Tuesday 30 October 2012

Stolen by the Fairies

From ‘The Western Island’ by Robin Flower, Clarendon Press, 1944
A tale of Tomàs O Crithin from the Great Blasket

It is not so long ago (said he), that a woman of my mother’s kin, the O’Sheas, was taken, and when I was young I knew people who had seen her.  She was a beautiful girl, and she hadn’t been married a year when she fell sick, and she said that she was going to die, and that if she must die she would rather be in the home in which she had spent her life than in a strange house where she had been less than a year.  So she went back to her mother’s house, and very soon she died and was buried. She hadn’t been buried more than a year when her husband married again, and he had two children by his second wife.  But one day there came a letter with a seal on it.

It was from a farmer that lived in the neighborhood of Fermoy.  He said that now for some months, when the family would go to bed at night in his farm, if any food were left out they would find it gone in the morning. And at last he said to himself that he would find out what it was that came at night and took the food.  So he sat up in the corner of the kitchen one night, and in the middle of the night the door opened and a woman came in, the most beautiful woman he had ever seen with his eyes, and she came up the kitchen and lifted the bowl of milk they had left out, and drank of it.  He came between her and the door, and she turned to him and said that this was what she had wanted. So he asked her who she was, and she said that she came from the liss at the corner of his farm, where the fairies kept her prisoner. They had carried her off from a place in Ventry parish, and left a changeling in her place, and the changeling had died and been buried in her stead.

She said that the farmer must write to her people and say that she was in the liss with the fairies, and that she had eaten none of the food of the fairies, for if once she ate of their food she must remain with them for ever till she died… and when he wrote to her people he must ask her mother if she remembered one night when her daughter lay sick, and the mother was sitting by the fire, and thinking so, she had forgotten everything else, and the edge of her skirt had caught fire. …If she remembered that night, it would be a token for her, for on that night her daughter had been carried off, and the fire in her mother’s skirt was the last thing she remembered of her life on earth.  And when she said this she went out through the door, and the farmer saw her no more.

So the next day he wrote the letter as she had told him.  But her people did nothing, for they feared that if they brought her back, there would be trouble because of the new wife and her two children.  And she came again and again to the farmer, and he wrote  seven letters with seals, and the neighbours all said it was a shame to them to leave her with the fairies in the liss; and the husband said it was a great wrong to leave his wife in the liss, and whatever trouble it would bring, they should go and fetch her out of the liss.  So they set out, her own people and her husband, and when they had gone as far as Dingle, they said they would go and ask the advice of the priest.

So they went to the priest that was there at that time, and they told him the story from beginning to end.  And when he heard the story, he said that it was a hard case, and against the law of the church. And the husband said that, when they had brought the woman out of the liss, he would not bring her back with him to make scandal in the  countryside, but would send her to America, and would live with his second wife and her children.  But the priest said that even if man’s wife were in America, she was still his wife, and it was against the law of the Pope that a man should have two wives; and, though it was a hard thing, they must leave her in the liss with the fairies, for it was a less evil that she should eat the fairy bread and be always with the fairies than that God’s law should be broken and a man have two wives living in this world.

They found nothing to say against the priest, and they went back home sorrowing.  And when the woman heard this from the farmer she went back to the fairies to the liss, and ate their bread and remained with them.

Picture credit:
Take the Fair Face of Woman, and Gently Suspending, With Butterflies, Flowers, and Jewels Attending, Thus Your Fairy is Made of Most Beautiful Things - by Sophie Gengembre Anderson (1823-1903)

Friday 26 October 2012

Dick Whittington and His Cat: (or The Magic of Cats)

by Nick Green

Turn again, Whittington, Lord Mayor of London!
Turn again, Whittington, thrice Mayor of London!

Is ‘Dick Whittington and his Cat’ really a fairytale? I’m going to call it one. Even though there is no actual magic (but see below), most of the ingredients are there: the poor and naive youth, the quest, the hardship, and at least a semi-supernatural element in the prophecy of the Bow Bells, calling the young Whittington back from Highgate Hill. I would argue that ‘Dick Whittington’ is not just a fairytale, but a particularly interesting one, being the only one (to my knowledge) that features a real person.

