Wednesday 30 May 2012

"Knitting With Seaweed": Margo Lanagan on Selkies

Margo Lanagan is my guest today to talk about selkies and the inspiration for her book 'The Brides of Rollrock Island'. 

I can't remember where I first heard about selkies. I feel as if I've always known about them, though, so it must have been early, in some collection of fairytales or folklore borrowed from the Raymond Terrace Library in the sixties.

A Selkie Story artwork copyright © Kate Leiper 2009
At any rate, when I picked up some strange seaweed-like knitting-wool in a discount store a few years ago, and wondered what it would be like to knit actual seaweed, and why a person would be even trying to do so, selkies presented themselves as the most likely reason behind it. I thought at first that the seaweed blankets were more like nets; the husbands threw them over their wives to keep them on land, when the women got desperate and tried to return to the sea; they were a means of entrapment. (So even in the first stages, I envisaged all my selkies as women.) But in the end I made them more like security blankets, under which the selkies lay and brooded and wept, consoled by the sea-smell.

Selkie stories are all very sad, and even the ones that end well have a poignancy; a selkie mother may come and dance every year with her children on Midsummer Eve, but what about the rest of the year's yearning? What about the lovelorn husband left behind?

Against this incurable sorrow, this irreconcilable difference and distance between the loved ones, is always set the spellbinding beauty of selkies, whether they be male or female. It's never worth what is sacrificed for a land-person to claim this beauty, but they are helpless to resist it. Part of the attraction of writing The Brides of Rollrock Island was to communicate that rather terrifying beauty, the alienness of it as well as its allure.

Part of it, too, was to counteract wafty Celtic Twilight interpretations of the selkie tales. I wanted blunt, practical people to fall, improbably, for the selkies; I wanted the selkie-coats to smell strongly and to be heavy and slippery and hard to manage and a problem to store and keep secret; I wanted the full unnaturalness of the process to be pointed up, and the full misery of the situation to be admitted. Selkies' passivity in the face of their imprisonment on land seems to me a dreadful thing that's often camouflaged by their beauty, and the attractively melancholy picture they present, wandering longingly beside the sea - and in this way, the men who love them are always, always let off the hook for the injury they've caused the selkie, and in turn their children. I think I wanted to make them more accountable, and to make them see what they'd done and feel remorse; I wanted to focus on their loss and their children's, rather than just be dazzled by the wonderment of a beauty's emerging from the sea, instead of the expected monster.

But probably the thing that excited me the most about writing a selkie tale was the necessity to enter into the experience of the change, the sensations (mental and physical) involved in the transformation from seal to person or person to seal, the sights and sounds and emotions involved in witnessing such a change. I've written several stories from animals' points of view, and I thought it would be an absorbing challenge to try to maintain the other-species foreignness of the seals even as they became almost-credible humans. I wanted to get up close to the actual skin-shedding, or to the first swimming-twitches as the selkie returned to seal form; I wanted it to be a clumsy, heavy process as well as a magical one.

Retelling folk and fairytales, you always start from the powerful bare bones of the story that have lasted through the ages; I wanted my story to grow a thick layer of seal fat and muscle and cover itself in tight, slick sealskin, to have it thrash around in an ungainly way on land, forever longing to take flight in the sea. No amount of magic should be allowed to diminish real seals in all their weight and agility, in their eerie likeness to us, yet their utter unknowability.

"The Brides of Rollrock Island" by Margo Lanagan, David Fickling Books

Many thanks Margo!  You can follow Margo on Twitter, or read her own blog Among Amid Awhile

Monday 28 May 2012

"The Brides of Rollrock Island" by Margo Lanagan

Of all the underwater peoples, the selkies – the seal people – have the closest connection with human beings.  You’ve only to go out in a small boat anywhere around the north coast of Britain, to see the grey seals poking their curious round heads out of the waves, to see them sprawling on the rocks, and to meet their dark, expressive eyes. They exist – unarguably, incontrovertibly – in a way which mermaids and sirens don’t.

And they come out on land, and they suckle their young in a very human fashion: no wonder, then, that legends of selkies sprang up – of how the grey seals could cast off their skins and come dancing on moonlit beaches in the form of beautiful young men and women. 

Especially women.

