The Muses of Rooms
Four writers on fairy tales

Old stories made new

Harriet and the Matches by Vanessa Garwood

P.L. Travers (the creator of Mary Poppins) once said: "I shall never know which good fairy it was who, at my own christening, gave me the everlasting gift, spotless amid all spotted joys, of love for the fairy tale. It began in me quite early, before there was any separation between myself and the world. Eve's apple had not yet been eaten; every bird had an emperor to sing to and any passing beetle or ant might be a prince in disguise....Perhaps we are born knowing the tales, for our grandmothers and all their ancestral kin continually run about in our blood repeating them endlessly, and the shock they give us when we first hear them is not of surprise but of recognition. Things long unknowingly known have suddenly been remembered. Later, like streams, they run underground. For a while they disappear and we lose them. We are busy, instead, with our personal myth in which the real is turned to dream and the dream becomes the real. Sifting this is a long process. It may perhaps take a lifetime and the few who come around to the tales again are those who are in luck."

Molly Whuppie by Vanessa Garwood

"Fairy stories are related to dreams," muses A.S. Byatt, "...and dreams are maybe most people's first experience of unreal narrative, and to myths. Realism is related to explanations and orderings -- the tale of the man in the bar who tells you the story of his life, the historian who explains the decisions of generals and the decline of economies. Great novels, I believe, always draw on both ways of telling, both ways of seeing. But because realism is agnostic and sceptical, human and reasonable, I have always felt it was what I ought to do. And yet my impulse to write came, and I know it, from years of reading myths and fairytales under the bedclothes, from the delights and freedoms and terrors of worlds and creatures that never existed."

Fitcher's Bird by Vanessa Garwood

"Raised as I was on the darkest, grimmest of Grimm’s fairy tales," writes Joanne Harris, "I’ve always been very much aware of the dual nature of the world depicted in folklore and story. For every happy ending, there is an equally tragic one; children left to die in the woods; lovers parted forever; villains with their eyes pecked out by crows, or burnt alive; or hanged. Fairytale is a world away from the comfortable assurances of the Disney franchise – and surely that was the purpose of those original fairy tales, devised as they were for an audience comprising mostly of adults; often very poor; people whose lives were cruel and harsh, and who would never -- even in fiction ---have accepted to believe in a world in which the shadows did not at least occasionally rival the light."

"Fairy Tales were the refuge of my troubled childhood, " says author and activist bell hooks. "Despite all the messages contained in them about being a dutiful daughter, a good girl, which I internalized to some extent, I was most obsessed with the idea of justice, the insistence in most tales that the righteous would prevail."

Griselda by Vanessa Garwood

"The great archetypal stories," Jane Yolen notes, "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 honed 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."

"Magic happens," Maria Tatar observes, "when the wand of language strikes a stone and makes it melt, touches a spindle and turns it into gold, or taps a trunk and makes it fly. By drawing on a syntax of enchantment that conjures fluidity, ethereality, flimsiness, and transparency, writers turn solidity into resplendent airy lightness to produce miracles of linguistic transubstantiation. What is the effect of that beauty? How do readers respond to words that create that beauty? In a world that has discredited that particular attribute and banished it from high art, beauty has nonetheless held on to its enlivening power in children's books. It draws readers in, then draws them to understand the fictional worlds it lights up."

King Robin by Vanessa Garwood

Philip Pullman gives this advice to writers and artists working with fairy tales today: "I’d say to anyone who wants to tell these tales, don’t be afraid to be superstitious. If you have a lucky pen, use it. If you speak with more force and wit when wearing one red sock and one blue one, dress like that. When I’m at work I’m highly superstitious. My own superstition has to do with the voice in which the story comes out. I believe that every story is attended by its own sprite, whose voice we embody when we tell the tale, and that we tell it more successfully if we approach the sprite with a certain degree of respect and courtesy. These sprites are both old and young, male and female, sentimental and cynical, sceptical and credulous, and so on, and what’s more, they’re completely amoral: like the air-spirits who helped Strong Hans escape from the cave, the story-sprites are willing to serve whoever has the ring, whoever is telling the tale. To the accusation that this is nonsense, that all you need to tell a story is a human imagination, I reply, ‘Of course, and this is the way my imagination works.' "

Why is it so important to re-fashion these stories for each new generation? I'll give Maria Tatar the last word here:

Because, she says, “it is through beauty, poetry and visionary power that the world will be renewed.”

Anansi the Spider by Vanessa Garwood

The wonderful paintings today are by Vanessa Garwood. Born in Israel in 1982, Garwood trained in painting and sculpture in Florence, followed by further studies elsewhere in Europe, Africa, and South America. She is currently based in London.

These paintings are from an exhibition inspired by Garwood's childhood love of illustrated storybooks: And is it true? It is not true. "The series," she says, "expresses a concern for the future of books in a time where their impact is being diminished by an ever increasingly virtual world. For books -- and also paintings -- as lasting physical objects passed down from generation to generation."

Go here to view more of the paintings, and to read the artist's notes on them.

