Thursday, 5 October 2017

The Terror of Trees

Ellum he do grieve,
Oak he do hate,
Willow do walk
If you travels late.

This old Somerset rhyme is quoted by KM Briggs in ‘The Fairies in Tradition and Literature’: she explains it thus: ‘The belief behind this is that if one elm tree is cut down the one next to it will die of grief: but if oaks were cut they will revenge themselves if they can. Willow is the worst of all, for he walks behind benighted travellers, muttering.’ I somehow imagine Tolkien knew a lot of tree-lore...

Elm used to be the wood coffins were made from, and elm trees had – before Dutch elm disease cleared them from England – a nasty reputation for dropping branches without warning. When I was a child two enormous elms grew on either side of the gate at the bottom of our field and for reasons I’ll explain later I was afraid of approaching them after dark.

Trees are beautiful, but can also be frightening and even dangerous. Trees, we know, are alive. When you cut them, they bleed. Maybe it hurts them? Then they may resent it. They have voices too, whispering secrets or roaring in anger.  In ‘The Lore of the Forest’ Alexander Porteous writes, ‘In some districts of Austria forest trees are said to have souls, and to feel injuries done to them.’ In gales, trees become truly dangerous and frightening. Algernon Blackwood expresses this terror well near the end of a story, ‘The Man Whom The Trees Loved’:

The trees were shouting in the dark. There were sounds, too, like the flapping of great sails, a thousand at a time, and sometimes reports that resembled more than anything the distant booming of enormous drums. The trees stood up – the whole beleaguering host of them stood up – and with the uproar of their million branches drummed the thundering message out into the night. It seemed as if they had all broken loose. Their roots swept trembling over field and hedge and roof. They tossed their bushy heads beneath the clouds with a wild, delighted shuffling of great boughs. With trunks upright they raced leaping through the sky.

It behoves feeble humans to treat such creatures with care. 

Elders are not tall or imposing trees – they are more like tall bushes – but they bleed so freely when cut, they are considered magical. Sometimes they themselves are witches. Christina Hole in ‘Haunted England’ gives a polite formula with which to address an elder before you attempt to cut it: “Old Gal, give me of thy wood, and I will give thee some of mine, when I grow into a tree.” In other tales, elders protect against witchcraft. (Perhaps on the principle, set a thief to catch a thief?)

Ash trees too could have a bad reputation. This may possibly be something to do with medieval demonising of the old Nordic mythology in which the Ash is Yggdrasil, the World Tree. In George Macdonald’s adult fairy novel ‘Phantastes’, the hero Anodos is warned by his hostess and her daughter to avoid the evil Ash, whose shadow threatens the fairy cottage in which he is sheltering.

‘Look there!’ she cried,‘look at his fingers!’ The setting sun was shining through a cleft in the clouds piled up in the west; and a shadow, as of a large distorted hand, with thick knobs and humps on the fingers … passed slowly over the little blind.

‘He is almost awake, mother; and greedier than usual tonight.’

‘Hush, child! You need not make him more angry with us than he is; for you do not know how soon something may happen to oblige us to be in the forest after nightfall.’

In Alison Uttley’s fictionalised autobiography, ‘A Country Child’ she describes how an ash tree tried to kill her. There was a swing fixed in it, where the child ‘Susan’ sat, swaying to and fro and looking out at the countryside. 

Then Susan heard a tiny sound, so small that only ears tuned to the minute ripple of grass and leaf could hear it. It was like the tearing of a piece of the most delicate fairy calico, far away… An absurd, unreasoning terror seized her. The Things from the wood were free. She sat swinging, softly swinging, but listening, holding her breath, always pretending she did not care. Her heart’s beating was much louder than the midget rip,rip, rip, which wickedly came from nowhere... A voice throbbed in her head, ‘Go away, go away, go away,’ but still she sat on the seat, afraid of being afraid. 

Then aloud, to show Them she was not frightened, she sighed and said, ‘I am so tired of swinging, I think I will go,’ and she slid trembling off the seat and walked swiftly away…
Immediately the rip grew to a thunder like a giant hand tearing a sheet in the sky, and the whole enormous bough fell with a crash which sent echoes round the hills. The oaken seat of the swing was broken to fragments, and the great chains bent and crushed.

