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Sand woke, curled in the ashes of a great fireplace. Surprised to find himself waking at all, for he had no memory of falling asleep, Sand scrambled to his feet. Soot billowed from him in a cloud and sneaked up his nose. He sneezed four great sneezes that came back in lonely echoes from the vast room beyond the fireplace. Sand had never slept in a fireplace before. He never wanted to again. But he hesitated inside the fireplace, one foot suspended in midair, afraid to leave. In the room beyond, everything was broken. Every single thing.
I loved, loved, loved The Castle Behind Thorns. It is a retelling of Sleeping Beauty, I suppose. It puts a definite spin on it that is completely different from the original, but that is completely fascinating. Sand, the hero, wakes up in a fireplace in a castle that he's only heard stories about. The castle being abandoned quite suddenly when his own father was not yet grown. He finds himself very alone; he's the only living thing in the castle. (No growing plants, no bugs or insects, no birds, no mice, nothing). He keeps the panic to a minimum, in my opinion. Especially considering the situation! He's in an abandoned castle surrounded by hostile, vicious thorns. He explores. He plans. He mends. He learns and adapts. He's hungry and thirsty and tired. He finds a way to survive. In his exploring, he finds the family's crypt. He restores a body that had fallen, placing the young girl's body back gently and carefully. Several days later, or some time later, readers meet the heroine Perrotte...
The Castle Behind Thorns is a beautiful story with memorable, well-developed characters. I enjoyed every minute of this one! The mystery is quite good! I would definitely recommend this one!
Submissions are now being accepted for the twelfth annual issue, The Ochre Issue, of Fairy Tale Review. The Ochre Issue has no particular theme—simply send your best fairy-tale work along the spectrum of mainstream to experimental, fabulist to realist.
We accept fiction, nonfiction, drama, and poetry, in English or in translation to English, along with scholarly, hybrid, and illustrated works (comics, black-line drawings, etc.).
The reading period will remain open until the issue is full—we predict closing it sometime in late spring or early summer.
“The individual fairy tale is not itself a myth, but it presupposes a mythic framework of surprise, dependence or vulnerability, the balancing of anxiety with expectation: a thumbnail sketch of human experience in a bewildering natural and emotional environment.” (“why we need fairy tales now more than ever” by Rowan Williams, New Statesman, December 22, […]
When a successful writer of books for adults decides to traipse headlong into the world of children’s literature, the results are too often disastrous. From Donald Barthelme’s self-indulgent Slightly Irregular Fire Engine to the more recent, if disastrous in an entirely different way, Rush Revere series by Rush Limbaugh, adult authors have difficulty respecting the unique perspective of a child reader. Either they ignore the intended audience entirely and appeal to the parents with the pocket change or they dumb everything down and reduce the storytelling to insulting pabulum. This is not to say that all adult authors are unsuccessful. Sylvia Plath penned the remarkable The Bed Book while Ted Hughes brought us The Iron Giant. Louise Erdrich will forever have my gratitude for her Birchbark House series and while I wouldn’t call Michael Chabon’s Summerland a roaring success, it at least had some good ideas. Then we come to Neil Gaiman. Mr. Gaiman is one of those rare adult authors to not only find monetary success in the field of children’s books but literary success as well. His The Graveyard Book won the prestigious Newbery Award, given once a year to the most distinguished written book of children’s literature in America. Like Donald Hall with his Ox-Cart Man, Gaiman has successfully straddled two different literary forms. Unlike Hall, he’s done so repeatedly. His latest effort, Hansel and Gretel takes its inspiration from art celebrating an opera. It is, in an odd way, one of the purest retellings of the text I’ve had the pleasure to read. A story that begs to be spoken aloud, even as it sucks you into its unnerving darkness.
In the beginning there was a woodcarver and his pretty wife and their two children. Times were good and once in a while the family, though never rich, would get a bite of meat. Then the wars came and the famine. Food became so scarce that the wife persuaded her husband to abandon their children in the woods. The first time he tried to do so he failed. The second time he succeeded. And when Hansel and Gretel, the children in question, spotted that gingerbread cottage with its barley sugar windows and hard candy decorations the rest, as they say, was history.
It’s a funny kind of children’s book. The bulk of it is text-based, with time taken for Mattotti’s black and white two-paged spreads between the action. For people expecting a standard picture book this can prove to be a bit unnerving. Yet the truth is that the book begs to be read aloud. I can see teachers reading it to their classes and parents reading it to their older children. The art is lovely but it’s practically superfluous in the face of Gaiman’s turn of phrase. Consider sentences like “They slept as deeply and as soundly as if their food had been drugged. And it had.” There’s something deeply satisfying about that “And it had”. It is far more chilling in its matter-of-factness than if Gaiman had ended cold with “It had”. The “And” gives it a falsely comforting lilt that chills precisely because it sounds misleadingly comforting. It pairs very well with the first sentence in the next section: “The old woman was stronger than she looked – a sinewy, gristly strength…” He then peppers the books with little tiny nightmares that might not mean much on a first reading but are imbued with their own small horrors if you pluck them out and look at them alone. The witch’s offers to Gretel to make her one of her own and teach her how to ensnare travelers. Hansel’s refusal to let go of the bone that saved his life, even after the witch has died. And the final sentence of the book has a truly terrible tone to it, though on the surface it appears to be nothing but sunshine and light:
“In the years that followed, Hansel and Gretel each married well, and the people who went to their weddings ate so much fine food that their belts burst and the fat from the meat ran down their chins, while the pale moon looked down kindly on them all.”
Some versions of the story turn the mother into a stepmother, for what kind of parent would sacrifice her own children for the sake of her own skin? Here Gaiman is upfront about the mother. She was pretty once but became bitter and sharp-tongued in time. It’s her plying words that convince the woodcutter to go along with the abandonment plan. As the book later explains, subsequent version of this tale turned her into a stepmother, but here we’ve the original parent with her original sin. Gaiman also solves some problems in the plot that had always bothered me about the story. For example, why does Hansel drop white stones that are easy to follow the first time he and Gretel are abandoned in the woods but breadcrumbs the second? The answer is in the planning. Hansel has foreknowledge of his mother’s wicked scheme the first time around and has time to find the stones. The second time the trip into the woods catches him unawares and so the only thing he has on hand to use for a path are the breadcrumbs of the food he’s given for lunch.
Originally the illustrations in this book were created by Lorenzo Mattotti for the Metropolitan Opera’s staging of the opera of the same name. These pieces of art (which the publication page says are in “a rich black ink, on a smooth woodfree paper from Japan”) proved to be the inspiration for Gaiman’s take. This is no surprise. Mattotti knows all too well how to conjure up the impression of light or night with the merest swoops of his paintbrush. His children are no better than silhouettes. Does it even matter if they have any features? Here the trees are the true works of art. There’s something hiding in the gloom here and from the vantage taken, the thing lurking in the woods, spying upon the kids, is ourselves. We are the eyes making these two children so very nervous. We espy their mother pacing in front of their home just before the famine starts. We peer through the trees at the kids crossing past a small gap in the trunks. On a first glance the shadows are universal but then you notice when Mattotti chooses to imbue a character with features. The children are left abandoned in the woods and all you can see of the woodcutter is an axe and an eye. I think it the only eyeball in the entire book. It’s grotesque.
Of course, for a children’s librarian the best part might well be the backmatter. Recently I read a version of “The Pied Piper of Hamelin” that suggested that the Grimm tale was a metaphor for a plague that had wiped out all of Hamelin’s children, save a few. A similar theory surrounds “Hansel and Gretel”, suggesting that the story’s origins lie in the Great Famine of 1315. Further information is given about the tale, ending at last with the current iteration and (oh joy!) a short Bibliography. You might not be as ready to nerd out over this classic fairy tale, but for those of you with a yen, boy are you in luck!
What is the role of a fairy tale these days? With our theaters and books filled to brimming with reimagined tellings, one wonders what fairy tales mean to most people. Are they cultural touchstones that allow us to speak a universal language? Do they still reflect our deepest set fears and worries? Or are they simply good yarns worth discovering? However you chose to view them, the story of “Hansel and Gretel” deserves to be plucked up, shaken out like an old coat, and presented for the 21st century young once in a while. Neil Gaiman’s a busy man. He has a lot to do. He could have phoned this one in. Instead, he took the time and energy to make give the story its due. It’s not about what we fear happening to us. It’s about what we fear doing to ourselves by doing terrible things to others. The fat from the meat is running down our chins. Best to be prepared when something comes along to wipe it up.
