”, and I’m cowering in bed with the lights out, terrified by Bill Sykes’ vision of dead Nancy’s eyes. I expect to see them, eyes floating in the darkness, coming in from the landing through my half-open door, hovering over my pillow.

“The Hobbit”. I’m in bed with a sore throat: my mother works on the principle that if you’re too sick to go to school, you’re too sick to come downstairs. But I don’t mind: I can sit in bed reading library books, sucking blackcurrant throat pastilles and waiting for my mother to bring me dinner on a tray. I’m not reading “The Hobbit” because I like it; I’m reading it because I’ve run out of Enid Blytons, and I’m a child who will read the labels on sauce bottles if there’s nothing better to hand. I’ve just got to the chapter called ‘Riddles in the Dark’, where Bilbo the hobbit meets Gollum. And my dinner arrives: a plate of mutton, greens, mashed potato and a dark lake of gravy. I picture Gollum, pale as mashed potato, splashing in his dark underground lake. I am put off both my food and the book, and I’ve never really got around to liking “The Hobbit” since.

“The Tale of Mr Tod”. This takes me back a lot further. I’m six years old, sitting on a hard-wearing blue hall carpet, leaning against a polished cedarwood chest which my father brought back from Burma before I was born. Sunlight slants across the hall. My two dolls, the one with curly fair hair, the one with long brown hair, and my panda bear are lined up on the floor beside me. I am teaching school, and reading aloud to them this most exciting story, full of natural violence and terror. The bones outside the fox’s den. The baby rabbits, alive in the oven. The tension as Peter and Benjamin dig their way under the floor. The tremendous fight between Mr Tod and Tommy Brock the tramp-like badger who has gone to sleep in Mr Tod’s own bed – with his boots on! The Heath Robinson device by which Mr Tod tries to scare Mr Brock by dropping a flatiron on him – and then thinks he has killed him stone dead. The pictures; above all, the pictures: rusty reds and bracken browns and fern greens! I don’t know if my dolls are impressed, but I am thrilled. I relish the strength and darkness of the story.

“Jill’s Gymkhana” by Ruby Ferguson. (Remember those Green Knight books?  And there were age-banded Red Knight and Black Knight books too, I seem to recall.)  I’m twelve years old, pony mad, but also - unfortunately - terrified of riding. I go once a fortnight to a riding stables near Gloucester, and am white and sick with fear beforehand. Afterwards though, I come back home, curl up on my bed and read blissfully about girls who own their own ponies, who arrange shows and gymkhanas, who win rosettes…

Many of my most vivid experiences of reading are from childhood. And for me, that's what reading's all about: rapture, terror, immersion in another world.  I'd love to think my own stories may sometimes lend a child the same quality of experience.

Friday 20 January 2012

The Fisherman and His Wife

by Mary Hoffman

I’m a great believer in the idea that everyone has their own personal myth or, if you like, fairy tale. It doesn’t mean it’s your favourite or that you particularly admire it. It’s more the case that it speaks to you, possibly uncomfortably, about an aspect of your own character or personality, so that you think perhaps the originator of the tale knows you, or someone very like you.

'The Fisherman and his Wife' Arthur Rackham

For me this story is The Fisherman and his Wife. I have re-told it myself, in The Macmillan Treasury of Nursery Stories, which I was invited to write for the new millennium. (This was a huge treat in itself, let alone getting a chance to re-tell my “signature tale”). I went back to the original in the Brothers Grimm but then, as with all the stories, allowed myself to expand and embroider it a bit.

This is the basic story:
A childless couple – a fisherman and his wife – were so poor they lived in a pigsty. Every day the man would try with his rod and line to catch a fish in the sea; if he succeeded, they had a fish supper, if not, they went to bed hungry.

From 'The Mammoth Book of Wonders'

One day he caught a flounder who begged to be thrown back, because he was a prince under an enchantment. In my version, the fisherman says, “I wouldn’t eat anything that talked anyway.” He goes home fishless but tells his wife about the adventure. She upbraids him for asking nothing in return for sparing the enchanted prince’s life. “Oh of course we have everything we could wish for, living in a pigsty!” she rants and sends him down to the seashore to ask for a cottage.

The magic flounder grants her wish and the fisherman’s wife is contented for a while but soon wants a castle and gets that too. There is a progression from real estate to personal glory for the wife, who becomes in turn King, Emperor and Pope. Every time the fisherman has to ask the flounder for something grander, he feels more wretched and the sea becomes stormier and of a more livid hue.

