This morning, in a pause between rain showers, I took my coffee break out on the hill with The Last Selchie Child by Jane Yolen in my bag and the hound at my side. This lovely little edition from A Midsummer Night's Press contains poetry rooted in fairy tales, folklore, and myth -- including five gorgeous selchie poems, and one based on The Little Mermaid. I recommend it highly.
From an essay by A.S. Byatt in The Pleasure of Reading, edited by Antonia Fraser:
"The roots of my thinking are a tangled maze of myths, folktales, legends, fairy stories. Robin Hood, King Arthur, Alexander of Macedon, Achilles and Odysseus, Apollo and Pan, Loki and Baldur, Sinbad and Haroun al Rashid, Rapunzel and Beauty and the Beast, Tom Bombadil and Cereberus. I have no idea now where I got all this, except for the Norse myths, which came from a turn of the century book, Asgard and the Gods, bought by my mother as a crib for her Ancient Norse and Icelandic exams at Cambridge. I read the Fairy Books of Andrew Lang and several collections of ballads, and 'How Horatio Kept the Bridge' from Macaulay's Lays of Ancient Rome. The tales and myths and legends...made it clear that there was another world, beside the world of having to be a child in a house, an inner world and a vast outer world with large implications -- good and evil, angels and demons, fate and love and terror and beauty -- and the comfort of the inevitable ending, not only the happy ending against odds, but the tragic one too.
"At the same time, and just as early, I remember the importance of poetry, Nursery rhymes, ballads, the 'Jackdaw of Rheims' from Richard Barham's The Ingoldsby Legends and A.A. Milne's Now We Are Six, 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner' and 'Slowly silent now the moon' by Walter de la Mare. I think one of the most important writers to me ever has been Walter de la Mare, though it is a debt hard to recognize or acknowledge. Partly for the singing strange rhythms of his poetry, partly for the strange worlds and half-worlds he gave one glimpses of, the world of a pike suspended in thick gloom under a bridge, the journeyings of the Three Mulla Mulgars, which I read over and over. The most important poems were three coloring books we had, a page of poetry beside a picture, all three complete stories: The Pied Piper, Tennyson's 'The Lady of Shalott,' his Morte d'Arthur. I knew them all by heart long before I thought to ask who had written them. Their rhymes haunt everything I write, especially the Tennyson. The enclosed weaving lady became my private symbol for my reading and brooding self long before I saw what she meant for him, and for 19th century poetry in general.
"Truthfulness forces me to admit that we did not have that great anthology of magical and narrative verse, de la Mare's Come Hither, but we were brought up on its contents by my mother, who gave us poems and more poems, as though it was unquestionable that this was the very best thing she could do for us.
"What about fiction, as opposed to fairy tales? What I remember most vividly is learning fear, which I think may be important to all animals -- I used to love the song from The Jungle Book -- 'It is fear, oh little hunter, it is fear.' And I remember Blind Pew tapping, the terrible staircase and the heather-hunting in Kidnapped, I remember Jane Eyre locked in the Red Room, and poor David Copperfield at the mercy of Mr. Murdstone, the horrors of Fagin in the condemned cell (I could only have been eight or nine) and worst of all (though I still have nightmares about executions) Pip on the marshes being grabbed by Magwitch in that brilliant and terrible beginning of Great Expectations. I must have been very little. I didn't understand any more than Pip that Magwitch's terrible companion was fictive.
"I remember my first meeting with evil, too, and it has only just recently struck me how strange that was. I worked my way along my grandmother's shelf of school prizes -- was I nine or ten? Or younger? And read Uncle Tom's Cabin before anyone had told me that slaves had really existed outside The Arabian Nights. Tom's sufferings and the evil of the system and the people who killed him, with cruelty or negligence, made me feel ill and appalled. I never talked to anyone about it. We sang about Christ's suffering in church but that seemed comparatively comfortable and institutional and had after all a happy ending, whereas Tom's story did not. And yet one is grateful for the glimpses of the dark: as long as they do not destroy, they strengthen."
