Life as bird

Arthur Rackham 1

In his introduction to Beasts at Bedtime: Revealing the Environmental Wisdom in Children's Literature, Irish ecologist and poet Liam Heneghan writes this touching passage about the imaginative connection between children, birds, and animals:

Arthur Rackham 2"Newly arrived in the United States and setting foot on the red soils of Georgia for the very first time, Fiacha, our eldest and then a three-year-old, perched himself on top of a fire ant mound. It's a rare child who makes that mistake a second time since fire ants sting ferociously. We had moved into a small ranch house a few miles from the campus of the University of Georgia in Athens, where I was to work for four years. The house was aesthetically unremarkable. There were parched lawns to the front and rear, both of which hosted innumerable fire ant mounds. In the front yard, right outside the door, grew two desiccated shrubs. What that neighborhood lacked in conventional wildlife it made up for with feral dogs. They howled all night and packed together in the morning, leisurely hunting the neighborhood for those who, like me, were foolish enough to go walking in the early hours. It was in this unpromising location that Fiacha -- an Irish name that means 'raven,' and whose second name is Daedalus, the father of Icarus -- became a bird.

Arthur Rackham 3

"The care and feeding of a bird who is morphologically and physically human, though psychologically somewhat avian, is not an entirely trivial undertaking. While he was in motion, there was little inconvenience to us -- he simply flapped his featherless wings as he migrated from place to place.

Arthur Rackham 4"He was something of a restless bird: now in the living room, now the kitchen, and now perched in his bedroom. Whenever and wherever he perched, the primaries on his wings would tremble, occasionally he would ruffle the length of his wings, and, at times, he would fold them back and tuck them close to his little body. We learned to live with the concerned glances of strangers. Feeding time could be a little strenuous, although we could entice him with shredded morsels that he would grab by his 'beak' and toss back into his mouth. Sometimes he would disappear from the house, and after those initial panicked occasions where we searched high and low for him, we knew he could be found sequestered in one of those forlorn-looking shrubs in the front yard. He would cling to a lower branch, peering out at the world through the patchy foliage. At least he was safely out of the reach of the packs of dogs and of the fire ants.

"In those early years, we read a lot about birds, looked at a lot of birds, and drew a lot of birds; and by sketching birds on folded pieces of paper and then cutting them out, we made innumerable models of birds. It lead to a later interest of his in dinosaurs, then aircraft, then military history, after which there was another thousand twists and turns in his interests. That bird now studies philosophy, but he remains an avid birder. He admitted to me recently that he occasionally writes with a quill. To this day if you look at him long enough, you may still spot his flight feathers flutter ever so slightly, even on windless afternoons."

Arthur Rackham 5

Heneghan goes on to explain that Beasts at Bedtime was written for the parents, teachers, librarians and guardians of children who might think they are birds:

Arthur Rackham 6"It's possible, of course, and not at all uncommon, that your child might assume themselves to be a cat or a dog; this is a book for those families also. It's also for the family of a child I've learned of recently who alternates between a crocodile, a rhino, and a snake. When she was quite young, a friend imagined herself to be a gorilla. A child of another friend thinks he is a deep-sea shrimp that scares predators who get too close by squirting out a glowing substance. He alternates this with being a porcupine. You should give this child wide berth....

"Some children do not identify with being any animal other than the higher primates they already are. The stories that I write about here will be instructive to guardians of these children also, for it is a rare child who is not already inclined to nature.

"Central to the task of caring for your little creature is to create the most nurturing environment for them. This, quite obviously, is not as simple as attending to their peculiar physical needs. It requires a careful tending to their spirits. This later task can be assisted by the stories you tell and read to them. To help with the task, this book is intended to illustrate the thematic richness of children's stories. There is a surprising depth of environmental information in many of the titles that children find immensely appealing." 

Arthur Rackham 7

Heneghan's text covers pastoral stories, wilderness stories, urban stories, and "children on wild islands" -- ranging from fairy and folk tales to Peter Rabbit and Pooh -- and then onward to White's Forest Sauvage, Tolkien's Middle-Earth, Le Guin's Earthsea, and much more. I loved re-visiting favorite tales through the eyes of an ecosystem ecologist, and heartily recommend this charming, informative, bird-filled and beastly book.

Arthur Rackham 8

Beasts at Bedtime by Liam Heneghan

Arthur Rackham 9

Words: The passage quoted above is from Beasts at Bedtime: Revealing the Environmental Wisdom in Children's Literature by Liam Heneghan (University of Chicago Press, 2018). All rights reserved by the author.

Pictures: The illustrations above are by the great Golden Age book artist Arthur Rackham (1867-1939), from editions of Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens by J.M. Barrie, The Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, Aesop's Fables, and Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll.

Related posts: Kissing the Lion's Nose (on children and animals) and Finding the way to the green (on children and nature).


Fantasy in Times of Crisis

For those who missed yesterday's online Fantasy Symposium, here's the recorded version.

I thoroughly enjoyed discussing our field with five colleagues whose works I admire so much (plus our excellent moderator, Gabriel Schenk) -- despite the gremlins in the broadband wires who kept bouncing me off of Zoom. I was forced to flee the studio mid-symposium, run down the hill, and hook up to the broadband in our house...but fortunately, that did the trick! 

Howard took the photo below before it all started. Coffee in hand on the studio steps, I was feeling quite relaxed at that moment, little knowing there were gremlins ahead....

Many thanks to all of you who took time out of your day to join us live on Zoom and YouTube. Although I still prefer real gatherings to virtual ones, it's good to keep the conversation going any way we can during these challenging times; and it was wonderful to be connected to so many fantasy readers all around the world. I hope we can do more things like this again.

Terri Windling at the Bumblehill Studio, by Howard Gayton


Today!

Symposium-2020

Today I am taking part in the Symposium on Fantasy Literature sponsored by the good folks who run the annual "Tolkien Lectures" at Pembroke College -- which is Tolkien's old college at Oxford University. The symposium is online, it's free, and all are welcome. More information can be found here.

The Symposium takes place on Zoom (register here) from 4:00 to  5:30 pm British time (11 am – 12:30 U.S. Eastern time). It will also be broadcast live on YouTube -- so if Zoom reaches its limit of attendees, you can head over there.

The other speakers are Kij Johnson, Adam Roberts, Lev Grossman,  V.E. Schwab, and Rebecca F. Kuang, and I'm honored to be among them. Our topic for discussion is a timely one: the importance of fantasy literature in times of crisis.

I hope you can join us.

Tolkien's old college at Oxford

The sponsors are inviting donations for The Society of Author’s COVID-19 Crisis Fund, which responds to the loss of income many writers have faced as a result of the coronavirus. (Please don't worry if you've lost income yourself and can't.)  My apologies if this is the first you've heard about this event. I've been passing the word on Facebook and Twitter, and didn't even realize I'd failed to mention here. Mea culpa!


Telling the holy

Woodland gate

I keep returning to "Telling the Holy," Scott Russell Sanders' fine essay on myths and sacred stories from around the world. Each time I read it I find new things to ponder, and today it's this:

"Mystery is not much in favor these days. The notion that there are limits to what we can do, what we can know, limits to our dominion, does not sit well with kings and queens of the hill. Humility and reverence, we hear, are the attitudes of cowards. Why worship a force we can't measure on a meter? Why tell stories about a power we can't photograph? 

"Flannery O'Connor once revealed to a correspondent that her 'gravest concern' was 'the conflict between an attraction for the Holy and the disbelief in it that we breathe in with the air of the times.' I feel that attraction for the holy, and my throat, too, burns with the air of disbelief.

The windy road

"When the novelist Reynolds Price published his translation of stories from the Bible in a book called A Palpable God, he prefaced it with a long meditation on 'Origins and Life of Narrative,' in which he sought to explain why a cultivated person in our secular age might still take seriously these tales of the holy. The 'first -- and final -- aim of narrative,' he argued, is 'compulsion of belief in an ordered world.'

"Of course it would be reassuring to believe in an ordered world, say the sceptics. But what if the universe is chaotic, a hazard of bits and pieces, and our tales of order are but soothing lullabies we sing against the darkness?