Finally, the wife demands control over the rising and setting of the sun and moon – to be, in fact, God.

‘There was a huge clap of thunder and then the storm stilled and the sea was like clear glass.

“Go back,” said the flounder, “and you will find her in the pigsty, as before.”

And there in the pigsty the fisherman and his wife are living to this day.’

'The Fisherman calls the Flounder' Arthur Rackham

So, ambition, greed and an inability to know when to stop on the part of the wife and a certain supine biddability on the part of the husband. How could this be my personal motif story?

It’s about living in the moment, appreciating what you’ve got and not wishing your life away. All of us who write are hungry for a certain amount of fame and fortune. We want people to buy and read our books in large numbers; we’d be happy to be offered film deals; if people recognised our names and said “I LOVE your books – I have all of them!”, we could cope.

It’s not really about material goods and power (although I, for one, would not turn down a villa in Tuscany); it’s more about validation, I think. We pour our creativity and imagination into creating new worlds for readers to inhabit. If we are lucky, a publisher likes what we do well enough to launch it on the world in the form of a printed book.

And what happens after that is subject to vagaries of the market and of Marketing, the trends making up the zeitgeist, the whims of fortune and the lucky spin of the wheel. So we tend to crave more and more. Yes we have a lovely review in the Times or the Guardian but what are the sales figures like? We get short-listed for a prize but don’t win it. We have a publishing advance we feel happy about until we hear someone else has one twice the size.

Worse still, a fellow-author, whose work we think secretly (or not so secretly) is inferior to our own, gets loaded with plaudits and has their books turned into hugely successful Hollywood films. We smile warmly like an Oscar nominated also-ran but really inside we are like the fisherman’s wife: we want more!

And we forget that there are literally thousands – possibly millions – of would-be writers who would kill for just one contract, or to be represented by an agent. That, for the long-term published writer is about cottage-level in terms of flounder gifts.

So I try to go back into that little cottage, which I made as cosy and desirable in my version as I could, with an orchard of fruit to turn into jam and a flower garden in front. (I wrote this round about the time we left London and bought our present barn-conversion in Oxfordshire. It’s bigger than a cottage but it does have roses round the door and a plum tree whose annual crop gets converted by a kind of alchemy into something you can spread on a crumpet).

Artist unknown

My lovely illustrator gave the couple’s cottage a thatched roof, which I wouldn’t touch myself, but I bestowed on them green and white crockery, of which I am inordinately fond, and a yard full of ducks and chickens, which I am not allowed.

Yes, a castle might be nice, but would I really want to choose all the curtain-poles and light-fittings for so many bedrooms? The fisherman, who is also me of course, feels very uncomfortable about the castle and all the servants and the four-poster bed.

I have several pacts with different friends about how we would not let success – I mean wild, ridiculous millionaire-style success – go to our heads and change how we behave to other people, especially other writers. We have seen it happen.

Not perhaps the desire to be Pope but a tendency to pontificate. Not a demand to stop the sun in the sky but perhaps a forgetting that we are poor creatures of dust, whose life on this earth is but a speck viewed in the context of eternity.

So that’s why The Fisherman and his Wife is my signature tale. It is a reminder to stop and enjoy the distance I have travelled from the scholarship girl who scribbled plays and stories in school exercise books, to bask in my cosy cottage stage of life and be excited by glimpses of distant castles but not to let ambition prevent me from living in the moment and taking a proper pride in my achievements without constantly hungering for more.

After all, in my line of work, next year could see one back in the metaphorical pigsty, even if one didn’t want to play God.*

*A little secret for non-writers: when you create worlds and people them with characters, you do have a certain Godlike power. Maybe that’s why most of us can stop short of going too far in our ambition. We have all we need in our heads and hearts and count ourselves kings of infinite space, even though we have had dreams – because we have had dreams.

Mary had her first book published in 1975, which would have provided her with a fish supper had she not already been a vegetarian. She and her husband have never lived in a pigsty, though it was a long time before they could afford carpets in the house they bought to raise their three daughters in.

She has now had over ninety books published, with more in the pipeline, including the successful but not quite castle-providing Stravaganza sequence for Bloomsbury, stand-alone historical novels like The Falconer’s Knot and Troubadour. She also writes picturebooks like Amazing Grace and its sequels, which are reputed to have sold over a million and a half copies, which you would have thought might be worth a turret or two.

She has never had a film deal or won a major prize but is not bitter.

