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April 2018

Myth & Moor update

Bookworm

Dear readers, my apologies. I'm working on the next of the "Books on Books" posts, but it may be a while before it appears -- largely because my illness-depleted attention keeps getting diverted into Other Necessary Tasks. In the meantime, I'd like to pass on a fabulous piece about writing that I came across recently, which made me laugh...and wince with painful recognition...and cheer because it's so damn true:

"How Do We Write Now?" by Patricia Lockwood.

I couldn't agree with Lockwood more. (Except for the penis thing.)

''Tell Us a Story''


Books on books

The Bed-Time Book by Jessie Willcox Smith

My own bed-time reading

Having spent the better part of the last couple of months in and out of bed again has been a bit of a blow for my writing schedule (the manuscript I thought would be done by now is still inching its way to the finish line), and my studio hours are still limited as I find my way back to health and strength. But when illness robs us of productivity, breaking down our usual routines, slowing time down to a crawl, it also gives us unexpected gifts -- and for me, that gift is the time read.  Okay, I'd rather be writing, painting, doing, not watching the world through a fever haze, or experiencing life through a printed page -- but on those days when my body fails I'm grateful to books, and to all those who write them.

Olvaso No by Berény Róbert

Reading having played a big part in my life for many reasons in addition to health, I have a particular fondness for books about books. Here are three I've read (or re-read) recently: The Child That Books Built by Francis Spufford, Bookworm by Lucy Mangan, and Books & Island in Ojibwe Country by Louise Erdrich. All three are memoirs, rather than literary studies; all three explore the author' s personal relationship with books; all three examine the ways that stories form us, effect us, and define us.

Books on books

Let's start with The Child That Books Built: A Life in Reading by Francis Spufford. (I'll discuss the other two in future posts.)

I first read Spufford's book in 2002, the year of its publication, and what struck me then was the unusual nature of its composition: childhood memoir mixed with literary history, cognitive science and child psychology in relation to story. In the intervening years, writers of memoir have expanded the form in so many ways that the premise of the book has lost its radical edge; I find that I have to remind myself that Spufford's memoir was a pioneering text, with both the strengths and flaws of form that trail-blazing entails. That said, it is still a very good read. Spufford is roughly the same generation I am (unlike Lucy Mangan) and grew up with many of the same children's books on his shelves. He also has a taste for fantasy (Mangan largely does not), and discusses the genre with knowledge and love. Although his writing on fairy tales relies too much on the disputed psychoanalytic theories of Bruno Bettleheim, his passion for all things magical wins me over nonethless, along with his poignant exploration of a childhood in which finding doors into other worlds was merciful and necessary.

Here's a passage from Spufford's introduction  to give you a sense of the book as a whole:

When I Grow Up by Jim Daly"I began my reading in a kind of hopeful springtime for children's writing. I was born in 1964, so I grew up in a golden age comparable to the present heyday of J.K. Rowling and Philip Pullman, or to the great Edwardian decade when E. Nesbit, Kipling, and Kenneth Graham were all publishing at once. An equally amazing generation of talent was at work as the 1960s ended and the 1970s began. William Mayne was making dialogue sing; Peter Dickinson was writing the Changes trilogy; Alan Garner was reintroducting myth into the bloodstream of daily life; Jill Paton Walsh was showing that children's perceptions could be just as angular and uncompromising as adults; Joan Aiken had begun her Dido Twite series of comic fantasies; Penelope Farmer was being unearthly with Charlotte Sometimes; Diana Wynne Jones's gift for wild invention was hitting its stride; Rosemary Sutcliffe was just adding the final uprights to her colonnade of Romano-British historical novels; Leon Garfield was reinventing the 18th century as a scene for inky Gothic intrigue. The list went on, and on, and on. There was activity everywhere, a new potential classic every few months.

Boy Reading by Carl Larsson

Instead of Sleep by Tatiana Deriy

"Unifying this lucky concurrence of good books, and making them seem for a while like contributions to a single intelligible project, was a kind of temporary cultural consensus: a consensus both about what children were and about where we all were in history. Dr. Spock's great manual for liberal, middle-class child-rearing had come out at the beginning of the Sixties, and had helped deconstruct the last lingering remnants of the idea that a child was clay to be molded by a benevolent adult authority. The new orthodoxy took it for granted that a child was a resourceful individual, neither ickily good nor reeking of original sin. And the wider world was seen as a place in which a permanent step forward toward enlightenment had taken place as well. The books my generation were offered took it for granted that poverty, disease and prejudice essential belonged in the past. Postward society had ended them. 

"As the 1970s went on, these assumptions would lose their credibility. Gender roles were about to be shaken up; the voices that a white, liberal consensus consigned to the margins of consciousness were about to be asserted as hostile witnesses to its nature. People were about to lose their certainty that liberal solutions worked. Evil would revert to being an unsolved problem. But it hadn't happened yet; and till it did, the collective gaze of children's stories swept confidently across past and future, and across all international varieties of the progressive, orange-juice-drinking present, from Australia to Sweden, from Holland to the broad, clean suburbs of America.