Into the greenwood

"That line of reasoning leads to what I think of as the killjoy of sacred stories: they must be false because they are comforting. They are not, in fact, all comforting. Many are frightening. In myths, gods appear and disappear, play tricks, throw tantrums, devour the innocent and reward the wicked, bewilder the most patient seeker. The holy is often a holy terror. Still, the killjoy critique is forceful, as Reynolds Price acknowledged: 'Human narrative, through all its visible length, gives emphatic signs of arising from the profoundest need of one fragile species. Sacred story is the perfect answer given to the world to the hunger of the species for true consolation.'

"Mustn't so perfect an answer be an illusion? Not necessarily, Price added, 'for the fact that we hunger has not precluded food.' Water is nonetheless real for slaking our thirst, lovemaking nonetheless real for meeting our desire. I do not doubt the sun, even though it warms me and lights my way. Yes, tales about the holy may satisfy our craving for consolation, but that proves nothing about the truth of the tales or the reality of the power.

By the leat

Wild daffodils

"The order we glimpse through myth is one that we did not create, that we cannot alter, that we can never fully grasp, and that we ignore at our peril. The achievements of science delude many into thinking that we have graduated from nature, that we can understand everything, that we can change or scorn conditions as we see fit, that we are bosses of the universe. Among those who resist this delusion of omnipotence are a number of scientists. The physicist Charles Misner, for example, has articulated a humbler view:

"'I do see the design of the universe as essentially a religious question. That is, one should have some kind of respect and awe for the whole business, it seems to me. It's very magnificent and shouldn't be taken for granted. In fact, I believe that is why Einstein had so little use for organized religion, although he strikes me as a basically very religious man. He must have looked at what the preachers said about God and felt they were blaspheming. He had seen much more majesty than they had ever imagined.'

Bluebells and barbed wire

By "mystery," Sanders clarifies, 

"...I do not mean simply the blank places on our maps. I mean the divine source -- not a void, not a darkness, but an uncapturable fullness. We are sustained by processes and powers that we can neither fathom nor do without. I speak of that ground as holy because it is ultimate, it is what makes us possible, what shapes and upholds everything we see. The stories I am most interested in hearing, reading, and telling, are those that help us imagine our lives in relation to that ground."

And so am I. But for me, a certain kind of fantasy literature approaches the same ground as myth and sacred stories, albeit from a slantwise direction. Fantasy of this sort (Tolkien, Lewis, Garner, Le Guin, McKillip, Holdstock, Crowley, de Lint, Yolen, and numerous others) is all about mystery, and the magic inherent in life itself: the "processes and powers that we can neither see nor do without."

In our own myth-drenched, poetic, elvin-crafted way, we are telling the holy.

Wandering

Basket of nettles

Sanders goes on to say:

"By telling the holy, we acknowledge that life is a gift. In fact, the whole universe is a gift. From where or what, and why, we cannot know. All we do know is that it issues forth, moment by moment, eon by eon, ever fresh, astounding in its richness and beauty. None of this is to gainsay the pain, the suffering, the eventual death that awaits all created things. But we measure that pain and suffering, we mourn that death against the sheer exuberant flow of things."

I want to work from that exuberant flow; to write of strange, improbable things that contain some kernal of truth within. I want to choose the winding road through the fernie brae that leads to mystery, wonder, and "miraculous grace" (to use Tolkien's phrase).

That is the road, I whisper to Tilly, where thou and I maun gae.

Look out post

Telling the holy

The quoted passage above is from "Telling the Holy" by Scott Russell Sanders, published in Wonder and Other Survival Skills, edited by H. Emerson Blake (The Orion Society, 2o12). The poem in the picture captions is from Even in Quiet Places by William Stafford (Confluence Press, 2010). All rights reserved by the authors. 


Signs of spring

Foal 1

Here's the first foal to be born to our local herd of Dartmoor ponies this year. We're so lucky to be in lock-down in Devon, where sights like this lift my heart. I send it out in the hope it will lift yours too.

Foal 2

Foal 3

"They are the ones who never pass a secret place in the woods without a stare of curiosity for the mystery implied in all its mounds and hollow, who still turn corners with a lift of expectation at the heart. And to be a writer of fantasy, one must be among those few -- those fortunate few; for, to produce a work that answers all the demands of fantasy, is to suddenly turn the corner which does at last show something strange and wonderful waiting to be seen, and -- most gloriously -- to know that long-ago sense of yearning at last fulfilled."

- Mollie Hunter 

Foal 4

"Someone needs to tell those tales. When the battles are fought and won and lost, when the pirates find their treasures and the dragons eat their foes for breakfast with a nice cup of Lapsang souchong, someone needs to tell their bits of overlapping narrative. There's magic in that. It's in the listener, and for each and every ear it will be different, and it will affect them in ways they can never predict. From the mundane to the profound. You may tell a tale that takes up residence in someone's soul, becomes their blood and self and purpose. That tale will move them and drive them and who knows what they might do because of it, because of your words."

- Erin Morgenstern

Foal 5

Foal 6

''And I think that now, in our age, in the mid-ocean of our days, with certainties collapsing around us, and with no beliefs by which to steer our way through the dark descending nights ahead -- I think that now we need those fictional old bards and fearless storytellers, those seers. We need their magic, their courage, their love, and their fire more than ever before. It is precisely in a fractured, broken age that we need mystery and a reawoken sense of wonder. We need them to be whole again.''

- Ben Okri

Foal 7


Nature, gnomes, and the power of story

Illustration by Denys Watkins-Pitchford

Michael McCarthy begins his beautiful book The Moth Snowstorm with these arresting two sentences: "In the summer of 1954, when Winston Churchill was dwindling into his dotage as British prime minister, the beaten French were withdrawing from Indochina, and Elvis Presley was beginning to sing, my mother's mind fell apart. I was seven and my brother John was eight."

Blending nature writing, ecological history, and memoir, The Moth Snowstorm is narrated in a lucid prose that makes my heart sing even though the story it tells is filled with loss: of family, of innocence, of the natural world McCarthy once in knew in the Wirral near Liverpool. His mother, Norah, had trained as a teacher; his father, Jack, was largely away at sea. When Nora's mind "began to fray" under the weight of her troubles, the stern Canon at their Catholic church recommended her removal to a mental institution, from which (as was usual in those days) no one expected her to return. In fact, she came home just a few months later -- but by then McCarthy's bossy aunt Mary had sold off her sister's home, and taken her two young nephews in charge. John, the eldest, responded to the dramatic break-up of their family with rage and tears, while Michael retreated into indifference. He writes:

"At seven years old, I was not in the least bit concerned that I had lost my mother. How bizarre that seems, written down. Many years on, when I began to talk about it, to try to sort it all out, I learned that this was a Coping Strategy. Golly, I thought. Did I have a Coping Strategy? All I remember having is nothing. Being not bothered, not in the slightest, that she had gone away with no promise of return; and this attitude slumbered inside me through childhood, adolescence and long into manhood, until my mother died, my mother with whom I had by now built bridges and come to adore before all others...and the life I had blithely put together on top of the gaping cracks, pretending they were not there, began to unravel and I set out on the long road to somewhere else."

Illustration by Denys Watkins-Pitchford

Aunt Mary and her husband lived in the suburbs. In a nearby garden was a buddleia, and on a late summer morning young Michael found it entirely covered with butterflies: red admirals, peacocks, small tortoiseshells, and painted ladies.

"I was mesmerised. My eyes caressed their colours like a hand stroking a kitten. How could there be such living gems? And every morning in that hot but fading summer, as my mother suffered silently and my brother cried out, I ran to check on them, never tiring of watching these free-flying spirits with wings as bright as flags which the buddleia seemed miraculously to tame, to keep from visiting other flowers, to enslave on its own blooms by its nectar's unfathomable power. I could smell it myself, honey-sweet, but with the faintest hint of a sour edge. Drawing them in, the wondrous visitants. Wondrous? Electrifying, they were. Filling the space where my feelings should have been. And so through this singular window, when I was a skinny kid in short pants, butterflies entered my soul."

Mary obligingly bought him a guidebook to butterflies, and his interest grew from enthusiasm to obsession. Reflecting on this many years later, McCarthy accepts the strangeness of the circumstance, "that it was in a time of great turmoil, involving great unhappiness, that I first became attached to nature; that while my boyhood bond with my mother was being rent asunder, I was preoccupied with insects.

Two illustrations by Denys Watkins-Pitchford

Illustration by Denys Watkins-Pitchford

"I might have become a lifelong butterfly obsessive," McCarthy adds, "narrowly and compulsively  preoccupied to the exclusion of all else, like Frederick Clegg in John Fowles' The Collector, had not my mother show me a way to a wider world."