Movie producers have altered the way fairy tales are told, but in what ways have they been able to present an illusion that once existed only in the pages of a story? Below is an excerpt from Marina Warner’s Once Upon a Time that explores the magic that movies bring to the tales:
From the earliest experiments by George Meliès in Paris in the 1890s to the present day dominion of Disney Productions and Pixar, fairy tales have been told in the cinema. The concept of illusion carries two distinct, profound, and contradictory meanings in the medium of film: first, the film itself is an illusion, and, bar a few initiates screaming at the appearance of a moving train in the medium’s earliest viewings, everyone in the cinema knows they are being stunned by wonders wrought by science. All appearances in the cinema are conjured by shadow play and artifice, and technologies ever more skilled at illusion: CGI produces living breathing simulacra—of velociraptors (Jurassic Park), elvish castles (Lord of the Rings), soaring bionicmonsters (Avatar), grotesque and terrifying monsters (the Alien series), while the modern Rapunzel wields her mane like a lasso and a whip, or deploys it to make a footbridge. Such visualizations are designed to stun us, and they succeed: so much is being done for us by animators and filmmakers, there is no room for personal imaginings. The wicked queen in Snow White (1937) has become imprinted, and she keeps those exact features when we return to the story; Ariel, Disney’s flame-haired Little Mermaid, has eclipsed her wispy and poignant predecessors, conjured chiefly by the words of Andersen’s story
A counterpoised form of illusion, however, now flourishes rampantly at the core of fairytale films, and has become central to the realization on screen of the stories, especially in entertainment which aims at a crossover or child audience. Contemporary commercial cinema has continued the Victorian shift from irresponsible amusement to responsible instruction, and kept faith with fairy tales’ protest against existing injustices. Many current family films posit spirited, hopeful alternatives (in Shrek Princess Fiona is podgy, liverish, ugly, and delightful; in Tangled, Rapunzel is a super heroine, brainy and brawny; in the hugely successful Disney film Frozen (2013), inspired by The Snow Queen, the younger sister Anna overcomes ice storms, avalanches, and eternal winter to save Elsa, her elder). Screenwriters display iconoclastic verve, but they are working from the premise that screen illusions have power to become fact. ‘Wishing on a star’ is the ideology of the dreamfactory, and has given rise to indignant critique, that fairy tales peddle empty consumerism and wishful thinking. The writer Terri Windling, who specializes in the genre of teen fantasy, deplores the once prevailing tendency towards positive thinking and sunny success:
The fairy tale journey may look like an outward trek across plains and mountains, through castles and forests, but the actual movement is inward, into the lands of the soul. The dark path of the fairytale forest lies in the shadows of our imagination, the depths of our unconscious. To travel to the wood, to face its dangers, is to emerge transformed by this experience. Particularly for children whose world does not resemble the simplified world of television sit-coms . . . this ability to travel inward, to face fear and transform it, is a skill they will use all their lives. We do children—and ourselves—a grave disservice by censoring the old tales, glossing over the darker passages and ambiguities
Fairy tale and film enjoy a profound affinity because the cinema animates phenomena, no matter how inert; made of light and motion, its illusions match the enchanted animism of fairy tale: animals speak, carpets fly, objects move and act of their own accord. One of the darker forerunners of Mozart’s flute is an uncanny instrument that plays in several ballads and stories: a bone that bears witness to a murder. In the Grimms’ tale, ‘The Singing Bone’, the shepherd who finds it doesn’t react in terror and run, but thinks to himself, ‘What a strange little horn, singing of its own accord like that. I must take it to the king.’ The bone sings out the truth of what happened, and the whole skeleton of the victim is dug up, and his murderer—his elder brother and rival in love—is unmasked, sewn into a sack, and drowned.
This version is less than two pages long: a tiny, supersaturated solution of the Grimms: grotesque and macabre detail, uncanny dynamics of life-in-death, moral piety, and rough justice. But the story also presents a vivid metaphor for film itself: singing bones. (It’s therefore apt, if a little eerie, that the celluloid from which film stock was first made was itself composed of rendered-down bones.)
Early animators’ choice of themes reveals how they responded to a deeply laid sympathy between their medium of film and the uncanny vitality of inert things. Lotte Reiniger, the writer-director of the first full-length animated feature (The Adventures of Prince Achmed), made dazzling ‘shadow puppet’ cartoons inspired by the fairy tales of Grimm, Andersen, and Wilhelm Hauff; she continued making films for over a thirty-year period, first in her native Berlin and later in London, for children’s television. Her Cinderella (1922) is a comic—and grisly— masterpiece.
Early Disney films, made by the man himself, reflect traditional fables’ personification of animals—mice and ducks and cats and foxes; in this century, by contrast, things come to life, no matter how inert they are: computerization observes no boundaries to generating lifelike, kinetic, cybernetic, and virtual reality.
Featured image credit: “Dca animation building” by Carterhawk – Own work. Licensed under CC-BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
From Little Red Riding Hood to Frozen, the contemporary fairy tales we know today had their beginnings in classic versions that may seem less familiar at first glance. Inspired by Once Upon a Time by Marina Warner, we’re testing your knowledge of well-known favorites with the quiz below. Do you know your Cinderella from your Sleeping Beauty? Try your hand at the questions to see if you have what it takes to be King or Queen of fairy tale lore.
We hope you enjoyed taking this quiz. If you still don’t want to leave the world of ‘happily ever afters’, why not discover who the OUP staff chose as their favourite characters from fairy tale history?
Featured image credit: Beauty and the Beast, by Warwick Goble. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
There are plenty of operas about teenage girls—love-sick, obsessed, hysterical teenage girls who dance, scheme, and murder in a frenzy of musical passion. Disney Princess films are also about teenage girls—lonely, skinny, logical teenage girls who follow their hearts because the plot gives them no other option. The music Disney Princesses sing can be divided into three periods that correspond to distinct animation styles:
Onto these three periods we can map the themes of the princess anthems, the single song for which each princess is remembered:
The relative lack of variance in these songs tells us something important—while animation styles have changed, the aspirations of girlhood have not been radically altered.
But then there’s Frozen.
Elsa’s anthem, “Let It Go,” combines aspects from all three periods: Frozen is a computer animated film, Idina Menzel is a Tony Award-winning singer, and, most importantly, the song and the Snow Queen who sings it have an operatic legacy rooted in representations of madness and infirmity. “Let It Go” is a tribute to passion, spontaneity, and instinct—elements celebrated by both the opera (which nevertheless punishes the bearer severely) and the Disney film (which channels them into heterosexual romance). Frozen does neither.
Unlike the songs of longing for belonging that came before it, “Let It Go” insists that being like everyone else is bound to fail. It’s a coming out song often read as a queer anthem and easily interpreted to account for a number of stigmatized identities. As such, Elsa is a screen onto which may be projected our fantasies and fears. While her transformation into a shapely princess swaying in a sparkly gown with wispy blond hair may be familiar, the scene where this takes place, the way she looks back at the viewer, and the music she sings define Elsa as more ambiguous than she appears. Is Elsa sick, is she mentally ill, is she asexual, is she gay? What is Elsa and why does she resonate so strongly with young girls?
Elsa is like the women of 19th-century opera in her exclusion from the world the other characters comfortably occupy. Marred by magical ability, Elsa must isolate herself if she does not want to scar those she loves—or so the dialogue tells us. The imagery suggests an illness; Elsa behaves as if she were contagious. Indeed, she is consumptive like Mimi, but she is also betrayed like Tosca and scandalous like The Queen of the Night. As Catherine Clément says of women in the opera: “they suffer, they cry, they die…Glowing with tears, their decolletés cut to the heart, they expose themselves to the gaze of those who come to take pleasure in their pretend agonies.” Operatic women express their hysteria skillfully. At the pinnacle of her agony, Elsa builds a magnificent castle while singing her most beautiful song, a song that has itself become infectious. In its final moments, she exposes herself, only to slam the door on viewers who would like nothing more than to gawk at the excess.
