Tuesday, 19 December 2017

Re-reading 'The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe'

I beg the indulgence of re-posting this piece about a very Christmassy book indeed. (It first appeared on this blog in 2014.) I am still busy writing my new book, which I'm hoping to finish some time in January (oh, all right then, February) which is why this blog has been a little neglected of late. In the meantime, I wish all you lovely people the happiest of Christmas holidays and all the other midwinter festivals - and the very best of new years.

Here is my much-worn, much-loved childhood copy of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

I was given my first Narnia book, The Silver Chair, when I was seven years old – a little girl living in Yorkshire in the 1960s. I went on to read the series out of sequence, ending with The Voyage of the Dawn Treader: it depended on what I could buy with my pocket money or find in the public library.  The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe was published in 1950, The Last Battle in 1956, the year of my birth: so I suppose I was among the first generation of child readers of these tales.

It’s impossible to exaggerate the effect the Narnia stories had on me. I adored them, I was super-possessive about them. I regarded Narnia as my own, private, secret kingdom – so much so that when my mother, who read aloud each night to me and my brother, suggested she might read us The Lion, The Witch & the Wardrobe, I vetoed the suggestion.  Narnia was mine; I wanted to keep it all to myself.  It was horribly selfish, but that was how passionate I felt.  I read and reread them for years.

It’s decades now, though, since I sat down and read all of them through.  Did the charm fade?  I don’t know. The books were so much a part of my childhood that they still feel to be a part of me.  So I’ve decided to begin again, to remind myself of what enchanted me and discover if it still has the power to do so. Over the next few months, I’ll be reading the Seven Chronicles of Narnia and letting you know my thoughts.  Don’t expect academic crispness. These are likely to be long rambling posts with lots of digressions and asides as I follow wherever the fancy takes me.  I hope you’ll tell me your own thoughts along the way.  

So here goes: let’s talk about Narnia.

The first thing that strikes me now about The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe is how short it is: 170 pages, many with full, half, or quarter page illustrations by Pauline Baynes.  I’d guess the length is not more than 35,000 words – about right for a book for seven year-olds; but books for seven year-olds written today do not commonly explore such rich emotional depths when dealing – if they deal at all – with subjects such as death, rebirth, police states, loyalty and treachery.

TLTW&TW is described by CS Lewis, in his dedication to his god-daughter Lucy Barfield, as a fairytale. Like a fairytale it deals in images, in strong, simple emotions, in primary colours, in poetic metaphor: and like a fairytale, it demands suspension of disbelief and a willingness to go along with the narrator.

Es war einmal ein KönigThere was once a King –

There were once four children whose names were Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy.

It doesn’t matter where or when a fairytale takes place, so Lewis disposes of the Blitz – the reason the children are sent away from London – in half a sentence. What they leave behind doesn’t matter. What matters is where they arrive: this house ‘in the heart of the country’. Which country?  We aren’t told. It could be Scotland rather than England: the housekeeper has a Scottish name, and the children talk excitedly of mountains, woods, eagles and stags: but it’s the seclusion that matters. This is a secret and special place, and the further in you go, the more secret and more special it gets: inside the house there is a room, inside the room there is a wardrobe, inside the wardrobe there is Narnia…

Old houses and old castles are important places in fairytales, and there is often, too, a special hidden room.  In The Twelve Dancing Princesses, the soldier must follow the princesses through an opening under the bed:

The eldest went to her bed and tapped it; whereupon it immediately sank into the earth, and one after another they descended through the opening…

and down a stair to a fabulous land where the trees have leaves of silver, gold and diamond, and where twelve princes row the princesses across a lake to a beautiful palace, to dance all night till dawn. This land is neither good nor bad (though one senses it is disapproved) but magical: other. Alternatively, as in Bluebeard or in the English folktale Mr Fox, the secret of the hidden room may be horror and death. Narnia will turn out to contain both beauty and terror.