Even on a still, hot day a forest can be an awe-inspiring place, and those who walk or work within it may not be entirely comfortable. In the deep north-east woods of Canada, sometimes you may hear the sound of an axe chopping, in a distant glade where no one should be, and wonder…  This may be Al-wus-ki-ni-kess, the unseen woodcutter of the Passamaquoddies. Or in winter, the terrible jenu of the Mi’kmaq may come running through the frozen forest: a human driven mad by famine who has turned into a cannibal monster with a heart of ice. 

What about those elm trees in my childhood home? Why did they scare me? Well, I was thirteen and I’d been reading Robert Louis Stevenson’s book of his travels in Polynesia, ‘In the South Seas’. Here I found a passage which raised the hairs on my head. It’s the experience of a young man called Rua-a-mariterangi, on the island of Katui, who was on the forest margin of the beach looking for pandanus (a fruit which looks a bit like a pineapple). 

The day was still, and Rua was surprised to hear a crashing sound among the thickets, and then the fall of a considerable tree.

Thinking it must be someone felling a tree to build a canoe, Rua went deeper into the wood to have a chat with this presumed neighbour, when:

The crashing sounded more at hand, and then he was aware of something drawing swiftly near among the tree-tops. It swung by its heels downward, like an ape, so that its hands were free for murder; it depended safely by the slightest twigs; the speed of its coming was incredible, and soon Rua recognised it for a corpse, horrible with age, its bowels hanging as it came. Prayer was the weapon of Christian in the Valley of the Shadow, and it is to prayer that Rua-a-mariterangi attributes his escape. This demon was plainly from the grave; yet you will observe he was abroad by day. … I could never find another who had seen this ghost, diurnal and arboreal in its habits; but others have heard the fall of the tree, which seems the signal of its coming. Mr Donat was once pearling on the uninhabited island of Haraiki. It was a day without a breath of wind… when, in a moment, out of the stillness, came the sound of the fall of a great tree. Donat would have passed on to find the cause. ‘No,’ cried his companion, ‘that was no tree. It was something NOT RIGHT. Let us go back to camp.’ Next Sunday … all that part of the isle was thoroughly examined, and sure enough no tree had fallen.

This was quite enough for me. Every time I had any reason to walk down after dusk, or at night, towards those two towering elm trees, and pass under the sighing, billowing darkness of their foliage, a creepiness stole down my spine and I could imagine all too clearly a decomposing corpse, swinging down out of the leaves to shove its upside-down face into mine. 

Oh yes. Trees can be terrifying. Have you any stories to tell?

Picture credits: 

Theodore Kittelsen: 'Into the Woods'

Arthur Rackham: Trees: from 'A Dish of Apples' by Eden Philpotts

Theodore Kittelsen: 'The Forest Troll'

Theodore Kittelsen: 'Creepy, Crawly, Bustling, Rustling' 

Arthur Rackham:  Black Cat: from  'Grimms Fairytales'

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

A Conversation about Fairytales (1)

This is the first of two Youtube interviews at the Greystones Press, in which Mary Hoffman, my fellow-writer, publisher and friend, asks me some questions about fairy tales and my book Seven Miles of Steel Thistles which was published by Greystones last year (and longlisted for the Katharine Briggs Award 2016). I provide a rough transcript, below.

Mary: What was the first fairy tale you can remember? 

Katherine:  Probably Briar Rose, aka the Sleeping Beauty. I’d be about seven or eight and was sent to read the story of Briar Rose to the headmistress of my little school. Her office was quiet and filled with sunshine, and through the window I could see into a rose garden which only the teachers were allowed to use – so a secret garden filled with roses... I’ll never forget the still, special feeling of standing there reading aloud about the castle falling asleep and the roses twining up the walls.  

And to me it doesn’t matter that ‘all she does is sleep’. That story isn’t about people – not all stories have to be about people. For me, a child, I was entranced by the notion that time could stop. That’s what the story tells, it’s a distillation of a particular feeling, the feeling you can get as a child (or if you’re very lucky as an adult) when you’re so engrossed in the world that a sunny hour can last for ever. Time is a mystery, wreathed in thorns and roses. That’s what that story said to me. 

Mary:  Why do fairytales matter in the 21st century?

