Monday 30 September 2013

New Fairytales!

This is the rather lovely cover of 'New Fairytales: Essays & Stories', a gorgeous book of poems, critical essays and new fairy stories - one of which, 'Gnomes', is mine.  Though is it really a fairytale? I don't know. I don't often write black humour, but this was an exception, and as the entire book is an exploration and celebration of new fairytales, anyone who reads it is free to decide for themselves.

Here is the lip-licking list of contents.


John Patrick Pazdziora and Defne Çizakça, editors

John Patrick Pazdziora and Defne Çizakça
Chapter 0. Galantha
Joshua Richards

Part I. Minatures
Chapter 1. Glass, Bricks, Dust
Claire Massey
Chapter 2. Robert Herrick’s Fairy Epithalamium and Natural Religion
Jesse Sharpe
Chapter 3. Anti-Fairy Tale Taxidermy: The Animations of Tessa Farmer
Catriona McAra
Chapter 4. Gnomes
Katherine Langrish

Part II. Storytellers
Chapter 5. Are there Fairies Nowadays? Modern Fairy Tales in Hebrew
Hanna Livnat and Gaby Cohn
Chapter 6. Deciphering the Ottoman Fairy Tale: Tayyarzade throughout the Centuries
Defne Çizakça
Chapter 7. Cloud Catching in the Realm of the Drought King
Fiona Thackeray
Chapter 8. “On Fairy-stories” and Tolkien’s Elvish Tales
Christopher MacLachlan
Chapter 9. “Oh, You Wicked Storytellers!”
John Patrick Pazdziora

Part III. Shadows and Reflections
Chapter 10. A Prevailing Wind
Elizabeth Reeder
Chapter 11. Not for Children: The Development of Nihilism
in the Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde
Colin Cavendish-Jones
Chapter 12. Radiant Mysteries: George MacDonald, G.K. Chesterton, and
the Claritas of Fairy Tales
Daniel Gabelman
Chapter 13. The Land with No Stories
Eric M. Pazdziora

Part IV. Fairy Brides
Chapter 14. In the Midst of Metamorphosis: Yōko Tawada’s The Bridegroom Was a Dog
Mayako Murai

Chapter 15. A Gothic Fairy-Bride and the Fall: A Lecture on “The End of the World”
in Kenjirō Hata’s Hayate no Gotoku
Joshua Richards

Chapter 16. Dante
Joshua Richards

Part V. Fairy Tale Pedagogy
Chapter 17. Footsteps in the Classroom: “The Little Mermaid” and First-Year Writing
Kate Wolford
Chapter 18. Dragons in Hereville: Comics as a Vehicle for Fairy Tales
Orlando Dos Reis and Emily Midkiff
Chapter 19. Little Sparrow
Kirstin Zhang
Chapter 20. Beedle’s Moral Imagination
Travis Prinzi
Chapter 21. The Sea in the Hat
Tori Truslow

New Fairytales is available for purchase on Amazon here in the US or here if you’re in the UK, both in print and e-book formats. Other outlets to follow soon.

Saturday 14 September 2013

Briar Rose - or 'Time Be Stopped'

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Down the passage which we did not take,

Towards the door we never opened

Into the rose garden.”

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

“Ash on an old man’s sleeve

Is all the ash the burnt roses leave.

Dust in the air suspended

Marks the place where a story ended.

Dust inbreathed was a house-

The wall, the wainscot and the mouse.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“This - this is life.”

© Katherine Langrish February 2012

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

Saturday 7 September 2013

Good Witches

In this third post about witches, I’m considering some children’s books in which the characters are recognisably witches, but good rather than evil.

All of these examples are modern. I’m not sure I know of any good witches in older fiction except for Glinda in ‘The Wizard of Oz’,and incidentally, I don’t know how I forgot to mention the Wicked Witch of the West, in my first witchy post, as a fine example of an American witch – and her recent reinvention by Gregory Maguire in ‘Wicked’ exemplifies the changes in attitude which have been taking place over the decades, changes which have to be set down to the feminist movement.  The very title of Maguire’s book is a gauntlet thrown down. If anyone is wicked in ‘Wicked’, it’s not the witch.  And it’s a lot more difficult these days than it used to be, to think powerful female = witch = evil.   