So when Lewis chose a homely wardrobe for his doorway to Narnia (all of us had wardrobes in our bedrooms back then, before the days of fitted cupboards) he was employing a device common in fairytales, where the domestic and ordinary frequently reveal the magical and unexpected.

Here is the wardrobe – ‘the sort with looking-glass in the door’ – standing alone in an empty room. ‘Nothing there’, says Peter.  But Lucy investigates. ‘This must be a simply enormous wardrobe!’ she thinks, pushing her way further in through the fur coats.  And next:

Something cold and soft was falling on her. A moment later she found she was standing in the middle of a wood at night-time with snow under her feet and snowflakes falling through the air.

A word about Lucy.  Philip Pullman has accused the Narnia books of being – among other bad things – sexist, of delivering the message ‘Boys are better than girls’. People who agree with this tend, I suspect, to be thinking of ‘the problem of Susan.’ But I was a little girl reading the Narnia books, and I was never in any doubt that the main character, the clear heroine of the three titles in which she takes a prominent part, is Lucy. Any child, boys included, reading TLTW&TW will identify with Lucy for the simple reason that it’s so unfair when her siblings don’t believe her about Narnia – and even more unfair when Edmund actually lies about it. It’s as easy to identify with Lucy as it is to identify with Jane Eyre, and for the same reason: children hate injustice.

Lucy’s main-character status has always been so obvious to me, I’m puzzled why Philip Pullman has failed to spot it. Is she too gentle for him? She may not be Lyra, or even Dido Twite, but the Narnia books were written for and about children, not teenagers - and quite young children at that. Judging by the games they play and the way they squabble, Lucy, the youngest of the Pevensies, is probably about seven years old in TLTW&TW – the same age as me when I first read it. This would make Edmund eight or nine, Susan perhaps ten and Peter between eleven and twelve. Seven year olds – of whatever sex – don’t tend to be feisty, kick-ass action heroes. Lucy is sensitive, courageous, honest and steadfast, and Lewis clearly cares for her far more than he does for any of the boys. Peter and Susan are ciphers in the way older children often are in family stories of the era. Like John and Susan in Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons, their main role seems to be that of surrogate parents to younger, livelier, more irresponsible siblings. Edmund is a very ordinary little boy whose silliness, jealousy and deceit are realistically sketched. Most children have occasionally behaved and felt like Edmund. But Lucy stands out. It is she who discovers Narnia, she who befriends the faun, Mr Tumnus.  (And it’s Lucy and Susan, not the boys, who witness Aslan’s death and return to life: but more on the religious front later.)

Like Snow White, Lucy is quickly befriended by a denizen of the forest. And as in the seven dwarfs’ cottage, the cosy safety of Mr Tumnus’ house is soon compromised by the power of a dangerous queen. More terrifying still, Tumnus confesses himself  to be a deceiver, an informer. ‘I’ve pretended to be your friend and asked you to tea, and all the time I’ve been meaning to wait till you were asleep and then go and tell Her.’ Because, and remember these books were written during the Cold War, Narnia is quite literally a police state.

‘We must go as quietly as we can,’ said Mr Tumnus. ‘The whole wood is full of her spies.  Even some of the trees are on her side.’

Ashamed of himself, Tumnus is not now going to hand Lucy over to the White Witch, though this will put him at serious risk of torture and death –

‘…she’s sure to find out. And she’ll have my tail cut off, and my horns sawn off, and my beard plucked out, and she’ll wave her wand over my beautiful cloven hoofs and turn them into horrid solid hoofs like a wretched horse’s.  And if she is extra and specially angry, she’ll turn me into stone and I shall be only a statue of a Faun in her horrible house until the four thrones at Cair Paravel are filled – and goodness knows when that will happen, or whether it will ever happen at all.’

This is strong stuff for young children – strong stuff for anyone. I think the reason why, in my experience at least, children aren’t very upset by it, is that they feel safe in the hands of the narrator. Lewis never forgets who he is writing for. The potential terror of Lucy’s predicament is modified by Tumnus’ repentance. The danger to her, once recognised, is already over. And for Tumnus himself, well – the danger is real enough, but this is clearly the kind of story in which good characters will, ultimately, be all right.