Most princess anthems end satisfactorily on the tonic chord, their musical conclusions coinciding with lyrical expectations that assure the story will fulfill the princesses’ desires. For example, when Ariel wishes she could be “part of that world”, she sings a high F, which a trombone echoes an octave lower, reinforcing the song’s key and suggesting the narrative’s interest in giving Ariel what she wants. In “Someday My Prince Will Come,” Snow White’s final line repeats the home pitch no less than six times as if to insist the screenwriters pay attention. “Let It Go,” on the other hand, ends unresolved. The score establishes a sharp distinction between the assertive melodic phrase sung by Elsa, “The cold never bothered me anyway,” and the harmonic manifestation of the accompaniment. Elsa turns her back to the camera after singing the downward moving line, which ends rather abruptly on the tonic, while the chord that ought to have shifted with Elsa’s exit lingers in the icy upper register of the strings, as if refusing to acknowledge the message. Is the music condemning the singer’s difference by suggesting that her immunity to the elements is indicative of a physical or psychic malady?
Unlike Donizetti’s operatic heroine, Lucia, whose infamous “mad scene” prompts the chorus to weep for her, Elsa stares into the camera, eyebrow raised, as if daring the spectators to pity her. This is the look of a woman who refuses to capitulate to patriarchy. And with our endless covers and video parodies of “Let It Go” we have rallied to her defense. Rather than constrain her by Frozen’s story, “Let It Go” lets Elsa escape again into possibility. The new princess message, “Leave Me Alone,” is echoed by little girls everywhere.
Peter Conrad says of opera, “It is the song of our irrationality, of the instinctual savagery which our jobs and routines and our nonsinging voices belie, or the music our bodies make. It is an art devoted to love and death (and especially to the cryptic alliance between them); to the definition and the interchangeability of the sexes; to madness and devilment…” Such is also a fair description of Frozen, for what are its final moments than an act of love to stave off death, what is Elsa but a mad and devilish woman who revels in the impermanence of sexuality, what is a fairytale but a story full of savage beasts that prey on our emotions. “Let It Go” releases an archetype from the hollows of diva history into the digital world of children’s animation.
Headline Image: Disney’s Frozen. DVD screenshot via Jennfier Fleeger.
From wicked step-mothers to fairy god-mothers, from stock phrases such as “once upon a time” to “happily ever after”, fairy-tales permeate our culture. Disney blockbusters have recently added another chapter to the history of the fairy-tale, sitting alongside the 19th century, saccharine tales published by the Brothers Grimm and the 17th century stories written by Charles Perrault. Inspired by Marina Warner’s Once Upon a Time, we asked OUP staff members to channel their inner witches, trolls, and princesses, and reveal who their favourite fairy-tale character is and why. Do you agree with the choices below? Who would you choose?
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“The outlook is not promising for my favourite fairy-tale character, Kai, towards the end of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen. With splinters from the troll’s mirror in his eye and his heart (that have turned him evil), Kai is a prisoner of the Snow Queen being forced to spell out the word ‘eternity’ using pieces of ice, in the manner of a Chinese puzzle. And he does it all for the childish promise of a pair of skates. Knowing the author’s penchant for unhappy, complicated endings, I was greatly relieved when the story ends with Kai’s childhood love Gerda coming to the rescue!”
— Taylor Coe, Marketing Coordinator
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“Though I have many favorite characters, the one that has been consistent throughout my life is Ariel/The Little Mermaid. I have always been fascinated by the ocean so her story stood out amongst the other fairy-tales when I was growing up. I admire her ability to recognize what she wants, and her courage to change her circumstances, no matter the consequences. She is curious and always seeks out new experiences, which I relate to. Ariel’s story reminds us to question our surroundings and create adventurous lives.”
— Molly Hansen, Marketing Associate
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“Baba Yaga. She has long been my favorite mainly because of the sound, rhythm, and cadence with which my mother (who first told me the story from a children’s book of fairy-tales) said ‘Baba Yaga, the boney-legged’. All sorts of possibilities lay within those five words. (I later learned my mother was mispronouncing ‘Baba Yaga’.) I think what her story distinct is that Baga Yaga was an individual. Normally fairy-tale characters, especially villains, are nameless : a witch, a wicked stepmother, etc. (this was before I learned it simply means ‘old woman’). Baba Yaga had a home (with chicken legs!); she didn’t live in some random cottage that inept children could find. Baga Yaga belonged in the (fairy tale) universe just as much as the heroes. (I have no idea what the hero’s name was supposed to be.)”
— Alice Northover, Social Media Marketing Manager
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“Mine is La belle au bois dormant – or Sleeping Beauty. Just the thought of sleeping in peace for 100 years sounds like heaven to me. I’m not so fussed about being awoken by a kiss from a prince – I’d rather he came with a large cup of tea!”
— Andrea Keegan, Senior Commissioning Editor
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“My favourite fairy-tale character is one I can’t actually pronounce: Snegurochka. For those who don’t speak Russian – and I modestly include myself among that number – Snegurochka (or Snegurka) is known in English as The Snow Maiden. It’s about a girl made of snow, by a poor, childless couple, who unexpectedly comes to life. Most versions of the story end relatively tragically, but I love the mixture of fantasy and real life. It’s very poignant, and lends itself to many different retellings.”
— Simon Thomas, Marketing Executive
* * * * *
“I have always been a fan of the Brothers Grimm fairy-tale Snow White and Rose Red. Since one sister shares a name with the other fairy tale princess, I think these young ladies often are overlooked. I love that they are brave enough to be generous and kind even to those who are different or intimidating. And someone who is ungrateful for their help gets eaten by a bear—a good lesson for us all.”
— Patricia Hudson, Associate Director of Institutional Marketing
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“My favourite fairy-tale character is Puss in Boots because he is such a cunning feline. Ever the loyal cat, he uses his tricks and deceptions to aid his master in pursuit of love and fortune. He is part of a long tradition of the ingenious sidekick, whose skills far outweigh those of their counterpart – in this case his master – who inevitably reap the benefits of the sidekick’s wily ways. It’s got everything really: brains, adventure, romance… and rather adorably, a cat who thinks he’s people.”
— Jennifer Rogers, Team Leader (GAB Operations)
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“Peter Pan because he is selfish and charming, earthly and ethereal, vulnerable and bold; he boasts “Oh, the cleverness of me!” and also fearlessly announces “To die would be an awfully big adventure”. He inhabits a dream-world and delights in enticing us to join him; to leave off adulthood and rekindle our childhood spirit & imagination.”
— Suzie Eves, Marketing Assistant
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“I’ve always loved the tales of Fionn mac Cumhaill, the Irish warrior. He’s a shape-shifter in mythology; sometimes a man, sometimes a descendant of magic people, sometimes a giant. As a giant, he built the Giant’s Causeway to give him a stepping stone to Scotland. During a feud with a Scottish giant he dug out a clump of earth to throw at his rival; the hole where the earth had been became Lough Neagh, the earth (which fell short of Scotland) became the Isle of Man. It is said that he never died, but lies asleep underground, and will wake to protect Ireland and the Irish people when they need him most. I love these tales, as they speak to me of the places of my childhood, and when I visit the Giant’s Causeway, I almost feel like I could round a corner to find Fionn stepping in his giant boots across the Irish Sea.”
— Cathryn Steele, Assistant Commissioning Editor
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“My favourite fairy-tale character is the old shoemaker, who worked very hard and was very honest, but who couldn’t earn enough to feed his family. He unknowingly receives the help of the nocturnal elves, who themselves have nothing, not even clothes on their backs, but who work all night to turn leather into beautifully crafted shoes. The eventually success of the old shoemaker did not change him and he repaid the elves kindness with Christmas presents of fancy shirts, bright pantaloons, and teeny tiny clogs, and the elves went away happy and dancing. A lovely lesson not to forget those who helped us get where we are. It also reminds me of what parents say when they’ve performed a thankless task, “the elves must have done it!”. Perhaps it’s really a hint that they deserve a nice present at Christmas!”
