Recommended reading: on fairy tales

The Wind's Tale by Edmund Dulac

Following on from yesterday's post, for those who would like to read about fairy tales (in addition to literary re-tellings) I highly recommend Seven Miles of Steel Thistles: Reflections on Fairy Tales by Katherine Langrish.

Now while I might seem biased because Katherine is a family friend, in truth I am sharply opinionated when it comes to books about folklore and fairy tales; I was mentored in the field by Jane Yolen, after all, which sets the bar pretty darn high. Thus it is no small praise to say that Seven Miles of Steel Thistles is an essential book for practitioners of mythic arts: insightful, reliable, packed with information...and thoroughly enchanting. 

Little Red Riding Hood by Margaret Ely WebbIn the book's introduction Katherine writes:

"As a child I was usually deep in a book, and as often as not, it would be full of fairy tales or myths and legends from around the world. I remember choosing the Norse myths for a school project, retelling and illustrating stories about Thor, Odin and Loki. I read the tales of King Arthur, I read stories from the Arabian Knights. And gradually, I hardly know how, I became aware that grown-ups made distinctions between these, to me, very similar genres. Some were taken more seriously than others. Myths -- especially the 'Greek myths' -- were top of the list and legends came second, while fairy tales were the poor cousins at the bottom. Yet there appeared to be a considerable overlap. Andrew Lang included the story of Perseus and Andromeda in The Blue Fairy Book, under the title 'The Terrible Head.'  And surely he was right. It is a fairy story, about a prince who rescues a princess from a monster....

Beauty and the Beast by Walter Crane

"The field of fairy stories, legends, folk tales and myths is like a great, wild meadow. The flowers and grasses seed everywhere; boundaries are impossible to maintain. Wheat grows into the hedge from the cultivated fields nearby, and poppies spring up in the middle of the oats. A story can be both things at once, a 'Greek myth' and a fairytale too: but if we're going to talk about them, broad distinctions can still be made and may still be useful. 

The Complaint of the Three Maidens by HJ Ford"Here is what I think: a myth seeks to make emotional sense of the world and our place in it. Thus, the story of Persephone's abduction by Hades is a religious and poetic exploration of winter and summer, death and rebirth. A legend recounts the deeds of heroes, such as Achilles, Arthur, or Cú Chulainn. A folk tale is a humbler, more local affair. Its protagonists may be well-known neighborhood characters or they may be anonymous, but specific places become important. Folk narratives occur in real, named landscapes. Green fairy children are found near the village of Woolpit in Suffolk. A Cheshire farmer going to market to sell a white mare meets a wizard, not just anywhere, but on Alderley Ledge between Mobberley and Macclesfield. In Dorset, an ex-soldier called John Lawrence sees a phantom army marching 'from the direction of Flowers Barrow, over Grange Hill, and making for Wareham.' Local hills, lakes, stones and even churches are explained as the work of giants, trolls or the Devil.

Jack the Giant-Killer by Arthur Rackham

"Fairy tales can be divided into literary fairy tales, the more-or-less original work of authors such as Hans Christian Andersen, George MacDonald and Oscar Wilde (which will not concern me very much in this book), and anonymous traditional tales originally handed down the generations by word of mouth but nowadays usually mediated to us via print. Unlike folk tales, traditional fairy tales are usually set 'far away and long ago' and lack temporal and spatial reference points. They begin like this: 'In olden times, when wishing still helped one, there lived a king...' or else, 'A long time ago there was a king who was famed for his wisdom throughout the land...' A hero goes traveling, and 'after he had traveled some days, he came one night to a Giant's house...' We are everywhere or nowhere, never somewhere. A fairy tale is universal, not local."

The Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Andersen illustrated by William Health Robinson

Katherine concludes the book's introduction with the reminder that fairy tales, found all around the world, are amazingly diverse and amazingly hardy. "They've been told and retold, loved and laughed at, by generation after generation because they are of the people, by the people, for the people.  The world of fairy tales is one in which the pain and deprivation, bad luck and hard work of ordinary folk can be alleviated by a chance meeting, by luck, by courtesy, courage and quick wits -- and by the occasional miracle. The world of fairy tales is not so very different from ours. It is ours."