Children are sensitive to narrative voice, both as readers and auditors. A parent reading aloud to a child can offer reassurance at scary moments. Lewis-as-narrator offers reassurance partly by interposing himself between the child-reader and the text – commenting upon it or explaining it, thus keeping frightening or sad material at a safe distance; as in this passage from the chapter after Aslan’s death:

I hope no one who reads this book has been quite as miserable as Susan and Lucy were that night; but if you have been – if you’ve been up all night and cried till you have no more tears left in you – you will know that there comes in the end a sort of quietness. You feel as if nothing were ever going to happen again.

Is this condescension?  I don’t think so. As a child, I never felt Lewis talked down to me, I felt he spoke as an equal, that he treated me seriously. He acknowledges the depth of children’s emotional experience, misery as well as happiness. By addressing the child reader directly, he turns Susan and Lucy’s grief into something we can share and understand, and the moment of Aslan’s death is thus softened and becomes more bearable.

The other method by which Lewis gently defuses fear or terror is a deft use of comedy – for example when the children and the Beavers bustle to get away from the White Witch.

‘…The moment that Edmund tells her that we’re all here she'll set out to catch us this very night, and if he’s been gone about half an hour, she’ll be here in about another twenty minutes.’

‘You’re right, Mrs Beaver,’ said her husband, ‘we must all get away from here.  There’s not a moment to lose.’

The tension is both heightened and comically undercut by Mrs Beaver’s insistence on the careful and extensive packing of ham, tea, sugar, bread and handkerchieves –

‘Oh do please come on,’ said Lucy. ‘Well I’m nearly ready now,’ answered Mrs Beaver at last… ‘I suppose the sewing machine’s too heavy to bring?’

Hurry, hurry! – the child reader thinks, yet at the same time is both amused (Mrs Beaver is being funny) and reassured (Mrs Beaver is a mother figure, and if she’s not scared, neither need we be).

If Lewis were not so skilful, this could and would be a deeply unsettling book.  There’s Edmund’s treachery – to his own brother and sisters, no less.  There’s the scene of the Faun’s cosy house in ruins –

The door had been wrenched off its hinges and broken to bits. …Snow had drifted in from the doorway and was mixed with something black, which turned out to be the charred sticks and ashes from the fire. Someone had apparently flung it about the room and then stamped it out. The crockery lay smashed on the floor and the picture of the Faun’s father had been slashed to shreds with a knife.

It’s no small achievement to be this frank, this clear about spite and violence and hate – confirmed by the denunciation on the door signed ‘MAUGRIM, Captain of the Secret Police’ – in a book for small children which most of us remember as full of magic and delight. There’s the threat to Edmund himself from the White Witch, who is ready to murder him. There’s the truly upsetting scene when the Witch turns to stone a happy little party of fauns and animals, for the crime of telling the truth. (This is also the moment at which Edmund feels compassion for the first time.)

‘What is the meaning of all this gluttony, this waste, this self-indulgence?  Where did you get these things?’
‘Please, your Majesty,’ said the Fox, ‘we were given them …’
‘Who gave them to you?’ said the Witch.
‘F-F-F-Father Christmas,’ stammered the Fox.
‘What?’ roared the Witch… ‘…How dare you – but no. Say you have been lying and you shall even now be forgiven.’
At that moment, one of the young squirrels lost its head completely.
‘He has – he has – he has!’ it squeaked, beating its little spoon on the table.

All this, before we’ve even got to the death of Aslan.