But the stories about selkies never have happy endings. If mermaid stories are often concerned with the mermaid’s lack of an immortal soul, selkie tales are about capture and imprisonment, abandonment and loss.  They are about the changing balance of power within a relationship.  They are about depression and grief.

Margo Lanagan’s utterly wonderful book ‘The Brides of Rollrock Island’ explores all these themes.  It’s set in a tiny, almost incestuous fishing community, so isolated (I’m reminded that isolated literally means islanded) that the opinion of family and neighbours is the opinion of the world. And it’s a place which the humans share with a population of seals.

Misskaella Prout is unhappy.  Plump, ungainly and difficult, the youngest of several children, butt of many a family joke and sisterly unkindness, one day she wakes to find in herself a terrifying but transforming power over the seals. She can see sparks and seeds of humanity within them, and stir them into growth: she creates for herself a beautiful man who steps out of his bull seal carcass to make love to her.

Even this transient encounter has tragic and unforeseeable results; but gradually word of Misskaella’s powers gets about, and one by one the men of the village begin coming to her to ask her to provide them with seal brides.  

Including the men who already have wives and children.

Margo Lanagan's writing is astoundingly good.  It's physical and shocking and brilliant, like reading poetry by Ted Hughes, except in prose. Everything is distinct, clearly imagined - especially the moment of transformation, the human birth, the moment when the sealskins split, unzip, and out of that blubbery fleshy darkness step the slender and beautiful seal girls.  But are they really human?  To the men, the seal brides are the perfect women: meek, beautiful, domestic – but even the men become gradually, uncomfortably aware of the deep, helpless sadness of their chosen mates.  A great wrong has been done to them.

As years pass, the story is taken up by a succession of voices. Bitter, complicated Misskaella, naïve, well-meaning Dominic Mallett, and finally young Daniel Mallett, whose own mother is a seal bride – each has a different view of the tragedy which is being enacted and perpetuated on Rollrock Island.

‘The Brides of Rollrock Island’ is about greed, and injustice, and the unforeseen consequences of getting what you think you want. It’s about the shamefaced, pathetic gestures by which the guilty attempt to palliate crimes which they have no intention of redressing.  It’s about seeing the world through a distorting lens and telling yourself you can see straight, it’s about self-deception – and, finally, salvation.

And on Wednesday, Margo Lanagan will be a guest here on the blog, with much more to say about selkies and the background to her marvellous book!  

 Photograph: Joe Cornish/NTPL

Friday 25 May 2012


By Jane Yolen

Red Riding Hood and the Wolf by Tyler Garrison

A number of years ago, folklorist Alan Dundes coined the term “fakelore” to describe stories not from the folk canon but that sounded and tasted  and felt like those stories but were invented whole cloth by writers. Lumping in, I suppose, Madame LePrince du Beaumont and Isak Dinesen with Hans Christian Andersen, Angela Carter, and (gulp) me.

Though of course the perceptive lover of such tales could have pointed out to him how often the best of those stories have already moved back into the folk corner, hiding there for a number of years until they have emerged as—ta!ta!—folk stories.

I don’t like Dundes’ dyad and actually make this distinction: the greatest stories I know whether folklore or fakelore touch on the sacred, that moment when head and heart and soul combine.

My "sacred" may not be yours. We may worship at different altars.

Sacred in story has nothing to do with organized religion or disorganized religion. It has to do with that moment you are reading a story or hearing it from a teller’s mouth, and suddenly the hairs on your arms and the back of your neck rise up. The moment when you and the story ascend a level of humanity and touch the very hem of heaven. Call it the Numinous Effect or the Arm Hair Affirmation or anything else you wish. I call it sacred.

I think what Dundes was getting at, though, had more to do with the fact that a written or art tale carries with it an acknowledgement of personal history.

But wait-- even fairy tales that we so often claim are universal and ageless--carry the thumbprints of their own time. So a social scientist or international lawyer could parse (as happened at a fairy tale conference I once attended at Princeton) the fairy tale punishments in classic European fairy tales, explaining them in terms of the community and era in which each story was told. Thus the witch shoved into the oven in Hansel and Gretel, and the wicked queen in her red hot iron shoes are reflections of the prevailing laws about the burning of witches, and so forth.

