Thursday 30 August 2012


I got interested in star-watching years ago, when I lived in a Yorkshire Dales village with no streetlights anywhere much nearer than Skipton, eleven miles away.  On a clear night you could see as close to forever as makes no difference. Notes such as these filled my diary:

Jupiter setting as I went out about 11.30pm, so Arcturus the most conspicuous thing in the sky now. Standing under the flowering current bush I heard the Kirkby church clock chiming a mile and a quarter away.  The tree by High Barn had stars in its leaves as bright as diamonds. Looked through binoculars at the Andromeda Spiral, a pale hazy blob, and wondered for the umpteenth time at how huge everything is – how could stars and planets and creatures all be packed into that faint ball of fuzz?  C. looked too, and said it made him feel creepy, small and cold. 


Woke up around 3 am, pushed up the window and looked out. Slap bang across from me was the whole constellation of Auriga, all risen above the hills like a sign, like a flambeau.  The Pleiades glimmered secretly; below them shone Aldebaran in Taurus.

The Andromeda Spiral galaxy is one of our nearest celestial neighbours, and it is known as M31, or 'Messier 31', in the catalogue of  'deep sky objects' compiled by the 18th/19th century comet-hunter Charles Messier. In the same catalogue the Pleiades or Seven Sisters are designated 'M45'. Knowing this kind of thing helps, if you’re going to read and enjoy Alan Garner’s Boneland to the full, and explains why I found myself laughing at this exchange of mutual incomprehension between a fuddled Colin and a friendly taxi driver on page 4:

“What’s your job?”
“Ah.  Survey.  M45.  At the moment.”
“It wants widening.”
“I’m measuring it.”
“Comes in handy sometimes.”
“M6, M42, M45, M1.”
“How do you mean?”
“It misses the worst of the traffic.”

Colin is talking about galaxies; the taxi driver about British motorways.  Each to his own.  And maybe I’m lucky to be (a) British, and (b) interested in stars, but isn’t it great, for once, not to have stuff spelled out for you?

Already enchanted by this, and by the opening sequence of some mysterious paleolithic shaman puffing paint on to a cave wall, I settled down to enjoy.

Boneland isn’t a children’s book, and was never intended to be.  And anyway, you can never step twice into the same river. If you’re expecting another book ‘like’ The Weirdstone of Brisingamen’ or ‘The Moon of Gomrath’, you’ll be disappointed.  Writers grow up, move on.  But it’s fascinating to see Alan Garner pick up the threads of those two wonderful early books and weave something new.  This is a grown-up story which would be impenetrable to children: but for adults it’s playful, tender, sometimes terrifying. It links nursery rhymes to the sound of bicycle wheels. It uses folktale rhythms and repetitions, incantatory story-telling, prose poetry, astronomy, geology, ornithology, jokes, and enough references to mythology and literature to keep the academics happy for years. 

But it’s not written for academics!  It’s also a great story. Colin, the Colin of the early books, is now a middle-aged professor working at the Jodrell Bank observatory in Cheshire (near Alderley Edge, of course) and ‘searching for his lost sister in the Pleiades’ as the blurb says. He’s in the middle of a breakdown: obsessive, hospitalised and seeking therapy. The parallel, interwoven narrative is that of another man, in the same place and in another time or maybe only another dimension, a Paleolithic shaman who views the same stars and imbues them with a different kind of meaning: with personality: with causality: with power. Both men (who may be the same man) search for meaning, for purpose, for the bringing-back of life from the dark. With the help of Doctor Meg Massey, an unconventional psychiatrist and psychotherapist, Colin begins to rediscover his lost past and face his fears. 

There are all sorts of things going on.  References to the Grail quest, the Fisher King, the medieval poem ‘Gawain and the Green Knight’ – the latter poem local to the north-west Midlands, of course.  When Colin sharpens his axe, to chop wood; when the shaman goes up into the cold hills to find the mountain called the Mother, Garner paraphrases famous passages from the Gawain poem; and when the 21st century foreman of a group of workmen declares ‘I’m the governor of this gang’, it’s almost a direct quote. ("'Wher is', he sayd,/'Þe gouernour of þis gyng? Gladly I wolde/Se þat segg in syȝt, and with hymself speke raysoun.'") Surely Alan Garner is restating the depth and continuity of myth and legend and story in this small pocket of England.  Is Colin the wizard of the Edge?  Is he the Green Knight?  The Wounded King?  What did happen to Susan, and where is she?  Where is the Morrigan?  Is anything real?

It’s not a perfect book.  There are things I found irritating.  Not all of the dialogue works – does anyone really say things like: ‘Look here, Whisterfield.  You’re an able fellow.  You have the potential to expand our understanding of the cosmos’?  And for me, some of the interchanges between Meg and Colin have a surreal, ‘Educating Rita’ quality as Meg – though a trained psychiatrist – does a teasing, wide-eyed-little-girl act to Colin’s reams of information.  However, where Colin is confused, stubborn, frightened, pompous, almost an idiot savant, Meg is intuitive and powerful, half-leading, half-bullying him as he ventures into the darkness of his self – and the past.  And there are many mysteries and many spine-tingling surprises in store.

In short, I think Boneland is wonderful.  It’s allusive, elusive, tantalising, mystifying and evocative.  It’s a poem, a song.  It’s funny, it’s sad, and it made the hair rise on the back of my neck.  It’s one to read – along with its two forerunners – again and again.

NB: You can read Ursula K Le Guin's Guardian review of BONELAND by clicking HERE: but beware: it DOES contain spoilers and I'm glad I didn't read it before reading the book itself.

Wednesday 29 August 2012

The House of Dreams

I'm guest-posting today over at Jenny Alexander's thoughtful, creative blog 'Writing in the House of Dreams'.  Jenny asked me to share a recurrent dream I used to have as a child: one which I inherited (yes) from my mother and grandfather.  I'd be interested to know if anyone else has a 'family dream'?  If so, I hope it's a good one.  This one wasn't. (Click HERE for the post.)

Friday 24 August 2012


by Leslie Wilson

When my novel Last Train from Kummersdorf  was published, my brother read it and then said to me: ‘It’s not at all a realistic novel, is it?’ And indeed, it isn’t, though I’m not sure how many people have noticed.

It is a novel very much in the German tradition: and at first glance it is close to other German novels and short stories about the Second World War and ‘Die Flucht’ – which means ‘The Flight’, meaning the escape from the advancing Russian army. Most of these are realist. But as I wrote it I knew I was in the German romantic/gothic tradition, like Storm’s Schimmelreiter (The Rider on the White Horse), or Gotthelf’s The Black Spider. Less unequivocally so, perhaps, than Grass’s Tin Drum. (A novel which made it hard, at first, to write Kummersdorf, because Grass seemed to have said it all so brilliantly.) But then I began to see that I had things to say that hadn’t already been said, and dared to go forward.