Katherine:  You might as well ask ‘what does the 21st century matter to fairytales?’ People have been telling and retelling fairytales for centuries, quite probably for millennia, and they certainly aren’t going away! In fact they show no sign of doing so. You’ve only got to look at what Hollywood is doing. In the last few years we’ve had Frozen, Tangled, Maleficent, Into the Woods, Beauty and the Beast, Snow White and the Huntsman… and so on. Though I do wish the studios would move beyond that one quite tiny handful of popular tales…

There will always be people who don’t like them. But I think there are modern adults who don’t quite understand them. Fairy tales are a particular form, with their own rules. Like a sonnet. You don’t blame a sonnet for not being an epic. In the same way, a fairy tale is never going to be like a novel. You mustn’t expect ‘realistic’ characters who change and develop. Fairytale characters don’t change. Fairytale characters are more like archetypes. They often don’t even have names. They’ll be ‘the king’s daughter’, ‘the king’s son’, ‘the lad’, ‘the child’, ‘the maiden’. If they are named, the names will be really common ones, like Hans and Jack, Kate and Gretel. This is to keep them impersonal. They are everyman and everywoman: they are us.

Some might think, well how can I identify with a princess? In fact the bareness and simplicity of the form make it easy. ‘Princess’ is just a starting point for an adventure; and many of the heroes and heroines aren’t royal at all. They’re peasants and tradesmen, farmers and beggars and pensioned-off soldiers, and as I say in ‘Seven Miles of Steel Thistles’:

‘If you think about it for a moment, the world is still full of peasants and tradesmen and farmers and beggars and pensioned-off soldiers. Just as it always was.’

Mary: Isn't there an argument that fairytales are rather sexist - that fairytale princesses are poor role models?

Katherine: Well, there’s a persistent misconception that fairy-tale heroines are passive. I remember hearing a discussion a couple of years ago on Radio 4 which dismissed the entire genre as projecting images of insipid princesses whose role is to lie asleep in towers waiting for princes to rescue them with ‘true love’s kiss’. 

I think this is because a lot of people who may not have read a fairy tale in years remember the small handful they came across as children, remember Snow-White in her glass coffin and Cinderella weeping in the ashes, and assume they stand for all.

In fact, women and girls in fairytales are often very active; the majority of heroines in the Grimms’ tales are the chief agents in their own stories. They rescue brothers and sweethearts, they save themselves or their fathers or their sisters. It’s partly that these stories aren’t nearly so well known (possibly reflecting early 20th century editorial choices) and partly that the stories themselves aren’t always well understood. 

In spite of the Disney song ‘One day my prince will come’, ‘Snow-White’ is not a love story. It’s a tale of a cruel queen, a lost child, a dark forest, a magic mirror. The arrival of the prince at the end is no more than a neat way to wrap the story up. 

If we approach fairy tales expecting nothing but sexist stereotypes, we will miss the irony, the inflections, we won’t get the jokes. 

In Grimms’ ‘The Twelve Huntsmen’, a princess dresses herself and eleven ladies-in-waiting as huntsmen and goes to work for her lover, a king who has promised his dying father to marry a different woman. This king has a talking lion. The lion suspects the twelve young huntsmen of being women. He sets several traps to get them to betray themselves – such as an array of twelve spinning wheels which he assures the king these ‘women’ will be unable to resist. Remember, this is a story which was once told aloud in mixed company, and that spinning was a woman’s repetitive, endless work. It’s as if, in a modern version, the lion had set out a line of twelve vacuum cleaners. Readers who take this at face value are missing the comedy of the princess’s satirical aside to her followers as they stride past: ‘Hold back, control yourselves, don’t give those spinning wheels a glance…’  This is a story which directs sly humour at male assumptions about female ability.  If we fail to notice when a story is inviting us to laugh, it’s we who are naïve. 

Mary: What drew you to write the blog Seven Miles of Steel Thistles, which led to the book of the same title?

Katherine: I started the blog in 2009 as a way of starting a dialogue with other writers and readers of fairy tales, folklore and fantasy – all of which which I’ve loved since childhood. The name of the blog and title of the book comes from an Irish fairytale ‘The King Who had Twelve Sons’ in which the hero rides his pony over ‘seven miles of hill on fire and seven miles of steel thistles and seven miles of sea.’  (I have much more to say about that story in the book!)

Creating the blog has been a great experience. I’ve made many friends through it, both in this country and in the US and Australia, many wonderful writers have been contributed posts on their favourite fairy tales. I’ve learned a great deal through it, and have also had opportunities that wouldn’t have come my way without it, invitations to speak at conferences, for example, and to contribute essays and reviews to a number of academic or semi academic publications. 

And then of course the Greystones Press suggested publishing the book!

Thursday, 17 August 2017

"Tales from India" - by Bali Rai

Wicked magicians, wise priests, handsome princes, beautiful princesses - along with greedy tigers and sly jackals. What's not to love? I'm delighted to welcome Bali Rai to the blog to talk about his new book of fairy tales and folk tales from India. Prepare for enchantment! 