As is well known, JRR Tolkien didn’t get on with Narnia, and one of the things that annoyed him about the series was Lewis’s carefree – or slapdash, depending on your viewpoint – world-building, bundling together everything and anything he’d ever loved in myth, legend and fairytales. Thus Narnia has not only talking animals out of Beatrix Potter or The Wind in the Willows, it also has nymphs, naiads, dryads and river gods from classical mythology, and giants and dwarfs out of the Northern legends. It borrows Green Ladies from medieval romances, and mystical islands from Celtic voyage tales and, in this one first book, it has Father Christmas.

But when a writer has come up with a lovely phrase like ‘Always winter and never Christmas’, well what is he to do? I don’t mind this single meeting with Father Christmas in Narnia, although I do think Lewis was wise not to invite him back. He seems to me to echo the appearance of Grandfather Frost in Russian fairytales – the white-bearded old spirit of the snowy woods who just may, if you address him politely, give you gifts (rather than freezing you to death). Personally I find Father Christmas in Narnia easier to accept than Tolkien’s facetious reference to golf in The Hobbit, when Bilbo’s ancestor Bullroarer Took knocks off the head of the goblin king Golfimbul. ‘It sailed a hundred yards through the air and went down a rabbit hole, and in this way the battle was won and the game of golf invented at the same moment.’ Such self-conscious flippancy was one of the things that put me off The Hobbit as a child.

And now for the vexed question of religion.

People talk a lot nowadays about the Narnia stories as religious allegories.  They really aren’t. Lewis wrote a textbook about medieval allegory – ‘The Allegory of Love’ – and knew what it was and what it wasn’t. There is Christian symbolism in the books, but that is not at all the same thing. And it went clean over my head as a child. Aged about ten, I remember saying shyly to my mother that ‘it almost feels as if Narnia is real’.  (What I actually wanted to say was ‘I believe Narnia is real’ – because the alternative, that Narnia had no existence except between the pages of a book – was almost unbearable.) My mother didn’t spoil the book for me by telling me that Aslan 'is' Christ.  She just replied quietly, ‘I think you’re meant to feel that.’ And so the religious message in the books remained invisible to me – at least until The Last Battle more or less rubbed my face in it. Indeed, talking to some teenage Muslim girls a year or two ago, I got surprised looks when I mentioned the Christian elements in the Narnia stories. They hadn’t noticed, either.  There is a difference, I think, between the ways in which children and adults read. Children are more immersed in a book – more trusting, more literal. They take what they read at face value. They don’t come up for air and think, as adults do, ‘Just what is this author trying to say?’  

Does this make children potentially more vulnerable to prejudice and propaganda? Perhaps. But it’s interesting to look at a much more obvious attempt at Christian fantasy by the Catholic children’s author Meriol Trevor, written a decade after the Narnia books, in 1966. In The King of the Castle (Macmillan), a sick boy, Thomas, finds his way into the world of a picture hanging on his bedroom wall and meets Lucius, a shepherd with a phoenix ring, who believes himself to be the son of the High King. Reviled, disbelieved, eventually hanged, Lucius is restored to life by a Messenger of the High King, and claims his kingdom. The Christian message was obvious to me when I read the story as a child, but it didn’t capture my imagination, and a recent re-reading showed why: Lucius is wooden, the resurrection scene almost perfunctory, and there seems no narrative reason why the viewpoint character Thomas should be in this world at all.  The book has nothing of the verve, the colour, the energy of the Narnia stories.

Philip Pullman speaks for many who consider the Narnia books outrageous propaganda for the pernicious doctrine of an all-powerful God who demands innocent blood to atone for the sins of a supposedly corrupt humanity. From this viewpoint TLTW&TW is dodgy stuff.  For a Christian reader, however, such a view is a travesty of the New Testamant stories and the doctrine that declares Christ to be a facet of a living and loving God who shares in the suffering of the world. No one, least of all myself, is going to be able to reconcile such opposite perceptions.