That tradition is deeply rooted in folklore, and so am I. Like Susan Price, I spent years and years of my childhood reading folktales from all over the world. But it was when I was doing my degree in German that I read the whole way through the three-volume 1900 jubilee edition of Grimm that I was lucky enough to be given in childhood – and, like Susan Price, found my mind going clicketty-clack, categorising the stories, seeing that certain basic plots came up over and over again, with variations – and once a motif from the Nibelungenlied, the medieval Lay of the Nibelungs, in The Two Brothers: the sword put between a man masquerading as his twin brother and his sister-in-law when they have to sleep together. Siegfried puts a sword between himself and Brünhilde when he beds her in the guise of his brother-in-law-to be, Gunther. Maybe the Nibelungenlied draws from popular folklore, maybe the folk story has picked up part of the epic. In any case, it was deeply important to me to read the collection then, one of those things that one knows one has to do, even if one doesn’t know why. What it taught me is what others have said before me: there are only a limited amount of plots. The other realisation was also important: that stories are interdependent and feed each other. When – many years later - I started to write Kummersdorf, I quickly realised the influence, in my story, of The Bremen Town Musicians. 

The Brothers Grimm were undoubtedly motivated by a desire to establish an authentic ‘German’ voice; a project rooted in the dubious one of German unification by force, rather than through the liberal impulse of revolution. That hope was dashed in 1948. As for the ‘authentic German voice’, that was a stupid idea. Folktales are international; carried along trade routes, they flit from country to country. Some of the Grimm stories came from Perrault. Maybe nursemaids picked them up in the houses of the francophile German aristocracy and middle class, and took them back into their own humble homes to tell to their own children. At that point other motifs infiltrated them, which is why Aschenputtel is different from Cendrillon. The other thing that the Grimm brothers did was to edit the stories – but I am quite certain that they still retain much of the authentic vernacular voice. 

I think the value of myth and fairy stories is that they mitigate the dreadful things that happen to human beings. Stories of heroes, of magical rescues, of the world turned upside down, give us courage to face a harsh world. The savagery of the revenge sometimes taken expresses people’s deep inner anger; an anger too often bitten back in a world where injustice and callous exploitation were – and still are - rife.  The Bremen Town Musicians is about old animals, worked-out, threatened with various brutal ends because they’re no use to their masters any longer. They find a robbers’ house in the forest and frighten the robbers away from it and their booty simply by making their various noises – music, according to them – so then they are able to live at their ease for the rest of their lives. I think the story reflects the reality of the lives of story-telling grandparents, who were similarly regarded as useless – except to keep the children quiet. It’s a story about Grey Power. Or just about the powerless who manage – just for once – to turn the tables. And, significantly, when the robber comes back to see if the band can repossess their house, the voice that finally terrorises him is that of the cockerel who he interprets as a judge’s voice, calling out: ‘Bring the rogue to me!’

Last Train from Kummersdorf is about civilians, and civilians who end up facing the incoming army. As a child, I always noticed the value that’s placed in wartime on soldiers’ lives over those of civilians. I resented it, because from an early age I’d heard from my mother just what defeat means. When the soldiers are dead, it’s the old people, the youngsters and children who are in the front line. Many of the Russian soldiers entering Germany in 1945 behaved the way conquering soldiers have always done. They behaved that way even in the Slav countries they came to first, so it wasn’t, as many people have said, just a revenge-taking for the dreadful things the German soldiers had done in Russia. Members of the Red Army raped, tortured, murdered and looted, with Stalin’s blessing. The innocent suffered along with the guilty. ‘Deutsche Frau ist deutsche Frau,’ a Russian soldier said when it was pointed out to him that the woman he was about to rape was Jewish. ‘German woman is German woman.’ My mother got away from a Russian by the skin of her teeth, ran away into the forest and the mountains and almost died there. That, along with the expulsion of many of her family from their homes in Silesia, is the ‘core narrative’ I was working with.

If you sleep rough, it very quickly starts to do things to your perception of reality: dossers and refugees live a different kind of reality from ours, in our houses, where we can shut the door on danger. I think when you’re in constant danger of your life, then some fundamental, mythic perceptions probably kick in. My mother, wandering the mountains in April, was living out a fundamental folkloric story of pursuit, only it was Russian soldiers, rather than enraged witches, she was escaping from. Hanno and Effi, in Kummersdorf,  are trying to escape from the Russians too, but they have a Quest, too: to get to the West, where the boy Hanno’s mother is, and where the girl Effi is firmly convinced she’ll find her father. The teenagers pick up other people, rag-tag refugees; it was at that point that I said to myself: ‘This story is like The Bremen Town Musicians!’

But my refugees don’t find the baddies in a house: the baddies are on the run, too, and the kids pick some of them up and have to schlepp them along willy-nilly; the old crazy doctor who’s murdered disabled children in the ‘euthanasia’ programme; the rabid Nazi police officer who nurses a strange hatred for the boy Hanno. But there’s someone else: the little man Sperling (which means sparrow) with his dog Cornelius and his magic cart which he makes over to the kids after a Russian air attack kills him. When the kids play a game with the railway tickets in the cart, when Effi teases the adults with the fantasy they’ve cooked up – when suddenly the other refugees start believing the alluring fantasy of a train that can carry them out of danger – this is story taking people over, altering their perceptions of reality. And the train itself, when it half-magically appears, becomes a location where the truth comes out about the refugees’ pasts. Though it’s no means of escape for them, so the story doesn’t end there.

My novel, like so many fairy-tales, and especially the Musicians, takes place in the German ‘Wald’, the forest, the location where so many German folk tales play off. I knew the German forest from an early age, though not the Brandenburg forest of the novel. My grandfather had a house on the eastern shore of the Rhine. My brother and I used to go off into the Wald­ and explore it, but it felt dangerous; full of wild boar for one thing, who might attack us in the breeding season. Once, when I was a baby, my mother was on her own in the house at night – my grandparents had gone out together – and she heard a snuffling and thumping against the door, a huge animal apparently trying to break in. She was terrified. In the morning, there was blood on the grass outside, and the adults realised it must have been a wounded boar. It wasn’t really a danger to us, of course, but the story of that inchoate menace in the night coming out of the Wald  stayed with me. When the stags were rutting, the clash of their antlers echoed and filled the valley in front of the house; they were almost as loud as thunderclaps.

The road from Opa’s house led to a little clearing in the woods where a flame flickered, day and night. I was told that a child had been lost out there once, and its desperate mother promised the Virgin Mary that if her child was found, she’d set a flame there to burn to help other travellers who might be lost. The flame marked the place where the child was safely found. I don’t know if it’s still there. I can picture it now, at a place where two paths met, in a part of the forest planted with conifers; the dusty path scattered with needle-mess and resinous cones, and the dimness among the trees. Mirkwood. The forest went on and on, it seemed enormous. I knew the witches and wolves and robbers were in there; you only had to go far enough. And so it became part of my psyche and so I had to write about it.