Children reading by Honor C Appleton & Mary Cicely Barker

Children's Classics by Holly Farrell

Felcia by Henry Lamb and Girl Reading by Edward Thompson Davis

Puffin editions

"For me, walking up the road aged seven or eight to spend my money on a paperback, the outward sign of this unity was Puffin Books. In Britain, almost everything written for children passed into the one paperback imprint. On the shelves of the children's section in the bookshop, practically all the stock would be identically neat soft-covered octavos, in different colors, with different cover art, but always with the same sans serif type on the spine, and the same little logo of an upstanding puffin. Everything cost about the same. For 17p -- then 25p and then 40p as the 1970s inflation took hold -- you could have any one of the new books, or any of the children's classics, from the old ones like The Wind in the Willows or Alice to the new ones that were only a couple of decades into their classichood, like the Narnia books (C.S. Lewis had died the year before I was born, most unfairly making sure I would never meet him).

"If you were a reading child in the UK in the Sixties or Seventies, you too probably remember how securely Puffins seemed, with the long, trust-worthy descriptions of the story inside the front cover, always written by the same arbiter, the Puffin editor Kaye Webb, and their astonishingly precise recommendation to 'girls of eleven and above, and sensitive boys.'  It was as if Puffin were part of the administration of the world. They were the department of the welfare state responsible for the distribution of narrative. And their reach seemed universal: not just the really good books you were going to remember forever, but the nearly good ones too and the completely forgettable ones that at the time formed the wings of reading and spread them wide enough to enfold you in books on all sides."

Reading by James Charles and Storytime by Jonathan Weiss

The Reading Boy by Joseph Fielding Smith

A little later in the Introduction, Spufford lays out the premise of his memoir:

"I have gone back and read again the sequence of books that carried me from babyhood to the age of nineteen, from the first fragmentary stories I remember to the science fiction I was reading at the brink of adulthood. As I reread them, I tried to become again the reader I had been when I encountered each for the first time, wanting to know how my particular history, in my particular family, at that particular time, had ended up making me into the reader I am today. I made forays into child psychology, philosophy, and psychoanalysis, where I thought those things might tease out the implications of memory. With their help, the following chapters recount a path through the riches that were available to English children of the 1960s and 1970s, and onward into the reading of adolescence. It is the story (I hope) of the reading my whole generation of bookworms did; and it is the story of my own relationship with books; both. A pattern emerged, or a I drew it: a set of four stages in the development of that space inside where writing is welcomed and reading happens. What follows is more about books that it is about me, but nonetheless it is my inward autobiography, for the words we take into ourselves help to shape us. "

It is a premise Spufford amply fulfills.

The Child That Books Built by Francis Spufford

A Book at Bedtime by Emma Irlam Briggs

Words: The passage above is from The Child That Books Built: A Life in Reading by Francis Spufford (Henry Holt & Co, 2002); all rights reserved by the author. Pictures: The art is identified in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.) Related Reading: Previous posts that discuss The Child That Books Built include "In the Forest of Stories" (2013) and  "Built by Books" (2014).


Tunes for a Monday Morning: songs for the spirit

I've been deeply in love with Nahko Bear's music since his first album came out in 2013, but living in a tiny village on Dartmoor, I've never been anywhere near one of his concerts. You can imagine my astonishment then when I learned he was coming to Devon this spring on a small accoustic tour, billed as "an evening of poetry, Black bear  drawing, artist unknownstory, and brotherhood medicine in song" with his friend Trevor Hall. Howard and I went to the gig last week, held in an arts centre in Exeter. The room was packed, the night was magical, and I'm so glad we were there. How these two open-hearted, unpretentious young men with nothing but two guitars and a piano between them managed to fill the room with such powerful medicine for body and soul is unfathomable...but they did.

This week's "Monday Tunes" come from both musicians: Nahko Bear, a singer/songwriter of Apache, Mohawk, Puerto Rican & Filipino heritage, who was raised in Oregon and now lives in Hawaii.  And Trevor Hall, a folk/roots/reggae musician who grew up on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, and now lives in Boulder, Colorado.

Above: "What I Know" by Trevor Hall,  from his forthcoming album The Fruitfall Darkess.

Below: "Dear Brother" by Nahko Bear, performed in New York City last month with two members of his band, Medicine for the People: Max Ribner (on horn) and Tim Snider (on fiddle).

Above: "San Quentin" by Nahko Bear, a song about the man who murdered his father, performed in this video with Ribner and Snider in Philadelphia last summer.

Below: "Tus Pie (Your Feet)," from the same performance. This is my personal favorite of  Nahko's songs, and I couldn't help tearing up a bit when he played it in Exeter last week -- on solo piano (rather than guitar), sliding into it from a cover of Paul Simon's "Bridge Over Troubled Waters." (What a combination, connected by the piano's rich tones. Simply stunning.) This is a nice version of "Tus Pie" as well, sweetened by Tim Snider's harmonies.

Above: "The Wolves Have Returned" by Nahko Bear, another favorite of mine. The Exeter concert ending with Trevor joining Nahko on stage for a glorious rendition of this song, complete with wolf howls.  Alas, there's no video of the performance, but Nahko's solo version is lovely as well.

"I'm running the song lines, I'm wrapping my prayer ties, preserving the old way; the wolves have returned." They have indeed.

To end as we began, with Trevor Hall: here's "To Zion," from his album Kala (2015).

Nahko Bear and Trevor Hall

Wolf painting by Jackie Morris

The wolf painting, "Nighteyes," is by Jackie Morris.


A pony interlude

Foal 2018

Every spring, the local herd of Dartmoor ponies comes down from the moor to have their foals in the shelter of our village Commons. Today I counted four foals so far, with more on the way. Spring is truly here.