But remember CS Lewis called his book a fairytale, and in fairytales the world over, good and innocent characters who die, come back to life.  Think of Snow White in her glass coffin! In The Juniper Tree, the murdered boy is transformed into a beautiful, mysterious bird which deals out justice, rewarding the good and destroying the wicked, before turning back into a living child again. In Fitcher’s Bird, the third bride is able to restore her murdered sisters to life and escape the house of the sorcerer. Resurrections occur in fairytales because here, if nowhere else, there is a real chance that justice and goodness may prevail over evil and tragedy. Lewis came to Christianity through stories: he took them seriously: he regarded the incarnation, death and resurrection of Christ as a fairytale which really happened.  We don’t have to follow him all the way.  But we can still be moved by the tales.

It is perfectly natural for a child to read The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe and to see Aslan as no more and no less than the literal account makes him: a wonderful, golden-maned, heroic Animal. I know, because that’s the way I read it, and that is why I loved him. Though the death of Aslan at the hands of the White Witch is the heart of the book, that ‘deep magic from the dawn of time’ works just as well on a non-Christian level. A beautiful, icy queen: a golden lion. ‘When he shakes his mane, we shall have spring again…’ Of course Aslan comes back to life! Who can kill summer?

My childhood copy of the map of Narnia...

Picture credits

All artwork by Pauline Baynes.  The full colour illustration of Lucy and Mr Tumnus is from Brian Sibley's 'The Land of Narnia', Collins Lions, 1989

Thursday, 30 November 2017

Seven Miles of Steel Thistles, reviewed by Jacqueline Simpson

Good reviews are always lovely to receive, but sometimes you receive one which means more than most. This, from the almost legendary Jacqueline Simpson, sometime President of the Folklore Society, Visiting Professor of Folklore at the Sussex Centre of Folklore, Fairy Tales and Fantasy at the University of Chichester, collaborator with Terry Pratchett on The Folklore of Discworld and co-author with Jennifer Westwood of The Lore of the Land: a Guide to England's Legends, from Spring-heeled Jack to the Witches of Warboys - is truly special. So here it is, from the latest issue of 'Folklore' and please forgive me for a little trumpet-blowing.

Seven Miles of Steel Thistles: Reflections on Fairy Tales. By Katherine Langrish. Carterton,
Oxfordshire: Greystones Press, 2016. 292 pp. £12.99 (pbk). ISBN 978-1-91112-204-3

‘Fairy tales’, writes Katherine Langrish, ‘are emotional amplifiers . . . [They] work as music does,directly on our feelings’ (197). This collection of her essays (plus three poems) illustrates the psychological subtlety and poetic force of her own responses, and will surely guide readers towards similar sensitivity. She can also, on occasion, cast light on relationships of sources and analogues, notably in her discussion of the ballad of ‘The Great Selkie of Sule Skerry’ (158–87), but her main concern is usually with the deeper themes which she perceives as underlying fairy-tale plots—such themes as time, hunger, death, and rebirth. Alongside these, she can provide sudden sharp insights and speculations which even if unprovable will remain memorable and interesting. For example, in an essay on water spirits she wonders whether the fact that a stick plunged into water will appear broken although it is in fact unharmed could have inspired the prehistoric custom of bending or breaking weapons before throwing them into sacred pools (262). She boldly tackles even the apparently distasteful tale of ‘The Juniper Tree’, which ‘acknowledges terrible evil but ends in hope’ and which ‘haunts’ her (145). Of course, one’s own responses may not always match hers; for example, she has never met anyone who likes the tale of ‘Bluebeard’ (198),whereas I enjoyed it as a child—largely, as I recall, for Sister Anne’s recurrent rhyming reply, ‘Je voie l’herbe qui verdoit et la route qui poudroit’ (I see green grass growing, and on the road dust blowing). We are all subjective readers, and I am grateful to Katherine Langrish for showing how fruitful this can be.

Her writing throughout is elegant, vivid, and frequently witty; there is much pleasure, as well
as much information, to be obtained from Seven Miles of Steel Thistles.

Jacqueline Simpson, The Folklore Society, UK
© 2017 Jacqueline Simpson

Saturday, 25 November 2017

"It's not just an [insert genre] book..."