The Tailor of Gloucester by Vanessa Garwood

Words: The Tavers quote is from her collection About the Sleeping Beauty (McGraw-Hill, 1975); the Byatt quote is from her collection The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye (Chatto & Windus, 1994); the Harris quote is from the "Fairytale Reflections" series on Katherine Langerish's Seven Miles of Steel Thistles blog (July 2011); the hooks quote is from Mirror, Mirror on the Wall, edited by Kate Bernheimer (Expanded Edition: Anchor Books, 2003); the Yolen quote is from her collection Touch Magic: Fantasy, Faerie & Folklore in the Literature of Childhood (Philomel, 1981);the Tatar quotes are from Enchanted Hunters: The Power of Stories in Childhood (WW Norton, 2009); and the Pullman quote is from his introduction to Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm (Viking, 2012). All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures: The paintings above are Harriet and the Matches, Molly Whuppie, Fitcher's Bird, Griselda, King Robin, Ananse the Trickster Spider, and The Tailor of Gloucester. All rights reserved by the artist. Many thanks to Helen Mason for introducting me to Vanessa Garwood's work.


Is It Tue? It's Not True

Is it true? the child asks.
The mother answers, It's not true.
But the child knows better.
Fairies are her neighbors, playmates.
They walk the streets by her house,
teach at her school, stares at her
from the pages of the newspaper.
They stand nest to her at the grocery,
sit by her on the bus.

At night, when she is on the edge
of sleep, the knife of dreams,
they are at her bedfoot smiling.
Spider man with his card tricks.
Molly Whuppie changing hats.
Twelve princesses in crowns, dancing.
Sister Ann staring down the dusty road,
willing the brothers to come fast.

What is story but a dream, a wish,
the selchie's skin.
We dance with the fey folk
under a changeling moon.
The mother knows this.
The child knows this.
But the mother lies.
It is the only sane thing to do.

©2017 Jane Yolen all rights reserved

I love this post (and the paintings too). Nabokov says in his Lectures on Literature, "All great novels are fairy-tales".
My own novels are all versions of fairy-tales, and it's interesting to see who spots this.

I have a Hansel and Gretel Holocaust novel coming out next year-- A SHUDDER BETWEEN THE HILLS.


I *love* finding the fairy tales at the core of your novels, Amanda. It's one of the many reasons they sit on my "favorites" shelf.

...And then the child grows up to deny the magic too? I'm reminded of Wendy in Peter Pan, who grows up and can no longer fly to Neverland; she can only watch (with pleasure? with fear? with jealousy?) as her child, Jane, slips through the window to follow Peter.

Your poem has provoked all kinds of thoughts, I'm off to ponder.

It sounds harrowing, but I greatly look forward to it nonetheless.

This post has fished me out from the brink. Joanne Harris's quote in particular, "Fairytale is a world away from the comfortable assurances of the Disney franchise – and surely that was the purpose of those original fairy tales, devised as they were for an audience comprising mostly of adults; often very poor; people whose lives were cruel and harsh, and who would never -- even in fiction ---have accepted to believe in a world in which the shadows did not at least occasionally rival the light"

This winter has been one of the cruel and harsh ... another one. I have been riding out the darkness on the rigid steel-back of Real life alone. Illness and madness only tightening the hold. The story muse has made a habit of waiting for me with her two differently colored eyes biting at me, tricking me "This way." I thought, I would weather THIS winter with local realism alone. Force my hand, close a door.

The tiny mouse who waited in the wash house when I opened to door to make oatmeal this morning had a different version of winter for me. "Is it true?" On this bright full moon I wonder what color eyes Mouse Woman sees through? A worthy question to ponder. Thanks for the life-saving post!

Out Of Thin Air

Living in the high desert,
rain becomes the character
of a fairytale, rarely believable

and beautifully gowned in tulle
as she falls among cactus pillars and pines,
rose briars and mesquite
stones and grass. And occasionally

she carries lightning as her scepter
to burn or split wicked things
and sometimes, those which must decay
to grow again. We were told by our mothers
and they by theirs to find

a broken eggshell left
by raven whose feathers outwit the sun --
then hold it in our right hand
as if a beggar's cup , rattling dust and thirst
as we wait patiently for her to come;

but more importantly, we were told
to crack open our hearts, separate awe
from apathy and let gratitude loosen

enough tears for her to see
what they reflect, to sample salt
from the seabed of our soul.

Hi Jane

What is story but a dream, a wish,
the selchie's skin.
We dance with the fey folk
under a changeling moon.
The mother knows this.
The child knows this.
But the mother lies.
It is the only sane thing to do.

Yes, a story is a dream or wish but it propels us to imagine, to explore and to believe in possibility and the
potential for that possibility to happen. Without a sense of magic in our lives, we would merely exist, it allows us
to become vulnerable as well as resilient. How beautifully you describe the essence of the fairytale, its purpose and influence. Thank you for sharing this, I truly enjoyed it and can relate!

take care

Dear Wendy--isn't "cracking open our hearts" what fairy tales do to us on a regular basis? Thanks for this lovely image, but even more for the beautful truth of:

to sample salt
from the seabed of our soul.


Hi Jane

Yes, I think they crack our hearts open and it makes us better people I think, I hope. In some way they enrich our
perspectives and even how we look at ourselves. Thank you so much for these kind words and insight. I deeply appreciate it!

Please take care
My Best always

These paintings take me quite by surprise. Love this artist!

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