— Alison Jones, Managing Editor (Open Access)
* * * * *
“My favourite fairy-tale character is the horse Dapplegrim. I always loved how he was the brains and also the brawn in his fairy tale, and how the story was really about him, instead of about the prince and the princess who usually feature so centrally in fairy-tales. With his help his master was able to complete the tasks he was set and marry the princess, but Dapplegrim never asked for his own reward. His story had everything – magic, shape-shifting, seemingly-impossible tasks, a beautiful princess/sorceress to win, and a battle. Dapplegrim always came out on top.”
— Jenny Nugee, Administative Assistant
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“As a child I remember being horrified and fascinated by the Grimm’s Fairy Tales. The more horrible the story, the more I loved it. Yet, it was not until I was a full-grown adult that I discovered my favorite book of fairy-tales. It was in the mid-90s when I was in my late 20s, living in Hoboken, NJ. My bedroom window looked out the back onto the backroom of a local pub, The Shannon Lounge. It was in the backroom of the Shannon Lounge that I witnessed a strange puppet show inspired by Heinrich Hoffmann’s Der Struwwelpeter. Here are wondrous tales of kids catching fire for playing with matches, and tall lanky men snipping off the thumbs of thumb sucking minors, or what would happen if you tipped in your chair at the dinner table, and many other cautionary tales for obstreperous brats that paid little heed to the wisdom of their parents and elders.”
— Christian Purdy, Publicity Director, GAB Marketing
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“I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for the lesser-known but very sweet Brave Little Tailor. He becomes king because of a series of calculated heroic actions, including clever wordplay (he kills “seven at one stroke,” he claims, referring not to men but to the seven flies he killed at breakfast) and defeating giants without even touching them (he turns them on each other, instead). He moves up the social ladder and marries the princess all due to his wit and cleverness—and maybe some white lies here and there…”
— Georgia Brodsky, Marketing Coordinator
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“The best characters are almost always the evil ones! I love the Queen in Snow White, particularly in the Brothers Grimm telling of the story. Her impressively creative attempts to kill Snow White are fascinating, and I’m pretty sure that I can relate to her demise: dancing in red-hot shoes until she drops dead.”
— Caroline James, Editor
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“I’ve always had a soft spot for the Ugly Duckling. As a very sensitive kid, I agonized with the baby bird at every step of his journey and was elated when he found his true family. Then, as a typically insecure teenager, I dreamed of having a transfiguration of my own. Now, as I tell the story to my daughter, it reminds me how important it is to treat even the scruffiest of ducklings more like potential swans.”
— Beth Craggs, Communications Executive
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“One of my favourite fairy-tale characters is the dog with the eyes as big as saucers in The Tinderbox. I like him because even though the treasure he guarded was the least valuable, he is no less intimidating as a character. As a child I wished I had a dog, so the idea of having three big dogs you could summon at any time also had great appeal!”
— Iona Argyle, Programme Administrator
* * * * *
“My favourite fairy-tale character has to be Roald Dahl’s feisty Little Red Riding Hood. Dahl’s ability to challenge traditional roles and inject any story with a wicked spark of fun made his books a mainstay of my childhood. As a feminist, and someone who has watched the obsession with ‘perfect princesses’ with increasing dismay, the killer lines in this poem feel like a perfect antidote:”
‘The small girl smiles. One eyelid flickers.
She whips a pistol from her knickers.
She aims it at the creature’s head
And bang bang bang, she shoots him dead’
I have read a lot of fairytale retellings recently, many of them sci-fi, a lot of them doing very interesting things with the stories they are retelling. I wasn’t sure what to expect with this one, but I was excited for a science fiction story that did something different with the Snow White tale. I will be honest: Stitching Snow was not the book for me. Stitching Snow is about Essie, the princess of Windsong, the planet that rules the galaxy. She runs away to the mining planet of Thanda after her step-mother tries to kill her and lives there somewhat peacefully for eight years until a mysterious boy, Dane, crash lands near her home. Also, she is something called an Exile, an otherwise normal human with the genetic quirk that she can enter another person’s consciousness and know everything they’re thinking. The premise was interesting enough, but I found... Read more »
Everything about the origins of Prague, from the castles, the river, the cobbled streets of the old city to Charles Bridge, almost everything has a story, a myth or a legend associated with it.
Prague’s origins are said to go back to the 7th century and the Slavic Princess Libuše. Not only beautiful and wise, she also possessed prophetic powers. Libuše and her husband, Prince Přemysl, ruled peacefully over the Czech lands from the hill of Vyšehrad. According to legend, one day Libuše had a vision as she stood on a cliff overlooking the Vltava. She pointed to a forested hill across the river, and proclaimed: "I see a great city whose glory will touch the stars." She instructed her people to build a castle where a man was building the threshold (práh in Czech) of a house. "And because even the great noblemen must bow low before a threshold, you shall give it the name Praha." And so Prague was born.
The Old Square
The Arch to Charles Bridge
I won’t recount all the myths and legends associated with the city, because there are so many. There are tales of tragedy, of love, of valour and of sacrifice. Here are but a few titles in case you wish to look them up.
The Iron Man, The Silver Fish, The Headless Templar, The One-Armed Thief, The Ghost of the Miller’s Daughter, The Begging Skeleton, Karbourek the Water Sprite, The Golem of Prague, The Murdered Nun, The Mad Barber, The Legend of Dalibor, Prophecies of the Clock.
Chair of Nails
Surreal urination at the Franz Kafka Museum...
Modern day declarations of love
If you run out of books...
Prague was a great source of inspiration to me. It was as if I were stepping back in time. Sadly I missed out on a Ghost Tour of this magical city. Oh well, I’ll just have to go back...
There is a quarrel inside me about fairies, and the form of literature their presence helps to define. I have never tried to see a fairy, or at least not since I was five years old. The interest of Casimiro Piccolo reveals how attitudes to folklore belong to their time: he was affected by the scientific inquiry into the paranormal which flourished – in highly intellectual circles – from the late nineteenth century and into the twentieth. But he also presents a test case, I feel, for the questions that hang around fairies and fairy tales in the twenty-first century. What is the point of them? What are the uses of such enchantments today? The absurdity of this form of magical belief (religious miracles are felt to be different, and not only by believers) creates a quarrel inside me, about the worth of this form of literature and entertainment I enjoy so much. In what way am I ‘away with the fairies’, too?
Suspicion now hangs around fairy tales because the kind of supernatural creatures and events they include belong to a belief system nobody subscribes to anymore. Even children, unless very small, are in on the secret that fairyland is a fantasy. In the past, however, allusions to fairies could be dangerous not because belief in them was scorned, but because they were feared: Kirk collected the beliefs of his flock in order to defend them against charges of heterodoxy or witchcraft, and, the same time as Kirk’s ethnographical activities, Charles Perrault published his crucially influential collection (l697), in which he pokes fun, with suave courtly wit, at the dangerousness of witches and witchcraft, ogres and talking animals. Perrault is slippery and ambiguous. His Cinderella is a tale of marvellously efficacious magic, but he ends with a moral: recommending his readers to find themselves well-placed godmothers. Not long before he was writing his fairy tales, France and other places in Europe had seen many people condemned to death on suspicion of using magic. The fairy tale emerges as entertainment in a proto-enlightenment move to show that there is nothing to fear.
The current state of fairy tale – whether metastasized in huge blockbuster films or refreshed and re-invigorated in the fiction of Robert Coover, Donald Barthelme, Margaret Atwood or, most recently, Helen Oyeyemi (Mr Fox, and, this year, Boy Snow Bird) does not invite, let alone compel, belief in its magic elements as from an audience of adepts or faithful. Contemporary readers and audiences, including children over the age of 6, are too savvy about special effects and plot lines and the science/magic overlap to accept supernatural causes behind Angelina Jolie’s soaring in Maleficent or the transmogrifications of the characters. Nor do they, nor do we need to suspend disbelief in the willed way Coleridge described.
Rather the ways of approaching the old material – Blue Beard, The Robber Bridegroom, Hansel & Gretel, Snow White and so on – opens up the stories to new meanings. The familiar narrative becomes the arena for raising questions; the story’s well known features provide a common language for thinking about families and love, childhood and marriage. Fairies and their realm allow thought experiments about alternative arrangements in this world. We are no longer looking for fairies at the bottom of the garden, but seeing through them to glimpse other things. As the little girl realises in The Servant’s Tale by Paula Fox, her grandmother through her stories ‘saw what others couldn’t see, that for her the meaning of one thing could also be the meaning of a greater thing.’ In the past, these other, greater things were most often promises – escape, revenge, recognition, glory – but the trend of fairy tales is turning darker, and many retellings no longer hold out such bright eyed hope.