I'm still engaged in writing the next book, so here's one from the archives - from three years ago. Still relevant though. 

I went into ‘The Last Bookshop’ in Oxford the other day, which sells what I assume (?) are remaindered books, since everything in the shop, regardless of size or original price, is sold for two pounds. (If not remaindered, the deal is a disgraceful one.) I buy books regularly enough that I don’t feel guilty about getting them cheap from time to time: and the selections here are often more interesting than what is to be found in the chains. Which proved to be the case as I pounced with delight upon this:

It’s the third in a series of horse books for children, 'The Horses of Oak Valley Ranch', by Jane Smiley, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of ‘A Thousand Acres’.  I have the first two in the US hardcover editions: ‘A Good Horse’ and ‘The Georges and the Jewels’. I do wish same-language publishers would keep to original titles, but Faber & Faber in the UK has changed them to the more generic ‘Secret Horse' and ‘Nobody's Horse’, and in the process has designed covers that practically guarantee no-one except pony fanatics will ever read them. The US covers are way classier. But that's publishers for you. And who knows if any of them sold well?

I mean, take a look at the UK cover of 'Mystery Horse' –‘True Blue’ in the States –  the gorgeous galloping white horse against the blue sky, with its blue foil title and little blue and pink foil flowers scattered around. Any pony-mad child would want it.  But then, well, then they might find this is more than your average pony story.  

US title/cover
UK title/cover
Set in 1960’s California, the books follow the story of a young girl, Abby, growing up in a fundamentalist Christian family. Her father is a horse trainer and dealer, and Abby spends much of her free time outside school helping him work with the horses. Her mother and father are loving parents but her father in particular is unbending in his outlook, and her elder brother Danny has left home after a bitter row.  

Smiley’s treatment of the family and its predicament is sympathetic and nuanced.  As Abby is the narrator, we see her father through her eyes: stubborn, hardworking, fair according to his lights, rigid in his beliefs but – over the course of the first three volumes – able finally to compromise and come to terms with his son’s independence.  In the meantime Abby begins to navigate her own way through life. Observing her father’s strengths and weaknesses, she learns how to trust herself, to question her parents’ views without loss of love or respect, and to come to her own conclusions.

US title/cover
UK title/cover
And YES, there is a lot about horses. Horses, Smiley suggests, are pretty much like people. When her father, a church elder, wants to discipline the disruptive young sons of a church family, Abby points out that whipping a child can be as counterproductive as whipping a horse:

“I think they [the boys] are like Jack, not like Jefferson. If we whipped Jack, it wouldn’t make him stop running.  It would make him run faster.  If we whipped Jefferson, he might not run at all.  He might just stop and buck.”
Mom reached over and smoothed my hair.  Dad didn't say anything, and we drove the rest of the way home. 

As if all this wasn’t enough, ‘Mystery Horse’/’True Blue’ is also a remarkably good ghost story: unsettling, spooky, beautiful and ultimately all about Abby, so that the ghostly bits are integral to the narrative and not some tacked-on extra thrill.

As an adult, I love these books.  I  love the detailed and thoughtful accounts of grooming, training and riding these horses which – because they are all for sale – often don’t even have individual names, in case anyone gets too attached to them. I love the fact that there can be whole chapters set in church – the ‘church’ which is all this small faith group can afford, a featureless rented space in a shopping mall.  I love the thoughtfulness with which Jane Smiley navigates Abby’s world.  The ways in which school and home life clash: textbooks which mention evolution and therefore cannot be shown to Daddy, or Mom’s horror on discovering that in a history lesson, Abby has been constructing cardboard models of  Spanish missions.

‘“You built a Catholic mission?”   
“We all did.”’ 

It’s done with a light, almost comedic touch, but can become serious. ‘“So,” said Daddy'  [to Daniel, at the beginning of their quarrel]. “Some boys who taught you to take the holy name of the Lord in vain are going to pick you up and take you to see a fantasy movie about evil and hate.  Am I right?”’ Other kids are allowed to go to movies and listen to the Beatles. Abby doesn’t exactly miss these activities, but she knows that not having them makes her different.

