On borders and stories

Becuma of the White Skin by Arthur Rackham

Following on from yesterday's post, here's one more passage from Thin Places by Kerri ní Dochartaigh, a book about myth, land, language, trauma (both personal and collective) and its healing, and a deep meditation on the nature of borders, physical and internal, seen and unseen. Reflecting again on the "thin places" to be found in the north of Ireland (and elsewhere), she writes:

"My grandfather was born in the same week as the Irish border. He was a storyteller, and his most affecting tales, the ones he gave me that have shaped his life, where about place, about how we relate to it, to ourselves, and to one another. Good seanchaidhthe -- storytellers -- never really tell you anything, though. They sit by the fire in the hearth; they draw the chairs in close; they shut all the windows so the old lore doesn't fall on the wrong ears. They fill the room with a sense of ease, a sense of all being as it should be. The words, when they spill quietly out of the mouth of the one who has been entrusted with them, dance in the space, at one with the flames of the fire. It is, as always, up to those who listen to do with them what they will.

Muirne With Dogs by Arthur Rackham

"The stories he shared were fleeting, unbidden; they came and went as quickly as the bright, defiant end sparks of a fire, well on its way to going out. The stories, those glowing embers of words, were about places that were known to hide away, sometimes from all view. As if their locations are to be found in between the cracks, or floating above the grey Atlantic. Places that he mostly didn't even have names for but that he could conjure up as though they were right there in the same room. He called such places 'skull of a shae'. Now, I have come to think of the shae as 'shade', a nod to the almost ghost-like nature he saw such places as having. The places he spoke of seemed to scare him, a wee bit, or maybe it was talking about them that unsettled him. He came from a strict and hard background that allowed very little room for the voicing of much beyond the grind of being alive. I will remember, always, how he spoke of paths, particularly ones he found when walking across the border from Derry into Donegal. Paths on which friends and he had seen and heard things they were never really able to understand.

Title page for Irish Fairy Tales illustrated by Arthur Rackham"The places he spoke of were locations where people felt very different from how they normally do. Places from which people came away changed. In these places you might experience the material and spiritual worlds coming together. Blood, worry and loss might sit together under the same tree as silence, stillness and hope. He spoke, not often but with raw honesty, of places where people had found answers and grace, where they had learned to forgive, where they had made peace and room for healing. Places where a veil is lifted away and light streams in, where you see a boundary between worlds disappear right before your eyes, places where you are allowed to cross any borders and boundaries have no sway. Lines and circles, silence and stillness -- all is as it should be for that flickering gap in time. He never named the places, of course, and the first time he brought me to one -- Kinnagoe Bay -- on a soft, pink August afternoon in the late 1980s, he never spoke of any of this at all. He quietly read his magazine about pigeon racing, poured my granny's tea, and let me be."

Becuma by Arthur Rackham

If you need any more persuasion to seek out Ní Dochartaigh's remarkable book, I recommend reading her essay "Unnameable Things," found online at The Clearing (Little Toller Books).

The art today is from Irish Fairy Tales by James Stephens, illustrated by Arthur Rackham (1867-1939).

Becuma of the White Skin by Arthur Rackham

The passage quoted above is from Thin Places by Kerri ní Dochartaigh (Canongate, 2021); all rights reserved by the author. The illustrations by Arthur Rackham were first published by Macmillan in 1920, and are now in public domain.


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.


Mastering the craft

And a Fairy Song by Arthur Rackham

From The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life by Ann Patchett:

"Why is it we understand that playing the cello will require work but we relegate writing to the magic of inspiration? Chances are, any child who stays with an instrument for more than two weeks has some adult who is making her practice, and any child who sticks with it longer than that does so because she understands that practice makes her play better and there is a deep, soul-satisfying pleasure in improvement. If a person of any age picked up the cello for the first time and said, 'I'll be playing in Carnegie hall next month!' you would pity her delusion, but beginning writers all over the country polish up their best efforts and send them off to The New Yorker.

"Perhaps you're thinking here that playing an instrument is not an art in itself but an interpretation of the composer's art, but I stand by my metaphor. The art of writing comes way down the line, as does the art of interpreting Bach. Art stands on the shoulders of craft, which means to get to the art, you must master the craft.

Two illustrations by Arthur Rackham

"If you want to write, practice writing. Practice it for hours a day, not to come up with a story you can publish but because you long to write well, because there is something you alone can say. Write the story, learn from it, put it away, write another story. Think of a sink pipe filled with sticky sediment: The only way to get the clean water is to force a small ocean through the tap. Most of us are full up with bad stories, boring stories, self-indulgent stories, searing works of unendurable melodrama. We must get all of them out of our system in order to find the good stories that may or may not exist in the fresh water underneath. Does this sound like a lot of work without any guarantee of success? Well yes, but it also calls into question our definition of success. Playing the cello, we're more likely to realize that the pleasure is the practice, the ability to create this beautiful sound -- not to do it as well as Yo-Yo Ma, but still, to touch the hem of the gown that is art itself. 

Illustration by Arthur Rackham

"[My writing teacher] Allan Gurganus taught me how to love the practice, and how to write in a quantity that would allow me to figure out for myself what I was actually good at. I got better at closing the gap between my hand and my head by clocking in the hours, stacking up the pages. Somewhere in all my years of practice, I don't know where exactly, I arrived at the art. I never learned how to take the beautiful thing in my imagination and put it on paper without feeling I killed it along the way. I did, however, learn how to weather the death, and I learned how to forgive myself for it.

Sir Launcelot & the Fiendly Dragon by Arthur Rackham

"Forgiveness. The ability to forgive oneself. Stop here for a few breaths and think about this, because it is the key to making art and very possibly the key to finding any semblance of happiness in life. Every time I have set out to translate the book (or story, or hopelessly long essay) that exists in such brilliant detail on the big screen of my limbic system onto a piece of paper (which, let's face it, was once a towering tree crowned with leaves and a home to birds), I grieve for my own lack of intelligence. Every. Single. Time.

Two illustrations by Arthur Rackham

"Were I smarter, more gifted, I could pin down a closer facsimile of the wonders I see. I believe that, more than anything else, this grief of constantly having to face down our own inadequacies is what keeps people from being writers. Forgiveness, therefore, is the key. I can't write the book I want to write, but I can and will write the book I am capable of writing. Again and again throughout the course of my life I will forgive myself."

Illustration by Arthur Rackham

Pictures: The paintings above are by the great English book illustrator Arthur Rackham (1867-1939).

Words: The passage above is from "The Getaway Car" by Ann Patchett, published as a Kindle ebook (2011), and in her essay collection This is the Story of a Happy Marriage (Harpers, 2013), which I recommend. A portion of the text above was quoted on Myth & Moor in 2013 -- along with the poem in picture captions (which is one of mine).