Leslie Wilson grew up bilingual, the daughter of a German mother and an English father, and some of the events in her first YA book, ‘Last Train from Kummersdorf’ stem from her mother’s traumatic wartime experiences, from which, in part, her writing derives its emotional truth.  Shortlisted for the Guardian Fiction Prize, the novel is set in 1945. On the run from the advancing Russian army, two young people, Effi and Hanno, become companions on the road, teaming up to defend and help each other from the many dangers they meet along the way. 
Leslie is additionally the author of two novels for adults: 'Malefice', a novel of the English witchhunt, published in 1991, and 'The Mountain of Immoderate Desires', which won the Southern Arts Prize in 1997.  Her most recent young adult novel, 'Saving Rafael' (2009) was nominated for the Carnegie Medal and shortlisted for the Lancashire and the Southern Schools book awards. ‘Saving Rafael’ opens grimly in ‘Uckermark Girls’ Concentration Camp, Spring 1944’, where the heroine, Jenny, has been sent. She herself is not Jewish, but she’s in love with her long-term best friend Rafael, who is – and the book heartbreakingly and nail-bitingly describes her and her family’s increasingly desperate and forlorn attempt to protect their old friends and neighbours. I asked Leslie if she could see any fairytale motifs in this book too, and she answered that maybe it is a bit like the stories of girls who undergo hideous sufferings to save their enchanted lovers or husbands – like ‘East of the Sun and West of the Moon’. 
The Bremen Town Musicians: black and white illustration from book of Grimm's fairytales in Leslie Wilson's possession.  Watercolour illustration by Ruth Koser-Michaels, from 'Marchen der Bruder Grimm' 1937, Droemer Knaur, in Katherine Langrish's possession.

[The translation of the German gothic script in the illustration is: "into the room, so that the windowpanes rattled.  The robbers leapt up at the ghastly racket, and were convinced that a ghost was coming in: terrified, they ran out of the house into the forest.  Now the four companions sat down at the table, helped themselves to what was left of the feast, and ate as if they were getting ready for a four weeks fast. When the four musicians had finished, the extinguished the light..."] 

Tuesday 21 August 2012

'MUDDLE AND WIN: The Battle For Sally Jones' by John Dickinson

If I described this book as ‘The Screwtape Letters for children’ I would be both spot on and way, way off at the same time. Because even though it’s about a devil and an angel and their battle to possess, or at least influence, the soul of young Sally Jones, it’s not a religious book.  And therein lies its strength.  John Dickinson is too nuanced a writer to fall for a polarised good/evil view of morality. This is not a story about Sin. Perish the thought. Neither is it a story about Being Saved.  It’s a story about the dark side of the mind – the soul, if you will – and the multifarious ways in which we manage to convince ourselves that we’re in the right and everyone else is being totally unreasonable. And it’s funny, and it’s scary, and it’s very, very sharp in its observations of human nature.

Deep down – deep, deep down, Dickinson suggests – everyone has a dark and fiery place within them, accessible from a trapdoor in one of the backrooms of the mind:

There won’t be much light there, and there’ll be things scattered all over the floor.  Most of it’s stuff you’ve always known about but don’t get out and look at too much.  You start clearing it to one side.   Never mind the dust.  Never mind the smell.  (Listen – even the best-kept minds have rooms like this.)  When you find you’re shifting aside thoughts you would never, ever try to explain to anybody – and there will be some – then you’re in the right place.

Underneath it all there’ll be a trap door.  …If it’s locked, you open it.  You have the key, of course.

I love that sinister last line.  Of course we do.  And below the trap door is a dark void, and at the bottom of that – well, we don’t get anywhere near the bottom, all we get to see is the topmost brass towers of the city of Pandemonium (‘They like brass here’) from which the oddly loveable little imp Muddlespot – up till now merely one of Pandemonium’s cleaners – is despatched to do his best, or worst, to corrupt the incorruptible Sally Jones, a schoolgirl so Good that her LDC (or Lifetime Deed Counter) reads:

                        Lifetime Good Deeds: 3,971,570
            Lifetime Bad Deeds: NIL nil NIL nil NIL nil NIL nil

Sally Jones is a poster girl for Heaven. Not only is she Good, she is Popular (except possibly with her twin sister Billie: no one likes to be shown up that much, do they?). 

Because, if your phone was out of credit, you could borrow Sally’s.  If you’d left your maths homework at school, you could call Sally and she would give you the questions. …Her allowance wasn’t great, but if you needed any of it, it was yours.  She’d hear your lines for the school play. And when all was lost and the Head of Year was bearing down on you and your last alibi was blown, Sally would get you out of it.  Somehow.  Without even lying.

Not surprising, then, that the angelic squadrons scramble in her defence. And Angel Windleberry (‘no one watched more sleeplessly, praised more mightily or fought the good fight more fiercely’) is chosen to become Sally’s guardian angel and put Muddlespot to flight.

But the Battle for Sally Jones turns out to be a lot more complicated than either Muddle or Win could ever have anticipated. For one thing, Sally’s got her own strong views on things. Then there’s her sister Billie’s guardian angel and resident devil, who’ve … reached a certain understanding.  There’s a war to be fought over a batch of muffins.  There’s an amoral cat.  And anyway, is it really good for Sally to be That Good?  And if not, can Good sometimes be Bad?

If I had one tiny niggle with the book at all, it's the role of the fiend Corozin, Muddlespot's master.  I'm not entirely sure how he fits into Sally's psyche, and he's so hands-off during most of the book that his appearance at the end (as arch tempter) feels something of a diabolus ex machina. But that's all it was, a niggle.  It's a huge relief to come across such an intelligent, thought-provoking book for children.  Give it to good readers of ten and up.  And read it yourself. It's fast-moving, vivid and funny, there’s not a dull line in it, and I adored it. I think you will too. 

Muddle and Win, by John Dickinson, will be published next month by David Fickling Books. 

Friday 17 August 2012

Beauty and the Beast

by Juliet Marillier

I’ve loved Beauty and the Beast ever since I discovered it in Andrew Lang’s Blue Fairy Book at the age of eight or so. As a child, I was captured by the magical elements of the story: the mysterious empty house with the meal ready on the table and the bed turned down for the weary traveller; the shock of the Beast’s first appearance; the mirror that allows Beauty to see far away; the cast of invisible retainers; the sixth sense that lets our heroine rush back to her dying Beast just in time to save his life. As a child I was untroubled by the fact that Beauty was so much the victim of her family’s poor judgement. I simply revelled in the spellbinding romance of the story. It was probably that tale, above all, that shaped me into a writer who puts a good love story in every novel!

All my books contain elements of traditional storytelling. I thank both my Celtic ancestry and a perceptive children’s librarian for providing me with a very early passion for myth, legend, fairytale and folklore. Of my twelve novels, three are loosely based on well known fairytales, and the others dip frequently into the cauldron of story that we all share, borrowing themes and motifs from its rich brew and, I hope, adding something new each time to the nourishing contents. I’ll write more later on my use of Beauty and the Beast as the framework for a gothic fantasy-romance for adults, Heart’s Blood (Roc, 2009.) First let’s look at the history of the fairytale itself.