Let’s start with the great Terry Pratchett. The very first book of his I ever read was ‘Wyrd Sisters’.  I’d been put off the Discworld novels by their covers, which looked too hysterical for me.  But I picked up ‘Wyrd Sisters’ in the library one day and read the opening page:

The wind howled.  Lightning stabbed at the earth erratically, like an inefficient assassin...
 …In the middle of this elemental storm a fire gleamed among the dripping furze bushes, like the madness in a weasel’s eye.  It illuminated three hunched figures.  As the cauldron bubbled an eldritch voice shrieked: “When shall we three meet again?”
            There was a pause.
            Finally another voice said, in far more ordinary tones: “Well, I can do next Tuesday.”

On this comic anticlimax we meet Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg and Magrat ('Margaret', only her mother couldn’t spell).  And what these three witches do is what women down the years have always done.  They help bring babies into the world, they do their best to cure the sick, they lay out the dead, and they dispense commonsense advice with a bit of magical flimmery-flammery to help it along.  On top of that, Granny Weatherwax in particular is skilled in what she calls ‘headology’ – a fine-tuned sympathy with the minds and beings of others. In ‘Wyrd Sisters’ the three witches prevent soldiers from killing a baby on the moor at night, and on discovering a crown in the bundle of wrappings, realise they have to hide the child.  And the crown?  Can it be hidden too?

“Oh, that’s easy,” said Magrat.  “I mean, you just hide it under a stone or something…”
            “It ain’t,” said Granny.  “The reason being, the country’s full of babies and they all look the same, but I don’t reckon there’s many crowns.  They have this way of being found, anyway.  They kind of call out to people’s minds.  If you bunged it under a stone up here, in a week’s time it’d get itself discovered by accident.  You mark my words.”
            “It’s true, is that,” said Nanny Ogg earnestly.  “How many times have you thrown a magic ring into the deepest depths of the ocean and then, when you get home and have a nice bit of turbot for your tea, there it is?”
            They considered this in silence.
            “Never,” said Granny irritably.

The Discworld novels are written for adults, but are YA in their appeal, and Terry Pratchett has also written several children’s books set in the same world, featuring the young apprentice witch Tiffany Aching – a girl of great grit, determination and courage.  The first in the series is ‘The Wee Free Men’, and begins with yet another witch (Miss Perspicacia Tick) sitting under a hedge in the rain, making a device to ‘explore the universe’:

The exploring of the universe was being done with a couple of twigs tied together with string, a stone with a hole in it, an egg, one of Miss Tick’s stockings which also had a hole in it, a pin, a piece of paper, and a tiny stub of pencil.  Unlike wizards, witches learn to make do with very little.

Terry Pratchett, you feel, actually likes women.  He seems comfortable around them in a way the male authors of my last week’s post – C.S. Lewis, T.H. White and even Alan Garner – do not. 

In Philip Pullman’s ‘The Golden Compass’, the first book of ‘His Dark Materials’, we meet a race of witches of a very different type.  They are far wilder and more romantic than Terry Pratchett’s – a reversion to the witch queen type, in fact, but as ever-youthful as the fairies and as warlike as the Amazons.  They come to the rescue of Lyra and her friends during the attack on the Bolvangar experiment station, shooting their arrows with deadly effect:

“Witches!” said Pantalaimon.
            And so they were: ragged elegant black shapes sweeping past high above, with a hiss and swish of air through the needles of the cloud-pine branches they rode on.  As Lyra watched, one swooped low and loosed an arrow: another man fell.

A few pages later, Lyra meets one of them: clan queen Serafina Pekkala:

She was young – younger than Mrs Coulter; and fair, with bright green eyes; and clad like all the witches in strips of black silk, but wearing no furs, hoods of mittens.  She seemed to feel no cold at all.  Around her brow was a simple chain of little red flowers.  She sat on her cloud-pine branch as if it were a steed…
            Lyra could see why Farder Coram loved her, and why it was breaking his heart… He was growing old: he was an old broken man, and she would be young for generations.

They aren’t central characters, and you could argue that Mrs Coulter wears the pointed hat in this story, but the courageous, nearly immortal witches, with their necessarily brief liaisons with human men and women, lend an exotic touch of wildness and tragedy to Pullman’s world. 

A witch who didn't make it into the last couple of posts is the Russian BabaYaga, with her hut on chicken legs.  She's pretty scary but ambiguous - she can actually be helpful if propitiated in the right way. Susan Price’s Carnegie Medal winning ‘The Ghost Drum’ is drawn from the Russian tradition.  With its sequels ‘Ghost Dance’ and ‘Ghost Song’ (now all available as e-books) it is set in “a far-away Czardom, where the winter is a cold half-year of darkness.”

Here we meet the witch-girl Chingis, daughter of a slave, rescued and raised to be a Woman of Power by a shaman woman, who exchanges the child for a snow baby and takes her away. 