Monday 16 January 2012

A Tour Around the Library of Imaginary Books

In Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels (in case anyone here doesn’t already know), deep in the enclaves of Unseen University is the University Library, where the presence of so many books (not all of them magical) has warped space into a mysterious form called L-space (Library-space) expressed by the equation:

Books are entrances into other worlds: in UU Library this is not a metaphor. And, a consequence of the properties of L-space, the shelves of UU Library contain every book ever written, unwritten or yet to be written.

Librarian of the Discworld as he appears in The Discworld Companion, illustrated by Paul Kidby

I would like, then (if I have the Librarian’s permission), to take you on a small tour of a favourite section of mine: the section for Imaginary Books - that is, books which exist only within the covers of other books and are therefore fictional to the power two: fiction². I’ve delighted in many such titles over the years, so let’s tiptoe past the chained, uneasily-slumbering grimoires of UU Library’s extensive magical sections, and I’ll show you my favourites.

The first is ‘The Orange and the Apple’, which exists between the covers of Arthur C Clarke’s ‘A Fall of Moondust’, the story of a ‘moon-bus’ full of passengers which plunges into the deep soft dust of the Sea of Tranquillity following a moon-quake. During the desperate rescue operation which ensues, the trapped passengers organise an entertainment to keep their minds off claustrophobia and the fear of death. It may not be one of Clarke’s best known novels, but it contains some of his best character sketches, and is often very funny. The passengers take turns reading aloud the only two novels on board, Jack Schaefer’s classic western ‘Shane’ and a ‘new historical romance’ ‘The Orange and the Apple’, featuring an affair between Sir Isaac Newton and Nell Gwynne. Let me reach it down from the shelf for you: a cheap paperback with a lurid cover and a cracked spine…

The author certainly wasted no time. Within three pages, Sir Isaac Newton was explaining the law of gravitation to Mistress Gwynne, who had already hinted that she would like to do something in return.

…“Forsooth, Sir Isaac, you are indeed a man of great knowledge. Yet, methinks, there is much that a woman might teach you.”
“And what is that, my pretty maid?”
Mistress Nell blushed shyly.
“I fear,” she sighed, “that you have given your life to the things of the mind. You have forgotten, Sir Isaac, that the body, also, has much strange wisdom.”
“Call me ‘Ike’,” said the sage huskily, as his clumsy fingers tugged at the fastenings of her blouse.

Close beside this on the shelves is an array of titles from Douglas Adams’ ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’. There’s the Guide itself, of course, clearly an e-book on an e-reader:

…a device which looked rather like a largish electronic calculator. This had about a hundred tiny press buttons and a screen about four inches square on which any one of a million ‘pages’ could be summoned at a moment’s notice. It looked insanely complicated, and this was one of the reasons why the snug plastic cover it fitted into had the words DON’T PANIC printed on it in large friendly letters.

That was written in the late 1970’s, so you can see the power of L-space right there. Perhaps the large friendly letters should be added to Kindles? Next to the Guide is an entire bookcase sagging under the weight of the many volumes of the Encyclopaedia Galactica. Oh, and here are a couple of paperbacks which look to have been much thumbed by the wizards of Unseen University - so long as they’re sure no other wizard is watching: Eccentrica Gallumbits’ ‘The Big Bang Theory, A Personal View’, and ‘Everything You Never Wanted to Know About Sex But Have Been Forced To Find Out’. Next on the shelf - in a far more pristine condition - is Oolon Colluphid’s galaxy-rattling series of popular theological texts: ‘Where God Went Wrong’, ‘Some More of God’s Greatest Mistakes’, ‘Who Is This God Person Anyway?’ and ‘Well That About Wraps It Up For God’.

If you’re not interested in science, or philosophy, we can move on to the literary biographies.  Here's one I’ve always wanted to read: ‘Pard-Spirit: A Study of Branwell Brontë’ by one Mr Mybug - nestling within the pages of Stella Gibbons’ ‘Cold Comfort Farm’. It’s a handsome looking hardback. I suspect he had to pay for its publication, but he made sure there was a large black and white photograph of himself on the back of the dust jacket.

‘It’s goin’ to be dam good,’ said Mr Mybug. ‘It’s a psychological study, of course, and I’ve got a lot of new matter, including three letters he wrote to an old aunt in Ireland, Mrs Prunty, during the period when he was working on Wuthering Heights.’ He glanced sharply at Flora to see if she would react.