According to fairytale scholar Jack Zipes, the literary development of Beauty and the Beast starts with the Greek myth of Cupid and Psyche, published by Roman writer Apuleius the second century. This story was revived in seventeenth century France, where it became immensely popular, inspiring various re-tellings including a ‘tragédie-ballet’ by Corneille and Molière.

Cupid and Psyche is a story about the perils of female curiosity, and belongs to an oral storytelling tradition featuring mysterious bridegrooms and inquisitive brides. Marry me, the young woman is told, share my bed, but don’t ever light the lamp after night falls. When the curious woman inevitably falls victim to temptation, she loses her husband and may or may not be allowed to win him back by performing a gruelling quest. East of the Sun and West of the Moon is a wonderful example of this kind of tale.

French writers of romances reworked the tale of Cupid and Psyche in various ways, usually incorporating magical transformations, wicked fairies and handsome princes. These tales had the dual function of entertainment and instruction. As with most re-tellings of traditional stories, whether oral or written, the new versions were tailored to their time, culture and readership. In the French romances, the emphasis shifts towards the female protagonist. She must discover the importance of keeping her word, and learn which virtues are most to be valued in a young woman. In addition, she learns that a true hero practises the qualities of courtesy, honour and self-restraint.

Gabrielle de Villeneuve’s elaborate, extended tale of Beauty and the Beast, published in 1740, was the model for most of the later versions. A simpler version, intended for a young audience, was written by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont. Instead of Psyche, who lets her curiosity get the better of her common sense, we have Beauty, a model of daughterly loyalty, sweetness and self-denial. Jack Zipes tells us that in Mme de Villeneuve’s version, Beauty is ready to give up her claim to the Beast/Prince at the end of the story because her own origins are too humble to make her a fit wife for him. The fairies intervene and argue on her behalf, and then, in a real cop-out of an ending, we discover that Beauty is actually adopted, and a princess!

The story most of us are familiar with goes something like this. There’s a widowed merchant with three daughters. They’ve fallen on hard times, and have gone to live in the country where they run a small farm. The two elder daughters are vain and lazy, and spend all their time moaning about the loss of their wealth and status. The youngest daughter, Beauty, is not only lovely to look at, but a paragon of virtue who works hard and never complains despite the selfish behaviour of her sisters. Elder siblings in traditional stories are often shown as less than admirable, while the youngest is generally good and beautiful, though sometimes naive.

Father hears that one of his ships, thought to be lost at sea, has arrived safely in port. He heads off to retrieve the cargo. Before he goes he asks the daughters what gifts they want him to bring home for them. Sisters One and Two ask for jewels, silks and so on. Beauty asks her father to bring her a rose.

On his way home Father is caught in a storm in a forest and seeks shelter in a mysterious castle that seems deserted. Despite the emptiness, lights are blazing and he finds a delicious meal all set out, which he eats. He finds a cosy bed all prepared, and he sleeps. In the morning he wanders into the garden and finds roses blooming. Remembering Beauty’s request, he picks one, and a fearsome Beast appears to tell him his life is forfeit. If not his own, then that of one of his daughters. The Beast lets the father leave on condition that either he or one of his daughters returns within a certain period.

When she hears this, Beauty insists on returning with her father, since it was her request for a rose that caused the trouble. She persuades her father to leave her at the Beast’s castle, and the Beast sends Father home with a chest of riches.

Over the next few months, Beauty is provided with everything she wants, and the Beast comes to eat supper with her every evening. Once Beauty realises the Beast is not fattening her up to eat her, she befriends him, and realises over time that despite his hideous appearance, he is a courteous, thoughtful and charming companion. After some time, Beauty wants to visit her family and the Beast allows her to go for one week. Her sisters, however, conspire to keep her home for longer. They’re jealous of her fine clothes and her happiness, and they are hoping the Beast will get annoyed and devour her!

After ten days, Beauty dreams the Beast is lying in the garden of his castle, almost dead. She is stricken by remorse and realises she cares about him more than she realised. ‘It is neither handsome looks nor intelligence that makes a woman happy. It is good character, virtue, and kindness, and the Beast has all these good qualities.’ (Mme Leprince de Beaumont.)

Beauty rushes back to the castle, finds her dream was indeed true, splashes the Beast’s face with water and tells him she loves him. The Beast disappears, to be replaced by a prince ‘more handsome than Eros himself.’ He explains that Beauty has just undone a wicked witch’s spell, which prevented him from revealing either his looks or his true intelligence until a girl came along who would ‘allow the goodness of my character to touch you.’ A good fairy praises Beauty for preferring virtue over beauty and wit. Beauty and her prince are married, and the two sisters are turned into statues that will stand one at each side of the castle doors until they learn to recognise their faults.

Maybe this tale has its origins in Cupid and Psyche, but the Greek myth’s theme of feminine curiosity has vanished completely from the Beauty and the Beast stories of Mme de Villeneuve and Mme Leprince de Beaumont. The story is no longer about a woman’s inability to respect her lover’s secrets, but has become a tale of virtue and self-denial rewarded; a lesson in feminine behaviour, eighteenth century style. Indeed, reading the Mme de Beaumont version today I find myself rather surprised that I still love the story! Of course, the wonderful magical elements remain, even if the moral lesson is somewhat difficult for a contemporary readership to swallow.

When I used Beauty and the Beast as a framework for my adult novel, Heart’s Blood, I saw the theme of the story as acceptance: learning to accept others with all their flaws, both physical and non-physical; and learning to accept, love and forgive yourself, no matter what your weaknesses and faults. I altered various elements of the story, notably to make my Beauty a less passive person. In my story, both principal characters carry a weight of past trouble. Anluan (Beast) has suffered a stroke in childhood, losing full use of one arm and leg, and has fallen into depression after various family crises. He sees himself as crippled, weak and impotent. Caitrin (Beauty) is on the run from abusive relatives, and is barely holding herself together after a breakdown. So we have a pair of wary, damaged protagonists, each of whom must learn self-acceptance before he/she can reach out to the other. Together they must face an external challenge of massive proportions, as well as confronting their personal demons.

Anluan does not provide a splendid castle, beautiful clothing and sumptuous meals for Caitrin, but he does provide the two things she needs most: a safe place to stay, and paid work in the craft she loves (she’s a scribe.) Caitrin is neither a great beauty nor a paragon of feminine self-denial. Her sense of self-worth has taken a battering. But she has one virtue that allows her to make a difference: she sees every individual as worthy of love, no matter how flawed. In reclaiming others, she finds herself.

I ditched the wicked fairy’s curse and the magical transformation from beast to prince. I’ve always disliked stories in which the hero or heroine must become physically perfect (and wealthy / noble) before the happy ending can occur. For me, it is inner beauty that counts, and the knowledge that everyone is worthy of love. So my Beast has a disability at the start, and he still has it at the end. But by the end, it no longer matters.