The art today is by Arthur Hughes, a Victorian painter associated with the Pre-Raphaelite movement. Born in London in 1832, Hughes studied art at Somerset House and the Royal Academy, and had his first picture accepted for a Royal Academy exhibition when he was only 17. Upon meeting Rossetti and other members of the original Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Hughes pledged himself to the Brotherhood's cause and spent the rest of his life creating paintings and drawings rooted in Pre-Raphaelite ideals. He was also a leading book illustrator in what was known as the "Sixties Group," remembered best today for his classic drawings for the fantasy novels of George Macdonald. The artist was married (to the model for his painting "April Love") and had six children, one of whom became a successful landscape painter. (The "fairy painter" Edward Robert Hughes was Arthur Hughes' nephew.) The artist died at home in London in 1915, after a long and prolific career.
The passage above comes from The Pleasure of Reading, edited by Antonia Fraser (Bloomsbury, 1992); I recommend reading A.S. Byatt's essay in full. All rights reserved by the author.
Today, music from three wonderful women in the American bluegrass/Celtic/roots music scene: Crooked Still's Aoife O'Donovan on guitar and vocals, Nickel Creek's Sara Watkins on fiddle and vocals, and Sarah Jarosz on guitar, banjo, and vocals. They are from Boston, California, and Texas respectively.
Above: Aoife and Sarah perform the traditional ballad "Some Tyrant" at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, Colorado in 2014.
Below: Aoife, Sara, and Sarah record a cover of John Hiatt's "Crossing Muddy Waters" earlier this year.
Above: Aoife, Sara, and Sarah perform Nina Simone's "Be My Husband," 2015.
Below: Aoife performs her beautiful song "Briar Rose," inspired both by the fairy tale and Anne Sexton's dark poem of that title. (A trigger warning here for abuse issues.) She's backed up by Austin Nevins on guitar and Jacob Silver on double bass, filmed in Hillsborough, North Carolina, 2013.
A round-up of recent online finds:
* Simon at the Corymbus blog on music and wilderness (Corymbus).
* Sarah Elwell on elemental writing (Knitting the Sky).
* Warren Ellis on writing from a littoral space (Medium).
* Martin Shaw on hares and madrigals (Westcountry School of Myth & Story).
* Shazea Quraishi on bears and coming of age (The Guardian).
* Laura Miller on "The Bloody Chamber," Angela Carter's classic volume of de-constructed fairy tales (Salon).
* Peter Bradshaw on "Tale of Tales," a new film based on the fairy tales of Giambattista Basile (The Guardian).
And one video:
I loved The Diane Rehm Show on public radio when I lived in the States, so it was a thrill to learn that the show would be devoting a segment to "the history and modern relevance of fairy tales" this week. Fairy tales are usually covered in the media in a shallow (and sometimes deeply ignorant) way, but I trusted Ms. Rehm to do much better than this -- particularly as the guests she'd lined up were Maria Tatar, Marina Warner, and Ellen Kushner. Perfect! And, indeed, it was a splendid discussion. If you missed it, go here to have a listen.
(For those of you unfamiliar with the show, Diane Rehm's voice sounds strained because of spasmodic dysphonia, a neurological voice disorder that almost ended her career. Instead, she returned to the radio and used her show as a platform to raise public awareness of the condition. A remarkable woman.)
And on the subject of fairy tales:
I hope you haven't missed Marina Warner's excellent new book, Once Upon a Time: A Short History of the Fairy Tale, which just came out in October from Oxford University Press. "The more one knows fairy tales," she notes, "the less fantastical they appear; they can be vehicles of the grimmest realism, expressing hope against all the odds with gritted teeth."
Edited to add: I also recommend Warner's article "How Fairy Tales Grew Up," published in The Guardian this week.
The editors of Mirror, Mirrored (Gwarlingo Press) are planning a limited edition volume of Grimms Fairy Tales illustrated by contemporary artists from a wide range of disciplines, with an Introduction by Karen Joy Fowler. They are running a crowd-funding campaign for it now, with some lovely art as donation rewards.
And last: Go here to watch a video of Philip Pullman discussing the enduring power of stories in a clip from the BBC's Newsnight programme.
The illustrations in this post are by Marianne Stokes (1855-1927) -- a painter who, though little known today, was considered one of the leading women artists of Victorian England.