It is indeed.

Brother and Sister by Warwick Goble

There are seven miles of hill on fire for you to cross, and there are seven miles of steel thistles, and seven miles of sea, says the narrator of an old Irish fairy tale.

With this delightful collection of essays as a guide, the journey is worth every step.

East of the Sun  West of the Moon by Kay Nielsen

Seven Miles of Steel Thistles by Katherine Langrish

The passages by Katherine Langrish in the post above and in the picture captions are from Seven Miles of Steel Thistles (The Greystones Press, 2016); all rights reserved by the author. You can read Katherine's musings on folklore on her blog, also called Seven Miles of Steel Thistles; and learn more about her other books, stories, and essays here.

The text of this post was written when Katherine's book was published in 2016, but the illustrations are new today: eight marvellous pictures from the Golden Age of Illustration. From top to bottom they are: The Wind's Tale by Edmund Dulac (1882-1953), Little Red Riding Hood by Margaret Ely Webb (1874-1965), Beauty & the Beast by Walter Crane (1843-1915), The Complaint of the Three Maidens by H.J. Ford (1860-1941), Jack the Giant-Killer by Arthur Rackham (1867-1939), Hans Christian Andersen's The Real Princess by William Heath Robinson (1872-1944), Brother & Sister by Warwick Goble (1864-1943), East of the Sun West of the Moon by Kay Nielsen (1886-1957).


Recommended reading: adult fairy tales

Snow White illustrated by Angela Barrett

Fairy tales, in previous centuries, weren't considered stories for children only. The name "fairy tale" comes from the French conte de fée, a term coined in 17th century Paris for a literary fashion popular with adult readers. At the heart of the 17th century's profusion of literary fairy tales are the remnants of much older tales from the oral tradition -- mixed with literary influences from medieval romance, and from 16th century Italian publications. French writers from the salons of Paris -- such as Madame D'Aulnoy, Marie-Jeanne L’H’éritier, Comtesse de Murat, and Charles Perrault -- created complex, enchanting tales still known and enjoyed by readers today (though often in simplified forms) : Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Bluebeard, The White Cat, The Discrete Princess, Bearskin, and numerous others. A second wave of French writers added to the genre in the 18th century, including Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, the original author of Beauty and the Beast.

Snow White illustrated by Angela Barrett

German writers (especially the Germantics Romantics) took up the literary fairy tale form in the 18th and 19th centuries, creating adult works inspired by previous French and Italian stories mixed with tales from the German folk tradition -- as popularized by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm and their prolific circle of writers and scholars. Also in the 19th century, Denmark's celebrated Hans Christian Anderson created such beloved fairy tales as The Little Mermaid and The Snow Queen; and England's Oscar Wilde penned poignant stories such as The Selfish Giant and The Nightingale and the Rose. By this time, however, fairy tales had become increasingly associated with children. The older, darker stories were cleaned up by Victorian editors and published in the prosperous new market for children's books.

This bowdlerization of fairy tales continued in the 20th century, epitomized by the simple cartoon versions created by Walt Disney. Alas, these simple versions of the tales are the only ones most readers know today -- versions in which the complexity, sensuality, and horror have been carefully toned down, or stripped out altogether. Where once we had stories of active heroines making their own way through the dark of the woods, now we have girls who sit crying in the ashes, awaiting rescue by a rich Prince Charming. Where once Sleeping Beauty was impregnated by her prince, waking all alone at the birth of twins, now she's awakened by a chaste kiss and the tale ends promptly with a wedding.

Beauty and the Beast illustrated by Angela Barrett

Despite the pervasive Disney influence, at the end of the 20th century a revival of adult fairy tale literature began (primarily) among three overlapping groups of authors: feminist "mainstream" writers, feminist poets, and writers of fantasy literature. Foremost among them is Angela Carter, whose brilliant re-working of fairy tales, The Bloody Chamber  (1979), influenced a generation of writers and did more than other single text to bring fairy tales back into vogue with adult readers.

Four decades later, the revival is still going strong, with many fine authors working with fairy tale themes. The story collections pictured below are by two of the very best of them, Theodora Goss and Veronica Schanoes -- both of whom, it should be noted, are fairy tale scholars as well as excellent writers of fiction. 

