Skunk Dreams

The Skunk and the Magnolias by Jessica Roux

I'm sure I was not the only child who dreamed of sleeping with wild animals, although the closest I've come to that Jungle Book fantasy is to curl up with Tilly snoring beside me. The reality of animal life in the wild is different than fantasy tales of course -- as Louise Erdrich reminds us in this passage from her essay "Skunk Dreams":

"When I was fourteen, I slept alone on a North Dakota football field under the cold stars on an early spring night. May is unpredictable in the Red River Valley, and I happened to hit a night when frost formed in the grass. A skunk trailed a plume of steam across the forty-yard line near moonrise. I tucked the top of my sleeping bag over my head and was just dosing off when the skunk walked onto me with simple authority.

The Mouse and the Buttercup by Jessica Roux"Its ripe odor must have dissipated in the frozen earth of its winterlong hibernation, because it didn't smell all that bad, or perhaps it was just that I took shallow breaths in numb surprise. I felt him -- her, whatever -- pause on the side of my hip and turn around twice before evidently deciding I was a good place to sleep. At the back of my knees, on the quilting of my sleeping bag, it trod out a spot for itself and then, with a serene little groan, curled up and lay perfectly still. That made two of us. I was wildly awake, trying to forget the sharpness and number of skunk teeth, trying not to think of the high percentage of skunks with rabies, or the reason that on camping trips my father kept a hatchet underneath his pillow. 

"Inside the bag, I felt as if I might smother. Careful, making only the slightest of rustles, I drew the bag away from my face and took a deep breath of the night air, enriched with skunk, but clear and watery and cold. It wasn't so bad, and the skunk didn't stir at all, so I watched the moon -- caught that night in an envelope of silk, a mist -- passing over my sleeping field of teenage guts and glory. The grass in spring that has lain beneath the snow harbors a sere dust both cold and fresh. I smelled that newness beneath the rank tone of my bag-mate -- the stiff fragrance of damp earth and the thick pungency of newly manured fields  a mile or two away -- along with my sleeping bag's smell, slightly mildewed, forever smoky. The skunk settled even closer and began to breath rapidly; it's feet jerked a little like a dog's. I sank against the earth and fell asleep too.

The Deer and the Oats by Jessica Roux

"Of what easily tipped cans, what molten sludge, what dogs in back yards, what leftover macaroni casseroles, what cellar holes, crawl spaces, burrows taken from meek woodchucks, of what miracles of garbage did my skunk dream? Or did it, since we can't be sure, dream the plot of Moby Dick, how to properly age parmesan, or how to restore the brick-walled, tumbledown creamery that was its home? We don't know about the dreams of any other biota, and even much about our own. If dreams are an actual dimesion, as some assert, then the usual rules of life by which we abide do not apply. In that place, skunks may certainly dream themselves into the vests of stockbrokers. Perhaps that night the skunk and I dreamed each other's thoughts, or are still dreaming them. To paraphrase the problem of the Chinese sage, I may be a woman who has dreamed herself a skunk, or a skunk still dreaming she is a woman....

The Hare and the Oak by Jessica Roux

"Skunks don't mind each other's vile perfume. Obviously they find each other more than tolerable. And even I, who have been in the direct presence of a skunk hit, wouldn't classify their weapon as mere smell. It is more on the order of a reality-enhancing experience. It's not so pleasant as standing in a grove of old-growth red cedars, or watching trout rise to the shadow of your hand on the placid surface of an Alpine lake. When the skunk lets go, you are surrounded by skunk presence: inhabited, owned, involved with something you can only describe as powerfully there.

"I woke at dawn, stunned into that sprayed state of being. The dog that had approached me was rolling the grass, half-addled, sprayed too. The skunk was gone. I abandoned my sleeping bag and started home. Up Eighth Street, past the tiny blue and pink houses, past my grade school, past all the addresses where I had baby-sat, I walked in my own strange wind. The streets were wide and empty; I met no one -- not a dog, not a squirrel, not even an early robin. Perhaps they had all scattered before me, blocks away. I had gone out to sleep on the football field because I was afflicted with a sadness I had to dramatize. Mood swings had begun, hormones, feverish and brutal. They were nothing to me now. My emotions seemed vast, dark, and sickeningly private. But they were minor, mere wisps, compared to skunk."

The Goat and the Willow by Jessica Roux

The Chipmunk and the Bay Laurel by Jessica Roux

The art today is by Jessica Roux, an American painter whose work is rich in carefully-observed flora and fauna. Raised in the woodlands of North Carolina, Roux studied at the Savannah College of Art & Design in Georgia, and now works as a freelance illustrator and stationary designer.

