Friday, 28 September 2012

The Princess As Role Model

by Gwyneth Jones

I’ve always been attracted to fairytales. I knew I was a storyteller long before I knew I’d be a writer: I took on my father’s mantle, and told epic bedtime stories to my brother and sister, at an early age, and my father’s stories (also epic, endless episodes from the same saga, about the same characters) were all based on a traditional tale, the one about a girl who finds out that she once had seven brothers, who were banished and turned into crows when she was born. It has many variants, but from internal evidence the original must be the Moroccan one (The Girl Who Banished Seven). Naturally, she sets off to find them and rescue them from the enchantment. That’s typical of a fairytale princess (she’s one of those who becomes a princess by marriage, but it’s all the same to me). They do the right thing. They stand up to evil step-mothers, and no task is impossible...

As a child I was small, podgy, clumsy and, worst of all, I was obviously going to pass that dreaded public exam called “The 11 Plus”, and go to Grammar School. I felt for the princesses in the fairytales. First they tell you you’ve been awarded fairy gifts (which you never asked for) and then wham, you’re plunged into bizarre vindictive hardship. Your mother dies, you end up sleeping in the ashes, washing bloody linen in a cave, knitting nettle shirts on a bonfire, wearing out your iron boots over razor sharp glass mountains. But I admired them too, and found them a tremendous comfort. They were so tough, so resourceful, and so decent. When everyone (not least the other little girls I knew) was telling me you are second-rate, they made me proud to be a girl. As I nursed my little bullied self home from school, by the most unobtrusive route, I thought about Cinderella. Elle s’estoit bien, says Perrault, and I wanted to be that person. To behave well, to stand up and be proud. (I knew it worked, too. The best way to frustrate a bully is to stay cheerful; be nice. It drives them absolutely nuts.)

When I was a child I responded to the bizarre adventures, the cheerful feats of endurance, the unstoppable can-do attitude of those privileged, yet beleaguered, young women. As I grew up the stories grew with me. I realised that the princess complex is a trap, it’s pure social propaganda. But I still loved the princesses, and the princes, themselves, and honoured their traditions when I started writing my own fantasy stories (published, long afterwards, as Seven Tales And A Fable). I honoured the stories, and I still do. I saw that they were more than lessons in docility, more than comforting, greedy daydreams. They were beautiful, ancient vessels, full of buried treasure. It was a very old, profound and lovely princess-story, re-written as a fantasy novel by a modern writer —'Till We Have Faces', C.S.Lewis—, that inspired me to write 'Snakehead', my own re-imagining of the story of Perseus and Andromeda.

Perseus and Andromeda - a wall painting from Pompei.  The dignified classical take.

'Till We Have Faces' is based on Eros and Psyche, one of the greatest of the Greek myths, and yet the story is familiar from many fairytales. A princess finds her prince and loses him. She fights her way back to his side by overcoming the fiendish magical  challenges devised by a spiteful royal mother-in-law—

Seven long years I served for thee
The glassy hill I clamb for thee
The bluidy shirt I wrang for thee
Wilt thou not wake and turn to me?

(The Black Bull Of  Norroway)

Perseus and Andromeda is another myth, perhaps the greatest of them all, with instant popular appeal. The hero-tale of Perseus fits in anywhere! There’s this kid, you see, brought up by his single mother, goes to High School or whatever, and then one day some supernatural beings come along. They tell him his father was a Greek God, they give him a magic sword and flying sandals, they send him off to kill a terrifying monster. He’s tall, strong and handsome! He has superpowers! He’s a teen with a mission! Oh, hey, and there’s a flying horse—

Unexpectedly, things get even better if you’re looking to write a novel rather than a comic book. The story of Perseus has complexity, it has texture. There’s the grim soap-opera of his parentage —why Danae of the shower of gold was locked up; how Zeus, the ruthless, randy chief of the Olympians, just couldn’t resist a challenge; how  Perseus’s charming grandfather put both mother and child in a box and had them thrown into the sea. There’s the unconventional little family group on the island of Seriphos: Danae and her son, washed up on the shore, living under the protection of Dictys the fisherman. Whose brother is the island’s tyrant king. Imagine this boy, knowing he’s different, but with nothing to show for it, no rank, no riches. Imagine him finding out that his biological father (he’s not impressed by divine status, of course; he’s family himself) is a ruthless Mr Big who raped his mother. He knows he’s been protected at least once from certain death. He must be wondering, as he grows up, what his selfish brute of a Divine Father saved him for.  Nothing good, you can bet...  And then there’s Dictys. Imagine the boy’s relationship with the fisherman, who has brought him up, and never (not in any of the accounts) put a disrespectful move on Danae. He’s been a true father. Dictys seems to be a man of peace, since he’s able to live and let live, with his wicked brother on the throne. How is his adopted son really going to feel, when the Messenger of the Gods, and the Goddess Athini waylay him on the road, and tell him he has to chop off the Gorgon’s Head? This Gorgon who was once a woman, too  beautiful for her own good, like Danae. Who was turned into a monster, to punish her for having been raped...

So it goes on, a wonderful story: the work of many hands, over thousands of years, and yet still alive, still growing, still inviting new storytellers to weave new patterns into the web. There’s only one weak point, and that’s the traditional centrepiece, where our hero finds his true princess, and has to win her by beating a string of awful vindictive challenges, thrown down by the malign Gods—

It’s weak because it doesn’t happen.

Andromeda and Perseus - by Ingres.  The prurient neoclassical take.