Two illustrations by Denys Watkins-Pitchford

Illustration by Denys Watkins-Pitchford

Norah was released from the mental hospital that autumn, but it was more than a year before the family had a home of their own again. To mark this new beginning, McCarthy's mother, a devotee of literature, gave him a book. 

"It was a Christmas present that year, prompted I imagine by my butterfly enthusiasm; but whereas Mary might have found me another book on Lepidoptera, Norah chose something else, and I wonder now what sure instinct led her to this, the first real story I encountered, with fully formed characters and a narrative; for I engaged with it at once.

The Little Grey Men"It was an epic, in the old-fashioned, precise sense of the term: a long account of heroic adventures. But it was not large-scale, in the way that The Iliad and The Odyssey are large-scale epics, mainly because its heroes were gnomes. It was called The Little Grey Men, and its author signed himself merely by initials, BB; his real name was Denys Watkins-Pitchford, although it was years before I found this out.

"I was from the first page lost in the world of its principal characters, Dodder, Baldmoney, and Sneezewort (all named after rather uncommon English wild flowers). They were very small people, between a foot and eighteen inches tall, with long flowing beards; Dodder, the oldest, had a wooden leg. But they were different from the sort of gnomes you might expect to come across in the genre of High Fantasy which has so obsessed us in recent years, in Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings and their imitators. They had no magical powers. They were grounded not in fantasy but in realism. Although they were able to converse with the wild creatures around them -- the author's one concession to the idea of gnomic difference -- they lived, and struggled to live, in the world just as we do, concerned about finding enough food and keeping warm. But there was more: they were a dying race. They were last gnomes left in England.

Two illustrations for Little Grey Men by Denys Watkins-Pitchford

"I remember the shiver I experienced when I first read those words. I think it was an inchoate sense, even in a boy of eight, of the transfixing nature of the end of things. It was clear that they could not survive the creeping urbanisation and modernisation of agriculture which even then was starting to spread across the countryside. They were anachronisms. The world had moved on from them: like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, their time was done. So much the braver, then, their decision to undertake a great adventure, to make an expedition to find their long-lost brother Cloudberry -- ah, Cloudberry! So sad! -- who had never returned after setting out one day to discover the source of the small Warwickshire river, the Folly Brook, on the banks of which they lived, in the capacious roots of an old oak tree.

An illustration for Little Grey Men by Denys Watkins-Pitchford

"I was wholly captivated by their quest, and by its unexpected denouement; I was likewise captivated by Down the Bright Stream, the sequel, which I asked for and was given for Christmas the following year. (In the second book, the gnomes' existential crisis reaches its climax; they address it in a most original way, ultimately successful.) But I took in more than the story. I internalised, at first reading, the milieu in which the adventure took place. It was the very opposite of the milieu of The Lord of the Rings, with its dark lords and wizards, its fortresses and mountains, its vast clashing armies; it was merely Warwickshire, leafy Warwickshire, Shakespeare's country, and the Folly Brook, with its kingfishers and otters and minnows,  and its kestrels hovering above,  a small and intimate and charming countryside with its small and intimate and charming creatures, vivid in their lives and their interactions; and I fell in love with them, and I fell in love with the natural world.

"I went beyond butterflies to the fullness of nature."

An illustration for Little Grey Men by Denys Watkins-Pitchford

I have long believed that stories, particularly fantasy stories, are a powerful way to engage children with nature. Through the wonder at the heart of the tale, we find the wonder at the heart of the world. I didn't know The Little Grey Men when I was a child, but other books had the same effect on me -- from Beatrix Potter's Lake District farms and Johanna Spyri's Swiss mountaintops to the enchanted vistas of Lewis and Tolkien, and, later, of Susan Cooper, Lloyd Alexander, Diana Wynne Jones, Patricia McKillip and Ursula Le Guin, among others. While McCarthy was drawn to the "realism" and intimacy of The Little Grey Men, reflective of the countryside he knew in the England of the 1950s, I grew up in the rapacious urban and suburban development of east coast America in the '60s and '70s, and preferred stories that took me to other worlds -- where landscapes were vast, majestic, unfenced, unpolluted, with nary a car or strip mall in sight. In real life I hustled through time-fractured days mediated by cars and buses, subways and trains; but in fiction, I moved at a walker's pace through Middle Earth, Eldwold, Prydain, Dalemark, Tredana, Islandia and the Earthsea Archipelago; and those long journeys immersed in the natural world were just as vital as the adventures themselves. Can the forests and fields of imaginary lands nurture a connection to, and even a love for, the flora and fauna and the waterways and the ground underfoot that we see everyday? I believe they can. And more than that, in this time of ecological crisis, I believe that they must.

What are stories that made that connection for you, fantasy or otherwise? And were the landscapes as important to you as the characters and the unrolling plot? I'm curious to know your thoughts.

Illustration by Denys Watkins-Pitchford

Words: The passages above are from The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy by Michael McCarthy (New York Review of Books edition, 2015), which I highly recommend. All rights reserved by the author.

Pictures: The art above is by Denys James Watkins-Pitchford (1905 -1990), a naturalist, teacher, book illustrator, and author of children's fiction under the pseudonym BB. He won the Carnegie Medal for Children's Literature in 1942.


Coming up this month....


Eclipse by Jeanie Tomanek

This event kicks off the new "Book Talk & Tea" series, sponsored  by The Friends of Chagford Library and curated by Susan Harley. These monthly events will feature Sunday afternoon talks by a range of fine authors and book artists. There will be tea, cakes, books to browse and buy...so please if you're anywhere near Devon please come join us in support of books, community, the power of stories, and the importance of rural libraries.

In this talk, I'll discuss the importance of adapting ancient tales for modern times, and how such stories can help us navigate the many challenges we face today. While ecologists speak of "re-wilding" the land, I believe in also "re-storying" the land, reclaiming the tales that connect us to natural world and re-shaping them for a modern age.

When: Sunday, 26 January, at 3 pm

Where: Jubilee Hall, Chagford

Tickets £5, available from Sally's Newsagents in Chagford Square, or online here.

The beautiful art above is by Jeanie Tomanek.


On Hans Christian Andersen

Anastasia Arkhipova

It's commonly supposed that all fairy tales are stories from the folk tradition, passed through the generations by storytellers since the dawn of time. While it's true that most fairy tales are rooted in oral folklore, to a greater or lesser degree, many of the best-known stories actually come to us from literary sources. In a previous post, we looked at the literary fairy tales of 16th century Italy (written by Straparola and Basile) and the salon fairy tales of 17th and 18th century France (by Madame D'Aulnoy, Charles Perrault, etc.). In this one, we turn to 19th century Denmark, where Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875) penned some of the best loved fairy tales of all time: The Little Mermaid, The Wild Swans, The Princess and the Pea, The Emperor's New Clothes, The Nightingale, The Tinder Box, The Ugly Duckling, The Steadfast Tin Soldier, The Red Shoes, The Fir Tree, The Snow Queen (his masterpiece), and many others.

Hans Christian Andersen's own life had aspects of a fairy tale, for he was born the son of a poor cobbler and he died a rich and famous man, celebrated around the world, the intimate of kings and queens. Although today Andersen is primarily known as a writer of stories for children, during his lifetime he was also celebrated for his other literary works, including six novels, five travel journals, three memoirs, and numerous poems and plays. The modern image of Andersen (as portrayed in the sugary 1952 film Hans Christian Andersen, starring Danny Kaye) is of a simple, innocent, child-like spinner of tales, a character from one of his own stories. Letters and diaries by Andersen and his contemporaries, however, draw the picture of a very different man: a sharply intelligent, ambitious writer with a hardscrabble past, a love of high society, and a tortured soul. Likewise, Andersen's fairy tales, when read in the original Danish (or in good, unabridged translations), are far more sophisticated and multi-layered than the simple children's fables they've become in all too many translated editions, retellings, and media adaptations. The writer was no innocent naïf recounting fancies whispered by the fairies; he was a serious artist, a skillful literary craftsman, a shrewd observer of human nature and of the social scene of 19th century Denmark.