Featured image credit: Sleeping Beauty, by Viktor M. Vasnetsov. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
I’m writing from Palermo where I’ve been teaching a course on the legacy of Troy. Myths and fairy tales lie on all sides in this old island. It’s a landscape of stories and the past here runs a live wire into the present day. Within the same hour, I saw an amulet from Egypt from nearly 3000 years ago, and passed a young, passionate balladeer giving full voice in the street to a ballad about a young woman – la baronessa Laura di Carini – who was killed by her father in 1538. He and her husband had come upon her alone with a man whom they suspected to be her lover. As she fell under her father’s stabbing, she clung to the wall, and her hand made a bloody print that can still be seen in the castle at Carini – or so I was told. The cantastorie – the ballad singer – was giving the song his all. He was sincere and funny at the same time as he knelt and frowned, mimed and lamented.
The eye of Horus, or Wadjet, was found in a Carthaginian’s grave in the city and it is still painted on the prows of fishing boats, and worn as a charm all over the Mediterranean and the Middle East, in order to ward off dangers. This function is, I believe, one of the deepest reasons for telling stories in general, and fairy tales in particular: the fantasy of hope conjures an antidote to the pain the plots remember. The street singer was young, curly haired, and had spent some time in Liverpool, he told me later, but he was back home now, and his song was raising money for a street theatre called Ditirammu (dialect for Dithryamb), that performs on a tiny stage in the stables of an ]old palazzo in the district called the Kalsa. Using a mixture of puppetry, song, dance, and mime, the troupe give local saints’ legends, traditional tales of crusader paladins versus dastardly Moors, and pastiches of Pinocchio, Snow White, and Alice in Wonderland.
Their work captures the way fairy tales spread through different media and can be played, danced or painted and still remain recognisable: there are individual stories which keep shape-shifting across time, and there is also a fairytale quality which suffuses different forms of expression (even recent fashion designs have drawn on fairytale imagery and motifs). The Palermo theatre’s repertoire also reveals the kinship between some history and fairy tale: the hard facts enclosed and memorialised in the stories. Although the happy ending is a distinguishing feature of fairy tales, many of them remember the way things were – Bluebeard testifies to the kinds of marriages that killed Laura di Carini.
A few days after coming across the cantastorie in the street, I was taken to see the country villa on the crest of Capo d’Orlando overlooking the sea, where Casimiro Piccolo lived with his brother and sister. The Piccolo siblings were rich Sicilian landowners, peculiar survivals of a mixture of luxurious feudalism and austere monasticism. A dilettante and dabbler in the occult, Casimiro believed in fairies. He went out to see them at twilight, the hour recommended by experts such as William Blake, who reported he had seen a fairy funeral, and the Revd. Robert Kirk, who had the information on good authority from his parishioners in the Highlands, where fairy abductions, second sight, and changelings were a regular occurrence in the seventeenth century.
Casimiro’s elder brother, Lucio, a poet who had a brief flash of fame in the Fifties, was as solitary, odd-looking, and idiosyncratic as himself, and the siblings lived alone with their twenty servants, in the midst of a park with rare shrubs and cacti from all over the world, their beautiful summer villa filled with a vast library of science, art, and literature, and marvellous things. They slept in beds as narrow as a discalced Carmelite’s, and never married. They loved their dogs, and gave them names that are mostly monosyllables, often sort of orientalised in a troubling way. They range from ‘Aladdin’ to ‘Mameluk’ to ‘Book’ and the brothers built them a cemetery of their own in the garden.
Casimiro was a follower of Paracelsus, who had distinguished the elemental beings as animating matter: gnomes, undines, sylphs and salamanders. Salamanders, in the form of darting, wriggling lizards, are plentiful on the baked stones of the south, but the others are the cousins of imps and elves, sprites and sirens, and they’re not so common. The journal Psychic News, to which Casimiro subscribed, inspired him to try to take photographs of the apparitions he saw in the park of exotic plants around the house. He also ordered various publications of the Society of Psychical Research and other bodies who tried to tap immaterial presences and energies. He was hoping for images like the famous Cottingley images of fairies sunbathing or dancing which Conan Doyle so admired. But he had no success. Instead, he painted: a fairy punt poled by a hobgoblin through the lily pads, a fairy doctor with a bag full of shining golden instruments taking the pulse of a turkey, four old gnomes consulting a huge grimoire held up by imps, etiolated genies, turbaned potentates, and eastern sages. He rarely left Sicily, or indeed, his family home, and he went on painting his sightings in soft, rich watercolour from 1943 to 1970 when he died.
His work looks like Victorian or Edwardian fairy paintings. Had this reclusive Sicilian seen the crazed visions of Richard Dadd, or illustrations by Arthur Rackham or John Anster Fitzgerald? Or even Disney? Disney was looking very carefully at picture books when he formed the famous characters and stamped them with his own jokiness. Casimiro doesn’t seem to be in earnest, and the long-nosed dwarfs look a little bit like self-mockery. It is impossible to know what he meant, if he meant what he said, or what he believed. But the fact remains, for a grown man to believe in fairies strikes us now as pretty silly.
The Piccolo family’s cousin, close friend and regular visitor was Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, the author of The Leopard, and he wrote a mysterious and memorable short story about a classics professor who once spent a passionate summer with a mermaid. But tales of fairies, goblins, and gnomes seem to belong to an altogether different degree of absurdity from a classics professor meeting a siren.
And yet, the Piccolo brothers communicated with Yeats, who held all kinds of beliefs. He smelted his wonderful poems from a chaotic rubble of fairy lore, psychic theories, dream interpretation, divinatory methods, and Christian symbolism: “Out of the quarrel with others we make rhetoric; out of the quarrel with ourselves we make poetry.”
Featured image credit: Capo d’Orlando, by Chtamina. CC-BY-SA-2.5 via Wikimedia Commons
Very Little Red Riding Hood
by Teresa Heapy; illus. by Sue Heap
Preschool Houghton 32 pp.
9/14 978-0-544-28000-7 $16.99
In this re-imagining, Little Red is a toddler. She’s affectionate, stubborn, imperious, and has no time for the intimidation techniques of the wolf. “No touch my cakes!” She hugs him, calls him Foxie, and proceeds to order him around. Grandmama has her doubts, but Little Red insists that Foxie be invited inside for tea and an exhausting round of preschooler activities. When Little Red succumbs to homesickness, the wolf demonstrates unexpected child-minder skills. Was he ever really a threat or did he just come with a bad rap and a sweet tooth? The sprightly, scribbly watercolor illustrations particularize the characters: Red with her every emotion front and center; game Grandmama in her yoga pants; and the wolf, stylish in a mohair overcoat and polka-dot scarf and increasingly confused by kindness. Varied type sizes give the reader-aloud lots of performance hints. Tantalizing red endpaper maps, locating the houses of Very Little Goldilocks and Very Little Cinderella, expand our knowledge of this fairy-tale world.
Once upon a time, there were parents who wished upon every shooting star for their kids to turn out okay. Shiny pennies were tossed into fountains and wishbones pulled, in hopes that their children would grow up to be joyful and productive citizens of the land. Imagine the parents’ sorrow and dismay when they did not.
Is this your family’s philosophy? Are you sure? Check out these 10 clues to see if your family’s faith is like a fairy tale:
1. Your children have no idea where the location of their Bibles. However, you keep your copy under the seat in the car, just in case you need it one Sunday.
2. A Bible isn’t used at home for individual study or for a family time of devotions.
3. Someone says a blessing before meals, but only when company is present.
4. The only time you pray with your kids is at bedtime—when you remember—and actually, that’s your child praying her usual list.
Is Your Family's Faith Like a Fairy Tale?
5. At Christmas, discussions are mainly about being good for Santa and about presents. At Easter, the focus is more about emptying a plastic egg than the miracle of Christ’s empty tomb.
