Monday 27 February 2012

"Strange Neighbours" by Masha du Toit

Strange Neighbours is a collection of ten illustrated fantasy short stories set in Cape Town, South Africa.  Meet a hitch hiking troll with a taste for pepper-spray and a homeless witch with a trolley full of secrets. Discover a book hoarding mermaid and a fridge full of frogs. And learn how to greet a witch – politely, of course.

Now here's a lovely and unusual collection.  Masha du Toit is a South African artist and writer, who has written and illustrated an e-book of delicate fantasy stories for adults (though there is nothing actually unsuitable for younger readers, these are not aimed at children) called 'Strange Neighbours'.  In them, quiet, ordinary people come face to face with all kinds of weird situations - and often behave with inspiring humanity and aplomb. 

In 'In the Backyard' a young man who's inherited a small house begins to wonder why the back door has been so very securely locked and barred 'like Fort Knox', when all that's out there is a weedy yard and a broken manhole cover.  And why is the shed so full of various poisons and traps?

'Kelp' is a moving tale about a lonely young woman who comes to visit the seaside in Cape Town, falls ill and is helped in by an old woman who scratches a living selling old books and magazines, and who lives in a shack under the pier.  But there's something very strange and sad about her...

Aletta drifted in and out of consciousness.  A small paraffin lamp glowed in a corner.  The sea made deep sounds beyond the walls. Then she had to sit up and clutch at a glass and drink bitter liquid. 

She woke, or dreamed she woke, in the dark.  

Sea air breathed over her, cold and wet.  A gap had opened in the wall opposite her bed. Something moved there.  A figure, barely visible in glints of dim light. Something like a scarf was wrapped about its neck. Long fringes stirred against its shoulders.  Then it ducked down and stepped through into the night beyond.  The dream darkened and sucked Aletta back  into sleep.

In 'The Ink Witch' an ostracised schoolgirl - who may have strange powers - appears to deal with her chief tormentor in a decisive and final way - and even if it's all only 'strong imagination', the story is a warning to those who crush the imagination and teach their victims to hate.   In 'Troll Patrol' a woman driver helps a very unusual fugitive to escape the police.  And in 'In The Oven' a young girl visits her grandmother and bakes gingerbread men which come to life in the oven.  Trying to save them, she drops one:

The man had lost a leg now, but it was still alive, twitching sideways along the floor.  Why couldn't he just lie there in his baking tray like he was supposed to?  Now he'd made her hurt him.  Maybe she could put its leg back on.  But it was quite crushed, just a little pile of doughy crumbs.  The man flipped himself over and lay on his back. 

She knew what she had to do.  It was like that time she had found a baby bird that had fallen out of its nest...

There are more.  I enjoyed every one of them.  Whilst recognizing and acknowledging cruelty and pain, these sour-sweet stories offer hope and refuse to despair.  You can buy the e-book if you click on this link:  Strange Neighbours  and visit Masha's website to find out more about her writing and see more of her beautiful art.

Teaset with dragon - Masha du Toit

Masha du Toit is an artist and writer living in Cape Town, South Africa. She illustrates stories that don't exist yet, and writes about unexpected magic in every-day situations. She’s inspired by folk- and fairy tales, puppetry, and spur-of-the-moment bed time stories. She’s about to publish a full length e-book “The Story Trap”.

All pictures copyright Masha du Toit

Monday 20 February 2012

The Power of Story

A few years ago when I was living in upstate New York I joined Literacy Volunteers of America and began teaching basic reading, writing and arithmetic to a lady in her middle fifties whom I’ll call Jean - not her real name. She was a brilliant pupil, endlessly fascinated by learning. “Gee Katherine, the things you tell me are so inneresting," she’d exclaim, after I’d explained something like the concept of the plural - or the idea that you could make a drawing of the neighbourhood into a flat plan called a map.

In my diary I wrote:

Jean gave me a huge hug as soon as we met. She never went to school beyond kindergarten. She's pale, her grey hair strained back in a ponytail. Several of her lower teeth are missing so she lisps a little as she speaks. Her nails are bitten down and she smells of cigarette smoke - even her work smells of this. She wears a dainty set of earrings though, and always looks neat. Indeed her work is neat - she writes in pencil and hastily rubs out and corrects any letter she judges to be too far above the line.

I ask, “How come you never went to school, Jean?” She answers in her rather gruff voice, “Well, when I wuz seven I got polio ‘n they put me in a Home. I would’n’ want ta tell you ‘bout that, Katherine. They beat up on us, hit us over the head - we didn’ learn nuthin.”