‘It’s obvious that it’s his book and not Emily’s. No woman could have written that. It’s male stuff… Secretly, he worked twelve hours a day writing Shirley and Villette - and of course, Wuthering Heights. I’ve proved all this by evidence from the three letters to old Mrs Prunty.  His letters to her are little masterpieces of repressed passion. They’re full of tender little questions… he asks her how is her rheumatism… has her cat, Toby, “recovered from the fever”… … how is Cousin Martha (and what a picture we get of Cousin Martha in those simple words, a raw Irish chit, high-cheekboned, with limp black hair and clear blood in her lips!) …’

Delicious! Then, sticking out quite a lot and leaning slantwise to fit the shelf, is a tall folio manuscript, bound in a red leather cover, written 'in a wandering hand' in spiky black ink with lots of curlicues. The catalogue label coming unstuck from the spine reads: 'Travel: Imaginary'.  I pull it tenderly out.  Odd though it seems, this may be the most valuable book in the entire section. 'The title page has many titles on it, crossed out one after another: so:

My Diary.  My Unexpected Journey. There and Back Again.  And What Happened After.  Adventures of Five Hobbits. The Tale of the Great Ring, complied by Bilbo Baggins from his own observations and those of his friends. What We Did in the War of the Ring.

Here Bilbo's hand ends, and Frodo has written:

Bilbo and Frodo's own autobiographical account!  I can see you'd love to stand here and leaf through it, but today I'm just showing you what's on the shelves, and we haven't time.  You can come back by yourself another day.

So do you fancy Victorian poetry? Courtesy of A S Byatt’s ‘Possession’, allow me to pull out this stout green book, the ‘Collected Poems of Randolph Henry Ash’ including of course ‘The Garden of Proserpina’ and ‘Ask to Embla’ -

Or (my own preference), this slim volume in limp violet suede, with faded spine and curling corners, whose embossed gold title reads simply ‘The Fairy Melusine’ by Christabel LaMotte. As we pluck it from the shelf, out flutters a loose manuscript poem:

It came all so still
The little Thing -
And would not stay -
Our Questioning -
A heavy Breath -
One two and three -
And then the lapsed Eternity -
A Lapis Flesh
The Crimson - Gone -
It came as still
As any Stone -

Now - is there anything you'd like to see that I haven't shown you?  It'll be here.  Just let me know...

Picture credit: The Librarian, copyright Terry Pratchett and Paul Kidby
'Don't Panic': The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Friday 13 January 2012

'Silvertree and Goldentree' and the worldwide web of fairytales

by Susan Price

Little Red Riding Hood by Walter Crane
As a child, I heard the usual fairy-stories – a 'Cinderella' derived from Perrault, 'Billy Goats Gruff', 'Little Red Riding Hood', and so on. I loved them. I loved their repetitions and rhythms– 'Oh, Grandmama, what big ears you have!”, and “Who's trit-trotting across MY bridge? - ' I loved their vivid, beautiful images – the little girl in the scarlet, hooded cloak walking through the dark forest, the glass slipper, the sky-high beanstalk... But I had no idea of their history, or their cultural resonance. I imagined that the version of the story that was read to me WAS the story, that there was no other way of telling it.

At the age of 10, the Greek Myths happened to me, and I was totally smitten. For a whole year I lived, in my imagination, in the Greek Myths, with flying horses and hydras, with awesome and unpredictable gods, dragons and golden apples. The next year, when I moved to Secondary School, I discovered the Norse Myths – and they, for me, blew the Greek Myths away. They felt like coming home: but a home that was no less fascinating, with ice giants, fire giants – in fact, ice and fire all the way through.

The Frost Giants Seize Freja by Arthur Rackham

After that, I read every collection of Myths and Legends I could find; and when I ran out of Myths, I read collections of fairy-stories and folktales: the Grimm Brothers, and Jacob's English Fairy Stories, and Asbjornsen and Moe's Norwegian Stories – and Russian, Irish, Scottish, French, Italian, Polish stories – I couldn't get enough of them. And, without knowing it, I was learning an enormous amount about story-telling – 'Billy Goats Gruff', for instance, is a master-class in narrative and suspense.

The more I read, the more something became obvious: – the stories weren't as individual, as distinct from each other – or from Myth – as I'd thought. The Scots story of Kate Crackernuts was strangely like Cinderella, though set in a more work-a-day world. Another Scots story, 'The Finger-lock' was Cinderella with a boy as the central character instead of a girl. No Fairy-Godmother – no pumpkin coach or glass slipper, but the essentials of the story remained. (There are, I later learned, over three hundred variations on the story usually known as 'Cinderella'.)