I did keep the parts of Beauty and the Beast that I so loved in childhood. Heart’s Blood has a forbidden garden and a rare flower; it has a cast of unusual retainers; it has magic mirrors; it has a visit home and a precipitate return to face a life-and-death crisis. It also has ghosts, Irish history, a library full of ancient documents and a little occult magic. Beauty and the Beast it isn’t. But the strong old bones of my favourite fairytale are there throughout, giving my story its true heart.

And that’s what is so marvellous about fairytales. They’re as ancient as the hills, but they never grow old. As society and culture change, as our world becomes a place Apuleius and Mme Leprince de Beaumont could never have dreamed possible, the wisdom of those tales remains relevant to our lives. Because, of course, the stories change with us. We tell them and re-tell them, and they morph and grow and stretch to fit the framework of our time and culture, just as they did when they were told around the fire after dark in times long past. In this high-speed technological age, an age in which 140 characters are deemed sufficient to transmit a meaningful message, these stories still have much to teach us. We would do well to listen.

Juliet Marillier was born and brought up in Dunedin, New Zealand, and now lives in Western Australia. Her books have won many awards, including the Aurealis (three times) the Sir Julius Vogel Award, and France’s Prix Imaginales. She is a member of the druid order OBOD (the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids), and owns to ‘a lifelong love of traditional stories’. She lives in a hundred year old cottage which she shares with a small pack of waifs and strays. 

Respect, courtesy, courage – the strength of sisterly love and family ties – and a strong dose of the attractions and wild dangers of the Otherworld and the woods. These seem to be some of the recurrent themes of Juliet’s work. And her heroines – Jena of ‘Wildwood Dancing’, Caitrin of ‘Heart’s Blood’ – are intelligent, hardworking, responsible, and brave. They may live in apparently isolated villages or castles, they may enjoy dancing with faerie princes, but they belong to the wider world, they acknowledge links of trade and commerce. They value education, the chance to travel and work. They are, in the best sense, civilized. 
Juliet's latest book for young adults is Shadowfell, the first in a three-book series.  Visit Juliet's website to find out more: or order from Amazon - you can do this via the Steel Thistles link, above, if you'd like to help this blog!

Picture credits: Beauty and the Beast by Walter Crane 
Beauty and the Beast by Rene Cloke

Tuesday 14 August 2012

Folklore Snippets: The Luridan

The Luridan is a sort of brownie or hob from Orkney. Thomas Keightley, in his Fairy Mythology, quotes this account of him from Reginald Scot’s ‘Discoverie of Witchcraft’:
Luridan… did for many years inhabit the island of Pomonia, the largest of the Orkades in Scotland, supplying the place of man-servant and maid-servant with wonderful diligence to those families whom he did haunt, sweeping their rooms and washing their dishes, and making their fires before any were up in the morning.  This Luridan affirmed, that he was the genius astral of that island; that his place or residence in the days of Solomon and David was at Jerusalem; that then he was called by the Jews Belelah; after that, he remainded long in the dominion of Wales, instructing their bards in British poesie and prophecies, being called Wrthin, Wadd, Elgin, ‘and now,’ said he, ‘I have removed hither, and alas! my continuance is but short, for in seventy years I must resign my place to Balkin, lord of the Northern Mountains.’

Many wonderful and incredible things did he also relate of this Balkin, affirming that he was shaped like a satyr, having wife and children to the number of twelve thousand, which were the brood of the Northern fairies, inhabiting Southerland and Catenes [Sutherland and Caithness], with the adjacent islands.  And that these were the companies of spirits that hold continual wars with the fiery spirits in the mountain Heckla, that vomits fire in Islandia [Iceland].  That their speech was ancient Irish, and their dwelling is the caverns of the rocks and mountains, which relation is recorded in the antiquities of Pomonia.

Reginald Scot, Discoverie of Witchcraft, b. 2. c. 4. London 1665

I have no idea where Reginald Scot collected this information and misinformation.  But apparently the obsolete and never-much-used name ‘Pomonia’ or ‘Pomona’, for the largest of the Orkney group, is due to a mistranslation by 16th century Scots historian George Buchanan, a contemporary of Scot’s, so I do wonder if it might have been from him.  

A homely hobgoblin, classical and Biblical references, Welsh bards and Irish poets, and the mysterious Balkin – to say nothing of fire spirits from Hekla - don’t you love the interweaving of legends here?

Picture credit:  Henry Fuseli, 'Cobweb', from a fascinating exhibition on ghosts and spirits at the Goethe Institute

Friday 10 August 2012


Are you sitting comfortably?  Because this is the story of how my blog got its name, as well as being the story of a story.

It’s hardly well known.  I found it because of my habit of picking up shabby-looking books in second hand bookshops: a lovely old book called ‘West Irish Folk-Tales and Romances’ collected and translated by William Larminie (‘with introduction and notes, and appendix containing specimens of the Gaelic originals phonetically spelt.’)  It was published by the Camden Library in 1893.

Larminie, who was born in County Mayo in 1849 and died in 1900, was a minor Irish poet and a folklorist.  He spoke Gaelic, and translated most of the stories in the book from named oral storytellers:

‘All have been taken down in the same way – that is to say, word for word from the dictation of peasant narrators… difficult and doubtful pasts being gone over again and again.  Sometimes the narrator can explain difficulties.  Sometimes other natives of the place can help you.  But after every resource of this kind has been exhausted, a certain number of doubtful words and phrases remain, with regard to which – well, one can only do one’s best.’

He describes his narrators, who come from different districts: this is really fascinating:

“Renvyle… is situated in Connemara... Terence Davis is a labourer pure and simple. A man of about forty-five years of age, and blind in one eye. Some of his tales he got from his mother…

“Next in order, Achill Island, some twenty five miles from Renvyle by sea, more than sixty miles by land.  Two narrators from that locality are … represented in the book.  One of them, Pat. McGrale, is a man of middle age, a cottier with a small holding and besides, a Jack-of-all-trades, something of a boatman and fisherman, ‘a botch of a tailor’, to use his own words, and ready for any odd job.  He can read Irish, but had very little literature on which to exercise his accomplishment.  He knows some long poems by heart, and is possessed of various odds and ends of learning, accurate and not.  John McGinty, a man of Donegal descent and name, has also some land; but his holding is so small that he is to a great extent a labourer for others, and was engaged on relief works when I first came to know him.  He, also, is a middle aged man.  He knows many Ossianic poems by heart, which, he told me, his father taught him, verse by verse…”

It is John McGinty who told William Larminie the story of ‘The King Who Had Twelve Sons’. 

The first thing to be said about this story is that it’s picaresque, episodic, free-moving, fluid.  This is how it begins:

He went down to the river every day and killed a salmon for each one of them.

Who?  Who is this? Who’s ‘them’? What’s going on?  Ah, this is what the King who had Twelve Sons did, of course!  We’ve been flung into the middle of a conversation here.  John (Sean?) McGinty has already introduced the story by its title and plunged straight in.

He saw a duck on the river and twelve young birds with her; and she was beating the twelfth away from her.  He went to the old druid and asked what was the cause why the duck was beating the twelfth bird from her.