Born in Austria, Marianne studied in Munich and Paris, lived in arts colonies in Brittany and Denmark, then settled in St. Ives, Cornwall with her British husband, landscape painter Adrian Stokes. In Cornwall, she was part of the lively Newlyn group of plein air artists (along with her close friend Elizabeth Stanhope Forbes), until falling under the spell of Pre-Raphaelitism from the 1890s onward. The Stokes then lived and worked in London, with frequent painting trips abroad -- spending half their year in rural Austria, Hungry, and the Tartra Mountain villages between Slovakia and Poland. If you'd like to know more, I recommend Utmost Fidelity: The Painting Lives of Marianne and Adrian Stokes by Magdalen Evans.
lllustrations above: "The Frog Prince," "Snow White," an untitled magazine cover illustration from 1907, and "Melisande." The tapestry design is "Women's Worth" (based on a Schiller poem), created for Morris & Co. in 1912.
From "The Fantastic Imagination" by George Macdonald (1824-1905), author of The Princess and Curdie, At the Back of the North Wind, The Light Princess, etc., discussing the nature and value of fairy tales and fantasy:
"A genuine work of art must mean many things; the truer its art, the more things it will mean. If my drawing, [for example], is so far from being a work of art that it needs This is a horse written under it, what can it matter that neither you nor your child should know what it means? It is there not so much to convey a meaning as to wake a meaning. If it does not even wake an interest, throw it aside. A meaning may be there, but it is not for you. If, again, you do not know a horse when you see it, the name written under it will not serve you much. At all events, the business of the painter is not to teach zoology.
"But indeed, your children are not likely to trouble you about meaning. They will find what they are capable of finding, and more would be too much. For my part, I do not write for children, but for the childlike, whether of five, or fifty, or seventy-five.
"A fairy tale is not an allegory. There may be allegory in it, but it is not an allegory. He must be an artist indeed who can, in any mode, produce a strict allegory that is not a weariness of the spirit. An allegory must be Mastery or Moorditch. A fairy tale, like a butterfly or a bee, helps itself at all sides, sips at every flower, and spoils not one.
"The true fairy tale, to my mind, is like the sonata. We all know that a sonata means something; and where there is the faculty of talking with suitable vagueness, and choosing metaphor sufficiently loose, mind may approach mind, in the interpretation of a sonata, with a more or less contenting conciousness of sympathy. But if two or three men sat down to write each what the sonata meant to him, what approximation to a definite idea would be the result? Little enough -- and that little more than needful."
" A fairy tale, a sonata, a gathering storm, a limitless night, seizes you and sweeps you away: do you begin at once to wrestle with it and ask whence its power over you, wither it is carrying you? The law of each is in the mind of its composer; that law makes one man feel this way, another man feel that way. To one the sonata is a world of odour and beauty, to another of soothing only and sweetness. To one the cloudy rendezvous is a wild dance, with a terror at its heart; to another a majestic march of heavenly hosts, with Truth in their center pointing their course, but as yet restraining her voice. The greatest forces lie in the region of the uncomprehended.
"I will go farther -- The best thing you can do for your fellow, next to rousing his conscience, is -- not to give him things to think about, but to wake things up that are in him; or say, to make him think things through for himself. The best Nature does for us is to work in us such moods in which thoughts of high import arise. Does any aspect of Nature wake but one thought? Does she ever suggest only one definite thing? Does she make any two men in the same place at the same moment think the same thing? Is she therefore a failure, because she is not definite? Is it nothing that she does rouses the something deeper than understanding -- the power that underlies thoughts? Does she not set feeling, and so thinking at work? Would it be better that she did this after one fashion, and not after many fashions?
"Nature is mood-engendering, thought provoking: such ought the sonata, such ought the fairy tale to be."
The author and artists selected for this post all come from Scotland -- in honor of today's historic referendum on the question of Scottish Independence.