"I can’t get enough of history," she says. "Old lithographs and studies by early naturalists are some of my favorite things. I love medieval bestiaries and the early Northern Renaissance. I’m also really inspired by nature. There are just so many strange plants and animals out there that I want to know more about."

The images here are from Roux's "Woodland Wardens" series, an oracle deck in progress. (I hope it's completed and published soon.) For those of you in or near Tennessee, the series can be viewed in the Jessica Roux exhibition at Gallery 205 in Columbia through Dec. 1st.

You can also see more of her work on her website and in her print shop here.

The Fox and the Ivy by Jessica Roux

The passage above is from "Skunk Dreams" by Louise Erdrich, first published in The Georgia Review (1993). All rights to the text and art above reserved by the author and artist.


Seeing green

Wildflower path

Jill Paton Walsh on writing for children:

"I suppose that it is because literature is so abstract that people evince so little common sense about it. For children's writers, like other writers, practice a craft. I don't imagine many people think that a children's doctor need not be so good at medicine as his colleagues, or that a carpenter who  Heidi Reading by Jessie Wilcox Smithmakes toys can manage with shoddy joinery. The truth is that a book which is bad literature just doesn't have much effect of any kind; doesn't work for anyone, young or old. Like any other writer, a children's writer has got to be good.

"It isn't even true that there is somehow a different sort of goodness appropriate to children's books. The problems and the satisfactions of the writer-craftsman working for children are mainstream problems, mainstream satisfactions. I am taking it for granted that an adult writer will seek to embody and communicate adult insights in his books, will not solve problems by talking down to his audience. That being so, one might think that the writer for children has a much greater problem in getting himself understood. But that thought underestimates children, and over-values understanding.

Winding into the woods border=

"One doesn't specially want a child reader to understand intellectually, to (as it were) decode the message in a work of fiction. After all, he doesn't -- God keep us from it! -- have to sit an examination on his reading. It is enough, it is better, if the reader simply experiences a book, simply feels it. And a reader can feel truly on a very partial understanding.

A shimmer of bluebells

"I will instance my own children, watching the televised War and Peace. When Natasha met clandestinely with Kuriagin they became deeply agitated. She couldn't! -- what would happen? -- what about Prince Andre? -- oh dear no! Of course, they couldn't understand the passion that motivated Natasha; they saw it entirely as a question of loyalty. But it is that, among other things. They see only a part of the whole, but what they do see is seen truly, not in distortion.

Following the light

Old oak

"Fully understanding a book is too often like being led forward in front of a pointilliste painting, and shown how the green is made up of spots of pure blue and pure yellow. One 'understands,' but one can no longer see green.

Black dog

"I can do without being understood," Walsh concludes, "as long as the reader sees green. The problem of being comprehensible is an emotional, an aesthetic problem -- that of making the book adequately embody its meaning: that of getting the reader to 'see green' and making the seeing of green, just thus and then, emotionally meaningful. This is the central problem of literary art."

Moss, rock, and bluebells

Queen of the woods

Devon bluebells

Tilly in the springWords: The passages above and in the picture captions are from "Seeing Green" by Jill Paton Walsh, published in The Thorny Paradise: Writers on Writing for Children, edited by Edward Blishen (Kestral Books, 1975); all rights reserved by the author. I recommend seeking out Blishen's book and reading the essay in full. Pictures: Bluebell season in the woods behind the studio. The drawing is an illustration for Heidi by Jessie Willcox Smith (1863-1935).


Talking to the moon

Hillside 1

After writing about kindness yesterday, I've been thinking about the ways in which the lack of kindness propels some of us into the arts: not only as way to retreat from pain, or to cope with it, or to attempt to understand it, but also as a means of creating (to quote Anais Nin) "a world in which one can live."

For example, here's a passage by British novelist Catherine Storr from her essay "Why Write? Why Write for Children?" (published in The Thorny Paradise). Storr describes her parents as loving ones who did not mean to be unkind, and yet her own open-hearted nature was viewed with deep suspicion:

"I am a compulsive writer," Storr begins. " I suppose that before I'd learn to write without too much difficulty, I was a compulsive talker. This is borne out by the memory of hearing my parents say, 'Catherine never stops talking.' I think I went on talking too much until the awkwardness of adolesence overcame the habit. But before that I'd discovered writing; and though it didn't immediately cure me of talking too much, it did provide an outlet for the need to communicate.