If Angela Carter were alive today, I have no doubt she'd love Snow White Learns Witchcraft and Burnings Girls as much as I do. Please don't miss these marvelous books.

Adult fairy tales by Theodora Goss and Veronica Schanoes

Beauty and the Beast illustrated by Angela Barrett

If you'd like more recommendations of fairy-tale-inspired novels and stories, you'll find them here.

Beauty and the Beast illustrated by Angela Barrett

Snow White Learns Witchcraft: Stories & Poems by Theodora Goss was published by Mythic Delirium Books, 2019, and won the 2020 Mythopoeic Award. The Burning Girls & Other Stories by Veronica Schanoes was published by Tor Books this year. Both volumes contain introductions by Jane Yolen, a fairy tale master herself.

The illustrations above are by Angela Barrett, from her beautiful editions of  Snow White and Beauty and the Beast. All rights reserved by the artist. 


The power of stories

From Old Fairy Tales illustrated by Virginia Frances Sterrett

I'd like to share a second passage from Why You Should Read Children's Books, Even Though You Are So Old and Wise by Katherine Rundell which seems particularly germain today:

"In 2016, my understanding of the world I lived in was upturned: by Brexit, Trump, a sweep across Europe towards nationalism and insularity, terrorist attacks. In the immediate aftermath, adult literary fiction did not help: I couldn't make it work.

Blondine Sees the Castle by Virginia France Sterrett"It was reading through the prism of children's fiction that brought back my faith in what books can do: because what helped were the old narratives, told for the benefit of children and adults and anyone who would listen: Icelandic folk tales, Grimm. They said that this, though it felt like an ending, was not: there has always been vaunting ambition, bitter acrimony, misunderstanding, hunger for power, folly, kindness, passion. Fairytales have already recorded, in their sideways way, all of human vice and yet not fallen silent in despair.

"I still believe -- most days, most of the time -- that stories have power. I believe, like Aristotle, that fiction can put forward truths, via narration, which cannot be baldly stated by abstract theoretical language. There are ideas in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland that I could no more summarise than I could sing you all the parts of a hundred-instrument symphony: fiction resists reduction. Fiction can't, by itself, right the world. But I believe, still, in the wild and immeasurable value of pouring everything you think good or important into a text, that another may draw it out again: what Elena Ferrante calls 'a fishing net that captures daily experiences, holds them together imaginatively, and connects them to fundamental questions about the human condition.' "

Old French Fairy Tails illustrated by Virginia Francis Sterrett

In his remarkable essay "The Power of Stories," Scott Russell Sanders speaks of the ways that stories create, sustain, and mediate our sense of community:

Leger Meets the Wicked Princess by Virginia Frances Sterrett"They link tellers to listeners, and listeners to one another. This is obviously so when speaker and audience share the same space, as humans have done for all but the last few centuries of our million-year history, gathered around fires or huddled in huts; it is equally if less obviously so when we encounter our stories in solitude, on the page or screen. When two people discover they have both read Don Quixote, they immediately share a piece of history....Strangers who discover their mutual devotion to fairy tales or gangster movies or soap operas or Shakespeare's plays become thereby less strange to one another.

Violette Takes Refuge from the Wild Boar by Virginia Frances Sterrett"Frank O'Connor went so far as to declare that 'the one subject a storyteller must write about' is 'human loneliness.' Whether or not stories speak to it directly, they offer us a relief from loneliness, by revealing that our most secret feelings and thoughts do not belong to us alone, by inviting us to join the circle of readers or listeners. The strongest bonds are formed by sacred stories, which unite entire peoples. Thus Jews rehearse the events of Passover; Christians tell of a miraculous birth and death and resurrection; Buddhists tell of Guatama meditating beneath a tree; the Hope recount the story of their emergence from the earth; the Aborigines repeat in song the primal deeds of their ancestors."

Tanglewood Tales illustrated by Virginia Frances Sterrett (1921)

But the power of stories, Sanders reminds us, can also be used with malign intent:

"As we know only too well, sacred stories may also divide the world between those who are inside the circle and those outside, between us and them, a division that has inspired pogroms and inquisitions and wars.

