Happy Halloween from Myth & Moor

Twilight by Brian Froud

In Celtic lore, October 31st is Samhain (All Hallow's Eve, or Halloween): the night when Arawn, lord of the Dead, rides the hills with his ghostly white hounds, and the Faery Court rides forth in stately procession across the land. In ancient times, hearth fires were smothered while bonfires blazed upon the hills, surrounded by circular trenches to protect all mortals from the faery host and the wandering spirits of the dead. In later centuries, Halloween turned into a night of revels for witches and gouls, eventually tamed into the modern holiday of costumes, tricks and treats.

Trolls by Brian Froud

Although the prospect of traffic between the living and the dead has often been feared, some cultures celebrated those special times when doors to the Underworld stood open. In Egypt, Osiris (god of the Netherworld, death, and resurrection) was drowned in the Nile by his brother Seth on the 17th of Athyr (November); each year on this night dead spirits were permitted to return to their homes, guided by the lamps of living relatives and honored by feasts.

Death by Brian FroudIn Mexico, a similar tradition was born from a mix of indigenous folk beliefs and medieval Spanish Catholism, resulting in los Dias de Muertos (the Days of the Dead) -- a holiday still widely observed across Mexico and parts of the American South-West. The holiday varies from region to region but generally take place over the days of October 31st, November 1st, and November 2nd, celebrated with graveyard gatherings and Carnival-like processions in the streets. Within the house, an ofrenda or offering is painstakingly assembled on a lavishly decorated altar. Food, drink, clothes, tequila, cigarettes, chocolates and children's toys are set out for departed loved ones, surrounded by candles, flowers, palm leaves, tissue paper banners, and the smoke of copal incense. Golden paths of marigold petals are strewn from the altar to the street (sometimes all the way to the cemetary) to help the confused souls of the dead find their way back home.

According to Fredy Mendez, a Totonac man from Veracruz: "Between 31 October and 2 November, past generations were careful always to leave the front door open, so that the souls of the deceased could enter. My grandmother was constantly worried, and forever checking that the door had not been shut. Younger people are less concerned, but there is one rule we must obey: while the festival lasts, we treat all living beings with kindness. This includes dogs, cats, even flies or mosquitoes. If you should see a fly on the rim of a cup, don't frighten it away -- it is a dead relative who has returned. The dead come to eat tamales and to drink hot chocolate. What they take is vapor, or steam, from the food. They don't digest it physically: they extract the goodness from what we provide. This is an ancient belief. Each year we receive our relatives with joy. We sit near the altar to keep them company, just as we would if they were alive. At midday on 2 November the dead depart. Those who have been well received go laden with bananas, tamales, mole and good things. Those who have been poorly received go empty handed and grieving to the grave. Some people here have even seen them, and heard their lamentations."

The Elfin Maid by Brian Froud

In Greek mythology, Persephone regularly crosses the border between the living and the dead, dwelling half the year with her mother (the goddess Demeter) in the upper world, and half the year with her husband (Hades) in the realm of the dead below. In another Greek story, Orpheus follows his dead wife deep into Hades' realm, where he bargains for her life in return for a demonstration of his musical skills. Hades agrees to release the lovely Eurydice back to Orpheus, provided he leads his wife from the Underworld without looking back. During the journey, he cannot hear his wife's footsteps and so he breaks the taboo. Eurydice vanishes and the pathway to Land of the Dead is closed. A similar tale is told of Izanagi in Japanese lore, who attempts to reclaim his beloved Izanami from the Land of Shadows. He may take her back if he promises not to try to see Izanami's face -- but he breaks the taboo, and is horrified to discover a rotting corpse.

When we look at earlier Sumarian myth, we find the goddess Inana is more successful in bringing her lover, Dumuzi, back from the Underworld; in Babylonian myth, this role falls to Ishtar, rescuing her lover Tammuz: "If thou opens not the gate," she says to the seven gatekeepers of the world below, "I will smash the door, I will shatter the bolt, I will smash the doorpost, I will move the doors, I will raise up the dead, eating the living, so that the dead will outnumber the living." During the three days of Ishtar's descent, all sexual activity stops on earth. The third day of the drama is the Day of Joy, the time of ascent, resurrection and procreation, when the year begins anew.

The Rune of Journeys by Brian Froud

Coyote, Hermes, Loki, Uncle Tompa and other Trickster figures from the mythic tradition have a special, uncanny ability to travel between mortal and immortal realms. In his brilliant book Trickster Makes This World: Michief, Myth, & ArtLewis Hyde explains that Trickster is the lord of in-between:

The Rune of Stewardship by Brian Froud"He is the spirit of the doorway leading out, and the crossroads at the edge of town. He is the spirit of the road at dusk, the one that runs from one town to another and belongs to neither. Travellers used to mark such roads with cairns, each adding a stone to the pile in passing. The name Hermes once meant 'he of the stone heap,' which tells us that the cairn is more than a trail marker -- it is an altar to the forces that govern these spaces of heightened uncertainty. The road that Trickster travels is a spirit road as well as a road in fact. He is the adept who can move between heaven and earth, and between the living and the dead."

Trickster is one of the few who passes easily through the borderlands. The rest of us must confront the guardians who rise to bar the way: the gods, faeries, and supernatural spirits whose role is to help or hinder our passage over boundaries and through gates, thresholds, and liminal states of mind. In folk tales, guardians can be propitiated, appeased, outwitted, even slain -- but often at a price which is somewhat higher than one really wants to pay.

On Samhain, we cross from the old year to the new -- and that moment of crossing, as the clock strikes the midnight hour, is a time of powerful enchantment. For a blink of an eye we stand poised between two years, two tales, two worlds; between the living and the dead, the mortal and the fey. We must remember to give food to Hecate, wine to Janus, and flowers, songs, smoke, and dreams to the gate-keepers along the way. Shamans, mythic artists, and fantasy writers: they all cast paths of spells, stories, and marigold petals for us to follow, keeping us safe until the sun rises and the world begins anew.

Leaf Mask by Brian Froud

The art above is by Brian Froud, from The Land of Froud, Good Faeries/Bad Faeries, The Runes of Efland (with Ari Berk) and Trolls (with Wendy Froud); all rights reserved by the artist. Go here to see more of his work.