That our stories are mirrors of our time, reflecting prevalent prejudices and class hatreds does not surprise any of us. Recent events—the harrowing of so many African states; the hunt for and death of Bin Laden; the Iraq war with its nasty sectarian fighting; the on-going killings of children by children in schools around America; the attempted assassination of a congresswoman in Tucson two years ago, that took the lives of others as collateral damage--all these are relevant to any discussion of moral issues. Yet when a fairy story creates a dark mirror, giving back in a fantastic setting the baser beliefs and feelings and legalities its own day, that often comes as a shock to even the more perspicacious reader (and as a total mystery to those readers who skim along the tops of metaphors.)

But really, fairy tales and folk stories have always been a kind of map which we clutch as we move along the journeys of our lives.

 A kind  of map.

But not strictly a map. The tale is obviously not a point-for-point representation of a specific landscape. A real map in the hand, however cleverly drawn, is still a landscape on a single plane. It is specific to an area.

A story--if it is any good at all--charts much more. It encompasses an entire heart's world. 

Once Upon  by Jane Yolen  © 2007

Once Upon A Time
there was a Wolf,
but not a Wolf,
an Other,
whose mother
and father were others,
who looked not like us,
Republican or Dem
in other words--
They were forest dwellers,
child sellers,
meat eaters,
wife beaters,
idol makers
oath breakers—
in other words, Wolf.
So Happy Ever After means
we kill the Wolf,
spill his blood,
knock him out,
bury him in mud,
make him dance
in red hot shoes.
For us to win
The Wolf must lose.

Jane Yolen is a writer who needs no introduction.  She has won umpteen awards, including but not limited to the Caldecott Medal, two Nebula Awards, the World Fantasy Award, three Mythopoeic Awards, the Jewish Book Award, and the World Fantasy Association Lifetime Achievement Award. Her many books (over 300 to date) are on shelves all over the world. Six colleges and universities have given her honorary doctorates. Newsweek has called her ‘the Hans Christian Andersen of America’, and the New York Times proclaimed her ‘a modern equivalent of Aesop’.  Her 1992 novel ‘Briar Rose’ is the most powerful retelling of ‘Sleeping Beauty’ that I’ve ever read: not a fantasy, but a novel which deals with that most brutal of truths, the Holocaust. And yet, it is openly conceived as a fairytale.

Even if you don’t think you’ve read anything by Jane, you probably have. She’s written everything from picture books for little children, to magical adventures and fairytales for middle-graders, to teenage and adult fantasies, to academic essays. Remember ‘Owl Moon’ (1987) – a gorgeous picture book in which a little girl goes owl-watching on a moonlit night with her father? Or perhaps ‘Touch Magic’ (2000), an impassioned set of essays on the importance of fairytales and folklore in children’s reading? In the introduction to the 1981 edition, Jane writes:

Culture begins in the cradle. Literature is a continuous process from childhood onward, not a body of work sprung full-blown from the heads of adults who never read or were read to as children. …I believe that the continuum of literature is best maintained by those tales of fantasy, fancy, faerie, and the supra-natural, those crafted visions and bits and pieces of dream-remembering that link our past and our future. To do without tales and stories and books is to lose humanity’s past, is to have no star-map for our future.

In response to which, I can only throw my hat in the air and cheer.

Picture credit: Red Riding Hood and the Wolf by illustrator and artist Tyler Garrison

Tuesday 22 May 2012

Folklore Snippets: Fairy Hills

Robert Kirk, born about 1644, was the seventh son of a Scottish minister and became a minister himself, well known for translating the psalms into Gaelic and evangelising in the Highlands. He was extremely interested in the supernatural folklore of the areas, which like many of his time he felt were supporting evidence for the supernatural elements of Christianity, and is probably the only folklorist whose own death produced a legend!

He is said to have collapsed and died whilst walking on a fairy hill in his parish of Aberfoyle, and to have appeared after his death to one of his relatives to say that he was not dead but a prisoner in Fairyland. He gave instructions that he would appear again at the christening of his posthumous child, and asked his cousin to save him by throwing a knife over him and thus breaking the spell. Kirk duly reappeared when the company was at table, but his cousin was so astonished he forgot to act, and Kirk vanished, never to be seen again.

Here is the fairy hill in question...