She cleans somewhere. Lives with her friend Joe since his sister died. She obviously adores him. He’s older than her, a veteran in his seventies, who told her she needed to learn to do things by herself (because he’s dying of lung cancer). He fell down a while ago, slid across a floor, hit his head against a door.

“He got a big goose bump,” recalls Jean, “’n I said to him, ‘Well I can do that for you, I can hit you over the head with a frying pan.' He says, ‘Thanks Jeanie.’ 'N he asked the landlord, he says for him to put soft doors in. He always makes a joke of it. He says, ‘Well I don’t want to go round thinkin’ ‘bout dyin’ (she pulls her chin down) ‘with a face like a cow that hasn’t been milked.’”

Jean’s reading level was very basic, around that of a child of six. She could spell out words slowly, but might miss the point of a sentence because by the time she got to the end of it she’d forgotten how it began. Her understanding of anything she read was therefore poor, and I began buying her simple early reader books with pictures, especially if they had anything to do with American history, which she was eager to learn about. And pretty soon I also realised she loved dogs. The story of Balto, the sled dog who helped bring vital medical supplies to Nome, Alaska, was a big hit with her, therefore - and probably her favourite until I found another dog story: this time about Buddy, the first American ‘Seeing Eye’ dog.

Buddy, the First Seeing Eye Dog by Eva Moore and Don Bolognese

To see Jean take this little book to her heart was to see the power of story turned up high. C.S. Lewis once provocatively argued (in 'An Experiment in Criticism') that since all criticism is subjective, the only criterion for telling if a book was 'good' should be the way in which it is read. If even a single person would read and re-read a book, 'and notice and complain' if anything was changed, then we should assume that book has a richness of quality for them even if we can't ourselves detect it, and should hesitate to dismiss it.

On that level this short book was a masterpiece. For me it was a nice little story about a man and his dog. For Jean it was something deeply, deeply moving. She read it so often she could quote whole sentences by heart. The best bit was in the middle. Buddy’s blind owner is travelling to Europe on an ocean liner, and he’s lying in his cabin unaware of the fact that he’s dropped his wallet somewhere on the deck, when his dog Buddy comes up and nudges him, the wallet in his mouth. The owner rubs the dog’s head and praises him. “Buddy,” he says, “You’re worth more to me than all the money in the world.”

Jean would read this aloud and her eyes would brim with tears. Her voice would shake. “You’re worth more to me than any money in the world, Buddy.” Jean knew the value of money. She didn’t have much of it. But she knew love was worth so much more.

Took Jean to lunch the other day. We each had a gyro at the Ice Cream Works on Market Street - she’d never had one before but thought it delicious. (Typical Jean to be bold and try something new!) I asked how Joe was; he won’t have treatment for his cancer because he ‘doesn’t want to be a guinea pig’, and looks terribly thin and keeps falling. What a charmer he is, though so ill. He told me he used to work for the Mafia - he means this - said one of the guys who lived on the hill offered him several thousand dollars to kill ‘his old man’ but Joe refused… And now he’s a frail old man with a puckish sense of humour. He and Jean score off each other all the time. She thinks the world of him. At the moment she’s paying off $40 on a pewter clock shaped like a merry-go-round horse, which she’ll give to Joe as a late birthday present once she’s paid it all (at $5 a week). My hope is that he lives to receive it. “He’s worth it,” she says.

Well, Joe died, and luckily the town found somewhere for Jean to live, and I left America for England. It was a wrench to say goodbye. Here’s one of her letters to me, written in her careful curling pencil script which I know will have taken her ages to write:

Dear Katherine,
I am writing you this letter to you to say hi. How are you and your family are doing. I am doing good. I miss you and your family. Merry Christmas happy new years. ...I wish I can see you. I have been learning on spelling words and math and reading and writing. I have been working on crafts. I have been learning a lots of different things. I learn on my budget all my friends said to me how I come along way. They are glad I came along way. They told me to keep up and don’t give up. I told them I wont give up I will keep on going. I am going to keep on doing good for myself. I am going to make myself happy. …What happens to your first dog you had she was a sweet dog. I did like her so much. She was a sweet dog. I am learning on the computer I learn a lot on it.
… I got new curtains in my front room. They are blue goes with my furniture. I got to go for now.
Love Jean

Lovely, indomitable Jean, I miss you too.