On a bleak, wet day in Devon

From Periluna by Mr. Finch

I'm afraid I have to step away from Myth & Moor today because of an overly-busy work schedule and some family matters that need immediate attention. I'll be back with Part II of the Art of Mr. Finch tomorrow (including more on the magical hare above), or Saturday at the latest. My apologies for the delay.

Until then, let me leave you with these words from novelist and poet Helen Dunmore (1952-2017), sent out to all of you immersed in creative work, perhaps facing a deadline or feeling overwhelmed in some other way:

"Don't worry about posterity -- as Larkin (no sentimentalist) observed, 'What will survive of us is love.' ''


Secret Threads

Fabric Toadstools by Mr Finch

From The Problem With Pain by C.S. Lewis:

"You may have noticed that the books you really love are bound together by a secret thread. You know very well what is the common quality that makes you love them, though you cannot put it into words: but most of your friends do not see it at all, and often wonder why, liking this, you should also like that.

"Again, you have stood before some landscape, which seems to embody what you have been looking for all your life; and then turned to the friend at your side who appears to be seeing what you saw -- but at the first words a gulf yawns between you, and you realise that this landscape means something totally different to him, that he is pursuing an alien vision and cares nothing for the ineffable suggestion by which you are transported.

Moth Pulling a Tiny Coach by Mr Finch

Moth collection by Mr. Finch

"Even in your hobbies, has there not always been some secret attraction which the others are curiously ignorant of -- something, not to be identified with, but always on the verge of breaking through, the smell of cut wood in the workshop or the clap-clap of water against the boat's side? Are not all lifelong friendships born at the moment when at last you meet another human being who has some inkling (but faint and uncertain even in the best) of that something which you were born desiring, and which, beneath the flux of other desires and in all the momentary silences between the louder passions, night and day, year by year, from childhood to old age, you are looking for, watching for, listening for?

"You have never had it. All the things that have ever deeply possessed your soul have been but hints of it -- tantalising glimpses, promises never quite fulfilled, echoes that died away just as they caught your ear. But if it should really become manifest -- if there ever came an echo that did not die away but swelled into the sound itself -- you would know it. Beyond all possibility of doubt you would say, 'Here at last is the thing I was made for.' "

Hares with sprouting bulbs by Mr. Finch

Mice and Dark Grey Mushrooms by Mr Finch

This, to me, is what fantasy literature (and mythic arts) does best: it tugs on those secret threads, evokes bright worlds half-glimpsed at the corner of our eyes...where the heart's desire lies just ahead, but always just ahead, beyond the next turn of the page.

Dream Fox by Mr Finch

Owls by Mr. Finch

Rabbits by Mr. Finch

The gorgeous soft sculptures here are by Mr. Finch, a textile artist in Leeds, near the Yorkshire Dales, with a name straight out of a fairy tale.

"My main inspirations come from nature," he writes. "Flowers, insects and birds really fascinate me with their amazing life cycles and extraordinary nests and behaviour. British folklore is also so beautifully rich in fabulous stories and warnings and never ceases to be at the heart of what I make. Shape shifting witches, moon gazing hares and a smartly dressed devil ready to invite you to stray from the path. Humanizing animals with shoes and clothes is something I’ve always done and I imagine them to come alive at night. Getting dressed and helping an elderly shoemaker or the tired housewife.

Kneeling hare and small weeping wolf by Mr. Finch

Textile Hares by Mr Finch

Magical creatures by Mr. Finch

"Most of my pieces use recycled materials, not only as an ethical statement, but I believe they add more authenticity and charm. A story sewn in, woven in. Velvet curtains from an old hotel, a threadbare wedding dress and a vintage apron become birds and beasts, looking for new owners and adventures to have. Storytelling creatures for people who are also a little lost, found and forgotten…."

Visit Mr. Finch's website see his wondrous work. I love it deeply, and we'll be looking more tomorrow.

Soft Sculpture Snails by Mr Finch

Mole Army by Mr. Finch

Botany Badger and Foxes by Mr. Finch

Spider by Mr. Finch

The passage by C.S. Lewis quoted above is from The Problem of Pain, published in The Centenary Press' "Christian Challenge" series in 1940. I first read it for a class on Lewis  way back in my university days (as a non-Christian, it's not a book I would have been likely to pick up myself), and though it is indeed quite theological, it contains interesting passages on a number of other subjects too. In class, we read it in conjunction with Lewis' Grief Observed, about the death of his wife, which was a fascinating pairing. All rights to the text and art above reserved by the C.S. Lewis estate and Mr. Finch.


Sheltering in books

The Princess and the Pea by Gennady Spirin

I've only just discovered Survival Lesson by Alice Hoffman (2013), a slim, wise, beautiful volume written after the author's treatment for breast cancer. Her advice for coping with fearsome passages of life includes turning to books for solace and escape -- a sentiment with which, as a fellow cancer survivor, I heartily concur. Revisit the stories you loved as a child, Hoffman writes:

Baba Yaga by Gennady Spirin" -- you'll love them even more now. Start with Andrew Lang's fairy books, books sorted by color. Red, Lilac, and Blue are my favorites. Sometimes I think we can learn everything we need to know about the world when we read fairy tales. Be careful, be fearless, be honest, leave a trail of crumbs to lead you home again.

"In a novel you'll find yourself in a world of possibilities. You'll find shelter there. I spent an entire summer reading Ray Bradbury. I was twelve, which can be a terrible year. It's the summer when you suddenly know you will never be a child again. Being an adult may not look so good. The world that awaits you is scary and hugh. This is when you want to stop time, be a kid, ride your bike. But everyone around you is growing up, and you have to, too.

"I remained in Bradbury's world for as long as possible. It was a place where it was possible to recognize good from evil, darkness from light. I was a cynical kid, and I didn't have much faith in the world, but I trusted Ray Bradbury. I took everything he said personally. Often I would read until the fireflies came out.

The Frog Princess by Gennady Spirin"I read because I wanted to escape sadness, which was a big theme in my family. My great-grandfather had been forced into the czar's army, where he served for twenty years, before he shot off his toes with a rifle so they would finally let him go. Because we were Russian, sadness came naturally to us. But so did reading. In my family, a book was a life raft.