“It was this,” said the old druid, “she gave the bird to God and the Djachwi.”

Immediately, the King decides to do the same thing as the duck:

The younger children were running on first to the house, being hungry, and the eldest was coming, reading a book, after them.  The father was standing at the gate on the inside, and he threw him a purse of money and told him he must go seek his fortune, that he gave him to God and the Djachwi. 

The first time I read this, I had no idea what the Djachwi might be.  The story never tells, and the relevant note by Larminie at the back of the book, which might have ventured a guess, had been torn away.  It was only with the help of Charlotte from Charlotte's Library (a truly excellent blog on children's and YA sci-fi and fantasy) and Mr James Nyhan, a colleague of my husband, that I found out.   Charlotte hunted down another copy of the book and actually sent me a photo of the relevant note - here -

- and James sent me a link to an article by a Slovenian folklorist, Monika Kropej: 'The Tenth Child In Folk Tradition' which casts further light on who or what the Djachwi is. It seems that the word stems from the Old Irish word for ten or tenth, and refers to the legend that the tenth child (or in some cases the seventh or twelfth) must roam the world as either a sacrifice to (a tithe) or as a personification of Fate or Destiny.

However that may be, the Djachwi never re-enters the story.  This is merely the kick-start to get the son away from the house and on the road to adventure.  Note that the King is conceived pretty much as any small farmer with a garden and a gate… The son soon takes service under another king: his wages ‘the beast that comes and puts his head in this bridle mine.’  He soon hears news:

“The daughter of the King of the great Wren is to be devoured tomorrow by a piast.” 

Here a footnote explains that a Piast is ‘a Gaelic monster, not exactly equivalent to either serpent or dragon.’  There’s no explanation about the Wren, though, and the lad’s informant continues with great and realistic unconcern:

“Was it in a wood or a hole in the ground you’ve been, that you didn’t hear it? Gentle and simple of the three islands are to be there tomorrow to look at the piast swallowing her – at twelve o’ clock tomorrow.”

Naturally, the lad goes riding to save her.

He called for his second best suit of clothes, and it came to him with a leap; and he shook the bridle, and the ugliest pony in the stables came to him and put her head in the bridle.  “Be up riding on me with a jump” (said the pony)… He gave his face to the way and he would overtake the wind of March that was before him, and the wind of March that was after would not overtake him.

The princess is saved, and in a Cinderella-like motif, the lad is identified as her rescuer by his boot, which she had seized as he rode past her. The pair are married: ‘They spent that night part in talking and part in storytelling’: it sounds an idyllic union: but the very next day the lad finds a pearl of gold upon the beach, and the druid (remember him?) tells him it belongs to “the daughter of a king of the eastern world, who lost it from her hair; - that there was a pearl of gold on every rib of her hair”.

The lad wants to find her.

The pony told him that she was hard to see.  “There are seven miles of hill on fire to cross before you come to where she is, and there are seven miles of steel thistles, and seven miles of sea for you to go over. I told you to have nothing to do with the apple.” 

And that's why this blog is called Seven Miles of Steel Thistles. This traditional set of difficulties (there's another variant from Scotland in which the hero has to cross 'seven bens and seven glens and seven mountain moors) strikes me as a pretty good metaphor for the difficulties of writing - as well as for life itself. But anyhow. Note that the lad’s advisor has morphed from the druid to the pony in the space of a couple of sentences.  We’re now a long way from the boy’s father, the eponymous King Who Had Twelve Sons: we’ve had two kings already and are about to meet a third, while the boy is about to collect a second princess.  He leaps the pony into the castle where she lives, catches her up and leaps out with her, and takes her home.  The pony is turned into a rock, which can turn to a pony again if struck with a ‘rod of druidism’. 

Now there are two women in the castle:

And the young queen he married did not know… till the hen-wife told her.  “Well!” said the hen-wife.  “He has no regard for you beside the other.  There is an apple of gold on every rib of hair upon her head.”  

On the hen-wife’s advice, the young queen plays cards with the lad till he loses, and she commands him to bring her ‘the black horse of the bank’. ( Could this be a water horse?  There’s no knowing).  The lad brings the pony back to life, and the pony fights the black horse and brings it home.

At this point, I don’t know about you, but I’m on the side of the young queen who was rescued from the Piast.  I’m expecting this to be her story now.  And so it is, for a while.  She and her husband continue to play cards and send each other on tit-for-tat errands.  The queen has to fetch for him ‘the three black ravens that are in the eastern world’, and succeeds, helped by friendly giants: but – feeling contrary no doubt, and who would blame her? – releases them, once her husband has seen them:

“If I promised to bring them to you, I did not promise to give them to you.”

Now, however, the young man is irritated by the henwife’s interference.  He summons her and sends her off to ‘the Gruagach of the Apple, and bring …the sword of light that is with the King of Rye’. 

Are you still with me?  Still keeping up with the storyteller John McGinty as he leaps from character to character – from King to lad, from lad to queen, from queen to hen-wife – agile as a man crossing a river on stepping stones?

The hen-wife succeeds in her task with the help of a friendly smith (and the loss of both the tips of her little fingers) and brings back the sword. 

Now then!  Surely it’s time for this story to spring back on itself and wrap everything neatly up at last!  But what do we get?  A row of asterisks:

*        *        *        *        *        *       
And a footnote:

‘The narrator’s memory failed him at this point, and he was unable to relate the further developments of this remarkable game of plot and counterplot.  Although the hen-wife was successful in the last event mentioned, it must be inferred that she was ultimately defeated.' 

All John McGinty could remember of the rest of the story was the last, disconnected and downbeat sentence:

And when the first wife saw the second wife with her own eyes, she could esteem herself no longer, and she died of a broken heart.

Here are some asterisks of my own:

*        *        *        *        *         *

Why have I spent so much time telling you about this story – when John McGinty himself couldn’t remember what happened?  What’s the good of a story (as Alice might say) with no proper ending?

To me, the good of it is that it reminds us of the process by which all fairytales have come down to us.  Though there are many good oral storytellers today, as there are many good folk and ballad singers – and I’ve tried my hand at both – we’d have to confess that the immediate origin of most of our stories and songs is from books.

I’m terribly impressed by the honesty which led William Larminie to include this story in his collection.  It starts promisingly, it’s got many intriguing developments – but in the end, we don’t know what happens.  We never will know.  John McGinty forgot. 

And perhaps, who knows? another night, a week or two later, stung by his failure to tell the story all the way through, John McGinty did remember the ending, but Larminie wasn’t there.  Or perhaps he strung on to it the ending of some other story, which could be appropriately altered to fit.  Or perhaps he made something up out of his own head. That’s the way oral storytelling works: it isn’t fixed, it isn’t canonical.  This broken telling is ‘authentic’. 

If I added an ending of my own, it wouldn’t be authentic at all. 

Or would it? 

“This story is true,” as one of the other tales in the book concludes.  “All the other ones are lies.”

