Tunes for a Monday Morning
Deep in the Forest, a guest post by Valerianna Claff

Into the Woods, 13: Once Upon a Time, Re-imagining Fairy Tales

Illustration from East of the Sun, West of the Moon, by Kay Nielson

" 'Once upon a time,' the stories would particular time, fictional time, fairy-story time. This is a doorway; if you're lucky, you go through it as a child, aurally, before you can read, and if you are very lucky, you become a free citizen of an ancient republic and can come and go as you please. These stories are deeply embedded in my imagination. As I grew up and became a writer, I found myself going back and using them, retelling them ever since, working partly on the principle that a tale which has been around for centuries is highly likely to be a better story than one I just made up yesterday; and partly on the deep sense that they can tell more truth, more economically, than slices of contemporary realism. The stories are so tough and shrewd formally that I can use them for anything I want -- feminist revisioning, psychological exploration, malicious humour, magical realism, nature writing. They are generous, true, and enchanted."  - Sara Maitland

Detail from an illustration by Kay Nielsen

"Deeper meaning resides in the fairy tales told to me in my childhood than in any truth that is taught in life."  - Johann C. Friedrich von Schiller

A detail from Kay Nielsen's ''Deliverance of the Three Princesses''

"Do people choose the art that inspires them — do they think it over, decide they might prefer the fabulous to the real? For me, it was those early readings of fairy tales that made me who I was as a reader and, later on, as a storyteller."  - Alice Hoffman

"For most of human history, 'literature,' both fiction and poetry, has been narrated, not written -- heard, not read. So fairy tales, folk tales, stories from the oral tradition, are all of them the most vital connection we have with the imaginations of the ordinary men and women whose labor created our world."  - Angela Carter

Illustration 2 by Kay Nielsen

The illustrations above are by the great Kay Nielsen (1886-1957). To learn more about his enchanted and tragic life in Denmark and California, go here.For further reading on the authors quoted in the post, follow the links above.



"This is a doorway; if you're lucky, you go through it as a child, aurally, before you can read, and if you are very lucky, you become a free citizen of an ancient republic and can come and go as you please." - Sara Maitland

There is a knob, of oak
or ceramic if you must,
a latch of bronze, never iron
for it would burn a fairy hand,
a golden key hidden behind the ivy
or under the gnome-shaped rock.
Grasp it firmly, or it will bite,
keys hate the sweaty palm,
the half-attempt at poking
through the waiting keyhole,
those heartless and artless tries.

The magic words begin: Once--
and the door itself trembles.
Upon--there is a puff of white smoke.
A--take a breath, for you will need it.
Time--which is all time and no time at all
for the door has sighed open
and all of the world within awaits.

©2013 Jane Yolen all rights reserved

I love it, love it, love you surely knew I would.

(The quoted line is from Sara Maitland, not me, and I've corrected it for you.)

When I was quite young I listened to a weekly radio program called "Let's Pretend" and I can still hear, after sixty years, the tinkling of the silver leaves as the princesses ran through the enchanted forest to dance the nights away.

I love the poem so much Jane! (I also am taking a moment to thank you for writing Owl Moon-my two year old's very favorite book right now!) I just finished Sara's book last week, Terri, inspired to read it from your blog of course and it was so fantastic. Made me want to revisit England of course and get to know the scrub forests of the Texas Hill Country on a deeper level. Beautiful as always.

Beautiful pictures & quotes, & beautiful, beautiful poem from Jane to go with it all. I followed the link to your article on Kay Nielsen, who I have always loved, and it's funny but I always thought he was a woman! I stand corrected and abashed. Such a fascinating life but so sad too. I also enjoyed Marina Warner's article on Angela Carter and the interviews with Sarah Maitland and Alice Hoffman. Treasures.

I was not familiar with Nielsen's work - so beautiful!! I'm loving Sarah Maitland's book, but reading it very, very slowly because of my ups and downs with health this month. This quote is great.

I was just a week late about fifteen years ago in buying a Kay Neilsen original at an Edinburgh auction where no one except one dealer knew what it was. When he told me what he'd paid for it (less than 300 pounds) and what he turned around and sold it for, I was green!!!

Not that I would have sold it.

Though he did sell us a gorgeous Charles Robinson painting of the water babies, only slightly eaten by rats for less than a hundred pounds!!!


I love the posting and Jane's poem equally. Having just spent three wonderful weeks immersed in stories at school this posting was redolent of the sounds and atmosphere I love. We need to tell stories, they reaffirm our communion and companionship. Taking the time to tell a story shows love, respect and caring. I want to knock on that bronze knocker and push open the door for everyone.

What a treat to first see Nielsen's pictures. I've alaways loved her work. Yor poem - what a treat. It evoked such wonderful mind pictures. Thank you.

Thanks for the kind words, Kame -- but I should mention that Kay Nielsen was a man. In Denmark, where he was born and raised, Kay is a man's name. (Like Kay, the little boy in Hans Christian Andersen's The Snow Queen.) He was born to a theater family in Copenhagen in 1886, studied in Paris, moved to London to further his career in illustration, and eventually ended up in Hollywood, where he worked on Disney's Fantasia.

Wow thanks for the poetry strokes, Charlotte, Bri, and Terri.I love it when Terri opens the doors--both mentally and physically--to let me play in magic garden.


I was surrounded equally by Nielsen art and fairy tales as a child, and I lived in a magical landscape. We had bedtime stories, Sunday morning radio stories, letters from fairies, and books galore. Because of that, Storyland feels like home, and for me,when the door opens it reveals the real world, and I seldom want to go in there. :-)

I did not know Kay Nielsen worked on Fantasia. It is from that early Disney of Snow White
and Pinoccio which I still love. And Jane's poem is magical as is her wont. I have a dark red tote bag with a picture of Jane writing "Once upon a time...." For special events.

Sorry, I put my tribute to your poem, beginning with another topic. To repeat, Jane's
poem is magical as if her wont. I then mentioned the dark red tote bag I have of a
sketch of you, writing 'Once Upon A Time...." of which I was reminded by the clever
weaving of that into the poem. I think I was pretty drowsy when I wrote that, but it was
a charming poem and memory, for me. Some Mythcon souvenir.

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