"I've often wondered if I spent too much time inside of books. If perhaps I ended up getting lost in there. I feared that reading, and later writing, stopped me from living a full life in the real world. I still don't know the answer to this, but I'm not sure I would have gotten past being twelve without Ray Bradbury, and I know that imagining the plot for my novel The River King during a lengthy bone scan helped me get through that test. The hospital faded and I was walking through a small town where I knew everyone. I slipped into the river, past water lilies, past the muddy shore. Here was my life raft. A book."

Frog Song by Gennady Spirin

The Frog Princess by Gennady Spirin

The art today is by the great Russian-American book artist Gennady Spirin. He was born and raised in the former Soviet Union, studied at the Academy of Arts in Moscow and Moscow Stroganov Institute of Art, and then worked for Soviet and European publishers before moving his family to the United States. Spirin's sumptuous watercolours -- reminiscent of traditional Russian folk art and paintings of the Northern Renaissance --  grace his numerous, award-winning books for children, including Boots and the Glass Mountain, The Children of Lir, The Frog Princess, The Tale of Tsar Saltan, The Fool and the Fish, Gulliver’s Travels in Lilliput, Kashtanka, The Sea King’s Daughter, Perceval, and The Tale of the Fire Bird.

To learn more about the artist, go here.

Unicorn by Gennady Spirin

The passage above is quoted from Survival Lessons by Alice Hoffman (Open Road, 2013). All rights to the text and art in this post are reserved by the author and artist.


Tunes for a Monday Morning

Swing dancers, 1940s

In the middle of a generally stressful year we've had an incredibly stressful week: supporting an elderly family member through a difficult situation, waiting for another family member's Covid test results (after a housemate tested positive for the virus), while also waiting for tests to tell us whether the scary lump on Tilly's leg was cancer or not. I can usually stay calm in a storm (I've weathered enough of them by now), but I admit that by week's end I was shaking with exhaustion and jumping at my own shadow. I'm greatly relieved to be able to report that the Covid test was Negative, and Tilly's lump is benign; so now we can focus on resolving the first problem, and getting back to normal life, or what passes for normal life in a global pandemic. 

Lindy-hop in Harlem in the 1930sFor me, that means not only re-finding calm and quiet but also simple pleasures and moments of joy. One of the things that gave me joy, pre-pandemic, was going to weekly lindy-hop lessons (when health allowed), and monthly swing dances in Exeter -- where a variety of Big Bands played, and people of all ages danced the night away, many of them dressed in clothes of the early swing & jive era: the 1930s, '40s, and '50s. All of that stopped when Covid hit, but Howard and I are keeping up our lindy-hop practice with regular sessions of dancing in the kitchen (the one room with a wooden floor and no rug). The moment I hear swing music playing, my spirits start to lift.

Today's music goes out to fellow dancers, and to everyone else who could use a lift too....

Above: "Bring Me Sunshine" performed by The Jive Aces, a popular jive & swing band here in the UK. Yes, swing started in America, but it was brought over to England by American GIs during World War II and has spread all around the world. The dancing in this video, with its athletic lifts and aerials, is a mix of jive and swing. 

Below: "Bright Lights Late Nights" performed by The Speakeasies' Swing Band, from Thessaloníki, Greece, with classic lindy-hop dance moves. This is the style of swing dancing that goes on in our kitchen.

Above: "Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen," a favourite song of mine from The Hot Sardines of New York City. You don't have to learn swing (or tap) dancing to enjoy the music....

Below: "Healing Dance" by Swingrowers, an electro-swing band from Palermo, Italy, with Sicilian rapper Davide Shorty.

Above: "Dramophone" by Caravan Palace, an electro-swing band from Paris. Electro-swing often involves more individual dancing than couple dancing, but incorporates many classic swing, jazz, and Charleston moves.

Below, ending as we started with The Jive Aces...and a pair of terrific lindy-hoppers. You're never too old to dance.

Oh heck, here's one more:

"Diga Diga Doo" by Skeedaddle, a swing & gypsy jazz band here in Devon. The violinist is Howard's cousin, Becky Doe; and the bass player is our friend and Chagford neighbour Tim Heming. They're a great band to dance to!


Built by books

Fairy Garland illustrated by Edmund Dulac

In her 2012 novel How it All Began, Penelope Lively describes her central character, Charlotte Rainsford, in a manner that many book lovers can relate to:

''The Little Girl in a Book'' by Edmund Dulac"Forever, reading has been central, the necessary fix, the support system. [Charlotte's] life has been informed by reading. She has read not just for distraction, sustenance, to pass the time, but she has read in a state of primal innocence, reading for enlightenment, for instruction, even. She has read to find out how sex works, how babies are born, she has read to discover what it is to be good, or bad; she has read to find out if things are the same for others as they are for her – then, discovering that frequently they are not, she has read to find out what it is that other people experience that she is missing.

"Specifically, she read bits of the Old Testament when she was ten because of all that stuff about issues of blood, and the things thou shalt not do with thy neighbour’s wife. All of this was confusing rather than enlightening. She got hold of a copy of Fanny Hill when she was eighteen, and was aghast, but also intrigued.

"She read Rosamond Lehmann when she was nineteen, because her heart had been broken. She saw that such suffering is perhaps routine, and, while not consoled, became more stoical.

"She read Saul Bellow, in her thirties, because she wanted to know how it is to be American. After reading, she wondered if she was any wiser, and read Updike, Roth, Mary McCarthy and Alison Lurie in further pursuit of Arthur Rackhamthe matter. She read to find out what it was like to be French or Russian in the nineteenth century, to be a rich New Yorker then, or a Midwestern pioneer. She read to discover how not to be Charlotte, how to escape the prison of her own mind, how to expand, and experience.

"Thus has reading wound in with living, each a complement to the other. Charlotte knows herself to ride upon a great sea of words, of language, of stories and situations and information, of knowledge, some of which she can summon up, much of which is half lost, but is in there somewhere, and has had an effect on who she is and how she thinks. She is as much a product of what she has read as of the way in which she has lived; she is like millions of others built by books, for whom books are an essential foodstuff, who could starve without."