Dartmoor ponoes

"There's magic in the trees and the hills and the river and the rocks, in the sea and the stars and the wind, a deep, wild magic that's as old as the world itself. It's in you too, my darling girl, and in me, and in every living creature, be it ever so small."  - Kate Forsyth

Dartmoor pony


Why we need fantasy

From Billy Popgun  illustrated by Milo Winter


The following passage by Lloyd Alexander (1924-2007) comes from an essay published in The Horn Book fifty years ago, yet I'm struck by how relevant it still seems to be today:

"Anyone close to children -- librarians, teachers, maybe even parents -- knows they do not hesitate to come out with straightforward questions. I am beginning to learn this for myself, although the process has been a little backwards: Instead of getting to know children first, then writing books for them, the opposite is happening. It is only recently  I have had some happy occasions to meet real live children. And not only in schools and libraries. At home I often discover a few hanging around the kitchen or perched on the sofa, swinging their heels. We talk awhile, they tell me what a hard day they had, I tell them what a hard day I have had -- there's really not much difference. But they constantly surprise me. The other afternoon one little girl asked, 'What would you rather do: be a millionaire or write books for children?'

"I gave her an absolutely honest answer. I said I would rather write books for children.

From Through the Looking Glass illustrated by Milo Winter

"Of course, I added, if someone felt inclined to give me a million dollars tax-free, in all politeness I could not refuse.

"But my answer was truthful. And I believe any serious, creative person -- and this includes teachers and librarians, for I have learned how really creative they are -- would have said the same. Because -- despite our status-oriented society, our preoccupation with 'making it,' with staying young forever, buying safe deodorants and unsafe automobiles -- I think something new is happening.

"Whatever our individual opinions, I think each of us senses that as a people we are in the midst of a moral crisis -- certainly the deepest of our generation, perhaps of our history. Few of us are untouched by a kind of national anguish. And it hurts. But if we felt nothing, if nothing moved or troubled us, then I feel we would be truly lost. For isn't anguish part of growing up? Without knowing grief, how can we ever hope to know joy?

From Aesop's Fables  illustrated by Milo Winter

"In the past, we have always been able to find technical or technological solutions to our problems. They have been external problems, for the most part, yielding to external solutions. And so we are not quite used to problems demanding inner solutions. In an article on fantasy literature, Dorothy Broderick points out that the English have dealt with fantasy more comfortably than we have in America and comments that perhaps, since England is so much older a nation, the English have had time to ask Why? instead of only How?

"It is true that we haven't had long years of leisurely speculation. But, ready or not, the time for us is now. A dozen Whys have been put to us harshly and abruptly. And searching for the Why of things is leading us to see the purely technological answers are not enough.

"We have machines to think for us; we have no machines to suffer or rejoice for us. Technology has not made us magician, only sorcerer's apprentices. We can push a button and light a dozen cities. We can also push a button and make a dozen cities vanish. There is, unfortunately, no button we can push to relieve us of moral choices or give us the wisdom to understand the morality as well as the choices. We have seen dazzling changes and improvements in the world outside us. I am not sure they alone can help change and improve the world inside us.

From Nights With Uncle Remus illustrated by Milo Winter

"We are beginning to understand that intangibles have more specific gravity than we suspected, that ideas can generate as much forward thrust as Atlas missiles. We may win a victory in exploring the infinities of outer space, but it will be a Pyrrhic victory unless we can also explore the infinities of our inner spirit. We have super-sensitive thermographs to show us the slightest variations in skin temperature. No devices can teach us the irrelevance of skin color. We can transplant a heart from one person to another in a brilliant feat of surgical virtuosity. Now we are ready to try it the hard way: transplanting understanding, compassion and love from one person to another.

From Nights with Uncle Remus illustrated by Milo Winter

"To me, one of the clearest reflections of this changing attitude is a growing appreciation of fantasy in children's literature. The climate for fantasy today is vastly different from what it was twenty, even ten years ago, when the tendency was to judge fantasy as a kind of lollipop after the wholesome spinach of reality -- a tasty dessert, but not very good for the teeth.

"Now I think we see fantasy as an essential part of a balanced diet, not only for children but for adults too. The risks of keeping fantasy off the literary menu are every bit as serious as missing the minimum daily requirements of thiamine, niacin, and riboflavin. The consequences are spiritual malnutrition."

Five decades on, these words are still true. We still need fantasy. We still need folk tales, fairy tales, mythic fiction, magic realism and other forms of fantastical literature to help us "explore the infinities of our inner spirit," and re-imagine the world.

From The Wonder Garden illustrated by Milo Winter

The art today is by American illustrator Milo Winter (1888-1956).

Born in Princeton, New Jersey, he trained at The School of the Arts Institute in Chicago, and illustrated his first children's book (Billy Popgun) at the age of 24. He lived in Chicago until the 1950s, and in New York City thereafter, illustrating a wide range of books for both children and adults -- including Gulliver’s Travels, Tanglewood Tales, Arabian Nights, Alice in Wonderland, Twenty Thousand Leagures Under the Sea, The Three Muskateers, Treasure Island, A Christmas Carol Aesops for Children, and  Hans Christian Andersen's Fairy Tales.

To see more of his work, go here.

From Nights with Uncle Remus illustrated by Milo Winter

From Nights With Uncle Remus illustrated by Milo Winter

The passage above is from "Wishful Thinking - Or Hopeful Dreaming?"  by Lloyd Alexander (The Horn Book, August 1968). All rights reserved by the author's estate.


A walk in the woods

A Walk in the Woods, copyright by by Alan Lee, all rights reserved

From The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit:

"Like many others who turned 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.