Friday 17 February 2012

The Snow Queen

by Katherine Roberts

Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen” has haunted me all my life, so I was delighted when Kath gave me an excuse to revisit this one. It’s a fairly complex fairytale, with its story of Kai who gets a splinter of the devil’s mirror in his eye, rejects his sweetheart Gerda, and runs away with the Snow Queen. But like all the old tales, there are layers of meaning hidden under the story too. I think that’s what makes them endure over the years, so I hope you’ll be interested in my personal interpretation.

As a little girl I enjoyed the story mostly for its adventure and magic. Living in the southwest of England, Torbay in Devon, where we seldom see snow even in the coldest winters, I also liked the otherworldly beauty of the snowy mountains and the enchantment of the Snow Queen’s ice palace – see, I was a budding fantasy writer even then! I remember the book I owned as a child (now sadly lost) had a beautiful full-colour picture of the Snow Queen dressed in white fur, driving her sleigh pulled by prancing white horses with silver bells on their harness through the Northern Lights across a winter’s sky. Being pony crazy, I think it was probably these horses that drew me to the story initially. I never much liked later versions where the horses were replaced by reindeer or swans, or – as in the DVD version I have starring Bridget Fonda – an engine! Talk about destroying the magic…

But back to the story. As soon as I discovered that in this fairytale it is the boy – Kai – who gets kidnapped, and the girl – Gerda – who sets out on a quest to rescue him, I was hooked. After all those sugary little princess stories, here was a true heroine setting out on her own adventures! (I was Gerda, of course.) My memory of the actual adventures Gerda had on her quest is hazy, and I know these are often edited for simplicity, so maybe that’s why. The version of the tale I re-read for this post has Gerda encountering a witch living in a cottage in the woods who tries to keep her as her own little girl, then a princess with a long line of suitors seeking her hand who tries to marry her off, followed by a robber girl who supplies her with a reindeer, and finally two old women – a Lapp and a Finn – living alone in the snow, who feed and warm Gerda on her journey. The DVD version leaves out the Lapp and Finn women entirely, linking each of Gerda’s encounters to a different season so that she journeys through spring, summer, and autumn to find winter and the Snow Queen. I don’t think the details really matter. However, I do think that, on a deeper level, Gerda’s quest represents the stages of womanhood she will travel through in the world and perhaps that’s why this fairytale speaks to me so strongly.

This is how I see Gerda’s journey:

Spring – In the witch’s cottage, Gerda is cared for and allowed to play in the garden but is forbidden to step outside the gate into the dangerous wood. The witch banishes all the roses that might remind her of Kai and does everything she can to keep the little girl from continuing her quest. Having a clingy mother myself, I can identify only too well with this stage. Even now, my mother seems unable to accept that I might want to open that gate and have adventures of my own in the big wide world.

Summer – At the Princess’ palace, Gerda at first thinks Kai is the prince, and is disappointed when he turns out to be a stranger. In my DVD version a line of charming suitors try to win her hand, but Gerda rejects them all and escapes. This season represents the young and fertile woman chased by boys and making herself beautiful for them. It seems summer will last forever, with its dances and its roses and its declarations of love. But it is over all too soon.

Autumn – Here, I see the robber girl and her bandit mother representing the menopause, when a woman has finished with being a wife and mother and is beginning to find her own way in the world, coming into her power. It might be the autumn of her life, but autumn is a period of fruitfulness and harvest where the seeds sown in spring that blossomed in summer are ripening. Here, Gerda finds strength she didn’t know she had and escapes by riding the robber girl’s reindeer.

Winter – The Finn and Lapp women, living alone in their modest, cosy houses isolated in the snow, represent old age. They help Gerda, but warn her that if she chooses to continue her quest she must leave the reindeer and go on alone. This last part of her journey represents death, which everyone must face alone.

Finally, Gerda reaches the Snow Queen’s palace, where she finds Kai trying to form a word out of shards of ice. The word is LOVE, but Kai’s heart has been turned to ice by the Snow Queen’s kiss, and the splinter of the devil’s mirror in his eye means he cannot complete the puzzle. (In the DVD version, Kai’s task is to reassemble the actual mirror). Of course he cannot do it, until Gerda kisses him and melts his heart. He weeps with joy at seeing her, and the splinter comes out of his eye. Like all fairytales, it is a happy ending. Kai completes his impossible task, winning his freedom from the Snow Queen, and the two young people return to their rose garden, where (one imagines) they got married and had a gloriously happy life bringing up their own children with the advantage of the lessons they have both learnt… I like to think so, anyway!