East o' the Sun, West o' the Moon by H J Ford

This Norwegian story, 'East of the Sun, West of the Moon' was the myth of Psyche and Cupid in northern dress. The English stories, 'Tom-Tit-Tot,' and 'Stormy Weather' were variations of 'Rumpelstiltskin'. In 'Whuppity-Stoorie' the Rumpelstiltskin figure is female, and kindly – she saves the heroine from a life of drudgery in the end.

Tom Tit Tot by John Batten

Echoes were everywhere. In the Irish Legend of Deirdre, the heroine sees a calf killed in winter. Its red blood falls into the white snow, and a raven comes to eat it. Deirdre wishes for a husband, “with skin as white as this snow, lips and cheeks as red as this blood, and hair as black as the raven.” In 'Snow White,' collected hundreds of years later, the queen sits stitching her embroidery in its ebony frame beside a snowy window-ledge. She pricks her finger, and blood falls on the snow. She wishes for a child, “with skin as white as this snow, hair as black as this ebony, and lips and cheeks as red as this blood.”

In the story, 'The Soldier At Heaven's Gate,' a soldier slips into Heaven before his time, and climbs up into God's chair, from where he sees the whole world, and everything that's happening, just as God does. The soldier is overwhelmed by the world's sorrow, cruelty and pain: and the end of the story is tragic. I was reminded of how the god Frey, in Norse Myth, climbs into Odin's chair, and sees all of the nine worlds spread before him. He looks into Jotunheim, sees a beautiful giantess, and falls deeply in love... The consequences are also tragic, but on a more mythic scale, since this leads, in part, to the defeat of the gods at End of the World.

TheThree Heads in the Well by Arthur Rackham

The 'Three Heads In The Well' is another fairy-tale with mythic echoes. The well is under a great tree, and from the well's depths float up three wise heads, which speak to the heroine. In Norse Myth, there is a well between the roots of the great World Tree, and by the side of the well is the head of Mimir, which has wise words for those who question it. And Celtic Myth is full of magical, talking severed heads.

Nor are these connections limited to folk-lore and myth. The Danish legend of Amleth is Shakespeare's Hamlet; and King Lear is, in part, a Cinderella story.

I was puzzled by all these echoes and correspondences, in stories which were supposed to be widely separated geographically, and dated from a time before broadcasting and widespread literacy could send a story round the world in days, if not hours. That led me to reading books about folk-lore, rather than books of folk-lore. I learned that, of course, I wasn't the first to notice that fairy-stories seem to be made up of interchangeable, interlocking pieces, which can be taken apart and put back together in different patterns. The pieces have been given the name of 'motifs', and have been catalogued – 'The Forbidden Door', 'The Helpful Animal', 'The Cruel Stepmother', and so on. I was also fascinated to discover that the psychoanalyst, Jung, considered some of these motifs to be archetypes: an integral part of our psychology. The trackless forest, the wolves and 'the white bear of England's wood'; the depths of the well, the sorcerer – these appear in our dreams and shape our thinking. The ogres and dragons and man-eating witches of fairy-tales have a reality: small children know there is a monster lurking in the dark, waiting to eat them. Outside the cave, there was. One of the 'uses of fairy-tales' is in helping children to sleep. Telling them, 'Monsters don't exist,' won't help – they know it isn't true. Giving them a dragon-slayer is far more effective. These days, 'Dr Who' works a treat.

Three Heads in the Well by John Batten

However that may be, I have found fairy-stories endlessly compelling throughout my life. Indeed, I think I find them more compelling, now I'm in my fifties, than I did when I was five. Then they were a good yarn. Now I find that, like the dark well at the foot of the World Tree, they hold fathoms deep of a not always kindly wisdom.

I can't pinpoint exactly when I started to notice these strangely haunting echoes and connections between tales, but I know that one of the stories I read around that time was the Irish SILVERTREE AND GOLDENTREE, which I have retold here. I leave it to the reader to guess which better known fairy-story it echoes, but I will mention this: in Irish myth, a salmon lives in a pool in the Boyne, and eats the hazelnuts which fall into the water. Hazels were magical trees, and the magical nuts made the salmon wise. The young Fionn Mac Cumhaill was ordered by his master to catch the salmon, cook it and serve it to him.

Finn McCool eats the Salmon of Knowledge - by Kate Leiper

As Fionn cooked it, he burned his thumb, stuck it in his mouth, and so tasted the salmon's flesh first, and gained all its wisdom, including the ability to understand birds and animals – just as Siegfried, in Norse legend, cooked the dragon's heart for his master, burned his thumb, stuck it in his mouth, and understood what the birds in the tree overhead were saying...

