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.


Escaping into magic

Sleeping Beauty illustrated by Walter Crane

From "To Love Justice" by bell hooks:

"Fairy tales were the refuge of my troubled childhood. Despite all the lessons contained in them about being a dutiful daughter, a good girl, which I internalized to some extent, I was most obsessed with the idea of justice -- the insistence in most tales that the righteous would prevail. The evocation of a just world, where right would prevail over wrong, was a balm to my wounded spirits during my childhood. It was a source of hope. In the end I could believe that no matter the injustices I suffered, truth would come to light and I would be redeemed. Indeed, the message of redemptive love shared in so many beloved fairy tales sustained me."

Sleeping Beauty illustrated by Walter Crane

From "Fairy Tales" by G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936):

The Frog Prince illustrated by Walter Crane"If you really read the fairy-tales you will observe that one idea runs from one end of them to the other -- the idea that peace and happiness can only exist on some condition. This idea, which is the core of ethics, is the core of the nursery-tales. The whole happiness of fairyland hangs upon a thread, upon one thread. Cinderella may have a dress woven on supernatural looms and blazing with unearthly brilliance; but she must be back when the clock strikes twelve. The king may invite fairies to the christening, but he must invite all the fairies or frightful results will follow. Bluebeard's wife may open all doors but one. A promise is broken to a cat, and the whole world goes wrong. A promise is broken to a yellow dwarf, and the whole world goes wrong. A girl may be the bride of the God of Love himself if she never tries to see him; she sees him, and he vanishes away. A girl is given a box on condition she does not open it; she opens it, and all the evils of this world rush out at her. A man and woman are put in a garden on condition that they do not eat one fruit: they eat it, and lose their joy in all the fruits of the earth.

The Frog Prince illustrated by Walter Crane"This great idea, then, is the backbone of all folk-lore -- the idea that all happiness hangs on one thin veto; all positive joy depends on one negative. Now, it is obvious that there are many philosophical and religious ideas akin to or symbolised by this; but it is not with them I wish to deal here. It is surely obvious that all ethics ought to be taught to this fairy-tale tune; that, if one does the thing forbidden, one imperils all the things provided. A man who breaks his promise to his wife ought to be reminded that, even if she is a cat, the case of the fairy-cat shows that such conduct may be incautious. A burglar just about to open some one else's safe should be playfully reminded that he is in the perilous posture of the beautiful Pandora: he is about to lift the forbidden lid and loosen evils unknown. The boy eating some one's apples in some one's apple tree should be a reminder that he has come to a mystical moment of his life, when one apple may rob him of all others. This is the profound morality of fairy-tales; which, so far from being lawless, go to the root of all law." 

Bluebeard illustrated by Walter Crane

From What It Is by Lynda Barry:

"There are certain children who are told they are too sensitive, and there are certain adults who believe sensitivity is a problem that can be fixed in the way that crooked teeth can be fixed and made straight. And when these two come together you get a fairy tale, a kind of story with hopelessness in it. I believe there is something in these old stories that does what singing does to words. They have transformational capabilities, in the way melody can transform mood. They can't transform your actual situation, but they can transform your experience of it. We don't create a fantasy world to escape reality, we create it to be able to stay. I believe we have always done this, used images to stand and understand what otherwise would be intolerable."

Jack and the Beanstalk illustrated by Walter Crane

From "Why Our Future Depends on Libraries, Reading, and Daydreaming" by Neil Gaiman:

"Fiction can show you a different world. It can take you somewhere you've never been. Once you've visited other worlds, like those who ate fairy fruit, you can never be entirely content with the world that you grew up in. Discontent is a good thing: discontented people can modify and improve their worlds, leave them better, leave them different. And while we're on the subject, I'd like to say a few words about escapism. I hear the term bandied about as if it's a bad thing. As if 'escapist' fiction is a cheap opiate used by the muddled and the foolish and the deluded, and the only fiction that is worthy, for adults or for children, is mimetic fiction, mirroring the worst of the world the reader finds herself in. If you were trapped in an impossible situation, in an unpleasant place, with people who meant you ill, and someone offered you a temporary escape, why wouldn't you take it? And escapist fiction is just that: fiction that opens a door, shows the sunlight outside, gives you a place to go where you are in control, are with people you want to be with (and books are real places, make no mistake about that); and more importantly, during your escape, books can also give you knowledge about the world and your predicament, give you weapons, give you armour: real things you can take back into your prison. Skills and knowledge and tools you can use to escape for real.

"As J.R.R. Tolkien reminded us, the only people who inveigh against escape are jailers."