The splinter in Kai’s eye is a powerful image. The devil – or hobgoblin or elf – made this mirror to reflect beautiful things as ugly and make ugly things seem normal. It’s very true that the way you look at something can change completely the way you see life, and I’ve certainly gone through phases myself when a splinter of the devil’s mirror gets lodged in my eye, and I have to make a conscious effort to squeeze it out before I can see the good around me.

Breaking a mirror is also very symbolic, bringing seven years of bad luck according to some. I broke a large mirror seven years ago… of course I’m not superstitious AT ALL, but it is rather spooky how, after almost seven years of being out in the cold as an author following the death of my agent, this year sees the publication of a brand new quest for my readers beginning with “Sword of Light”. And happily, I’ve no need to worry about breaking another mirror, since my lovely editors at Templar sent me this silver unicorn horn as a publication day present, which as everyone knows is a powerful charm against bad luck…

Katherine Roberts grew up in the wild, rocky counties of Devon and Cornwall with their brooding moors and rugged coasts.  She gained a first class degree in mathematics from Bath University, and went on to work as a mathematician, computer programmer, racehorse groom and farm labourer - before her first novel, ‘Spellfall’, won the Branford Boase Award in 1999 and enabled her to fulfil her dream of becoming a full time writer. Her many fantasy books for children and young adults include 'The Echorium Sequence' (beginning with Song Quest), 'The Seven Fabulous Wonders' series of historical fantasies (beginning with 'The Pyramid Robbery'), and 'I Am The Great Horse', the story of Alexander the Great told by his famous horse Bucephalus.  

Katherine's latest book, 'Sword of Light', the first of four Arthurian fantasies for children, has just been published by Templar. 

Visit Katherine's website!

Picture credits: images from The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen, illustrated by Errol le Cain

Monday 13 February 2012

"Sword of Light" Interview with Katherine Roberts

King Arthur is dead, the Round Table broken.  You'd think all hope was gone... but you'd be wrong, for the King has one last heir - a young girl!  Hidden for her own protection in the enchanted mists of Avalon since she was a child, she now comes riding forth to save her father's kingdom from the wiles of the evil Mordred.  Meet Princess Rhianna Pendragon, King Arthur's daughter!

And here is the lovely cover of 'Sword of Light', the first of the 'Pendragon Legacy', a  magical Arthurian fantasy for children by my friend Katherine Roberts. 

This is just the sort of book I adored as a child.  It has everything - sword fighting, magically beautiful mist-horses, elves, dragons, a couple of truly evil villains, more than a hint of Celtic folklore, and on top of all that a brave, frank, adventurous heroine with red hair and freckles.  Think Anne of Green Gables in a suit of armour!

Katherine Roberts' writing is perfectly pitched for any romantic ten-year old who likes a tale of adventure with a strong dash of magic. It can also be slyly witty.  I loved the episode where Rhianna meets the langorous Nimue, Lady of the Lake (who, disconcertingly, has gills):

"Rhianna Pendragon," the fish-lady repeated, and the name sang around the cavern, making the anemones flare brightly.  "Hmm.  A damsel with a warrior's name. No tail, I see," she observed as Rhianna squeezed the water from her hair.

"Of course I haven't got a tail! I'm human.  And I need that sword so we can take it back to Avalon for my father, as soon as Merlin shows up again."

"Ah..."  The lady's turquoise eyes went distant.  "Dear old Merlin.  Strange, I can't see him.  How is he?"

So here is my interview with Katherine Roberts.  I think it sheds interesting light on the writing process - the way themes or an idea can occur years before they are used, and work their way slowly to the forefront of a writer's mind, morphing and shapeshifting as go - and on the way a writer's 'world' slowly emerges, too.

Rhianna Pendragon, King Arthur’s daughter! Such a simple but marvellous idea - how did it first occur to you?

I first came across the idea of King Arthur having a daughter in a collection of novellas by Vera Chapman (“The Three Damosels”), which I won in one of the infamous Fantasycon raffles organised by the British Fantasy Society. That was way back before I’d had any books published myself, but the concept of a Pendragon princess certainly caught my imagination. As Vera Chapman says in her introduction to the story: “Nobody can say that King Arthur did NOT have a daughter. King’s daughters, unless they make dynastic marriages, are apt to slip out of history and be ignored.”