I love all of this. But would a child?

Well it depends on the child.  And this is where the title for this post comes in.  Genre fiction has an undeserved bad name.  Horse and pony books. School stories. Crime. Romance. Historical novels. Science fiction.  Fantasy. Children’s books.  If you can put it in a category, it must somehow be less than a ‘real’ novel.  ‘It’s just a pony book.’  ‘It’s just a school story.  ‘It’s just a romance.’

It’s true that there are many pony books, school stories or adventure stories which are hardly great literature, however that may be defined. But not every plain old novel is great literature either.  I’m not denigrating the many, many pony books I read as a child just because, as an adult, I no longer find them so interesting. The ‘Jill’ books by Ruby Ferguson, for example, kept me enthralled when I was ten or eleven. They are fun, they are lively. They do one single thing: tell an entertaining story and tell it well.  That is good in itself.

But there are books which do more, which are multi-dimensional. Mary O’Hara’s ‘My Friend Flicka’ and ‘Thunderhead’ and ‘Green Grass of Wyoming’ are multi-dimensional. They offer a richness – of characterisation, of description, of emotional intelligence – which the ‘Jill’ books don’t have and never aspired to.  KM Peyton’s  ‘Flambards’ and ‘Fly By Night’ and ‘The Team’ are multi-dimensional. In the genre of ‘school story’, Enid Blyton’s ‘Malory Towers’ and ‘St Claire’s’ stories offer the child reader excellent ripping yarns, unashamed fantasies of the fun and frolics of boarding-school life. But Antonia Forest’s school stories  ('Autumn Term' and its sequels) are multi-dimensional. They offer more: depth of character, growth, change, consideration of topics such as religion, censorship, responsibility, and the unwitting cruelty of schoolchildren to persons they dislike.  

And yes, I loved all of them indiscriminately, but the ones I read and reread and have kept reading into adult life are the multi-dimensional books.  I knew even back at the age of eleven or twelve or thirteen that I was getting far, far more out of ‘My Friend Flicka’ than I was getting out of ‘Jill’s First Pony’.  Mary O’Hara was talking about stuff that was important to me.  My father and my brothers, much as they loved each other, used to argue. There were misunderstandings, jealousies, quarrels which sometimes burst around us with the violence of a thunderstorm. In ‘My Friend Flicka’ and its sequels, the dreamy boy Ken and his impatient, practical father are also negotiating a difficult relationship punctuated by storms.  That story intertwines with the story of Ken’s love for his little horse, and is equally important.

Maybe some children don’t like these multi-dimensional books, maybe some children – perhaps even many children? – become bored, impatient, wanting simply to get on with the story. But there will be other children who want more, who are already thinking, already asking questions about life, who will appreciate finding these questions taken seriously in the middle of a book ‘about’ horses or school. A multi-dimensional book always gives the reader more than they expected.

Am I simply saying that genre books can be good novels?  Of course I am. But it’s more than that.  It’s a plea.  The next time you read an excellent horse story or school story or fantasy, try not to say in its praise,  ‘It isn’t just a pony book/school story, of course…’ as if somehow it needs to be extracted from its lowly niche before it can be appreciated.  Worse still, don’t say, ‘It’s not really a pony book/school story/children’s book at all!’

Because if you do, if everyone who ever reads and loves a ‘genre’ book feels they have to rescue it from its category before praising it, then what is left?  Every category of books – novels, children’s fiction, popular science, you name it – contains a multiplicity of less or more able writers, and we should remember it's better do something simple and do it well, than to aim high and fail. If somebody says, as someone recently said to me, ‘But Ursula Le Guin’s books aren’t really fantasies’, how is that a compliment to Le Guin? She chose to employ her wonderful talents in the field of sci-fi and fantasy. That is where she belongs. All it really proclaims is the reader’s embarrassment at having enjoyed a book belonging to a genre which they believe – in spite of the evidence before their eyes – to be second-rate.