Hillside 2

"What I needed to communicate was feelings. We were a very buttoned up family as far as the emotions were concerned. I don't remember ever doubting that my parents loved us, but they never said so in so many words. They also weren't at all physically demonstrative; you had to be in considerable distress before you got picked up and hugged. Kissing was something you did before going to bed or saying goodbye for a longer period. This restraint didn't come naturally to me at all, and besides being told I talked too much, I was also frequently told I shouldn't ask for displays of affection. It was recognized in the family that Catherine was sentimental, and that this should be discouraged.

"Until I was ten, these reprehensible feelings had to be repressed, or carefully monitored so that they didn't offend my parents' austere standards. I can still remember attributing one particular enthusiasm to my doll, so that I wouldn't be held responsible for it. It was a marvelous day in the country and I was aching to say so to someone, but I knew if I did I'd be laughed at, so I said, 'Ruthy is feeling sentimental. She says, "How blue the sky! How green the grass!" But even this ruse didn't work. I was laughed at again.

Hillside 3

"What happened when I was ten was that the door suddenly opened. I was lying in bed with the curtains undrawn and I saw a huge white moon looking at me through the branches of the aspen poplar tree which stood about forty feet away in the garden opposite my window. It must have been spring, I think, because the branches were bare. I got out of bed and wrote a poem to the moon with a blunt pencil on a sheet of manuscript music paper, which was all I could find. It was blank verse and until that moment I'd had no idea that I could write anything more ambitious than rhyming couplets. It was a very exciting moment. Probably all the more exciting because it was forbidden to wander out of bed after eight o'clock. Then next morning I read the poem through and was rather impressed by it. It was a great deal better than I'd have expected."

That little girl grew up to become the author of over thirty books for children and adults (as well as a medical doctor and psychologist), writing right up to her death at age 87. Having raised three daughters, Storr was often asked if her childrens' books had been written for them. Well yes, to some degree, she said, but mostly she'd written them for herself:

"William Mayne, when asked for whom he wrote his books, said: For the child I once was. I'm sure this is true of many writers for children, but  I think it is also true that that one writes for the child one still is."

Hillside 4

The Thorny ParadiseThe passage above is from "Why Write? Why Write for Children" by Catherine Storr, published in The Thorny Paradise: Writers on Writing for Children, edited by Edward Blishen (Kestral Books, 1975). The poem in the picture captions is from Poetry magazine (October 2012). All rights reserved by the authors or their estates.


Lloyd Alexander on blessings in disguise and the value of fantasy

Hillside 1

Lloyd Alexander (1924-2007) was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, served in military intelligence during World War II, studied at the University of Paris after the war, then worked in advertising and journalism (as a cartoonist and layout artist) while launching his career as a novelist. He initially wrote books for adults, but when he finally found his way to children's literature, he had found his true home. Generations have now grown up with his Prydain Chronicles and other extraordinary novels, which are classics of the fantasy field.

"I have to smile, remembering myself as a very much younger man," Alexander recalled in his Newbery Award acceptance speech (for The High King in 1969). "I was still looking for a way to say -- whatever it was, if anything, I had to say.

"Although it didn't feel that way at the time, those years were a blessing, heavily disguised. Or, say, the kind of gift the enchantresses Orddu, Orwen, and Orgoch bestow on the unwitting recipient. Perhaps we have to serve an apprenticeship to life before we can serve one to art. We can't begin doing our best for children until we ourselves begin growing up.

Hillside 2

"I still can't say,  precisely what unreasonable reasons brought me to write for children -- beyond saying I simply wanted to. Even though I can't analyze what led me to children's literature, I do know what I found there. For me, a true form of art that not only helped me understand something of what I wanted to say but also let me discover ideas, attitudes, and feelings I never suspected were there in the first place....

Hillside 3

Hillside 4

"At heart, the issues raised in a work of fantasy are those we face in real life. In whatever guise -- our own daily nightmares of war, intolerance, inhumanity, or the struggles of an Assistant Pig-Keeper against the Lord of Death -- the problems are agonizingly familiar. And an openness to compassion, love, and mercy is as essential to us here and now as it is to any inhabitant of an imaginary kingdom."

Which confirms my belief that we need literature now, and especially fantasy literature, more than ever.

Hillside 5

Hillside 6

Hillside 7The text above is from Lloyd Alexander's acceptance speech for the Newbery Medal in 1969; all rights reserved by the author's estate.