The idea resurfaced when I wanted to write a series about a warrior princess for younger readers. I’d actually begun a book about Queen Boudicca’s daughters, but found the rape scene to be a stumbling block for children’s publishers. So I ditched that idea and combined my red-haired Celtic warrior princess with Vera’s more courtly Princess Ursulet… and ended up with Rhianna Pendragon!

It’s refreshing to read an Arthurian story in which a girl is active and heroic rather than a damsel in distress. But Rhianna Pendragon has been kept ignorant of her parentage, and is called into action at the darkest possible moment, after Arthur’s death at the hands of Mordred. Why did you decide to begin Rhianna’s adventures at this particular late stage of the story?

I wanted to start where the traditional Arthurian legends left off because I knew that would give me more freedom to work up some new stories for Rhianna. The TV series “Merlin” takes the Arthurian legend backwards, which can work too, but for me a story is usually more interesting when you don’t know the ending.

Rather than the medieval period, you’ve set the novel in the much earlier Dark Ages at the time of the Saxon invasion of Britain, thought be the likeliest period for a historical Arthur. But the narrative also makes room for magic and ghosts, for Celtic myths and legends, for the Wild Hunt, dragons, and gallant knights. The blend of history and fantasy is seamless, but was it hard to balance these elements?

It wasn’t seamless in the first draft! I had to do a lot of invisible stitching... But yes, the Dark Ages appeal to me as a setting simply because they are historically dark and therefore leave me more freedom to work in fantasy elements. There’s actually very little historical fact about Arthur, so I haven’t been too strict on the historical details in my series – I’m aiming to give these books the feel of a fantasy age, occurring somewhere between our Dark Ages and the Middle Ages, but not entirely of our world. If you look closely at my maps, you’ll see I’ve taken the same approach with the geography – familiar, but not too familiar!

Rhianna has good friends to assist in her quest: the faerie Prince Elphin of Avalon, a stocky squire named Cai, and of course her beloved little mare Alba, a silver-shod mist horse who can mind-speak with her mistress! I don’t think I’ve ever met a mist-horse before, so are they even more special than unicorns?

In the first draft of the book, Rhianna’s horse was just an ordinary white mare. Then I remembered the Irish myth of Oisin and Niamh, where the fairy horse carries Oisin across the sea to his lover in Fairyland, and decided to make Alba more magical. When shod with silver, mist horses can trot over the surface of water – a useful talent when Rhianna needs to escape her enemies. They also have the ability to “mist”, which is a kind of vanishing/reappearing act and (as you can imagine) makes a mist horse tricky to ride. And, of course, all fairy horses can talk.

In your ‘Fairytale Reflection’ (coming on Friday!) you chose to write about ‘The Snow Queen’ and Andersen’s steadfast heroine, Gerda, who sets out to rescue her brother. Do you think there is a connection between her and Rhianna – who sets out into the world on a quest to defeat another powerful queen, Morgan le Fay?

Now that you mention it, the two quests are very similar, aren’t they? Rhianna’s ultimate quest is to bring her father King Arthur back to Camelot from Avalon. Gerda’s quest is to bring her brother Kai back from the Snow Queen’s palace. Both involve going into an enchanted place and rescuing a loved one from the cold kiss of death.

I know Rhianna has many more adventures to come: and she hasn’t even met her mother Queen Guinevere yet! Given her parentage, which do you think she takes after most - the noble and brave King her father, or the beautiful Queen?

In looks – freckles and red hair – Rhianna takes after her mother. But in courage and spirit, she’s definitely more like her father. Though having grown up on the enchanted island of Avalon in the care of Lord Avallach with brief visits from Merlin, she is also her own person, and sees no problem with using magic to help her on her quest. She finds it hard to relate to the other damsels at Camelot, and poor Arianrhod (her maid) has a hard time trying to turn her into a princess!

SWORD OF LIGHT is published in hardcover by Templar (
You can follow Rhianna Pendragon on Twitter at
Katherine’s website with details of all her books is at - where you can also read the first chapter of 'Sword of Light

Friday 10 February 2012

The Snow Child

A guest post by Delia Sherman

When I was a child, I had a book called Fairy Tales of Many Lands, edited by H. Herda and published by Franklin Watts in 1956. It’s sitting by my desk as I type, its disintegrating cover patched by my mother, some time in the early 60’s, with lavender and blue flowered Contac paper. It was originally published in German, which explains the extremely idiosyncratic choice of tales (“The Good Shepherd”? “The Gnome’s Advice”? “The Enchanted Hill?”), the unfamiliar artists (Gerhard Grossman? Hilde Koeppen? Ursula Wendorff-Weidt?), and the stiff, translated prose. In any case, I pored over its strange tales and sketchy wash illustrations with the single-hearted obsession of a child in love with a book. There’s not a single story in there that hasn’t influenced me in some way or another, including the ones I hated (“The Weathercock” and “The Wonderful Coffee Mill,” if you’re curious). But the one that really got me where I lived was a Russian folk tale called “The Snow Child.