The artists above were part of the great Scottish Arts & Crafts movement at the end of the 19th century: Jessie M. King (1875-1949), John Duncan (1866-1945), Phoebe Traquair (1853-1936), Dorothy Carleton Smyth (1880-1933, sister of fellow-artist Olive Carleton Smyth), Frances MacDonald MacNair (1873-1921, sister of fellow-artist Margaret MacDonald Mackintoch), Annie French (1872-1965), Ann Macbeth (1875-1948), and Katherine Cameron (1874-1965). I recommend the book Glasgow Girls: Women in Art & Design 1880-1920, edited by Jude Burkhauser (Cannongate, 1990).
by David Whyte
We shape our self
to fit this world
and by the world
are shaped again.
and the invisible
in common cause,
I am thinking of the way
the intangible air
passed at speed
round a shaped wing
holds our weight.
So may we, in this life
to those elements
we have yet to see
and look for the true
shape of our own self,
by forming it well
to the great
intangibles about us.
The drawings and paintings here are from the Days of Creation series by Sir Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1899). The five surviving paintings are now in the collection of the Fogg Museum at Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts...where I loved to go visit them, back in my Boston days. These designs were also turned into stained glass windows by Burne-Jones and William Morris, for their Arts & Crafts company Morris & Co (which is still in operation). The window below (Day 4) is installed in the Chapel of Manchester College, Oxford.
"For every locomotive they build, I shall paint another angel.” - Sir Edward Burne-Jones
"Fantasy, our subject and my preoccupation, comes from and appeals to the unconcious. It draws all its images from that dark wonderland, through the mysterious catalyst of the creative imagination. Nobody has ever described this process better than the great librarian, Lillian H. Smith, in her book The Unreluctant Years. 'Creative imagination,' she said, 'is more than mere invention. It is that power that creates, out of abstractions, life. It goes to the heart of the unseen, and puts that which is so mysteriously hidden from ordinary mortals into the clear light of their understanding, or at least of their partial understanding. It is more true, perhaps, of writers of fantasy than of any other writers except poets that they struggle with the inexpressible. According to their varying capacities, they are able to evoke ideas and clothe them in symbol, allegory, and dream.' " - Susan Cooper (Dreams and Wishes)
"I always felt and still feel that fairy tales have an emotional truth that is so deep that there are few things that really rival them." - Alice Hoffman
"Fantasy is not antirational, but pararational; not realistic but surrealistic, a heightening of reality. In Freud's terminology, it employs primary not secondary process thinking. It employs archetypes which, as Jung warned us, are dangerous things. Fantasy is nearer to poetry, to mysticism, and to insanity than naturalistic fiction is. It is a wilderness, and those who go there should not feel too safe.” - Ursula K. Le Guin (The Language of the Night)
The beautiful artwork in this post is by the Golden Age illustrator Florence Harrison (1878-1955).
Florence Susan Harrison was born in Brisbane, Australia, but spent much of her childhood at sea (her father was a sea caption) and at a great-aunt's school in England. It's not known where (or if) Harrison formally studied art, but she established a very successful career as an illustrator for the Blackie and Son publishing house (Glasgow and London) from 1905 onward. She is known to have lived in Belgium and London, continually working and publishing throughout the disruptive years of World Wars I and II. (Like so many women of the World War I generation, she never married.) A deep friendship with the Irish Catholic writer Enid Maud Dinnis, whose tales she illustrated, was a formative influence on her life and work; and Harrison stopped publishing artwork altogether after Dinnis' death.
In art catalogs and across the Internet today, Harrison's illustrations are often erroneously attributed to an earlier artist: the Victorian painter Emma Florence Harrison (born in Gloucestershire, England in 1858), whose work was exhibited at the Royal Academy in the late 19th century. I have no idea what Emma Harrison's art was like, as the illustrations widely credited to her now are actually Florence Harrison's. (The confusion stems from Emma Harrison's middle name.) My hope is that a biography of Florence Susan Harrison will be published one day so that we can learn more about this remarkable woman.
To see other works by women artists from the Pre-Raphaelite, Art Nouveau and Golden Age years, I recommend Women Illustrators of the Golden Age by Mary Carolyn Waldrep.