6. Quite often, your family chooses to attend to many things on Sunday, except church.
7. When you do attend church, you focus more on what’s in it for you than how you can serve others.
8. At home, there is more talk about reality shows than the reality of God, His love, and His will for your lives.
9. When sin occurs in your home it is often justified rather than dealt with it in a just manner.
10. Family members’ speech and behaviors are vastly different outside the church walls.
The true story is families are not living in a fairy tale world. God is real. And so is Satan. We can’t live out our days haphazardly, hoping our sons eventually turn into knightly men and our daughters don’t become damsels in distress.
We live in a sinful world. How are you strengthening your family for spiritual battle? A fairy godmother is not going to show up and make your troubles disappear with the wave of a wand. It requires standing firmly on faith and living by the Sword of Truth. Gather your family and get back to basic training. Actively participate in a church that teaches and practices God’s Holy Word. Make your testimony real to your children.
You either make-believe or you do believe in Jesus Christ. One belief leads to chaos and the other leads to a joyfully ever after.
Poisoned Apples: Poems for You, My Pretty
by Christine Heppermann; photos by various artists
High School Greenwillow 106 pp.
10/14 978-0-06-228957-5 $17.99 g
e-book ed. 978-0-06-228959-9 $9.99
For this poet, there is no dividing line between fairy tales and reality: “You can lose your way anywhere,” claims the poem with which she begins this collection of fifty pieces on the devastating conjunction of girls’ vulnerability, the rapacious beauty industry, and fairy tales. Caustic, witty, sad, and angry, Heppermann (a former Horn Book reviewer) articulates what some of her readers will no doubt perceive already but what may be news to others: the false promises, seductions, and deathly morass of popular culture’s imagery of girls’ bodies. What makes Heppermann’s poetry exceptional, however, is not the messages it carries but the intense, expressive drive that fuels it. In “The Anorexic Eats a Salad”: “Mountains rise, fall, rise again. / Stars complete their slow trek into oblivion. / A snail tours the length of China’s Great Wall / twice. / All those pesky cancers — cured…She has almost made it through / her first bite.” Or, in “The Wicked Queen’s Legacy”: “It used to be just the one, / but now all mirrors chatter. / In fact, every reflective surface has opinions / on the shape of my nose, the size / of my chest…” These poems dwell fiercely and angrily within the visual and verbal cacophony heard and seen by girls, offering an acerbic critique, mourning, and compassionate, unrelenting honesty.
Deeper meaning resides in the fairy tales told me in my childhood than in any truth that is taught in life. ~ Johann Christoph Friedrich v. Schiller, German Poet (1759-1805) Using fairy tales, fables, and other story forms to guide and nurture our children. I’m very excited to announce the launch of my publishing site […]
Sarah Mlynowski is the New York Times bestselling author of the Whatever After series as well as Gimme a Call, Don’t Even Think About It, Ten Things We Did (and Probably Shouldn’t Have), How to Be Bad (along with E. Lockhart and Lauren Myracle) and the Magic in Manhattan series. Originally from Montreal, Sarah now lives in the kingdom of Manhattan with her very own prince charming and their fairy-tale-loving daughters.
I’m very proud to announce the first instalment of my new column at Luna Station Quarterly. The column title is “What’s in a Fairy Tale.” My first essay is “Dark Side of the Fruit,” which takes a closer look at the evil queen’s poisoned apple. LSQ has a brand new format. I hope you’ll stop by […]
What makes a villain a villain? I’ve always been a fascinated—and a little bit terrified—of villains, especially in fairytales. As a child, I couldn’t get enough of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs even if the old witch sent me diving into our couch cushions to hide my eyes.
Have you watched Adventure Time? Maybe you have seen the comic or the graphic novel or some of the merchandise. It's a phenomenon, not least because of the age range it seems to appeal to. It is a show on the Cartoon Network, which the network claims tops its ratings and is watched by 2 million 2–11 year old boys – but I know many older kids, including students, who watch it avidly too.
When I first saw it I must admit I was surprised that something as violent, surreal and bizarre – and sometimes with such horrific and sexual content – was being aired for young children. It has a PG rating but that does nothing to keep it from young children's impressionable brains.
I think it's brilliant (but then I have a degree in Dada and Surrealism), and its freshness is perhaps partly because it's not written in the conventional sense (by a writer or writer team) but produced by artists using storyboards that are then developed by a team, even going so far as deliberately to employ surrealist techniques such as the Exquisite Corpse game in order to come up with ideas. It's also hand-drawn, each 11 minute episode taking 8–9 months to make.
Now: "Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?" This was the line that introduced the American radio show The Shadow in the 1930s (it later became a film, comic book series, etc etc). One answer is (besides the eponymous detective) – that children do. Children are far more preoccupied with questions about what adults call the dark side of human nature than many adults give them credit for. The best children's writers know this.
Adventure Time is therefore in the same ballpark as Where the Wild Things Are...
... and the darkest of nursery rhymes and fairy stories....
... the kind that were explored by Angela Carter in her novels about growing up such as the Magic Toyshop and the Company of Wolves...
...stories where grandmothers turning to carnivorous beasts, the bedroom is populated by monsters, and the house next door contains versions of your own parents but with buttons for eyes (thanks, Neil)...
There is a genuine sense of beauty, spirituality and awe in many of Adventure Time's episodes or scenes, that is also shared by children who are viewing the world for the first time. It's as if the creators have been able to access their own infantile selves to identify with the way that children see the world.
My reference to The Shadow was chosen for another reason: the parts of the personality satisfied in its fans by Adventure Time and these other stories can be seen as parts of the 'shadow self', as described by the poet Robert Bly in his A Little Book on the Human Shadow. The Jungian theory of the human shadow, itself part-derived from myths and old stories, is that babies and young children have what Bly calls a 360° personality. But much of this compass of human potential is socialised out of their behaviour during their upbringing. By the time they are around 20 years old just a slice remains. This is the socialised personality that becomes fixed as an adult. The remaining portion is buried – the shadow – but it emerges in odd ways: our obsessions, the imaginary traits we project onto situations and other people, particularly our partners, the things we are frightened of, particularly in ourselves. Bly says that after the age of 40 or so – the age of the midlife crisis – adults often start to unpack their shadow. Their reaction to this process determines the rest of the course of their lives. The shadow is not bad, nor evil. Those are labels that adults put onto things. The shadow contains just what was suppressed, punished or ignored during the socialisation or upbringing process, and depends on the values held by the parents and the culture they belong too. And this, I think, is why Adventure Time appeals to young adults as well as children. Young adults are struggling with those aspects of themselves which adults want to repress. In young adults there is a sense of nostalgia for their childhood self, that remains as a fading echo before the responsibilities of adulthood unkindly snuff it out altogether and they forget forever what being a child is like. They know this is going to happen, they regret it and they try to cling on to its last vestiges as long as possible. The shadow is important, vital, necessary, and it is dangerous to repress it or ignore it. The makers of Adventure Time, and the Cartoon Network that commissions it, cannot be unaware of this. It is a liminal gate to the subconscious, the place where creativity thrives. If I seem to be making rather grand claims for what is after all a children's cartoon I make no apologies. We all, as writers, are gatekeepers to this realm, aren't we? And each of us, in our own unique way, delves beyond the gate to do our work.Add a Comment
I first met Frances Hardinge as part of an intrepid SAS contingent that stormed the World Fantasy Convention in Brighton in October 2013. We had a great time, although there were fewer costumes than I'd hoped, and no centaurs galloping through the plenary session...
Myself, Teresa Flavin and Katherine Roberts do the costume thing...
I recently read and reviewed Frances Hardinge's new book, Cuckoo Song, for ABBA reviews (you can find the review here). I loved it - and I wanted to ask Frances some questions about it, and about her writing in general, of which I am great admirer. So I thought I would hijack my ABBA post this month to interview her. Luckily, she is a very accommodating person, and was happy to allow me to grill her. As we live at opposite ends of the country, this had to be by email: but let's pretend we met in a chippy in Brighton for this conversation...
Waiting for fish and chips
So, Frances, unlike in previous novels, Cuckoo Song is set in a real historical period. How did you find that compared with setting your stories in secondary worlds where you are free to make it all up?
Writing a book set in a specific real world time period is much harder. There's always the fear of getting some detail wrong, and being caught out. One becomes obsessed with checking historical minutae, even for details that probably won't make the final cut. In a way it's a lot of fun, and you discover lots of new things during the research, but you can go quite, quite mad. In spite of my checking, I'm sure there are still lurking errors.