Picture credit: Arthur Rackham, frontispiece to 'Irish Fairy Tales' by James Stephens,

Monday 6 August 2012

Folklore snippets: 'Another Troy'?

Homes on the Great Blasket, Ida M Flower, c. 1920

From ‘The Western Island’ by Robin Flower, Oxford 1944, an account of the writer’s experiences visiting and staying on the Great Blasket between 1910 and 1935.  Until 1953, the inhabitants of Great Blasket Island formed the most westerly settlement in Ireland. This small fishing community of less than 150 people lived in little cottages perched on the relatively sheltered north-east shore. In 1953 the Irish Government evacuated the islanders.

A story from Tomás ó Crithin:

‘When I was a young man growing up, it was a different world from the world we have today.  There was no silent drinking then into the tavern and out of it without a word said, but you would be walking the road and the tavern-door would open, and you would go in. There would be as many as twenty men in the room drinking, and every man that came in he would not go out without singing a song or telling a tale.  …The country was full to the lid of songs and stories, and you would not put a stir out of you from getting up in the morning to lying down at night but you would meet a poet, man or woman, making songs on all that would be happening. It is not now as it was then, but it is like a sea on ebb, and only pools left here and there among the rocks.  And it is a good thought of us to put down the songs and stories before they are lost from the world for ever.’

And so, he sitting on one side of the table, rolling a savoury sprig of dillisk round and round in his mouth to lend a salt flavour to his speech, and I diligently writing on the other side, the picture of the Island’s past grew from day to day under our hands.  At times I would stop him as an unfamiliar world or strange twist of phrase struck across my ear, and he would courteously explain it… Thus on one occasion, the phrase ‘the treacherous horse that brought destruction on Troy’ came into a song.

‘And what horse was that?’ I said.

‘It was the horse of wood,’ he answered, ‘that was made to be given to the King that was over Troy.  They took it with them and brought it into the middle of the city, and it was lovely to look upon.  It was in that city Helen was, she that brought the world to death; every man that used to come with a host seeking her, there would go no man of them safe home without falling because of Helen before the city of Troy.  It was said that the whole world would have fallen by reason of Helen that time if it had not been for the thought this man had, to give the horse of wood to the King.  There was an opening in it unknown to all, two men in it, and it full of powder and shot.  When the horse was in the middle of the city, and every one of them weary from looking at it, a night of the nights my pair opened the horse and out with them. They brought with them their share of powder and shot.  They scattered it here and there through the city in the deep night; they set fire to it and left not a living soul in Troy that wasn’t burnt that night.’

Derelict homes on The Great Blasket Island, Co. Kerry, Ireland.

Friday 3 August 2012

The Master-Maid: the role of women and girls in fairyland

by Ellen Renner

Recently, during a school visit, an eleven-year-old boy said he found my book Castle of Shadows 'girly' and asked, 'Did I mean it to be that way?'

I was, frankly, horrified. Castle of Shadows is about love and hate, power and powerlessness, politics and science. Charlie, the main character, is the least frilly princess imaginable. In a reversal of the fairy-tale tradition, she is the hero and her helper a boy. When I invited him to imagine the exact same sequence of events with a boy as the main character, my questioner had to admit that there was nothing intrinsically feminine in either plot or themes. It appeared that the thing preventing him from identifying with the story was that fact that it had a girl protagonist who, moreover, was a princess.

He went on to ask many more lively and interesting questions, but the incident remains with me as an example of the truism that, while girls will happily read books where the main character is a boy, the same cannot be said for boys. Which begs the question: Why?

Are girls innately more empathetic? Are there biological and evolutionary reasons which tend to make men see women as 'other', while women sometimes identify so strongly with those they love that they can lose their own sense of self? Or is the reason cultural: the fact that active female protagonists – female 'heroes' – are so hard to find in our stories and cultural myths? If the boy in that school had grown up with stories and cultural myths where 'heroes' are girls as often as boys, would he have had the same reaction to my book?

Castle of Shadows began as a fairy-tale: a missing queen, a forgotten princess, a mad king who neglects both daughter and kingdom, the corrupting desire for power. I was aware of these fairy-tale elements from the moment of inception and also of my own ambivalence towards them. I was particularly wary of having a princess for a main character. Fairy-tale princesses held little charm for me as a child.

I read mythology, folk lore and fairy-tales voraciously, yet certain tales felt inappropriate and even irritating long before I was capable of analysing why that might be. They annoyed me in the same way Barbie dolls did. These were the stories featuring passive girls, usually born or destined to become princesses, like Sleeping Beauty or Cinderella. Girls whose physical attractiveness was the sum of their identity; girls who were not so much protagonists as prizes.

I yearned for heroines I could identify with and aspire to be like. Girls who DID things. Who underwent hardship and suffering and overcame the odds by use of their own wit or courage. And I found Gerta in Andersen's The Snow Queen and the brave sister in the Grimms tale, The Six Swans. I found Gretel in Hansel and Gretel; Janet in Tam Lin; and the redoubtable, spendidly named Molly Whuppie – the female Jack who bests her giant. Molly may marry and disappear into  'happy-ever-after', but you know she will go on dominating life just the same.

I had a more complicated reaction, no doubt because of the darker themes of forced marriage and the bestial interpretation of male sexuality, to tales such as Mossy Coat, The Black Bull of Norroway, and East of the Sun, West of the Moon, but I still admired the courage and cleverness of the heroines. In these tales, a young woman is forced to perform nearly impossible tasks in order to recover a lost fiancé or husband, and sometimes their children. She succeeds with the help of magical advisers and gifts.

Similar, but missing out the forced marriage aspect, are versions of The Master-Maid as told by Andrew Lang in The Blue Fairy Book. This tale and its variants, including Sweetheart Roland, Nix-Nought-Nothing and The Battle of the Birds, are classified, by those who enjoy such things, as 'girl helps hero flee' (Arne-Thompson type 313). It's a strange classification, since the heroes in these stories are less interesting than the heroines. The 'helpers' are the true protagonists. These heroines have no advisers, are given no gifts. They succeed by dint of their own magical abilities, courage and cleverness. These are witches, one and all; daughters of ogres or giants, who wield far more power than than their mortal lovers.

In The Master-Maid, the king's youngest son goes off into the world to seek his fortune and takes employment with an evil giant. The giant sets him three impossible tasks which the prince is only able to complete by following the advice of the Master-Maid. 'Master' here means skilled, and the young woman is obviously a magician employed as a servant by the giant. Their relationship is never explained. (In some versions, she is the Giant's daughter.) The giant, suspecting her involvement, orders her to kill the prince and cook him for his supper. Master-Maid pretends to obey, but when the giant falls asleep, she puts her plan into action:

So the Master-Maid took a knife, and cut the Prince's little finger, and dropped three drops of blood upon a wooden stool; then she took all the old rags, and shoe-soles, and all the rubbish she could lay hands on, and put them in the cauldron; and then she filled a chest with gold dust, and a lump of salt, and a water-flask which was hanging by the door, and she also took with her a golden apple, and two gold chickens; and then she and the Prince went away with all the speed they could ...