Plymbridge Woods 1

"These vanishing acts are a staple of children’s books, which often tell of adventures that are magical because they travel 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. In the children’s there are inanimate objects that come to life, speaking statues, rings and words of power, talismans and amulets, but most of all there are doors, particularly in the series that I, like so many children, took up imaginative residence in, for some years, The Chronicles of Narnia.

Plymbridge Woods 2

Plymbridge Woods 3

Plymbridge Woods 4

"I read one in fourth grade after a teacher who barely knew me handed it to me in the Marion school library; I can still picture his moustache and the wall of books. I read it and read it again and then began to save up to buy the seven books, one at a time. The paperbacks came from Amber Griffin, the enchanted bookstore in the middle of town, whose kind proprietor rewarded me with the case in which the seven books fit when I had paid for the last one. I still have the boxed set, a little tattered though I think no one has ever read them other than me. When I took one out recently, I noticed how dirty the white back of the book was from my small filthy fingers then.

Plymbridge Woods 5

"Much has been written about the Christian themes, British boarding school mores, and other contentious aspects of the series, but little has been said about its doors. There is of course the wardrobe in the first book C.S. Lewis wrote, the wardrobe made of wood cut from an apple tree grown from seeds from another world that, when the four children walk into it, opens onto that world. Two of the other books feature a doorway that stands alone so that when you walk around it it is just a frame, three pieces of wood in a landscape, but when you step through it leads to another world. There’s a painting of a boat that comes to life as the children tumble over the picture frame into the sea and another world. There are books and maps that come to life as you look at them.

Plymbridge Woods 6

Plymbridge Woods 7

"And there is the Wood Between the Worlds in the book The Magician’s Nephew, which tells the creation story for Narnia, a wood described so enchantingly I sometimes think of it as a vision of peace still. It’s more serene and more strange than the busy symbolism in the rest of the books, with their talking beasts, dwarves, witches, battles, enchantments, castles, and more. The young hero puts on a ring and finds himself coming up through a pool to the forest.

'It was the quietest wood you could possibly imagine. There were no birds, no insects, no animals, and no wind. You could almost feel the trees growing. The pool he had  just got out of was not the only pool. There were dozens of others -- a pool every few yards as far as his eyes cold reach. You could almost feel the trees drinking the water up with their roots. This wood was very much alive.'

Plymbridge Woods 8

"It is the place where nothing happens, the place of perfect peace; it is itself not another world but an unending expanse of trees and small ponds, each pond like a looking glass you can go through to another world. It is a portrait of a library, just as all the magic portals are allegories for works of art, across whose threshhold we all step into other worlds."

Plymbridge Woods 9

Plymbridge Woods 10

Words: The passage above is from The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit (Viking, 2013) -- a simply marvelous book, full of musing on many things, including fairy tales. I highly recommend it. It also appears in Solnit's article "A Childhood of Reading and Wandering" (Lit Hub, 2017). The poem in the picture captions is from Toasting Marshmallows by Kristine O’Connell George (Houghton Mifflin, 2001). All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures: The exquisite drawing above is "A Walk in the Woods" by my friend and neighbor Alan Lee, who is often inspired by the woods and rivers of Dartmoor. All rights reserved by the artist.


Tunes for a Monday Morning

A Dartmoor pony on Nattadon Hill

The world is a fractured and fractious place right now, so let's start the week with some harmony.

Above: "Green Unstopping" by The Rheingans Sisters: Anna and Rowan Rheingans, from the Peak District of Derbyshire. The song comes from their second album, Bright Field, which has just been released.

Below: "She Took a Gamble" by Hannah Read, a Scottish singer/songwriter who now lives in Brooklyn, New York. The song appears on her second album, Way Out I'll Wander (2018). The video was shot on the Island of Eigg in the Scottish Hebrides.

(Both Rowan and Hannah participated in the "Songs of Separation" project on the Island of Eigg, discussed in a previous post.)

Dartmoor sheep

Above: Bruce Springsteen's "I'm on Fire" performed by The Staves: sisters Jessica, Camilla and Emily Staveley-Taylor, from Hertfordshire. Their most recent album is The Way is Read (2017).

Below: "Floral Dresses" by Lucy Rose, a singer/songwriter from Warwickshire, backed up by The Staves. The song comes from Rose's third studio album, Something’s Changing (2017).

To end with:

"Horses" by Dala: Sheila Carabine and Amanda Walthe from Ontario, Canada. This song -- as perfect and poignant as a Charles de Lint story -- appears on their fourth album, Everyone is Someone (2009), and their live album, Girls from the North Country (2010).

A Dartmoor pony on Meldon Commons

A Victorian book illustration  artist unknown


Hen Wives, Spinsters, and Lolly Willowes

Vladislav Erko

In the colored fairy books of Andrew Lang (The Red Fairy Book, The Blue Fairy Book, etc.), there is a figure who has always intrigued me: the Hen Wife, related to the witch, the seer, and the herbalist, but different from them too: a distinct and potent archetype of her own, an enchanted figure beneath a humble white apron. We find her dispensing wisdom and magic in the folk tales of the British Isles and far beyond (all the way to Russia and China): a woman who is part of the community, not separate from it like the classic "witch in the woods"; a woman who is married, domesticated like her animal familiars, and yet conversant with women's mysteries, sexuality, and magic.

