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!