I did find myself making some compromises. Sometimes to preserve the pace of the book, you can't afford to detour into lengthy explanations of historical context.
And I had to compromise when it came to the dialogue. At first I really wanted to have my characters using plenty of slang from the time. Then I started looking at the things people actually said in 1920s Britain.
I say! Rather! I should think so! Jolly decent. A good sort. Old thing. Old bean. Old man. Ragging. Blighter. What rot! What a lark! That's torn it!
Nowadays we can't read these phrases without hearing them in the voice of Bertie Wooster or Billy Bunter. They sound flippant, innocent, comical and bit twee. When one is trying to build suspense in a tale of psychological horror, that's the last thing you need. The characters might as well be exclaiming:
“Oh well, never mind, old girl. What ho! Ginger beer!”
Yes - that would have ruined the atmosphere for sure! It's a bit like the dilemma of using Shakespearian language in an Elizabethan setting - the odd words and phrases give a sense of a different time, but too many 'thee's and 'thou's and it starts to sound like a send up. Of course, in Cuckoo Song it's not only a case of real-world historical details, because you are also depicting another world - the fairie realm. I loved the idea of fairies as these strange bird-like Besiders who lurk in out-of-the-way places. How much did you draw on particular details for myths and folktales as inspiration when developing your otherworld characters?
In the case of Cuckoo Song, I drew quite heavily on the old changeling folktales. These tales make for a disturbing read, not just because of the nightmare scenario of a malignant imposter taking the place of one's child. In the stories, the human hosts usually rid themselves of the changeling through utter cruelty - leaving them on a dunghill, flinging them into deep water, hurling them into the fire, etc. (It's particularly unpleasant because there's evidence that in past centuries some children with severe disabilities really did die from such brutal treatment, because they were thought to be 'changelings'.)
The nature of the changeling varies from one folktale to another. Sometimes it's a fretful, sickly fairy child, swapped for a healthy human infant by envious fairy parents. Sometimes it's a full-grown adult fairy, infiltrating the mortal cottage so that it can be pampered and fed. Occasionally, however, the changeling nothing more than a doll, fashioned from leaves, wood or wax, and enchanted to look like an ailing child. It was the third type that started to fascinate me.
The journey of Triss and Pen into the Underbelly is inspired by a particular folktale called "The Smith and the Fairies". After his son is stolen by fairies, a smith is advised by a wise man to go to the green hill on a certain night, armed with only a dirk, a Bible and a crowing cock. The way into the hill will be open that night. He must drive the dirk into the ground to make sure the hill does not close behind him. The Bible is protection. It is the rooster, however, that will most upset the fairies...
In some ways, however, I deliberately deviated from traditional fairy lore. The fairies of folklore tend to be vulnerable to cold iron, but also to trappings of the church - Bibles, prayers, blessings, church bells. In my book, the Besiders are twilight creatures, inhabitants of the in-between and unmapped places, and their great enemy is certainty. Most iron will not hurt them, but they have a horror of scissors, which cleanly and cruelly divide, leaving nothing in between. Religious faith is dangerous to them, but so is faith and certainty of all kinds.
I found the idea of the scissors as a symbol of dividing everything neatly into one side or the other quite chilling - as you make clear, so much cruelty comes from that kind of black and white thinking. The book is very good at delving into the grey areas between, and showing how mixed-up most people's characters are. I especially liked your portrayal of the relationship between the two sisters, Triss and Pen. As one of two sisters myself, I totally recognised that combination of fierce hatred and love - the way your sister can be both your worst enemy and the one person you can always rely on. Do you have sisters, or was that an impressive feat of imagination?
I do have a sister. I was older, but by only eleven months, and it always felt as though we were basically the same age. We constructed elaborate imaginary worlds together, tried to set up a detective agency (we never got any cases), wrote plays with songs, invented codes and fought like fury. The first time one of my milk teeth came out, it was because I was biting my sister.
Ha, ha. I knew it! I was also the eldest and my sister was thirteen months younger, so a very similar gap. And yes, we fought bitterly, but also collaborated to create imaginary worlds and games, write letters in code, make maps and search for hidden treasure (we never found any). It's a great apprenticeship for writing children's books!
One of the things I also like about your books is that you never really hurt or destroy your main characters - they may have some heart-stopping or tearful moments, but they are generally put down gently on safe ground at the end. Are you conscious of that, and is it related to the age you write for, or is it just part of who you are as a writer, that you don't have a desire to take your readers to very dark or unhappy places? (Or do you secretly nurse a desire to write a book with a massacre in it?)
Funnily enough, one of my books does have a massacre in it! It's my third book, Gullstruck Island. I won't say any more since it's an important plot event, and I wouldn't want to commit spoilers.
Ah - I haven't read that one! (Orders it from the library immediately...)
My books tend to have a bodycount, and for the course of the story I like my readers to be in real doubt about whether my main character will survive. Most of them live in quite unforgiving worlds. I suspect that in fact I probably do take my protagonists to some dark and unhappy places... but then allow them to find a way out again, through their own ingenuity, courage and strength of will.
My books don't often have neat or straightforward 'happy endings', but hope generally triumphs. That isn't because I'm softening my books for a younger audience, but because I'm naturally quite a hopeful person. I'm a cynical optimist.
I think that's what I meant, really - not that there aren't dark times or places, but that as a reader I feel safe. I know that somehow it will work out, the main characters will find a way. I like the idea of being a cynical optimist - I think I'm probably one, too.
I'd like to finish by asking you a bit about the nuts and bolts of how you write. Your language is wonderfully inventive - your descriptions always fresh and original. Is that something that just flows from your pen or do you refine a lot in subsequent versions?
I am not one of those authors who manages to produce the same number of words each day (though I admire the discipline of all those who do). I have spurts of productivity where I turn out a lot of text in a day. Afterwards I go back and fiddle with it neurotically, and usually the 'fiddling' takes the form of cutting. I have a terrible addiction to metaphors, so when I revise my own work it usually involves the gentle patter of snipped metaphors and similes hitting the floor.
That's interesting - so the first draft has even more of that inventive figurative language! I'd love to see a Frances Hardinge text before it's been pruned, all overgrown and tangled with trailing metaphors. What a treat! But your stories aren't just beautifully described, they have cracking plots. Do you work these out beforehand, or follow leads as they come up? In other words, are you a plotter or a pantser?
I always plot out my books before I write them. For my first book I even had a chapter by chapter outline. I haven't gone into quite that much detail in plans for my later books, but I always map out the main incidents, and know what the ending will be.
However, there's always some room for making things up on the fly. A book should be a journey of discovery for the writer as well as the reader, otherwise the writing process can become dull and leaden. My stories surprise me. Characters develop in unexpected ways. Just now and then, I change my mind about my plot structure halfway through writing the book. It's still useful to have that first plan, though, even if I decide to deviate from it. I need that trellis, even if I can't full predict how my story-vine will grow.
What do you do when you get stuck? How do you get the ideas and words flowing again?
I seldom reach a point where I can't write. Instead, I get a form of writers' block where I write the same chapter over and over again, and can't get the text to 'work'. It lies there on the screen like a stunned weasel.
If you're sitting alone in a study for too long you can get hypnotised by your own screen. Sometimes I go for a ten-mile hike, just so that I can work through some plot knots in my head.
I find it a lot easier to write, however, if there is a deadline looming, even if it's an artifical one. I belong to a couple of writers' groups, and I find that I become a lot more productive just before the sessions...
I think that's probably enough. I could happily carry on all day, but we need to get started on those chips! Many thanks for answering my questions, and good luck with the next book! It's been a pleasure. Pass the ketchup!
I hope everyone's enjoyed this conversation as much as I did - and if any of you haven't come across Frances's books, do go and seek them out. They are among the most inventive, delightful and original books for older children I've read.
C.J. Busby writes funny fantasy for 7-10. Her latest book, Deep Amber, is out with Templar. The sequel, Dragon Amber, will be published in September.
