Brothers & Beasts: the boys who love fairy tales too
Hansel and the trail of stones

Fairy tales and youngest sons

Howard Pyle

From "The Boy Who Went Forth," an essay by novelist Christopher Barzak (in Brothers & Beasts):

Howard Pyle"I grew up reading in a home where no one read, and in that home where my older brothers (had they read) wouldn't have been caught dead with a Charles Perrault book, I grew up reading fairy tales. I was an anomoly, I think, born in a small rural town in Ohio, in a ranch house my father built on my grandmother's farm. Looking back on my childhood and adolescence, recalling the friends of my youth, I remember being aware at a young age that, among the boys I was friends with, none of them read very much. And they especially didn't read fairy tales. Watching the Disney versions was okay when we were small, but even those became off-limits the nearer we drew to our teenage years.

"And yet I counted fairy tales among my varied reading pleasures. I enjoyed comic books (Marvel rather than DC), mysteries (Poe), adventure stories for boys (Craig's My Side of the Mountain), science fiction and fantasy (Le Guin's Earthsea cycle), horror (again Poe), folktales (Irving), and fairy tales (Perrault rather than the Grimms, though I love the Grimms as well as Andersen). I didn't speak of my reading habits with my friends or family. It was private. When I read, I felt as if I could leave the world around me where -- perhaps I knew even then, in some corner of my mind -- I didn't quite fit. Why would I expose the very activity that allowed me to engage in a kind of freedom, that allowed me access to a world in which the limitations of this one disappeared and my imagination could roam past the boundaries of the life I'd been born into? I did not hide my reading, as that would only have aroused suspicion, but I did not speak about it either. I must also make clear, though, that I didn't know I was protecting something. I didn't realize that until I was older.

Bearskin by Howard Pyle

"Although I loved reading fairy tale, there was a certain kind of fairy tale I hated to discover. Tales in which two or three sons and a father act as the central characters, wherein one or two of the boys are either talented, smart, handsome, or all of these things, and the youngest or third son is a weak, strange, malformed, or stupid creature. I took an immediate dislike to these stories, but at the time I wasn't sure why. When I came across fairy tales that used this pattern of characters, though, I would pass these stories over for tales in which someone's dreams come true.

"What I did not understand then was that I had found a type of fairy tale that reflected some aspect of myself, my family, my experience in the 'real world,' and that what it reflected I did not want to see. I sought out the fairy tales that did not reflect my experience, because I didn't want to find myself in stories that were not reaffirming about my placement in the world. What the strange brothers of fairy tales showed me was that, in my family, I was this sort of child. The weakling, the strange thinker, the one set apart from social normality."

Howard Pyle

Chris gives one example of this kind of character: the second son in the Grimms' fairy tale The Story of the Youth Who Sets Forth to Learn What Fear Is, a boy portrayed as so useless that he cannot work in his destined trade and earn a living like his elder brother, and so foolish that he hasn't got the sense to be frightened in frightening situations.

The Swan Maiden by Howard PyleThe boy ventures off to learn about fear, moving through an odd series of adventures. He "spends the night among the hanging corpses of the dead husbands of a rope-maker's daughter without realizing he is keeping company with dead men, and he destroys demonic cats in a castle because he knows they are tricking him when they ask if he wants to play cards (slyly he says yes, and before they can put forth their claws he destroys them). He conquers an entire castle full of ghosts and demons and the living dead. Yet somehow this boy is considered stupid.

"The real trick of this tale is in what it reveals about the teller of the story, who I take to be a great sort of Everyman or Everwoman figure, a member of small-town agrarian society who understands the rules of that society and what is considered good and what is considered bad. We are told the second son is stupid because he has no way of earning his own bread, and because he apparently does not fear many of the things that everyone else in the society clearly sees reason to fear. He is unafraid of corpses, ghosts, and demons. He does not run when anyone with any sense would run. Of course the town and town teller, Mr. or Mrs. Everyman or Everywoman, finds the boy to be a stupid, queer sort of fellow.