Storyteller

Reading Andersen's prose after growing up with abridged and altered versions of his stories can be a surprising experience -- much like reading J.M. Barrie's sly, subversive Peter Pan in the original. Both Andersen and Barrie wrote children's stories into which they carefully, skillfully embedded comedy, social critique, satire, and philosophy aimed at adult readers. Andersen pioneered this style, and writers like Barrie are indebted to him, as are numerous children's writers today — including Jane Yolen, Roald Dahl, Diana Wynne Jones, Philip Pullman, and J. K. Rowling -- whose works are beloved by adult readers. "I seize on an idea for grown-ups," Andersen explained, "and then tell the story to the little ones while always remembering that Father and Mother often listen, and you must also give them something for their minds." His fairy tales can be read simply as magical adventures, but for the discerning reader they contain much more, bristling with characters drawn from Andersen's own life and from the many worlds he traveled through in his remarkable life's journey.

Hans Christian AndersenLike the Ugly Duckling, born in a humble duck-yard yet destined to become a swan, Andersen was born the son of a poor cobbler in the city of Odense, where the family shared a single room and lived a hand-to-mouth existence. There was always food, but never quite enough; there were books on the shelf, but no money for grammar school. Andersen was sent to the Poor School instead, and expected to learn a trade.

Tall and gawky, ill at ease with other children, the boy spent his time reading, dreaming, sewing costumes out of scraps for his puppet theater, and haunting the doorway of the city's theater when traveling players came to town. Odense, at that time, was a provincial city still rooted in its rural past, with a living tradition of Danish folklore and colorful folk pageantry. In The True Story of My Life, Andersen relates how he learned Danish folk tales in his youth from old women in the spinning room of the insane asylum where his grandmother worked. "They considered me a marvelous clever child," he recalls, "too clever to live long, and they rewarded my eloquence by telling me fairy tales, and a world as rich as that of The Thousand and One Nights arose before me." The Arabian tales of The Thousand and One Nights also fired the boy's imagination, for this was one of the few precious books owned by Andersen's father.

Andersen began writing at an early age (an unusual preoccupation for a boy of his class), but his true ambition was to go on the stage as an actor, dancer, or singer. He memorized scenes from plays and poems and loved to declaim them to anyone who'd listen; he also possessed a fine singing voice (he was know as the Nightingale of Odense), and this talent in particular began to open doors for him. The boy received invitations to sing at dinner parties in rich men's houses, where his precociousness, combined with his shabby appearance, provoked as much amusement as admiration. This was Andersen's first taste of superior society (as it was called in those days of rigid class demarcation), a taste that he never lost as he subsequently climbed into Denmark's highest circles.

The Snow Queen by PJ Lynch

When Andersen was 11, his father died, leaving the family more destitute than ever, and the boy was sent off to factory work, at which he lasted only a few days. In 1819, at the age of 14, he left home and Odense altogether, traveling alone to Copenhagen to make his fame and fortune. Determined to join the Royal Theater, he presented himself to the theater's director, who bluntly advised the uneducated youth to go home and learn a trade. Undaunted, the boy sought out a well-known critic, then the city's prima ballerina, both of whom turned the scruffy urchin out and told him to go home. Growing desperate, running out of money, Andersen pestered every luminary he could think of until he turned up on the doorstep of Giuseppe Siboni, director of the Royal Choir School. Christoph Weyse, an accomplished composer, happened to be dining with Siboni that day. He had risen from poverty himself, and he took pity on the boy. Weyse promptly raised a sum of money that enabled Andersen to rent a cheap room and to study with Siboni and others connected to the Royal Theater.

The Little Mermaid by Edmund DulacThus began a new period in Andersen's life. By day he studied and loitered in the theater, rubbing shoulders with some of the most famous men and women of Denmark's Golden Age; by night he lived in a mean little room in one of the city's most squalid neighborhoods, often going without meals and spending what little money he had on books. As in Odense, the boy was called upon to sing and recite at distinguished dinner parties -- and once again the smiles of his hosts were often at his own expense. The aid he received for the next three years was sporadic and precarious, never quite enough to keep hunger from the door, bestowed with a mixture of generosity and condescension that left lasting marks on Andersen's psyche. (He would draw upon this experience years later when creating tales such as The Little Mermaid, in which the heroine submits to loss and pain in order to cross into another world -- only to find she'll never be fully accepted, loved, or understood.)

Yet despite the hardships he endured, and the humiliations he suffered through, the young Andersen was thrilled to be on his way to a theatrical career...or so he thought. He practiced scenes from famous plays, he tried his hand at writing a tragedy, and he began to study dance at the Royal Theater's Ballet School. But by the age of 17, his voice had changed; his gawky physique had proven unsuited to ballet. He was dismissed from school, informed that he had no future on the stage.

Anastasia ArkhipovaAnother youth than Hans Christian Andersen might have crumbled under this blow, but throughout his life he possessed a remarkable (even exasperating) degree of confidence and never lost faith in his worth, no matter how often he faced rejection.

Determined to find success in Denmark's theater but barred from a performance career, Andersen focused on his remaining talent: he'd become a writer of plays. He'd already submitted one play to the Royal Theater, which had promptly been turned down. Now the boy dashed off another play, this time an historical tragedy. It, too, was turned away. Yet the play had shown a glimmer of promise, and this brought him to the attention of Jonas Collin, a powerful court official and the financial director of the Royal Theater. Collin perceived what everyone else had perceived: the boy was badly handicapped by his lack of formal education. Collin, however, decided to do something to solve the problem of Andersen, arranging an educational fund to be paid by the King of Denmark.

Kay and the Snow Queen by Angela Barrett

Andersen was sent away to grammar school in the town of Slagelse, 57 miles from Copenhagen in the west of Zealand. He was six years older than his fellow students, far behind them in general education, and temperamentally unsuited for long days sitting in a classroom. Nonetheless he persevered, determined to prove himself worthy of Collin's interest, the King's patronage, and the faith of his small circle of supporters back in Copenhagen.  

But life as a grammar student would prove to be especially difficult, even for a youth whose life had hardly been easy to this point. Andersen's headmaster was a pedagogue who could have stepped from the pages of a Dickens novel, fond of using ridicule, humiliation, and contempt to bully his students into learning. He was particularly vicious to dreamy young Andersen, determined to crush the boy's pride, conceit, and especially his high ambitions -- and to teach him that his place in the world (due to his origins) must be a humble one. In particular, Andersen was strictly forbidden to "indulge" in any creative work such as creative writing -- a deprivation that the boy, who'd been writing since he was small, found particularly hard.

The Story of a Mother by Adrienne SegurFor four years, Andersen endured this tyranny, suffered, worried that he was going mad, and wrote despairing letters home -- which Jonas Collin calmly dismissed as adolescent self-pity. In 1826, at the age of 21, Andersen's emotions came to a boil; he defied his headmaster by writing a poem titled "The Dying Child."

Based on a common nineteenth century theme (in the days of high infant mortality rates), this poem was unusual in being told from the child's point of view, and it evoked a haunting sadness fueled by the author's own misery. Andersen's headmaster pronounced the poem rubbish (it became one of the most famous poems of the century) and heaped such abuse on Andersen that a young teacher became alarmed. The teacher spoke to Jonas Collin directly, and Collin swiftly pulled Andersen out of school. Andersen remained haunted by nightmares of his headmaster for the rest of his life.

Andersen was now allowed to return to Copenhagen, where he lived in a small, clean attic room, studied with private tutors, and took his meals with the Collins and other prominent families, in rotation. His particular attachment to the Collin family solidified during this period and would become a steady source of both joy and pain in the years that followed. Jonas, he loved as a second father; the five Collins children were as dear to him as brothers and sisters; and the Collins, in turn, grew used to this odd young man sitting at their hearth. Much has been written by Andersen scholars about the complicated relationship he forged with the family, who were pillars of Danish society and moved in the highest court circles. Jonas Collin's support of Andersen was both generous and unwavering, and Collin's household provided the young man with the family and stability he craved. But although they opened their home to him, included him in family gatherings, and assisted him in countless ways, Andersen was never allowed to forget that he was not entirely one of them, for he was not a member of their class. Even in the days of his world-wide fame, when he was home with the Collins family he was still the cobbler's son from Odense...the Royal Theater's charity boy...the Little Match Girl with her nose pressed to the glass of a rich family's window.