It’s not a well-known story, so here’s a summary:

A childless couple celebrate the first snowfall of winter by sculpting a snow baby. A stranger walks by, and the snow baby stretches, laughs, and becomes a perfect, pale baby girl with blue eyes and hair like starlight. The couple, delighted, take her home, put her in their empty cradle, and call her Snowflake.

Snowflake grows quickly into a beautiful, good, obedient, merry child, who helps her mother around the house and is beloved by everyone who sees her. All winter she laughs and plays with the village children, but when the spring comes, she turns pale and quiet and takes to hiding in shady corners. Come midsummer, she agrees to go out into the woods to celebrate with her friends. But when they press her to leap over the midsummer bonfire, she slips away into the woods and heads towards the mountains to the north.

When Snowflake fails to return from the bonfire with the other children, the distracted parents search the forest until the village wise woman tells them to stop. Their daughter was the gift of King Winter, who has undoubtedly taken her back into his frozen kingdom. They should be grateful for the gift and stop mourning.

In the meantime, Snowflake journeys through the woods, having adventures with a pair of lost bear cubs, turning down an offer to be Queen of a pond of musical Frogs, and sleeping under an oak tree, watched over by kindly giants, squirrels, and dwarves. She reunites the cubs with their mother and begs a ride from a skeptical eagle, who carries her to his eyrie. That night, King Winter appears to tell her that she is a snow child, whose real home is a crystal palace behind the moon. He will take her there, but first she must return to her parents and tell them goodbye. A flurry of snowflakes carries her back to her village, where she appears to her parents and tells them to be glad for her because she’s going home. Then the sun rises and she melts and rises as a cloud to heaven.

It is, of course, a fable about children dying, right on up there with the death of Little Nell in its sentimental piety. The oldest versions, referenced in the scholarly literature as tale-type 703, end at the midsummer bonfire, with the snow maiden giving into peer pressure and evaporating up to heaven, leaving everyone to wonder what has become of her. Another variant has her growing up, falling in love, and melting from the heat of her sweetheart’s first kiss.

I like H. Herda’s version better.

This Snowflake may be a compendium of Victorian virtues, but she’s anything but passive. And she’s got a strong sense of self-preservation as well as a good heart. She runs away from the fire—and the insensitive children who are pressuring her to jump it. She knows how to catch trout with her bare hands and get honey from a hive. She’s polite to frogs and wolves alike and she isn’t afraid of flying over ravines and gullies on an eagle’s back. She’s not afraid to die.

There’s a reason that the spine of Fairy Tales from Many Lands is broken at the illustration of Snowflake in the eagle’s nest, looking longingly at the moon. As a child, I was asthmatic, at a time when the treatment for asthma was pretty much a hot humidifier and Vicks Vaporub for mild attacks, and the hospital, an oxygen tent, and prayer for more severe ones. Every time I couldn’t breathe, I was sure I was going to die. And even though I was all too obviously not good, obedient, pious, industrious, or beloved by all who beheld me, I found hope in Snowflake’s after-evaporation reunion with her brother and sister snowflakes.

The comfort I found in Snowflake’s death is why I’m so appalled by the 20th Century’s cultural redefinition of fairy tales as simplistic, sanitized, happily-ever-after stories of heterosexual romance for children. Yes, Fairy Tales of Many Lands was published for children, and I can’t read it now without wincing at the slightly twee tone of the prose (“Does this child really want to go up to the sky, this bewitching little child whom no one can resist?”). And yet the stories confront the bitter side of human relations as well as the sweet, and the protagonists triumph over bandits and malicious friends as well as giants and dragons. With few exceptions, the girls in these stories are as active and clever as the boys, and their rewards are not restricted to marriage.