The historical Richard Whittington, of course, was Lord Mayor a total of four times (but legend ignores that as it doesn’t scan). Also, he was never particularly poor, and no-one knows if he really kept a cat. According to my diligent academic research (Wikipedia), the story’s origins lie further back, in a Persian folktale of a youth and his cat, onto which the legend of Whittington was later grafted. We can only guess the reason for this, but by all accounts Richard W was an all-round good egg and probably deserved it.

DW and C (as I shall write henceforth) is a simple enough yarn. A young lad comes to London seeking his fortune, following a rumour that the streets are paved with gold. Of course, they aren’t, and he ends up as a scullery boy. But his master is a merchant, and offers a place on his ship for anything that Dick might want to sell. All Dick has is his beloved cat, so reluctantly he sends that. Then, despairing of his fortune and missing his cat, Dick runs away, only to be checked on the edge of the city by the calling of the Bow Bells, who seem to be foretelling his future. He will become Lord Mayor of London, not once, but three times. Dick turns back, and arrives at his master’s house to astonishing news. The King of Barbary (whose kingdom is plagued by rats and mice) has bought his cat for a huge sum of gold. Dick’s fortune in made, and his destiny set in motion.

It’s a heartwarming story, but what makes it a fairytale? Someone being elected to high office three times isn’t a fairytale – that’s Margaret Thatcher. Even the prophetic bells aren’t really enough to elevate this story to the level of fairytale. There has to be another element that makes it so enduring.

Let’s face it. It’s the cat.

Think of the story of DW and C, and it’s always the same image: the youth treading the roads with his belongings in a sack on a stick, and a cat trotting faithfully beside him. If that animal were a dog, you’d have no story. ‘Dog follows human’ is not news. ‘Cat walks with human’ is the stuff of legend (unless your name is Jackie Morris). And the cat is what people remember. I mentioned before that no cats are recorded in the life of the historical Richard Whittington – and yet the creature still keeps popping up in tantalising glimpses, much as you’d expect a cat to do. In his will, Whittington ordered the rebuilding of Newgate Prison, and over one of the gates you could find the carving of a cat. Later, in 1572, Whittington’s heirs presented a chariot with a carved cat to the Merchants’ Guild. And in front of the Whittington Hospital, on Highgate Hill where Dick was said to have turned around, the cat keeps watch in the form of a statue. Despite all his philanthropy and good works – not to mention his real, provable existence – Whittington’s perhaps-mythical cat has effortlessly outlasted him. It’s not fair, is it?

In the story, it’s the cat that fills the role normally occupied in a fairytale by magic. It manages this even though it does nothing extraordinary – it doesn’t talk or dress up like the animal in Puss In Boots, it just goes around being a very good mouser and Dick Whittington’s dearest friend. In short, it does what any cat does. Because what a cat does, is magic.

This idea is at the heart of my own series of books, 'The Cat Kin'. In this, a group of London children join a class where they learn to move, see, hear and fight like cats. The art of ‘pashki’ is entirely my invention, but such is the universal appeal and mystery of cats that many readers ask if pashki is in fact real, or based in reality. Indeed, if you search the web, you can find claims that it is (and I didn’t put them there). Like Whittington’s cat, pashki seems to want to have a life of its own. Cats, for whatever reason, continue to exert their mystical fascination over us human beings.

One final reason why I love the story of Dick Whittington and his Cat, is that it’s a great parable for an aspiring writer. Dick follows a bright dream initially, only to be bitterly disappointed, giving up and turning away from it. And then, when all seems lost, he is called back to his struggle with the promise of a great reward – a threefold reward. And since I’m just now publishing the third book in the Cat Kin trilogy, you could say that this ending rings a bell for me too.

It was difficult to get Nick Green to tell me enough about himself for me to make a decent go of  introducing him.  I suspect him of being the kind of guy who refuses to part with information even when tied to the chair in the underground room, with the water rising around him and the candle-flame slowly burning through the cord holding the anvil suspended over his head.  Out of sheer bloody-mindedness, no doubt.