The Broom Was on Fire at Once by Virginia Frances Sterrett"There is danger in story, as in any great force. If the tales that captivate us are silly or deceitful, like most of those offered by television or advertising, they waste our time and warp our desires. If they are cruel they make us callous. If they are false and bullying, instead of drawing us into a thoughtful community they may lure us into an unthinking herd or, worst of all, into a crowd screaming for blood -- in which case we need other, truer stories to renew our vision. So The Diary of Anne Frank and Primo Levi's Survival in Auschwitz are antidotes to Mein Kamp. So Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man and Toni Morrison's Beloved are antidotes to the paranoid yarns of the Ku Klux Klan. So the patient exchange of stories between people searching for common ground is an antidote to the hasty sloganeering and slandering of talk shows....

Cadmus and the Dragon by Virginia Frances Sterrett

"We are creatures of instinct, but not solely of instinct. More than any other animal we must learn to behave. In this perennial effort, as Ursula Le Guin says, 'Story is our nearest and dearest way of understanding our lives and finding our way onward.'

From Old French Fairy Tales illustrated by Virginia Frances Sterrett"Skill is knowing how to do something; wisdom is knowing when and why to do it, or to refrain from doing it. While stories may display skill aplenty, in technique or character or plot, what the best of them offer is wisdom. They hold a living reservoir of human possibilities, telling us what has worked before, what has failed, where meaning and purpose and joy might be found.

"At the heart of many a tale is a test, a puzzle, a riddle, a problem to solve; and that, surely, is the condition of our lives, both in detail -- as we decide how to act in the present moment -- and in general, as we seek to understand what it all means. Like so many characters, we are lost in a dark wood, a labyrinth, a swamp, and we need a trail of stories to show us the way back to our true home."

From Old French Fairy Tales illustrated by Virginia Francis Sterrett

The art today is by American illustrator Virginia Frances Sterrett (1900-1931), who was born Chicago, but raised in Missouri after the early death of her father. She studied briefly Old French Fairy Tales illustrated by Virginia Sterrettat the Art Institute of Chicago, receiving a full scholarship when she was just 15 -- but had to leave when her mother grew ill and she took on sole support of her family. She worked in Chicago's advertising industry, and obtained her first book commission at the age of 19: illustrating Comtesse de Ségur's Old French Fairy Tales for the Penn Publishing Company in 1920 and Nathaniel Hawthorne's Tanglewood Tales in 1921.

At the same time Virginia's own health was failing and the diagnosis was grim: tuberculosis. The family moved to the warm, dry climate of California, but her health grew worse and worse, and she entered a sanatorium in Pasedena at age 24. She continued to work, but her output slowed, and her third book, The Arabian Nights, was not published until 1928. She was working on her last commission, Myths & Legends, when she died in 1931.

Illustration by Virginia Frances Sterratt

Words: The passages quoted above are from Why You Should Read Children's Books, Even Though You Are So Old and Wise by Katherine Rundell (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2019) and "The Power of Stories" by Scott Russell Sanders, published in his essay collection The Force of Spirit (Beacon Press, 2000). Both books are highly recommended. All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures:  The art above is from Old French Fairy Tales by Comtess de Ségur and Tanglewood Tales by Nathaniel Hawthorne, illustrated by Virginia Frances Sterrett. The picture titles can be found in the picture captions. (Hold your cursor over the images to see them.)


The hope that is sharper than teeth

The White Stag by Helen Stratton

I have so many things I want to talk about on Myth & Moor as the new year begins, and so many books to share with you...but today let's start with a subject that is at the very heart of this blog: the enduring value of fairy tales.

The following passage comes from Why You Should Read Children's Books, Even Though You Are So Old and Wise -- a wonderful little volume by Katherine Rundell, who is one of the very best authors writing for children today. She says:

The Lily of Life by Helen Stratton"Fairytales were never just for children. They are determinedly, pugnaciously, for everyone -- old and young, men and women, of every nation. Marina Warner argues that fairytales are the closest thing we have to a cultural Esperanto: whether German, Persian, American, we tell the same fairytales, because the stories have migrated across borders as freely as birds.