Out in the night, in the snow, stood another house.  It stood on two giant chicken-legs.  It was a little house – a hut – but it had its double windows and its double doors to keep in the warmth of the stove, and it had good thick walls and a roof of pine shingles.  The witch came running over the snow, and the house bent its chicken-legs and lowered its door to the ground…
            …Then the legs took a few quick, jerky steps, sprang, and began to run. Away over the snow ran the little house… Its windows were suddenly lit by a glow of candlelight.  The hopping candlelight could be seen for a long time, shining warmly in the cold, glimmering twilight, but then the light was so distant and small that it seemed to go out.  All that was left of the little house was its footprints.

Raised by the witch-shaman, Chingis becomes her successor, and eventually goes to rescue young Safa, the son of the mad Czar, whose father has kept him shut up in a single room for his entire life. 

Every moment, day and night, waking and dreaming, his spirit cried; and circled and circled the dome room, seeking a way out.
            And Chingis heard.
            She heard it first as she slept; a strange and eerily disturbing crying.  Stepping from her body, her spirit grasped the thread of the cry and flew on it, like a kite on a line, to the Imperial Palace, to the highest tower, to the enamelled dome.

Armed with her wits, her spells, and her grandmother’s proverb: “Whenever you poke your nose out of doors, pack courage and leave fear at home,” Chingis sets off on a mission that will take her all the way to Iron Wood and the Ghost World.  This is one of those books I just wish I had written myself, although I know I never could have done it half so well.  It inverts the terror and evil of Baba Yaga, reinventing her as a shaman with powers allied to nature, stronger and more merciful than the cruelties of Czars.  It’s beautiful.  Please read it! 

I have written a witch of my own – Astrid, the girl with ‘troll blood’ in the book of that name, 'Troll Blood', the third part of my Viking trilogy 'West of the Moon'.  Is she really a witch, though?  That’s what the viking sailors call her, because they fear and dislike her, and it’s true she practises seidr – the old northern magic (pronounced roughly saythoor).  But Astrid – haughty, proud, thin-skinned, damaged and vulnerable – hasn’t had much of a chance in life, and uses her powers to command what respect and fear she can, since she doesn’t expect love. Whether or not any of her spells really work is left open.  I don’t know myself.  But I do know that I have a lot of sympathy for difficult, prickly, deceitful Astrid, and I hope the reader will too.

Lastly, what about the Harry Potter books?  And why on earth didn’t I begin with them?

Well, to my mind, the Harry Potter books are hardly about witches at all.  They’re about school-children masquerading as witches.  Yes – they go to Hogwarts, which is billed as a school for witches and wizards. Yes, they learn spells. Yes, there are plenty of the trappings of witchery about: pointed black hats, robes, wands (wands? witches don't need wands, those are for wizards), cauldrons, etc.  And yes, Harry and his friends are pitted against a Dark Lord of impeccable credentials, Voldemort, who undoubtedly goes to the same club as Sauron and Lucifer.  But does anyone really believe Hermione Granger is a witch?  Top of the class in spells she may be, but seriously?  Are Harry and Ron really wizards?  Try mentally lining them up with Gandalf, Ged, and even Dumbledore, and see what I mean.

Wizards may go to school, wizards may study things: wizards are expected to be forever poring over old curling scrolls while the stuffed crocodile dangles overhead.  But as soon as you make witchcraft into something taught in a classroom, for me the magic runs right out of it like water from a bath.  I do like the first three Harry Potter books (with reservations about the rest concerning editing, mainly) – I love the energy and fun and sheer inventiveness of Rowling’s writing.  But, along with other witch school series such as Jill Murphy’s ‘The Worst Witch’ and some of Diana Wynne Jones’ Chrestomanci titles, the witchery seems to me to be there to lend colour and flavour to what is basically an old-fashioned school story. And none the worse for that.  However, and it’s an important point, in these modern books the traditional image of the witch has lost its power.  Dress up Hermione in robes and black hat as much as you like, she’ll always look more like a college girl on graduation day than a minion of Satan.

When I started these posts, I wasn’t sure where they would lead me.  But it seems to me that over the past seventy years, the image of the witch in children’s fiction has changed considerably to have reached the point where a set of books about a whole school full of children training to be witches fighting against evil can be received by the mainstream with perfect aplomb. And I end on this thought – those earnest people who do worry about the Harry Potter books and the treatment of witches in children’s fiction, need to learn to look past the shadow to the substance. 

 © Katherine Langrish September 2010