This collection came about after a lunchtime conversation. It was one of those casual, almost throwaway moments. As a British-born child of Indian parents, my knowledge of Asian folk tales was shamefully limited. Of course I knew the famous ones, but they were just the beginning. My parents never had the privilege of hearing such stories at school, because they never went to school. As a result, they had no way of passing these tales on to their children.

            And in my British schools, the concept of Indian storytelling was almost non-existent. We were never taught about India’s rich folk tale heritage and ancient cultures (likewise China and Africa). Most of us didn’t realise that fairy tales and stories of talking animals existed in our parents’ traditions too. Folk tales, and stories generally, seemed to be a Western thing. It was as though we were being invited into a secret club, to which our ancestors had not previously belonged.

            So when a casual idea became a concrete project, I had to discover India’s rich folk tale heritage as a beginner. I found amazing and often magical tales, full of adventure and trickery, and infused with deeper messages about morality, Life and the world around us. From wicked magicians to wise old priests, charming princes and beautiful princesses – every aspect of the Western tales I’d heard in childhood were present here, too.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect was how similar these Indian tales were to those of the Western tradition. Of particular interest were the Indian tales compiled by Joseph Jacobs (1854-1916). These were published in 1912, and form the basis for much of this collection. Punchkin immediately reminded me of Rumpelstiltskin, and many of the animal tales would find a happy home in Aesop or Kipling.

Of course, there are many differences, too. The Indian tales feel darker in places, and perhaps more moralistic too. Neither do they make allowances for the sensitivity or age of readers. Whilst ostensibly a children’s story, in The Peacock and The Crane the penalty for pride and boastfulness is death rather than a lesson well-learnt. Ditto any modern concepts of political correctness. There are helpless and passive princesses, and wizened old crones aplenty, not to mention heroes who seem only to relish the acquisition of material wealth. However, this tallies with their western counterparts, so perhaps I shouldn’t be too critical.

The rest of the collection comprises retellings of the Akbar and Birbal tales from India’s Mughal period, and other gems that I discovered in passing. Better known than most other Indian tales and widely read in the sub-continent, the Akbar and Birbal stories are wonderfully simple yet leave a lasting impression. Birbal is the patient and wise teacher and Akbar an often impetuous and boastful pupil. Their friendship is warm and full of charm and makes these tales a delight.

In reworking these stories, I will admit to plenty of creative licence. I wanted to make these stories accessible and readable for western audiences of all stripes. As such, many of the previously published versions needed polishing and editing. Joseph Jacob’s original versions were of particular concern and have seen the greatest changes, although the others have been re-imagined too. Keen to keep this collection secular, I have steered clear of religion where possible. I have also removed archaic and often offensive terms, as well as re-working the roles of women in one or two cases. 

Continuity and plotting were also an issue. For some of these tales, my starting point was just a few badly translated lines found online, or in obscure, often self-published books. For others, I had dense passages to work through, most of which lacked clarity. In one case, an entire section seemed to be missing. Where possible, I stuck to the original plot lines rigidly. For others, this was almost infeasible, and so I imagined and wrote new connecting scenes. All of this was done to enhance the reading experience and simplify often complicated language.

They aim of this project is to widen potential readership, and take these tales to an audience yet to benefit from reading them. Reworking folk tales can be a hazardous business, and often people become attached to their own versions of a particular tale. I meant no disrespect in modernising these tales. Think of them simply as remixes, intended to engage and enchant modern readers, and to lure them further into Indian folklore. 

'Tales from India' by Bali Rai is published by Puffin Classics

Bali Rai is the multi-award winning author of over 30 young adult, teen and children's books. His edgy, boundary-pushing writing style has made him extremely popular on the school visit circuit across the world and his books are widely taught. Passionate about promoting reading and literacy for young people, he is an ambassador for the Reading Agency’s Reading Ahead project, was involved in the BBC’s Love To Read campaign, and also speaks about issues around diversity, representation, and in defence of multiculturalism. Regularly invited to speak on panels and at conferences, he is also patron of an arts charity and a literature festival. Bali is a politics graduate and was recently awarded an honorary doctorate of letters. His first novel, (Un)arranged Marriage was published in 2001, and his most recent YA novel, Web of Darkness, won three awards and received widespread acclaim. He is currently working on a new YA title, as well as two series for younger readers. His latest title, TheHarder They Fall, is available now.