Fairy tales and fantasy, when the need is greatest

The Cock and the Fox by Milo Winter

"In an age that seems to be increasingly dehumanized, when people can be transformed into non-persons, and where a great deal of our adult art seems to diminish our lives rather than add to them, children's literature insists on the values of humanity and humaneness."  - Lloyd Alexander

Two illustrations for Alice in Wonderland by Milo Winter

"The great subversive works of children's literature suggest that there are other views of human life besides those of the shopping mall and the corporation. They mock current assumptions and express the imaginative, unconventional, noncommercial view of the world in its simplest and purest form. They appeal to the imaginative, questioning, rebellious child within all of us, renew our instinctive energy, and act as a force for change. This is why such literature is worthy of our attention and will endure long after more conventional tales have been forgotten." 

- Alison Lurie (Don't Tell the Grown-Ups)

Alice in Wonderland by Milo Winter

"The fairy tale, which to this day is the first tutor of children because it was once the first tutor of mankind, secretly lives on in the story. The first true storyteller is, and will continue to be, the teller of fairy tales. Whenever good counsel was at a premium, the fairy tale had it, and where the need was greatest, its aid was nearest."

- Walter Benjamin ("The Storyteller," Selected Writings: 1935-1938)

Thumbelina & The Wild Swans by Milo Winter

"This is the thing about fairy tales: You have to live through them, before you get to happily ever after. That ever after has to be earned, and not everyone makes it that far."

- Kat Howard (Roses and Rot)

Belling the Cat by Milo Winter

"If you read fairy tales carefully, you’ll notice they are mostly about people who aren’t heroes. They don’t have special powers, or gifts. Often they are despised as stupid, They are bullied, beaten up, robbed, starved. But they find they are stronger than their misfortunes." 

- Amanda Craig (In a Dark Wood)

The Tortoise and the Hare by Milo Winter

"People who’ve never read fairy tales have a harder time coping in life than the people who have. They don’t have access to all the lessons that can be learned from the journeys through the dark woods and the kindness of strangers treated decently, the knowledge that can be gained from the company and example of Donkeyskins and cats wearing boots and steadfast tin soldiers. I’m not talking about in-your-face lessons, but more subtle ones. The kind that seep up from your sub-conscious and give you moral and humane structures for your life. That teach you how to prevail, and trust. And maybe even love." 

- Charles de Lint (The Onion Girl)

From Aesop's for Children by Milo Winter

From Aesop for Children by Milo Winter

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

Born in Princeton, New Jersey, Winter 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.

Two illustrations for Billy Popgun by Milo Winter

The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse by Milo Winter


Home is Imaginary: depression, imagination, the power of stories

Woodland gate

This week has a dark significance: it is the time of year, statistically, when the most suicides take place; and the majority of those suicides are related to depression.

Depression is on a sharp rise in the West, increasingly afflicting our young people -- and young men in particular. Several conversations with friends this last week have centered on what we -- as writers, as artists, as members of geographic and artistic communities -- can do to support younger generations to grow into lives that are mentally healthy, balanced, grounded in values beyond the marketplace, and connected to the physical, natural world, to the numinous, and to each other.

Art plays a role in this, of course, for the imagery we put out into the world helps to shape it, for good or for ill..and each of us is responsible for our small part in the collective creation.

Through the leaves

"Young human beings need exercises in imagination as they need exercise in all the basic skills of life, bodily and mental: for growth, for health, for compentence, for joy," writes Ursula K. Le Guin. "This need continues as long as the mind is alive.

"When children are taught to learn the central literature of their people, or, in literate cultures, to read and understand it, their imagination is getting a very large part of the exercise it needs.

Leaf and moss

"Nothing else does quite as much for most people, not even the other arts," Le Guin continues. "We are a wordy species. Words are the wings both intellect and imagination fly on. Music, dance, visual arts, crafts of all kinds, all are central to human development and well-being, and no art or skill is ever useless learning; but to train the mind to take off from immediate reality and return to it with new understanding and new strength, nothing quite equals poem and story.

"Through story, every culture defines itself and teaches its children how to be people and members of their people -- Hmong, !Kung, Hopi, Quechua, French, Californian....We are those who arrived at the Fourth World.... We are Joan's nation.... We are sons of the Sun.... We came from the sea.... We are people who live at the center of the world.

Rock hound 1

"A people that doesn't live at the center of the world, as defined and described by its poets and storytellers, is in a bad way. The center of the world is where you live fully, where you know how things are done rightly, done well.

"A child who does not know where the center is -- where home is, what home is -- that child is in a very bad way.