Andromeda isn’t a character. She’s not even as much of a character as the prince in 'The Black Bull Of Norroway'. She’s a name, and a predicament. Perseus doesn’t struggle to win her. He just passes by, on the way home from his questing work, swinging the Gorgon’s Head by the hair (not very safe! But that’s how it looks in all the pictures), and picks up a half-naked princess; like a pizza or a sandwich.

In my opinion, this just won't do!

Perseus and Andromeda - by Burne-Jones.  The OTT macho Pre-Raphaelite take.

In 'Till We Have Faces' C.S.Lewis keeps his distance from the two principals, who represent, without much disguise, the human soul and the God of Love. His characters are the lesser figures. His protagonist is one of Psyche’s jealous sisters —a woman who barely exists in the original narrative. In 'Snakehead', I took the liberty of inventing the character of Andromeda, a weaver and a scholar (her name means Ruler of Men, or else Thinker) and switched things around so that she and Perseus have some previous history, before Andromeda is chained to the rock; before Perseus wanders along to slay the dragon. It just makes more sense, if Perseus knows he’s coming to the rescue of a princess; if he intends to claim her hand in marriage. It makes more sense to me personally, too. A generation ago, great writers and editors like Jane Yolen, Ellen Datlow reclaimed the traditional heritage: dismissing soft-focus, Disneyfied Snow White and Cinderella, rediscovering grim truths and quick-witted, resourceful heroines. That’s fine, that’s excellent work. But what I’ve wanted to do is to reclaim the relationships. To bring the prince and the princess together, instead of sending them off on segregated initiation trials. To let them meet as human beings, as friends, and fight side by side.

The story on record says Andromeda had to be sacrificed to punish her mother, queen Cassiopeia —who had boasted that her daughter was more lovely than a sea-nymph, and thus offended Poseidon, the God of Ocean and of Earthquakes. I don’t believe it. Child sacrifice was absolutely rife, around the shores of the Ancient Mediterranean. (Take a closer look at your Old Testament, if you don’t believe me). I’ll bet you anything it wasn’t a one-off occasion. I bet there was a lottery, and the children of the rich were usually spared, but then the queen’s political opponents decided Andromeda’s number was up. A powerful woman like Cassiopeia could have been an annoying relic of the old ways, in the days of the original story —when the Mediterranean World was leaving female-ordered civilisation behind, and patriarchal tribal rule was taking over.What would a princess do, if she found out she’d been drafted? Run for it, of course. And then what would she do, if she was a real princess; and knew some other poor girl would have to die in her place? She’d run back, of course. No matter who tried to stop her, no matter if she’d fallen in love.

Leaving Perseus with his repellent, murderous quest: a terrible choice, and just the inklings of a desperate plan—

The story of Perseus and Andromeda is the story of the founders of Homer’s Mycenae: well built Mycenae, rich in gold... way back in the Bronze Age. And from Mycenae, the baton was handed on to Athens, the cradle of western civilisation; making them a fairly significant couple, in the scheme of human history. (And by the way, Perseus and Andromeda did live happily ever after, which makes them unique among pairs of lovers featured in the Greek Myths) But is that all? The deeper I looked into the history of the  Medusa, terrible to look upon, snakehaired monster, and into the history of the mighty Goddess Athini, whose name means Mind, the more they seemed to reflect each other. As if Medusa and Mind were the two faces of one truth—

Did I catch a glimpse of the original, brilliant storyteller, telling me something timeless and profound? About that mysterious birthright gift, first freely given and then painfully earned, that lies at the heart of fairytale? Maybe, maybe not. I don’t know. I’m just a storyteller, seeing pictures in the fire. Pictures that, now as then, sometimes seem playful, sometimes serious, and sometimes seem to tell me eternal things.

Here’s some writing on fairytales, and some free stories:
And here’s the Snakehead page

Gwyneth Jones is a brilliant writer of adult science fiction.  ‘Bold As Love’, which won the Arthur C Clarke Award in 2002 is the first of a series of five books about a near-future Britain where society is in meltdown.  There’s a violent environmental movement, an Islamist uprising in the north, a subtle but nasty dose of black magic, and a complex relationship between the main characters – three charismatic, damaged and idealistic young rock stars who become the country’s reluctant saviours and leaders of a new government, the 'Rock and Roll Reich'.  The books are rich in romance, horror, and a deeply felt version of British landscape, history and myth.  

Under the name Ann Halam, Gwyneth also writes YA fantasy, science fiction and horror.  I’ve already talked on this blog about ‘King Death’s Garden’, a ghost story which is funny as well as very frightening. Then there’s ‘The N.I.M.R.O.D. Conspiracy’, in which a boy, haunted by the little sister who drowned while in his care, begins to think – with reason – that she may still be alive. And ‘Siberia’, a haunting and beautiful book about a girl who journeys across a frozen and repressive land carrying a ‘nut’ full of mysterious secret seeds. ‘Snakehead’, Orion 2007, is a marvellous retelling of the legend of Perseus and Andromeda.

Photo credits:
Perseus and Andromeda: a wall painting from Pompei, The National Museum of Naples.
Perseus and Andromeda: by Ingres 
Perseus nd Andromeda by Edward Burne-Jones


  1. I loved 'Till We Have Faces' too. It was the first adult book I ever read, thinking I was going to get another Narnia book, and I feel it was one of those books which helped shape my love of retellings of myth & fairy tale. Your book sounds wonderful, Gwyneth - I'll look out for it.

  2. 'Til We Have Faces must be a right of initiation for myth-lovers.

    I'll be looking out for Snakehead as well.