The Little Match Girl by Natalia Demidova

Most complicated of all was Andersen's relationship with Jonas's son Edvard, who was not only Andersen's closest friend but also (Andersen scholars now believe) the great love of Andersen's life. Edvard's response to Andersen, by contrast, was stolid and unsentimental. He expressed his loyalty to Andersen with tireless acts of practical assistance, yet always held a small part of himself back from his friend. This was symbolized by Edvard's refusal to use the familiar pronoun Du, insisting on the formal De instead. "If you will forget the circumstances of my birth," Andersen wrote to Edvard poignantly, "and always be to me what I am to you, you will find in me the most honest and sympathetic friend." It did no good. Edvard stuck to the formal De for the rest of their lives.

A year after his return to Copenhagen, Andersen sat down in his little attic room and wrote his first book, A Walking Tour from the Holmen Canal to the Eastern Point of Anger. Though the title sounds (purposefully) like a travel book, this clever and fantastical work, written when he was just 22, follows a young poet through the streets of Copenhagen over the course of a single night. Unable to interest a publisher, Andersen scraped together the means to publish it himself -- and the book was a hit, quickly selling out its entire print run. He then wrote a play, which, to his delight, was accepted at the Royal Theater. Titled Love on St. Nicholas Tower, it proved to be a popular success.

Vladislav Erko

Now Andersen left his studies for good (after passing two university exams), and he concentrated on writing and publishing his first collection of poems. Despite this bright beginning, the early years of his career were rocky ones -- full of lows as well as highs and marred by unsympathetic reviews in the Danish press. It was not until his books and poems began to excite attention abroad, particularly in Germany, that critics started to take him seriously in his native land. This mixture of praise (from abroad) and censure (at home) was hurtful and confusing to Andersen, as were the intermingled messages of acceptance and rejection he received from his upper-class friends. He grew a protective armor of wit, but kept a tally of each hurt, each blow; and in later years, no praise was ever enough to balance the scorecard. He grew into a man with two distinct and conflicting sides to his nature. In his talents he was supremely confident, speaking candidly of his high ambitions and rhapsodizing over each success -- which made him something of an oddity to his friends (and a figure of ridicule to his enemies) in a social milieu where displaying signs of personal ambition was frowned upon. Yet Andersen could also be sensitive, emotional, and hungry for approval to a debilitating degree. This made him, at times, an exasperating companion, but many found his friendship worth the trouble, for he was also capable of great warmth, humor, kindness, and moments of surprising wisdom.

The Tinder Box by Vladislav Erko

We see this side of Andersen most clearly in his fairy tales, which he began to write at the age of 29, with great excitement. A volume containing his first four tales (The Tinder Box, The Princess and the Pea, Little Claus and Big Claus, and Little Ida's Flowers) was published in May, 1835, followed up by a volume of three more tales the following December. Andersen's earliest stories are more clearly inspired by Danish folk tales than his later works -- yet none are direct, unadorned retellings of Danish folk stories. Rather, these are original fictions that use Danish folklore as their starting point and then head off in bold new directions, borrowing further inspiration from The Thousand and One Nights, the salon tales of seventeenth century France, the German tales collected by the Brothers Grimm, and the fantasies of E.T.A. Hoffman, among other works.

It's impossible today to fully understand the sensation these little stories caused, for nothing quite like them had ever been seen in Danish literature. The tales were revolutionary for several reasons. Across Europe, the field of children's fiction was still in its very early days and was still dominated by dull, pious stories intended to teach and inculcate moral values. Andersen's magical tales were rich as chocolate cake after a diet of wholesome gruel, and the narrative voice spoke familiarly, warmly, conspiratorially to children, rather than preaching to them from on high. Despite the Christian imagery recurrent in the tales (typical of nineteenth century fiction), these are remarkably earthy, anarchic, occasionally even amoral stories -- comical, cynical, fatalistic by turns, rather than morally instructive. And unlike the folk tales collected by the Grimms, set in distant lands once upon a time, Andersen set his tales in Copenhagen and other familiar, contemporary settings, mixed fantastical descriptions with common ordinary ones, and invested everyday household objects (toys, dishes, etc.) with personalities and magic.

Angela Barrett

Even the language of the stories was fresh and radical, as Jackie Wullschlager points out in Hans Christian Andersen: The Life of a Storyteller:

"The raw and unpolished Danish of these first stories was so radical as to be considered vulgar at a time when literary convention demanded rigorous, high-flown sentiment of the sort practiced by the playwright Heiberg. Andersen, by contrast, was deliberately direct and informal."

Andersen carefully crafted the narration of his tales to evoke the power of oral storytelling, yet the narrative voice is a distinctive one, not the impersonal voice of most folk tales. He perfected his stories by reading them aloud within his social circle, and many a dinner party ended with children and adults alike clamoring for a story. As Andersen's fairy tales became known and loved, he found himself much in demand as a dinner guest, and he also began to receive requests to read his work in public. (3) Though he hadn't been destined for an acting career, his youthful theatrical training served him well. George Griffen, an American diplomat, wrote of Andersen's performance:

"He is a remarkably fine reader, and has often been compared in this respect to Dickens -- Dickens was in truth a superb reader, but I am inclined to think that Andersen's manner is far more impressive and eloquent. Both of these men have always read to crowded houses. Dickens voice was perhaps better suited for the stage than the reading desk. It was stronger and louder than Andersen's, but nothing like as mellow and musical. I heard Dickens read the death-bed scene of Little Nell in New York, and I was moved to tears, but I knew that the author himself was reading the story; but when I heard Andersen read the story of the Little Girl with the Matches, I did not think of the author at all, but wept like a child, unconscious of everything around me."

George Griffen was not the only adult reduced to tears by Andersen's tales -- which were startling, fresh, and urgent in ways that we can only image, now that Andersen's stories have acquired the patina of age and familiarity. Nineteenth century readers were particularly affected by the way the tales gave voice to the powerless -- the young, the poor, the very old -- and imbued them with special strength, wisdom, and connection to the natural world (in opposition to the artifice of reason or the follies of society). Gerda, for instance, goes up against her rival (the rich, dazzling, coldly intellectual Snow Queen) armed only with her youth and compassion; in The Emperor's New Clothes, a child displays more wisdom than the King. We find this theme in traditional folk tales (the good-hearted peasant girl or boy whose kindness wins them riches or a crown), but Andersen gave such figures new life by placing them in contemporary settings, layering elements of sharp social critique into their stories.

  Gerda by Edmund Dulac

Wullschlager places this aspect of the fairy tales in context, noting that:

"Andersen was a product of his times -- of Romanticism, of the revival of the imaginative spirit and of the growth of democratic ideas -- in addressing himself to the child in the adult through a shift in perspective, by allowing the child, or toy, or later farmyard animal, to speak with his or her own voice and feelings. In doing so, he joined the wider movement of cultural decentralization, which was beginning to dominate in Europe and America in the early nineteenth century. In Denmark, Blicher gave voice to Jutland peasants for the first time; in Britain, the rural themes and regional speech and images of peasant life in Sir Walter Scott's novels shaped the Victorian novel; across the Atlantic, James Fenimore Cooper painted pictures of pioneer and American Indian life on the prairies. Suddenly the disposed and the poor were acceptable literary subjects. The crucial contributions of Andersen and Dickens in the 1830s and 1840s were to focus on children, another traditionally mute and oppressed group. The urge to speak out, to claim equality of talent and emotional need...was a driving force for the new nineteenth century writers who did not come from genteel urban classes, and none came from so deprived and uneducated a background as Andersen."

Thumbelina by Lisbeth Zwerger copy

When Andersen was 33, the specter of poverty was banished from his life forever when the King of Denmark awarded the writer an annual stipend for life. Now he no longer depended on friends, or on the fickle whims of the reading public; now he was free to write as he liked -- and for a time he put aside the writing of novels, which had been his bread and butter, and concentrated on fairy tales and works for his beloved theater. Andersen wrote two hundred and ten fairy tales in all, published over the course of his life. The tales were translated across Europe, then made their way around the world, making him the best-known Scandinavian writer of his age. The doors to noble houses opened to him, and he wandered from country manor to country manor, returning periodically to Copenhagen, to the Collins and to the Royal Theater.

He also traveled abroad extensively, unusually so for a Dane of his day, and he published several popular books about his travels. He was particularly fond of southern Italy and of Weimar (now part of Germany), and he enjoyed a close, important friendship with the literature-loving prince of Weimar. In Cassel (also part of Germany), he introduced himself to folklorist Jacob Grimm, then ran away mortified because Grimm had never heard of his stories. Wilhelm Grimm, who had read Andersen's tales, later sought him out in Copenhagen, and Anderson grew quite friendly with the Brothers Grimm and their Cassel circle of folklore enthusiasts.