Rock hound 2

"Home isn't Mom and Dad and Sis and Bud. Home isn't where they have to let you in. It's not a place at all. Home is imaginary.

"Home, imagined, comes to be. It is real, realer than any other place, but you can't get to it unless your people show you how to imagine it -- whoever your people are. They may not be your relatives. They may never have spoken your language. They may have been dead for a thousand years. They may be nothing but words printed on paper, ghosts of voices, shadows of minds. But they can guide you home. They are your human community.

Through the leaves again

"All of us have to learn how to invent our lives, make them up, imagine them. We need to be taught these skills; we need guides to show us how. Without them, our lives get made up for us by other people....What a child needs, what we all need, is to find some other people who have imagined life along lines that make sense to us and allow us freedom, and listen to them. Not hear passively, but listen.

"Listening is an act of community, which takes space, time, and silence.

"Reading is an act of listening."

Entangled

The passage above comes from Le Guin's 2002 essay "The Operating Instructions," which I recommend reading in full. You'll find it in her excellent new collection Words Are My Matter: Writings About Life & Books, 2000-2016 (Small Beer Press, 2016).

Related reading:

* Danuta Kean's recent article "Library cuts harm young people's mental health services" (The Guardian, January 13, 2017)

* Jane Yolen on the value of fantasy in "Children, reading and Tough Magic" (Myth & Moor, August 26, 2016)

* My own thoughts about early storybooks in "The stories we need" (Myth & Moor, February 25, 2016)

* Jay Griffiths on children and nature: "In the forest, the child. In the child, the forest" (Myth & Moor, June 11, 2015).

On the hillside

Words Are My MatterThe text above is from "The Operating Instructions," a talk given at a meeting of Oregon Literary Arts in 2002, and reprinted in Words Are My Matter (Small Beer Press, 2016). All rights reserved by the author.


Children, reading, and Tough Magic

Seymour Joseph Guy

From Touch Magic: Fantasy, Folklore and Faerie in the Literature of Childhood by  Jane Yolen:

"The great archetypal stories provide a framework or model for an individual's belief system. They are, in Isak Dinesen's marvelous expression, 'a serious statement of our existence.' The stories and tales handed down to us from the cultures that proceded us were the most serious, succinct expressions of the accumulated wisdom of those cultures. They were created in a symbolic, metaphoric story language and then hones by centuries of tongue-polishing to a crystalline perfection....

"And if we deny our children their cultural, historic heritage, their birthright to these stories, what then? Instead of creating men and women who have a grasp of literary allusion and symbolic language, and a metaphorical tool for dealing with the problems of life, we will be forming stunted boys and girls who speak only a barren language, a language that accurately reflects their equally barren minds. Language helps develop life as surely as it reflects life. It is the most important part of the human condition."

Walter Firle

Eastman Johnson &Michael Peter Ancher

Emile Vernon

Izsák Perlmutter & Knud Eric Larsen

"In fantasy stories we learn to understand the differences of others, we learn compassion for those things we cannot fathom, we learn the importance of keeping our sense of wonder. The strange worlds that exist in the pages of fantastic literature teach us a tolerance of other people and places and engender an openness toward new experience. Fantasy puts the world into perspective in a way that 'realistic' literature rarely does. It is not so much an escape from the here-and-now as an expansion of each reader's horizons."

Carl Larsson

Florence Fuller

 "A child who can love the oddities of a fantasy book cannot possibly be xenophobic as an adult. What is a different color, a different culture, a different tongue for a child who has already mastered Elvish, respected Puddleglums, or fallen under the spell of dark-skinned Ged?"

Boy Reading by Thomas Benjamin Kennington & Charlotte J. Weeks

Boys reading, vintage photograph

Clark Kelley Price

Gilbert Young

Dorothea Lange

"Just as a child is born with a literal hole in his head, where the bones slowly close underneath the fragile shield of skin, so the child is born with a figurative hole in his heart. What slips in before it anneals shapes the man or woman into which that child will grow. Story is one of the most serious intruders into the heart."

Tatiana Deriy

Tatiana Deriy

Honor C. Appleton & Mary Cicely Barker

John Weiss

Children’s books change lives. Stories pour into the hearts of children and help make them what they become.Denise Holly Ulinskas

"We have spent a good portion of our last decades erasing the past. The episode of the gas ovens is closed, wrapped in the mist of history. It is as if it never happened. At the very least, which always suprises me, it is considered a kind of historical novel, abstract and not particularly terrifying.