Beauty & the Beast illustrated by Walter Crane

Beauty & the Beast illustrated by Walter Crane

The art today is by the great English painter, illustrator, and designer Walter Crane (1845-1915). To learn more about his work, go here.

Beauty & the Beast 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); "Fairy Tales" by G.K. Chesterton, published Fantasists on Fantasy, edited by Robert H. Boyer & Kenneth J. Zahorsky (Avon Books, 1984); What It Is by Lynda Barry (Drawn & Quarterly Editions, 2008); and "Why Our Future Depends on Libraries, Reading, and Daydreaming" by Neil Gaiman (The Guardian, Oct. 15, 2013). All rights reserved by the authors or their estates.


The impudent heroines of fairy tales

The Green Serpent by H J Ford

Kate Bernheimer Lecture  Tucson  Arizona  Oct 2020

My friend and colleague Kate Bernheimer is one of the modern masters of the fairy tale form, having worked with the tales throughout her career as author, editor, teacher, collector, lecturer, and founder of The Fairy Tale Review. I highly recommend her recent lecture Power Imagined: Fairy Tales as Survival Strategies, in which she discusses Little Red Riding Hood, Donkeyskin, Snow White, fairy tale history, Jewish history, family trauma, women's trauma, Anne Frank, Amy Winehouse, and so much more. It's simply brilliant. Go here to see it.

How a Mother Weaned Her Girl From Fairy TalesI also recommend Kate's books -- including her adult fiction (The Complete Tales of Kezia Gold, The Complete Tales of Merry Gold, The Complete Tales of Lucy Gold, Horse Flower Bird, and How a Mother Weaned Her Girl from Fairy Tales), her children's fiction (The Girl in the Castle Inside the Museum, The Lonely Book, and The Girl Who Wouldn't Brush Her Hair), and her essay collections (Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Women Writers Explore Their Favourite Fairy Tales and Brothers & Beasts: An Anthology of Men on Fairy Tales).

I particularly recommend My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales, winner of the 2011 World Fantasy Award. This book presents fairy-tale-inspired stories by Aimee Bender, Francesca Lia Block, Kathryn Davis, Karen Joy Fowler, Neil Gaiman, Shelley Jackson, Kelly Link, Joyce Carol Oates, Katherine Vaz, Joy Williams, and many others from across the mainstream fiction/fantasy divide, with a dazzling range of styles from straight-forward retellings to exquisitely fractured experimental forms.

In the volume's Introduction, Kate writes:

Little Red Riding Hood by G.P. Jacomb-Hood"A few years ago I presented a short manifesto about fairy tales to a large audience of creative writing professors and students. I was on a panel dedicated to nonrealist literature. I made an argument that fairy tales were at risk -- they had been misunderstood, appropriated without proper homage by the realists and fabulists alike. Only at a writers' conference could this sort of statement produce a gasp. (Yes, say what you will.) I am always that person in the room telling everyone, genuinely, that I love it all -- realism, high modernism, surrealism, minimalism. I like stories. But apparently my defense of fairy tales, which I consider so poignantly inclusive, marginalized, and vast, was seen as outlandish....My statement, intended to be inspiring, to gather support for this humble, inventive, and communal tradition, created vibration, metallic and sharp. I realized the full weight of the fact that celebrating fairy tales in the center of a talk about 'serious literature' to a roomful of writers was controversial....I realized then that while people may know and love -- or love to hate -- these stories, they really are not aware of the many ways they pervade contemporary literature.

"As merely one example, the National Book Foundation, which administers the [American] National Book Awards, states that 'retelling of folk-tales, myths, and fairy-tales are not eligible' for their awards. Imagine guidelines that state, 'Retellings of slavery, incest,and genocide are not eligible.' Fairy tales contain all of those themes, and yet the implication is that something about fairy tales is simply...not literary. Perhaps the snobbery has something to do with their association with children and women. Or it could be that, lacking any single author, they discomfort a culture enchanted with the myth of the heroic artist. Or perhaps their tropes are so familiar that they are easily understood as cliché. Possibly their collapsed world of real and unreal unsettles those who rely on that binary to give life some semblance of order."

My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales

Kate has done more to champion modern fairy tale literature than anyone else I know, and I could not admire her more for this work. I urge you to take the time to listen to her insightful, timely, witty, and deeply moving talk above.

Wild Swans by Helen Stratton

The passage quoted above is from My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales, edited by Kate Bernheimer (Penguin Books, 2010). All rights reserved by the author. The fairy tale drawings above by H.J. Ford (1860-1941), G.P. Jacomb-Hood (1857-1929), and Helen Stratton (1867-1961).