''The Good Book'' by Katherine Cameron

“I need fiction, I am an addict," Francis Spufford declared in his poignant memoir, The Child That Books Built. "This is not a figure of speech. I don’t quite read a novel a day, but I certainly read some of a novel every day, and usually some of several. There is always a heap of opened paperbacks face down near the bed, always something current on the kitchen table to reach for over coffee when I wake up. Colonies of prose have formed in the bathroom and in the dimness of the upstairs landing, so that I don’t go without text even in the leftover spaces of the house where I spend least time….I can be happy with an essay or a history if it interlaces like a narrative, if its author uses fact or impression to make a story-like sense, but fiction is kind, fiction is the true stuff....I don’t give it up. It is entwined too deeply within my history, it has been forming the way I see for too long."

"Reading was my escape and my comfort, " Paul Aster explains, "my consolation, my stimulant of choice: reading for the pure pleasure of it, for the beautiful stillness that surrounds you when you hear an author's words reverberating in your head.”

"When I got [my] library card, that was when my life began," says Rita Mae Brown, and I know just what she means.

Reading at the Desk by Carl Larsson

Thus I've been surprised (and a little alarmed) recently by conversations in several of the different spheres I inhabit in which smart, creative people admit that they haven't read many books (in some cases, any books) in a long while. My god, I keep thinking, if artistic and literary friends aren't reading, what hope for the rest of our culture?

Not reading is something I can't really fathom. I'm not boasting here; my reading habit is compulsive, like Spufford's, bordering on obsession, and I'd spend my last dollar on a book, not food. (I know this, because I occasionally did so in the difficult days of my youth.) I cannot imagine how I would survive were I confined to this one single life, this one problematic body, this one limited, fragile consciousness, instead of roaming the wide, wondrous world through the magic of ink and the alphabet. 

''Reading at the Breakfast Table'' by Carl LarssonThere's a famous scene (famous to bookish folks, anyway) in the American television show The Gilmore Girls in which teenaged Rory fills her backpack with books to read before catching the bus to school...explaining to her mother that she needs a pack big enough for all of them because each one -- a novel, a biography, short stories, essays, etc. -- is necessary for different reading moods. Yes! In those halcyon pre-digital days, I loaded my backpack this way too. (And ocassionally still do.) One of my great fears in life is being stuck somewhere with nothing to read. Oh, the horror!

"Writing is a form of therapy," said Graham Greene; "sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose, or paint can manage to escape the madness, melancholia, the panic and fear which is inherent in a human situation." Greene's words can apply to reading too--

I was about to write: "since I don't know how people can cope without reading." But in fact I do know, for I once spent several months unable to read (or to write) while recovering from meningitis, which affected both my vision and my ability to concentrate on the linear unfolding of a text. Even audiobooks were too hard to follow; I was reduced to watching old episodes of Buffy and The West Wing: both of them so familiar that I could waver in and out of the story. I recall saying over and over to friends: I just don't feel like me. Who am I, if I'm not reading or writing?  It was, I am very glad to say, a temporary experience -- but profoundly unsettling, and just plain profound. It is frightening, yes, but also enlightening when life strips away those things that we most depend on...and then gives them back again.

Reading on the Bench by Carl Larsson

Even stranger than hearing that a literary friend is no longer reading (or reads only online) is meeting an aspiring writer who rarely reads...and this happens much more often than you'd think. The key word is "aspiring," however -- for I can't recall a single one of the many successful writers I've edited over the years who wasn't also a passionate and voracious reader of books, of one sort or another. Such alien creatures must exist, somewhere, since all things are possible under the sun, but I don't know how I'd work with a non-bookish writer. What common language would we speak?

Of course, sometimes when a novelist is at work, she will avoid reading some books or authors in order to avoid certain kinds of influence (a rhythm of prose that interfere with one's own, for example) -- although this varies from writer to writer, and also between one stage of writing and another. For me, when I'm on a first or last draft, I tend to limit the amount of fiction I'm reading (making up for it with nonfiction instead) so that my narrative voice is not overlayed by another fiction writer's style...but for in-between drafts I can, and do, read pretty much anything. I'm not worried, then, about influence; on the contrary, I seek it out: learning this from one writer and that from another; inspired by good books, educated (on what to avoid) by bad ones; filling the well so that the internal "waters of story" will never run dry.

Arthur Rackham

"A great painting, or symphony, or play, doesn't diminish us," assures Madeleine L'Engle, "but enlarges us, and we, too, want to make our own cry of affirmation to the power of creation behind the universe. This surge of creativity has nothing to do with competition, or degree of talent. When I hear a superb pianist, I can't wait to get to my own piano, and I play about as well now as I did when I was ten. A great novel, rather than discouraging me, simply makes me want to write. This response on the part of any artist is the need to make incarnate the new awareness we have been granted through the genius of someone else."

"Read, read, read," advised William Faulkner. "Read everything -- trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You'll absorb it. Then write. If it's good, you'll find out. If it's not, throw it out of the window."

 Cincinnati Public Library

"Reading," Joyce Carol Oates, "is the sole means by which we slip, involuntarily, often helplessly, into another's skin, another's voice, another's soul."

I'm not so sure about the word "sole" (other art forms can be powerfully empathetic too), but otherwise I agree with Oates. For me, reading is the most immediate and effective way to take me take me out of my mortal flesh and into the consciousness of another ... whomever and whatever that Other may prove to be.

"Fiction is a kind of compassion-generating machine that saves us from sloth," George Saunders states. "Is life kind or cruel? Yes, Literature answers. Are people good or bad? You bet, says Literature. But unlike other systems of knowing, Literature declines to eradicate one truth in favor of another; rather, it teaches us to abide with the fact that, in their own way, all things are true, and helps us, in the face of this terrifying knowledge, continually push ourselves in the direction of Open the Hell Up."

Holland House Library in London during the Blitz, 1940

Books are my passport to different places, different times, different perceptions of and ways of life. I'd feel so limited and so small without them.

As Betty Smith wrote in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1943): "The world was hers for the reading."