"It is important for children to have books that confront the evils and do not back away from them. Such books can provide a sense of good and evil, a moral reference point. If our fantasy books are not strong enough -- and many modern fantasies shy away from asking for sacrifice, preferring to profer rewards first as if testing the faerie waters -- then real stories, like those of Adolf Hitler's evil deeds, will seem so much slanted news, not to be believed.

Rebecca Kinkead

Adelaide Claxton

"Why do so many fantasies shy away from Tough Magic? Why do they offer sweet fairy dances in the moonlight without the fear of the cold dawn that comes after? Because writing about Tough Magic takes courage on the author's part as well. To bring up all the dark, unknown, frightening images that live within each of us and try to make some sense of them on the page is a task that takes courage indeed. It is not an impersonal courage. Only by taking great risks can the tale succeed. Ursula Le Guin has written:

"The artist who goes into himself most deeply -- and it is a painful journey -- is the artist who touches us most closely, speaks to us most clearly.' "

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema

Words: The quotes above are from Jane Yolen's influential book Touch Magic (Philomel, 1981; August House, expanded edition, 2000), which I highly recommend. This text has also appeared in a previous post: "Breathing in the world," August 15, 2013. All right reserved by the author.

Pictures: Artists are identified in the picture captions.


Happy 150th Birthday, Beatrix Potter!

Beatrix Potter with pet mouse, 1885

Illustrated letter by Beatrix Potter, 1895

Illustrations by Beatrix Potter

Illustrated letter by Beatrix Potter, 1892

Rabbit drawing by Beatrix Potter

Beatrix Potter with pet rabbit, 1981

Rabbit drawings by Beatrix Potter

I'm so grateful to Beatrix Potter, whose work has deeply influenced my own over all these years...and continues to delight children all around the world, generation after generation.

Rising above the severe social constraints of her very Victorian childhood, she became an internationally celebrated writer and artist, a ground-breaking naturalist, a respected Lake District sheep farmer, and a founding member of Britain's National Trust. She is one of my primary heroes.

For more information about this remarkable woman's life, I recommend Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature by Linda Lear. The Tale of Beatrix Potter by Margaret Lane is also good, and At Home With Beatrix Potter by Susan Denyer is delightful.

Happy 150th birthday, dear lady.

Beatrix Potter's Hill Top Farm

 "I remember I used to half believe and wholly play with fairies when I was a child. What heaven can be more real than to retain the spirit-world of childhood, tempered and balanced by knowledge and common-sense." - Beatrix Potter

Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter

Illustrations by Beatrix Potter

Illustrated letter by Beatrix Potter, 1898

Beatrix Potter and Kep at Hill Top Farm, circa 1920s

Beatrix Potter's drawing of her sheep dog KepThe image descriptions are in the picture captions.


The road between dreams and reality

Stiniel 1

Stiniel 2

One final post on men and fairy tales to end the week:

"Men have always loved fairy tales," says fairy tale scholar  Jack Zipes, "loved to tell them, loved to hear them, loved to write them. Although the fairy tale has has been more or less labeled a female, if not effeminate and infantile, affair and been disparaged since the late Renaissance as 'feminine' -- associated with Mother Goose, gossips, witches, grannies, and foolish ladies -- more than anything else, this disparagement had to do with the Christian church's endeavor to brand secular and pagan tales as heretical and its campaign to proselytize and establish its authority through its own fantastic myths. The denigrating attitude was also connected to the development of canons of proper literature and the separation of high and low culture. Whatever was associated with women was generally excluded from high culture. Yet the fairy tale was never 'feminine,' never the property of women alone, though it might have been gendered in the way it was told and written. Men always told and wrote fairy tales. If we simply cast a glance at the prominent writers of literary fairy tales, they include mainly men, from Straparola and Basile through Perrault, the Brothers Grimm, Hoffman, and Andersen to Hesse, Tolkien, Ende, Coover. The classical genre has been framed by male authors, although it has certainly been challenged and surverted by women writers from the very outset in France and certainly during the last thirty-five years. And men have also joined in the subversion."

Stiniel 3

Stiniel 4

"Why fairy tales?" asks Gregory Maguire, author of The Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister and other fairy tale inspired works. "As Erik Christian Hauhaard once said, 'The fairy tale belongs to the poor.' Even when it is about the daughter of a king, she is a daughter disenfranchised, endangered, imperiled, no more in control of her destiny than those on hijacked planes or working high in magic towers. We need to practice the art of believing in survival so that when we need to survive, we recognize the concept. Why these fanciful conceits, these marmalade skies, these mutant chickens, these motherless children in fairy tales? Because by being a notch or two different than our own world, they can be noticed; they show up against the static and the smudge of dailiness. Then, when we look back at our world, we see with renewed vision, with rested eyes and restored spirits. The static isn't so impenetrable, the smudge no longer so bleary."