Reading the story now, it seems odd to me that I identified so strongly with Snowflake. Where she revived in the cold, I withered and wheezed. Where she was slender and dainty and blonde, I was plump and bespectacled and mousy brown. I was too allergic to animals to have a pet, let alone romp with bears, and couldn’t even play outside at recess, let alone go adventuring in the woods. I was afraid of heights. And my parents, while they loved me, did not approach the standards set by old Ivan and Maria. Yet her story was, on one level, mine. We were both children adopted by much older parents when we were babies, we were only children, and we were the gift of a stranger. Neither of us fit the norms of the world we’d been brought into. Both of us longed for a home we could hardly imagine, among people who not only loved us, but knew and accepted us for what we were.

Snowflake had to evaporate to find her home. I only had to grow up.

As an author, I have retold “The Snow Child” only once, in a story called “The Printer’s Daughter,” written for the Windling/Datlow fairy tale anthology Ruby Slippers, Golden Tears. My chance-child is made of paper, not snow, and her adventures take place in the wilderness of Elizabethan London rather than in a Russian forest. Frisket is a post-modern heroine, fully conscious that she’s not human, always longing to go back to paper and ink. Which she does, in the end, with the help of a scruffy poet. It’s one of my favorite pieces of my own fiction, drawing on all the Elizabethan prose I read for my degree in Renaissance studies as well as on “The Snow Child.” But it’s not the only piece of fiction that story has touched. Almost everything I write has got a foundling in it somewhere, a child out of place or out of time, raised and loved by those who have no blood kinship with it. Like Snowflake, each of these foundlings is and is not me, their stories rooted in mine and branching from it, like tributaries from the river that is my drive to write.

Delia Sherman writes historical/folklore/semi-comic fairy stories with a serious twist.  Her short fiction and poetry has appeared in many anthologies.  Her adult novels are 'Through a Brazen Mirror' and 'The Porcelain Dove' (which won the Mythopoeic Award) and, with fellow-fantasist Ellen Kushner, 'The Fall of Kings'.  She has also written two wonderful novels for younger children, 'Changeling' and 'The Magic Mirror of the Mermaid Queen', featuring impetuous, warm-hearted Neef, the official changeling of New York's Central Park. "Kind of bi-cultural, human and faery", Neef is always getting into scrapes - as you might expect when the Wild Hunt howls on autumn nights in Central Park, fox spirits and moss women live in the woods, and the odd Fictional Character such as the Water Rat or Stuart Little may be found down by the lake.

Delia is an active member of the Endicott Studio of Mythic Arts and a founding member of the board of the Interstitial Arts Foundation, dedicated to art found  in between genres and crossing boundaries.  She lives – where else? – in New York City with Ellen Kushner, travels whenever she gets the chance and writes wherever she happens to be.  Her latest book is The Freedom Maze, about a supposedly white child magically transported to the time of her ancestors who were slave-owners and slaves in the old South.

Picture Credits: 
The Snow Maiden by A Vedernikov
Black and white photographs of snowflakes by Wilson Bentley (1865-1931)

Friday 3 February 2012

Briar Rose - or 'Time Be Stopped'

Schooldays. I’m about eight years old, I have my brown school reader in my hand, and I’m about to knock on the headmistress’s door. Everyone in the school has to go and read to her once a week - a solemn ceremony and not a bad one either: there’s something special about leaving the classroom while lessons are happening and making this solo pilgrimage across the quiet school hall. The door swings open and I see her room drenched in sunlight, her window opening on to a bright rose garden beyond, a garden perhaps for the teachers only, as I don’t remember ever setting foot there - a secret garden. I stand beside her desk and read aloud, and the story is Briar Rose. And somehow the feeling of her office - this sunlit, secluded, shut-away space - weaves into the story I’m reading, so that while the tall hedge of briars springs up around the castle, and everyone, even the doves on the roof and the flies on the wall, drop into their century of sleep, I feel as though it’s all happening right now, and the sleepy afternoon enfolds the school for a perfect enchanted moment, now and forever.

No one in the last Fairytale Reflections series chose Briar Rose - the Sleeping Beauty - as one of their favourites. It’s a tale which has become almost notorious as presenting an image of female passivity, the worst possible role model for a child to grow up with: a heroine who does nothing, initiates nothing, whose claim to fame is to sleep for a hundred years and be woken by the kiss of a prince she hasn’t even chosen (and that’s the mildest version): an object rather than a subject. It’s one of the most difficult fairystories to retell and still stick to the original. Disney fudged the issue of the hundred years sleep by simply doing away with it altogether and introducing a fire-breathing dragon instead. Robin McKinley’s wonderful ‘Spindle’s End’ also does away with the passive heroine, and achieves its success by departing from the fairytale in many ways. Her themes are friendship and self-discovery, and her heroine Rosie escapes the enspelled sleep which envelops the castle, and rides to defeat the sorceress who has caused it. Only Sheri S Tepper’s ‘Beauty’ (lent to me by Katherine Roberts - thankyou Kath!) really engages with the hundred-years sleep and makes a magnificent and intriguing mystery out of it.