Either we need to do away with categories and genres altogether – which isn’t going to happen – or we need to stop being embarrassed and apologetic, and be ready to recognise and celebrate good work in whatever field it happens to grow.   Loud and clear: there are excellent pony books, there are excellent school stories, there are excellent fantasies, and there are excellent children’s books.  Their excellence is no different in kind from that of any other writing. So, yes!  Unsurprisingly, Jane Smiley's series of horse stories is truly excellent. Any child or adult who picks them up will learn much – about horses, and about life.

Friday, 17 November 2017


I am delighted to be in the new issue of GRAMARYE, the journal of the Sussex Folklore Centre and as usual an unmissable read for folk lore and fairy tale enthusiasts.This issue contains three marvellous articles on Arthur Rackham - whose self portrait adorns the cover.  In 'A Walk Through Rackham Land,' Steven O'Brien takes us on a ramble through the deep history of the artist's beloved Sussex countryside.  William Wootten tells how Rackham's silhouettes inspired his own verse narrative of The Sleeping Beauty, and Simon Poë interestingly compares Rackham's illustrations to 'Puck of Pook's Hill' with those of H.R. Millar. Catriona McAra contributes an article on fairy references in the work of the  surrealist Leonora Carrington, while in 'Herne, the Windsor Bogey', Simon Young takes us into Windsor Great Park on a search for the controversial history of the great oak-tree of Herne the Hunter. 'The Signing Wife' is an original translation by Simon Hughes of a thought-provoking Norwegian folktale collected by Peter Christen Asbjørnsen. Finally, Diane Purkiss adds a touching and lyrical account of her childhood love for Andersen's story 'The Snow Queen'.

My own contribution is an analysis of the Grimms' fairytale  'MAID MALEEN':

Here's a little taster:

Maid Maleen (Kinder- und Hausmärchen, tale 198) isn’t particularly popular as fairy tales go. It was first published as Jungfer Maleen by Karl Müllenhoff in a collection called Sagen, Märchen und Lieder der Herzoghümer Schleswig, Holstein und Lauenburg (1845), from whence the Grimms borrowed it for the 1850 edition of their Kinder- und Hausmarchen. I don’t know whether Müllenhoff wrote it down verbatim from some oral source: he may have touched it up, but the Grimms made several slight but significant changes to his version, transforming it into a fairy story that delves unusually deeply into the trauma caused by abandonment and suffering.  ...

Why do I love this story so much?  Isn’t it just another tale of a passive princess sitting in a tower? In fact there aren’t so very many stories of princesses shut up in towers, and those that do exist are less like the stereotype than you might suppose. As Maid Maleen does, heroines quite often rescue themselves. Even in the case of Rapunzel (KHM 12) the prince not only fails to rescue Rapunzel, but wanders blind in the desert until he is saved by her. In Old Rinkrank (KHM 196), a princess trapped in a glass mountain ultimately tricks her captor, and engineers her own escape. [...] These tales are listed in the Aarne-Thompson folk-tale index as tale type 870: The Entombed Princess or The Princess Confined in the Mound – though this description, as Torborg Lundell has pointed out, is hardly adequate. Instancing The Finn King’s Daughter, another tale in which an imprisoned heroine digs herself out from underground and rescues her lover from the false bride, Lundell writes:

Consistent with the Aarne and Thompson downplay of female activity, this folktale type, with its aggressive and capable female protagonist, has been labelled ‘The princess confined in the mound’ (type 870), which implies a passivity hardly representative of the thrust of the tale. ‘The princess escaping from the mound’ would fit better...

GRAMARYE issue 12 can be ordered for £5.00 from the Sussex Centre for Folklore, Fairy Tales and Fantasy by following this link:  http://www.sussexfolktalecentre.org/journal/