At any rate, after applying a good deal of pressure I managed to extract only this:  Nick is the second oldest and second tallest of four brothers, and the only one who isn’t ginger.  It was while working for a children’s book club that he made the rash decision to start writing books as well as selling them.  He read English at Edinburgh University, and now lives in Hertford with his wife and an itinerant population of cats.

Fortunately, I have other sources of information. I first heard of Nick’s debut novel ‘ The Cat Kin’ because it was news.  Nick self-published the book believing in its worth: and he was absolutely right.  After it was reviewed in The Times by Amanda Craig, who called it ‘a gripping adventure’, it was bought by Faber & Faber.  Nick was writing the sequel, there was going to be a trilogy, and everyone seemed to be talking about it.  What brilliant success!  I whizzed out and bought a copy… and was entranced. 

It’s a classic children’s adventure story with a fantasy/sci-fi twist: Two inner-city kids, Ben and Tiffany, each living tough lives, join an after-school gym class run by a strange woman called Mrs Powell who teaches the lost Ancient Egyptian art of ‘pashki’ – moving and sensing like a cat.  Soon Ben, Tiffany and the rest of their class are leaping over London’s rooftops, slipping near-invisibly through the streets – and about to need all nine of their new lives as they discover the very dark deeds taking place in the old factory with the chimney like a wizard’s tower, visible from Ben’s apartment block.

And there was a dark side to the success story of Nick’s publication, too.  Despite many good reviews, despite the fact that by this time Nick had written the sequel, Faber & Faber decided not, after all, to go ahead with publishing this second volume, ‘Cat’s Paw’. A crushing blow. 

Bloodied but unbowed, Nick decided that this left him with only one thing to do – self-publish ‘Cat’s Paw’, and be damned to 'em. Which he did.  And lo! in the best of fairytale traditions courage and tenacity, allied to faith and talent, paid off.  ‘The Cat Kin’ was republished by Strident Publishing along with its sequel ‘ Cat’s Paw’, and the final book of the trilogy, 'Cat's Cradle' is being published this very Hallowe'en.  I'm really looking forward to reading it.  

Picture credits: 
Nick Green
Dick Whittington on Highgate Hill:  by Gustave Doré: 'London, A Pilgrimage'
The Dick Whittington Stone at Highgate
Whittington and His Cat: mid 19th century print, courtesy of SpitalfieldsLife (where you can find the story of Blackie, the last cat of Spitalfields Market).

Tuesday 23 October 2012

Folklore Snippets: The Silver Cup

The Silver Cup from Dagberg Daas

From Scandinavian Folklore, ed William Craigie, 1896

Here’s a version of an old tale I used in ‘Troll Fell’, although for my version the cup was golden, and my troll girl was rather more attractive. ( I love the practical but horrific way the 'berg-woman' deals with her long, drooping breasts.) A ‘berg-man’ is a mound dweller, hill-man, elf or troll.

In Dagberg Daas there formerly lived a berg-man with his family.  It happened once that a man who came riding past there took it into his head to ask the berg-woman for a little to drink.  She went to get some for him, but her husband bade her take it out of the poisoned barrel.  The traveller heard all this, however, and when the berg-woman handed him the cup with the drink, he threw the contents over his shoulder and rode off with the cup in his hand, as fast as his horse could gallop. The berg-woman threw her breasts over her shoulders, and ran after him as hard as she could. (The man rode off over some ploughed land where she had difficulty in following him, as she had to keep to the line of the furrows.)  When he reached the spot where Karup Stream crosses the road from Viborg to Holtebro, she was so near him that she snapped a hook (hage) off the horse’s shoe, and therefore the place has been called Hagebro ever since.  She could not cross the running water, and so the man was saved.  It was seen afterwards that some drops of the liquor had fallen on the horse’s loins and taken off both hide and hair.