The Hen Wife by Helen G Stevenson

Writer and mythographer Sharon Blackie describes the Hen Wife like this:

"If you look up the definition of ‘henwife’ in most dictionaries, you’ll find it given as something along the lines of ‘woman who keeps poultry’. But that isn’t it at all: a henwife is so much more than that, as so many folk and fairytales from Ireland and Scotland show. In those tales, the henwife is often a herbalist or a healer, and is Dazu stone carving of a Chinese Hen Wifealways synonymous with the Wise Old Woman archetype: the Cailleach personified. Think, for example, of the fine Scottish tale ‘Kate Crackernuts,’ about the henwife and her cauldron of wisdom. Or the old Irish tale about three sisters, ‘Fair, Brown and Trembling.’ The fact that the henwife also keeps hens is part and parcel of this archetype, but although the heroine of the story may go to her looking simply for eggs, she always comes away with rather more than she bargained for."

Colleen Szabo, writing in Cabinet des Fées, views the Hen Wife through a Jungian lens. She is, says Szabo, "a combination of the old bird goddesses and the figure we now call 'witch'; a crone or wise woman who knows of the inner life, of natural processes and developments, of all their alchemical magic. She is also a keeper of knowledge about a woman’s sexuality; the old tradition of a 'hen’s night' is currently being revived. In that tradition, the night before a wedding, older and wiser hen-wives teach the wife-to-be about sexuality, including pregnancy, all of which falls within the overall category of creative power, of course. Whatever our creative genres might be, their products can always be symbolized by the metaphor of the child, including our creative efforts to renew and transform ourselves."

Charles Sims

My favorite depiction of the Hen Wife is in this gorgeous passage from the novel Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner (1893-1978):

"Laura never became as clever with the birds as Mr. Saunter. But when she had overcome her nervousness, she managed them well enough to give herself a great deal of pleasure. They nestled against her, held fast in  Nursery rhyme illustrated by Walter Cranethe crook of her arm, while her fingers probed among the soft feathers and rigid quills of their breasts. She liked to feel their acquiescence, their dependence upon her. She felt wise and potent. She remembered the henwife in fairy tales, she understood now why kings and queens resorted to the henwife in their difficulties. The henwife held their destinies in the crook of her arm, and hatched the future in her apron. She was sister to the spaewife, and close cousin to the witch, but she practiced her art under cover of henwifery; she was not, like her sister and her cousin, a professional. She lived unassumingly at the bottom of the king's garden, wearing a large white apron and very possibly her husband's cloth cap; and when she saw the king and queen coming down the gravel path she curtseyed reverentially, and pretended it was eggs they had come about. She was easier to approach than the spaewife, who sat on a creepie and stared at the smoldering peats till her eyes were red and unseeing; or Rima Stainesthe witch, who lived alone in the wood, her cottage window all grown over with brambles. But though she kept up this pretense of homeliness she was not inferior in skill to the professionals. Even the pretence of homeliness was not quite so homely as it might seem. Laura knew that the Russian witches live in small huts mounted upon three giant hen's legs, all yellow and scaly. The legs can go; when the witch desires to move her dwelling the legs stalk through the forest, clattering against the trees, and printing long scars upon the snow.

"Following Mr. Saunter up and down between the pens, Laura almost forgot where and who she was, so completely had she merged her personality into the henwife's. She walked back along the rutted track and down the steep lane as obliviously as though she were flitting home on a broomstick."

Mother Goose

 I first discovered Sylvia Townsend Warner's fiction through Kingdoms of Elfin (a collection of the adult fairy stories as dry and fizzy as the best champagne), but Lolly Willowes, when I first read it back in my 20s, seemed altogether different. I'm embarrassed now to admit that I found the novel slight and unmemorable, almost twee, and it wasn't until a later re-reading that I finally understood it as the masterpiece it is. I had been too young for Lolly Willows the first time,  and Sylvia Townsend Warnertoo ignorant of the social context in which Townsend Warner was writing in the 1920s:  the restricted lives of "spinisters" in Victorian and Edwardian England.

"The issue that the novel tackles head-on is that of gender," explains another Townsend Warner fan, contemporary British novelist Sarah Waters: "In the 1910s and 20s British sexual mores were shaken up as never before: the war saw women taking on new jobs, gaining new responsibilities and freedom, and, though the majority of the jobs were savagely withdrawn with the return to peace, many of the liberties remained; in 1918, partly as a recognition of their contribution during the years of conflict, women were at last granted the vote. For the first decade of its life, however, the new franchise was an incomplete one, available only to women over 30 who were also householders or married to householders (which meant that single women such as Laura, middle-aged but financially dependent on male relatives, remained without it), and there was still huge pressure on women to conform to social norms.

"The recent tragic loss of so many young male lives had inflamed existing tension over the idea of the 'surplus woman' and, with postwar anxiety about British 'racial health' prompting celebrations of family life and maternity, the spinster -- a benign if dowdy figure in 19th-century culture -- was being subtly redefined as a social problem. The popularisation of Freudian ideas about sexual repression only added to her woes, pathologising elderly virgins as chronically unfulfilled. Many novelists of the period responded to this – some, such as Clemence Dane, with representations of emotionally vampiric single  women, which reinforced the new stereotypes, but others, such as Radclyffe Hall, Winifred Holtby  and Vera Brittain, with more sensitivity to the pressures faced by ageing, unmarried daughters, and more sympathy for them in their efforts to follow non-traditional paths. Two fascinating novels that particularly resemble Lolly Willowes, and which Townsend Warner could be said effectively to have rewritten, are W.B. Maxwell's Spinster of this Parish (1922) and F.M. Mayor's The Rector's Daughter (1924).