Stiniel 5

Stiniel 6

"I never wanted to be a fairy-tale princess (although many gay boys do)," writes novelist Greg Bills. "I did spend real time in those stories, however. Little Red, and the Three Bears, and Jack and his Beanstalk. I found great appeal in wandering those darkly dangerous forests, roaming inside treasure caves (Open Sesame!), and climbing a vegetable ladder to a grossly oversized castle. And, of course, there was the Giant. Or Paul Bunyan. Or Dad. Or Whoever He Was. Shrugging my way back into boyhood, I can feel that extra prick of interest that encounters with giants always gave me. Jack's. Goldilocks surprised in bed by three immense bears. David's Goliath. The Jolly Green Guy. Later, Odysseus and the Cyclops, and the giant that the protagonists encounter in The Silver Chair (one of C.S. Lewis' Narnia books). There was a craving there. A need. A quickening. Whatever it Was, it stirred in me.

"Fairy tales, and later fantasy books and films and comic books, offered an uregulated sanctuary not only for creatures that could not exist in actuality -- talking animals, shoemaking elves, Baba Yaga's chicken-legged house -- but for emotions that had no conceivable outlet into reality. I could not be a gay boy in a world where gay boys did not exist, but, then, hobbit, centaurs, and giants had no claim to actuality either yet still managed to survive -- on the page and in my head if nowehere else. If I could not pursue the Giant in my world, Jack could in his."

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"I don't honestly know what I think about fairy tales, because they are part of me," Neil Gaiman says simply. "It would be like trying to explain what I think of my spine or circulatory system or my eyes. The tales I read as a boy define how I see the world and how I perceive what I see; they flow through me, and sometimes still, they hold me up. I write stories as an adult in which the membrane of the world is thin and permeable and in which something more exists beneath and above and, truly, that is the world I believe in. (Do I mean that literally? Certainly, although literal means constructed of words, and it is stories, constructed of words, that we are discussing here.) The road between dreams and reality is one that must be negotiated, not walked."

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Feather on mossThe quotes above are from Brothers & Beasts, edited by Kate Bernheimer (Wayne State University Press, 2007). The poem in the picture captions is from Donald Finkel's collection Simeon (Atheneum, 1964). All rights reserved by the authors. Photographs: Howard and Tilly in the fairy tale land we live in.


Hansel and the trail of stones

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From "Hansel," a remarkable essay by poet Richard Siken, which begins like this:

"Why make a map? Why do anything at all? Now how, because hows are easy, series or sequence, one foot after another, but existentially why bother, what does it solve? Well, if you don't need to, don't. Wouldn't that be great? Just don't make anything. The world is full of things already, the world is vast and wide and full of grace, and you will always be given the benefit of the doubt. Except that isn't true now, is it? Fact is, the world is full of things trying to kill you. We do not walk through a passive landscape. Sometimes you need a map to find the food, the hiding places.

"I was a regular-style kid with a regular-style life. Things got bad, sure, but that was later. Grandma had stories about the war -- running, hiding, privation -- but that was later. I would discover that my father could speak German but refused to, was ashamed to -- We're Americans now -- but that was later. This is still the beginning, this is my bedtime, early on. The window is over my bed and there are three trees outside the window, in the yard, the dark woods, well-framed and moving slowly in the breeze. Imagine that the world is made out of love. Now imagine that it isn't. Here is a story where everything goes wrong, here is a story where everyone has their back against the wall, here is a story where everyone is in pain and acting selfishly because if they don't, they'll die. Here is a story, not of good and evil, but of need against need against need, where everyone is at cross-purposes and everyone is to blame. How are you supposed to fall asleep to this?

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"Hard by a great forest lived a poor woodcutter who had come upon such hard times that he could no longer provide even daily bread for his wife and two children. 'What is to become of us?' says the man. 'Early tomorrow we will take the children into the thickest part of the forest and leave them there,' says the woman. The two children, awake from hunger, heard everything their parents were saying. Trust no one. You are expendable. You are a burden. Why would you tell this to your child, who is about to go to sleep? As soon as your eyes are shut, we will begin to plan your demise. If I were you, were smart, I'd stay awake, ever vigilant and terrified. I would look out the window at those three trees and think about those two children. If you know the story, you know that Gretel saves the day, that women have power (mother, daughter, witch) and men (father, son) just flounder about. My father is telling me this story and I am an only child. There is no Gretel. He has no power. I am being warned and there is no out.

