Old stories made new
From the archives: Stories that matter

Four writers on fairy tales

Snow White by Angela Barrett

Snow White by Angela Barrett

Following on from yesterday's post, here are four more writers looking at the ways fairy tales pervade their lives and art....

Sara Maitland:

"Once upon a time, the stories would begin. Once upon a time is no particular time, fictional time, fairy-story time. This is a doorway; if you're lucky, you go through it as a child, aurally, before you can read, and if you are very lucky, you become a free citizen of an ancient republic and can come and go as you please. These stories are deeply embedded in my imagination. As I grew up and became a writer, I found myself going back and using them, retelling them ever since, working partly on the principle that a tale which has been around for centuries is highly likely to be a better story than one I just made up yesterday; and partly on the deep sense that they can tell more truth, more economically, than slices of contemporary realism. The stories are so tough and shrewd formally that I can use them for anything I want -- feminist revisioning, psychological exploration, malicious humour, magical realism, nature writing. They are generous, true, and enchanted."

Snow White by Angela Barrett

Margaret Atwood:

"What was their appeal? It's hard to be definite about that. The stories didn't have any direct application to our real lives. They weren't much good from a practicle point of view. At this time, we were living half the year in the Canadian north woods, and we knew if we went for a walk there, we were unlikely to come upon any castles, if we met any wolves or bears they wouldn't be the talking kind, if we kissed a frog it would most likely pee on us, and if we got lost, we wouldn't find any short-sighted, evil old women with patisserie cottages and child-sized ovens. Rescue, if any, would not be applied by princes. So it wasn't our outer lives that Grimms' tales addressed: it was our inner ones. These stories have survived as stories, over so many centuries and in so many variations, because they do make such an appeal to the inner life -- you could say 'the dreaming self' and not be far wrong, because they are both the stuff of nightmare and magical thinking. As Margaret Drabble says, there is a mystery in such stories which is beyond the rational mind."

Beauty and the Beast by Angela Barrett

Rebecca Solnit:

"Like many others who turn into writers, I disappeared into books when I was very young, disappeared into them like someone running into the woods. What surprised and still surprises me is that there was another side to the forest of stories and the solitude, that I came out that other side and met people there. Writers are solitaries by vocation and necessity. I sometimes think the test is not so much talent, which is not as rare as people think, but purpose or vocation, which manifests in part as the ability to endure a lot of solitude and keep working. Before writers are writers they are readers, living in books, through books, in the lives of others that are also the heads of others, in that act that is so intimate and yet so alone. These vanishing acts are a staple of fairy tales and of children's fantasy books -- where young people travel on various adventures between levels and kinds of reality, and the crossing over is often an initiation into power and into responsibility. They are in a sense allegories first for the act of reading, of entering an imaginary world, and then of the way that the world we actually inhabit is made up of stories, images, collective beliefs, all the immaterial appurtenances we call ideology and culture, the pictures we wander in and out of all the time."

Beauty and the Beast by Angela Barrett

Juliet Marillier:

"Fairy tales are as ancient as the hills, but they never grow old. As society and culture change, as our world becomes a place Madame D'Aulnoy, Charles Perrault, and the Brother Grimm could never have dreamed possible, the wisdom of their tales remains relevant to our lives. Because, of course, the stories change with us. We tell them and re-tell them, and they morph and grow and stretch to fit the framework of our time and culture, just as they did when they were told around the fire after dark in times long past. In this high-speed technological age, an age in which 140 characters are deemed sufficient to transmit a meaningful message, these stories still have much to teach us. We would do well to listen."

The Emperor's New Clothes by Angela Barrett

The art today is by the English illustrator Angela Barrett, who lives and works in London. 

Barrett trained at Maidstone College of Art and the Royal College of Art, then published her first illustrated book, The King, the Cat and the Fiddle, in 1983 -- which went on to win the Mother Goose Award Runner-up Prize in 1984. Since then, she has published many more books including The Snow Goose, The Hidden House, The Night Fairy, Joan of Arc, Ann Frank and The Orchard Book of Classic Shakespeare Stories, in addition to her celebrated fairy tale editions: Snow White, Beauty and the Beast, The Snow Queen, and The Emperor's New Clothes. Barrett has won the Smarties Award, and has been short-listed for the Kate Greenaway Medal and the Emil/Kurt Maschler Award. 

Go here for an interview with the artist by fellow-illustrator Quentin Blake.

The Snow Queen by Angela Barrett

The Snow Goose by Angela Barrett

Words: The Maitland quote is from Gossip from the Forest: The Tangled Roots of Our Forests & Fairytales (Granta, 2013); the Atwood quote is from Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Women Writers Explore Their Favorite Fairy Tales, edited by Kate Bernheimer (Expanded Edition: Anchor Books, 2003); and the Solnit quote is from The Faraway Nearby (Penguin, 2014). All three books are highly recommended. The Juliet Marillier quote is from her essay on "Beauty and the Beast" (Seven Miles of Steel Thistles, August 2012), which is part of Katherine Langrish's excellent "Fairytale Reflections" series. All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures: The Angela Barrett illustrations above are from Snow White, Beauty and the Beast, The Emperor's New Clotthes by HC Andersen, The Snow Queen by HC Amdersen, and The Snow Goose by Paul Gallico. All rights reserved by the artist.

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