A woodland meditation
The Soul's Code

Tough Magic

A walk through the fields

Today's quotes come from Jane Yolen, in honor of her visit to Chagford this week. They are taken primarily from Touch Magic: Fantasy, Faerie & Folklore in the Literature of Childhood and Take Joy: A Writer's Guide to Loving the Craft, both of which I highly recommend.

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

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

Honor Appleton

Thistle in bloom

Eleanor Vere Boyle

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

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

Queen Ann's Lace

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

Charles Robinson

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

A queenly dog

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

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

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

Take a step...

" 'Stories,' he'd said, his voice low and almost husky, 'we are made up of stories. And even the ones that seem the most like lies can be our deepest hidden truths.' "  (from Briar Rose)

Emilie Benson Knipe

The  illustrations above are by Honor Charlotte Appleton (1879-1951), Eleanor Vere Boyle (1825-1916),  Charles Robinson (1870-1937), John Dickson Batten (1860-1932) and Emilie Benson Knipe (author, artist, and student of Howard Pyle, 1870-1958).


Thoughtful post!
It's been awhile, yet, the views in 'Touch Magic' resonated & have stayed long with me. Months ago my wife & I found a barely touched old copy of 'Great Swedish Fairy Tales' (art)John Bauer + (translator)Holger Lundburgh. The stories were brimming with a magic that wittily imparted to the child or reader a bold sense on how to approach or live life. Real Magic.

How true it is that certain stories pour directly into the hearts of children and shape their view of the world and themselves in it...and that the more powerful and right the sacrifice, the more the story resonates and takes up residence inside.



Tough Magic vs. sweet fairy dances--
Maybe it's the nap I took today that's making my brain fog up more than usual-- but what is being addressed here? I mean, I do believe I understand the theory. But I'm not able to touch any examples in my head right now.

Like, could this be addressing:
-How unearthed folktales are today removed of their most violent & gruesome bits
-Tales in which the hero/heroine gains the boon without going through the full journey
-The main conflict is no conflict at all

Or am I completely missing the mark?

Are there reading materials on the topics that can be suggested (besides the two here, which I am going to find immediately)?

Forgive me if I'm being annoying, but this quotation is *bothering* me, I can't seem to let it go. Which must suggest it is reaching to something important in me, but I haven't put the pieces together yet.

Thanks for anyone's help in the matter.

Wonderful words, all. And I can almost smell the field in the first image, I feel as though I can walk onto the path and am hearing the crickets of high summer.

OH, and I just found the quote that inspired the title of this post in the hidden messages... YES!

One of the first stories I remember is that of 'The Gingerbread Man', who came to life and ran away into the world and told all who would listen how marvelous he was. There was so much in that tough little morality tale that was fascinating, but mostly it was the presence of death that grabbed and held me. I was very young when it was read to me, and thinking about it now, it's probably one of the tales that sits at the very root of who I am. Has it had a good or a bad influence on my life? I suppose in all honesty I don't know; I can't possibly say. I'd have to live and observe two lives one with and one without The Gingerbread Man, but I do think it should be the essential reading matter of anyone and everyone who has ambitions to strongly influence the world. No matter who you are, how confident, how arrogant, there's always a metaphorical fox just waiting to eat you.

Oh, I agree. Great Swedish Fairy Tales is a wonderful book.

Raquel, I'm in a rush this morning and can't answer this properly right now, but either Jane or I will come back to your question in the next day or so. Or perhaps someone else here can help in the meantime?

I did worry that the title wouldn't make a lick of sense to people who don't know about the hidden picture captions, so I'm glad you found the reference!

It's always fascinating to me which fairy or folk tales particularly grabbed people as children. For me it was Donkeyskin...though perhaps when I was very, very young, too young for the more elaborate fairy tales, it the Ugly Duckling.

A lovely post as usual:)

For me the two folk tales that did it for me were Iron John (speak truth to power even though you know you may well suffer for it) and Little Brother, Little Sister (taking care of the weakest even when you may suffer for it.)

Raquel, I think those two stories begin to sum up how I feel about Tough Magic. Tolkien calls it the "euchatastrophe." (I am misspelling that I'm sure.) The idea that the greatest stories we tell ourselves, the ones that describe what the human condition is about, are the ones in which we have to give up what we most love (a person, a place in society, even our own lives) to make the world a better, safer place.