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"Gretel begins to cry, but Hansel says, 'Be quiet, don't worry. I know what to do.' And with that he got up, pulled on his jacket, opened the lower door, and crept outside....The moon shines brightly and the white pebbles outside the house glisten like silver coins. Hansel bends over and fills his jacket pockets with them, as many as will fit. Then at daybreak the woman comes and wakes up the children. 'Get up, you lazybones. We're going into the woods to fetch wood.' She gives each one a piece of bread, saying, 'Here is something for midday. Don't eat it any sooner, for you'll not get any more.' Gretel hides hers under her apron so she can carry his. Hansel drops the pebbles from his pockets onto the path.

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"They arrive, middle of the woods, make a fire, rest. Because they can hear the blows of an ax, they think that the father is nearby. It is not an ax, it is a branch that he has tied to a dead tree and that the wind was beating back and forth. After they had sat there a long time, their eyes grow weary and they fall asleep. This is the first iteration. They wake, its dark, they cry, the moon rises, and the pebbles shine, showing them the way. This is my favorite part. It starts and ends here. The pebbles shine, the plan worked, Hansel Triumphant. Lesson number one: Be sneaky and have a plan. But the stupid boy goes back, makes the rest of the story postscript and aftermath. He shouldn't have gone back. And this is the second lesson I took from the story: When someone is trying to ditch you, kill you, never go back.

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"My father is reading me this story and sometimes its just a story and other times it is his story, his history, he is sharing a sadness with me, an unfairness done to him that he cannot express, or it is the story of Exodus, or of World War II. My father creeps me out because he is telling me too many stories all at once and I do not believe he is innocent , or pure of heart, and I want pebbles. I want a lower door. They walked through the entire night, and as morning was breaking, they arrived at the father's house. Stupid, stupid kids. "

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A little later in his essay, Silken writes:

"There are many definitions for poetry that are useful. I like 'Poetry is language that does more than one thing' and 'Poetry is the residue of a life lived.' I use words like pebbles, like residue. You are are in terrible danger. Grab your pebbles and go. Make a trail away from doom and don't look back. It works better than I thought it would. I also believe that anything can happen in words. The teller decides. I took it to heart. A spell, an incantation, a cake recipe. There is a bomb inside you. I can say that. It might be true. The Dalai Lama says we are born in bliss and Jesus says we are born in sin. I say, even if you do not believe in God, you must believe we are born into narrative, one foot in front of the other, things happening after other things. And since you are always moving forward -- pushed, pulled, or just strolling along -- you might as well take note of how and where you're going. Many writers can point to an event in their lives where they gained permission to write. The story of Hansel (and Gretel) gave me a mandate to write, to describe the terrain, for myself as well as for anyone who might want to, need to, follow."

You'll find the Siken's essay in Brothers & Beasts: An Anthology of Men on Fairy Tales, edited by Kate Bernheimer, and I recommend reading it in full.

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The striking Hansel & Gretel pictures today are by Italian graphic artist Lorenzo Mattotti, created for an illustrated edition of the story originally published in France. (A later English edition, with text by Neil Gaiman, appeared from TOON Graphics in 2014.) Mattotti studied architecture when he was young but ended up in the comics field instead -- making his name with such works as Fires and Labyrinthes from the 1980s onward, and winning an Eisner Award for his Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde in 2003. He also illustrates children's books (Pinnochio, Eugenio, The Pavillion on the Links, etc.), and is internationally renown as a magazine and fashion illustrator. Born and raised in Lombardy, Mattotti now lives with his wife and family in Paris.

In the video below, Neil Gaiman talks about working on the English edition of Mattotti's Hansel & Gretel, and the dark side of fairy tales.

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 Lorenzo Mattotti 11Words: The passage above by Richard Siken is from Brothers & Beasts, edited by Kate Bernheimer (Wayne State University Press, 2007). The poem in the picture captions is from The First Four Books of Poems by Louise Glück (Ecco, 1999). Pictures: The drawings above are from Hansel & Gretel, a graphic novel by Neil Gaiman & Lorenzo Mattotti (TOON Graphics, 2014) -- with thanks to Charles Vess for introducing me to it. All rights to the text and imagery in this post reserved by their respective creators.