Lolly Willowes, first edition, 1926

"Like Townsend Warner, Maxwell and Mayor chose as their subjects unmarried women of the late-Victorian age -- that is, the final generation to have assumed as a matter of course that its single daughters would remain in the family home, dutifully servicing the needs of senior relatives. Again like her, they produced novels that are intensely alive to the contrast between the unglamorous exteriors of their 'old maid' heroines and the women's actual, deeply passionate, emotional lives. But the titles of the three novels reveal a significant difference. As phrases, 'spinster of this parish' and 'the rector's daughter' testify to the ways in which women are often occluded by social and familial roles. Lolly Willowes, by contrast, is a statement of individuality. Laura's journey, too, is very different from that of Maxwell's and Mayor's heroines, the former of whom spends decades as the unacknowledged mistress of a celebrated explorer, and is finally rewarded by marriage to him, while the latter dies after a short but 'useful' life, with her passionate love for a clergyman unfulfilled.

Walter Dendy Sadler

"For the first half of Townsend Warner's novel, Laura looks set to follow their example. A tomboy in childhood, she is soon 'subdued into young-ladyhood,' and after the death of her parents she joins the London household of her unimaginative brother, Henry, where she becomes the spinster 'Aunt Lolly,' slightly pitied, slightly patronised, but 'indispensable for Christmas Eve and birthday preparations' -- an embodiment, in other words, of an old-fashioned female tradition for which her up-to-the-minute niece, Thomas CheesmanFancy, who has driven lorries during the war, has fine, flapperish contempt. But Laura has depths unsuspected by her deeply conventional relatives, and with her move to Great Mop she grows ever more subversive. She quietly rejects her family. She refuses to be defined by her relationships with men. She breaches the social barriers between gentry and working people. And, though she enjoys being part of the Great Mop community, her intensest pleasures are solitary ones. Again looking forward to Virginia Woolf, the novel asserts the absolute necessity of 'a room of one's own', and Laura gains a clear-sighted understanding of the combined financial and cultural interests that serve to keep women in domestic, dependent roles: 'Society, the Law, the Church, the History of Europe, the Old Testament . . . the Bank of England, Prostitution, the Architect of Apsley Terrace, and half a dozen other useful props of civilisation' have robbed her of her freedom just as effectively as have her patronising London relatives. It is this analysis that informs her conversation with Satan near the end of the novel, in which she unfolds her memorable vision of women as sticks of dynamite, 'long[ing] for the concussion that may justify them.' If women, Townsend Warner implies, are denied access to power through legitimate means, they will turn instead to illegitimate methods -- in this case to Satan himself, who pays them the compliment of pursuing them and then, having bagged them, performs the even more valuable service of leaving them alone." 

I highly recommend reading Water's full essay, "Sylvia Townsend Warner: the neglected writer," published by The Guardian.

Walter Crane

I think if I was teaching Lolly Willowes today,  I would first ask students to read Singled Out by Virginia Nicholson, an absolutely engrossing book about single women in Britain between the wars, which I can't recommend highly enough. (All of Nicholson's books on social history are just terrific.) Singled Out It's also interesting to read Townsend Warner's fiction with some knowledge of her fascinating life as a feminist, leftist, and lesbian (she was in a long-term relationship with fellow writer Valentine Ackland) at a time when this was far from the norm for respectable "lady writers." She loved living in the countryside, and some of her best stories take place in rural settings -- but they are so much more than charming tales of villages and vicarages; beneath the mannered surface they contain a biting wit, deep wisdom, and sharp social critique, à la Jane Austen. For those who would like to learn more about the writer, there's a good biography of Townsend Warner by Claire Harman, various volumes of the author's lively and erudite correspondence, plus a lovely memoir by Townsend Warner's wife (or so she'd be acknowledged today), Valentine Ackland: For Sylvia: An Honest Account.

And this brings us back to the Hen Wife -- that figure of magic who dwells comfortably among us, not off by the crossroads or in the dark of the woods; who is married, not solitary; who is equally at home with the wild and domestic, with the animal and human worlds. She is, I believe, among us still: dispensing her wisdom and exercising her power in kitchens and farmyards (and the urban equivalent) to this day -- anywhere that women gather, talk among themselves, and pass knowledge down to the next generations.

And Hen Husbands? What is their role in folklore, fairy tales, and daily life? I confess I do not know. Those are Men's Mysteries, hidden and ancient, and not for the likes of me to speak of....

Samurai Chicken Defender by David Wyatt

Words: The passage by Sharon Blackie is from "The Henwife" (The Art of Enchantment, October 2014). The passage by Colleen Szabo is from "Katie Crackernuts: The Hen-Wife and her Cauldron of Wisdom" (Cabinet des Fées, July 2011). The passage by Sylvia Townsend Warner is from her novel Lolly Willowes, first published in 1926. The passage by Sarah Waters is from "Sylvia Townsend Warner: the neglected writer" (The Guardian, March 2012). All rights reserved by the authors. This post first appeared on Myth & Moor in February 2015.