"All fairytales, by and large, have the same core ingredients: there will be the archetypal characters -- stepmothers, powerful kings, talking animals. There will be injustice or conflict, often gory and extravagant, told in a matter-of-fact tone that does nothing to shield children or adults from its blunt bloodiness. But there will also usually be something -- a fairy godmother, a spell, a magic tree -- which brings the miracle of hope into the story. 'Fairytales,' Marina Warner writes, 'evoke every kind of violence, injustice and mischance, but in order to declare it need not continue.' Fairytales conjure fear in order to tell us that we not be so afraid. Angela Carter saw the godmother as shorthand for what she calls 'heroic optimism'. Hope, in fairy tales, is sharper than teeth.

The Wild Swans illustrated by Helen Stratton

The Wild Swans illustrated by Helen Stratton

The Wild Swans by Helen Stratton copy

"That spirit of heroic optimism -- optimism blood-covered and gasping, but still optimism -- is the life principle writ large. It speaks to all of us: because fairytales were always designed to be a way of talking to everyone at once. They provide us with a model for how certain kinds of stories -- by dealing archetypes and bass-note human desires, and in metaphors with bite -- can yoke together people of every age and background, luring us all, witch-like, into the same imaginative space.

The Little Mermaid illustrated by Helen Stratton

The Little Mermaid illustrated by Helen Stratton

The Little Mermaid illustrated by Helen Stratton

"Fairytales are also a way of tracing our cultural revolution. More than any other kind of story, they live and breathe and change."

The Princess and the Pea illustrated by Helen Stratton

Andersen's Fairy Tales illustrated by Helen StrattonThe paintings and drawings today are by Helen Stratton (1867- 1961), a prolific artist who published many popular books during England's "Golden Age of Illustration" at the dawn of the 20th century. Stratton was born in India, where her father was a surgeon with the Indian medical service, but she spent most of her childhood in Bath. She studied art in London in the 1890s, where she fell under the spell of Pre-Raphaelitism and Art Nouveau, and then settled in Kensington with her mother and siblings after her father's death. 

She received her first illustration commission (Songs for Little People) in 1896 and worked steadily over the next several decades, producing beautiful editions of Hans Christian Andersen and Grimms fairy tales, Charles Lamb's Shakespeare for Young People, The Book of MythsThe Children's King Arthur, two classic children's novels by George MacDonald (The Princess and the Goblin and The Princess and Curdie), and numerous other works, as well as collaborating with William Heath Robinson on a lavish edition of The Arabian Nights.

Stratton returned to Bath in the 1930s, where she resided and worked until her death at age 94. She's a woman I long to know more about -- so if there are any biographical writers out there looking for a subject, please consider this remarkable artist.

Brother and Sister illustrated by Helen Stratton

Grimms Fairy Tales illustrated by Helen Stratton

The Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Andersen by Helen Stratton

Katherine Rundell

Words: The passages quoted above are from Why You Should Read Children's Books, Even Though You Are So Old and Wise by Katherine Rundell (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2019). All rights reserved by the author.


Wonder, peril, and transformation

Little Red Riding Hood illustrated by Walter Crane

From "To Love Justice" by bell hooks:

"Oftentimes in the rural world I was raised in as a small child, huge fields would be hidden by borders of plants. Honeysuckle and wild asparagus would grow on the other side. Following the right path could lead one to a magical world, to a world of mysterious shapes, of growing things, a paradise of Snow White illustrated by Walter Cranehidden delights. In An Unspoken Hunger, naturalist Terry Tempest Williams describes moments of transformation as she revels in nature: 'In these moments I felt innocent and wild, privy to secrets and gifts exchanged only in nature...Hands on the earth, I closed my eyes and remembered where the source of my power lies. My connection to the natural world is my connection to the self -- erotic, mysterious, and whole.' The ecstasy and sense of enchantment I felt in the natural world was never talked about by grown-ups, but it was there in the stories I read.

"Fairy tales were the manuals that instructed me how to confront and cope with that world. They sanctioned the merger of fantasy and dreaming with concrete reality. They sanctioned all that was taboo in my family. Fantasy was often seen by Christian folks as dangerous, potentially Satanic. My love of fairy tales was accepted as long as it was not much talked about."