"Difference, then, constitutes stupidity in the land of fairy tales."

Differences like reading. Or going to college. Or growing up to write books instead of working with one's hands.

How Three Went Out into the Wide World by Howard Pyle

Later in this fine essay (which I recommend reading in full), Christopher writes:

The Swan Maiden by Howard Pyle"It was not until I re-read as an adult the Grimms' fairy tales, as well as Hans Christian Andersen's and Charles Perraults' stories, that I came to understand why the stories of the dullard sons and brothers pierced me so keenly as a child, to the point that I would slap a book closed or flip furiously to find a different sort of tale. As an adult I was able to see that the stupid sons were stupid only in the eyes of constructed social norms, that they were not inherently useless or strange. They were, in many cases, the real heroes of their lives and the lives of their families. From Perrault's Tom Thumb, a tiny weakling among his healthy strong brothers, I learned that the smallest, weakest child could also be the one to outwit an ogre and save his brothers from certain death and his family from poverty. His smallness, his weakness, provided him with advantages and a keen intelligence that his brothers did not have.

"But it is to the Brothers Grimm boy who went forth to learn what fear was that I still return. As an adult male reader of fairy tales, I can now take some comfort and nourishment from his absurd journey, his going forth fearlessly on a path that others would turn away from. In him I've found a sort of kindred spirit."

How Three Went Out into the Wide World by Howard Pyle

The art today is by the great American illustrator Howard Pyle (1853-1911). Born and raised in Wilmington, Delaware, Pyle drew and painted from a young age, spent three years working in the studio of F. A. Van der Weilen in Philadephia, then moved to New York to become an illustrator with the help of Edward Austin Abby and Frederick S. Church. By the time he returned to Wilmington in his late twenties, Pyle's career was well established and he was writing books as well as illustrating them, while also producing sumptuous work for magazines. Generations have now grown up on Pyle's books for children, including The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood, The Story of King Arthur's Knights, Howard Pyle's Book of Pirates, and The Wonder Clock. (Most of the drawings in this post are from the latter.)

In 1990, Pyle established The Howard Pyle School of Illustration Art -- first in Wilmington, and then in eastern Pennsylvania near the Brandywine River. The school and the art movement it engendered -- both now known as The Brandywine School -- produced an extraordinary number of superb illustrators including  N.C. Wyeth, Frank Schoonover, Jessica Wilcox Smith, and Elizabeth Shippen Green.

From The Wonder Clock by Howard PyleThe passage above is from Christopher Barzak's essay in Brothers & Beasts: An Anthology of Men on Fairy Tales, edited by Kate Bernheimer (Wayne State University Press, 2007). The Neil Gaiman poem in picture captions first appeared in Black Heart, Ivory Bones, edited by me & Ellen Datlow (Avon Books, 2000), and was reprinted in Brothers & Beasts. All rights reserved by the authors.


Boys, Girls and Tomboys

We were eleven out in
Endless woods and meadows
The boys wanted to be
The Fighters, the heroes
The one who drags the slain
(1) Dragon (2) Evil Robber
(4) The Monster Giant &
Not long after a war:
(5) Nazis. We the girls
Did not want to be saved,
Or meekly unable to fight.

That is what then was called
A Tomboy. When I was twelve,
Living close to town, now,
I met up with some boys,
Nice boys and we played
Comic book heroes and
Good Indians who save,
Well, not this brave girl;
For I was a Jungle Queen,

There were hints of magic,
Of power beyond the usual,
And long after the faded
Gang, we grew up. I wish
I could see them, probably
Grandfathers now, telling
Stories of brave boys, fighting
Evil with some magic, and
A brave Tomboy-girl, who
Found fairy gold on a dry
Dusty hill; Fabulous
Were we. And Innocent.

The article was wonderful, very touching, but the pictures have me absolutely mesmerised. Sumptuous is the perfect word for them.

This is fabulous Phylls, I love it! :-)

I absolutely ADORE Pyle's illustrations.