Reading in the garden at Weaver's Cottage, 2007; photograph by Alan Lee

Images above: "The Fairy Garland" and "Little Girl in a Book" by Edmund Dulac (1882-1953), a pen & ink drawing by Arthur Rackham (1867-1939), The Good Book" by Katherine Cameron (1874-1965), three paintings by Carl Larsson (1853-1919), "Making Clothes for Her Dolls" by Arthur Rackham, and three photgraphs: boys in front of the Public Library in Cincinatti, Ohio (exact date unknown), the Holland House Library in London during the Blitz (1940), and reading in the garden at Weaver's Cottage (2007, photograph by Alan Lee).


That books that shaped me

The Blackberry Bush

Sleepy Time Tale

“Just as the child is born with a literal hole in its head, where the bones slowly close underneath the fragile shield of skin, so the child is born with a figurative hole in its heart.  Slowly this, too, is filled up.  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."    - Jane Yolen

As a folklorist, fantasist, and passionate advocate for the value of fairy tales, I have written many essays over the years about the fairy tales I loved as a child, and how they've permeated my creative life ever since. I've spent less time thinking about the other tales that colored my childhood, especially those from the earliest years, tales read to me before I could read for myself -- tales that, whatever their objective value as literature, "intruded into the heart" during that formative time.

I wish I could say my young mind was nourished on the classics of children's literature -- the original text of J.M Barrie's sly and sardonic Peter and Wendy, for example -- but like so many children growing up in the 1960s I had a Peter-Pan-simulacrum, not Peter himself: a small picture book with a re-written text that had been greatly slimmed down and simplified, based on Walt Disney's Peter, not Barrie's. Likewise for Felix Salten's Bambi, Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book, and so many other classics in 1960s adapations: they all seemed to bear Disney's stamp, whether or not Disney Studios had ever actually made films out of them.

Little Golden Book editions

I loathe such books now. And yet, I confess, as a child I swallowed them whole. The timeless magic of stories like Peter's runs deep, no matter how badly re-tellings may ravage them. I know from my taste in fairy tales -- where I had the luck to be raised on the old, unwatered-down versions -- that I would have preferred the original texts, even when the language sailed over my head; but I took what was offered, and loved Imitation Peter and Imitation Thumper and Imitation Baloo nonetheless.

Sleepy Time Tale

My memory of my pre-reading years is patchy, but my memory of the books I adored is not, the stories entwined with the sound of my mother's voice as she read them to me at bedtime. She worked during the day, and these were among the rare moments I had her all to myself, and when she seemed contented to be with me, not sadly bewildered by my existence.

What I know today, and did not know then, is that my mother was still just a child herself, having dropped out of high school when I came along (the result of a love affair gone wrong) and living under her own mother's roof. Her room was a frilly teenager's bedroom. I had the little bedroom next door, where through the thin walls I could hear the sound of her crying, night after night. I thought I was the cause of those tears, the unwanted baby who had ruined her life. Much later I learned the rest of the story: there had been a second love affair, and a second baby after me, a son, who had been taken away. Now those years of her bottomless grief made sense. But these clarifying details were hidden from the puzzled child I was, and in the tale that I wove from my ignorance I was the sole source of her misery and shame, and the fact that I could not break through her sorrow seemed to confirm this as truth.

Little 'Fraid of the Dark (from the Book Trails series)

We lived at that time with my grandmother, my step-grandfather, and the three young daughters of that marriage: my aunts, but barely older than me and so they seemed more like sisters. I adored them, followed them everywhere (when they let me), and longed to sleep in their dorm-like room at the top of the house, instead of in my bed with my head under the pillows to block out my mother's crying. Is it any wonder that the first great love of my life was Peter Pan? I insisted on keeping the window cracked open at night, in all kinds of weather, but I never said why. I was waiting for Peter. I wanted to fly to the stars and away. I was certain he would come.

Peter Pan illustration

In addition to those dreadful Disney editions, when storytime came around at night I often requested the "red books": a children's anthology series from the 1920s that lived on my mother's shelves, not mine, for they'd been hers as a child, and she loved them, and I wasn't to touch them. (Or, god forbid, to color in them -- but of course I did and spent a whole week in disgrace.) When my mother died the books came to me, and I still have them today: an eight volume series called Book Trails, published by Shepard & Lawrence in 1928.

Book Trails (Lawrence & Shepard, Inc. 1928)

Two things about these books strike me now. First, they are filled with poems and tales of Victorian and Edwardian vintage, full of children who lived in day and night nurseries, attended by nannies and servants, aired in perambulators and fed strange meals called "tea" (at which, I imagined, only the beverage of that name was served). In this way, I received a literary education more common to children of my mother's, and even my grandmother's, day. I can still quote reams of poetry by Walter de la Mare and Robert Louis Stevenson by heart...along with plenty of sickly-sweet late-Victorian rhymes that no one else has heard of now.

The Little White Bed That Ran Away

Second, I am struck by the fact that the tales I remember as favorites are all, every one of them, variations on a single theme: an unprepossessing child, or puppy, or princess, or fairy is overlooked, unwanted, or has no home...but by story's end they are claimed, loved, and recognized for their inherent worth.

The Story of the Three Little Doggies

The Chicks  That Stayed Up Late (from the Book Trails series)

One story I asked for again and again is a saccharine take on the Ugly Duckling theme, "The Little Fat Fairy" by Florence S. Page. In this tale, there's a little fairy so chubby and clumsy that he can't fly like his fellow fairies, or dance properly, or do much of anything at all. The other fairies tease him and he tries not to mind, but he knows there is something horribly wrong with him and he's deeply ashamed. One day a Lovely Lady comes to the forest looking for a fairy companion. They dance around her, all calling "Choose me! Choose me!" Each one is more beautiful than the next, and the Lovely Lady can't make up her mind...until she spies the fat fairy above her in the trees, hiding his ugliness from her.

"Oh you dear little thing," she cries. "I want you!"

The other fairies are shocked. "Why would you want him? He's so fat he can't dance or anything!"

"That's because he's a baby, not a fairy," says the woman. "He's a beautiful baby boy! And I'm going to be his mother."