Pictures: a folktale illustration by Vladislav Erko; "The Hen Wife" by Helen G. Stevenson (circa 1930s); a Danzu carving of a Chinese hen wife; "The Hen Wife" by Charles Sims (1872-1928); a nursery rhyme illustrated by Walter Crane (1845-1915); "Baba Yaga" (from Russian folklore) by Rima Staines; a Mother Goose illustration, artist unknown; a photograph of Sylvia Townsend Warner; the first edition of Lolly Willowes; a stereotypical Victorian image of a spinster by English painter Walter Dendy Sadler (1854-1923); an 18th century spinster by  Thomas Cheesman (1760-1834) - reminiscent of the fact that the term was once used for all women who spin, card, and weave, rather than as a pejorative term for unmarried women; a decoration by Walter Crane (1845-1915); and "Samurai Chicken Defender" by my Chagford neighbor David Wyatt, from his "Mythic Village" series. All rights reserved by the artists or their estates.


Let's talk about genre

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In "Let's Talk About Genre: Neil Gaiman and Kazuo Ishiguro in Conversation," Neil notes that when Tolkien first published The Lord of the Rings it wasn’t regarded as part of the fantasy genre:

Illustration Henry J FordNG: [T]he first part was reviewed in the Times by W.H. Auden. It was a novel, and that it had ogres and orcs and giant spiders and magical rings and elves was simply what happened in this novel. Back then these books tended to be produced in exactly the same way as you produced The Buried Giant, in that you’d written other things, and now you wanted to do a book in which, for the novel to work, you needed a dragon breathing magical mist over the world; you needed it to occur in a post-Arthurian world; you needed your monsters and your ogres and your pixies. There were people like Hope Mirrlees -- who wrote modernist poetry and profoundly realistic fiction and who was one of the Bloomsbury set, but produced a wonderful novel called Lud-in-the-Mist -- and Sylvia Townsend Warner, who wrote books like Kingdoms of Elfin. And these were simply accepted as part of mainstream literature.

KI: So what happened? Why have we got this kind of wall around fantasy now, and a sense of stigma about it?

NG: I think it came from the enormous ­commercial success in the Sixties, when the hippie world embraced The Lord of the Rings and it became an international publishing phenomenon. At Pan/Ballantine, the adult fantasy imprint, they basically just went through the archives of books that had been published in the previous 150, 200 years and looked for things that felt like The Lord of the Rings. And then you had people like Terry Brooks, who wrote a book called The Sword of Shannara, which was essentially a Lord of the Rings clone by somebody not nearly as good, but it sold very well. By the time fantasy had its own area in the bookshop, it was deemed inferior to mimetic, realistic fiction. I think reviewers and editors did not know how to speak fantasy; were not familiar with the language, did not recognise it. I was fascinated by the way that Terry Pratchett would, on the one hand, have people like A.S. Byatt going, 'These are real books, they’re saying important things and they are beautifully crafted,' and on the other he would still not get any real recognition. I remember Terry saying to me at some point, 'You know, you can do all you want, but you put in one fucking dragon and they call you a fantasy writer.'

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Later in the conversation, Neil discusses his now-classic book Coraline to examine the ways that ideas about genre change. Since he and I grew up in the fantasy publishing world in the same generation, I remember this well:

Illustration by Helen StrattonNG: I remember as a boy reading an essay by C.S. Lewis in which he writes about the way that people use the term 'escapism' -- the way literature is looked down on when it’s being used as escapism –--and Lewis says that this is very strange, because actually there’s only one class of people who don’t like escape, and that’s jailers: people who want to keep you where you are. I’ve never had anything against escapist literature, because I figure that escape is a good thing: going to a different place, learning things, and coming back with tools you might not have known.

I was book-reviewing a lot in the early Eighties, and it seemed for a while like all young adult books were the same book: about some kid who lived in slightly squalid circumstances, with an older sibling who was a bad example, and the protagonist would have a bad time and then run into a teacher or adult who would inspire them to get their life back on track. It was depressing. The wonderful thing about J. K. Rowling was that suddenly the idea that you can write books for kids that go off into weird and wonderful places – and actually make reading fun -- is one of the reasons why children’s books went from being a minor area of the bookshop to a huge force in British publishing.

When I started writing Coraline, in 1991, and showed it to my editor, he explained that what I was writing was unpublishable. He wasn’t wrong. His name was Richard Evans; he was a very smart man, with good instincts. When he explained why writing a book intended for children and adults that was functionally horror fiction for children was unpublishable, I believed him.

KI: The objection was what, exactly? That it was too scary?

NG: It was too scary, it was very obviously aimed at both children and adults, it was weird, fantastic horror fiction, and they didn’t have a way of publishing it. They knew which librarians bought what and how things got reviewed, and this was simply not something that they could have sold. It wasn’t until much later, when I was in a world in which the Lemony Snicket books had happened, and Philip Pullman and Rowling were being read, and the idea of crossover books aimed at both children and adults existed, that it was published.

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KI: Perhaps things that deviated from realism were treated with great suspicion. But Coraline seems to be self-evidently a book that confronts all kinds of very real things. It’s about a child learning to make distinctions between certain kinds of parental love, to distinguish between a love that is based on somebody’s need and fulfilling somebody’s need, and what is actually genuine parental love, which may not at first glance look particularly demonstrative. I don’t see how anybody can mistake it for a kind of escapism: you’re not just taking children on some sort of strange, enjoyable ride.

NG: I think the rules are crumbling and I think the barriers are breaking. I love the idea also that sometimes, if you’re actually going to write realistic fiction, you’re going to have to include fantasy.

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I recommend reading the whole conversation, which you'll find here.