It is Moses leading the people across the sea and away from slavery though he know he will never get to lead them out of the desert himself. It's Christ on the cross. It's Frodo being leached and bleached out by the ring on his way to destroying it.

To give our children only stories about getting without giving is to mistake the world and the role of story in it. Magic is not a prize to be won at a fun fair, it is a sword in the battle against the dark.

Many people die in such battles--by the sword, in gas chambers, under the boot of a conquerer.

The best writers and storytellers are liars by vocation and avocation, but they don't lie about this.


I love this post as it resonates with everything I hold dearest about the importance of story and anathema of sanitising things for children.
Children cope with, sometimes relish, always question the nastier side of stories; adults are usually the prurient ones who cut our and make "safe" the tale.

However, ignorance is a child's worst enemy, enforce ignorance particularly. We censor at our peril and (from my experience as a child, and of teaching children) children self censor what they are not yet prepared to deal with. The pretty fairy versus the sidhe and their unpredictablity, which is the more valuable?

As to the tale that grabbed me most? I adored/feared the version of Bluebeard in a book I still own and I remember the first encounter with Baba Yaga and desperately wanting a house on chickens legs. A great posting and valuable reading all round.

No matter, its a beautiful title. Before I found the quote, I thought it was a reference to the first photo - breathing in the grasses and wildflowers on that path.

Thank you. And if you cannot respond, you or Jane or anyone else, that's perfectly fine, as I've got a puzzle I can explore right now (haven't stopped thinking about it all night & morning!)

Thank you Terri & Jane! I have loved your take on fairy for years. "Briar Rose" and "The Wood Wife" have filled a empty space that is always questing for the unexpected.

Hello Raquel,

I'm not sure if this helps, but many years ago as a preschool teacher (and currently as an elementary teacher), I've noticed that not only have fantasy type fiction and most nursery rhymes been taken out of the curriculum, new versions of these tales are written with all elements of danger taken out. One vivid example was a curricular version of the three billy goats gruff, where the goats were replaced with a boy named Billy and the troll just wanted to eat the grass. I was so disgusted and unsatisfied with the version, I went home and brought back the version told by Marcia Brown. The children listened politely to the first version, but they responded to the "real" version, visibly shivering when the troll confronted the biggest billy goat gruff, repeating the lines throughout the week and asking for the story to be reread.

If I'm understanding your question, and in the larger sense, there seems to be a misrepresentation of confronting the problems of life within some modern fiction and fantasy literature, in which there is no real sense of a possibility of failure or a way to overcome/outsmart the antagonist or a willingness to sacrifice something important to gain something even more valuable. Thereby, in my opinion, losing much of the magic and thrill of the story itself. I've noticed it in children's curricular stories as well as in some of the SF/Fantasy stories I've read in the last few years.

I could be completely wrong about the entire meaning behind this wonderful post and latching onto to a small portion that has caught my attention. However, when I think back on my emotional responses to the fairy tales my mother read to me as a child (her favorite was East of the Sun and West of the Moon) and the literature I read as a child (Lord of the Rings, Susan Cooper's the Dark is Rising series, or Patricia McKillip's Riddle Master of Hed) what I loved best about all of them, as a reader, was the very real sense of danger to the protagonist, their mistakes, their willingness to sacrifice something of themselves to gain something better, and most importantly the uncertainty that they would win out in the end.

Please forgive my long-winded response, but I think perhaps the uncertainty is what mirrors real life the most. I hope this helps, although I think I might have just confused myself rather than shed any illumination on your questions.

Thank you so much for your response. It absolutely has helped. How terrible that fantasy/nursery rhymes are being so filtered. It just doesn't resonate at that point, for both children and adults, I imagine, because-- what's a tale when there's nothing to lose? Nor to gain? I've been a huge follower of the monomyth for a few years now, and I believe there are pivotal reasons for the arduous journey the hero/heroine must, must, *must* endure.