The Fat Little Fairy

Little meIt's embarrassing reading the tale today, so cloyingly sweet, so heavy-handedly moral. And yet, I admit, this silly story still makes my heart catch in the same old way. More than fifty years have passed, yet that unwanted child is at my core. To be seen, to be valued, to be claimed without hesitation...that's a powerful magic indeed, and it doesn't matter that the tale is so badly written. The child I was didn't know that, or care. I read it now and I'm transported back: to that room, to that bed, to the window cracked open, to the nightly sobs of my teenage mother. And the waiting, the waiting, for someone to claim me. Peter Pan. Lovely Lady. Anyone. Months passed, years passed, and no one did, so I was parented by books instead.

It's unsettling to write these words. Not because of painful emotions evoked -- I've made my peace with my past after all these years -- but because I'm a writer myself now, and these stories are challenging my deepest convictions. I believe it's important to write well for children; to create fantasy that is complex and true, not didactic tales or frivilous fancies steeped only in bathos and wish-fulfillment. Yet the sugary stories of the "red books" were true for me at that time, and I did not distinguish good writing from poor. I took what I needed, and if the tales were simplistic in the telling, they became something more in the hearing.

Table of Contents illustration from the Book Trails series"I  don't think there is such a thing as a bad book for children," says my wise friend Neil Gaiman. "Every now and again it becomes fashionable among some adults to point at a subset of children's books, a genre, perhaps, or an author, and to declare them bad books, books that children should be stopped from reading. I've seen it happen over and over; Enid Blyton was declared a bad author, so was RL Stine, so were dozens of others. Comics have been decried as fostering illiteracy. It's tosh. It's snobbery and it's foolishness. There are no bad authors for children, that children like and want to read and seek out, because every child is different. They can find the stories they need to, and they bring themselves to stories. A hackneyed, worn-out idea isn't hackneyed and worn out to them. This is the first time the child has encountered it."

Little Milk, Little Cereal, and Grey Kitten Moorka

Another "bad book" I loved without reservation was  The Little Mailman of Bayberry Lane by Ian Munn, published in 1953 and dismissed by reviewers as "sticky sentiment" even then. I can't say that assessment is wrong, but as a small child in the '60s this book was my sacred text: profound, transcendent, and necessary. The story is simple. Mrs. Pig is the only animal on Bayberry Lane who never receives any mail. Each day she waits by her mailbox, hopeful, and each day the kind-hearted The Little Mailman of Bayberry Lane by Ian MunnLittle Mailman, a chipmunk, witnesses her disappointment. Distressed by Mrs. Pig's loneliness, the Little Mailman comes up with a plan. The next day, everyone on the lane gets an invitation to a party...except poor Mrs. Pig, who is now sadder than ever. It turns out, of course, that the big event is a surprise party thrown by the mailman for her, after which she has so many friends that her mailbox never stands empty again.

Polly Pig, as depicted by illustrator Elizabeth Webbe, is quietly sad and quietly sweet -- descriptions I could also apply to my mother. No Mr. Pig is ever mentioned (another similarity), and she seems undeserving of the loneliness that suffuses her life until the Little Mailman comes along. I might easily have been a more selfish child, rejecting my mother and her suffocating sorrow, adding to the burden of grief she carried; but instead, through the Little Mailman, I learned about kindness, empathy, emotional generosity. If only I could be half so clever as he, I too might devise an ingenious plan to bring happiness back into my mother's life. I tried, and I tried, and I never succeeded. Her problems were larger than Mrs. Pig's. But the compassion that I learned from that "sticky sentimental" story I carry with me to this day.

The Little Mailman of Bayberry Lane

None of these are tales I would choose to grow up with. Nor would I would give them to a child now when there are so many better stories to offer, both classic and contemporary. Yet I craved these books, asked for them over and over, and found their sugary sweetness nourishing to my soul. As a writer, I cannot approve of them. They are not, by any measure of the writing craft, good: they are simplistic, soppy, and (in the case of the Disneyfied picture books) inauthentic. They are everything that as an artist I deplore.

Yet they made me the person and writer I am. And I love them still.

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A Story Book (from Book Trails)

Words: The quote by Jane Yolen is from her excellent book Touch Magic: Fantasy, Faerie & Folklore in the Literature of Childhood (Philomel, 1981). The quote by Neil Gaiman is from "Why our future depends on libraries, reading and daydreams (The Guardian, October 15, 2013).

Pictures: The images are identified in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the pictures to see them.) The illustrations from the Book Trails series (Lawrence & Shepard, 1928) are, alas, not credited by artist.


The books that shape us: Francis Spufford, Lev Grossman & Lucy Mangan

The Chronicles of Narnia illustrated by Pauline Baynes

In The Child That Books Built, Francis Spufford recalls the children's tales that sparked his love of reading, and of writing:

"My favorite books," he says, "were the ones that took books' implicit status as other worlds, and acted on it literally, making the window of writing a window into imaginary countries. I didn't just want to see in books what I saw anyway in the world around me, even if it was perceived and understood and articulated from angles I could never have achieved; I wanted to see things I never saw in life. More than I wanted books to do anything else, I wanted them to take me away. I wanted exodus. "

But there's a difference, he notes, between stories set entirely in an imaginary world and stories that start in our own world but then take you to another.

The Chronicles of Narnia illustrated by Pauline Baynes"Earthsea and Middle Earth were separate," Spufford explains. "You traveled them in imagination as you read Le Guin and Tolkien, but they had no location in relation to this world. Their richness did not call you at home in any way. It did not lie just beyond a threshold in this world that you might find if you were particularly lucky, or particularly blessed. 

"I wanted there to be the chance to pass through a portal, and by doing so pass from rusty reality with its scaffolding of facts and events into the freedom of story. If, in a story, you found that one panel in the fabric of the workaday world that was hinged, and it opened, and it turned out that behind the walls of the world flashed the gold and peacock blue of something else, and you were able to pass through, that would be a moment in which all the decisions that had been taken in this world, and all the choices that had been made, and all the facts that had been settled, would be up for grabs again: all possibilities would be renewed, for who knew what lay on the other side?