For everyone who has been overworking lately, or trying to handle too many Big Life Things at once (including extremes of winter weather), I offer this lovely poem about weariness and restoration from the late (and much missed) Irish poet, philosopher, and Catholic mystic, John O'Donohue:
When the rhythm of the heart becomes hectic,
Time takes on the strain until it breaks;
Then all the unattended stress falls in
On the mind like an endless, increasing weight,
The light in the mind becomes dim.
Things you could take in your stride before
Now become laborsome events of will.
Weariness invades your spirit.
Gravity begins falling inside you,
Dragging down every bone.
The tide you never valued has gone out.
And you are marooned on unsure ground.
Something within you has closed down;
And you cannot push yourself back to life.
You have been forced to enter empty time.
The desire that drove you has relinquished.
There is nothing else to do now but rest
And patiently learn to receive the self
You have forsaken for the race of days.
At first your thinking will darken
And sadness take over like listless weather.
The flow of unwept tears will frighten you.
You have traveled too fast over false ground;
Now your soul has come to take you back.
Become inclined to watch the way of rain
When it falls slow and free.
Imitate the habit of twilight,
Taking time to open the well of color
That fostered the brightness of day.
Draw alongside the silence of stone
Until its calmness can claim you.
Be excessively gentle with yourself.
Stay clear of those vexed in spirit.
Learn to linger around someone of ease
Who feels they have all the time in the world.
Gradually, you will return to yourself,
Having learned a new respect for your heart
And the joy that dwells far within slow time.
The art above: "Flaming June" by Fredrick Lord Leighton (1830-1896), two color studies and a drawing for the "Legend of the Briar Rose" series by Sir Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898), and a detail from one of the completed "Briar Rose" panels (bottom right).
The places we've live, and the places we grew up in often have an impact (whether acknowledged or not) on our lives, our relationships, our dreams. . . and the houses we yearn for, whether real or imagined, reveal much about our inner nature. As a folklorist, I'm interested in how the idea of "home'"is expressed in traditional stories; and as a fantasist, in how this translates into modern magical fiction.
Fairy tales, for example often begin with a hero propelled from his or her home by poverty or calamity; and the search for the safe haven of a new home, or the task of restoring prosperity to an old one, is central to such stories. Such tales are rites–of–passage narratives, chronicling a transformational journey from one archetypal life stage to another. Most often, the tale follows a young hero's transition from childhood to adulthood, the completion of the journey symbolized by a wedding at the story's end.
In the modern, simplified versions of the tales popularized by Disney films and children's books, the emphasis is so often placed on the romantic (and wealth accumulating) aspects of the stories that finding 'true love' (with a well heeled spouse) can seem to be what fairy tales are all about. Older, adult versions of the tales, by contrast, are focused on the steps of the hero's passage through a period of upheaval and peril — a period required to test the hero's mettle and provoke growth and self–transformation. Such tales speak to the challenges we face at any time in life (not just in our youth) when circumstances force us to leave home, either literally or metaphorically, setting us on the road to an unknown future and a new identity. Catskin, Donkeyskin, The Girl With No Hands, The Wild Swans, Hans My Hedgehog: these are all rites–of–passage narratives. Each tale begins in a childhood home that has become constricting, even dangerous, and each hero must leave this home behind in order to forge a new life in the adult world. The completion of the hero's task is marked by the traditional rewards of the fairy tale genre: a marriage, a crown, a storehold full of treasure; but the true reward at journey's end is a new–found ability to survive life's trials, transcend its terrors, and determine one's own fate.
The heroes begin in one home and end in another (or else in the old home restored and renewed), but in between these two poles is a crucial period of homelessness. Homelessness is a liminal state rich in opportunities for character change and growth, which has made it a popular plot device among storytellers both old and new. Homelessness detaches the hero from the role he or she has played in the past, strips them of identity, blurs the markers of class or rank, removes usual sources of aid and comfort, and throws them on their own resources. . .a perfect recipe for suspense, adventure, and heroic metamorphosis.