But for me, the point of the story isn’t the heroine, whether you call her Briar Rose or Aurora or Rosie, it’s about the mythos - the idea of time stopping in its tracks for a hundred years. Not all stories are about people, even if they include people; not all stories are hero/heroine-centered. They can be about ideas, feelings, wonders - the white blink of lightning as the sky cracks and the eye of God looks through. For me this story is about the shiver you feel - which any child feels - when the storyteller says:

“The horses in the stable, the doves on the roof, the dogs in the kennel and the flies on the wall, all fell fast asleep. Even the fire ceased to burn. And a hedge of thorns sprang up around the palace and grew higher and higher, so that it was lost to sight.”

When you’re a child, time seems endless anyway. So long to wait till your birthday! So long to wait till Christmas! The holidays stretch for ever, and even a single day at school, six short hours or so, can be an eternity of happiness or unhappiness or boredom. And a hundred of anything is an enormous number. “What would you do if you had a hundred pounds?” we used to ask each other as children. To sleep for a hundred years! The story is a meditation on Time.

“Footfalls echo in the memory,” (says T S Eliot)

“Down the passage which we did not take,

Towards the door we never opened

Into the rose garden.”

Four Quartets is a poem full of the imagery of houses which rise and fall and vanish, of rose gardens and fallen petals and lost children. As it, too, is a profound meditation upon Time, am I wrong to suspect that the story of Briar Rose, the Sleeping Beauty, was somewhere in the poet’s mind as he wrote?

“Ash on an old man’s sleeve

Is all the ash the burnt roses leave.

Dust in the air suspended

Marks the place where a story ended.

Dust inbreathed was a house-

The wall, the wainscot and the mouse.”

What is Time? the poem asks.  A cycle of recurring seasons? A river which sweeps us away? A train on a set of linear tracks, the present moment drumming ever onwards, leaving everything we have known unreachably behind? Or can Time somehow curl around us like an enclosed secret garden in which the essence of everything we’ve loved is still real, compressed like a bowl of rose leaves, immanent, half glimpsed?

In T.F. Powys’s little-known masterpiece ‘Mr Weston’s Good Wine’, God - in the shape of wine-salesman Mr Weston, accompanied by his assistant Michael, arrives at the village of Folly Down one bleak November day in a small Ford van. Mr Weston is here to offer the villagers his choice of wines, from the light wine of love to the dark wine of death. It’s a marvellous, tender story, both comic and sad: but the bit that remains in my memory is this passage near the middle of the book, when something very odd happens in Angel Inn, the village pub:

…Mr Thomas Bunce happened to look at the grandfather clock. He did so because the unnatural silence that came over the company - an angel is said to be walking near when such a silence occurs - had disclosed the astonishing fact that the clock was not ticking.

Mr Bunce was sure that the clock was wound. He knew that the heavy pendulum was in proper order, though no one nodded to it now; and yet the clock had stopped.

…No policeman, supposing that one of them had happened to call to see that the right and lawful hours were kept at Folly Down inn, could ever have found fault with that timepiece. The clock was truthful; it was even more honourable than that; it was always two minutes in advance of its prouder relation, that was set high above mankind, in the Shelton church tower.

Mr Bunce stared hard at the clock. He wished to be sure.
All was silent again.

“Time be stopped,” exclaimed Mr Bunce excitedly.
“And eternity have begun,” said Mr Grunter.

Of course the story of Briar Rose continues, with the prince’s arrival and the blossoming of the thorns into roses, and the kiss and the awakening, because time does move and so must narratives. But I don’t think that’s what the story is about. I’m sure the reason the story (otherwise so slight) has remained in existence for so long, is all to do with that hiatus in the middle, in which nothing happens except one long moment. Perhaps it celebrates the way life happens in the gaps between the lines, the space between the words, the silence in the imaginary rose garden. Perhaps it moves us in an almost Taoist sense to look, really look at the flies on the wall, the doves on the roof, the arrested gesture of the cook’s hand as she slaps the serving boy - and say to ourselves,

“This - this is life.”

Picture credits:  Arthur Rackham, Sleeping Beauty.  All the others are by Errol le Cain from 'Thorn Rose'