Of course, the giant wakes, is fooled for a short time by the three drops of blood, who answer his calls in the Master-Maid's voice. He tastes the mess in the cauldron; the game is up and he gives chase. This pursuit was always my favourite part, but I prefer the version in The Battle of the Birds, taken from The Well at the World's End, Folk Tales of Scotland retold by Norah and William Montgomerie:

 ...the giant jumped out of bed and, finding the Prince and his bride had gone, ran after them.
In the mouth of the day, the giant's daughter said her father's breath was burning her neck.
'Quickly, put your hand in the grey filly's ear!' said she.

'There's a twig of blackthorn,' said he.
'Throw it behind you!' said she.
No sooner had he done this than there sprang up twenty miles of blackthorn wood, so thick that a weasel could not go through.

The giant is delayed while he chops the wood down, but he's soon after them again:

'In the heat of the day, the giant's daughter said: 'I feel my father's breath burning my neck. Put your hand in the filly's ear, and whatever you find there, throw it behind you!'

He found a splinter of grey stone, and threw it behind him. At once there sprang up twenty miles of grey rock, high and broad as a range of mountains. The giant came full pelt after them, but past the rock he could not go.

He is delayed again as he digs through the rock, but the lovers' respite is brief and she once more instructs him to reach into the filly's ear:
This time he found a thimble of water. He threw it behind him, and at once there was a fresh-water loch, twenty miles in length and breadth.
The giant came on, but was running so quickly he did not stop till he was in the middle of the loch, where he sank and did not come up.

The giant defeated, the lovers reach the Prince's home, but their trouble is not over. The Master-Maid warns him: '... if you go home to the King's palace you will forget me, I forsee that.' But the stubborn Prince insists. And as though he were a mortal venturing into the fairy realm, she instructs him not to speak to anyone there, and especially not to eat any food, or else he will forget her. Of course, he eats and forgets. In the second half of the tale, she must use all her magic to cancel the spell and win back her beloved.
Most tales about the winning back of a lover or husband put the blame for his forgetfulness onto women: the mother and daughter troll; the hag and the enchantress. Only in darker versions of Sweetheart Roland do we find the heroine killing both rival witch and straying betrothed. In all other cases, it is only the rival women who are killed. From The Master-Maid:

So the Prince knew her again, and you may imagine how delighted he was. He ordered the troll-witch who had rolled the apple to him to be torn in pieces between four-and-twenty horses, so that not a bit of her was left ...

This is the first mention in the story that the young lady is a troll. It seems rather stiff punishment for proffering an apple to a man who takes your fancy, but such are the rules of fairy-tales.

As for hags, in these as in most fairy-tales, elderly women come in for harsh treatment, which doubtless says much about the social attitudes of the times in which they were written. The Master-Maid needs somewhere to live in order to win back her man, and when she spies a little hut in a small wood near the King's palace, she more or less moves in:

The hut belonged to an old crone, who was also an ill-tempered and malicious troll. At first she would not let the Master-Maid remain with her; but at last, after a long time, by means of good words and good payment, she obtained leave.

The crone is less pleased when the Master-maid starts redecorating:

The old crone did not like this either. She scowled, and was very cross, but the Master-maid did not trouble herself about that. She took out her chest of gold, and flung a handful of it or so into the fire, and the gold boiled up and poured out over the whole of the hut, until every part of it both inside and out was gilded. But when the gold began to bubble up the old hag grew so terrified that she fled as if the Evil One himself were pursuing her, and she did not remember to stoop down as she went through the doorway, and so she split her head and died.

Such is the fate of hags and crones. They are either trolls to be killed or, more rarely, advisers whom the heroine would be wise to listen to.

The best of all hags must be Baba Yaga, as powerful as she is terrifying; who eats stupid girls but offers the wise and brave ones power and life. Lucy Coats has done an excellent post on Baba Yaga and my favourite fairy-tale heroine, Vasilisa.

I can't leave hags behind without mentioning a modern fairy-tale, the brilliant 'Howl's Moving Castle', in which Diana Wynne Jones takes the motif of the fairy-tale hag and turns it on its head from the inspired moment in the book when she transforms her protagonist into an aged crone, which she remains for much of the novel. Wynne Jones knows, as all women do, that there is little difference between heroine and crone. Time's slight-of-hand – a malicious magic – and the princess becomes the hag.

In most fairy-tales, the heroine's ultimate reward is marriage, whereupon her adventures cease. But then, so do the hero's.

As for my own heroine, the princess Charlotte, I grew to know her better as I wrote the book. Like the Master-Maid and Molly Whuppie, she is girl who knows her own mind. She is, like all girls, the heroine of her own life, not merely a prize or a helper, and her story needed to reflect that reality. Castle of Shadows is no fairy-tale. Charlie resembles the real life queen, Elizabeth the First, far more than she ever will Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty. In the passing of time, she will grow to become a wise and powerful crone. And like that monarch (for Charlie is a queen now too), she may be destined never to know what happens in the land of 'happy-ever-after'.

Ellen Renner was born in the USA, in the Ozark Mountains of Missouri, but came to England looking for adventure, married here, and now lives in an old house in Devon with her husband and son. Her first book, ‘Castle of Shadows’ (2010) is set in an alternate world similar to nineteenth century England, in a city not unlike London.  Young Charlie (Charlotte) is the Princess of Quale.  Years ago her mother the Queen – a notable scientist – mysteriously vanished. Her eccentric father the King spends all his time building ever more elaborate card-castles.  Neglected and hungry, bullied by the housekeeper, Charlie runs wild and scrambles at will over the roofs of the castle, her only friend the gardener’s boy, Toby – until the day when the suavely intelligent Prime Minister, Alistair Windlass, begins to take an interest in her.  But is he a true friend, or does he have some other motive for turning Charlie back into an educated, well-dressed, 'proper' princess?  

‘City of Thieves’ continues Charlie’s story, with further focus on her friend Toby and his efforts to escape both the family of thieves who claim him as their own, and the machinations of the sinister yet strangely attractive Windlass.  Quale is in deadly danger – and Charlie and Toby are forced to take opposite sides.

The plotting is delightfully complex: more twists and turns than a chain-link fence.  These are books hard to categorise – a fantasy world with no magic, a hint of steam-punk, lots of interesting politics, some fearsome inventions, and brilliant characters you really care about.  Ellen’s writing is reminiscent of Joan Aiken’s.  If only one could introduce characters from one author’s books to another’s!  How I’d love to see tough, passionate Charlie meet Aiken’s irrepressible gamine, Dido Twite...

Picture credits:
'The Black Bull of  Norroway', by John Lawrence, from 'The Blue Fairy Book',
1975'Molly Whuppie' by unknown 19th century (?) illustrator at this link:
'East of the Sun, West of the Moon' by Henry Justice Ford

'The Giant in The Master Maid' by John D Batten

'Mollie Whuppie and her Sisters' by Errol le Cain