Joseph Campbell, though he had a lot of shortcomings especially regarding his limited ideas in the role of women in the monomyth, has written some poignant things about the role of biology in mythos. We must be born in order to live in the earth as we are. There must be union, conception, development in the womb in which we are creatures of water, and birth, in which we are pulled or pushed out of the womb.

What you mention about Billy and the troll reminds me of what my mother told me about sex and birth. She-- and I must add, she is a wonderful, loving, intelligent woman, raised in an extremely machisto/Catholic culture-- she told us that Adam & Eve were created without genitals, and when I asked, but how could they make babies, she responded that there was a much more pure way it was done, perhaps God sent the babies through angels or something like that. Even as a child, that sounded so incredible *wrong*. And then I went through a period when I poured through biology texts, both ancient and present, it astounds me, the wonders of what goes on in our bodies, and how it is such an immensely precious and beautiful thing, this life, this existence, that I felt I missed out on as a child, wondering why we weren't good enough to be pure, wondering why as a woman I was blamed for the transgressions of Eve and the fall of man.

I know this must seem incredibly off topic, but my mind works in circles. I'm trusting that I'm getting somewhere! Okay, so what I imagine is happening in fantasy world, inspired by what you've said-- no possibility of failure and no sacrifice-- this is what happens when, as Yolen and Le Guin have stated above, when we are afraid to dive down deep and unearth those shadows, those gruesome bits in all of us, and they are all there in every single one of us. It's a scary thing to do. But it's much more *comfortable* to make a light, happy tale in which you didn't have to do much sacrificing of your own comfort to create, and so this is reflected in the story itself-- no real risk, and in the end, no real tale.

It was uncomfortable for my mother and probably generations of mothers to full explain the incredible truth of birth and life. And so a fiction was created, one that did not even come close to the miraculous truth of it, and so we were all left wondering and wanting.

I completely agree with everything you've said, and I'm so glad you shared your favorite tales and why they brought that emotional response. "The uncertainty that they would win out in the end"-- this really is the heart of it, isn't it? Nothing lost, nothing gained.

I definitely meant to write machismo, not machisto.

Thank you for this. It's all so very helpful. When I first read these quotations, I was in the throngs of an unbelievable migraine, perhaps my second worst ever. I couldn't, no matter how I tried to wrap my foggy, aching head around it, fully understand this concept to the degree I needed to. Now that the fog is lifting, I am coming much closer.

Eucatastrophe. I looked it up. All you added was an extra h-- but incidentally, that extra h made me instantly think of Eucharist-- eucharist-catastrophe. It makes a great deal of sense to me, rasied in the myths of the Catholic church (and if I'm remembering correctly, Tolkien was, too?) but it adds to what you've written regarding Moses, Christ, and Frodo. The scene of the last supper, giving his body and blood which Catholics believe literally transform into from the bread & wine, that's the sacrifice, the tough magic.

I'm *finally* starting to get it!

...I think.

Sorry Raquel I didn't have time yesterday to comment on this. But I am free now, and
what flitted though my mind was the later Disney versions of fantasy and fairy tales. I loved Snow White and Pinnochio, but afterwards they made me bristle with fury. Especially Alice In Wonderland which from age of seven on up I thought was dark and horrible and it made Alice one of my heroines, for making it through all the weirdness with grace and common sense.

The other comments of 'protecting' children from the gruesome in fiction in a real world
full of horrible thing;. it is much better to find the way through fiction, with bravery and
your wits when real life looms in all manners of problems.

So there's my rant and hooray for all who know how to handle Tough Magic.

".. it made Alice one of my heroines, for making it through all the weirdness with grace and common sense."

Love this. Thank you for responding to my query, Phyllis. I completely agree, with what you said regarding protection. Folktales were passed down as a sort of armor, a source of wisdom in order to deal with the horrible thing sin the 'real world'-- without that, they lose much of their value.

Oh, i"m glad you returned to this dialogue. One other peeve I have is that Cinderella and
Snow White are thought to have gotten free magical gifts. They both had to work hard
at their jobs and Snow White, especially diligently and with kindness,earned her keep with the dwarves. I appreciated this because I grew up with what is now called the working
class, about which I knew not to be a 'class,' but a way of life I thought was about pride in
one's work. Even when I wanted to be a writer I thought of it as work with magic in it.

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