Doon Hill, Aberfoyle - from the churchyard where Kirk is buried.  Photo

Here’s an extract from his book,  The Secret Common-Wealth, 1691
(Pub. by The Folklore Society 1976)

There be manie places called Fayrie hills, which the mountain-people think impious and dangerous to peel or discover, by taking earth or wood from them; superstitiously beleiving the souls of their predecessors to dwell yr. 

And for that end (say they) a Mote or Mount was dedicate beside everie Church-yeard, to receave the souls, till their adjacent Bodies arise, and so become as a Fayrie-hill. They using bodies of air when called abroad. They also affirm those Creatures that move invisibly in a house, and cast huge stones, but do not much hurt, (because counter-wrought by some more courteous and charitable spirits that are everywhere readie to defend men Dan 10, 13) to be Souls that have not atteaneed their Rest, thorough a vehement desyre of revealing a Murther, or notable injury don or received, or a Treasure that was forgot in their Lyftime on Earth, which when disclos’d to a Conjuror … the Ghost quite removes. 

In the nixt Countrey to my former Residence about the year 1676, when there was some scarcity of grain, a marvellous illapse and vision struck the imaginatione of two Women in one night, living at a good distance from one other, about a Treasure hid in a hill called Sith bhruaich or Fairie-hill. The appearance of a Treasure was first represented to the Fancy and than an audible voice named the place where it was, to their waking senses. Whereupon they both arose and meeting accidentally at the place, discovered their design, and jointly digging, found a Vessel as large as a Scottis-peck full of small peecs of good money, of ancient coyn; which halving betwisxt them, they sold in dish-fulls for dish-fulls of meal to the Countrey people, varie many of undoubted credit saw, and had of the coyn to this day: but whither it was a good or bad Angell, one of the Subterranean people, or the restless soul of him who hid it, that discovered it, I leave to the examination of others.

Friday 18 May 2012



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And who, frankly, can blame her?

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

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

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

And I’ll tell you something. That boyfriend never got away.
When Sally Prue’s first novel, ‘Cold Tom’ won the Branford Boase Award and the Smarties Prize Silver Award in 2002, it was clear that a wonderful new writer of folklore-based fantasy had arrived.  ‘Cold Tom’ taps into many legends and ballads about the fairies: the 'Tribe' which lives on the common.

Sally’s books remind me of Diana Wynne Jones who wrote books of otherworldly beauty – I’m thinking of ‘Power of Three’ and ‘The Spellcoats’ – as well as more homely and amusing stories for younger readers.‘Cold Tom’ and its prequel ‘Ice Maiden’ are YA reads: chilling, haunting, sharp-edged; but Sally is also the author of a trilogy of books for younger, ‘middle grade’ readers: the Truthsayer Trilogy. 
Sally's writing takes a look at our world from the outside, seeing ourselves as others see us.  The Truthsayer Trilogy encompasses a variety of thought-provoking ideas about the nature of time and space, and besides the comedy, there are some tremendous moments of imagination and terror: as in the second book, 'The March of the Owlmen', when the knife-sharp, two-dimensional Owlmen come slicing into the world. She has also written 'Song Hunter', set 40,000 years ago and featuring a Neanderthal group at the start of the last Ice Age. She blogs at

Wednesday 16 May 2012

"Forsaken", the book trailer!

"COME, dear children, let us away;
            Down and away below.
    Now my brothers call from the bay;
    Now the great winds shoreward blow;
    Now the salt tides seaward flow;
    Now the wild white horses play,
    Champ and chafe and toss in the spray.
        Children dear, let us away.
            This way, this way!"

The idea for "Forsaken" came from the classic poem 'The Forsaken Merman' by the late Victorian poet Matthew Arnold, which in turn is based on an old Scandinavian ballad. It tells the story of a merman who married a human woman, Margaret. They live together happily under the sea and she has children by him - till one day she hears church bells ringing and feels a sudden longing to go and pray in the 'little white church'. The merman agrees to part with her for a short while. But once on land she never returns to the sea, leaving her husband and children to grief for her. In Arnold's poem the merman says:

"Up the still, glistening beaches,
Up the creeks we will hie,
Over banks of bright seaweed
The ebb-tide leaves dry.
We will gaze, from the sand-hills,
At the white, sleeping town;
At the church on the hill-side—
And then come back down.
Singing: "There dwells a loved one,
But cruel is she!
She left lonely for ever
The kings of the sea."