Little Red Riding Hood illustrated by Walter Crane

Wood Nymph design by Walter Crane

Little Red Riding Hood illustrated by Walter Crane

From "Sharpening an Imagination With the Hard Flint of a Fairy Tale" by Alice Hoffman:

"I didn't realize it, of course, but the tales were allowing me to examine fear, anxiety, desire, sorrow. It was a dangerous world, but truer to reality than anything else we were allowed -- those safe books with their happy endings. How could the trivial nature of the here and the now compare with The Six Swans illustrated by Walter Cranejourneys in which heads or hands were suddenly chopped off, bones were tied in silk and buried under trees, foolish brothers became swans, and a traveler might suddenly be beset by cruel spells, horses' heads that could speak and other twists of fate and circumstance?

"Why such tales should feel more real to me and to most child readers than 'realistic' fare is both a simple and complex phenomenon. Fairy tales tell two stories: a spoken one and an unspoken one. There is another layer beneath the words; a riddle about the soul and its place in the greater canvas of humanity. Surely every child who reads 'Hansel and Gretel' feels that he or she, too, is on a perilous path, one that disappears and meanders, but one that must be navigated, like it or not. That path is childhood: a journey in which temptations will arise, greed will surface, and parents may be so self-involved that they forget you entirely."

The Hind in the Wood

From "The Fairy Tale: A Type of Transformation" by Erzebet Barthold:

"One of the defining characteristics of the fairy tale...is that impossible situations are not only possible, but expected and anticipated. Disbelief is suspended -- no one questions the great wall of briars around Sleeping Beauty’s castle, or that a fairy godmother appears to turn mice into men, or that a wolf can lie in grandmother’s bed. The fantastic is interspersed with the ordinary -- birds talk (as they should not) and fly (as they should) and these things occur as naturally as any sunrise or sunset. It is a sign of modern cultural loss that to accept the fantastic in such a manner is seen as a form of escapism from the real world.

Sleeping Beauty illustrated by Walter Crane"I don’t believe in escapism. If you love story (no matter the subject) so much that you spend every possible minute immersed within it, you are not escaping life -- story is your life. What the fairy tale offers is not escapism, but a renewed sense of wonder at the world in which we live. I think I need hardly describe why this sense of wonder is relevant to us today. Despite the advances in technology (some of which cause that very sense of which I speak), we are not so much different, as a whole, from those who first committed the oral wonder tale to paper and reshaped it to fit whatever vision or message they chose to impart to their readers. I find that most of us retain the basic human desire to believe in the impossible, the miraculous, and to hope for some sort of transformation -- in ourselves, in our lives, and in the very world around us. For no matter where or when we live, the world is fraught with peril -- much like the wild wood of old -- and we who walk through it ever hope for the miracle that will ease our path or the paths of others. The fairy tale, in whatever genre it manifests, often provides us with the very thing we seek, even though in story form. It lets us believe that, no matter how awful the circumstances, a miraculous transformation will occur that will somehow lead us out of the perilous forest and more, the fairy tale allows us to make that transformation and to make it right here in the very same world from which we have been accused of trying to escape. The fairy tale can therefore be seen as a liminal tal -- a literature through which transformation may be found in both fantasy and reality. True to its fluid nature, the fairy tale weaves a sense of wonder into both."

Drawing by Walter Crane

Today's art, once again, is by Walter Crane (1845-1915), whose work played a prominent role in the Golden Age of Illustration in Britain. To learn more about him, go here. To learn more about his illustration process, visit this interesting post on the Books Around the Table blog.

The Hind in the Woods illustrated by Walter Crane

The passages quoted above are from: "To Love Justice" by bell hooks, published in Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Women Writers Explore Their Favourite Fairy Tales, edited by Kate Bernheimer (Anchor Books, 1998 & 2002); "Sharpening an Imagination With the Hard Flint of a Fairy Tale" by Alice Hoffman (The Washington Post, April, 2004);  and "The Fairy Tale: A Type of Transformation" by Erzebet Barthold (Cabinet des Fées, September 11, 2012). All rights reserved by the authors.