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Words: The passages above are from "Let's Talk About Genre: Neil Gaiman and Kazuo Ishiguro in Conversation" (The New Statesman, 4 June, 2015). All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: The illustrations are by Henry Justic Ford (1860-1941) and Helen Stratton (1867-1961). The photographs were taken on Nattadon Hill on a rare bright day. (We've had a very wet transition from winter to spring this year.)


Fantasy is reality

An illustration for Delia Sherman's ''Young Woman in a Garden'' by Kathleen Jennings

From Joanna Russ, (1937-2011), the ground-breaking author of The Female Man, How to Suppress Women's Writing, etc.:

"Fantasy is reality. Aristotle says that music is the most realistic of the arts because it represents the movements of the soul directly. Surely the mode of fantasy (which includes many genres and effects) is the only way in which some realities can be treated.

Into the Woods by Kathleen Jennings

"I grew up in United States in the 1950s, in a world in which fantasy was supposed to be the opposite of reality. 'Rational,' 'mature' people were concerned only with a narrowly defined 'reality' and only the 'immature' or the 'neurotic' (all-purpose put-downs) had any truck with fantasy, which was then considered to be wishful thinking, escapism, and other bad things, attractive only to the weak and damaged. Only Communists, feminists, homosexuals and other deviants were unsatisfied with Things As They Were at the time and Heaven help you if you were one of those.

''Frogkisser'' illustrations by Kathleen Jennings

"I took to fantasy like a duckling to water. Unfortunately for me, there was nobody around then to tell me that fantasy was the most realistic of arts, expressing as it does the contents of the human soul directly.

The River Bank by Kathleen Jennings

The Riverbank by Kathleen Jennings

"The impulse behind fantasy I find to be dissatisfaction with literary realism. Realism leaves out so much. Any consensual reality (though wider even than realism) nonetheless leaves out a great deal also. Certainly one solution to the difficulty of treating experience that is not dealt with in the literary tradition, or even in consensual reality itself, is to 'skew' the reality of a piece of fiction, that is, to employ fantasy.

Bathing meese from Kathleen Jennings' sketchbook

"Sometimes authors can't face the full reality of what they feel or know and can therefore express that reality only through hints and guesses. Fantasies often fit this pattern, for example, Edith Wharton's fine ghost story, 'Afterwards.' Wharton can't afford to investigate too explicitely the assumptions and values of the society which provided her with money and position; so although the story 'knows' in a sense that the artistic culture of the wealthy depends on devastatingly brutal commecial practices, none of this can be as explicit as, say, Sylvia Townsend Warner's wonderful historical novel, Summer Will Show, in which the mid-19th century heroine ends by reading the Communist Manifesto.

Harpies (calendar art) by Kathleen Jennings

"But there are other stories, quite as 'Gothic' in method and tone, which do not fit this pattern. Authors may know what their experience is and yet be unable to name it, not because it is unconscious or unfaceable, but because it is not majority experience. Shirley Jackson strikes me as a writer who does both: for example, clearly portraying Eleanor (in The Haunting of Hill House) as an abused child long before the phrase itself was invented, occasionally using material she doesn't really seem to have understood; and sometimes dislocating reality because conventional forms simply will not express the kind of experience she knows exists.

The Seven Wild Swans (calendar art) by Kathleen Jennings

"After all, reality is -- collectively speaking -- a social invention and is not itself real. Individually, it is as much something human beings do as it is something refractory that is prior to us and outside us. "

Be Bold (calendar art) by Kathleen Jennings

About the artist:

Today's imagery is from one of my favorite artists: Kathleen Jennings, an illustrator and fiction writer based in Brisbane, Australia. Raised on a cattle station in Western Queensland, she studied English literature, German, and Law at the University of Queensland, then practiced law before making the plunge into art-making full time.

She has illustrated numerous books for publishers in the U.S. and Australia -- including The River Bank, Kij Johnson's wonderful sequel to The Wind in the Willows, and The Bitterwood Bible by Angela Slatter -- and has been short-listed for the World Fantasy Award three times. She is currently on the short-list for the 2018 Hugo Award. As a writer, Kathleen won the 2015 Ditmar Award for "The Hedge of Yellow Roses" (in Hear Me Roar, Ticonderoga Press). Her most recent story is "The Heart of Owl Abbas," debuting today on Tor.com.

"I've always liked fairytales," she says, "Growing up in the country, surrounded by trees, fairly isolated and with rather primitive technology at the house, the stories seemed to seep into reality more than they might have otherwise. Fairytales are also a wonderful vocabulary (almost an alphabet) of storytelling among people who know them. You can use fairytale elements to build entirely new stories; images that work as independent pictures and narratives for viewers and readers who are new to them. But once that audience becomes aware of the depth of history and the ongoing conversation that is happening through all those layers of tellings and retellings and reimaginings, there is a splendid depth and resonance you can access."

Please visit Kathleen's delightful website and blog to see more of her work. She also has an active Patreon page full of treasures, and her enchanting designs can be purchased here.

Pages from a travel sketchbook by Kathleen Jennings

Above: pages from one of Katheleen's sketchbooks, drawn during her first journey to Chagford. Yes, that's our Tilly on the bottom right.

Bear by Kathleen Jennings

Calendar art by Kathleen Jennings

Arcanos Unraveled by Kathleen Jennings

The passage by Joanna Russ is from The Penguin Book of Fantasy by Women, edited by A. Susan Williams & Richard Glyn Jones (Viking, 1995). All rights to the art and text above reserved by the artist and the Russ estate.