The old belief about mermaids was that they had no souls. In order to preserve her immortal soul, Margaret is ready to desert her husband and children. Was she right to follow her beliefs? Or wrong to cause her loved ones so much pain?

Here's the trailer I made for the book.  I filmed it (well, all except the underwater scene!) around the Farne Islands in waters full of seals...

In the original legend, the merman clambers into the churchyard to try and find his wife, but when he looks into the church, 'all the stone images turned their backs on him'. When I read this, a shiver ran down my spine and I knew I had to tell the story again - but this time, I wondered what would have happened if, instead of the merman, one of Margaret's own mer-children went to find her?

Thanks to Polly Carey who spoke the voiceover, and to Richard Hughes of We Are Goose , who composed and performed the music, and cut and edited the film. (You can compare it with the trailer we made for my book 'Dark Angels' if you click on the tab 'Book Trailers' at the top of this post. )

Please let us know what you think of it! :)

Monday 14 May 2012

Watermill Stories

I like stories about watermills. A watermill figured largely in my first two books, ‘Troll Fell’ and ‘Troll Mill’, and if you think about it, in past centuries the mill which ground your corn was about the most important building in any village after the church – and for similar reasons. The church provided your spiritual food, the mill provided your daily bread. The miller was an important man in any community. And like the church, the mill was a hub, a place where you could expect to meet your neighbours on a fairly regular basis, even the ones who lived on outlying farms.

Millers, like clergymen, were not always liked, of course. (The ones in my books certainly endear themselves to no one.) The song ‘I am a jolly miller and I live by myself’ has the refrain, ‘I care for nobody, no not I, if nobody cares for me,’ and rather suggests that millers felt themselves a little above the rest of the community. People couldn’t afford to offend the miller, whose mill with its machinery was one of the first non-cottage industries. No one wanted to go back to hand-grinding their own grain with a quern.

Machinery at Venn Mill, Oxfordshire, just up the road from me and the model for Troll Mill! © Copyright Steve Daniels and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence 

This tension between the miller – whose hands were never dirty, but on the contrary who was always powdered in white – and the labouring villagers, may help explain the number of ghost stories and horror stories set around mills and millpond – but I think one also has to take into account the fact that a working mill is an impressive place. The whole building comes alive, full of purpose:

Everything vibrated. Old dust trickled and cobwebs shook on the walls. …And the noises were so spooky: the rhythmic thumping of the water wheel like a dark heart beating, the creaking machinery, the clatter of the shoe that shook down the grain, and the sibilant mutter of the rotating millstone.

(Troll Fell)

Here are a couple of folk-tales about watermills. One from Peter Asbjørnsen’s collection of Norwegian tales, East of the Sun and West of the Moon:

There was a man who had a flour mill, close to a waterfall, and there was a mill-goblin in that mill. Every time he went to grind his corn, the goblin got hold of the tub-wheel and stopped the mill, and he couldn’t get any corn ground. The man knew very well it was the goblin who had his hand in this and one evening when he went to the mill, he took a big pot full of pitch-tar with him and put it on the fire. He turned the water on to the wheel and the mill went for a while, but then it stopped as he had expected it would. He opened the door which led out to the wheel and there stood the mill goblin in the door, gaping. His jaw was so big that it reached from the threshold up to the lintel.

“Have you ever seen such a jaw?” said the goblin.
The man ran for the pot and pitched the boiling tar into the gaping jaw and said, “Have you ever felt anything do hot?”
The goblin uttered a terrible shriek and let go the wheel. He has never been seen or heard there after that time, nor has the mill been stopped since.

Serbia's most famous vampire, Sava Savanović, was said to have lived in an old watermill, where he drank the blood of the millers: Serbian folk legends held that water mills were an invention of the devil and a gathering place for demons – a belief which seems reflected by this tale from Ireland, from Great Blasket Island off the coast of County Kerry, told in Gaelic by a woman called Gobnait and written down by Robin Flower some time in the early 1900’s. ('The Western Island', Robin Flower, Oxford 1944) It’s an extract from a much longer tale, itself a version of ‘Mother Holle’, in which a king’s daughter is sent by her jealous stepmother to perform an number of difficult tasks, and succeeds though courtesy and goodness, while her ugly stepsister fails through rudeness and selfishness. For one task she is sent to a mill to get a bag of wheat ground: ‘and nobody in the world ever came back from that mill’. She has to stay there overnight:

And it wasn’t long till a tall, black man came down the chimney to her. “Stretch out your long white legs beside my long black legs.” “I’ll do it,” she said, “if you’ll make me a golden cupboard.” He wasn’t long in making it. “Stretch out your long white legs beside my long black legs.” “I’ll do it if you’ll make me a golden dresser.” “Stretch out your long white legs beside my long black legs.” “I’ll do it if you’ll make me a golden ladder.” Yerra, he hadn’t put the last nail in the ladder when the little cock flapped his wings and crowed, and the tall, black man went through the chimney.

Of course the stepsister makes the mistake of being rude, and ‘All he did was to gulp her up in his mouth and fly out of the chimney with her.’

Was it because of the elemental power of the water, that mills were regarded with awe?  In contrast to the Serbian legends, here’s a poem attributed to the epigrammatist Antipator of Thessalonica, dated 85 BC: it celebrates the change from the wearisome female task of hand-grinding at home to the miraculous power of the water-driven millstones:

Hold back your hand from the mill, you grinding girls; even if the cockcrow heralds the dawn, sleep on. For Demeter has imposed the labours of your hands on the nymphs, who leaping down upon the topmost part of the wheel, rotate its axle; with encircling cogs it turns the hollow weight of the Nisyrian millstones. If we learn to feast toil-free on the fruits of the earth, we taste again the golden age...

Or, in an 18th century translation:

Ye Maids who toiled so faithfully at the Mill
Now cease your word and from these toils be still,
Sleep now till dawn and let the birds with glee
Sing to the ruddy morn from bush and tree
For what your hands performed so long and true
Ceres has charged the Water Nymphs to do.

Friday 4 May 2012


by Kate Forsyth

Rapunzel is one of the most mysterious and enduring of all fairytales, telling the story of a young girl sold to a witch by her parents for a handful of bitter green herbs. 

The witch locked her in a tower deep in the forest and visited her by commanding, ‘Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair, so I may climb the golden stair’. One day a prince, entranced by Rapunzel’s singing, called up the same rhyme to the imprisoned girl who lowered her hair to him. He climbed up to her room and they fell in love at first sight. Before the prince can help her escape, the witch discovers their tryst and banishes Rapunzel to the wilderness where she gives birth to twins (who are later cut from the story by the Grimm Brothers who found the babies hard to explain to a young audience). The prince is cast down from the tower and blinded by thorns, but Rapunzel finds him and her tears miraculously heal his eyes so they can live happily ever after. 

I have been fascinated by the Rapunzel tale ever since I was a child myself, and I've just published a novel called Bitter Greens which retells the fairytale as a historical novel set in Venice and northern Italy in the 17th century and France in the 18th century. 

When I was two years old, I was savaged by a dog and ended up with terrible head injuries that resulted in meningitis (infection of the membranes that surround the brain) and encephalitis (a life-threatening inflammation of the brain). I was very ill for months, spending most of that year in hospital and ending with dreadful scars all over my head (thankfully most of them are hidden by my hair). I had half of one ear torn off and my left tear duct was destroyed, and with it my ability to control my tears. My eye wept all the time. 

As a result, I was in and out of hospital for the next six or seven years, half-blind and racked with fever. I used to lie in my hospital bed, all alone in an empty children’s ward at the Sydney Eye Hospital, staring with my one good eye out the window. All I could see was a high green hill, crowned with an ancient Moreton Bay fig tree and the sandstone wall of the Art Gallery of NSW. It looked like a castle. I used to imagine myself galloping away over the hill, on my way to marvellous adventures. 

I think my fascination with Rapunzel began with my own entrapment in that lonely hospital ward. Again and again I write about people imprisoned in towers and dungeons, longing to be rescued. It is a recurring motif in my novels, most recently in my fantasy adventure for children, The Wildkin’s Curse, which tells the story of a wildkin princess kept captive in an impossibly tall crystal tower, telling stories to try and free herself.

I love the story of Rapunzel because of the ardent love affair between the imprisoned girl and the prince who rescues her, and because of the miraculous healing of the prince’s eyes by Rapunzel’s tears. Rapunzel begins as a powerless child-like victim but by the end of the story she has become a magical agent of healing and redemption. 