When I was a boy - miserably unhappy, abused and lonely in an isolated, grimly gothic, English public school - I found a wonder beyond imagining in a dusty corner of the ill-used college library: a leather-bound copy of "The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood."

Oh my, oh my. I'm choking up now just writing this; but opening the pages of that book was my salvation. The glorious language and the exquisite illustrations absorbed me utterly. Most of the illustrations are black and white, but I remember them all in vivid colours. I stole away to the library at every opportunity and read and re-read that book countless times.

It also taught me that, despite the cruelty and suffering I was subjected to at that time, there existed another world; a world of courage, true belief, goodness, humour and beauty.

I believe it saved my life. It certainly contributed hugely to any aspects of my broken personality which sustain any generosity, any goodness, and any love.

Such, ultimately, is the power of art. It can save us.


Austin. x

This brings back so many memories. I remember playing with gangs of kids where us girls kept getting stuck with the boring roles. I wanted to be Peter Pan, not Wendy!

Pyle's work is well known in America...but not as well known here in England. (Although William Morris was a fan of his!) Did you know his work growing up in New Zealand?

It can, and it does.

Oh yes. Thank you. I notice my adding up went wrong. I write these poems directly in the little post box, so it happens. I'm copying them onto "documents" later.

My youngest boy is also "The weakling, the strange thinker, the one set apart from social normality"Sounds harsh,but again these tales reflect a reality that like you Terri, I often wanted to turn away from as it magnifies my own fears. Yet through this boys eyes, I see a world I never saw before, one more beautiful, bright, hopeful and happy. So I opened the book once more and now re read the tales reserving my sadness for Mr Everyman. Hugs.x

Michele, do you happen to know the work of artist Brian Froud? He's published a number of books on faeries -- and happens to live right up the road from me, so I know that sometimes friends, neighbors, and aquaintances pose for his "faery portraits." The child who posed for this beautful painting has Down Syndrome. He calls it "The Faery of Pure Joy":

Oh Terri, Thank you! What a wowzers moment for me.I just hunted through my books and found my Good Faeries, Bad Faeries! Its the same chap.If you happen to bump into him will you tell him that beautiful painting bought joy to my soul and a tear to my eye on this windy Devon evening!Xx

Wow! How beautiful! Pure joy, indeed!

I've met many children and people who have Down Syndrome. "This Faery of Pure Joy "
catches their innocence and often wisdom you don't expect. Having a permanently head injured son has also given me so much. When he can't remember a word, he invents one.His sweetness overwhelms everybody he meets. I was fortunate to accept him as he is , and love him so much.

I know "Good Faeries/Bad Faeries" well -- I helped Brian with the writing in the book and did the folklore research for it. (My name's on the cover too, but in much smaller type!) He and his wife Wendy are good friends of mine, so I will certainly pass on your message.

OK so now I am in total awe Ms Windling!! A friend of mine has been encouraging me to start a blog and I came across yours doing a bit of research. I only liked yours because of your clear love of the place you live, your love of art your kind face and Tilly pics!!Well I am totally honoured to have you as a blog friend. Will let you have the details of mine once I stop procrastinating! Have a wonderful day. Hugs. x

Phyllis, I honestly believe that we would have been fierce young friends if we had grown up together! I love this post and yes, it reminds me so much of how I played as a child. =D

AH! This portrait gave me goosebumps. How absolutely beautiful! And hello Michele!

That poem by Gaiman! Whew. A doozy. I haven't the time today, but it makes me want to write a poem about the frog who would rather not be kissed, not become a prince, and just stay a happy frog in the mud. ;) This, I'm sure, is what my youngest son would want. (He often tells me he is NOT a boy, but a bunny or a little snail.)

Love to all,

I want to read that poem, Edie!

Here's a different, more cynical take on The Frog Prince -- not a frog who would rather stay a frog, but one who has simply grown bored with being a man:

The Frog Prince by Susan Mitchell (originally published in The New Yorker):

I look forward to seeing pictures of your part of Devon, Michelle. Aren't we lucky to live in such a magical landscape?

Thanks. Kindred spirits!

Wow! Thank you so much.

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