Susan Price has been interested in myths and folklore since she was nine; and has been a professional writer since she was sixteen – and much of her writing is based on, or informed by, folklore, such as her ‘Ghost World’ series set in ‘a far-distant, Northern Czardom, where half the year is summer and light, and half the year is winter dark’ (‘The Ghost Drum’ won the 1987 Carnegie Medal) – or the two ‘Sterkarm’ books, in which an unscrupulous corporation develops a 'Time Tube' and penetrates the world of the border reivers of the 16th century.  'The Sterkarm Handshake’ won the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize’ in 1998. She writes wonderful posts about history, fantasy and her own writing at 'A Nennius Blog'.

Picture credit
Finn McCool image used by kind permission of Kate Leiper http://www.kateleiper.co.uk/ 

Monday 9 January 2012

The Value of Mythical Thinking

Myths (so runs the myth) belong to past ages, when people were naïve enough to believe in them. Today, in scientific modern times, we’ve put away such childish things. So why bother with fantasy? Isn’t it just puerile escapism? Even children are expected to grow out of myths and fairytales, and surely any adult found reading or writing the stuff cannot expect to be taken seriously? Can fantasy really have anything meaningful to say?

These are interesting questions. As I try to answer them in what may seem a round-about way, I’ll begin with an even bigger question:

What makes us human?

The answers to this one keep being refined. A special creation in the image of God – for centuries a popular and satisfying answer? Difficult to sustain as it became clear that we’re only one twig on the great branching tree of evolution. Language? Perhaps, but the more we study other animals and birds, the more we realise many of them communicate in quite sophisticated ways. Toolmaking? Not that distinctive, as chimpanzees and a variety of other animals employ twigs and stones as tools. Art? It depends what you mean by ‘art’ – if you think of bower-birds designing pretty nests to attract their mates, it seems clear that some animals do have an aesthetic capacity. So are we different from other animals at all?

Common sense says yes – at the very least, we have taken all these capabilities incomparably further than other animals – but is that really the best we can do for a definition? What was the point at which our ancestors became recognisably ‘us’, and in what does that recognition rest?

Innovation is one answer – the development and bettering of tools. Homo habilis and homo heidelbergensis lived with one basic design of hand axe for about a million years. When, on the other hand, we see signs of people messing about and tinkering and trying out new ideas, we recognise ourselves.

Related to this is another answer: symbolic thinking. Maybe some of our closest relatives are partially capable of it – a chimpanzee can recognise a drawing or a photograph, which means nothing to a dog. But wild chimps don’t indulge in representational art. Sometime, somewhere, somebody realised that lines of ochre or charcoal drawn on stone or wood could stand for a horse or a deer or an aurochs. That in itself is an amazing leap of cognition. On top of that, however, there had to be some fascination in the discovery, some reason to keep on doing it – some inherent, achieved meaning that had nothing directly to do with physical survival. What? Why?

I think it may be because, somewhere along the line, human beings became sufficiently self-aware to be troubled by death. When you truly understand that one day, you’ll die, the whole mystery of existence comes crashing down on you like the sky falling. Why are we here? What was before us? Where did we come from and where will we go?

The ‘mystery of existence’ is an artefact. We choose to ask an answerless question, and that question is at the core of our humanity. The before-and-after of life is a great darkness, and we build bonfires to keep it out, and warm ourselves and comfort ourselves. The bonfire is the bonfire of mythical thinking, of culture, stories, songs, music, poetry, religion, art. We don’t need it for our physical selves: homo heidelbergensis got on perfectly well without it: we need it for humanity’s supreme invention, the soul.

Karen Armstrong claims that religion is an art, and I agree with her. In her book ‘A Short History of Myth’ she examines the modern expectation that all truths shall be factually based. This is what religious fundamentalists and scientists like Richard Dawkins have, oddly, in common. A religious fundamentalist refuses to accept the theory of evolution because it appears to him or her to disprove the truth of Genesis, when what Genesis actually offers is not a factual but an emotional truth: a way of accounting for the existence of the world and the place of people in it with all their griefs and joys and sorrows. It’s – in other words – a story, a fantasy, a myth. Its purpose is not to explain the world, like a scientist. Its purpose is to reconcile us with the world.  Early people were not naïve. The truth that you get from a story is different from the truth of a proven scientific fact.