Aslan by Pauline Baynes

"And once opened, the door would never be entirely shut behind you either. A kind of mixture would begin. A tincture of this world's reality would enter the other world, as the ordinary children in the story -- my representatives, my ambassadors -- wore their shirts and sweaters amid cloth of gold, and said Crumbs! and Come off it! among people speaking the high language of fantasy; while this world would be subtly altered too, changed in status by the knowledge that it had an outside. E. Nesbit invented the mixing of the worlds in The Amulet, which I preferred, along with the rest of her magical series, to the purely realistic comedy of the Bastables' adventures in The Treasure Seekers and its sequels. On a grey day in London, Robert and Anthea and Jane and Hugh travel to blue sky through the arch of the charm. The latest master of worlds is Philip Pullman. Lyra Belacqua and her daemon walk through the aurora borealis in the first book of the Dark Materials trilogy; in the next, a window in the air floats by a bypass in the Oxford suburbs; in the third installment, access to the eternal sadness of the land of the dead is through a clapped-out, rubbish-strewn port town on the edge of a dark lake.

The Chronicles of Narnia illustrated by Pauline Baynes"As I read I passed to other worlds through every kind of door, and every kind of halfway space that could work metaphorically as a threshold too: the curtain of smoke hanging over burning stubble in an August cornfield, an abandoned church in a Manchester slum. After a while, I developed a taste for transitions so subtle that the characters could not say at what instance the shift had happened.

"In Diana Wynne Jones's Eight Days of Luke, the white Rolls-Royce belonging to 'Mr. Wedding' -- Woden -- takes the eleven-year-old David to Valhalla for lunch, over a beautiful but very ordinary-seeming Rainbow Bridge that seems to be connected to the West Midlands road system. I liked the idea that borders between the worlds could be vested in modern stuff: that the green and white signs on the motorways counting down the miles to London could suddenly show the distance to Gramarye or Logres.

Through the Wardrobe by Pauline Baynes"But my deepest loyalty was unwavering. The books I loved best all took me away through a wardrobe, and a shallow pool in the grass of a sleepy orchard, and a picture in a frame, and a door in a garden wall on a rainy day at boarding school, and always to Narnia. Other imaginary countries interested me, beguiled me, made rich suggestions to me. Narnia made me feel like I'd taken hold of a live wire. The book in my hand sent jolts and shimmers through my nerves. It affected me bodily. In Narnia, C.S. Lewis invented objects for my longing, gave form to my longing, that I would never have thought of, and yet they seemed exactly right: he had anticipated what would delight me with an almost unearthly intimacy. Immediately I discovered them, they became the inevitable expressions of my longing. So from the moment I first encountered The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to when I was eleven or twelve, the seven Chronicles of Narnia represented essence-of-book to me. They were the Platonic Book of which other books were more or less imperfect shadows. For four or five years, I essentially read other books because I could not always be re-reading the Narnia books."

The Chronicles of Narnia illustrated by Pauline Baynes

Lev Grossman was also ensorcelled by Narnia as a boy. In a fine essay on the subject he writes:

"The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is a powerful illustration of why fantasy matters in the first place. Yes, the Narnia books are works of Christian apology, works that celebrate joy and love -- but what I was conscious of as a little boy, if not in any analytical way, was the deep grief encoded in the books. Particularly in the initial wardrobe passage. The Chronicles of Narnia illustrated by Pauline BaynesThere’s a sense of anger and grief and despair that causes Lewis to want to discard the entire war, set it aside in the favor of something better. You can feel him telling you -- I know it’s awful, truly terrible, but that’s not all there is. There’s another option. Lucy, as she enters the wardrobe, takes the other option. I remember feeling this way as a child, too. I remember thinking, 'Yes, of course there is. Of course this isn’t all there is. There must be something else.'

"How powerful it was to have Lewis come along and say, Yes, I feel that way, too.

"But I bristle whenever fantasy is characterized as escapism. It’s not a very accurate way to describe it; in fact, I think fantasy is a powerful tool for coming to an understanding of oneself. The magic trick here, the sleight of hand, is that when you pass through the portal, you re-encounter in the fantasy world the problems you thought you left behind in the real world. Edmund doesn’t solve any of his grievances or personality disorders by going through the wardrobe. If anything, they're exacerbated and brought to a crisis by his experiences in Narnia. When you go to Narnia, your worries come with you. Narnia just becomes the place where you work them out and try to resolve them.

The Chronicles of Narnia illustrated by Pauline Baynes

"The whole modernist-realist tradition is about the self observing the world around you -- sensing how other it is, how alien it is, how different it is to what’s going on inside you. In fantasy, that gets turned inside out. The landscape you inhabit is a mirror of what’s inside you. The stuff inside can get out, and walk around, and take the form of places and people and things and magic. And once it’s outside, then you can get at it. You can wrestle it, make friends with it, kill it, seduce it. Fantasy takes all those things from deep inside and puts them where you can see them, and then deal with them."

The Chronicles of Narnia illustrated by Pauline Baynes

In her delightful book Bookworm: A Memoir of Childhood Reading, Lucy Mangan reflects on the fourth book in the series, Prince Caspian:

The Chronicles of Narnia illustrated by Pauline Baynes"The Pevensies return to the magical kingdom to find that hundreds of years have passed, civil war is dividing the kingdom and Old Narnians (many dwarves, centaurs, talking animals, the dryads and hamadryads that once animated the trees, and other creatures) are in hiding. The children must lead the rebels against their Telmarine conquerors. The warp and weft of Narnian life is seen up close, in even more gorgeously imagined detail than the previous books. Lucy, awake one night in the thick of the forest that has grown up since she was last in Narnia, feels the trees are almost awake and that if she just knew the right thing to say they would come to Narnian life once more.

"It mirrored exactly how I felt about reading, and about reading Lewis in particular. I was so close...if I could just read the words on the page one more time, I could animate them too. The flimsy barriers of time, space and immateriality would finally fall and Narnia would spring up all around me and I would be there, at last."

The Chronicles of Narnia illustrated by Pauline Baynes

The art today is by Pauline Baynes (1922-2008), from the first editions of The Chronicles of Narnia (1950-156).