'Troll Fell' by David Wyatt

In 'Troll Fell', Ralf tells the tale thus:

I was halfway over Troll Fell, tired and wet and weary, when I saw a bright light glowing from the top of the crag, and heard snatches of music gusting on the wind.  I turned the pony off the road and kicked him into a trot up the hillside.  I was in one of our own fields, the high one called the Stonemeadow.  At the top of the slope I could hardly believe my eyes.  The whole rocky summit of the hill had been lifted up, like a great stone lid!  It was resting on four stout red pillars.  The space underneath was shining with golden light and there were scores, maybe hundreds of trolls, skipping and dancing.

But the pony shied.  I'd been so busy staring, I hadn't noticed this troll girl creeping up on me till she popped up right by the pony's shoulder.  She held out a beautiful golden cup filled to the brim with something steaming hot - spiced ale I thought it was, and I took it gratefully from her, cold and wet as I was.

Just before I gulped it down I noticed the look on her face.  There was a gleam in her slanting eyes, a wicked sparkle!  And her ears, her hairy, pointed ears, twitched forward.  I saw she was up to no good!

So I lifted the cup, pretending to sip.  Then I jerked the whole drink out over my shoulder.  It splashed out smoking, some on to the ground and some on to the pony's tail, where it singed off half his hair!  There's an awful yell from the troll girl, and the next thing the pony and I are off down the hill, galloping for our lives.  I've still got the golden cup on one hand - and half the trolls of Troll Fell are tearing after us!

I had one chance.  At the tall stone called the Finger, I turned off the road on to the big ploughed field above the mill.  The pony could go quicker over the soft ground, you see, but the trolls found it heavy going across the furrows. I got to the mill stream ahead off them, jumped off and dragged the pony through the water.  I was safe!  The trolls couldn't follow me over the brook.  They were spitting like cats and hissing like kettles.  They threw stones and clods at me, but it was nearly dawn and off they scuttled back up the hillside.  And I heard - no, I felt, through the soles of my feet, a sort of far-off grating shudder as the top of Troll Fell sank into its place again...

[Troll Fell, HarperCollins, 2004]

Picture credit: 'Troll Fell': unpublished illustration by David Wyatt. Copyright David Wyatt 2004

Friday 19 October 2012

Wayland's Smithy: a tangle of tales...

by Penny Dolan

All that was needed, so people said, was a single coin placed on a stone beside your tethered horse. Have faith, leave the horse there all night and when you came back next morning, your steed would be newly shod and the coin gone.

Though the nights of magical shoeing are surely long past, the ancient burial mound known as Wayland’s Smithy is still there on the shoulder of chalk downland, and the place with its tangled tale, haunts me.

I first saw the Smithy on a day so wet that froglets skittered from the path into overfull ditches and milky water ran down the cracks in the chalky clay.

The rain gods had only paused. By the time we had reached the crest of the ridge, a downpour had began. Thunder rolled around the hills and as we approached Wayland’s Smithy, the huge, dark clouds above were lit with streaks of lightning.

The long barrow lies off the track. We pushed through wet bushes and came to it, covered in grass and surrounded by grove of trees. Several ancient stones formed the gateway.

With the storm raging, the moment felt as if the past was only a shadow away. It was impossible not to think of the many feet that had passed along the Ridgeway and made the path, with or without horses to be shod. Did they all wonder at the mysterious mound or the strange white horse* spread across the hillside nearby? Did they seek shelter in the small wood?

However, the helpful smith of the legend does not match entirely happily with the Norse version of Wayland the Smith. 

Wayland, or Volund, had been apprenticed to the dwarves of the Icelandic Mountains, He was one of the three sons of Wade, the king of the Finns. Out hunting, the brothers found three beautiful swan maidens, seized their feathered robes, and made them their wives.  When the three sisters discovered their hidden feathers again, they flew away to freedom.

The two older brothers went searching for their wives, but the desolate Wayland stayed working at his smithy, sure that his beloved wife would return for the golden ring he was keeping for her and all the other treasures he was creating.

Soon rich men grew greedy for Wayland’s skills, King Niduth of Sweden more than any. Wayland was lured to his castle, crippled, imprisoned on an island and made to forge endless objects for the king. So dazzling were the treasures and so great the family’s pride that they forgot to be wary of their prisoner.