'A Short History of Myth' is one of a series of titles on myths published by Canongate, and I love the creative freedom they have extended to their authors. Among the others are Margaret Atwood's 'Penelopiad', the woman's take on the events of the Iliad and Odyssey; Jeanette Winterson's 'Weight', a reworking of the myth of Atlas who holds up the world, Philip Pullman's 'The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ', and - most recently - A.S Byatt's marvellous 'Ragnarok', her testament to the impact of the Norse myths when she first encountered them as 'the thin child in wartime'.  That these are all personal approaches - blends of personal experience, personal understanding of science, philosophy, myth, religion and storytelling - is the whole point. This is the human way.

Any work of art is a symbolic act. Any work of fiction is per se, a fantasy. In the broadest sense, you can see this must be so. They are all make-belief. Tolstoy’s Prince André and Tolkien’s Aragorn are equal in their non-existence. Realism in fiction is an illusion – just as representational art is a sleight of hand (and of the mind) that tricks us into believing lines and splashes of colour are ‘really’ horses or people or landscapes.

The question shouldn’t be ‘Is it true?’, because no story provides truth in the narrow factual sense. The questions to ask about any work of art should be like these: ‘Does it move me? Does it express something I always felt but didn’t know how to say? Has it given me something I never even knew I needed?’ As Karen Armstrong says, “Any powerful work of art invades our being and changes it forever.” If that happens, you will know it. It makes no sense at all to ask, ‘Is it true?’

This is my credo: fantasy deserves to be taken seriously - read and written seriously - because there are things humanity needs to say that can only be said in symbols. Here’s the last verse of Bob Dylan’s song ‘The Gates of Eden’ (from ‘Bringing it All Back Home’):

At dawn my lover comes to me
And tells me of her dreams
With no attempts to shovel the glimpse
Into the ditch of what each one means
At times I think there are no words
But these to tell what’s true:
And there are no truths outside the Gates of Eden.

Friday 6 January 2012

"Hansel and Gretel"

The witch fattens Hansel while Gretel weeps. 
By Adèle Geras

It’s about hunger. It’s about not being able to cope. It’s about mother love of a warped kind. It deals with contrasts. I love it almost more than any other fairy tale and I’ve never had to articulate why before now and hope I can come up with some good reasons alongside my gut reactions.

I’m an only child. When I was a girl, I wanted siblings more than anything else. I put brothers and sisters into my fiction whenever I can because their interaction fascinates me. In one book, The Girls in the Velvet Frame, I used a photograph of my mother and four of her sisters (she had five and four brothers as well!) as the springboard for the story. So that’s the first thing that makes me like the tale: whatever might happen to them, Hansel and Gretel are TOGETHER. They help one another. They share everything. It’s not clear who’s the elder. In the Humperdinck opera, it seems Gretel is the one who teaches but it’s traditionally Hansel who suggests leaving the trail of breadcrumbs and so forth.

The premise, of parents wanting to rid themselves of their children, is horrendous. But in the context of the Hundred Years’ War and starvation and deprivation in much of Europe, there must have been thousands of desperate families with too many mouths to feed. Infanticide becomes more common when things are tough but these parents don’t commit murder with their own hands. Rather, they try and lose their children in the forest and hope for the worst.

So that’s where we start: with every child’s worst fear. They dread, we all dread, abandonment and the disappearance of the familiar. Whenever we hear about lost children, whenever we think of someone forcibly separated from their parents, our hearts shrink in horror. It’s a fear we can easily imagine.

So: two children lost in the dark wood. Alone, but for the help of a magical white bird. Birds are everywhere: they eat the crumbs and wreck any chance of finding the way home, and it’s a bird who leads them to the magical house of the Witch.

This, the Gingerbread Cottage, the Sugar House, the House made all of sweets and goodies...is the standout image of the story and it’s immensely powerful. We know it’s a snare and a delusion and Hansel and Gretel do not. In a pantomime way we’re thinking, calling out: Don’t fall for it! It’s a trick. Leave it alone! But they do fall for it. We know that they ought to resist its blandishments but they’re hungry. They haven’t eaten for days. Icing sugar. Toffee. Marzipan. Sticks of barley sugar holding up the lintel. Chocolate windowsills...it’s completely blissful. Then, from a door which I always imagine made of slabs of iced fruit cake (why? Ask Sigmund Freud!) the Witch emerges.

She’s not often portrayed as a traditional black hat and broomstick regulation witch. In the opera, she’s sometimes a grotesquely blown-up and exaggerated cake shop lady: too bosomy, too rouged, too feminine altogether. And she loves, loves, loves children. She loves to eat them. It reminds me of the Maurice Sendak phrase from Where the Wild Things Are: “We’ll eat you up, we love you so.” Sendak has said that this was uttered by his aunts and uncles when they pinched his chubby childish cheek in an excessively affectionate way and I can vouch for that kind of language from my own experience. My aunts and uncles, (see above) did just that: they’d pinch my cheek gently and exclaim in Yiddish: A zissaleh! Which means: A sweet little thing!