The Princess and the Pea by Edmund Dulac

Andersen made his first journey to England in 1847. His tales had appeared in English in four different volumes in 1846, and, despite uniformly poor translations, they were greatly loved by Victorian readers. Charles Dickens was an admirer, and he made a point of meeting Andersen, gifting the Danish writer with signed copies of his collected works. The two maintained a warm correspondence until, on Andersen's next journey, Dickens invited him to his country home in Kent. The visit was a disaster. The timing was atrocious, for Dickens's marriage was on the verge of collapse, and Andersen -- never noticing the tension in the household -- proved to be a needy guest. Dickens placed a sign on the guest room wall after Andersen's departure: "Hans Christian Andersen slept in this room for five weeks which seemed to the family AGES." Andersen himself never understood why he never heard from Dickens again.

Part of the problem was that Andersen spoke virtually no English ("In English, he is the Deaf and Dumb Asylum," Dickens sneered to a friend), which led London society to view the writer as something of a simpleton. Also, his tales had been rendered into the English language by translators with limited literary skills, working from German texts, not the original Danish. Thus the versions of the tales that were best known to English readers (a problem that persists in some modern editions) were simpler, sweeter, less comic and ironic, than the ones that Andersen actually wrote.

Hans Christian Andersen Reading by Elisabeth Jerichau-Baumann

This lack of sophistication in the English text caused Andersen to be labeled as a writer for children only, contrary to his broader reputation in the rest of Europe. His quiet, confused demeanor as he traveled through England (due to his inability to communicate) made the clever and witty Andersen appear as naive and child-like as his tales -- and a myth was born, later portrayed on film by the actor Danny Kaye. Andersen himself railed against the notion of being viewed as a man who'd spent his life with children when he objected to the designs for a statue surrounding him with a circle of tykes. "I said loud and clear that I was dissatisfied...that my tales were just as much for older people as for children, who only understood the outer trappings and did not comprehend and take in the whole work until they were mature -- that naiveté was only part of my tales, that humor was what really gave them their flavor."

Though Andersen's humor is indeed a salient characteristic of the tales (when they are well translated), what many readers remember most about Andersen's work is its overwhelming sadness. The Little Match Girl dies, the Little Mermaid is betrayed by her prince (4), the Fir Tree lies discarded after Christmas, sighing over past glories. Even tales that end happily -- The Snow Queen, The Ugly Duckling, Thumbelina, The Wild Swans -- are heart-wrenching in their depiction of anguish endured along the way.

The Snow Queen by Vladislav Erko

As a child, I found reading Andersen's tales a particularly wrenching experience -- and yet I read them over and over, both attracted to and disturbed by their unflinching depiction of pain. In a wonderful essay titled "In a Trance of Self," Deborah Eisenberg discusses the experience of reading Andersen's The Snow Queen:

"The febrile clarity and propulsion [of the story] is accomplished at the expense of the reader's nerves. Especially taxing are the claims on the reader by both Kay and Gerda. Who has not, like Gerda, been exiled from the familiar comforts of one's world by the departure or defection of a beloved?

"And what child has not been confounded by the daily employment of impossible obstacles and challenges? Who has not been forced to accede to a longing that nothing but its object can allay? On the other hand, who has not experienced some measure or some element of Kay's despair? Who has not, at one time or another, been paralyzed and estranged as his appetite and affection for life leaches away? ... Who has not, at least briefly, retreated into a shining hermetic fortress from which the rest of the world appears frozen and colorless? Who has not courted an annihilating involvement? Who has not mistaken intensity for significance? What devotee of art has not been denied art's blessing? And who, withholding sympathy from his unworthy self, has not been ennobled by the sympathy of a loving friend?"

The Snow Queen by Vladislav Erko

Passion repressed is another theme found just below the surface of Andersen's fairy tales. We see this theme most clearly in The Steadfast Tin Soldier, written in 1838. Joan G. Haahr writes in The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales:

The Steadfast Tin Soldier by Adrienne Segur"The story is unusual among Andersen's early tales, both in its emphasis on sensual desire and in its ambiguities. Blind fate, not intention, determines all events. Moreover, the narrative questions the very decorum it praises. The tin soldier's passive acceptance of whatever happens to him, while exemplifying pietistic ideals of self-denial, also contributes to his doom. Were he to speak and act, the soldier might gain both life and love. Restrained, however, by inhibition and convention, he finds only tragedy and death. The tale is often read autobiographically, with the soldier viewed as symbolizing Andersen's feelings of inadequacy with women, his passive acceptance of bourgeois class attitudes, or his sense of alienation as an artist and an outsider, from full participation in everyday life."

Andersen himself was a physically awkward and homely man ("I shall have no success with my appearance," he once wrote, appraising himself with blunt honesty, "so I make use of whatever is available"), and he was prone to harboring passions for people he could never have. Publicly, Andersen courted two women during his lifetime: the sister of a student friend, who soon became engaged to another, and the Swedish singer Jenny Lind, who could offer him only friendship. (He wrote his lovely tale The Nightingale for her.)

The Nightingale by Edmund Dulac

Privately, he was more deeply obsessed with men: first with Edvard Collins, then with a young theology student, and finally in, his later years, with a handsome young ballet dancer -- the later of whom returned his interest, at least to some degree. This was an aspect of his life that was long ignored by Andersen scholars until Wullschlager explored its impact on the writer's work in Hans Christian Andersen: The Life of a Storytelling, noting how the pain of his hidden, socially-unacceptable homosexuality added to the many psychological burdens the poor man carried.

Andersen's life was tragic one in many ways -- and yet, like a character from one of his own tales, he had the gift of turning straw into gold: transforming the sorrows and joys of his life's journey into stories we still love today.

In 1867, when he was 62 years old, Hans Christian Andersen returned to Odense. A choir sang, and the entire city was illuminated in his honor. "A star of fortune hangs above me," Andersen once wrote. "Thousands have deserved it more than I; often I cannot understand why this good should have been vouchsafed to me among so many thousands. But if the star should set, even while I am penning these lines, be it so; still I can say it has shone, and I have received a rich portion."

Andersen died in 1875, and his stories live on.


Hans Christian Andersen 2

Pictures: Artists are identified in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.) All rights reserved by the artists or their estates.

Words: The Jackie Wullschlager quotes are fromHans Christian Andersen: The Life of a Storyteller (Knopf, 2001). The Deborah Eisenberg quote is from her essay "In a Trance of Self," published in Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Women Writers Explore Their Favorite Fairy Tales, edited by Kate Bernheimer, (Random House, 1998). Both books are highly recommended. This essay was first published in The Journal of Mythic Arts and Realms of Fantasy magazine (2003). All rights reserved by the authors.


Moonacre Manor

Compton Castle

The Little White Horse by Elizabeth GoudgeOne of my favourite books in the world is The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge, written in 1946 and set in a magical version of Devon. I dearly wish I'd known it when I was young, for Goudge's brand of magic (gentle, wind-swept and rain-kissed) would have perfectly suited the child I was. Instead I read it three years ago, fell entirely under its spell, and then spent a whole winter devouring all of her other books for both kids and adults. (I was sick in bed for some of those months, and Goudge was the perfect companion.)

In an excellent essay on Goudge, Kari Sperring writes: 

"With the exception of her children’s books, most of her work is not what most people would think of as fantasy. The children’s books are all set in a version of our real world, too, though her towns and landscapes in them are imaginary. Yet in all her work the boundaries between worlds are thin. Folklore and poetry, transcendent experience, and glimpses of the immanent pervade them, and her characters -- especially the youngest and the oldest -- slip between these worlds easily. Her characters channel folktales and legend through their lives and their connections with others.