Most people think that Rapunzel was first told by the Grimm Brothers in the early 19th century, but in fact it is a much older story than that. 

There are numerous Maiden in Tower stories in cultures all around the world, so many it has its own classification in the Aarne-Thompson fairytale motif index, Type 310. The first may well be from Christian iconography, with the story of Saint Barbara, a virtuous young girl locked in a tower by her father in the 3rd century. She was tortured for her beliefs, but all her wounds were miraculously healed overnight and in the end she was beheaded by her own father, who was then struck by lightning and killed. 

The very first time the motif of the ‘hair ladder’ appeared in a fairy story was in a 10th century Persian tale told by Ferdowsi (932-1025 AD), in which a woman in a harem offers to lower her hair to her lover, Zal, so he can climb up to her. He is afraid he might hurt her and so throws up a rope instead. 

The ‘hair ladder’ reappears in the story, Petrosinella, in the mid 17th century, as part of a collection of literary fairy tales told by a Florentine writer, Giambattista Basile. His collection, Lo cunto de li cunti (The Tale of Tales), was first published in 1634-36 and told the story of a princess who could not laugh. Various storytellers gathered to tell her stories in the hope they can amuse her, including one who tells the story of a girl, Petrosinella (Little Parsley), who is given up to an ogress after her mother steals parsley from the ogress’s garden. The ogress locks Petrosinella up in a tower in the forest, using her hair as a ladder to access the building. Petrosinella escapes with the help of a prince who heard her singing, overcoming the ogress by casting three magical acorns behind her that turn into obstacles that impede the witch and ultimately devour her. 

Sixty years later, the story appears again, this time in France. It is told by a woman writer, Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de la Force, who has been banished to a convent after displeasing the king, Louis XIV, at his glittering court in Versailles. Locked away in a cloister, much like Rapunzel is in her tower, Charlotte-Rose was among the first writers to pen a collection of literary fairy tales and one of the world’s first historical novelists. Published under a pseudonym, Madame X, Charlotte-Rose’s tales became bestsellers and she was eventually able to buy her release.

In Persinette, her version of the tale, the mother conceives an insatiable longing for parsley which her husband steals for her from a sorceress’s garden. Caught by the sorceress, he promises her his unborn daughter who the sorceress collects at the age of seven. Persinette is raised by the sorceress until she is twelve and then locked away in her tower (though the sorceress treats her gently and brings the child everything she could possibly want.) In time she becomes a woman; the prince hears her singing and chants the rhyme so he can climb up the ladder of hair to her room, where he seduces her (“he became bolder and proposed to marry her right then and there, and she consented without hardly knowing what she was doing. Even so, she was able to complete the ceremony” is how Charlotte-Rose rather coyly describes his seduction.)

Persinette becomes pregnant as a result, and in her naivety betrays herself to the sorceress when she complains about her dress growing tighter. The Grimm brothers later changed this to Rapunzel complaining about how much heavier the witch is than her prince - which at a single stroke makes Rapunzel seem extremely stupid.

Then Charlotte-Rose changes the ending so that the prince is blinded, Persinette bears twins in the wilderness, and then heals her lover’s eyes with her redemptive tears. The sorceress continues to torment them, until the young couple’s courage and tender love for each other move her to mercy and she magically returns them to the prince’s loving family.

This story was then retold in Germany by the German author Friedrich Schulz, which is almost identical to Charlotte-Rose’s story except that he changed the girl’s name to Rapunzel, perhaps because it is prettier than parsley. A rapunzel plant is a type of wild rampion. It was then retold by the Grimm Brothers in their 1812 fairytale collection, becoming less powerful, dark and sexy with each edition until we have the tale that most children know today (soon to be retold once again, and released as a Disney cartoon.)

It is Charlotte-Rose and her version which provide the inspiration for my book. She was a fascinating woman – strong-willed, intelligent and fiercely independent – who once rescued her lover from imprisonment by going into his parent’s castle with a travelling troupe of performers disguised as a dancing bear! How could I not write a book about her?