In classical myth, the home was sacred to Hestia, goddess of the hearth and perpetual flame. Sometimes called "the forgotten goddess," Hestia rarely appears in the tales of the gods, and seems to have had few temples or acolytes; and yet she was actually the first of the goddesses, sitting higher in the Olympian pantheon than even Hera (wife of Zeus, goddess of love and marriage) or Demeter (goddess of fertility and the harvest). Although avidly courted by both Poseidon and Apollo, Hestia vowed she would never marry, dedicating herself instead to the management of Mount Olympus, home of the gods. For this, she received the first portion of tribute in the temple rites of all the other gods, and was worshipped at the hearth in the center of all houses and buildings. Each morning began with Hestian prayers as the family fire was stoked for cooking and heating; each day ended with prayers to the goddess as the fire was banked for the night. Unlike the rest of the Greek pantheon, well known for their tempers, jealousies, and quarrels, Hestia was an unusually stable goddess, revered for her gentle, calm, and forgiving nature. But lest we think of her as the Olympian equivalent of a 1950s housewife, limited to home and the service of others, she was also the first builder, the inventor of architecture, and the patron of these arts.
In fantasy literature, as in fairy tales, many stories begin with the loss of a home, and this is precisely what thrusts the protagonists into the world. Some stories, like L. Frank Baum's The Wizard of Oz or J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, rest on the main protagonist's fierce desire to go home again; in others, they must find or create new homes for themselves in far distant lands. In Diana Wynne Jones' Charmed Life, for example, young Janet chooses to remain in the magical world of Chrestomanci; in Pamela Dean's "Secret Country" books, some of the children never return home again; and Austin Tappan Wright's great utopian novel Islandia revolves around a hero pulled between loyalties to his old and new countries. In fiction, as in myth, it's that in–between period of wandering and homelessness that allows for adventure and metamorphosis, propelling characters out of their settled ways of life and into their new roles as heroes. In children's fantasy, many adventures begin when a child's usual home is disrupted — when they're sent off to live with relatives, or transplanted to a summer cottage, or sent off to boarding school, etc. It's interesting to note that a number of these tales — The Owl Service by Alan Garner, for example, or The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken — were penned by writers who grew up in England during the Second World War, a time when children were regularly sent away from home to escape German bombers. Displacement, once again, creates a space that is rich in narrative possibilities, with the added bonus that once the parents are off the scene, the young protagonists are thrown onto their own resources.
What I love best are those fantasy novels where the houses themselves are a source of enchantment, reminiscent of the fairy towers and haunted chateaux to be found in folk tales. The masterwork in this mini–genre is the "Gormenghast" trilogy by Mervyn Peake, in which an entire epic world is created beneath one rambling, crumbling roof, but there are plenty of other fantastical houses I'd also love to have a good wander in: such as Tamsin House from Charles de Lint's Moonheart; or Crackpot Hall from Ysabeau Wilce's Flora Segunda; or Edgewood from John Crowley's Little, Big. In such books, domestic spaces regain their aura of the numinous, connecting us, in our everyday lives, as we sleep and wake and cook and clean, to the realm of the gods, the fairies, the ancestors, and to worlds of magic.
What are your favorite magical houses in fiction, fairy tales, or myth? And what houses haunt you, real or imagined? Here are two of the real houses that I love and often dream of:
First, Kelmscott Manor, Oxfordshire, the country house of William Morris, his wife Jane, and Dante Grabriel Rossetti (Jane's lover) at the turn of the 19th century:
Second, Charleston Farmhouse in Sussex, the country house of the painters Vanessa Bell (Virginia Woolf's sister) and Duncan Grant, in the early half of the 20th century. The house was shared, over the years, with assorted spouses, lovers, children, and Bloomsbury friends...and is now preserved by the Charleston Trust.
The art above is: "Dear Milie" by Maurice Sendak, "Catskin" by Arthur Rackham, "Hansel & Gretel" by Lorenzo Mattotti, "Thumbelina" by Lisbeth Zwerger, "Hans My Hedgehog" by Patricia Mignone, "Cinderella" by Edmund Dulac, a hobbit house from The Lord of the Rings Sketchbook by Alan Lee, and a "Gormenghast" painting by Alan Lee. Portions of the text here are drawn from my article "The Folklore of House and Home" (2008). For more on magical houses, visit Grace Nuth's Domythic Bliss blog. For more thoughts about "home," listen to the beautiful "Homesickness" program on Ellen Kushner's Sound & Spirit radio series.