The two princes visited Wayland, who treated them kindly until they mocked him. Enraged, he beheaded them both and fashioned a set of dreadful gifts for the royal parents. The princely skulls became golden goblets, the eyes glittering gems from their eyes, and their pearly white teeth made a necklace for the queen their mother.

Meanwhile, the princess, jealous of her brothers, visited Wayland, bringing a golden ring for him to mend. Recognising the stolen ring as that made for his lost wife, he cruelly seduced the princess, leaving her with child. Having sent her and the horrific treasures back to the palace, Wayland strapped on a pair of mechanical wings, rose into the sky and flew away. 

It is not quite clear how this tale links up to the burial mound, although the ancient site may have been given its new identity by Anglo Saxon invaders.

Certainly the tale travelled and adapted. One version claims that Wayland’s wings brought him to the mound, and that  the Norse hero Sigurd  brought his horse there to be shod. Some say that explains the white horse set in the chalk, who leaves the hillside once every hundred years and gallops across the sky to the smithy to be shod.

To me, this tale is loaded with contrasting images – the stolen skins of the swans, the broken wedding ring, the patient and desolate waiting, the greed of the powerful, the Samson-like captivity, the image of those awful golden chalices, and thee Daedulus-like wings – and they all make the tale of Wayland unforgettable.  One cannot love or admire him, yet there is something enigmatic about his tale and about the unbound rage that creates such dreadful treasures.

The crippled smith’s name is mentioned in Beowulf, in the poem Volundarkvitha (part of the poetic Edda) as well as in Chaucer’s writings, in Kipling’s 'Puck of Pooks Hill', and in 'Kenilworth'. He is said to be a fore-runner of St Clement, patron saint of blacksmiths and both have feast days in November. 

Why does the Wayland story matter to my writing? When I wrote my novel 'A Boy Called Mouse', I came to a section where my Mouse needed to have a place where he could rage and let out all the anger he felt. The pattern of his world had shifted dreadfully and he needed time in the wilderness to move out from his terrible grief, and renew his hope for his quest.

The image of that ancient site came into my head and the long path running alongside, and the wild storm overhead. So I created a “tramping man”, a character called Wayland. He is not a man who would put out my young hero’s eyes, but a wise kindly figure who makes Mouse to walk and walk and keep on walking along the high ridge of ground while a storm rages around them, almost Lear-like. Wayland. This agonising march moves Mouse out of his despair and sets him free for his future. The tales don’t fit easily together but for me, something matched.
Weland forges the sword, HR Millar, 'Puck of Pook's Hill'


* The Uffington White Horse, a bronze age chalk figure cut into the hillside.


My friend Penny Dolan is a Yorkshire lass like me, a storyteller as well as a children’s writer, and we share a delight in that feistiest of fairytale heroines, the beautiful and dauntless Lady Mary from ‘Mr Fox’. 

Penny is the author of many picture books and fairytale retellings for younger children, as well as longer books for junior readers. Notable among these is ‘The Third Elephant’, a lovely tale of a small wooden elephant who longs to see more of the world than his dusty mantelpiece:

When night came, the small elephant looked at the empty pool of moonlight.  He thought about what the mouse had told him: wish for what you want, wish for what you dream about. ‘I wish’, he thought, as hard as he could, ‘I wish I could see the white palace again.’

In the classic tradition of change coming to discarded toys, the little elephant is thrown from the window and falls into the hands of a young girl on her way to play the flute in a concert - and the adventures begin. ‘Charming’ is an adjective which can sometimes be suspected of carrying the subtext ‘trivial’, but this is a book which is both truly charming and seriously involved with the fears and uncertainties of childhood.  Her novel, 'A Boy Called M.O.U.S.E’ is ‘a historical fairy tale’, a beautifully written, carefully researched story of a young boy wandering the roads of Victorian England, and is full of allusions to Victorian fiction, the theatre, and old legends about larger-than-life wanderers on the old roads of England - including Wayland himself.

