In her beautiful memoir The Farawy Nearby, Rebecca Solnit examines a crisis-filled period of her life during which she was sent a hundred pounds of apricots from a tree at her childhood home:
"The mountain of apricots that briefly occupied my bedroom floor was so many things besides food," she remembers. "... A gift from my mother, or her tree, they were a catalyst that made the chaos of that era come together as a story of sorts and an invitation to examine the business of making and changing stories and locate the silence in between. 'It is only by putting it into words that I make it whole,' Virginia Woolfe once wrote.
"She contined, 'This wholeness means that it has lost its power to hurt me; it gives me, perhaps because by doing so I take away the pain, a great delight to put the severed parts together. Perhaps this is the strongest pleasure known to me. It is the rapture I get when in writing I seem to be discovering what belongs to what....From this I reach what might be called a philosophy; at any rate it is a constant idea of mine, that behind the cotton wool is a hidden pattern; that we -- I mean all human beings -- are connected with this; that the whole world is a work of art; that we are parts of the work of art.' "
"The sudden appearance of the patterns of the world brings a sense of coherence and above all connection. In the old way of saying it, tales were spun; they were threads that tied threads together and from them the fabric of the world was woven. In the strongest stories we see ourselves, connected to each other, woven into the pattern, see that we ourselves are stories, telling and being told. Stories like yours and worse than yours are all around, and your suffering won't mark you out as special, though your response to it might."
"The protagonists of fairy tales and fables embody questions about who we are, what we desire, how to live," Solnit notes a few pages later in the book, "and the endings are not the real answers. During the quest and crises of a fairy tale the protagonist is nobody, possessed only of the powers of determination, resourcefulness, and alliance, an unconventional estimation of what matters. Then at the end, the story breaks with its own principles and unleashes an avalanche of conventional stuff: palaces, riches, and revenge.
"Part of the charm of Andersen's 'Snow Queen' is that Gerda rescues Kai from a queen and brings him back to friendship in attics, and that's enough. Many Native American stories don't quite end, because the people who go on into the animal world don't come back; they become the ancestors, progenitors, benefactors, forces still at work. Siddhartha is rich, thriving, loved, privileged, and protected, and walks out on all of it, as though the story were running backwards. He's born an answer and abandons that safe port to go out into a sea of questions and tasks that are neverending."
"What if we only wanted openings, the immortality of the unfinished, the uncut thread, the incomplete, the open door, and the open sea? What if we liked the brothers to be swans and the nettles not yet woven into shirts, the straw better than the gold, the quest more than the holy grail? The quest is the holy grail, the ocean itself is the mysterious elixir, and if you're lucky you realize it before you dock at the cup in the chapel."
The paintings and drawings today are by Helen Stratton, a prolific artist who published many popular books during England's "Golden Age of Illustration" at the dawn of the 20th century. Stratton was born in India in 1867 (where her father was a surgeon with the Indian medical service), spent her childhood in Bath, studied art in London in the 1890s (where she fell under the spell of Pre-Raphaelitism and Art Nouveau), and then settled in Kensington with her mother and siblings after her father's death. She received her first illustration commission (for Songs for Little People) in 1896 and then worked steadily for the next three decades, producing illustrated editions of Hans Christian Andersen and Grimms fairy tales, The Book of Myths, The Children's King Arthur, Charles Lamb's Shakespeare for Young People, two classic children's novels by George MacDonald: The Princess and the Goblin and The Princess and Curdie, and numerous other works, as well as collaborating with William Heath Robinson on a lavish edition of The Arabian Nights. Stratton returned to Bath in the 1930s, where she lived until she died, at 94, in 1961.