I love fairy tale reworkings. At the same time their popularity of late has resulted in a lot of mediocre ones and so when I come across one I’m both excited and wary. Is it going to be a goofy-movie-Shrek-imitating-like thing or more in the vein of Michael Buckley’s Fairy Tale Detectives, Christopher Healy’s Hero’s Guides, or Adam Gidwitz’s Grimm series? And if YA dark is it going to be lame bodice-ripper or something with heft, like Tom McNeal’s Far Far Away? And so seeing a description of Katherine Coville’s debut novel The Cottage in the Woods on Edelweiss, I requested it on a whim and began reading it with very low expectations. And so what a lovely surprise when it turned out to be completely engrossing, a book I read steadily until I was done. In other words, reader, I liked it very much.
The story is a unique melding of a Regency Romance/Victorian Gothic set within a fairy tale world. Our heroine and narrator is Ursula Brown, a very proper young bear who has come to the Cottage in the Woods, the wealthy Vaughn family’s estate near Bremen Town, as their young boy’s governess. The three Vaughn bears live an elegant and refined life and Ursula slips into it without much difficulty, tolerating Mr. Vaughn’s stern admonitions, appreciating Mrs. Vaughn’s kind gestures, and falling very much in love with her sweet young charge, Teddy. But life in the area is not easy. The Enchanted — those animals who talk, dress, and act as humans do — are struggling with envy, prejudice, racial hostility, and out-and-out vigilantism from some of their human neighbors.
The publisher indicates that this is a reworking of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears.” It is indeed, but I don’t wish to give away just how. I will say that I found it an enormously clever rethinking of that particular story, very much in keeping with the literary tradition Coville is working in, that of the Victorian novel. I’ve been reading and listening to a lot of them these days and so I was very impressed with how well Coville used those tropes in her story. Ursula is very introspective, the various Enchanteds in her world are as proper and polite as anyone in an Austen, Bronte, Eliot, or Trollope novel. There is plenty of drama here, but not the swashbuckling sort of some of the other fairy tale workings. And while somber on occasion it isn’t as dark as some of the YA ones around.
There are so many clever fairy tale/nursery rhyme touches that also allude to the Victorian novel tradtion. For instance, Teddy’s nurse is an illiterate tippling badger who is quite jealous of our heroine and an amusing contrast to the cozy cute ones of Potter and others. Best of all is the Goldilock’s plot thread — it is a brilliant rethinking of the story within a classic Victorian Gothic setting. And I love the representation of the doctor who comes to examine her at one point with his Freud-like Viennese accent.
So keep an eye out for this one. I can’t wait to see what others make of it.
Please give a warm welcome to special guest Deborah Blake. Deborah’s book, Wickedly Dangerous, hits stores next week. I’ll have a review soon over at Romance at Random, but until then, find out a few items that you will never find in protagonist Baba’s magical Airstream. I asked where I could get one of my own, too, so I’d be styling at the horse shows. Unfortunately, I think I’m out of luck.
5 things you’d never find in Baba’s Airstream:
1. A bag of Cheetos
2. Cleaning supplies (since she can do it all with a snap of a finger)
3. A copy of TV Guide
4. A pair of Birkenstocks (she’s strictly boots or bare feet…but you might find them in her sister Baba Beka’s magical school bus)
5. A cat (Chudo-Yudo would never allow it, alas)
And sadly, Barbara’s Airstream only exists inside my head, and I don’t think you’d want to live there. It is a very confused and messy place!
Plopping his hat on over his dark blonde hair, Liam strode up to the door of the Airstream—or at least, where he could have sworn the door was a couple of minutes ago. Now there was just a blank wall. He pushed the hair out of his eyes again and walked around to the other side. Shiny silver metal, but no door. So he walked back around to where he started, and there was the entrance, right where it belonged.
“I need to get more sleep,” he muttered to himself. He would almost have said the Airstream was laughing at him, but that was impossible. “More sleep and more coffee.”
He knocked. Waited a minute, and knocked again, louder. Checked his watch. It was six AM; hard to believe that whoever the trailer belonged to was already out and about, but it was always possible. An avid fisherman, maybe, eager to get the first trout of the day. Cautiously, Liam put one hand on the door handle and almost jumped out of his boots when it emitted a loud, ferocious blast of noise.
He snatched his hand away, then laughed at himself as he saw a large, blunt snout pressed against the nearest window. For a second there, he’d almost thought the trailer itself was barking. Man, did he need more coffee.
At the sound of an engine, Liam turned and walked back toward his car. A motorcycle came into view; its rider masked by head-to-toe black leather, a black helmet, and mirrored sunglasses that matched the ones Liam himself wore. The bike itself was a beautiful royal blue classic BMW that made Liam want to drool. And get a better paying job. The melodic throb of its motor cut through the morning silence until it purred to a stop about a foot away from him. The rider swung a leg over the top of the cycle and dismounted gracefully.
“Nice bike,” Liam said in a conversational tone. “Is that a sixty-eight?”
“Sixty-nine,” the rider replied. Gloved hands reached up and removed the helmet, and a cloud of long black hair came pouring out, tumbling waves of ebony silk. The faint aroma of orange blossom drifted across the meadow, although none grew there.
A tenor voice, sounding slightly amused, said, “Is there a problem, officer?”
Liam started, aware that he’d been staring rudely. He told himself it was just the surprise of her gender, not the startling Amazonian beauty of the woman herself, all angles and curves and leather.
“Sheriff,” he corrected out of habit. “Sheriff Liam McClellan.” He held out one hand, then dropped it back to his side when the woman ignored it. “And you are?”
“Not looking for trouble,” she said, a slight accent of unidentifiable origin coloring her words. Her eyes were still hidden behind the dark glasses, so he couldn’t quite make out if she was joking or not. “My name is Barbara Yager. People call me Baba.” One corner of her mouth edged up so briefly, he almost missed it.
“Welcome to Clearwater County,” Liam said. “Would you like to tell me what you’re doing parked out here?” He waved one hand at the Airstream. “I assume this belongs to you?”
She nodded, expressionless. “It does. Or I belong to it. Hard to tell which, sometimes.”
Liam smiled gamely, wondering if his caffeine deficit was making her sound odder than she really was. “Sure. I feel that way about my mortgage sometimes. So, you were going to tell me what you’re doing here.”
“Was I? Somehow I doubt it.” Again, that tiny smile, barely more than a twitch of the lips. “I’m a botanist with a specialty in herbalism; I’m on sabbatical from UC Davis. You have some unusual botanical varieties growing in this area, so I’m here to collect samples for my research.”
Liam’s cop instincts told him that her answer sounded too pat, almost rehearsed. Something about her story was a lie, he was sure of it. But why bother to lie about something he could so easily check?
“Do you have some kind of ID?” he asked. “Your vehicle didn’t turn up in the database and my dispatcher couldn’t find any record of a permit for you to be here. This is county property, you know.” He put on his best “stern cop” expression. The woman with the cloud hair didn’t seem at all fazed.
Deborah Blake is the author of seven books on modern Witchcraft from Llewellyn Worldwide, including The Witch’s Broom (2014). An eighth book, The Everyday Witch, will be out in 2015.Deborah’s first fiction series, The Baba Yaga books, are coming out from Berkley in 2014; they include a prequel novella, Wickedly Magical, as well as Wickedly Dangerous and Wickedly Wonderful. She is represented by agent Elaine Spencer of The Knight Agency.
When not writing, Deborah manages The Artisans’ Guild, a cooperative shop she founded with a friend in 1999, and makes gemstone jewelry. She also is a professional tarot reader and energy healer. Deborah lives in a 120 year old farmhouse in rural upstate New York with five cats who supervise all her activities, both magickal and mundane.
Known as the wicked witch of Russian fairy tales, Baba Yaga is not one woman, but rather a title carried by a chosen few. They keep the balance of nature and guard the borders of our world, but don’t make the mistake of crossing one of them…
Older than she looks and powerful beyond measure, Barbara Yager no longer has much in common with the mortal life she left behind long ago. Posing as an herbalist and researcher, she travels the country with her faithful (mostly) dragon-turned-dog in an enchanted Airstream, fulfilling her duties as a Baba Yaga and avoiding any possibility of human attachment.
But when she is summoned to find a missing child, Barbara suddenly finds herself caught up in a web of deceit and an unexpected attraction to the charming but frustrating Sheriff Liam McClellan.
Now, as Barbara fights both human enemies and Otherworld creatures to save the lives of three innocent children, she discovers that her most difficult battle may be with her own heart…