Books by Elizabeth Goudge

From ''The Secret of Moonacre''"This is most clear in her children’s books, in particular, her three best known -- The Little White Horse, Henrietta’s House, and Linnets and Valerians (recently retitled The Runaways). In TLWH, which is the most directly fantastical of Goudge’s books, the protagonist Maria must explore the history of her family and their ancestral home via a blend of fact and magic -- the injustices done by her forefather Sir Hrolf were real enough, but their context and consequences belong as much to the realm of magic and the liminal as to reality. A white horse and a giant dog come and go throughout the history of her family -- and her own experience -- guiding, observing, and sometimes leading Maria to the discoveries she needs to make. The dog -- another Hrolf -- is real enough but seemingly immortal, but the horse is a unicorn and a creature of the sea and not to be grasped or owned. The story sounds soppy, and the recent film (titled The Secret of Moonacre) tried hard to make it soppy by replacing the very real magic of Goudge’s writing with sentiment and gloss, but in the book, it is not. Rather, everything is tied together by extra-mundane bonds, so that Maria’s friend and ally, Robin, is at first a boy in dreams who becomes real, and the white horse brings not only Maria but the book’s main antagonist to a solution to the ancient problem they face that is partly realistic, yes, but rooted in liminal experience."

Elizabeth Goudge at her writing desk

Four books by Elizabeth Goudge

Elizabeth de Beauchamp Goudge was born in 1900 in the cathedral city of Wells, where her father was a clergyman and theological scholar. His career took the family to Ely and Oxford (two cities she loved and would later write about) -- but his early death meant the loss of their Oxford home and sudden impecunity. Reeling from the loss, Elizabeth's semi-invalid mother announced they would take a month's holiday in Devon. Her elderly Nanny, now a permanent part of the family, was to come along too. In her autobiography, Elizabeth writes:

Elizabeth's autobiography"Devon? Why Devon? We knew no one there and where could we stay? But my mother had seen an advertisement in the paper. A small wooden bungalow could be cheaply rented for a summer holiday at a village called Marldon, and she was quite certain that was where we must go. So Nanny and I dragged ourselves out of the ooze of our exhaustion and we set off, driven by a friend who had a large comfortable car and said he knew the way. More or less he did and very late in the afternoon we found the wooden bungalow and inside it our unknown landlady, who kept a guest-house next door, had lit a glowing fire.

"For it was what those who do not love Devon call 'a typical Devon day'; that is to say it was raining, that steady relentless rain that lifted the Ark about the primeval flood, and at the same time, since the day was windless, a thick mist covered the earth. We could know nothing of our surroundings except that the bungalow seemed poised upon the summit of a hill and that its wooden walls did not look very weather-proof.

Elizabeth Goudge and her mother in Devon

"It was felt that food would be reassuring and Nanny and I began quickly getting some sort of meal together, but the friend who had brought us down took me away from the preparations for a few moments to the western-facing window. 'Look,' he said, 'what do you think is out there?' The downpour was slackening at last and no longer drummed on the roof. A small wet green lawn sloped from the window and appeared to fall into the mist as though it was green water sliding over the edge of a precipice. We could see nothing through the mist yet we were aware that behind it was the westering sun, and also it seemed to fill a deep valley and rising beyond the valley was -- what? 'Something grand,' said our friend. 'You'll know in the morning.' A tremor went through me, and I think through him too, for we seemed to be sharing one of those inexplicable moments of expectation and intimation that come sometimes when a small earthly mystery seems to be speaking of a mystery beyond itself.

"I was woken the next morning by a sound I had not heard for a long time, a cock crowing in the garden, across the lane, eastward where the sun would soon be rising. Had the mist lifted? When later I pulled the curtains it was still there, but the morning sun was shining through it and turning it to gold, and every bush and tree that lined the lane was glistening with diamond drops.

Sheep and gorse

"It was what lovers of Devon call 'a typical Devon day,' that is to say, a morning of clear shining after rain. Because of the slope of the land the hill seemed higher than it actually was; it seemed high as Ararat, with the wooden bungalow perched like the Ark on its summit. The valley below was even wider and deeper than I had realized the night before and it seemed to hold every beauty that a pastoral Devon valley knows, woods and farms and orchards, green slopes where sheep were grazing, fields of black and white cows, and where there were fields of tilled earth it was the crimson of the earth of South Devon and looked like a field of flowers. And along the eastern horizon lay the range of blue hills called Dartmoor.

"I felt I had come home. I have never felt so deeply rooted anywhere as I was in the earth of Devon. Or rather I did not so much put roots down as find roots that were already there. And yet I had not been born in Devon, I had been born over the border in Somerset. I could not understand it then and I do not understand it now. The only tremor was the realization that in a few weeks time we should have to leave this earthly paradise."

Marlsdon

Marlsdon

But in fact, they did not leave. World War II began and the family stayed in Marldon -- where Elizabeth lived for the next twelve years. She wrote some of her best books there, paying the bills with the steady work of her pen. A deep love of Devon shines through every single page of The Little White Horse...as well as through Linnets and Valerians, and her quietly beautiful adult novel The Rosemary Tree.

Apple crop

apples

The village of Marldon is not far away from us, just on the other side of the moor, so I wanted to go see those hills for myself -- especially since learning that Moonacre Manor, the enchanted setting of The Little White Horse, was inspired by Compton Castle: an old manor house in Marldon parish. South Devon has changed since Elizabeth's day; it's now less remote, more heavily populated, but still full of orchards, woodlands, and farms, and Marldon itself has retained its old charm. I wanted to see the lanes she once walked, the bungalow where she lived, and her old village church. I especially wanted to see Compton Castle, now a National Trust property.

I finally made the journey last year at this time, as autumn colored the hedgerows and fields, in the company of four other writers who also love Goudge: Delia Sherman, Ellen Kushner, Liz Williams and Veronica Williams. We started with lunch at Marldon's Church House Inn, where Ellen read us some relevant passages from Goudge's autobiography...

The Church House Inn

Ellen reads from Elizabeth Goudge's memoir

...and then made our way through the winding lanes to the gates of "Moonacre Manor."

Comptom Castle, a fortified manor house, was the seat of Sir Maurice de la Pole during the reign of King Henry II. It passed into the de Compton family, and then, through marriage, to the Gilbert family. The house was enlarged in the mid-14th century, fortified in 1520, and then sold in 1785 -- after which, in the 18th and 19th centuries, it fell into ruin. A descendant of the Gilbert family bought the property in 1931, began the castle's restoration, and then gave it to the National Trust -- on condition that the family would continue to occupy the house, which they do to this day.

Compton Castle  Marldon  Devon

The Little White Horse's Kingdom of Moonacre

Compton Castle

Compton Castle

Map of Moonacre Manor

Compton Castle

Compton Castle is considerably smaller than Moonacre Manor in The Little White Horse -- but the soaring main hall, the kitchen gardens, the orchard full of vivid red apples and the emerald-green hills full of fleecy white sheep, all hold the magic she drew upon to create her timeless story.

Compton Castle

Compton Castle

We were thrilled to discover a kitchen well just like the one at Moonacre Manor. Sitting beside it, I could almost believe that Goudge's story was real after all, and Serena the hare would come tumbling over the grass, followed by the noble dog Hrolf.

(Her talent for creating distinctive animal characters was second to none.)

Compton Castle

The famous well at Moonacre Manor

Compton Castle

Compton Castle

Compton Castle

In a recent essay for Slightly Foxed, Victoria Neuman has this to say about Goudge and her work:

In the doorway of Compton Castle"Whether she is describing a young child climbing over slippery rock steps from a sea cave or uncovering the glories of a tangled garden in Devon, she is one of the only modern prose writers to capture the spirit of the 17th-century mystic Thomas Traherne:

"'The corn was orient and immortal wheat, which should never be reaped, nor was ever sown. I thought it had stood from everlasting to everlasting. The dust and stones of the street were as precious as gold: the gates were at first the end of the world. The green trees when I saw them first through one of the gates transported and ravished me, their sweetness and unusual beauty made my heart to leap, and almost mad with ecstasy, they were such strange and wonderful things...'

"Like Trahern Goudge was an ardent Anglican. But although religion can be an oppressive presence in her adult novels, in her children's books it manifests itself merely as a sense of embracing safety. One of her obituaries quoted Jane Austen's famous line from Mansfield Park, 'Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery.' Her fictional world is devoid of malice...Loyalty, kindness, affection, the wonder of nature, the smells of good, plain English cooking, a hot bath and clean clothes, the appealing personalities of pets: these are the things she celebrates. In Goudge's children's books, to use Louise MacNeice's phrase, there is 'sunlight on the garden' and the equation always comes out."