There we have it. The children’s real father and their stepmother don’t love Hansel and Gretel quite enough to keep the family together. The bad mother, the Witch, loves them so much she wants to consume them. To this end, she locks Hansel up and we have cages, and bones, and fattening him up like a calf. And for an extra nasty twist, we have the Witch turning Gretel into her servant while she’s preparing to feast on Hansel.

The end of the story is gruesome. Gretel tricks the Witch, who is reduced to ashes in her own oven. It’s not exactly bland fare for children. Hansel and Gretel escape and with the help of the White Bird, find their way home. They are carrying the Witch’s treasure with them, which doubtless guarantees them a better welcome than the one they might have expected.

Forests, birds, a witch, a marvellous house made of everything delicious, white pebbles gleaming in the moonlight, a cage, a chicken’s thigh bone, a treasure chest filled with jewels....all these are powerful ingredients but what makes Hansel and Gretel greater than the sum of its parts it the love that sees the brother and sister through the terrible ordeals they have to endure. That abides and it’s stronger than any enchantment you can throw at it.

PS I’m adding a poem here which I wrote years ago. It’s the Witch speaking.....


This time, be careful.
They have removed all the stones
That you used last time.

I have ironed sheets
and put green pears to blacken
on the bottom shelf

of the oven. Come
alone or with another.
That doesn't matter.

My mouth is open,
all my loose teeth are sharpened
and the cake is baked.

Let's pipe the icing
into red blobs like bloodstains
and call them flowers.

Pull the shutters closed.
We'll lick and suck the white hours
until you ripen.

Follow the thin bird.
Stay in those flapping shadows
and you will be bones.

Copyright Adèle Geras

Adèle was born in Jerusalem in 1944 and has published more than 90 books for readers of all ages. Her Egerton Hall trilogy, collected as ‘Happy Ever After’ (Definitions) retells the fairytales of Rapunzel, Sleeping Beauty and Snow White setting them in an English boarding school in 1962. She has also published a collection of retellings, brilliantly illustrated by Louise Brierley, called ‘Beauty and the Beast and Other Stories’, but that, alas, is out of print.  

Adèle has loved fairytales all her life, especially the Hans Andersen stories and the Coloured Fairy books by Andrew Lang.  Her most recent books ‘Troy’, ‘Ithaka’ and ‘Dido’ (David Fickling Books) revisit the Odyssey and the Aeneid, but from the viewpoints of some of the common folk caught up and affected by these great dramas: servants in the palaces of Troy and Ithaka and Carthage.  Ominous, understated, doomladen... Adèle can take an old story, tweak it, shake it inside out like a worn shirt, and – voilà – create a brand new garment.  I love her books and perhaps especially her trilogy ‘Happy Ever After’ – a wonderfully fresh and unusual version of three classic fairytales, placed in a mid-twentieth century setting and seamlessly merging fantasy with realism.

Picture credits: 'The Witch Fattens Hansel' by Laura Barrett
'The witch greeting the children' by Arthur Rackham

Wednesday 4 January 2012

New Year's Resolution

Well, this is what my desk looks like this morning.  Which is actually healthy and a good thing: it means I'm getting back to work, and am therefore surrounded by a clutter of files, notes, and piles of reference books.  And I can't find a pen anywhere...

I'm happy, and very busy, because I'm writing a new book at last and I want to get it finished by the summer.  This doesn't mean I won't be blogging, but it does mean I've got to be very organised about my time.   And lurking here on the blog are all the fascinating 'Fairytale Reflections' written by generous and wonderful fantasy authors such as Juliet Marillier, Susan Price, Mary Hoffman and Megan Whalen Turner - to name but a few.  And who has time to go back through the blog to find them?  So, beginning this Friday, I'm going to re-run them.  (And there may be a few surprises!)  On top of that, I'll be writing fairly regular new posts whenever something springs to mind on fantasy, folklore, myth and children's literature.  Oh, and today I'm over at The History Girls writing about historical research and the importance of world-building in all sorts of fiction. 

New year's resolutions have a name for being broken, so I'm not making any, but what I wish for myself and to all of you this year is Resolution itself  - determination to work and succeed -

'To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield'.

Happy 2012 !