Kate Forsyth is the bestselling author of over twenty titles for children and adults.  Her first book was named a Best First Novel of 1998 by Locus Magazine, and since then she’s been shortlisted for many awards, including a CYBIL Award in the US and the Surrey Book of the Year award in Canada. In 2007, five of her Chain of Charms series were jointly awarded the 2007 Aurealis Award for Children’s Fiction.  Visit her website here:

Illustrations of Rapunzel by Frank Cowper, Arthur Rackham and Kay Nielsen

Tuesday 1 May 2012

Rapunzel for adults...

BITTER GREENS by Kate Forsyth

Kate Forsyth first appeared on this blog a couple of years ago when I reviewed her enchanting children's fantasy 'The Puzzle Ring'. I'm very pleased to welcome her back this week, and to review her latest book - for adults this time - 'Bitter Greens'.  It's a fabulous mix of history, fantasy and fiction: suitably, as its heroine is a storyteller par excellence,  the French writer Mademoiselle Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de la Force (1654-1724), best known as the author of the fairytale ‘Persinette’ (1698), which later was adopted by the Brothers Grimm as the famous ‘Rapunzel’.

Born to Protestant parents, Mademoiselle de la Force found it too dangerous to retain that faith at the intolerant court of the Sun King, Louis XIV, who denied Protestants religious and political freedom and pursued policies of persection and forcible conversion.

She converted, therefore, but in 1697 her lively wit and romans à clef, along with a number of scandals and rumours, provoked the King to send her to the Benedictine abbey of Gercy-en-Brie, where she wrote her memoirs and a number of other novels.

Told in the first person, 'Bitter Greens' opens with Charlotte’s disgrace and journey to the abbey, where the nuns strip her of her elaborate court dress – so complicated in its fastenings she literally cannot undress herself – replacing it with a simple linen smock and shearing off her hair. Charlotte’s quick tongue and spirit get her into more trouble and she undergoes penances such as lying prostrate for hours on the cold stone floor of the chapel.  In this misery, she finds a friend – an older nun, Soeur Seraphina, who takes her to work in the garden and begins telling her a story, the story of a young Venetian girl who was sold to a sorceress for a handful of bitter green herbs and shut up in a high tower…

Rapunzel - Kay Nielsen

From this point on, the story of 'Bitter Greens' is inextricably interwoven with fiction and fantasy, complex as any braid of Rapunzel’s hair. There is Charlotte’s own personal history at the court of the Sun King. There is the tale of a Venetian courtesan and witch called Selena Leonelli, or La Strega Bella, who becomes the mistress of Titian and who prolongs her youth by drinking the blood of young virgins. And there is the tale of Marguerite, the child whom La Strega imprisons in the high tower.

Rich and magical as it is, this is frequently a very dark story. Kate Forsyth reminds us of the extreme powerlessness of most women – even those apparently most powerful and celebrated, the Queen herself, or the King’s mistresses, whose wealth and status depend entirely upon his favour. Charlotte-Rose’s mother is deprived of her chateau, freedom and family at the whim of the king. Servant women are raped against walls and left to get on with their work. Charlotte-Rose's talent and intelligence is no security: like any other lady she she must flirt and tease and scheme for a suitable marriage. And the streets – whether of 17th century Paris or 16th century Venice – are full of girls whose only livelihood is to sell themselves. It’s a world of casual brutality, revenge, desperation, plague and persecution. No wonder if there are dead babies and abandoned children. No wonder if some of the survivors turn to witchcraft.

Bitter Greens is a powerful tale about survival, and the endurance of hope, and the tales we tell ourselves to help us carry on. It’s fascinating that Charlotte-Rose wrote ‘Persinette’ while she herself was shut up in a convent: and in Kate Forsyth’s hands the tale of the child taken from her parents and shut up in a high tower has truly disturbing resonances, a reminder of some dreadful modern examples. Fairytales are not always pretty... Nevertheless, there is hope. Rapunzel escapes from her tower, and Charlotte-Rose did eventually return to Paris – where, Kate Forsyth tells us in the Afterword, she became a celebrated member of the salons and joined a secret society set up by the Duchesse de Maine called ‘The Order of the Honey Bee’ – whose thirty-nine members ‘wore a dark-red satin dress embroidered with silver bees and a wig shaped like a beehive.’ Now that is survival with style...

'Bitter Greens' is published in Australia by Random House/Vintage and can be purchased from, which is the Australian version of Amazon, or any other Australian internet bookshop such as or