Compton Castle

Compton Castle

Compton Castle

Compton Castle

Compton Castle

Compton Castle

I should note that unlike Neuman I don't feel oppressed by the Anglican threads within Goudge's work. As the daughter of a clergyman, she was writing about the world she knew best. I enter it as I do any other unknown culture, trusting the writer as my guide, and her generous, mystical, nature-based version of Christianity allows even a wooly old pagan like me to feel welcome within her tales. Goudge, as Kari Sperring writes, "never preaches, nor lays out moral parameters, and, to paraphrase Louisa Alcott, she does not reward the 'good' with gilded treats and the 'bad' with dire punishments. Indeed, I’m not sure she deals in good and bad at all: she writes rather about compassion and understanding and resolution through empathy. Her work is not showy and it is not melodramatic. It is, however, often surprising and sometimes startling. And she rarely if ever does what the reader expects."

Compton Castle

Compton Castle

P1500044

"As the world becomes increasingly ugly, callous, and materialistic," Goudge once wrote, "it needs to be reminded that the old fairy stories are rooted in truth, that imagination is of value, that happy endings do, in fact, occur, and that the blue spring mist that makes an ugly street look beautiful is just as real a thing as the street itself."

That statement sums up why I love Elizabeth Goudge, and why I continue to read and re-read her. She, too, believes beauty is vital in a troubled world, and the promise of hope. Her work is old-fashioned, quiet, and slow. I say this without apology, for these qualities have genuine literary value in an our loud, aggressive, and fast-paced culture.

If you'd like to read more about Goudge's life in Devon, here are two previous posts on the subject: A Sense of Otherness and The Magic of Moor and Hill. To learn more about Compton Castle, go here. (You can even stay overnight at the castle, in its charming Watch Tower.) To learn more about the author's life and work, visit the Elizabeth Goudge Society. Or better still, go read her marvelous books if you haven't already.

Compton Castle

Compton Castle

Compton Castle

Compton Castle

Compton Castle

The Little White Horse

The Little White Horse in Devon

Words: The text quoted above is from "Elizabeth Goudge: Glimsping the Liminal" by Kari Sperring (Strange Horizons, February 22, 2016), The Joy of Snow: An Autobiography by Elizabeth Goudge (Hodder & Stoughton, 1974), and "In Search of Unicorns" by Victoria Neumark (Slightly Foxed, Winter 2018), all of which I recommend. A good biography of Goudge has yet to be published.

Pictures: Marldon and Compton Castle,  South Devon, with thanks to my lovely companions on the journey. The photos are identified in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.)


Carrying stories

Ponies

In most indigenous cultures (including those of pre-Christian Europe), stories were preserved and passed on via oral transmission, not the written word. Such stories, David Abram notes, were often bound to the places where they were told,

Drawing by William Heath Robinson"attuned in countless subtle and complex ways to the specific topography, textures, tones, and rhythms of the local earth. Moreover, traditional oral tales commonly hold, in their layered adventures, specific information regarding local animals and plants (how best to hunt particular creatures and how to prepare their skins for clothing or shelter; which plants are good for treating particular ailments; how to prepare them in poultices, or as potions...), as well as particular instructions regarding the forms of ritual blessing necessary to ensure a liveable life in that region.

"And why is oral culture so deeply place-based? Well, because there's simply no way to remember many of the old stories of a nonwriting, oral culture without now and then encountered the sites -- the waterholes, forested mountainsides, clustered boulders, and tight river bends where those storied events once happened or are felt to have happened.

"For most of us today, born of a highly literate civilization, printed books are the primary mnemonic -- the primary memory-trigger -- for activating the accumulated knowledge that's been stored up by our ancestors over many generations. We turn to books when we wish to recall some of the old stories or to access the practical knowledge those stories hold. Yet for communities without any highly formulized system of writing -- for cultures without books -- the animate, expressive landscape itself carries the stories. Only by encountering over and over again those clustered boulders, the mouth of that deep cave, the cliff-edge vista or wooded peninsula or mist-covered swamp, are we continually brought to recall the storied events that happened there and the detailed ancestral knowledge stored in those stories.

Ponies 2

"Similarly, when we hear the yip-yipping of coyotes or come on the tracks of a grizzly by the half-eaten carcass of a spawned-out salmon, we can't help but recall yet another tale in which that bushy-tailed trickster, or old Honey-Paws, or perhaps even the Salmon of Wisdom figures as a central character. For in the absence of books, the animate, expressive terrain itself is the mnemonic, or memory-trigger, for remembering the oral tales.

"For this reason, the old, oral-tradition stories tend to be deeply entangled with the phythm and pulse of particular places. Although its sometimes hard for highly literate folk to sense, there's an indissoluable rapport between an indigenous storyteller and the lilt of the local land; he may feel that, by intoning a tale, he is translating secret or sacred matters overheard from the speaking earth. That is how Sean Kane puts it, in his wonderful book Wisdom of the Myth-tellers: 'Myth, in its most ecologically discreet form, among people who live by hunting and fishing and gathering, seems to be the song of the place to itself, which humans overhear.'

Ponies 3

"Or as Martin Shaw insightfully frames it [in Scatterlings]: a really fine storyteller, by the eloquent practice of her art, is carefully echoing signals emanating from the expressive terrain around her; the teller is participant in a subtle process of echolocation, by which the deep earth speaks, and listens, and returns to itself, nourished."

Ponies 4

David is troubled by the way our digital and print-based culture has severed these kinds of stories from their natural settings:

"If the strongest tales are best understood as the place speaking through the teller, well, writing down those tales would seem to interrupt this direct transmission. For the written stories can now be carried elsewhere, and within a short time they can be read -- by mutiple others -- in distant cities and even on distant continents. Since the story no longer neatly matches the contour of the strange new terrain where its being read (since it cannot aptly echo, or invoke, the many-voiced landscape that surrounds the reader wherever she finds herself) the tale now seems to float free of the ground. Soon enough, all of the place-specific savvy contained in that tale, regarding the precise song for calling a particular creature or the precise technique for harvesting certain vision-inducing herbs, is forgotten." *

But other writers are exploring the ways written text might be crafted so as to echo the power of the old oral tales: through the rhythms of the language, integrity of intention, and a careful attention to place -- even when, as in fantasy fiction, that place is an imaginary one. Here in the fantasy field especially, full of novels and stories deeply rooted in folklore, magic, and the mythic landscape, I believe it is possible for writers, too, to participate in the "subtle process of echolocation" ... and not only possible, but timely and necessary for those concerned with our culture's fractured relationship to the natural world.

Ponies 5

Ponies 6

 Ursula K. Le Guin once said:

"The proper, fitting shape of the novel might be that of a sack, a bag. A book holds words. Words hold things. They bear meanings. A novel is a medicine bundle, holding things in a particular, powerful relation to one another and to us."

Fantasy literature, like the old oral stories, can hold powerful "medicine," and speak across the liminal space between the human and more-than-humen world.

Ponies 7

Ponies 8

Patricia J. Williams writes (in The Rooster's Egg):

"From time to time, I try to imagine a culture ... in whose mythology words were conceived as vessels for communications from the heart; a society in which words are holy, and the challenge of life is based upon the quest for gentle words, holy words, gentle truths, holy truths. I try to imagine for myself a world in which the words one gives one's children are the shell into which they shall grow, so one chooses one's words carefully, like precious gifts, like magnificent gifts, like magnificent inheritances, for they convey an excess of what we have imagined, they bear gifts beyond imagination, they reveal and revisit the wealth of history.

"How carefully, how slowly, and how lovingly we might step into our expectations of each other in such a world." 

I try to imagine such things too. And to turn these ideas into stories.

Ponies 9

Ponies 10

* For a more detailed discussion of this thesis, see David Abram's first book, The Spell of the Sensuous.

Words: The Abram quote is from his introduction to Scatterlings by Martin Shaw (White Cloud Press, 2016). The Le Guin quote is from her essay "The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction," published in Dancing at the Edge of the World (Tor Books, 1997). The Williams quote is from her book The Rooster's Egg: On the Persistence of Prejudice (Harvard University Press, 1997). The poem in the picture captions is from The Branch Will Not Break by James Wright (Wesleyan University Press, 1992). All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: Photographs of Dartmoor ponies and their foals on our village Commons, and a drawing by William Heath Robinson (1872-1944).

Related posts: Kith and kin (on "place" in myth, life, and fantasy literature) and Shaking up the world (on Trickster tales).