Pauline BaynesBaynes was born in Sussex and spent her early childhood years in northern India, where her father worked with the Indian Civil Service. At the age of five, however, Baynes' mother took her children back to England (leaving their father, ayah, and pet monkey behind) -- a traumatic rupture that haunted the artist for the rest of her life. After miserable periods in strict convent and boarding school, she was allowed to move to the Farnham School of Art at age 15, where she formed her desired to become an illustrator of children's books. She clung to this goal through further studies at the Slade School of Art and Oxford. The war intervened, and the Woman's Voluntary Service sent Baynes to work as model-maker with the Royal Engineers in Falmouth Castle, and then to draw maps and naval charts for the Admiralty in Bath. A colleague from this period belonged to a family firm that published children's books, and it was through this connection that Baynes received her first illustration commissions. 

After the war, Baynes built a solid career creating book cover art and interior illustrations, most notably for J.R.R. Tolkien's tales of Middle-Earth, and the C.S. Lewis' journeys into Narnia. (She had a close friendship with Tolkien throughout his life, whereas her relationship with Lewis was professional and distant.) She also illustrated texts by Hans Christian Andersen, The Brothers Grimm, Rudyard Kipling, George MacDonald, Mary Norton, Arthur Ransome, Alison Uttley, Richard Adams, and many others over the years -- winning the Kate Greenaway Medal for her illustrations to Grant Uden's A Dictionary of Chivalry in 1968. 

Baynes worked from her book-crammed study in Surrey, her desk looking out to a high-hedged garden, her beloved dogs sprawled at her feet. She continued illustrating books until the day she died at the age of 85.

The Chronicles of Narnia illustrated by Pauline Baynes

The Chronicles of Narnia illustrated by Pauline Baynes

The passages above are from The Child That Books Built: A Life in Reading by Francis Spufford (Henry Holt & Co, 2002); "Confronting Reality by Reading Fantasy" by Lev Grossman (The Atlantic, August 2014); and Bookworm: A Memoir of Childhood Reading by Lucy Mangan (Penguin, 2018). All rights to the text and art above reserved by the authors and the artist's estate.


The books that shape us: Ursula K. Le Guin

Young Arthur by Alan Lee

In her essay "The Beast in the Book," Ursula K. Le Guin discusses her childhood love of T.H. White's The Sword in the Stone -- and, in particular, for the vivid collection of animals running through its pages:

"T.H. White's The Sword in the Stone, though about King Arthur, is crowded with animals. In the first chapter King-Arthur-to-be, currently known as the Wart, takes out a goshawk, loses him, and meets Merlyn's owl Archimedes.

Merlin and Archimedes by Dennis Nolan"Oh what a lovely owl!" cried the Wart.

But when he went up to it and held out his hand, the owl grew half as tall again, stood up as stiff as a poker, closed its eyes so there was only the smallest slit to peep through...and said in a doubtful voice:

"There is no owl."

Then it shut its eyes entirely and looked the other way.

"It's only a boy," said Merlyn.

"There is no boy," said the owl hopefully, without turning round.

"Merlyn undertakes Arthur's education, which consists mostly of being turned into animals. Here we meet the great mythic theme of Transformation, which is a central act of shamanism, though Merlyn doesn't make any fuss about it. The boy becomes a fish, a hawk, a snake, an owl, and a badger. He participates, at thirty years per minute, in the sentience of trees, and then, at two million years per second, in the sentience of stones. All these scenes of participation in nonhuman being are funny, vivid, startling, and wise.

Merlyn by NC Wyeth

"When a witch puts Wart into a cage to fatten him up, the goat in the next cage plays Animal Helper and rescues them all. All animals rightly trust Wart, which is proof of his true kingship. That he goes along on a boar hunt does not vitiate this trust: to White, true hunting is a genuine relationship between hunter and hunted, with implacable moral rules and a high degree of honor and respect for the prey. The emotions aroused by hunting are powerful, and white draws them all together in the scene of the death of the hound Beaumont, killed by the boar, a passage I have never yet read without crying,

"At the climax of the book, Wart can't draw the sword of kingship from the stone anvil by himself. He calls to Merlyn for help, and the animals come.

Young Arthur by John Lawrence & Dennis Nolan

"There were otters and nightingales and vulgar crows and hares, and serpents and falcons and fishes and goats and dogs and dainty uincorns and newts and solitary wasps and goat-moth caterpillars and corkindrills and volcanoes and mighty trees and patient stones...all, down to the smallest shrew mouse, had come to help on account of love. Wart felt his power grow.

"Each creature calls its special wisdom to the boy who has been one of them, one with them. The pike says, 'Put your back into it,' a stone says, 'Cohere,' a snake says 'Fold your powers together with the spirit of your mind' -- and:

The Wart walked up to the great sword for the third time. He put out his right hand softly and drew it out as gently as from a scabbard.

Merlin by Frank Godwin & The Sword in the Stone by Walter Crane

"T.H. White was a man to whom animals were very important, perhaps because his human relationships were so tormented. But his sense of connection with nonhuman lives goes far beyond mere compensation; it is a passionate vision of a moral universe, a world of terrible pain and cruelty from which trust and love spring like autumn crocus, vulnerable and unconquerable.

Merlin & Arthur by Scott Gustafson

"The Sword and the Stone, which I first read at thirteen or so,  influenced my mind and heart in ways which must be quite clear in the course of this talk, convincing me that trust cannot be limited to humankind, that love can not be specified. It's all or nothing at all. If, called to reign, you distrust and scorn your subjects, your only kingdom will be that of greed and hate. Love and trust and be a king, and your kingdom will be of the whole world. And to your coronation, among all the wondrous gifts, an 'anonymous hedgehog will send four or five dirty leaves with some fleas on them.' "

Owl and Hare by Jackie Morris

The Sleeping Earth by Catherine Hyde

Words: The passage above is from "The Beast in the Book," published in Words Are My Matter: Writings About Books & Life  by Ursula K. Le Guin (Small Beer Press, 2016). All rights reserved by the author's estate.

Pictures: The art above is by Alan Lee, Dennis Nolan, N.C. Wyeth (1882-1945), John Lawrence, Frank Godwin (1889-1959), Walter Crane (1845-1915), Scott Gustafson, Jackie Morris and Catherine Hyde. The images are identified in the picture captions. All rights reserved by the artists or their estates.

Further Reading:  T.H. White by Sylvia Townsend Warner, The Goshawk by T.H. White, and H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald. A previous post on White: "T.H. White: a rescued mind."