Picture credits:
Wayland's Smithy: Wikimedia Commons 

Friday 12 October 2012

In Defence of Poesie

Here is that very perfect knight Sir Philip Sidney, Elizabethan golden boy, courtier, soldier, poet and all-round  Renaissance man.  Looking a bit stern here, not a lot of fun perhaps - but I think we would have liked him: he seems to have charmed most people. Not only did he write the elaborate prose 'Arcadia' for his sister the Countess of Pembroke (in which the simple phrase 'It was spring' is delightfully embroidered into: 'It was in the time that the earth begins to put on her new apparel against the approach of her lover, the sun, and that the sun, running a most even course, becomes an indifferent arbiter between the night and the day...') but he also delighted in the kind of simple old tale 'that holdeth children from play and old men from the chimney corner,' and who said of popular ballads, 'I never heard the old song of Percy and Douglas that I found not my heart moved more than with a trumpet.' 

The last two quotes come from his famous ‘Apologie for Poetrie’ which is a defence of invention: an argument against those people who felt, uneasily, that it was somehow wrong and childish to concern themselves with something ‘untrue’.  (Plato was an early example.  And they still exist today...) All fiction is invention. The perceived gulf between fantasy and realism is more mirage than fact. Sidney wrote:

I think truly, that of all writers under the sun the poet is the least liar… for the poet, he nothing affirms, and therefore never lieth. For the poet never maketh any circles about your imagination, to conjure you to believe for true what he writes. 

I love that!  'No circles about your imagination': if you know that what you are reading is given to you as pure invention, not history or fact, you no longer have to grapple with belief, and you are free to apprehend the truth of the poet's imagination.  Sidney goes on to point out that - surely - only a fool would call Aesop's fables lies, or mistake a play for something 'real':

None so simple would say that Aesop lied in his tales of the beasts; for whoso thinks that Aesop writ it for actually true were well worthy to have his name catalogued among the beasts he writeth of. What child is there that, coming to a play, and seeing Thebes written in great letters upon an old door, doth believe that it is Thebes?

Nevertheless, Aesop's fictional fables present succinct truths.  They are not about animals, though they appear to be, but about human morals and behaviour. To miss that would be to miss the whole point.

Sidney’s argument is still valid today. The books most likely to deceive are those apparently realistic works which may or may not be well-researched. No one supposes a story about a unicorn ever really happened, but how can we know, without checking, whether a story set during World War II has any basis in fact? Sidney's further point is that fiction (or poetry) teaches truth of another sort:

No learning is so good as that which teacheth and moveth to virtue, and none can better both teach and move thereto than Poetry.

Whatever Sidney meant by virtue (and judging by his death I think he meant right behaviour: courage, courtesy, gallantry, truthfulness), in modern terms, fiction provides insights that history and science cannot: it allows us to see life from other viewpoints than our own, and to explore our own world via the mirrorlands of metaphor and fancy.  We must defend poetic truth: for if we do not, we may find ourselves wrecked on the stony shores of fundamentalism, where Aesop's fables are taught in schools as natural history, and Thebes written upon an old door is Thebes indeed.

Image: Sir Philip Sidney, National Portrait Gallery, London

Tuesday 9 October 2012

Publication Day

It's publication day!  And I'm doing a happy dance. Just take a look at this.

I can’t tell you how downright honoured I feel to be a part of this YA anthology of stories about what happens after the apocalypse – after the change, the meteor strike, the plague, the flood, the third World War, any number of other catastrophes that you can imagine and several that you can’t. It’s out today, ninth of October! 

And here’s the front cover. Which is awesome.

Obviously I can’t properly review this book, since I do have a story in it (‘Visiting Nelson’) and am definitely an interested party: but the writers’ names should speak for themselves, as should those of the editors, legendary duo Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling.  I can't even say which stories are my favourites – in any case, they are all so different I keep changing my mind. Some are horrifying, many are very touching, some are full of black humour, some are audacious and fantastic. 

The book itself is a beautiful physical object, with a gorgeous, slightly roughened, very tactile cover you want to keep brushing your fingers over. 

Click on the links below to find what a few other people think of AFTER:

and there's even a podcast reviewing six of the stories in detail, at The Last Short Story

AFTER, ed. Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, is published in hardcover by Hyperion, New York, 9 October 2012.